Days and Nights of Freetown – Dealing with the challenges

Most people were happy to see us.  One or two of the ladies would shout at me to not take photos but most wanted to pose and see the results in the viewfinder.  One or two people wanted to shake my hands but as soon as they did they withdrew their grip immediately and said “ooooh – smooth hands”.  It happened a number of times.  Yes, compared to the hard calloused fingers and palms, my pussy little hands were like silk to these people.  I admit – apart from a little gardening and the odd piece of restorative DIY, I never do manual work.  All I have to show for hard graft is the RSI that I have from years of typing at a computer.  They laughed and giggled and guffawed at me.  I took it in good heart but it was a good example of the rift between these hard working people collecting raw material and using hand tools at the end of a supply chain and my internet and interconnected life where my skills are passed through my fingertips to machinery.  Not even machinery; digital electronic symbols.

Jan had a chat to some of the village elders, apologising for not bringing the photos he promised, and we started to head back to the vehicle.  We left them behind collecting new wood and busily making their fuel in the hot steamy sunlight.  When the Ebola crisis emerged, it was this isolated village that my thoughts turned to first; how many were affected, how long was it before anyone from outside realised they might be ill or dead.  How many survived.  I’m sure many did.  Despite the uncertainty of this disease, I’d seen in the countryside around Freetown how resourceful and hard working people can be, how they had already survived years of abuse, civil war and poverty,  and I am sure they would have found a way to deal with these new challenges.

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Into the Jungle – The last village in Sierra Leone

We had parked by a different style of construction.  It was made up of open wooden frames in a square and a huge roof made of grass coming to an open point.  It was used as a meeting room by the community and we squeezed in to the space.  We waited a while for the chief and his elders to congregate then had a brief meeting looking at the issues in Sanya.  We were not to go on a tour of the town, but we were to be given lunch here and from a nearby house huge plates and bowls of rice, chicken curry, fish stew, okra, came into this meeting room.  We ate with the elders and then made our farewells as we still had to cross the border.

Sanya is the last village in Sierra Leone, and now I looked more carefully, had some of the trappings, albeit on a small scale, of a border settlement.  There was steady traffic in both directions but not just the usual bikes and motorbikes, but more heavily laden taxis and trucks.  One of our vehicles did not have the permit to cross into Guinea, and Hugo had to return to Freetown to catch a plane home.  So there was a lot of reorganisation of the luggage.  Haba’s STEWARD car roof rack was piled even higher and the tarpaulin carefully tied over the top as the rain appeared to be returning.  While this was going on I was once more observing the village life around me. During the meeting and lunch, the sides of the meeting room were filled with dozens of pairs of eyes as the children of Sanya came to look at the visitors – I felt even more in a cage than in Sumata.  When the feast was over, there was a lot of spare rice and sauce.  The main cook stood on the step of her veranda and ladled out spoon after spoon to the children who mobbed around her.  They were not especially under or malnourished, but the opportunity to get some extra calories and different tastes was not to be missed, and if you saw your friend getting some, why not you?

But for some of the kids they were torn; do they continue to watch these weird outsiders in their funny clothes taking pictures on little machines and talking in strange languages, or do you go for the ladle.  Some tried to do both, looking at us in one direction while their hands were stretched out in the other, i.e. towards the rice dish.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – As vulnerable as you can be

The result is that 80% of the population are unemployed; that is have no formal employment.  25 % live in absolute poverty – the one dollar a day threshold.  Many of those who had money have left the country.  The impact on the environment has been devastating; fishing in the Caribbean sea has depleted stocks, already stressed by pollution and soil swamping the coral reefs.  That soil has been washed off steep slopes due to the stripping of trees and other vegetation for fuel and subsistence agriculture.

And in the centre of this small country lies a valley where much of the population has made its way – the capital Port Au Prince lies at the heart of a dense conurbation; the main port and airport and  much of the industry and commerce.  Crammed into mountain ranges on either side this valley is a tense melting pot for all the factions, classes, families and social groups of Haiti as a whole.

In January 2010, the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault which runs straight through the crammed valley of Port Au Prince moved.  With a magnitude of 7.0, the resulting earthquake and its aftershocks caused the death of around a quarter of a million people, with many other hundreds of thousands injured or  left homeless.

And herein lies Haiti’s other problem.  It lies in a region of the earth vulnerable to all manner of natural disasters.  Each year, especially around September and October, hurricanes spin across from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea or across from the Atlantic. Storm surges cause flooding along the coast, the rain loosens soil and rocks on the steep eroded slopes and landslides rip apart the mountains, depositing on villages and towns below.  Because of its poverty and the weary corrupt riddled bureaucracy of government, the planning and implementation of measures to reduce the risk and impact of these disasters, Haitian society is vulnerable to having the worst of outcomes from these natural hazards.  But at least the regularity of hurricanes means that the memory amongst the community of their problems are refreshed each time – maybe not every year, but often enough that a generation does not forget the experience or the lessons learnt.

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Piles of rubble still left on the roadside since the earthquake

The Highest Country in the World – Orphans and HIV

HIV/AIDS has ravaged the population in Lesotho.  Migrant workers heading to Johannesburg and the mining communities would become highly promiscuous and have unprotected sex, and the virus came back in to Lesotho.  It spread like wildfire in the communities, and middle aged men and women were most prone to fall victim.  It has meant that the working population has been decimated, and that thousands of children have been left without parents, left to grandparents to bring up, or elder siblings to take charge, or worse still, left roaming the countryside or cities and vulnerable to starvation, poor health and education or vice.

HIV/AIDS is not the only causation for the huge number of orphaned or vulnerable children (or OVCs as they are called)  in Lesotho.  In the mountainous areas of the east, the tradition of herding cattle has exposed another problem.  Kids are told to take the cattle up to the mountain tops in the summer to graze and not to come back till the snows start.  There are few adults up there and the boys lack any education or social support.  In some ways they have become feral, establishing their own rules and society.  Not so harming up there in the hills but when they do come back to their communities it can cause serious problems; a lack of social skill can cause disrespect for others, in the worst cases they can rape young women and children.  And herd boys have a very low life expectancy with all the hardships up on the mountains.  If they do get to their mid twenties, and herding is no longer an option (as younger kids work for cheaper rates), a lack of education severely limits their life choices.

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A multitude of other issues can cause children to be vulnerable, as they do in so many African countries, and hundreds of agencies try and help out.  Rarely do any agencies cover the whole of young people’s needs; they focus in on education, or health issues, or maybe shelter and nutrition.  Or perhaps psychological assistance.  A few have a wider remit, such as those faith based organisations looking after kids in orphanages, but there they may not have a great geographical spread; only able to take in a few children from the surrounding villages.

Sentebale was set up to try and better coordinate the provision of services to OVCs, and in particular help channel funds and resources to those places in which they were most in need.  The Letsema programme was to set up a network of agencies providing these services.  They had been quite successful at encouraging the larger agencies in to this family, but they were struggling to reach out to the more community based ones, especially those way away from the capital Maseru.

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Sentebale’s headquarters in Lesotho