What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sierra Leonean Embassy

Very unhelpful I must say upon first effort.  I have done a little bit of research on the whole visa scenario in Sierra Leone and had this little hiccup with the whole 'fixed' itinerary thing.  I am certainly not looking at this little scenario with a whole lot of time deadlines or specifics; 2, 3, 4, x months, who cares.  I mean realistically I'm thinking three months, but they want purchased plane tickets, finite ins and outs, etc.  I am trying to be more flexible.  The whole point of the journey is to expereince things as they exist, as they come about, and under whatever time frame they take - do what must be done to gain further understanding of the country and how, if at all, I/we can be of assistance.  This flexibility is however, well, indeterminable.  lol.

I called the embassy and the person I spoke to really had little clue.  They only thing they knew was that I had to have an invitation to visit and thought I was an idiot because: "you can't go anywhere in the world without one, every country in requires this!"  Oh, wait except most of the ones I've been to, lol.  I needed one in Russia and China, that's it.  The rest of europe (not just EU), nothing. 

Anyway, the guy couldn't provide much help and I am looking at this project in very specific humanitarian/business terms.  I am trying to bring direct foreign aid to the country.  Now granted perhaps some people there don't want this.  I truely respect this vantage point.  But most all of them want money to flow in, they want investment.  I would think they would do what they could to promote this, or at least accept it.  Now I know this is naive, as it is written time and time again of the obstacles to doing business in some areas of the world.  But no matter, I has hoping, thinking that if I said "this is what I am trying to do... walking through the country... for charity... to raise awareness..."  Hmm...  I mean granted, he was probably just a young guy simply excited about being posted in NYC and looking at his job as some extra anoyance he had to do... but again, I had hope.

After it all, there wasn't much of anything to come from it.  I thought they'd be able to work with me with any visa rigidities over the length of stay.  I figured if they knew why I was going they would be more helpful or flexible...  well, we'll see.  He said, "Call when you are closer to leaveing and speak to my boss" in a dismissive, "I give up on this call" tone of voice.  lol.  I probably needed to speak more to a chamber of comerce type than a consular official.  Add it to the list.  Anyway, no worries, time I have... 


Obviously, non-profits come with the presumption of being ideologically driven.  Unfortunately, this scenario we are setting out upon is driven by an ideology.  But I suppose this can be said about anything.  Everyone and everything has an underlying meaning or purpose, a reason for doing.

The basic principle that I (not we) are moving into this with is completely altruistic.  I have some very divergent views from the mainstream.  Yet this does not absolve me from living and working in the real world as it exists today.  There is ideology and reality - life is about balancing the two, as is this project.

The ideology that I, and hopefully a soon to be incorporated non-profit, will be approaching development and redevelopment work is to try to minimize ideology, especially our own.  I view this as one of the biggest detractors and obstacles towards sustainable global development.  When most organizations, companies, governments, individuals, whatever, go into an area with an aim to make something 'better' they are starting from a point of judgment.  For most people in the West it is about making the lives of people 'better'.  This is obviously a very subjective terminology.  I would prefer to think of lives on a linear level, they are equally different, not hierarchically ranked.  All these 'things' we have in the 'developed' West, yet happiness still seems to elude most of us.

The goal of this specific endeavor is to try not to go into any event or project driven by a specific ideology or template.  Every place in the world is different, every person different, every culture wanting different things and motivated by different things.  Agendas.  The world is full of them, yet the only one that should matter is those of the people that will most directly be affected by whatever scenario is to happen.

What this means is that this prospective organization will not be pushing any specific ideologies as the 'solution' to someone's or some place's 'issues'.  Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, Civil Liberties, whatever, the specific pathway is, they do not always solve issues on their own.  Unregulated free markets can truly hinder an overarching community's development, just as a planned economic system can allow for much less initiative and reward than may truly stimulate advances.  Dictatorships throughout humanity have been mostly rigid and oppressive, and while democracy gives everyone their say it is slow, inefficient, and inherently compromising.  On there own and as we understand them they bring about presumptions and judgments, but these judgments are of peoples interpretaitons of the past, not the future or even the present.

We need new thinking that is not afraid to work outside existing ideology and presumption.  Would the world really be such a terrible place if it was run by Gandhi in a dictatorial position?  A communist Soviet Union was the fastest country ever to industrialize, what can we learn from this?  Free Markets and industrial incetive have made the US the worlds superpower, and a strong social safety net has lead Europe's people to high levels of statistical 'happiness' and security.

What can we learn from all of this?  That there is no one way, no one best, but that different things work in different places.  The ultimate aim of any scenario is to try to make local people happy.  Try to empower both local communities and local individuals without empowerment of one coming at the expense of the other.  Thus, our project will be about each individual situation and trying to use knowledge and human experience to empower localities and individuals within them alike.

All projects will be looked at in terms of a balance of both individual and community good.  If you bring in a factory and there are rich owners but poor workers, have you helped the community?  If you set up a fully equal communal work scenario, how is the individual rewarded for greater effort?  Balances must be found.  Balances with humanity, with the environment, with ourselves, with our communities, etc.  Localized solutions for localized cultures.

This is the main ideological premise that I'd like our organization to be based upon - ideology without ideology.  We want to make a difference for the people where we do work, not for ourselves or our own goals and principles in life.


Took a trip to REI yesterday to try to get my head a bit further around the upcoming endevour's equipment.  I've spent quite a bit of time hiking and running on trails, and a lot of time camping when I was younger, but never any real overnight backpacking tours like this one.  So I've gotta get as much informaiton as possible before I start buying anything.  REI is a great place, I've been into EMS and can walk around and look for days it seems without anyone speaking to me, and when I ask them things they rarely have much to offer.  Sad, customer service is apparently not a way to maximize profits I guess!!  lol.  Anyway, I had a list, started asking questions.  I'm planning on doing a week or so on the Appalachian Trail in August to get a bit of time out there before I go.  I've been spending a lot of time running on the trail, wonderful place.  Anyway, this post may be a bit distracted as the world cup is on...  Multi-tasking... 

Ok, so basically the issue is tropical camping and backpacking.  In general I need the lightest weight stuff I can come up with.  Obviously I'm going to be carrying it all in a pack on my back for some three months.  Problem is that that stuff is more expensive.  The other key issue with all of this is my desire to stay as "natural" as possible.  By this I mean, natural fibers, natural products, sustainable scenarios, etc.  There are two reasons for this, one allergies that I have to most synthetics, and second, principle.  If it doesn't happen naturally in naure, I'd like to not to be a part of it.  This of course is very difficult to do in our current world.  Especially in technical scenarios.  Everything is polyester.  It all does amazing things, keeps you dry, warm, cool, washes your backside, whatever.  But I want real, naturally occuring things, yet it is of course more costly to 'grow' in nature than to produce in a factory. 

I have been working with this for a while though so nothing new.  I usually wear cotton everything, but cotton doesn't do well in hot, sweaty environments.  Wool and Silk.  I've been looking at a company called Wintersilks which seems good and responably priced.  The wool however seems to be coming from Smartwool and that is a different story - wonderful quality, yet $60 for a T-Shirt.  Not sure if that is feasible on a budget that includes food stamps...   :-/  We'll see.  I'm still looking to approach Smartwool, Wintersilks, and Vibram on sponsorship basis. 

Prior to this expected aparrel disapointment though I went through all the gear.  I have a backpack that I used to backpack through Europe in 1999, and off and on in other terms since.  It would be adequate, but is not set up for a hydration bladder.  This is a bit of an issue.  I'll have to see if I can rig it up.  It is also not a top loading pack, but like a normal school backpack.  Easier to get to things I think, We'll see.  But I'm going to take it on my AT trips and see how it goes.  Hydration will be key.  I also don't want to show up in a developing country with new flashy stuff.  I'm poor myself (at least by american standards), so A, I can't aford it, and B, I don't want to present myself as someone capable of something I may not be.  This will already be hard to do.

Next, I looked at sleeping, both bags and shelter.  It's going to get 'down' to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (maybe 16C) at night, so its not going to be like I need much.  Of course though everything you see in NY for sale is warmer and they are mostly 'mummy' bags meaning no leg room.  But REI apparently has a 'sleeping sack' which is comfortable to 45 degrees (maybe 6-7C).  They have a down one which obviously could be good for my interests.  I still will entertain blanket options as I sleep year round in flannel and/or down.  Its going to be hot and humid there, so not to comfortable at times.  The other key to tropical treking seems to be to sleep off the ground.  'To much stuff going on down there' as I was told.  Makes sense, especially with the amount of moisture and rain.  I was looking for hammocks, but of course they don't stock them in West Hartford, Connecticut where I was.  Seems like they will be worth looking further into, but not what I expected (no white netted porch type!!).  Seemed like a sleeping bag that you just rope to trees and put a tarp over.  Again, we'll see, probably cost $200 - ouch.  I'll have to do some more online research. 

Cooking stoves... in going to Africa you never know what kind of scenarios you may find for fuel. So the most versatile one takes kerosine, diesel, and one other type of fuel for $130. It was the most versatile and most expensive - but you gotta eat!! Pots and pans, knives and forks.

My next big sticking point was more naturalist induced. Bugs and water. My helper was convinced that I needed deet, I thought he was joking. Hey, let me coat myself in chemicals just for fun and see if it bothers me... nope. I hate to be cynical, but its the only response I can take to what just seems so absurd to me. Same thing with water - no chlorene. Its a chemical that I, A, don't want to ingest, and, B, have always had trouble drinking and swimming in. But this is seen as blasphemy in what has become our artificially natural world. Iodine tablets are fine in "controled areas" such as the US, but apparently tantamount to suicide in other 'less clean' places. There was a UV neutralizer for $100. Lol, no chemicals, we'll see. As for the little critters, I'm thinking I'm going to stick with my brothers advice. When he went to Thailand for the summer he used "All Terrain Herbal Armor" and never got bit (while all the other students with deet regularly lost chunks of flesh!!)

Food however was a better conversation.  Not to much ideology that goes into drying food or dehydrating it.  There seems to be good harty food to be found in Sierra Leone, but I will certainly need to have some lightweight but dense protein with me.  Will probably do some of that before I go and for the AT trials.  Food there will be cheep, but I'm anticipating I will not get as much as I'm used to.  But how else do you understand a country but to live amidst it and use its own resources, at the levels those living there do... 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Introduction Part II

So how does a dream then become reality?  Well for me, at least intrinsically, that means just getting up and making it happen - just going.  But luckily cooler motherly heads prevailed.  I believe that if you really want to learn something you should go into it without much presumption, with an open mind and an open heart.  I.e. just get up and go, figure it out as you make it happen.  But I come back to the initial two desired outcomes: to blog and write about it, and to identify future endeavors.  Ultimately, if we wanted to do these two things properly some planning needed to happen (it also doesn't hurt that the summer time is the rainy season in Sierra Leone and not ideal for backpacking!!)

So we sat down to map out the best way forward.  This of course is a continually fluid scenario, and still being worked on...  ;)  But what we have come up with is that no matter what, if it is a sponsorship scenario or a non-profit entity doing exploratory project research, there has to be a non-profit organization to help facilitate it all.  Donars need their contributions to be tax deductible, and any future endeavor would benefit from a name with a track record.  Unfortunately in our world, the head of a non-profit organization carries more weight than any random backpacker walking through town.  So setting up a non-profit became a priority.  

There are of course a litany of other things that must be done.  Logistics need to be sorted out.  Visas, doing business in SL, length of stay, etc.  What kind of network of cooperation could be achieved both there and in the US?  Are there sympathetic entities on the ground there that would help the project?  How do I contact them, and can they help provide guidance for my trek?  Equipment; everything from communications to a light backpacking stove needed to be researched and decided upon.  A budget, a web presence, a method for connecting and blogging, a group of well intentioned people to delegate to, a board of directors...  People and information...  Funny how the world revolves around those two 'simple' things.  The list continues, language, the Sierra Leone diaspora here in the US, tropical backpacking, security...  Complication after complication...  It certainly would be easier just to pick up and go!! 

But its ok, we'll take the time and plan it out.  Set up a legitimate non-profit organization that can grow over years, map out an agenda and trekking route, obtain the right equipment, wait for the proper time of year, and then go and figure it out...    :)

Introduction Part I

Over the last week a lot of progress has been made.  But it is better probably to start with a brief introduction and what needs to be done.  I will not get too detailed about the country's issues in this post, as there will be links to sites that can help with this, but I would like to talk about the project itself.

This idea started during time doing graduate work that involved the country, and then a long period of unemployment that subsequently followed.  I have spent many years living abroad and studying the transitioning and developing world (I'm originally American).  However, I do not have specific experience living and/or working in the developing world for any extended time period.  I believe this to be the main reason why I have not been able to get far with job hunting in the non-profit world that works in developing areas.  I also have come to the point where I am no longer interested in sitting around 'waiting' for someone else to 'give' me a job - to recognize my value through their eyes.  I know my worth, and I'm wasting time.  I'm going to go make things happen, create my own livelihood doing what I have always been driven to do - make a difference.

For over a year I have been looking into going to Sierra Leone under whatever pretense I could manage.  I have however not gotten very far via traditional means.  On numerous occasions I considered just picking up and moving, sorting it out when I get there as I did when I moved to Prague.  That experience changed my life, so to I think would this.  Turns out some things in my life made making a move more easy right now and as I was sitting on my parents couch reading The Places in Between by Rory Stewart (about his walk across Afghanistan), and I said, hey why not?!?   

I do a great deal of running and hiking, and thought "what better way to get to know people than to simply walk through their country and see all of its corners?"  I thought of biking, as whenever I walk I usually just end up running and thought it would be difficult to do to much running with a back pack on.  But it is specifically this slowing down that I really think I need to do.  Break free of 'modernity' and simply experience life and hardship as they happen, in the time they happen.

From there it became about how.  I have been running almost exclusively in the Vibram Five Fingers of late and immediately thought that I could approach them about sponsorship and do the whole trip in them.  Two to Three months hiking through a post-conflict country in Africa with nothing but the "barefooting alternative".  My mother thought of doing things like they do with marathons, getting individual sponsorships on a per mile basis or the such, and giving all I could to local charities in Sierra Leone.  The key to it all was always two-fold, to keep a blog and then write about the trip, and second to identify areas of need/want for future humanitarian effort.  Ideas ideas, I've always got them, but funding always remains the key.

But one morning my mother came to me and said, "Tim, I have just graduated with a masters degree at 60, and its made me think.  I don't want my gravestone to say 'she lived a good life', I want it to say 'she made a difference'.  You have been trying to make a difference for years, yet couldn't find the opportunities as readily as you'd have liked.  Well what say we try to do something together, what say we start our own non-profit and work to empower people?"  My eyes brightened like you don't usually see first thing in most mornings.

I had looked into several different business options over the last year, but something always stood in the way: partners, financing, ideology, whatever.  But here we were, first thing in the morning, with a few years of unused "cookie jar" money and a dream...