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...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

To teach of not

So while taking a moment off today I went to the expat hotel and chilled by the pool and chatted it up with some peace corps volunteers. Took it easy, but easy for me still means chatting it up with the locals and asking questions!! So I'm just going to pass this story along.

Mohammed is a poolside bar tender at the Wusum hotel. It is an $87-107 a night hotel in a place where the average wage is about $1.25 per day. He comes at about 3pm and does evenings I guess (i don't stay late). He is trained as a teacher in health education though. He has passed his college course and started working in a local school.

He had to get registered to be officially a teacher, but could teach during that waiting time. Unregistered he makes about $25 per month to teach, not a living wage. Registered he could make $250+ per month. Really good money here. He tried to register, but the process dragged on. According to him it goes to the Ministry of Education and gets lost. It can apparently be "expedited" with the right connections. But can take 2-3 years otherwise. Frustrated with the process and low pay, he left teaching and is now a bartender.

Basically he can make more money as a bartender under the current system. He'd rather be a teacher, but if he can't get a living wage, he has to do what he can. Which is to tend bar...

Weight on my shoulders

So despite all the progress that I am making here, it is pretty tough. I am not prepared for this type of working. I came to hike through the country, I came to learn things at a strolling pace, write down ideas, and collate and prioritize them upon returning. I knew it would be tough, I figured I'd lose some weight, I'd be alone and struggle to find people to talk to, I'd be out in the jungle all on my own with unknown animals, insects, and the such around... But, I have done none of this that I prepared for.

I am now here as a business man, yet I did not bring anything a business man needs. No company, no computer, I have but two shirts I can wear for that, there is no electricity, there is sparse internet, and up until just recently I was trying to do business on both continents by my self (more on that in another post). On top of all this, I am staying with a family with 9 kids. They are great kids, but there is no space, and there is really no one to share any of it with that understands me or the world I come from. There also are the cultural scenarios that dictate what you do and the deference you take into every situation. It always must be "on" as well, at home, in public, wherever. There is no rest, always on.

I have also put a great deal of weight on myself through my own ambition. I am trying to do things here that have not really been done much. The way I am trying to structure a non-profit revenue generating development company, and to do business here in Africa is different and difficult. Not untenable by any means, but I have just jumped into the rapids and am trying to swim. I know it will be more rewarding when I get through it, but it is tough now. I know nothing of making bricks, and my drive and incessant eye for what things could be and what projects could be done, makes life completely about things that aren't here and now. Things that the future may hold, but that the present does not.

I came to learn in an academic way, but circumstances changed things, opportunities presented themselves and at those times we have to change things. But this has put a lot of pressure on me. I am feeling the weight of both my lofty expectations of my self, and of the difficulties of the business and living environment here. I have to push through... But it is a trying time... I just wish I had more space to breath!!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Newburgh 6th graders

I want to say hi to Mrs. Degiacomo's 6th grade class in Newburgh, NY. I'd love to hear your questions. Send them to walkinglion.org@gmail.com. Hope you are all doing well and learning about how wonderfully different the world can be!!


I find it amazing here how tolerant people are of others. I'm sure the majority of the world doesn't think they can learn much from Africa, but I tell you one thing they can definitely learn from Sierra Leone: how to get along with other religions. I don't have a full grasp of it all yet as language and an overly protectively family keep a bit of a shelter over me. But to see Muslims and Christians living in such harmony is amazing. America and its ground zero debate should pay attention.

There is no animosity between them, they exist together, happily. Christian kids go to Islamic funded schools and vice versa. They all follow state curriculum which gives the basics, but then allows for one religious studies class. This takes many forms. But you can have schools with Arabic, and Islamic based religious studies, just as Christian ones, and ones that take a more middle ground. I've been told by more than one person of a family member changing religion, and there is no animosity, parents bless it - sighting individual choice.

And it is not like religion is not big here. It is EVERYTHING!! The mosque calls to prayer every morning at 5. The whole household here is up at 6 reciting prayers together. They do this every night before going to sleep as well. I am a bit disappointed that I haven't spent as much time with an Islamic family, but then again everything is open and not really labeled, I talk to Muslims everyday. It is a nice feeling to see two groups of people with such a larger history of hate and contention not only getting along, but being best friends, family members, whatever.

I wish more people would come and see it. Where are my academic friends?! Send your research assistants!! Have them learn how to teach us in the West and the Middle East what tolerance is!!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Watch out for the duck!

So much less productive day in terms of school visits, but productive in life learning!! So up and out, on the bikes, but almost to first school... Flat tire. Got to there and then Lindsay and the local coordinator left and headed to the next school (where she was again the first white person). JMK, the director went to go fix the tire, and I sat there - random white guy sitting on a wooden chair in front of the school with class and lunch breaks going on around. I sat there writing in my journal about feeling like an exhibit at the museum...

Tire haunted us as we tried to move on, but ended up back in Samaya and spent two hours as the whole village fixed the flat. It was so sureal. There sit Lindsay and I, with women and children all around, half watching us and half watching the group of men/boys working on the tire. They wouldn't let us help, so we sat... half there, half untouchable. Seemed quite odd indeed. Ended up it took too long to change, so we aborted the school hopping and headed back to Makeni with a brief stop back in Kamakwie for a few things. The few things of course were about 250 pounds of rice, a couple chairs, a table, some wood, three goats just stuffed in the back, and four chickens with their legs all tied together... Both Lindsay and I were terrified at the animal scenario. But animals here are not treated with a great deal of compassion, different world...

Then on the way back we hit a goat... and I learned it is all far more complex than that!! The goat was already hurt, broken leg of some sort. So as the other's moved it didn't. We tried to stop but got it somewhere - I couldn't tell how, but it was still alive. JMK and the owner exchanged contact info and on we went.

So here is the system: if you hit and kill a goat it is 100,000 Le for the driver to pay ($25). That is a lot of money here - 20 days pay for the average worker. The driver is always seen as at fault rather than the animal. But there are of course different values for different animals. The hurt goat would be about 70k. A sheep is more than the goat as it has better meat and some intriguing superstitious value . A chicken is worth about 50. A dog is worth nothing, nor is a cat - no food value. But the most important one of all not to hit is a duck! Yes, I've been wondering why Kap's family has a duck in the back yard (with no water), and that I see ducks all over here.  Intriguing!! Lol.  The duck as the most sacred animal....

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

First White Men Ever...

Four people, two motorcycles, four chickens, a goat, 6 schools (if they could qualify as that), over twenty villages, and a whole lot of smiles...

So we started the day in Kamakwie. Its the second largest city/town in Bombali District. I am tagging along with the aid group Street child/hanci. This part of their program is to bring proper schools to the remotest of remotest places in Sierra Leone. And when I say remote, I mean remote. Firstly, we made the 55 mile journey from Makeni in 3 hours yesterday by 4x4. Today we got up and out at 8.30. We jumped on a couple of Honda enduro motorcycles and got after it. Probably 45 minutes later we came to a river with no bridge, and the ferry was out. So we put the two bikes and the four of us in a wooden canoe (plus an oarsmen) and went on upsteam and then across and back down. Yes, not the safest or sturdiest way to cross a river.

Then we proceeded to get back on the bikes and spent the next 6 hours driving through villages and stopping at schools. Of course, a school in these areas is nothing of the sort. An open thatched hut with benches (if they're lucky) and a blackboard. Actually, one school was just benches under a tree.

It was really sad to see. The kids want to learn, the teachers volunteer time in exchange for food, and there are no books or supplies, but they show up and they try to learn things. But then what?? The secondary school is ten miles away via mere paths through the woods. No one has transportation, no one has a job. How do they enter into modern society with no money? How do they get money living in an unconnected society where the only profession is subsistence farming? There is then no education really, and no way to make money to get out even if they wanted to. I was at a loss. I have no logical/practical solution, or possibility.

It was an incredible day though. In two villages Lindsay (the Scottish aid worker I'm tagging along with) and I were the FIRST white people to be in that village, EVER!!! Possibly other villages as well, but those told us that we were. We were in and around Samaya, isolated... It is also custom here to give a gift of appreciation when strangers or important people come to the village. Of the six schools we visited we were given four chickens and A GOAT!! Imagine the look of intrigued surprise that developed on my face when the head master sent all the boys running. My first thought was of the track and that a couple had good form!! Then I realized they were all chasing a goat, and I knew it right then they were going to give it to us. Amazing. Luckily we didn't have to get it back on our bikes. I can't say the same for the chickens. They tied the legs together and just hung them upside down - alive - on the handle bars... and off we went!!

So hear I am, on the back of an enduro motorcycle, flying down an overgrown path in the ruralist of ruralist areas of Africa with a chicken on the side of each handle bar!! Lol. Priceless.

Anyway, very educational day, but also VERY tiring. Problem is that one day is now going to be two as we're headed back out tomorrow. Yapo has set up a meeting with the regional people from the Ministry of Finance for Saturday about funding our little venture here. Huge deal, and we need to have literature for them. I NEED Friday to put it together, but if we now come back Friday morning... :-/ Could be tough...

Anyway, rewarding day... Again tomorrow!!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Culture Clash

So picture this.. Me.. Eating canned celery salad with pasta and drinking orange soda!! So this is part of what I had for dinner tonight. Not everyone, just myself and the other opotu (whitey). You see in Sierra Leone, eating local foods cooked in local ways is not putting out your best. Where we put out our finest china and cook something nice, they break out the canned goods. After all, they are much more difficult to get than rice and cassava. They are imported, they cost more, and you must have more money or a higher status to have them. And of course it is rude not to eat and drink it. So here I am - allergy boy - trying to stave of malaria and other tropical beasts through eastern medicinal meditation, exercise, a healthy fresh diet, and strengthening my immune system eating away!! Fanta and canned food, because that's how we do!! Lol.

I just find it amusing how things go as they do. Rituals and customs make both sides do things they may not want to do, and without ever even asking about whether it is desired. Culture!! Oh, and they put on the generator as well.. In all seriousness, we humans are all they same. We all want to show ourselves in a good light and deep down inside we all want to be nice to people, to make them happy and feel welcome... Thanks, it worked tonight!!

Ok, one other tid bit... We spent three hours to drive 55 miles this afternoon. That is less distance than driving from suburbia Poughkeepsie to NYC. Imagine if that commute to work took 3 hours bouncing around in a 4x4. And this road is THE MAIN ROAD from Makeni north to Guinei. An international road!! 87 miles from Makeni to Guinei takes 6 hours. !?!? How does an economy flourish if people can't sell their goods 30 miles away and companies can't export with ease? Somehow... we've gotta get a real road built here... ;-/

Heading out of town...

I may be offline for a few days.. Headin north to Kamakwie to tour the work of the organization "Street Child". Back Thursday.. With lots more info!!

Monday, November 1, 2010

A moment to measure...

So here we are, today marks two weeks exactly since I arrived here. In that time I have talked to all sorts of people, identified all sorts of opportunities, toured a jam factory, a brick factory, registered a company, found a manager, a board, obtained a verbal agreement for $45,000 of construction equipment, set up the basics for building an athletics track, been on the radio, brought the director of athletics for the entire northern province on board, put in a funding proposal for the athletics facility, found suitable land for the track, had the entire team visit me at home, eaten with my hands (who know's what), had "bush cat", peanut soup, casava stew, rice with everything, been stalked repeatedly by two women, proposed to three times, bitten by multiple mosquitos, said hello to every person in the city, seen a whole wealthy of old american football players (jerseys), and been given a local name meaning "old man"(otim). Lol. Yet I have not done any walking... :-/ i have not even set up my hammock, or tried my new stove. But most worryingly, I havn't been to the top of a mountain yet!! :(

But, who am I to complain though? Something tells me I'm on the right path.. ;) Two months in two weeks... What a run...

A New Partnership

So I went back to the council today, hammered out the final aspects of the partnership with the them. They are going to pay for all aspects of the machines and the trainer coming here. We are responsible for running the training, managing the company and brickmaking, and putting what portions of any profits are not reinvested into the development of the company towards the development council's development projects. All the money will stay with us in trust until a project is ready to break ground. I don't know about you, but I am quite happy about that deal, should it all come to pass as agreed.

We also registered a company today. "aibia". It is first registered as a CBO (community based organization). This makes us able to provide services for the council here locally, while not forcing us to undertake all the difficulties and monetary constraints of full NGO incorporation. Once we are in a position to do that, then we can simply change the designation and keep all the assets with the company. We filed the cbo registry today, will pick it up tomorrow. 24 hour company registration (and only because the 2nd administrator that must sign it was out today).

I also have offered Yapo a position as the local manager of this organization. Everything is happening very fast, and it may seem impulsive. (I keep waiting for "the catch", but it hasn't come yet). This decision about Yapo though is something I have thought about. I feel that I can work with him, and that he can do a good job. He is a young guy, training to be a lawyer, but he has a good business sense. He is currently managing some projects for a few local NGOs, he has worked as a supervisor for a more traditional brick making operation, and also worked for the same development council that we are working with now. He understands their side, he understands a bit about bricks, and he understands the local environment. I feel that he will be a good fit.

I have yet to talk to Kaps about this, but he and Kevin are very much focused on ChildHelp. The track will give them a great opportunity. They are very committed to their work and I see them as being on the board of directors for aibia, and handling a good deal of the community projects we will undertake. I couldn't have gotten here without them, they are special people to me. I have to make the right business decisions. I am not sure how to handle this culturally, or if I should even be worried about it. I hope they didn't want to manage it. They are both very good facilitators. I think their strengths are perhaps more in aid and charity work then construction management though. But I will discuss it with them this afternoon and make sure we are clear.

Now to write a letter of introduction for this new company: aibia

Sunday, October 31, 2010

They haven't eaten all day...

Hhmmm... Can't figure out what to write for the title. I'm hungry. But not as much as these kids I'm staying with must be. I came home and usually there is food cooking or ready. Not today. No money was left for food today, so no food was to be had. They havn't eaten all day. They needed 7000 leones, $1.75 for all ten of us to eat. I gave them 10000, and it was like the alarm at the firestation had just rang. They all scatered, some for water, some for food, some to get the fire started. They were hungry, but with no complaints. This is life, their life. As the one person here said, we eat when there is food. Up to now there has been plenty, but not today... And now as I write this, it is raining. They cook outside over a fire, now they cook outside in the rain... Insult to injury...

It seems wrong to write about the other worries of my day now, but I will as it is one of the main things i'm here to do. Oh.. And pouring now!!

So I started early this morning. Straight to reading how bricks are made. Fun stuff!! ;) but whether I like bricks or not, I want to help, I want to rebuild, and this makes me a brick man for now!! I went over to the expat hangout again today. Its the only place with power, and I can blend in as if I'm a hotel guest. Pretty much only white contract workers there - to expensive for everyone else.

I spent the day reading about this machine we will hopefully get and taking this information and turning it into a business plan/costing sheet for Kaps and Kevin to research this week. We've got to get someone in here that knows how to make bricks though. It all has to be just right. They seem to think we can just make it happen, but we need expertise. And that is exactly what it is all about with this type of thing, its not whether you can do it, but whether you can get people together that can. I'm trying.

Otherwise it was like little England today. I was surrounded by bright white brits baking by the pool, and english premier league football (soccer). I wish I was surrounded by american football!! No such luck.

Very interesting these expats. Always talking about how great the "package" is. Here for short high paid stints. Not for a cause, not to help - at least much more than themselves. Not all, but virtually all. And not all brits here, but virtually all.

Africa minerals is building a single use train line from their Tonkolili iron mine (aparently will be the biggest iron mine in the world) straight to Freetown. No one else will use the train, only them. And it's immense. Looks like they are building a full interstate highway. And that's actually what the locals think. They think they'll get to use it. Nope. It is strictly so Africa Minerals can take down an entire mountain set, cart it to port, and ship it off to the highest bidder.

They've brought in workers from all over the world, even others from Africa, but don't seem to be using much from Sierra Leone. Rumor has it they will provide 11000 jobs, but I see few so far, I'm sure they will come. They will pay laborers to mine for 5000 leones a day - $1.25 - and then they will sell the iron for billions and make lots of people in the UK and wherever very rich. Taking Sierra Leone's resources and leaving only a few dollars behind for the people while they watch football and drink imported beer. There is something wrong with this, at least to me...