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 13, 2010

The thought of leaving early

I think that the key to this whole situation is that I am staying with a family and trying to do business, and it is not working for me right now. I came here to learn, and while I am learning, I am not learning a diverse amount about the whole country. It is all about a few people in one place. Before I make any decisions about when to leave I need to get out into the original plan at least for a day or two and see if two months of walking is worth more than getting back to the States and getting to work there. I would have to leave here December 6th for it to be cost effective. That would give me 3 more weeks to walk.

Please, advice from anyone on this scenario regarding the last few posts would be greatly appreciated. One more month would be ideal, but that is not the case... I just hate the idea of leaving early, a part of me feels like It would be giving up...

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Heart of the Dilemma

I guess what it really all comes down to is that I am up against a seious dilemma. I came here to spend three months walking through the country learning, and looking for opportunities to help facilitate what people here want. I also wanted to raise awareness of life here in Sierra Leone and Africa in general. The last part I feel I have completely done at least for the people reading this.

As for the first part, I havn't walked anywhere. I havn't even taken my hammock out or set up my stove yet. This was going to be my way of meeting people and learning. If I don't get some of this in I will feel as though I would be coming home defeated, or somehow having not having fulfilled my purpose. As for the identifying opportunities, I have identified more than could possibly be feasible to work on now. So in this sense the trip is a smashing success.

The issue that makes all this a dilemma is that I have realized that there is little I can do from here under these current conditions. I have no funding, I have no resources to pull from, I do not have an established team here, and I do not have functional connectivity here to the information that could help me circumvent most of these issues. I am prepared to walk, not to make a business run and excel. My partners here think I should go back to the US early and set things up there, including funding. I see exactly where they are coming from. I have wanted to stay here and get things here set up. But realistically this could take months of unpredictabilty that I am both not prepared for and not so certain I would last through. The machines "should" come in January, right when I should leave.

So what do I do? The cost of an early trip home is a lot, hundreds of dollars that I would have to put on a credit card. And I still want to get some hiking in. I have to at least get up Mount Bintumani - the tallest mountain in West Africa. I also have the possibility of a grad student from UCONN that has been contemplating coming in mid December to join me on the hike - which at this point would be a very welcomed scenario. I am realizing that this would be a better excursoon with a partner to hike with. But the social scientist in me just liked the methodology of the single hiker walking into a village!! Reality.

So again, what do I do? If I leave early I will feel like I've cut myself and my trip short in some way. Almost like I've given up. But at the other end, I've learned so much, and actually can probably do more in the long run if I head back to the states and make some things happen there that will benefit things here. There also is the frustration deep down inside that I feel this was getting the best of me. Logic can make you feel like you're making a good decision, but the heart and the soul don't lie. What if I'm just trying to find a way out of this scenario right now?

I feel that I have made such a sacrafice to come here, even to the point of accepting in the back of my head that I may not come back. I have given a piece of me to be here to try to help people that say they want help and opportunities. But at the same time they do not seem willing to make simple changes or alterations, nevermind sacrifices, in their daily lives. I don't mean to sound like a martyr, but as David (a Brit expat that works here in a cushy position) came out of nowhere and said to Lindsay and I yesterday that he would NEVER do what we were doing here. Wouldn't even think about it for a second, NOT ONE (his emphasis). Yet I am here doing it, on my own, with just some cash in my pocket. Most people wouldn't do this, and I'm not doing it for myself, but for other people. I guess I'm just frustrated that these "other people" don't seem to appreciate it. I know, different cultures. But don't tell me you want help if you're not willing to partake.

Case in point: I said to myself this morning, I will ask them to get prices on the other bricks in the market and what we could charge for our bricks. I was very adament about the need for this and about the urgency I thought it had. I made a mental note, if they come back they are serious, if they don't then I should start thinking in different directions. It is 9 o'clock at night here, Kaps just got in. I asked him how his day was. He answered about random other things. Then I asked what he'd heard about brick prices. He gave me some blah blah story that didn't add up and kept changing. He'd talked to someone, but then was on the internet. He said something about talking to the machine company. No then it was the brick company he talked to, but he would find out more tomorrow. Oh, so you spoke with someone? So how much did they sell bricks for? Oh, well I blah blah blah... He didn't REALLY call anyone. And Yapo said he would call me later and let me know. I spoke to him at 12, and nothing since. Their entire tone and demeanor has changed since yesterday. Like they realized this was going to be hard. Why should I spend my day fighting with a computer virus, and all the other things life here is for an opotu, when the people here are not willing to change their daily agenda enough to help their helper? If I do all the work, how am I "helping". And if I'm not helping, what am I doing but telling?

So do I stay and see unpredictable projects through? Do I leave and go on my hike? Do I get an earlier flight and hit Mount Bintumani while I wait? No matter what happens I'll feel defeated unless I stay the whole time I'm supposed to. But sometimes it is in defeat that we find our path to victory...

"Rather than advance an inch it is better to retreat a yard... ...when to great forces oppose each other, the victory will go to the one that knows how to yield." - Lao Zi


So yeah, it's amazing at how quickly things can turn. How just a few hours can be so completely educational and change the context and perception of things so quickly. The last two days have done that. I find myself right now asking the question: in a place where - to their credit - people can find happiness and contentment in any situation, is it really worth working to help them redefine their happiness? And ESPECIALLY if you're making sacrifices that they seem unwilling to make? Unmotivated to make? Or if you seem to be working harder for them than they are for themselves?

I so truly admire people here for their culture, they live a lifestyle I could only dream of living. The ease with which they go through their days, their perseverance in the face of conditions that we in the West have no concept of or interest in learning. They are good people with broad smiles and a friendliness that I have never seen. Why is it that I want to change that? What is it that I want to develop within them? I come here, I try to get them to work a certain way, I try to set things up in a way that may be more efficient to us, but that they are not comfortable with. Yes, it makes sense to me/us, but at what cost, and why? They want education, but - and forgive me for saying this - but is it just that they want education so that (in addition to feeding an unquenchable thirst for knowledge) they can get paid more for doing little? I guess I shouldn't apologize for saying that, because I admire a culture that truly appreciates a simpler life. We work so hard in the West, in fact putting it before living. They want nice things, and material items, but society goes deeper than that, it seems to value status more than these "things".

To come here as a business man is difficult. To come here as an aid worker I think must be easier on the head. I want to find a way to make people happier, but what if they already are? Building that track is really the one thing here that is deeply in my heart. Education is important, and I want to work on it and jobs, but only if people want it. The day that those 15 kids came to my house here and said hello, expressing their gratitude for my interest in building a track, was a day I'll never forget. So much hope mixed with so much humility. They just want to run, they want to enjoy it. I picture myself in the Garrison Union Free School gym in second grade, I couldn't read, but I could run around more cones than anyone. All the kids in my 1st and 2nd grade class could read. But not me. I could have shrunk into a corner, but I was the fastest kid in class. I gained my self worth from my ability as an athlete. It can never be substituted, not by a good grade, not even if I ever get a PhD. I learned to read on Spiderman comic books, and I learned the value of self through my legs. These kids, what else do they have?

When I first got here I was on a mission, asking everyone what they and people here wanted as they saw it. Jobs, and education. This is what they need as we see it. But the only reason they need those things is so that they can become more like us, and less like themselves. This desire is something that we have exported to them and which they would never know to even want, if we hadn't made them think it was all there was to live for. I wish I could live a simpler life like their's. One without having to know about computers, TV remotes, cars, and planes. One where I didn't have to spend decades in school just to hope to be competitive in a job search. There is no rat race here. The culture is completely different. No one will step all over everyone to get things. They will do what they need to to survive, they will do as little as they need to to have a higher status, they will thirst for knowledge and learning like nowhere else. It is so complicated and of no logical sense to our way of thinking. It could never possibly be summed up here. But it is a way of life that I COMPLETELY envy and would love to have, but one that given the life that I come from, I have no hope of ever having and can't ever really even hope to assimilate into...

Different world

So I wanted to touch on a few things from yesterday's meeting that illuminate business here. Obviously it was difficult to carry on a meeting with one person, and the oldest most senior one, sleeping. More important though were the differences in his business ideology and that of the others as well.

Firstly, there was a lot of respect for the laborers - hard work. Obviously in Western business culture education, experience, and management are valued more wage wise. Kevin showed a lot of respect for diggers, and brick carriers, and Kaps didn't think a supervisor should be paid more than the machine operator. This is refreshing to see as we in the West seem to have lost sight of the value of manual labor in our lives. Kaps actually didn't even really see the value of a supervisor. "Why should you pay someone to just stand around and watch everyone?" There is a logical sense to that statement. But it was as if the concept of a site supervisor made no sense. I had to spend a good 10 minutes explaining why a supervisor would be needed. There would be 17 workers to supervise on site with only one machine running, and this would increase with more machines. Digging, sieving, mixing, moving, operating the machine, dealing with supplies, curing bricks, loading/unloading, shipping, a cook for lunch, etc. It is not a simple process, and someone needs to know how to do it all, they need to know all about bricks, they need to be able to organize it all in their head, and to motivate people to work at a high level. Every minute we would not be producing is 4 bricks missed. A lag here, a lag there, mixed soil isn't ready, whatever, and production would be way down. It all has to run fluidly. But having a person to make all this function smoothly didn't make a whole lot of sense to him.

He also wanted to cut out workers. The company that makes these machines has a specific tried and tested method for producing the maximum number of bricks. They work in over 50 countries, and have a brand to uphold. They WANT anyone producing there products to be giving them a good name. Kaps had little interest in their well tested staffing, he wanted to just cut down workers. Hire less pay more. I started to get feelings of hierarchical thinking, jealousy perhaps at the wages. There are no salaries yet for board members, only workers... He just didn't seem to like anything he was hearing. He thought we were going to pay to much. He wanted to pay 5000 Leone a day - $1.25. According to Yapo, minimum wage is 15000. Now I know everyone isn't paying that, and there does seem to be a lot of variance in "minimum wage" concepts here, but I want to do things legally. I also wanted to pay taxes, and into workers social security funds, etc. This saw apprehension from him for the most part.

He also struggled with the concept and way of running a business. He wanted to be able to give away, or sell bricks below cost. I said, we can't do that, we can only give from excess revenues (profits). We can use our donations in terms of bricks if we wish, but we can't be a brick charity. It was as if the entire concept of running a business to make more than we spend - and to do it meticulously - was a completely foreign concept.

This is going to be a tricky situation, we have to be able to be sustainable. And our costs after this exercise may not even make the project feasible. I will have to crunch the numbers today if a computer is functional. But Kaps didn't think we could charge for each brick what we would need to cover our costs of production. That is partially because he seemed to value these specialty bricks little more than hand made clay bricks. Yapo saw it completely differently and thought we could charge a premium. But it is a struggle amongst them.

The result today though is that we will have to stall signing any kind of agreement and look much more directly into the numbers and what the market will bear. I knew it!! But I just couldn't get them all to see the value of making a list and sitting down and going through every number. For two and a half weeks I have been trying to get the list I gave them filled out with costs, and to all sit down, but nothing. In today's meeting, we started to talk about the equipment and still had no figures. Yapo made one call, left for maybe 15-20 minutes, and came back with a list!?!? Over two weeks of telling me it was done, was being done, some things weren't here in Makeni, blah, blah, blah, and then in 20 minutes they get one done. This is the way it is here, this is what we're up against... :-/


What a day. So after two weeks of trying (and the day before we should go back to the council and probably sign the MOU) we finally all got together for a costing meeting. Not what I had hoped for. 9am start was 10, not a problem at all... But the palm wine came out right away and Kaps was head down asleep by 10:45. I was very disappointed.

We have an opportunity here for a serious endeavor to help a lot of people and it just flat out didn't seem to be of much interest to him. Fair enough if it was at 2pm but barely 45 minutes into it?! And not just that part, he was in and out in general, there was a disconnect there.

I of course want/need to take a step back and think culturally about how it was handled and how I lead it all. I went into business manager mode and was trying to hash out decisions - but decisions amongst us all, not by me but them telling me the best way forward. I felt like the disconnect was more between old school Kaps and new school Yapo, who I tended to side with.

I've made mistakes with cultural scenarios before. I know what they look like. But there were four people there, Yapo was completely game, and Kevin soldiered on giving good input. Kaps just didn't seem to like where it was going, or maybe that he was not the man in charge. Even if he didn't like where it was, he was asleep at the table before we got anywhere. And even once we did, he was half obstructionist, half confrontational, half in and out of sleep. I know things are different here, life functions differently, and I like that part of it all. But you could see desire in the others.

After about two and a half hours they were all lower in their chairs, tired of talking about the cost of a trowel and a laborer's wage. This seemed more than what they are used to, a full on planning meeting of this type, 100% on, no long introductions, no real pleasantries in the beginning, just down to work, 100% focused. Like I said though Yapo and Kevin managed, Kaps... not so much.

The meeting itself was very helpful though. All along they have been costing in their heads and telling me about it, and despite knowing better, I listened to it. But with it on paper there is no faking it. A wise man I know regularly says: liars figure, but figures never lie!! And our figures are not ideal at this point. I have to recheck the concrete needed, but the cost of it as we have it written now, may be debilitating. We would have to charge a lot for these bricks.

You know, I knew better than to go along with it all, especially when the chairman said he couldn't get for profit companies to come in and do it. I knew right then... Why not? Why wouldn't they do it? But I listened and I figured it all in. Maybe it can work, but not as they've been telling me.

There was more to it all, more on a cultural level with the meeting, but enough for now. Gonna close the chapter on the day. Start again tomorrow... Disappointed that Africa makes more sense to me now...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Biking Lion

So yesterday I got another lesson in African "communication". We were supposed to all meet to do costings for the brick project. Kaps left at 10 just as Yapo was supposed to show up. Kaps said, "oh, I just have to go get a battery, A go com", "I'm gonna come right back" in krio. I told him we were gonna do this costing, sure, sure, "A go com".

So he comes back over three hours later with a group of seven cyclists from the US. Ummm... Yeah, he knew they were coming, he'd been working with them for two days about this, and stayed with them in Lunsar the night before on his way back from Freetown. But of course I knew nothing about it. That is the way things are here. Except with Yapo!! He is better about it.

Anyway, so there is this company ibike.org that takes educational bike tours in Africa. This group yesterday was doing two weeks through Sierra Leone. They set up stops at schools, orphanages, mines, etc. It actually sounds like a great program to me. Not sure how much it costs though. They had done 38 miles yesterday and were exhausted. They wern't professional bikers, just weekend warrior types looking to see the world. Three from Canada, three from the States, and one from Switzerland. Good people.

So we gave them some lunch, showed them the school, and then met them later for a drink. I didn't go to the school, but sounded like the ChildHelp crew and the kids teamed up to shamelessly ask for donations. They need money, everyone here does, and most everyone has no shame in asking an "opotu" for money.

As it was though, we got no costing done. So we set it up for 10am this morning, with Yapo coming at 9 to get started. Of course as I write this he just showed up at 7:30. Time here has no place!! Lol!!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Maybe. I feel like I got a lot done today. The chairman liked the agreement we wrote, just has to be ok'd by the rest of council then we're off!! We also agreed on a 50/50 split. It's so much easier to negotiate when both sides objectives are NOT solely for themselves or their company, but for the greater good. As Eric said, what does the percentage matter, all 100% will go to development!! Some in community projects, some to generate jobs. Both are needed.

Why must the world be so selfish?? If this project means anything, I think that is it... a model that shows two business people putting others in front of themselves and making deals - COOPERATION!! Everyone wins... We will show them that this can be done!! Show the world!!

I also finally got some pictures up on the website here, on picassa, and a link on facebook to them. Somehow seems like the most fulfilling thing I've done yet since being here. Sad that it would seem so, but a connection to home keeps me moving. I am doing this as much for everyone there as for me. And words only go so far... Did you see those rural schools? Benchs under a tree?! Wow!! I'll work at taking more pictures now that I can get them up. That is one drawback of the phone/camera as one though. It's perfect, except the battery lasts only about half a day!! Lol!! Stupidest "smart" phone ever!!

Pause... Big occurrence here, they turned on the generator and then PUT A LIGHT BULB IN MY ROOM!! We've got light!! Seems like such a pleasant thing right now, like a huge weight just got removed from me, from the perma-squint on my forehead. Usually home is a sanctuary from the craziness of a day. Here it is the opposite. Lots of people, someone else's house, culture, holed up under the mosquito net once darkness comes. Light just seems to bring freedom to my head, eyes and mind. I can see what's around me, relax. Odd how such a simple thing for us in the west is such a luxury here. Light!!

I also keep teaching the kids hello and goodbye in other languages. It seems so fascinating to them. They're so interested, yet so sheltered. I have never seen children so keen to learn. We take it for granted in the west because we always have it, and we can always find a way to survive, a school to get into, a second chance. Here, education is a very scarce commodity and is sought be everyone...

So I'll take my leave as I listen to them try to pronounce "arivadercci", and "ni hau"!! I obviously can't spell them, but isn't that all the fun of it!? ;)

good day...

Two stories

So I have one person's story to tell, and another observable instance.

The first story comes from a person here that I really like. Mak, the head of track & field for the Northern province and the head coach of the under 13 national rugby team that just won a big international tournament (against the likes of England).

Mak's sister is 48 years old. She has cancer. If I remember it all correctly, in 1988 she was found to have some issues with her womb and had surgery. She was still having discomfort and issues, but then came the war. Finally in 1999 she had another surgery where I believe he said they removed her "rotten" womb. But there were still issues. She more recently went back for work and they found that she had cancer "in her stomach". She has been in Freetown in a hospital there, but they don't have anymore medicine for her, and they say she needs another operation. The closest place that can do the operation is in Ghana!! Several countries east and would cost $5000. The average salary per person here is under $500 per year. Mak has no access to money like that. He has brought her home to Makeni. He won't say "why", but we both knew what he meant. It just pains him too much to say it. No more medication, no more hospital, just friends and family. Better than in a strange bed...

I wanted to cry, I almost did as he turned the conversation to building a track facility. I stopped him, some things are more important, but what could I say? I just put my hand on his shoulder and said I was sorry...

In my time here I hear or see these kinds of things every day it seems... But for the people here, they LIVE these things their entire lives.

Makes the other story seem insignificant... A group of kids saving their money to get fuel for the generator so they will have some light to study by at night. They want to learn. Imagine kids from 10-16years old in the US saving money so they could study...

Back to Work - Africa style

So today got a late start due to rain, seems they use it a bit like a snow delay in the US (or so the fable goes). It certainly seemed to work today. I've been trying to get some concrete answers. Actually, I'm trying to get some concrete output. That's where Africa style is still waiting to meet up with me. I keep hearing wonderful things, but I need results. The chairman (Eric) is having us write the memorandum of understanding (mou), which is great. We define the written agreement.

There seem to be structural issues with the productivity of the council though. Eric is an elected official and in charge, but the administrators and the head admin are employees who apparently have no thoughts of either working or being let go. They are rarely at the office, nevermind working. The head admin has been suspended once already. Not that the top helps; to meet with Eric himself today we had to go to his house after waiting an hour at the office (12:30-1:30).

This is not to take anything away from Eric, he is very much in tune with things and has a very good mind for development. One of my favorite quotations though is "it is not the consciousness of men that creates their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." How can one function outside of the only world they know? My pathway must lie in trying to navigate both his and my worlds...

We talked about some other very good ideas. And my crew here came up with some other one's following the meeting. More on that in time. But the goal is to get the MOU and copies of the proposals for the the brick machines and diaspora donation network asap. From there we can take these documents to possible donors here and in the US. We are looking to approach other NGOs and the Ministry of Finance here for support. It would be great to get the bricks up and running on funds from here. We will see.

I want to give this process two weeks. Then I aim to get out onto the trails, delegate the ground work to the team here, and get back to learning. I'll always be within just a few hours of Makeni if need be, and I need to get the trip back to where it intended to be. The more I see, the more ideas we'll all have to work with!!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Case in Point

So here is a micro case study of issues in Africa/Sierra Leone. We are sitting outside chatting, dusk turns to dark. I get up to walk Yapo out of the compound. It's dark, I don't have the "cat's eyes" people here seem to develop. Someone called my name, I turn and step towards them and smack!! My foot goes straight into a big rock, I stumble over it, down to my knee and my hand. It's dark I can't see anything. I pick myself up, brush off, start walking... Ow!! I've cut up my toe, of course I don't know this yet, there is no light. It is nothing big but several spots, its bleeding, not just a scratch.

I only know this once I pull out my mobile phone and use its light to see. How else do you see it, there are no street lights, no house lights, nothing. I go inside to dress it. But what about clean water? What about first aid? They recommend salt. I have my stuff, but what would they use? And how do you dress it in the dark? By flashlight...? I sit down in the shower floor, head lamp putting a little light on the situation. But sitting there next to me is the inch and a half cockroach that's been there on its back all day. The floor is grimmy dirty, the water is from the well and been sitting in a bucket all day, but there is the roach "helping" me. At least I have my first aid stuff. They would have just salt - which is not bad.

Point is, we wonder why life here doesn't statistically add up to the West. There is no light so easier accidents. There are only the most basic first aid methods. There is no light to dress a wound by, and there are unsanitary environmental conditions. Power, clean water, medical supplies... all tied up into one stubbed toe. Welcome to Africa... I'll be fine, but what if it was more? And how many people didn't get better? Time to get to work!! :-/

Making a list and checking it twice

So this past week I have been working to set up a basic costing sheet for this brick making endeavor. This is coupled with the one for the track that I asked for two weeks ago. Nothing is materializing.

Business is done here in one's head. They aren't using excel or computer based programs to calculate things. There are no physical lists. Paper is a luxury of sorts, and the concept of planning past today seems a foreign concept. Most people simply live day to day. Sustenance, something to do, etc, and it seems business is; build it and figure out what else you need while you build it. And this works for them, they know how to build the typical things here that they need and use without much planning.

I was trying to explain the concept of a business protocol. A systemic way to plan and cost out a possible or existing project. Maybe just a sheet that had to be filled in for each plan or month of work. It seemed tough to grasp in that conversation. I have three people that should have filled in the list I gave them. And I received nothing from them.

It seems that this is going to have to be a point of emphasis here, to teach basic business practices. There is so much to be done here. So much training that is needed. Add general business practices training to the list!! "How to organize, plan, and carryout a business project."