There is no such thing as privacy while camping in Sierra Leone. If I needed to change clothes, I had four little ones staring at me from outside my tent. If I wanted to bathe, I had half dozen people keeping me company even when I signaled it was time for me to dig the sand out of my bottoms which I prefer to remove when taking a bucket shower. If I needed to pee on a road trip, anyone passing on the roadside would not even think about looking away but rather I was expected to wave and make polite small talk while going about my business. If I wanted to read a book alone? Forget that. At one point, I counted an audience of thirty people on Nyangai Island watching me read.
Witchcraft is deeply embedded in Sierra Leonean spiritual traditions. Rituals often include a devil dancer who pays homage to those who have passed on. Ancestors are thought to be able to intervene, advise, help, or punish enemies. Not only do some believe the deceased may return as harmful spirits, they even believe a witch or sorcerer has the power to transform the living into animals or inanimate objects.
John Obey is filled with a supernatural vibe. There’s an energy in the air, especially at night when the only light is that of cooking fires and candlelight. Faces I’m so familiar with during the day reflect a different light in the darkness- a bit of the occult perhaps. Given their vulnerability and belief in the paranormal, this little village provides the perfect backdrop for a sorcerer, A.K.A. a scam artist, to make a tidy profit.
One day a cell phone went missing from the solar shack where we charge up our electronic gadgets. The next morning during our post-breakfast meeting, Filippo asked if the guilty party would please return the phone to a bin he placed behind the loos and no questions would be asked. Sadly, that night, the phone did not make its way home. The next morning, two of the local village managers suggested they bring in the big guns, the sorcerer! Well, that got my attention.
After the meeting, Hooman and I sat at the breakfast table talking about the sorcerer. I asked him what to expect. According to Hooman (A2H), our resident earth-bag architect, the sorcerer is a powerful man in the area whom people fear. He charges a whopping Le200,000 (US $50) for his professional services. A2H, the sorcerer would come to the village and gather everyone in a circle. He would announce that a phone had been stolen and there would be dire consequences for the guilty party if they did not confess by sunset. The consequences? A2H, the sorcerer would walk around the circle locking eyes with each of the villagers and with a booming ominous voice predict, “If the thief does not return the cell phone before sunset (eyes bulging and a pause for dramatic effect) they will be turned into a… a…(long pause building even more drama)….a rat!” Hooman, went on to act out the trembling thief immediately dropping to his knees, hands together, wailing in a high pitched voice, “Oh god no! Please! Please! Don’t turn me into a rat!”
Although the sorcerer was paid his Le200,000 he never came. Who’s the real rat, eh?
Mother of three boys and cook for Tribewanted, Yenken works from sunup to late in the evening. She’s a single mom and not by choice. Over a year ago when she was pregnant with Mohammed, her husband was killed in an automobile accident. Since property passes to the husband’s family, she and the children were forced to move from their village and ended up with friends in John Obey.
When Tribewanted kicked off its eco-tourism project in the village, Yenken landed her job with Tribewanted which has changed her life dramatically. She is now able to provide for her children and built a small home from some of the unused materials at Tribewanted. She also just received her first ever micro-loan through Salone Microfinance Trust (SMT). With the Le500,000 (US $125) from SMT, she plans to tarp her house to keep it dry and will use the rest of the money to stockpile palm oil for the rainy season when she hopes to sell it for a higher price.
Yenken was eager to show me her new home in the village. It’s a mud structure framed with sticks and has a tin roof. There’s no furniture and she sleeps together with her children on blankets stretched across the dirt floor. To most it wouldn’t seem like much of a house at all, but it’s quite the rarity to find a Sierra Leonean woman who has her own home.
This morning I listened to an interview on NPR with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discussing the importance of women’s voices. I was particularly interested in a Pakistani woman who was a former child bride and the first in her village to get a divorce and complete high school. Despite obvious difficulties and endangering herself, with the help of the U.S. she started a non-profit for women and is building schools. She said “In Pakistan, women are like animals.”
In honor of International Women’s Day, I have two women’s stories I’d like to share this week. Today is Magdalene’s story.
A few weeks ago I visited some of the outer islands off the coast of Sierra Leone. Nyangai Island is around 400 x 75 yards large, home to about one hundred fifty inhabitants and few if any speak English. As our boat approached the shore,one of the first to greet us was twenty three year-old Magdalene carrying her baby. I was surprised that she could speak rudimentary English and asked her how she was able to pick it up.
A few years ago she had lived with relatives in the capital city of Freetown where she was able to attend school for four years and then her tuition money ran out. With all that she had left she went in search of her mother on Nyangai, for me about a five hour speed boat ride, but for her, a twenty-four hour hellacious journey in an overcrowded leaking water taxi. She told me when she arrived at Nyangai she found her mother and asked for tuition money , but within days her mother left abandoning her and her brothers on the island. With no money to return to Freetown, Magdalene did the only thing she could do and married for survival. Three years later, she has a baby and is stranded. There is no school there for her, much less for any of the children. She wants to become a nurse but will most likely live out her life on this tiny island. Imagine the frustration of being stuck out there and knowing what life could be like.
I lay in my tent that night thinking of Magdalene and all of the other women I’d met with similar stories. What if she were to ask the chief if she could charge people like me to camp on the end of the island, perhaps even offering to cook meals, do laundry, or better yet build a guesthouse that she could manage. Perhaps she could start a school. I ran some of these ideas past Magdalene the night before we left and it was obvious she was taking it all in but the thought of asking the chief was incomprehensible to her. She said it wouldn’t matter because if the chief and her husband did allow it, they’d keep whatever she earned. Grrrrrrr. The injustice of it all. Where was her voice? Where was her spark? Why was she so complacent?
Imagine a world where all women are treated as equals and not just as chattle. What a beautiful place it will be! It takes an education to embolden and empower a woman. If she’s treated like an animal, how will she ever believe she can be anything else? How will she find her voice?
So, I left frustrated, discouraged yet with a spark of my own. I’m very curious to learn more about microfinance and how to be a voice for women like Magdalene. I’ll share more tomorrow on Yenken, my friend from John Obey.
Let me start by applauding Tribewanted’s showcase meal which would be dinner. Grilled fish, maybe some couscous or pasta, coleslaw, fried plantains, cassava or potatoes, and Elijah’s special sauce. All very nice and much appreciated. However, it goes down hill from there. Breakfast is o.k. – something like large overbaked hamburger rolls with honey, jam, peanut butter or oatmeal with raisins or fruit. Occasionally the coveted fried omelette or boiled egg turns up which I want to shove in my pockets for later.
Then there is the matter of lunch. Enough to break me down into a nut case after two weeks. Everyday of the week it’s the same workman’s lunch waiting for you at the table. It’s a mountain of white rice topped with either groundnut pulverized with fish and hot peppers, or cassava leaves pulverized with fish and hot peppers. Resting atop the mound of rice are chunks of fish – middle bits, tail bits and then the heads. After one week, enough already. After two, absolute agony. After three weeks, my body takes over and I start to twitch. Bacon! Cheese! Maybe I’m a freak, but I need protein and fat. The food fantasies start coming fast and furious. I talk about food non-stop and eye the scrawny but delicious looking chickens that wander aimlessly around the village.
The day I lost it was about two weeks in when that morning in the storage closet I found a tub of margarine and nearly cried. That’s when I knew I was losing it. Later, I sat down at the table for lunch and something snapped. I was ravenous but couldn’t eat. I sat and stared at the fish and it stared back at me, as if challenging me to eat it. I stirred it around and reluctantly brought the spoon to my lips. I smelled its fishiness and saw those eyes looking at me and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t eat it anymore.
Trying not to be rude but aware I was about to lose it, I stood up, swung my legs over the bench and a startled chicken and took off running like some lunatic. I ran across the camp, down to the beach and pounded my way north until the beach finally ended where I began to scream , flail my arms and kick sand. There was no one around anyway so it felt pretty good to throw a tantrum. I scribbled evil thoughts in the sand which was surprisingly quite therapeutic. On the run back, it became apparent that drastic times required drastic measures.
The chickens were going down that night.
My new friend Wendie and I decided there were too many chickens roaming around and we wanted meat. We asked one of the kitchen staff to go to the village and buy two chickens for us. I’m such an animal lover but at this point I would have eaten my own dog. That afternoon, I rooted through our outdoor kitchen like a mad woman and created some sort of curry marinade. I must say, it’s the first time I’ve made a marinade while what I wanted to marinate was circling my feet. Tapping my fingers on the counter, I was ready to kill the chickens myself. Stomping a chicken? Not very nice. So, late that afternoon we watched as four villagers chased the chickens, diving on the ground arms outstretched and hysterically laughing. I didn’t realize a chicken could run so fast and scream so loudly but they do. Oh, but the smell and taste of grilled chicken, mmmmmmmmm! Absolute heaven. Thank you little chickens.
There’s a kid like this in every schoolyard, village and city in the world. The alpha boy. When you hear kids screaming, he’s involved. He doesn’t understand the word “no.” He punches other kids and makes them cry. He pees wherever he pleases and is proud of it. He plays so hard that he collapses to the ground asleep before he hits it. He’ll sleep on you if you let him and when he does, as annoying as he can be, you look at him and know for some reason, you love this kid. Such a strong spirit, a scrapper and survivor. Momo, can’t wait to see you grow up little buddy.
One morning after breakfast some of us sat around the table discussing plans for the day. There was a glossy travel magazine left behind that a couple of the kids started flipping through. It didn’t occur to me that they had never seen camels, horses, pyramids, grand cities much less ridiculous perfume and luxury handbag ads. Amused and touched by their intense curiosity, Yvonna and I went through the magazine with them trying to describe everything they saw. The animal sounds were the best until somewhere in the middle of the magazine they came to a picture of a snow skier. There was a long pause as they stared at the picture and then an innocent voice quietly asked, “Is this God?”