Tag Archives: John Obey


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?

photo of a 3' John Obey rat courtesy of the very brave Noah Balmer




Early this morning, I walked along the dusty road that winds from the upper village of John Obey down to the lower village on the beach. There were four of us but I walked ahead lost in my thoughts ignoring the group conversation as I was hot and just wanted to get back to the village. We had just visited the local school and were looking forward to a swim in the ocean. The morning was stifling as most mornings are since the breeze doesn’t pick up until later in the day. I kicked rocks and took in the sounds of the forest – crickets, strange bird calls and the sound of a machete hacking through the bush somewhere off in the distance. And then I heard something new.

There came a rumbling from down the dirt road. The dust was visible from over the trees and whatever it was it was large and moving fast. Suddenly a large truck rounded the corner filled with young men hanging onto the back. The image was eerily reminiscent of some of the war footage of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) I had seen and it stopped me cold in my tracks. Like most African vehicles, this one sported a customized paint job and the slogan, “The Devil You Know.” I was mesmerized by this truck and its title and instinctively, and perhaps stupidly, raised my camera to take a shot.

RUF or fan club?

Just then, the men began screaming and the truck slammed on its brakes and came to an abrupt stop, kicking up red dust and gravel everywhere. Paralyzed by what was going through my mind, I stood on the side of the road fully aware that the rest of the group froze as well, probably cursing me and my camera. The men jumped off the truck and hurriedly made their way directly toward me. “Oh F#*&!” came out of my mouth as I awaited what I was expecting to be dismemberment. These loud men approached and I was shocked they were yelling “Suzie! Aw di bohdi? Aw yu sleep?” and extending their hands in welcome. I had no clue who these guys were but they knew me and were quite happy to see me. Funny how things turn out sometimes. They even asked for more snaps (photos).

not so scary after all


Tribemembers took a frisbee to the school at John Obey.  You would have thought it was Christmas morning!

More pics of the school visit are up on  http://braunphoto.ipower.com/?page_id=983

Who knew a frisbee would be so exciting!

So much fun!

The little guy on the left who is air born caught it nearly every time. He got it in this shot despite how it looks.

Happy girls.


Want to experience something really special?  Close your eyes and imagine (after you read this, of course).  It’s warm, the sun is shining and you’re standing in the middle of a freshly turned garden.  The earth is alive underneath your feet.  Reach down and pick up a handful.  Smell the heaviness of decay in your hands.  Look closely at all of the beautiful bits of color and texture you’re holding.  Feel it’s warmth.  Feel its energy.  It’s truly a beautiful thing, isn’t it?  In a few months, this newly turned earth will bear fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs.  So many gifts from the Earth!

Issa- so proud of his work!

It seems such an effort for us city folk to keep nature in our lives.  Encased in concrete, brick and asphalt we’ve forgotten what nature smells like, tastes like, feels  like.  But at John Obey, it’s different.  The land provides everything and the people are closely tied to it.  Meals are seasonal and usually self-grown.  You won’t find a grocery store nearby that sells imported fruits and vegetables.  Nothing is packaged in a bag, plastic container or bound with green wire twists or rubber bands.  There’s earth on the food and it looks, feels and tastes really good.

The gardens in Sierra Leone are fairly simple in design and most are home or community plots.  But Tribewanted has something a bit more special that’s coming. Tucked back on a gentle slope just above the lagoon, we have a newly designed and executed mandala garden. Alejandro, Tribewanted’s resident permaculturist/architect, and his team carefully planned and constructed this new garden that is breathtaking even without the plants. Paths oriented north, south, east and west bisect the mandala.  Beds are elevated to provide the perfect height for roots to thrive in both the rainy and dry seasons.  It really is a thing of beauty and was no small feat for the team to complete.

design for the mandala

The beautiful mandala

Watching Ale and his team work was truly educational and entertaining.  I’ve never met someone who seems to breathe in nature and glow, but Ale truly does, and his team was the same.  Very much intoxicated with happiness and dirt. One afternoon, Alejandro offered to talk with the tribemembers about permaculture.  We learned that the practice/lifestyle is the sustainable use of the land through design.  Work is minimized through thoughtful design creating a system that integrates people harmoniously with the land.  Care for the Earth, care for its people and give back the excess, or exidence (Sorry, couldn’t resist- TW members will get that).  I’m excited to see the progress Ale and his team have made and to see the mandala come to life when I return in February.  I’ll make sure to include a photo so you can see, too.

It’s Ale’s birthday today.  Happy birthday, Ale!  May you always be blessed by Mother Earth for all that you give her and her people.

Mary, Felicia and Alejandro


It’s 1:30p and we’re hungry.  Wonder what’s for lunch?  Don’t bother.  It’s one of two choices, cassava over rice or groundnut over rice, both containing pulverized fish and bones.  Yummy!  After seven days of heaping bowls of rice and fish sauce that comes in only two colors, some of us decided to get creative in the kitchen.  My favorite lunch modification was peeled cucumber over rice with lime juice and salt.  Sounds pretty bland now but it was absolutely divine a week ago.

ground nut stew

A varied diet is not something for which Sierra Leoneans are known.  They eat the same thing over and over which is due to food availability.  How spoiled we are to have so many choices in our supermarkets back here in the US.  Cally and I spent an afternoon going through the pantry to see what items we had on hand, took a trip to the market in Waterloo to see what items were readily available there and started to come up with some different recipes to introduce to Elijah.  A touchy thing to do without offending, but, in the long run, I think it will be a big morale booster, especially for those working at Tribewanted for months.

fish, fish, fish

Cally and I made curried chicken with coconut rice one evening and also tried making bruschetta out of tomatoe paste, onions and giant hamburger-like rolls.  One morning, Cally made crepes with lemon juice and sugar that were a huge hit.  Popcorn went over well, too, however the British and Americans could not reach an agreement as how to flavor it –with sugar or salt?  Americans prefer salt.  As for French toast, or rather eggy bread to my British friends, it’s meant to have syrup or confectioner’s sugar, definitely not ketchup. What’s with ketchup and beans for breakfast?

During our trip to the market we found the offerings there are  limited; however, there are some things we can do to vary chop.  Once I have some time on my hands, I hope to come up with some recipes to bring along in February when Cally and I make a return trip.

prep work


The morning I was packed up to leave, Elijah, the head cook, walked into camp with a small antelope dangling from a stick.  I thought it looked like an interesting purse idea.  It was going to be Tuesday night’s dinner.

So, how does one prepare a furry fresh antelope for dinner?  Skin it first, of course.  And how does one skin an antelope, you ask?  Well, there’s more than one way, but bet you never thought to use a bicycle pump.


Hooman, our ever so clever resident architect/earth bag specialist, was in charge of flaying Mr. Antelope.  I saw Hooman sharpening his knife as I was getting my bags ready to leave and then overheard the discussion between Mike and Hooman on how to remove the skin.  Next thing I know, they’ve got a ball pump and are inflating the antelope to separate its skin from muscle.  The ball pump was working!  They even discovered that when you press on an inflated antelope, they make some rather embarrassing noises.

inflating the antelope


One of the things we westerners really don’t appreciate is the privilege of having clean running water pumped into our homes.  I remain fascinated and thankful for the water that comes out of my wall and especially water that goes around in the toilet.  So, what’s it like to not have water in your village?  Well, it pretty much sucks.  When I arrived at Tribewanted October 1, the compost toilets and just been completed- a true luxury for us firstfooters.  For the poor guys who were here preparing for our arrival, they had to carry the orange shovel of shame to the bush, sometimes having to hold an umbrella while attempting to keep the roll of toilet paper dry. Needless to say, we all love the compost toilets.


As for drinking, bathing and laundry, it’s a one mile walk up hill to the river to fetch fresh river water.  Granted we’re beach front and also have a beautiful brackish lagoon for our backyard, but it’s not drinkable nor ideal for wash.  Jerry cans, those bright yellow 20 liter plastic jugs seen all over Africa, are the water delivery vessels.  Children as young as ten can balance these  40+lbs. cumbersome things on their heads, some with no hands. I can barely drag the cans ten yards to fill the bucket shower.   Early on, we had to load all twenty jerry cans into the back of our truck, drive up the bridge where we’d scramble over rocks to submerge the cans into the water,  load the truck, drive back down the road to our village, unload the truck and haul the water cans down to the outdoor kitchen.  After nearly two weeks, we now have a completed well which will provide water for us and the neighboring village of John Obey Beach.  It’s going to be wonderful not to have to haul water anymore for us and a life changing luxury to the villagers here.


How many showers can you take with one of these? The more you carry, the less you'll use!

James and Aaron at the river

Filippo, Aaron and James fill the water tank

the well diggers


Today was a very special day.  Tribewanted  John Obey officially welcomed its first-footers  with a village wide party complete with djembe drums, traditional dancing, a feast of ground nut and cassava leave stews, Star beer and poyo, a local brew made from the sap of  palms.  Most memorable was the blessing of our first earth bag building with the sacrifice of a lamb by the village elders.

dancing Mata

blessing of the new earth bag building

Early in the day the excitement of the day was apparent.  The sound of the villagers practicing their drumming and singing spilled into our camp.  Women were busy cooking fish and rice over open fires.  The lamb was escorted into the village and sensing his impending doom put up a struggle coming down the hill.  A couple of squeamish tribemembers opted out of the ceremony.   This was my first animal sacrifice and although I thought it would be gruesome it was done humanely and with respect by the village elders.  Not exactly my cup of tea though.

Rasta man Peter made his first appearance singing Bob Marley songs in his Obama shirt.  This would be the beginning of Peter the Rasta stalker.  More to come on Peter.

Peter- my Rastafarian suitor



After a hard day’s work getting the solar panel tower near completion, visiting a local medicine woman’s farm in the rain and digging a well, tribe members celebrated chief Ben’s birthday with drumming and the passing of the communal whiskey bottle.  Several of us slept on the beach under a beautiful starry sky. All in all, a perfect day!


Birthday Ben shares his banana birthday cake with the villagers of John Obey

Drummers and whisky- a fine birthday celebration!