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.
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.
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?”
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.
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).
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
Some very good times with some great people!
TRIBEWANTED! WI DAE YA!
Situated precisely in the sunniest spot on Tribewanted’s land is our wonderful new wooden solar tower constructed of timber cut from the surrounding forest. After weeks of no electricity except that from our generator dubbed “Necessary Evil,” we have silent, sunny, clean power! Laptops, cell phones and Ipods can be charged quietly in the solar hut- no noisy generator needed! At night we have rope lights in the tree above our dining table, so no more head lamps to see our food.
Mark Ax, of Sea Bright Solar based in New Jersey, has been our solar power specialist. Not only did Mark and his team design and build the tower, he worked tirelessly for a month showing infinite amounts of patience instructing locals in the fundamentals of wiring and solar energy. Covered from head to toe with an awful rash from exposure to creosote, a wood preservative, Mark still managed to work full days to ensure the tribe would have power before his departure.
Mark and I flew from Freetown to London together. The day we were to leave, I recall a very funny conversation between Mark and one of the local men who was trying to install a switch for the lights over the trees, the last task to complete before we left. It was obvious this man did not completely understand what a hot wire was. Mark, the ever-patient teacher watching over his shoulder, said out of genuine concern for this man’s future well-being, ” Do you want to die?” The man stopped what he was doing and quietly mumbled, “no.” Mark, not convinced that the consequences of making the wrong wire choice were completely understood, looked him in the eye and asked with a little more urgency, “Do you want your heart to stop?” Silence. “Well do you?” Mark asked. That seemed to get his attention and with a smile, he shook his head and said, “No, I don’t want to die.” Mark said, “Well then, if you don’t want to die, then don’t touch this one.” It seems his message got through and everyone is still alive and well at John Obey and enjoying electricity!
Well done, Mark and team. Congratulations!
Most likely something you haven’t seen before are the earth bag buildings constructed by Cal-Earth, an organization based in the Mojave Desert in California. One of several organizations involved working with Tribewanted on the John Obey project, Cal-Earth is constructing a dozen small eco-dome structures for living space.
Much like a beehive, these adobe structures are made from synthetic bags packed with earth and spiraled much like you would make a coiled pot from clay. During my 2 ½ weeks there, I was able to see a great deal of progress on the first building. Day one was the excavation of the foundation, and of course, the lamb sacrifice. After the first bag was laid the building quickly began to take shape. My last week I was there, an entry way and steps began to appear and the floor joists had gone in. I’ll be excited to see the finished structure completely stuccoed when I return early next year.
As I was reading Cal-Earth’s website I found it interesting that these buildings are using materials easily found in a war zone- sand bags, barbed wire, earth – making them ideal for countries trying to rebuild post-conflict. The houses are inexpensive to build, don’t impact natural resources and can meet the demand of the growing housing crisis in developing nations. The domes can be simple in construction or can incorporate arches in doorways, windows and additional rooms.
Hooman Fazly is the resident earth bag specialist overseeing construction of the new homes. Always armed with a wicked tool belt, and his mudflap girl water bottle, he will be working six days a week for the next year to complete this project. I admire Hooman’s intelligence, fashion sense on the job and his sense of humor with his crew. He is quite the character as is evident in the pics. It’s Hooman’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Hooman! Hope you are able to celebrate Salone style.