Friday, December 28, 2007

How to Throw a Beach Party for 200 Kids

First, arrange for a really loud sound system, a generator and a gallon of petrol to power it, and a dj to operate it and supply the dance cd's. The day before buy a 50 lb. bag of rice, a 30 lb. bag of onions, salt, bouillon, MSG, eggplant, tomato paste, firewood, vegetable oil, powdered fruit drink, sugar, and pounds and pounds of fish right off the boat. Borrow five large cooking pots with lids from various people in the community. Go home, clean and coat the fish in a spicy mixture and then fry them. Peel the onions and go to bed early. The next morning, invite over the female neighbors who have the most experience cooking for crowds and for the rest of the morning follow their directions as they prepare a spicy red broth using all of the onions and piles of fresh red pepper pounded to a paste. Measure out some of the broth to use for cooking the fish then measure out 200 cups of rice, sort it and wash it, and pour it into the broth that is simmering over an open fire. Stir well with a large stick and then retreat to the shade because it is already 11 a.m., the sun is high in the sky, and the combined heat and smoke of the rice simmering over the fire is overwhelming. When the broth is entirely soaked up by the rice, pull the firewood away from the fire and use bowls to scoop the rice into two huge pots that can be carried to the beach on the heads of two eleven-year-old girls. Then clean the pots using water carried from the community pump. When everything is washed and all of the volunteers have been properly compensated with ample pots of the jollof rice and fish, go carry more water from the pump and step behind the screen of old rice bags to wash off the sweat and soot from the cooking. Put on your hippest clothes and head to the beach.

It is understood that all of this cooking is taken care of by the women on the faculty and many of their female friends and relatives. The men are otherwise occupied from 9 a.m. supervising the students who have started to arrive dressed in their best clothes. Some boys arrive in brand new, polyester jump suits with the collars turned up, others in spotlessly clean jeans, t-shirts and sneakers, others in old shirts and shorts that have been specially pressed. Girls are wearing tank tops and shorts, or fancy dresses handmade from local batiked cloth. A few are wearing tattered party dresses with torn tulle and dirty lace that nevertheless fly up wonderfully whenever they twirl around.

The dancing takes no time to begin once the music is turned on. Everyone down to the smallest, big-eyed boy gets into the groove easily, and the dancing goes continuously except for a break to eat until the end of the party at 5 in the afternoon. Two soccer balls fly around the beach all day and attract young men from a nearby party. The little boys are quite distressed when they find their ball has been appropriated and come running to teachers to ask for help getting it back. After lunch the older, most daring children venture into the warm water of the ocean to wrestle and toss around a soccer ball. The smaller, more timid children form a long line along the shore, just up from the wave line, watching wide-eyed and a little envious until everyone is tired and comes wading out of the ocean. When the children are told it is time to go home and enjoy the three-week holiday vacation, most are silent but eventually head off to their separate homes smiling broadly and worn out from the long day in the sun.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Leaden-Eyed

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

- Vachel Lindsay

Oh, Salone! It is a sad but frequent saying here in Sierra Leone. It denotes the despair many Sierra Leoneans feel about their beloved country that has fallen into such disrepair. Among currently developing countries, Sierra Leone is interesting if not unique in that it was once the pride of West Africa. It had a railroad that brought agricultural produce and mineral ores from the interior to Freetown, home of one of the largest natural harbors in the worlds. It had paved roads criss-crossing the country. It had universities that attracted the brightest scholars from all over Africa.

Today there are remnants of all of these things, but decades of corrupt government after independence from Britain and the violence of the civil war left little more than remnants. The railroads were stripped, their components sold off for scrap, and their beds turned into automobile roads. Mines lie unworked because the roads are in such terrible states that transporting what is mined is impractical. Vast numbers of people gave up their farms when they were invaded by rebel or government troops and have never returned. Chunks of asphalt jut out in the middle of what are now roads fit only for four-wheel-drive vehicles. The universities are reopened, but most well-educated Sierra Leoneans receive part if not all of their education abroad. Rather than developing, Sierra Leone could more accurately be said to be redeveloping.

A BBC segment on Christmas Day cited a UN report that named Sierra Leone as the poorest country in the world, with over seventy percent of its population living on less than a dollar a day. Several local people here said they believed this figure was an exaggeration, probably resulting from a lack of reliable statistics and corrupt government practices that aim to garner as much foreign aid as possible. The country's pervasive poverty mentality was several times identified as the ultimate culprit in this international hoodwinking.

Oh, Salone! What were sources of pride for its people are simply reminders of what they have lost and of the great need that is left behind. These reminders are too weak for many who never really benefitted from them to begin with, namely the illiterate from rural backgrounds who understood what they were missing upcountry only once they arrived in Freetown and saw their foreign-educated compatriots driving luxury cars and watching satellite TV from the comfort of their air-conditioned homes. But not everyone reacted in the same way.

Of those who have crowded into Freetown's limits, many have opted to ride the charity wagon. They are the one's begging on the streets, hanging out on the curbs, sleeping on the beaches. They tend to see children as income earners and keep their children out of school. Others have started up hundreds if not thousands of small enterprises selling prepared food or sewing school uniforms or building charcoal stoves, often with the help of NGO-supported programs. They insist that their children stay at home to study after school instead of heading to the market to earn a few thousand leones. Still others opted either to stay upcountry or to return after the war. There life is simpler. Temptations of consumer goods are fewer. The air is cleaner. The land is lush with rainforest and grassland high up in the mountains. I have heard that schools are being built in some of these areas, and that where possible these parents, especially those from tribes in the south and east of the country, send their children to school.

One cannot tell the the difference between these children by looking at them unless of course the child is trying to sell you a tiny cup of peanuts or a plastic bag of colored, sugary water or is wearing one of the brightly colored cotton uniforms of a local government or private school. If young enough, even the most badly exploited child will still not know enough to feel sorry for himself or not to play around when the chance arises. They have not yet been convinced that their futures are dependent on the charity of others. It is for this reason that keeping these children in school is vital to a future of self-sustainability in Sierra Leone as they are the ones whose quaint deeds and pride will form such a society of self-reliant individuals.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in Freetown

It is a very hot day today, just like just about every other day that I have been in Freetown. Children and college students are off from school for the trimester break and so the streets in my suburban village are quieter with fewer poda-podas at work. Streets heading to downtown Freetown are regularly jammed with wedding cars festooned with garlands and balloons that soon burst in the heat (the holidays are popular times for weddings because this is when many Sierra Leoneans return home from abroad), holiday shoppers, and people running all over town preparing for the various Christmas carnivals that just about every church and community organization seems to be holding this week.

For the last two weeks, women have walked the back streets and paths of my village carrying on their heads plastic basins filled with metallic Christmas garlands, paper cut-outs of Santa and wreaths, and packages of tinsel. Hip-hop and dance versions of all of the familiar Christmas carols have been playing on the local radio stations and at the local pubs and telecenters that keep their music blaring well into the night. My favorite so far is a dance version of "O Come All Ye Faithful." I doubt many people will believe me, but it's really good and works as terrific dance music. It's done by a vocal group that includes a bass with a wonderfully resonant voice. The melody is played on steel drums, and there is an electronic beat that holds the whole thing together. Second to this is a version of "Jingle Bells" with words in Krio I can't completely make out, but with a great beat.

There isn't as much to buy here as in the states, and of course many people do not have money enough to buy what there is for sale, so Christmas presents are not so prevalent here as at home. Plastic Christmas trees, however, are quite common, even among Muslims since they recognize Jesus as a saint, and as one Lebanese restaurant owner told me when I asked him why as a Muslim he would put up a Christmas tree, "Jesus does not belong only to the Christians."

Tonight I will go to midnight mass at a local Catholic church and tomorrow I will attend a Christmas service at an evangelical church in Goderich. Despite being away from my family and friends, I will be spending a lovely Christmas this year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Realites of Sierra Leone, not Relativities

I was riding in a taxi this morning on my way to Goderich when I had a sudden view of the most populous section of Goderich. It is a view I see every morning if I am sitting on the right side of the poda-poda, but this morning I realized that I had become so used to seeing it that I wasn't thinking "slum" anymore while passing it, but of course that is what it is. As with many aspects of life here, I have developed a tolerance for sights and smells and discomforts that I probably would not have tolerated two months ago. This kind of adjustment is trickier than it might seem and is more than just a matter of retraining my sensibilities. Really I am resisting some of this retraining, in particular when it comes to the condition of the children on the streets and at school.

Along the hill that slopes down to the tidal river where fishing boats sit between runs out to sea are crowded together tiny shacks with corrugated zinc roofs and walls or tarpaulin roofs and walls or a combination of the two. Having walked among them several times while shopping in the market and visiting students, I know that they are built right on the dirt, that they are dark even in the middle of the day, that most are no bigger than 10 feet square but shelter as many people as can squeeze in, and that few of them lack substantial holes in their roofs and walls. Many of our students live in these shacks as do much of the population of Goderich that moved there to escape fighting in the interior of the country. They remained even after the war despite the lack of economic opportunity, mostly, it seems because their villages had been destroyed, their family members killed and there seemed to be nothing to go back to except terrible memories.

I used to fear such places, I suppose because I assumed that only mean and uncivilized people could live in them and imagined them rife with bullies and knife-bearing thieves. Most, however, are inhabited by fishermen who do not own their own boats, young mothers rearing multiple children, old women and men looking after their grandchildren, and crowds of babies and toddlers, teenagers and school-age children. All of these people are suffering, but it is not a suffering that is obvious in their faces or their bodies or their faces. This is normal life for them and they are used to what to me even after two months here are incomprehensible degrees of discomfort and want.

One family that sends its children to the Goderich Waldorf School lives an unfortunately typical example of the kind of life people live in such places. The boy is about ten years old and is in Class III; the girl is eight years old and is in Class I, which she is repeating this year. She looks to be no older than six. Their mother is a fishmonger who frequently goes "upcountry" to sell fish away from the coast. She is regularly gone on such trips for weeks at a time. Right now she is on her way to Liberia because she heard fish are selling there, and it is not clear when she will return. While she is away, the two children are left in the care of their stepfather, who is a fisherman. He is regularly away for three or four days at a time whenever his boat goes out. This leaves the children with no one to watch them.

They live in a shack on one of the local beaches where the fishing boats bring in their catch. The condition of this shack occasioned the teachers during an English lesson with me to practice using the word, "appalling," to its correct connotation. Fishmongers then clean the fish and usually take them to be smoked on large brick-walled fire-pits called bandas. The family's hut has such a banda and it is in use late into the night whenever the fish are brought in. This means that the children do not have a place to sleep until the fish are smoked since the bandas fill the shack with smoke. At such times the children are left to find a place to lie down outside until the work is done.

The boy is old enough to help the fishermen pull in nets and thus receive a few small fish as payment, and he can generally feed himself this way. The girl is too small for this and relies on whatever charity happens her way while her mother and stepfather are away.

Of course, when I heard this story I was alarmed for the children, but was quickly told by the teachers that there are several students at the school in similar situations, though this one did strike the teachers as particularly severe. The number of children without basic care really seems too much to cope with at times. The teachers are aware of multiple children in each of their classes who desperately need proper care, feeding and housing, but with little money of their own and only so much time to devote outside of their own families, the teachers are often left feeling helpless to do what is needed. It may come across as indifference on their part, but I would say otherwise. I think they are overwhelmed and try to focus on holding the school together for the children's sake. Whenever the opportunity arises to help a particular child, they are in fact very willing to do what they can. For these two children whose mother is away in Liberia, I contributed a little money to feed them, and the Class V teacher, volunteered to check on them twice a day to make sure they ate and had come to no harm. Last night I received a phone call from this teacher, who told me that the boy had a bad cut on his leg. The teacher treated the wound, which, as I saw today, was a huge, open gash about an inch across and an inch-and-a-half long on the boy's shin. The Class IV teacher then volunteered to clean and bandage the wound every day until the mother arrived home.

I am often impressed by the exactness and thoroughness with which these teachers, my new colleagues, respond to problems that many of their neighbors either ignore or shrug off. Among them I have not ever heard "This is Africa" to dismiss a sick child or problematic family. It is true these teachers need more resources to address the needs of their students, but when so supplied, they respond very quickly.

The teachers are now enjoying a well-deserved holiday break after a full month of spending extra hours after school and on Saturday mornings attending teacher training sessions with me. They are all learning to use the Internet, and about half of them have become adept at downloading material onto the flash drives I brought from the U.S. A donated laptop and a neighbor's generator will allow these teachers to access the material over the vacation as they prepare for the next trimester. Without books, the information, stories, and poems on these flash drives are vital resources for them.

We have also spent considerable time drawing and are beginning to work with color. None of the teachers felt he or she could draw when we started in mid-November, but all of them have made nice progress and are enjoying the lessons. Most enjoyable for me are the discussions around child development that we have each afternoon. Although the language of the chosen text, A.C. Harwood's "The Recovery of Man in Childhood," is challenging for them, the ideas are beginning to come clear. The teachers are now talking about seeing children in new ways and how they must adjust their work with students accordingly.

I have avoided giving the teachers "tips" for teaching and have stayed out of their classrooms, both for the same reason: I do not want them to feel that they must follow my style of teaching just because I am a "Waldorf teacher." My aim is to engage them in careful study of child development and then to support them in creating their own curriculum and teaching styles accordingly. At first I worried that they would be unhappy that I was not giving them more specific advice, but I needn't have worried, as several of them have begun to comment on how they are beginning to understand the work they need to do in order to improve their teaching.

And so we close down the school for two weeks and go to our homes hoping that all of the students will return in January. There is a palpable feeling among the teachers that they can intervene to help their students at home more and more and that they can approach their work in the classroom with new inspiration.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Morning Dance

There is a young woman I see just about every day on my way to school in the morning. Often I see what she is selling long before I see her, but I have come to know her by the sweets she sells piled a foot high onto an enamel platter about a foot and a half in diameter that she carries on her head. I see the stack of crunchy sesame sticks dancing in the crowd of taxi and poda-poda drivers and passengers looking for the right car or van. Standing about five feet tall, she will appear between two people in the crowd and then disappear again, with only the sweets visible above and through the crowd. She will come to stand at the open window or door of each poda-poda, silent or quietly stating what she has for sale. Her eyes, large and friendly, search the poda-poda for buyers as she stands perfectly still, the platter on her head not swaying in the least. When someone signals to her, always a subtle gesture that I usually fail to notice, she tears off a piece of newspaper from the bundle she carries in her hands and passes it to the customer. She then lowers herself and gently moves her head toward the customer, her eyes following the movement of the platter as she brings it within easy reach of the man or woman who then simply helps him or herself using the scrap of newspaper. She pulls her head back gracefully as she rises back to her full height and accepts the 100 leone coin as payment. She then begins searching again with her lovely eyes, and when no one seems interested, she stands perfectly straight and at her ease with her wares sitting securely on her head and remains so until another subtle gesture attracts her attention and sets her into motion again.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Cold, Cold Harmattan

The harmattan is here. When it blows its strongest, babies are dressed in knitted caps and sweaters, and older children will often wear an extra t-shirt or jacket. Temperatures are no colder than the mid-seventies at these times, and it is initially funny to someone used to seasons in higher latitudes, but I have learned just to be grateful for the cool breeze. Here, however, is a fine example of how sensibilities differ in both the location of their extremes and the variance between degrees. Uncomfortably cold in Sierra Leone would be considered comfortably warm in New York City; uncomfortably cold in New York City is simply unimaginable in Sierra Leone.

There is another difference of sensibilities as concerns children in Sierra Leone and children in the U.S. We have had six more diagnoses of malaria and typhoid (they go together in these children, apparently), and one of the teachers also received treatment for malaria. These diseases hit these children hard, causing diarrhea, nausea, loss of appetite, aches all over the body, chills and fever. The children are visibly drained of energy, but they come to school anyway unless explicitly told to stay at home and rest. Even then many of them end up working in the market for their families. Such severe and, for these undernourished children, potentially life-threatening diseases are part of everyday life here and are frequently shrugged off. One little boy was told he was sick because of witches who had cursed him, and it was for that reason his parents saw no point in seeking medical help. They also had no money, but that was a secondary concern. Malarial children are easy to spot: they are listless, devoid of the playful energy that drives their peers. Nevertheless, they walk about Goderich and generally receive no special attention.

There is a saying here that has been offered to me on many occasions to explain such a lack of care for children, but also to explain the half-dead dogs covered in flies and lying in the streets, the poor state of the roads, the motorized wrecks that count for public transport, and many other less-than-desirable aspects of daily life in Freetown. The saying is, "This is Africa." It is said while shrugging one's shoulders and smiling and is meant to lighten the mood when things are frustrating, but it strikes me as a dangerous attitude for at least two reasons.

The first reason is simply that it is self-defeating. I have been told countless times by Sierra Leoneans, usually of the upper classes, of the superiority of Western Europe and America and have witnessed this country's massive dependence on international aid for resources this country is perfectly capable of supplying and in fact used to supply in the past: most food, even staples such as rice which grow easily here and vegetables such as onions and potatoes, is imported; medical care outside of downtown Freetown is provided by foreign-run clinics; and due to a lack of national electricity, shops and businesses must rely on generators powered by imported gasoline. The feeling is that since we are so poor and in such a miserable situation, we are incapable of taking care of ourselves and therefore deserve handouts.

The second reason is that it is a way of shirking individual responsibility for the state of the place. In my mind a perfect example of this shirking responsibility is what is called Clean-up Day. In order to keep the public roads and paths clean, the national government has twice in one month called for "Clean-up Day" in which all businesses, including public transport, must refrain from work until noon and all citizens are expected to sweep out their drainage ditches and carry garbage to giant piles of garbage formed in the center of each village. In between the two events, drainage ditches refilled with garbage as did the roads and pathways. Accepted habits of throwing garbage into the streets and of men and children urinating in drainage ditches and really anywhere they please are not addressed.

Together these two attitudes play a huge part in perpetuating many of this country's problems. There are even foreign workers here who have adopted this attitude and no longer react to gaping wounds on small children, infectious diseases in a school or broken glass under the bare feet of students. Fortunately not everyone subscribes to them, and young children are not yet irretrievably influenced by them.

Looking out into the play yard at lunchtime I see a whirl of activity that belies this attitude. Class 2 boys run after soccer balls with the full fury of their burning muscles. Older girls jump rope with agility and joy. Class 1 girls play a rhythmic jumping and clapping game so fast and intense that it leaves them dripping with sweat and grinning from ear to ear. Big, toothy smiles are ubiquitous among the children, and these smiles pop out whenever I engage one of them in a sustained gaze. Such activity and happiness comprise the state of things at the school every day. When the harmattan blows, the intensity of their play just increases accordingly, and the combined noise of children and wind is nearly deafening.

He just had to jump as high as all the boys before him.

Despite this, all is not well. Just about every day a quiet child will sidle up to me and softly tell me, "I'm hungry." Another will walk past me wearing only one shoe, having left the broken one at home. I glance around and see children who are not getting enough sleep at night because the bandas where fish are smoked in their shacks are being used late into the night. I see children who are made to sell candies or frozen juice in the market after school. I see boys who go home to help their fathers and uncles heat and break up rocks for sale to builders. I sometimes see a child who has been badly beaten, but only if there are open wounds as bruises don't show up well against their dark brown skin. Most of the children do not look hungry or overworked or beaten even if they are; I know only because their teachers have begun to tell me about the home lives of their students. They are used to what to me are unbelievable levels of pain and discomfort. They do not complain, at least not often enough for my comfort.

A little girl of about five carrying firewood. (Click on the picture to see larger view. I'll work on making it larger when I can access the right program)

A Young Babysitter on duty daily in a house next door to the school

School is a refuge for the students at the Goderich Waldorf School as much as a place of education. It is a place where they have space to run around, where they will be engaged in song and recitation and sport, where they can avoid working at menial jobs. (A child is a source of labor, however menial, and it is not unusual that a family barely able to its feed four natural children would foster a fifth child who can contribute to the family's daily income.)

On Friday the school held a beach outing to celebrate the end of the trimester and the beginning of the holidays. A dj was hired, and all of the children in all of the classes danced together energetically to hip-hop and reggae music. The female teachers prepared big batches of jollof rice and mackerel fish sauce, enough to feed all who attended. Older boys drummed while girls of all ages danced traditional dances. Two soccer balls kept boys occupied between eating, drumming, dancing and even swimming. It was a glorious, long day, with everyone staying late into the afternoon, exhausted and happy before a three-week holiday that most of the children will spend working. We were all sad when it ended and there were no cheers for the upcoming holiday vacation. (I know my former students in New York will find this hard to believe.)

Before arriving here, I had read so many stories of the atrocities committed by Sierra Leoneans against one another and I had seen so many photographs of the victims of random amputations committed by rebel soldiers that I had begun to fear this country and its people. I think I had attributed a desperate violence and a debilitating poverty to all Sierra Leoneans, but that is not what I have met here. This is not a particularly easy place in which to live anything but the most basic existence, and even that might mean you are carrying water from a public tap for your household, eating one meal a day that might only be a bowl of rice, and living on credit for part of every month. Nevertheless, this is a country of individuals, many of whom are not yet convinced that they are powerless.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Once Elusive White Van and a Little Dancing

Yesterday after school, I had my first ride on one of the Libyan-donated white vans. It was indeed air-conditioned, but to my surprise cost only 100 leones more than the poda-poda for a total fare of about 45 cents. Although the ride was cool and dust-free, it was as bumpy as most poda-poda rides and just as tight a fit even with no one sitting in the aisles as each 3-person bench held 4 passengers. So in the end I needn't have worried that it would spoil me for the poda-poda.

Today was the end of test week at school, and after Class 6 finished its physical health education test, they had the morning off. After taking turns telling each other stories, they asked me to tell a few and then presented two short skits to me.

The first skit was the story of a wealthy couple beleaguered by persistent beggars, a blind man and his guide. The couple's wealth was dramatized by the delicious and copious meals the wife was able to serve her perennially hungry and adoringly amorous husband. The blind man was led around by a stick that his guide trailed behind while the pair announced their presence with a call and response hilariously acted out. In search of a way to rid themselves of the pesky beggars, the couple visited a medicine man marked all over with strange and wonderful chalk designs who read their stones and presented them with a calabash (represented by a one-liter water bottle) of poison. On the occasion of the beggars' next visit, the couple quickly presented them with the poison. As the blind man followed his guide down the street, however, two young thugs stole his bag containing the calabash. Thinking the calabash must contain a magic potion, they both drank it and immediately fell down dead. The couple meanwhile had noticed the absence of their two sons. When they went in search of the boys, they found the pair dead on the street with the empty calabash lying next to them. It was a wonderful piece with not the slightest hint of self-consciousness in performing for me and their classmates.

The second skit was a short one about a cowardly hunter. When sent out to bring back meat for his wife, he took along his young son. As soon as a wild animal presented itself, the hunter told the boy to crouch down and stay quiet. The cowardly hunter's knees knocking together vigorously, he could hardly hold onto his gun as he tried to take aim. Each time it seemed he might manage to pull the trigger, his son would cough and the hunter, terrified by the sudden noise, would fall over in dread. After a long day of coughing and terror, the hunter returned home, blaming his son's coughs for having scared away the game.

The comedy over, the students brought out a shekura (a large drum) and set to dancing. As soon as one of the boys began to beat a rhythm, younger students from the other classrooms began to skip and run across the playground to the classroom. The older children shut the door, but the little ones just lay down on the ground to peer in underneath. The ones who couldn't squeeze in began dancing little dances outside the door, clapping their hands and shouting delightedly. Eventually the door opened and everyone formed a circle around the drummer and individual dancers who took turns in the center. It was a preview of what is to come at next week's holiday party on the beach.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ode to the Poda-Poda, the Local Public Bus

It's cheap and reliable. By some miracle it doesn't collapse into a heap of metal and human flesh over the course of a run on local roads. Evangelical slogans on the hood and on stickers pasted over cracks in the windshield may just as well be the prayers that make it possible for us to reach our destination: "The blood of Jesus is over my business." "If God gree we go succeed." The fare collectors tend to be wirey and adept at climbing through the windows when the doors won't open from the inside, and they have no trouble squeezing in when even the aisles are packed with passengers. They are also quite strong, which helps when it comes time to muscle the door back open, if it closed at all. Huge metal bolts or lengths of nylon rope hold everything together and usually keep the main passenger door attached to the body of the bus. I always get correct change. Few people bother to complain about the tight fit - 5 people on a bench meant for three that has an extension one can pull out into the aisle - or the bumps in the road so the mood onboard is a pleasant one. The sight of another poda-poda that has lost a wheel (it seems lug nuts often shake loose on the roads and even go missing altogether) or a young boy substituting for the regular fare collector trying to close an obstinate door can often get all the passengers laughing amiably and cracking jokes about the pitiful state of the poda-poda. It's better than walking in the heat and dust. The seats are usually firmly bolted to the floor of the poda-poda, and even when this isn't the case, the seat immediately in front is usually firmly bolted to the floor and so there is usually something to hold onto even when there isn't much to sit on. I have only once had to sit on a loosely bolted rear bench of a poda-poda, the rear door of which would not stay shut.

If I am lucky enough to get a seat in the front half of the bus, I will probably arrive with absolutely no bumps on my head. There are lots of places along my daily commute where tires can be repaired or even pumped up without anyone having to get off the poda-poda, although it means that three or four strong young men have to rock the bus back and forth during the process to allow room for the air in the tires and this usually means more bumps on my head. I recognize most of the drivers and fare collectors, friendly, familiar faces I am happy to see in the morning. The drivers are not particularly aggressive and most seem downright courteous in traffic, but they have no fear of potholes or drainage ditches or oncoming traffic on their side of the road. The view of the beach along the road is stunningly beautiful. I like the name and it even has another nickname: bone-shaker.

The Libyan government seems to have donated several brand new, white vans that sit higher off the road than most of the current poda-podas (Despite what one might expect, poda-podas all seem to be of only a handful of makes and models, mostly second-hand Mazda mini-vans from the Netherlands and Germany). The seats are cushioned, and no one seems to be sitting in the aisles. I suspect they charge more than the 900 leones (about 30 cents) that is the regular fare, but I am looking forward to a ride on one of them one of these days. Since the windows are also closed, I think they might even be air-conditioned. I hesitate to get too excited, though, because I have seen only two white vans running my route and I don't want them to spoil my enjoyment of the every-day poda-poda. I am not the only one who has taken notice of these vans. Passing one of them on the road is one of the few things that will definitely set a poda-poda passenger to complaining.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Photos of Goderich

This is an afternoon drawing session for the teachers at the school. All of the teachers have expressed a desire to learn to draw, so we sketch just about every day for a good hour or so.

Class VI teacher, Amara Suaray, is particularly keen to develop his drawing ability and seems to regret every moment of drawing class he has to miss in order to teach afternoon test preparation classes to his students.

Oh how they push to get in front of the camera with such big smiles!

Just through the coconut palms, the Atlantic Ocean is visible from behind the school building.