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.

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