Saturday, July 5, 2008

Goderich Waldorf School in the News

I am very happy finally to be able to post a link to a television news story that was done on the school while I was there. Two journalists, a local cameraman named Abu Bakar Jalloh and a Canadian reporter working for Journalists for Human Rights named Nina DeVries, visited the school and coproduced this piece that is now posted on Alternative Channel TV, a website that carries video pertaining to sustainable development.

The quality of the video is not great, but there are good images of the school, the students and the community that might make it easier to understand the situation there.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Winding Down and Winding Up

After several weeks flitting about from one continent to another, I have finally returned to the U.S. Difficulties accessing the Internet just before I left Freetown and then in London and again in Shanghai make up the reason I have abandoned this blog for over a month. Since returning to the U.S. I have simply felt as if I were getting over a bad hangover (so much for any idea any of you may have had that I was becoming a sophisticated jet-setter) and I am only in the past few days feeling like myself again and willing to risk writing something that will be posted for all to read.

My excuses made, I will do my best to summarize how I left the Goderich Waldorf School at the beginning of June and its prospects for the future.

For the last several weeks of my stay, I spent a considerable amount of time on a handful of projects. The biggest one involved mapping out a five-year plan with the school's director, Shannoh Kandoh, and working up a possible budget that would enable him to run two campuses with well-trained teachers. This all means fairly big changes for the school, but the biggest change is really in the staff's vision for themselves. It means that Shannoh will become a full-time administrator and that regular professional development will take place for existing and new faculty. It means that the school will take up fundraising with clear intentions on which projects it wants to fund and how much money is needed. Up to now, the staff have not been proactive, but have simply accepted whatever money has come their way. Now they are beginning to plan, and I am doing what I can figure out to do to help them identify suitable grants and apply for them. It's pretty exciting that now the staff is taking itself and its needs very seriously and daring to make plans for innovations and improvements.

The other projects included compiling a literacy assessment and teaching resource book for the teachers. It is sorely needed as literacy education at the school (and to be honest most other schools in Sierra Leone) is very poor. I am not sure what really counts as basic literacy in that country, but judging from the very poor quality of writing in newspapers and language on radio newscasts and the extreme paucity of literature in the country, not to mention the rampant errors in government-produced education materials that I saw, I cannot say it is very high. This is one area I missed until nearly two-thirds through my project. I just assumed that when teachers said children were reading it meant they could read. What it turns out to have meant for most children is that they can recite texts that they have read chorally countless times in the classroom. So I trained Amara Suaray, the Class VI teacher, in how to carry out the assessment and have suggested that several weeks of professional development over the summer be devoted to teaching teachers how to teach literacy. It will need a good deal of attention into the future.

Finally, I observed each of the teachers in a lesson and met with them to share with them my thoughts and to suggest ways to improve their work. It was something I left to the end of my stay because I wanted to have covered childhood development and the curriculum of grades one through six and given the teachers ample time to develop lesson plans from their new understanding before I observed them. I am not sure that this was the best approach as I argued with myself that had I been in their classrooms more often I might have been able to help them improve more. My reluctance to do so developed from my very first days at the school, however, and remained strong until the end. It stemmed from seeing the teachers mimic visiting teachers, including myself, when they went in to teach their own lessons. I was determined to introduce them to a way of understanding childhood and to a framework of educating children from which they could work as creative individuals to teach their particular students in their own school. As many times as I might have said this to the teachers, I think most of them have not yet accepted that responsibility, the responsibility to create a class, a school of their own. Perhaps, I tell myself, perhaps I am too impatient with this approach and need to give the teachers more time to integrate what I presented to them into their own understanding and work. It is certainly not easy for me after twelve years of teaching and a far better education than any of the Goderich teachers has had to teach artistically and in a manner that is formed by my individual understanding of childhood development. Just the fact of having to be at school every day to fill the hours with activity for the children can overwhelm me at times, and so I can sympathize with the teachers at the Goderich Waldorf School. It is this, however, that the Shannoh and I are hoping will come out of the plans for the school's future.

And so I left Goderich... Ground was being broken on a toilet block for the new campus in Rokel. Teachers were planning for the end of the school year - they will close for vacation in mid-July. Shannoh was busy compiling figures for a new budget. Before I left, the school hosted a farewell gathering for me, attended by students, parents and community leaders. Many speeches were made, including one by me while I was wearing an elephant dress given me by the three school cooks. Students danced and recited and performed an hilarious skit about child labor they had written themselves. Shannoh took many photographs, which I saved on a thumb drive riddled with viruses, so I won't be able to post them until I take care of the viruses.

It was a lovely way to end my stay.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Good News

I know it has been a while since I have written about what is going on at the school. I have fallen victim to daydreaming about going home, it is true, but I do have a somewhat more responsible reason for not writing, namely that there have been several meetings held to try to sort out the school's future, and nothing has seemed certain until the last few days. Oh, but certainty is a fleeting feeling around here, so I am going to claim the right to future amendment to today's statements right from the start and then just do my best to explain what the plan is at the moment.

The big problem since I arrived here at the school has not been the teaching or the teachers' lack of training or the school's lack of materials or even the health of the students. These were all problems, but they were issues to be addressed on a daily basis, and some progress has been made on all of them. The impact of the school feeding program alone has been tremendous, resulting in regular attendance, better classroom behavior, better health, and a reduction in stress for everyone from the the smallest Class I student to the cooks themselves who can count on taking home leftovers to feed their families five days a week. Malarial children are regularly treated at the local clinic. The director's wife is a nurse who volunteers once a week to do first-aid at the school. Teachers now have some idea of what the Waldorf curriculum and approach to teaching are. There has been plenty of progress.

No, the big problem has been what happens to the 190 current students of the school when it moves well over an hour away to its new campus in September. The faculty were quite clear that only a handful of their current students would be able to continue at other schools in Goderich, and it seemed that most of the students were just going to end up very literally back on the street, on the beach or in the gravel mines. Now, finally, the school has what seems to be a viable plan.

In fact, I spoke to the director about starting up a strategic planning process (Lucy and Irene will be so proud of my putting my experience on the Rudolf Steiner School board to good use), and two weeks ago we did just that. The guiding principle is that the Goderich campus will be phased out over five years so as to ensure that all current students have the opportunity to complete Class VI while the new campus at Rokel will be slowly built up over the same period. It is a beautiful plan, evident in the fact that everyone involved with the school who has heard about it is now sleeping better at night. Now it is just a matter of finding the money to make everything work.

There is also a great desire to improve the quality of the school, and that is where the really difficult work and need for commitment will come in, just as I am getting ready to leave! I have been very busy typing up lists of questions to answer, suggesting budgetary planning processes, dreaming up ways to fund the whole business. There is a good deal of work to keep me busy (and away from daydreams of hot showers and well-stocked bookstores)until I leave and well afterwards, but I am definitely sleeping better these days.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I Became a Waldorf Teacher by Susan Taylor

A few months ago I asked my students, the six teachers of the Goderich Waldorf Schol to write about how they came to teach at the school. I had heard bits of each of their biographies and was intrigued by their demonstrated commitment to the school and its students despite the long period each had served as a volunteer upon first being hired. This is the first of six such essays, this one by the current Class III teacher, Susan Taylor.

My name is Susan Taylor, aged forty-six years. I live in Goderich Village in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I am a teacher at the Goderich Waldorf School. I was first teaching at a government school, but due to the poor conditions of service and an unhealthy environment for the children, I decided to leave in 2005. At that time, I heard about the Action for Child Protection Educational Centre for Disadvantaged Children, a centre at the wharf in Goderich Village. When I made my first visit to the centre, I met one of the teachers, Mr. Mohamed Conteh, whom I had known for a long time. Mohamed was so happy when he saw me, and he welcomed me inside a big place like a hall where he was teaching different colours and shapes to the children. I asked about the other teachers. He took me to meet Mr. Robert Bendu and Mr. Amara Suaray. Looking around the classes and the compound, to my surprise, I noticed that most of the children were without uniforms or shoes, they had no place to sit down, and some children were sleeping in class. Their condition was so terrible and sympathetic, and I was so unhappy that I inquired about these children. Mohamed told me that these children were from the beach and the street. He said they included children without parents and children who helped the drivers to call passengers into their taxis and poda-podas or local buses at the car park. They were children whose parents could not afford to send them to school. When I heard about the children, my mind was so full with unhappiness. The teachers went on telling me that it was a voluntary job and that they moved around the community in search of vulnerable children. They wanted to take the children out from beach and the street and to introduce them to society.

When I returned home I was thinking about the children’s future. It was humanitarian feeling and emotion that prompted me to teach at this school. I felt so bad and I even asked myself, “Can these children make it in life, with all that I have seen and heard about them?” But when I sat down and reasoned well like a parent, I realized that there were many ways to upkeep them. Through this thinking, I counted myself as a fit person to help these children through caring and protection, proper counseling, good education, and generating a good feeling of the world. I decided to apply for employment so that I could help to refine them. And so I made my second visit to Mohamed at the school.

There I told them that I would like to help at the school. One morning in the fall of 2006 I was sitting at the back of my compound, when I saw Mohamed coming into my compound. He told me that they needed me in the school. At once I left for the school, where I met Mr. Abu Mansaray, the teacher of Class One. Mr. Mansaray asked me many questions about my experience in teaching. He was pleased with the answers that I gave, and so I started teaching class two in September, 2006. Two weeks after I began teaching, I was introduced to Mr. Shannoh Kandoh, the school director. He told me that the school was vulnerable and that the teaching position was unpaid and he asked me if I was willing to teach without compensation. I said yes because there were no other jobs available at the time, I liked the job, and I wanted to bring the children out of the street.

Some of the street children in the Goderich Village community lost their parents during the rebel war in Sierra Leone and some lost their parents to illnesses. Some of these children live in the street doing small jobs to earn their food; some are even fighting in the streets. Some do heavy jobs to earn their living, but have no good clothing, go barefoot, and have no place to sleep. Some sleep in the marketplace on top of tables, in abandoned cars and even in huts at the beach.

Some of these children come to school hungry, very sickly, thin and unhappy. Some come to school without lunch, and sometimes we the teachers give them something to eat if we have it. These hungry children always sleep in class, begging and even crying for something to eat if they see some of their friends eating. They sometimes don’t come to school. If you go and find them and ask why they did not come to school, they will say that they have not eaten. And if they are sleeping in class or sitting down looking at you, if you ask what is wrong, they will say that they are not well. Some of these street children found in the Goderich community during the war cannot find their families and have no one to take care of them. You can find them at the car park, on the beach and washing cars and poda-podas at the car park so that people will give them food or money. They carry loads such as rice, palm oil, and vegetable oil for shoppers in the market and they carry fish for the fishmongers. They deliver these loads for small money. Children working on the beach help fishermen to carry their tool bags, sell fish, and carry chains. They sometimes are beaten by the big boys on the beach who take their money from them. There are some huts on the beach made of chain and rice bags, where some of the boys sleep. Most of these children are boys between the ages of seven and ten. You also can find some girls who have been sexually abused by some men for small money. Some even go and find wood or plums to sell for food. Some go and sell from morning to night.

The first two months I found it difficult to teach these children, but later I was in place with them. There were many difficult children in the school, coming to school without lunch or books, and sometimes without having eaten. We teachers did not have some of the right materials to do some of the work. Sometimes the children did not come to school every day. Children were sleeping in class because of the overburdening work at home.

The love we continue to give these children has kept them coming to school. Some of these children cannot read or write. For the smaller ones aged five to seven, it is not too difficult, but for children aged ten and upward who have never attended school before, it can be embarrassing for them to be learning what the small children are learning, though some learn quickly. It is never easy for these children to focus on their school work because they are thinking about food, money and where they will they sleep.

My experience in this Waldorf school as a teacher is very different from my experience in any other school. I have learned that children should not be punished by beating. When presenting a new topic to the children, the teacher should do so in story form, so that the children can get the right feeling and understanding for the topic. We teach how to draw with crayons without using pencils, we play different games. A Waldorf teacher should give the children the right feeling and to let them think for themselves. I have learned a new way of teaching and doing things with the children and I hope to learn more and more.

Monday, May 5, 2008


Well, the initial enthusiasm among the parents for approaching the community leaders to provide land for the school in Goderich next year has utterly disappeared, and not surprisingly. Here is the version of the story behind the disillusionment told to me:

When the parents met with the MP a few weeks ago and he offered them a parcel of state-owned land in a section of Goderich called Oba Funkia, feelings were very positive. He told the parents that they simply needed to claim the site by clearing it of any structures and all the bush. Well, word of this spread around the village so that the next morning a small delegation of parents sent to the parcel met a group of young men ready to defend the shanty someone had built there in order to lay claim to it himself. The parents wisely avoided a fight and returned to the MP, who refused to help them further since they had not done what he had told them to do.

When I heard this, I could have thrown up my hands in disgust, but not the parents, who were outwardly very calm. They seemed to be used to this kind of absurdity and they agreed to approach the local community leaders as soon as possible. The problem was that only one parent showed up for the appointment with those leaders. Somewhere between the last encounter with the MP and the appointment, the entire parent body appeared to have lost interest in securing a school for their children.

Now I am hearing the frustration in the voices of the handful of parents who still come around school to talk about what might be done for their children: "The children have more integrity than their parents! At least they show up for school every day," is a typical comment.

With the school year waning and no land or building on offer to the school for September, it is seeming increasingly likely that only a very few of the 190 Goderich Waldorf School pupils will be able to attend school next year, and those only because their parents are teachers at the school who will take them to the new campus. It is difficult to accept, but alternatives have not arisen. It certainly would be possible to buy land somewhere in the community, but the only offers we have received are incredibly expensive by local standards, and there is simply no money to pay such prices. In addition to the land, the school would need to hire new teachers, at least five, build a new building, and buy new school materials. It's all quite daunting, but not impossible.

There has been one nice development at the school: the school was able to fund the construction of an addition to the tiny kitchen where lunch is cooked, just in time for rainy season. It is built of poles and corrugated zinc, is large enough for three cooking fires, and has two windows for ventilation. The cooks are delighted, and lunch, once again, seems to be guaranteed through the end of the school year.

Old and New Kitchens

Mohamed, Cook's Husband and Kitchen Architect/Project Manager

Happy Cooks, Neighbors, Children

In the classes interesting things have been happening as well. As part of a main lesson unit on various trades, Susan Taylor, the Class III teacher, planted a patch of crin-crin, a nutritious green vegetable, with her class. The children prepared the bed, sowed the seeds, now water and weed it, and soon will transplant the seedlings. They have also been busy making piles of clay bricks, which last Friday they began laying onto a poured concrete foundation for a small house. While building, the children are learning the vocabulary of the brickmaker, the carpenter and the mason and clearly are enjoying the change in venue for their main lessons. They are very proud of their emerging building and very anxious to see it completed.

Auntie Taylor levels the first bricks

Watching the Progress

First layers of a wall

Finally, this past Saturday all but two students in Class VI sat the National Primary School Examination in order to qualify for entrance to junior secondary school next September. The students and their teacher, Amara Suaray, have been preparing all year for this test, attending test preparation courses six days a week and organizing mock tests and the borrowing of uniforms for the day of the real test. This is the first time students from the Goderich Waldorf School have sat this examination, so they were hosted by a local school run by the Forum of African Women Educationalists (FAWE). All of the preparation classes took place on the FAWE campus, and our students had to wear the FAWE uniform (borrowed from FAWE's Class V students) during the examination. The night before the test, all the students slept inside the FAWE school building (apparently this was replicated in primary schools throughout Sierra Leone that night), and there was something of a festive feeling about the whole event despite the anxiety about taking the test. In the end the children reported that they felt well-prepared for all sections of the test except the math section, but we will not know their results until the end of August at the earliest. I have pledged to pay the school fees for all those Goderich Waldorf School students who are accepted to junior secondary school and would welcome any help in continuing that support throughout their secondary school years.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sneaking Through Town on a Poda Poda and a Little News

When making my way out to the other side of Freetown to meet with my weaving teacher, I have experienced on several occasions now the fascinating mess of traffic in the capital that I described in an earlier post. My last such trip, however, was genuinely amusing.

After I had been directed to the poda poda headed to Grafton where my teacher lives, the man who guides the passengers to their poda podas (I have no idea what one would call his position) poked his head in to address all the passengers. In Krio he told us that the poda poda would be taking back streets (meaning away from the official route) to avoid traffic. If the police stopped us, we were to say we were on a school outing. He ducked out again, missing the giggles among us all as we looked around noting the wide range of our ages from teenaged to elderly, the huge baskets of goods that would be sold at the Grafton market, the two babies in their mothers laps, and me, the lone white lady. The driver started the engine just as the giggles had settled into grins and we were off, up and down the crazy back streets of eastern Freetown. From my seat some appeared no wider than the poda poda itself, but we managed to squeeze past oncoming and parked cars, all the while the driver was deftly avoiding a shocking plunge into the deep drainage ditches on either side. Most of the streets are not paved any longer, and many lead straight up the side of one of the mountains that rise up out of the city's harbor. I had learned by then to trust the drivers of these rusty buses to miraculously coax the engines up very steep inclines, but I nevertheless held my breath until we started the long descent back down to the main road out of town.

Then one of the passengers spotted the police officer, just before the driver himself. We all went silent as if the officer might hear us. The driver pulled over behind a parked truck, turned the engine off and stuck his head out of the window. No one said a word until the officer was seen riding off on his motorcycle. We all laughed as the driver started the engine again - he was entirely straight-faced about the whole business, clearly not at all amused by having to dodge the police officers who had begun patrolling the back streets now that they had figured out what the poda poda drivers were up to. He was apparently emotionally prepared for the challenge as well: We pulled out onto the main road just a few blocks from where three officers stood at a traffic circle. The driver pulled up to them, said something amiable to them that made them laugh and off we went.

Just a little update on the school today: Thanks to a substantial donation from the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City and my own frugal living (even splurging on restaurant dinners and imported chocolate bars it is possible to live on less than $500 a month) this week we will begin serving lunch on Fridays. A little further calculation revealed that I couldn't really stay through mid-July if the school lunch program were to continue through the end of the school year, so I have booked my return flights home for the beginning of June and arranged with the school director to take care of the lunch program. Really, I was also thinking about the warnings I had received that once the rainy season started up in May, there would be days when I wouldn't be able to get to the school because of flooded roads. I will have completed introducing the curriculum and childhood development by then and am planning to finally sit in on classes so as to evaluate the teachers and give them some feedback on how they are developing. It now seems as if there is no time left at all before I go and so much to do...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Parent Meeting

Last Friday the school held its first parent meeting since my arrival last November. The faculty decided to call the meeting in order to inform the parents that a Canadian journalist would be visiting the school to film the students and teachers for a story about the school's mission and achievements educating vulnerable children in the community, but most of the meeting focused on a more pressing issue for the parents and teachers - the plan to move the school to a site on the other side of Freetown and out of reach of the current student body.

Although turnout was low at the start, students who arrived at school that morning sans parents were sent back home to retrieve whatever adult or even slightly older relative they could convince to follow them to the school so they could gain admittance to their classrooms. It worked pretty well, so that by the end of the meeting, we probably had well over a third of the parent body present along with a handful of obviously bored adolescent uncles.

The meeting was held in Krio, so I missed many of the details and subtleties of what transpired, but I was repeatedly impressed by the clarity and force with which many of the parents expressed themselves, standing up in the middle of the crowd to speak in a manner that seemed to have been picked up from their local pastors. Each one seemed to have mastered the art of presenting ideas in concise sentences punctuated by pauses long enough to allow the words to penetrate the listeners. Key phrases were formed and repeated with increasing power, rousing the energetic approval of the audience. By the end of the meeting, the parents had convinced each other that they would go to meet the local Minister of Parliament, the Honourable, to see what he would do to help them locate a site for the school in Goderich.

Late on Saturday morning I heard that the Honourable had been unable to receive the crowd of parents who had visited his house earlier that morning, but had asked them to return on Monday. Monday afternoon I heard the news that a huge crowd of parents had assembled to travel to Freetown to meet with not only the Honourable, but also a few cabinet ministers and that the result was an acre of land in the section of Goderich called Oba Funkia, not far from the present campus had been identified by the Minister of Lands (at least that's the title I was told) as land that the state owned and would hand over to the school as a freehold. Whew. My head was spinning and I was terribly suspicious of the whole thing.

As I had expected, Shannoh Kandoh, the school's director, was not convinced that the land would be permanently given to the school, and he identified for me the complicated land claims on that very acre that had bubbled up in just twenty-four hours after the land ministers' decree. Shannoh is waiting to see what will happen in the next few days and says he will need to go to speak to the community leader in Oba Funkia.

A lot of excitement, and really very good for the school that so many parents showed their interest in keeping a school in Goderich for their children, but the future remains uncertain.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Halleluja. Praise Allah. Amen

Whenever I substitute for one of the teachers, I have the chance to experience how it is to teach these children at this school, and I tell you it is no easy job. The lack of walls between classrooms means that when a neighboring class is singing, you either stick to singing yourself or yell yourself hoarse. It is hot; a good third of the class has no writing implement or at least none that works properly; there are not enough colored pencils to go around, and all the pencils there are need sharpening desperately, but there is nothing more than a razor blade one of the children has brought from home and my own Swiss army knife to do the job. This morning I had exactly four blisters on my hands at the end of the main lesson with Class IV.

It is also not entirely unpleasant, however. Take for example the morning singing. This morning I substituted for Mr. Conteh in Class IV so he could take over Class III for Mrs. Taylor, who had an eye doctor's appointment. I asked Cecilia, a smiling girl in the front row, to lead the morning prayer, which she began with a very popular song:

Tell Papa God, say tank ye
Tell Papa God tank ye
Tell Papa God, say tank ye
Tell Papa God tank ye
What e do for we
We go tell e tank ye
What he do for we
We go tell e tank ye.

So go the very straightforward and repetitive lyrics, but the song in the mouths of these children carries tremendous energy. When it gets going, the class transforms into a Christian revival. Kids sway with their eyes closed and their hands in the air. One boy calls out a verse, and the rest echo him. Later in the song, a girl takes the lead. Still later another boy calls out a verse and receives his due response. Everyone is clapping vigorously, and many have left their spots to dance in the aisles. I sing along, clapping and grinning at this event I have had no hand in creating, despite standing at the front of the room. My smile blends with the general mirth and makes no one self-conscious. One song becomes another, but the rhythm stays the same, and it is not until they are a few verses into it that I realize the children are no longer thanking God, but are telling Satan to stay away. The whole thing is finished off when Cecilia tells the class to close their eyes for the Lord's Prayer and follows up with a prayer in Arabic to Allah.

What might strike many as a strange, even haphazard, approach to invoking a reverent mood among children of different religions, is typical of Goderich, where I have met as many Christian converts to Islam as Muslim converts to Christianity, and many people celebrate both Ramadan and Christmas in their homes. No one at the school, or from what I've seen in Goderich, seems to be fundamentalist about Islam - I've seen only a few headscarves on local women, for instance, and none fully covered - though the brand of Christianity most common is strongly evangelical, complete with slick-dressing pastors who love to invoke the holy ghost spirit, often speaking in tongues, over headache-inducing PA systems. Many households are in fact both Christian and Muslim, so for the children at the Goderich Waldorf School, what to me is an amusing mix of these often incompatible versions of two great religions, is simply the way of the world.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Little Adventure

On Sunday I finally dared to take a poda-poda out to a beach I have been told is very popular with foreign workers in Freetown, Lakka Beach. It was only after the encouragement of the Italian nurses at Emergency as well as their assurances that they would be at the beach on Sunday that I was ready to go on what seemed an adventure to me.

I know that it must seem pretty silly that after getting myself all the way to this little-known country in Africa to volunteer for the better part of a year and living here very independently for the past five months, that I would be intimidated about taking what amounts to a forty-five minute bus ride to a beach. I think the explanation lies in my approach to living here, which has been to create a comfortable home for myself and a regular routine of going to work and coming home, and taking very small forays into exploring my surroundings, each of which I took with considerable trepidation. Take for example the first time I took a taxi downtown by myself. It actually took me nearly two hours to wave down a driver who would agree to take me to the main post office. I did not have my hand out for that long, but after the first two refusals, I stepped back and watched for long periods before trying again, repeating the process after each refusal. In similar fashion I have made my way to the Big Market in town and tried bargaining, a skill I am developing, but very, very slowly.

The beach is lovely and quiet, all that was promised me. I spent the afternoon swimming and eating barracuda and chatting with people from Canada, Spain and Italy, all in Sierra Leone doing development work of one kind or another. This is really only the second time I have had such contact, and I am hoping that the nurses at Emergency who were there will help me make the connection to the World Food Programme to see about extending the free lunch in Goderich should the school director and I find a way to keep the 200 current students in school next year.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Back to School

It has been a very eventful few days...

Yesterday we had quite high attendance for a first day back from a holiday - generally understood in Freetown as "no better school" (see the post of the same name for more on this concept) - and all the teachers agree it is because we are serving lunch. Nearly everyone was in school today, which is practically unheard of. Really we shouldn't expect full attendance until next Monday. To drive home how very seriously this concept is taken here, here is the story of the eight-year-old girl who lives in my compound and who tried to return to school on the first official day back from holiday. On the first day four children showed up in her class. They were allowed to play all day and then sent home. On the second day seven children showed up, were allowed to play for a short time, and then were told not to return until the following week. Anyone who came before then, they were assured, would be flogged.

On the topic of flogging, I met two teenage boys at Lumley Beach last weekend. They were selling DVD's on a Friday afternoon. I asked them whether they attended school. Yes,they did. Then after asking about their ages and grade levels, I told them I was a teacher.

"Ohhh," said one knowingly. "Teachers like to flog children."

"I don't like to flog children, and at our school the teachers don't flog the students," I said in my kindest voice. This is actually true now that the faculty has been discussing alternative means of discipline and punishment.

"Oh yes. Our teachers flog us, but when the white people come, they hide the canes."

I have to admit that at that moment I tried very hard to remember whether I had seen any canes lying around the school grounds recently... but I stopped myself from falling into the trap of suspicion. Really, I told myself, it is the decision of the teachers themselves to try new forms of discipline and abandon flogging completely. My approval or opprobrium will have no real effect, as this boy pointed out so clearly.

Well, what else? On my trips to Grafton, I have had to go through Freetown in the middle of the day on poda-podas, something I hadn't done before. First of all traffic in Freetown is so terrible that it was a topic on the BBC World Service last week. Sierra Leone does not make it into the international news very often, so I was very interested to hear the results of a thorough investigation into the state of affairs. The reporter, however, interviewed only the minister in charge of national transport and roads and almost certainly did not ride on a poda-poda in downtown Freetown at rush hour. The entire segment amounted to the minister talking about how he was working on all of the problems with roads and traffic, which in Freetown according to him were caused by too many cars on the roads and too many cars parked illegally on streets. Entirely overlooked was the fact that the central streets are clogged with petty traders who set their basins down on sidewalks, so that pedestrians are forced to walk in the streets. In the absolute center, the traders set up their basins three and four deep, reaching from either side of the street so that they nearly touch in the middle. Where there is actually room for vehicles there are regular traffic jams so that it can take well over an hour to drive ten city blocks. When I say regular, I mean every day. I am told that the previous president had banned street selling and had managed to clear the streets, but had not managed to build adequate market space, which made him immensely unpopular in Freetown. The new president campaigned in Freetown on opening up the streets again to traders, so I don't think traffic in Freetown is going to improve anytime soon. As for excessive numbers of parked cars, I don't see them, because really in the most clogged parts of town there is no place to park a car.

From my vantage point on my poda-poda one morning, I watched the action as we headed straight into the jam. The poda-poda came to a halt, and the driver turned off the engine. The apprentice conductor hopped off to go in search of water for himself and a washcloth for a passenger who had given him some money. When he returned another passenger sent him off for a soft drink. Even when the poda-poda was able to inch forward, the apprentice was out in the crowd, shopping on behalf of passengers. Meanwhile, throngs of petty traders who don't actually set up on the sidewalks or roads, meandered by, often stopping to sell snacks or drinks through windows to passengers. It was amazing the poda-poda could move at all. At one point after the driver had turned off the engine and settled into his seat for a long wait, we were boarded by a police officer who noticed the lack of a license sticker on the windshield. Five thousand leones and a lot of pleading took care of her - she had threatened to empty the bus of all its passengers, so this was an immense relief to all of us. The experience made me grateful for my traffic-free commute to Goderich, potholes, broken-down poda-podas, dust and all.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Weaving Lessons

While school is still on holiday I will write a little about my experiences away from school.

At a festival of traditional Sierra Leone culture called the Tangains Festival over Easter weekend, I met a woman who runs a skills training center in a former refugee camp in a town east of Freetown called Grafton. Her name is Isata, and when I inquired, she quickly agreed to teach me how to build a tradional loom. The Class 3 teacher, Susan, and I made arrangements to visit her at her center in Grafton. A few days later we were there and began to learn the techniques for assembling a heddle and comb using only wood from a few different species of tree cut to appropriate lengths and Chinese-made nylon twine. In all we have had four lessons, all taught with care by a young man in his second year of senior secondary school named Mohamed. He has agreed to travel to the school in Goderich to help us set up the looms and I am planning to go at least once more to Grafton to receive basic instruction in how to set up the thread for weaving.

The looms are very portable and are designed for making very long, thin strips of cloth that are then cut and usually sewn side by side to make garments and comforters. Traditionally the thread used is cotton grown in Sierra Leone and spun on hand spindles. There is very little cotton being grown in this country now - I've been told that has been the case since the war - though I have seen a few distaffs of handspun thread going for very high prices. Almost all of the cloth, called country cloth, that is produced now is woven of what is called English thread, really Chinese-produced, polyester thread. The colors are harsher than the traditionally plant-dyed fabrics that are being imported from Mali, apparently woven in a similar fashion, though I am not sure of that. Below are a few pictures of the kind of loom we will build.

When we are done, we will have three complete looms for the school to use as well as the know-how to build more looms in the future. What is particularly nice is that Grafton is only about fifteen minutes west of Rokel where the school will move in September, so there is also a strong possibility of continued cooperation in the future. I hope at least that Susan will take it up and be able to offer lessons to the students.

Whereas in an American Waldorf school, handwork of this sort (including crochet, knitting, sewing and embroidery) is introduced to children in order to help them develop their will (what we can consider their physical and psychic strength in carrying out a deed) as well as their dexterity, here there is the very real possibility that weaving will be a trade for a few of the children when they leave school. So very few of these children will attend secondary school, much less college, that manual arts are, even in primary schools, seen as vital vocational skills. It is something that the Goderich Waldorf School will have to work out when developing its curriculum further.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Still More Photos of the Celebration

It takes so long to upload these that I am having to stretch out the process over a few days.

The drummers were busy during the dances. The man in the middle is the husband of one of the cooks.

Here is the witch doctor casting his powerful spell.

The two hooligans have spotted their next victim....

...the hapless blindman and his helper.

Poisoned! The work of the witch doctor!

All the excitement attracted neighbors and passers-by to watch from under the shade of the old mango tree.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More Photos of the Celebration

After the dancing, we had two classes recite poetry. It was very lively and entertaining.

Class Three Enters

Class Four Recites with Gusto

Mr. Bendu stars as the feckless borrower of money. His is a tragic story indeed.

And then came the Class 6 performance, a real gem: The Story of Glutton Plagued by the Visits of a Blind Beggar

Bassie as the Unfortunate Glutton

Oh How He Loves Her Cooking !

The Witch Doctor Will Come in Handy

End of Term Celebration

A few photos from the End of Term Celebration held at the school on March 14. The teachers organized the children to present dances, skits and recitations, and despite the intense heat that day, we all had a terrific time and even attracted a small audience of neighbors.

Dancers waiting to enter the courtyard. They are dressed in traditional raffia skirts.

Here they are making their group entrance. They then proceeded to dance solo pieces.

A gifted and energetic dancer. She was a pleasure to watch and grabbed everyone's attention.

Next up were Class Two girls dancing in the same style. They entered as a group, danced solo to the drums and then left one-by-one.

Another talented dancer, this one from Class Two

Here they are all together, clapping and bumping to the powerful beat.

I will post more photos of the rest of the celebration in a later post.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Problems Soon To Come

We are now on spring holiday for two weeks. A national cultural festival is being held this weekend in Goderich, the Tangains ("Old Things" in Krio) Festival. Since I am reliant on public transport that frequently breaks down on the disastrous road to Goderich and most of the events are taking place well after dark when I do not want to be on that road, I have missed all but one small dance performance by the local Bondu society and the crafts markets. This Bondu society is a secret society for women that recruits local women to carry on local traditions, including dance, song and female circumcision. Girls join at very young ages if their mothers or other female relatives are members. Several of our students are members, and one of the girls in Class 6 has missed nearly two months of school in order to prepare for a special ceremony. I am not certain, but it has been hinted to me that she is likely to be circumcised during the ceremony. These are not the sorts of things about which people talk openly.

There are several international and national groups campaigning in Sierra Leone against this practice, also called female genital mutilation because it is usually performed out of doors with non-sterile knives and no anesthetic, so that it is both painful and dangerous, not to mention what it means for these girls when they become sexually active - basically a reduced experience of sexual pleasure. These groups also argue that the societies offer very little to the girls, since traditional methods of cooking, making and dyeing cloth, caring for children, and healing are no longer passed on as they once were in these societies. In many instances it seems to mean that prepubescent girls are pulled out of school to stay at home for months doing not much more than everyday household chores in preparation for the difficult ceremony. Many of them never return to school or have their schooling so disrupted that they find it difficult when they do return and soon drop out.

I do not know anyone who belongs to one of these societies, none of the teachers do, and recent radio reports say that many of these groups have staged counter-protests arguing that they are preserving Sierra Leone's culture. I am finding that particular argument difficult to accept because I have such strong feelings against what strikes me as a tradition that preserves the diminished role of women by educating them not to function in a modern economy but to stay at home to serve at the pleasure of their fathers, uncles and husbands, something that is so obviously untenable in a country where most men are unemployed and uneducated themselves and the income earned by women is desperately needed by most families.

Ummu, the girl I mentioned above, should be preparing to sit the NPSE, an examination that will determine her eligibility to enter junior secondary school. I am not sure whether she will be ready, and neither is her teacher sure when she will return to school. Ummu's father wants her to return, but his wife is insisting that Ummu stay at home.

Ummu is one of the twenty-six children at the Goderich Waldorf School who is preparing to sit this exam in May, but even if they pass, there is no guarantee that they will continue in school since most of them come from families either unable or unwilling (especially in the case of girls) to pay school fees.

The other dark cloud hanging over the school has a gleaming silver lining, but is ominous nevertheless: Shannoh Kandoh, the school's director and founder, has managed to secure seven acres of land for a permanent school site, and with the support of Freunde der Erziehungskunst Rudolf Steiner and at least one major individual donor, construction costs should also be covered. This means the school will move to the other side of Freetown where the land is located for the 2008-2009 school year. None of the current students aside from the handful of faculty children will be able to attend the school next year since it is over an hour away. If I include the twenty-six children who are applying to secondary school, that makes about one hundred ninety children in Goderich who have no certain place in a school next year. The future of Waldorf education in Sierra Leone is seeming increasingly sure, but that is no consolation for these children.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A New Roof and Lunch Guaranteed

With a generous donation from my parents, the school has been able to replace the damaged roof with new tarpaulins. We haven't had another big storm to test it yet, so we are just hoping it holds. It certainly looks very nice, brand new white tarpaulins under the bright sun.

More very generous donations from the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, the family of a former student at Steiner, and the parents of one of my Steiner colleagues have ensured that the lunch program can run through the middle of July, when school is scheduled to close for the year. It is a significant amount of money required to feed two hundred plus people here everyday (I am including the faculty, the cooks, their families and the various neighbor children who regularly stop by to eat from the pots) and I am grateful to all of the donors for making it possible to make this program something the school community can count on. With food prices rising everyday in the markets, these lunches are often the only meals our students and even our cooks eat all day, although I have raised the cooks' salaries to avoid a repeat of when one of the cooks, the woman whose house we use for storage and cooking, asked me on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago for a few thousand leones because she had no money to buy food for her family.

Friday, March 14, 2008

And Now Onto the Curriculum

Finally, I have managed to post a photo of myself with the faculty of Goderich Waldorf School. Back Row, left to right: Suzanne Lamb, Susan Taylor (Class 3), Amara Suaray (Class 6), Robert Bendu (Class 5); Front Row, left to right: Aminata Bendu (Class 2), Shannoh Kandoh (School Director), Clarisa Bangura (Class 1), Mohamed Conteh (Class 4).

This past week I started to introduce the teachers to the Waldorf curriculum, in as much as it exists. Rudolf Steiner gave only bits and pieces of the curriculum in his various public lectures and discussions with teachers, and what is used in most Waldorf schools today was worked out from those lectures and discussions from his contemporaries and subsequently formalized through decades of practice. The curriculum was originally developed for European children and included such things as a study of Norse myths in fourth grade and of medieval European culture and society in seventh grade. These subjects exemplify certain qualities of cultural consciousness as they existed at various points in western European history. The West African counterparts still need to be worked out, and I am afraid that is a project I will hardly have a chance to tackle during my time here.

So I am teaching the teachers what I know and am hoping to inspire them to do a little of the work interpreting the Waldorf curriculum on their own, although it is very clear to me that this will not be easy for them either as they have so few resources and so little education themselves.

There is also the question of artistic expression. African music and art is qualitatively different from that of Western Europe or the U.S. and I have only a cursory knowledge of it. For instance, music here is far more rhythmic than melodic and pervades the social environment in ways I have never experienced at home. Fishermen chant as they pull in their nets on the beaches, school children dance their ways to school in the morning, and even the youngest children, the toddlers still wobbly on their feet, can bounce and rock their bodies to complicated beats. Morning singing is powerful in the Goderich classrooms and sets a completely different mood from any that I ever managed to create in my own New York classrooms. All of this is worth preservingand nurturing in the children, and it is my greatest challenge here to present the teachers with inspiring ideas for presenting subjects and skills to the children without imposing my own style and culture on them. This is so difficult because the teachers are very inclined to imitate what I demonstrate for them. If one day I teach them a poem in order to demonstrate how to work with alliteration, I can count on at least two teachers introducing that very poem to their classes the next day without consideration of its appropriateness for the age of the children or the subjects they are teaching.

Why does this happen? Well, not because I tell them to do this. In fact, I have asked several times for them not to do this. I think they have been given so little with which to work and they have so faint an understanding of the ideas for education that Steiner explained that they are desperate for anything of substance that they can introduce to their students. I have stayed away from teaching model lessons because I want the teachers to develop their own teaching styles. It is becoming clear to me, however, that this might be too much to ask of them at this point if all I am giving them are general ideas about childhood development and a few quotations from Steiner about how to educate children of different ages along with rudimentary lessons in drawing and color work. And so I have begun presenting lessons to the entire faculty and following them up with discussions about what I did and why. I am not sure this approach will be successful, but for now the teachers are grateful, and there is a renewed enthusiasm among them for the training sessions. It will take a long time before there is a true Goderich interpretation of the Waldorf curriculum.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Nothing New

Morlai,a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old-boy in class six, came over to me the day before yesterday to tell me he had a sore. I asked him where and he showed me his arm. On the back of his upper right arm was a u-shaped black scab. It was a little less than a quarter-of-an-inch wide and from end to end was probably four inches long. Pus was leaking out from under the scab. He had another, smaller, sickle-shaped scab on his forearm, also leaking pus. I asked him what had happened. I had to ask twice before he said under his breath, "My uncle."

"Your uncle beat you?"

A nod.



"That was three days ago. Why didn't you tell someone earlier?"

"I stayed home. It hurt."

"What did your uncle beat you with?"

"A cable."

"Was it hot?" I asked because the scabs seemed to me to be oddly smooth and uniform in color, like burn scars.


"Why did he beat you?"

"Some money was gone from the house."

"He thought you had taken it?"

"Yes, but I don't have it."

"Are these the only places he beat you?"

He stood up shaking his head and removed his shirt. On his back were several more small scabs, all sickle-shaped and leaking pus. He then pulled up his shorts and showed me four more of these scabs on his right thigh and lower buttock. Swelling had started around all of the scabs.

I cleaned around the scabs, gave him some plasters over the most exposed ones, and then gave him a little pain reliever. I then took him to his class teacher, Mr. Suaray, who said he would go to the police, which he did that afternoon. The uncle is a fishermen and is now away at sea for the better part of a week. The police agreed to look into the matter.

Monday, March 3, 2008


It's been a somewhat hectic few weeks, with rainstorms that have knocked down power lines and wreaked havoc with internet service in all of the various internet cafes I use. A big storm at the end of last week even tore huge holes in the roofs of both school buildings. Until new tarpaulins can be purchased, we are just hoping the dry season lives up to its name.

This is how the roof looks from inside Class 6. Rain clouds have moved over the area and storms are forecast for later today. In the end I think we will just have to manage, a favorite approach to just about everything around here.

Lunch continues to be served four days a week. The three cooks amaze me, cooking over open three-stone fires in incredible heat while Fatmata's year-old son, Nyake, crawls around all of the pots and pans without harm and occasionally makes his way to his mother's lap where he suckles while she peels onions or cleans fish or washes dishes. Three-year-old Mohamed keeps himself entertained pulling around an ingenious little car that Alhassan, Fatmata's teenaged brother, made for him out of a sardine tin, lollipop sticks and water bottle caps. Friends and relatives stop by; petty traders bring their wares in large tubs and the cooks take a break to bargain with them; children from neighboring houses run over to see what left-overs are available.

We are now serving rice and plasass separately. Plasass is the Krio word for the various sauces made of greens and fish or meat that are served here. We serve cassava leaf and fish, potato leaf and fish, crin-crin (I have seen the plant and eaten it, but have no idea what it's called in English) and fish, and black-eyed peas and fish. The teachers are unanimous that the food is delicious, and the children never leave anything in their bowls. Personally I feel utterly dehydrated after eating my bowlful: they use so much pepper and palm oil, which has a sharp taste. All of this is possible because of a donation from students at the Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There Are No Giraffes Here

Of course I knew I wouldn't see large wild animals in Freetown. There are baboons in the forests that cover the hills just outside town, but I haven't seen any yet since I've not been up into those hills. I have seen two small monkeys, but both had collars and were being kept as pets.

This is Africa, but I seem to forget that for long stretches of time, much to the amusement of people in the U.S. to whom I've mentioned this experience. I haven't seen any mud-hut villages or jungles or savannas - most people live in concrete buildings or corrugated zinc huts, the rainforest that once surrounded Freetown has been pretty well logged, and the only really wild animals I see are the birds and lizards that live in and around us humans, but can do with or without us. When I showed a carved giraffe to an eight-year-old local girl she asked me what it was. She had never heard of a giraffe, or rhinoceros for that matter. She was, however, familiar with goats and sheep and cows and pigs and chickens. Nevertheless, it is carved wooden giraffes, lions and elephants that petty traders try to sell to the tourists on Lumley Beach, selling an image of Africa that is hardly accurate except in a few places on the continent.

I suppose the situation is an obvious one, explainable in one word, westernization, but this is not a wholly satisfying characterization of the society I have moved into. Of course nearly everyone around me is black, and any one of nearly twenty languages is spoken around me, only two of which are European, and I am the object of everyone's stares and calls of, "White woman," or, "Apotho," the Temne word for white man. I know I am not in America, but this isn't the Africa I had imagined or even seen on television. That Africa hosts safaris and AIDS epidemics and wild animal hunts and famines and political turmoil, giraffes, lions and elephants.

There is not nearly as much that is exotic here as I seem to have expected. There is a laid-back feeling, yes, that is very different from any place I've ever visited in the U.S. or Europe, but laid-back does not mean slack. People speak in low tones and walk with straight backs and confident strides. Rarely is anyone in a hurry to do anything, which often means everyone waits around quite a lot for buses to fill up, for computer servers to start up, for electricity to come. Young men are respectful and polite. Even the ones wearing rhinestone-studded sunglasses and low-slung trousers apologize with care when they bump into me on the street. (They are also, for the most part, incredibly fit, almost all rippling with muscles - I elicited embarrassed giggles from the teachers when I pointed this out in amazement - and honestly since no one wears much clothing here because of the heat, it does sometimes feel as if I've arrived in the land of male underwear models.)

Women tend to be less visibly fit, though perhaps I am just not paying as much attention to them. Recently when I was demonstrating a form of wrestling to teach the children, I realized that Clarissa, our twenty-something first grade teacher is incredibly strong and that she could have lifted me up and thrown me to the ground if the need arose. I look around and see women carrying a heavy bags in each hand, a child on the back and a basin of goods on the head. These are women who wash all their household laundry by hand, carry water from community pumps and pound rice into flour with large mortars and pestles. Children are used to working and expect to be beaten if they misbehave. They are incredibly deferential to their elders, but can be equally as wild when they are roaming free, which is very often.

These people are not trying to be western in their thinking nor are they living an obviously traditional lifestyle. They are living in their time in their place with all the constraints and stories and music and customs and habits and turns of speech and freedoms and difficulties that living in Sierra Leone in 2008 entails. When I return to the U.S. I'll be lucky if I'll be able to say a complete sentence in Krio and I won't have many handicrafts to show off (most of the souvenirs I've seen are imported from other African countries or China) but I will have a wonderful sense of the resilience and vibrancy of life that are possible even in the poorest of conditions.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An Atypical Day Revisited

This morning I arrived at school early planning to take two children to the local clinic as both had mild fevers yesterday afternoon. Neither child was on time for school, but Bimba, the boy with the gash in his big toe, arrived in time to have me change his dressing before main lesson started. Abdullai, who always seems to have big sores on both of his shins from tripping while he is running, popped over to the mango tree, the site of most of my first-aid efforts, to see if I could give him new plasters for the three sores he had acquired yesterday. This was the same Abdullai who had taken me racing through Goderich village last week in search of keys and sick children. While I was changing his plasters he told me that he and Amadu (the one who was panting at the end of last week's adventure) wanted to take me on another tour of the village whenever they got some money. I thought this was quite funny and couldn't make out what the money was for, but Abdullai was serious, so I promised to find a day to go on a tour. The two children who had been sick yesterday appeared looking better, so I held off on taking them until tomorrow.

After classes had started, Mohamed, the three-year-old grandson of Fatu, one of the cooks, came over to tell me, "Ah have sore fut." Yesterday I had managed to convince him that my cleaning the small wound and putting a plaster over it wouldn't hurt, so I already knew his shin (what he called his fut) had a sore. I asked him if he wanted another plaster. He nodded yes, sat down and stuck out his leg. One plaster was not enough for him because his leg still hurt after I had applied it, so he received another plaster next to the first one. He spent the rest of the morning looking down at his leg. I suspect Mohamed will have lots more sore futs in the near future.

About half-way through main lesson, a girl from Class 1 came over to tell me, "Auntie's calling you." I knew this meant a child in the class was sick. One of the girls, Hawa, had a temperature of 104, and no one was at home, so I picked her up and carried her piggy-back to the clinic. She was nearly faint, though she gripped me quite firmly for the entire 20-minute walk - something local children seem to learn very early since that is how their mothers carry them almost from birth,though infants are usually tied on with a large cloth. When we arrived, I had to ask special permission to have her registered since the clinic generally accepts patients until about 8:30 only and it was nearly 10. When the nurse felt her neck, she agreed, quickly took her temperature and gave her a fever-reducer. I spent the next few hours waiting for blood test results and medicine and cooling down Hawa with a wet handkerchief. By 11:30 she was sitting up and asking to eat something, so I bought her two packets of cookies, one of which she promptly finished off. By the time we picked up her medicine - she was diagnosed with malaria - her fever was down and she was able to walk home, for which I was grateful since it was the hottest time of the day. I bought her some oranges on the trip home and just afterwards, one of the local poda-poda drivers pulled up beside me and offered to take us the rest of the way. Hawa and I climbed into the front seat, and Hawa seemed positively happy about her long day at the clinic, despite the malaria.

Friday, February 15, 2008

An Atypical Day, Thankfully

I was up and out of the house early this morning even though this is supposed to be one of my two days off in the week, because I knew I had to take care of a boy at school who had cut a gash in his left big toe on a piece of glass. Depending on how well it was healing, I planned either to change the dressing or to take him to the local clinic. I was hoping for the former because I didn't want him to have to make the half-hour walk to the clinic. I also knew that I had to find the oldest student in the school in order to take him to the government clinic in Lumley, the part of Freetown in which I live, because he had come down with a fever of 102 yesterday afternoon and probably had malaria. I couldn't take him to the local clinic, because they will treat children under 14 only. I knew it was going to be a busy day, but I hadn't expected it to be quite so breathless.

When I arrived at school I found that the class 6 teacher, Mr. Suaray, was out with malaria and no one could find the keys to his classroom. The big toe was better, though the gash was still huge, so I changed the dressing while the other teachers searched for the keys. When I had finished and told the boy to come to school tomorrow morning so I could change the dressing again, the keys were still nowhere to be found, so I set off with two class 6 boys, Abdullai and Amadu, to ask a student who had not yet arrived whether Mr. Suaray had given him the keys. And we were off... but then Idrissa in class 5 stopped me and handed me a black plastic bag filled with sweet cookies, bananas, a bottle of apple cider, a card and a plastic rose - my gifts for Valentine's Day. It was such a surprise that any of the children would be giving me gifts, but then the Class 2 teacher, Mrs. Bendu stopped me to give me another card from one of her children! I was overwhelmed. Then we were off in earnest, me lugging the quite heavy bag that Idrissa had so proudly handed over.

Abdullai, it turns out, is a very fast walker. He is a bone-skinny boy, about five-and-a-half feet tall, but his stride forced both me and Amadu to race to keep up with him and winded us both as Abdullai led us through the labyrinth of walls and houses, drainage ditches and proper roads on the way to Bassie's house, where we thought the keys would be. We weren't gone two minutes on the way before we met the first group of late students. We hurried them along only to meet another group just around the corner. We encouraged three more stragglers to hurry up and then met our first student who hadn't even bothered to dress to go to school today - most likely because it was a half day and no lunch would be served!

After about 10 minutes we spotted Alhaji, also in class 6. He was sitting on his front porch looking poorly and was not dressed to go to school. He told us his whole body hurt, he couldn't eat and he had diarrhea. I asked his grandmother whether I might take him to the hospital. She agreed, and I told Alhaji to get dressed and wait for us; we would return to take him to Lumley Government Hospital - it was by that time too late to get to the local clinic in time for their daily registration. Next stop was Bassie's house, but there was Susan in class 5, also not dressed for school, but obviously not sick either, though she vaguely claimed her stomach hurt. After reprimanding her and telling her to hurry up and get dressed, I turned to Bassie, a well-built boy of about 15 with a broad white smile he was not showing off for me this morning. Did he have the keys? No, he had given them to the class 3 teacher, Mrs. Taylor. Why wasn't he going to school? A sheepish smile with no teeth visible was the only answer. "Go to school, Bassie!" I called as I hurried to catch up with Abdullai, who was already on his way to Joseph's house. On the way we passed countless cooking fires with groups of women and small children around them, mostly just relaxing in the thin shade of their house's eaves as the morning heat grew.

Then Abdullai stopped short and said, "Look at Joseph!" There he was, Joseph, the oldest boy in the school sitting on a chair on his front porch, bent over in discomfort. Joseph has the muscles of someone who does hard labor for a living, which he does to supplement his family's income, but he is in school just about every day despite this. He is a handsome, confident young man who holds himself with pride and also has a broad, white smile when he is feeling better than he was today.

I greeted his mother and asked her whether I might take him to Lumley, she agreed, and I told Joseph to dress. He did so quickly, and Abdullai led us back to Alhaji. Amadu was by this time pretty worn out, but he kept up. Alhaji had not been able to change out of his torn and dirty clothes as his clean clothes were at his mother's house near the beach. We didn't have time for him to go get them, so I told him not to worry about his clothes and we headed off. He kept his arms crossed over his chest for the rest of the morning.

Abdullai raced us to the main road, where I dismissed him and the panting Amadu off to school with bananas and cookies from my Valentine's gift. My hair was plastered to my head with sweat at this point, but there was not much I could do about that. Joseph, Alhaji and I headed in the opposite direction to get a taxi to Lumley.

The first driver we asked was willing to take us all the way to the hospital, so we were off quickly, the three of us squeezed into the back seat of a compact sedan with another passenger. Alhaji sank down with his arms crossed over his chest and leaned into me for the entire thirty-minute bumpy ride.

The Outpatient Clinic at Lumley Government Hospital was very quiet and nearly empty, so we were able to register and be seen by the doctor immediately. They were both diagnosed with malaria; Alhaji also had worms. Cost Recovery drugs from the hospital pharmacy meant that I spent only le 8,000, about $2.50 for medication for both boys. We had to stop at another pharmacy for some more medication, but even these retail priced drugs cost only le 44,000 for both boys, about $15.

After going over again with the boys which medicines to take when, (Joseph is really old enough to be responsible about this for both of them) I bought them each 4 oranges and got them into a taxi to go home. I had to head in the opposite direction to downtown to pick up my extended residence permit, and it was only 10:20 a.m.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Gravel Crushers

The hill where they have built their tin and tarpaulin shacks is called Bololo. From its summit, Sugarland, where sand is mined from the beach, is visible as are the many fishing boats that pull into the crescent harbor down below.

It's a lovely hill, actually. The ocean is at its foot, and the wind blows steadily keeping the air comfortable and clean of the dust that suffocates the low-lying fields and roads. There are no trees left, just grass growing well over an adult's head, smelling sweet and moist even late into the morning. Shallow and deep pits appear suddenly as clearings in the grass. Some are smoking with small fires lit to force the bedrock to expand quickly and crack in a tracery that will allow the muscled young men to break the rock lying just below the topsoil into large chunks.

Women who look aged except for their eyes that tell their true ages to be in the twenties or thirties sit next to piles of these chunks and use sledgehammers to break them into still smaller chunks and form neat piles of stones all of a size. A few children are seated next to their own piles of the smallest rocks, hammers in hands. There is no shade. Other children criss-cross the hill carrying dirty plastic jugs of water from the pump down below and across the beach. Fishermen pull in their nets, and a few women are tending cassava and sweet potato patches half-way down the hill. Small fires for cooking are surrounded by the rock-breakers' and fishermen's huts. Old bags of woven plastic once used for grain, and tarpaulins left over from one of the United Nations refugee camps are now walls and roofs held down with large rocks, rusted tea kettles, and pieces of wood.

Almost everyone is barefoot and stares at me as I cross inexplicably through their settlement. "Kushe, kushe," easy smiles and warm welcomes from all sides. I am looking for a boy in class one whom I had brought home sick the day before. I find him, and he is better, no fever. I tell the parents I will return in the morning to check on him.

One of the boys in class two, whom I now discover lives in one of the huts with his father who is away fishing for a few days, spots me and yells my name, his bright white teeth all visible. He wants to show me his house, so we go to one of the huts, padlocked shut, and I wonder who has the key with his father away and his mother dead.

I ask him who feeds him and he tells me it is his father. "Did you eat chop today?" "No." "Yesterday?" "No." The answers are disappointing but no longer surprising. "I'm very hungry this morning, Auntie." And I nod my head. "Everybody say you carry pekin [child] to London." After I tell him that I don't live in London, but in America, I tell him I cannot take him with me because he has a father who loves him, but he is ahead of me, so I cannot see his reaction as he keeps up his rapid, lopsided pace on the way to school. He eats four of the five bananas I buy for him in quick succession and places the fifth one in his pocket for later. He shakes my hand when we reach school and rushes to a group of his classmates.
When he returns to Bololo in the afternoon, he will most likely be put to work with a small hammer breaking up the stones.

A week later, it is for him that I come looking in Bololo. He has missed nearly the entire week of school, and I find him huddled by a cooking fire, wearing a knitted hat and a jeans jacket in the ninety-degree heat. The left side of his face is swollen, he cannot open his left eye fully, and his ubiquitous smile is gone. His father has returned from fishing and reluctantly agrees to accompany me as I take his son to the clinic. Everyone in the community seems to feel that the free clinic run by an Italian NGO is more hassle than it is worth. According to them their children won't receive treatment unless I take them. I have been totally unsuccessful in convincing them otherwise, so I find myself at the clinic at least once a week.

The boy is diagnosed with malaria and given medicine. He is back in school in time for the start of free lunch, and within two days he is smiling again.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Photos of School Lunch

Here are some photographs of the third day of free lunch at the Goderich Waldorf School. On the menu was a "culture" or one-pot dish of rice, herring and cassava leaf.

Clicking on each photo will enlarge it.

Fatu and Mariatu, two of the three cooks, at the open-fire cooking operation

Saying Grace in Class V

Ready to be served in Class I

A Happy Eater in Class I

She was one of many

Already Eating in Class II

Waiting to be told to begin eating in Class III

Class IV Eating

Trouble's Brewing in Class IV

Class V

Class VI digging in

Class VI girls

Class VI boys

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lunch for Everyone!

We are trying to keep it a secret here in Goderich, because we know that once people hear we are serving free lunches to all of our students, parents will start pulling their children out of other schools to register them with us. It is probably already too late to try to keep the secret since nearly two hundred children went home yesterday to tell their parents that they would be receiving lunch every day but Friday, the half-day for Muslim prayers, until the end of the year.

It took a good bit of organizing to get this school feeding program started, but the need was so clear to everyone connected with the school that everyone I approached to work on it with me eagerly agreed. The teachers have been buying small snacks for their students nearly every day, and the women who sell the snacks in the school yard have been watching hungry children beg their classmates for small tastes. So the teachers organized the purchase of a large metal cooking pot and all of the serving utensils we would need; the women selling snacks agreed to do the shopping and cooking and washing up; and yesterday the children had their first regular school lunch: a one-pot "culture" of rice and a few cups of black-eyed-peas and smoked herring. I know it does not sound delectable, and it was not according to the teachers (I have a cold and hence no appetite at the moment), but the children scraped their bowls clean and asked for seconds until the pot was empty and there was none left for even the cooks.

I will post pictures later this week, once I have a chance to actually take pictures. I was busy yesterday delivering food and sorting out how much money we would need for today. Today I spent at the local clinic with a boy suffering badly from malaria, so I missed lunch today and will likely miss it tomorrow while I am at a meeting of national child protection workers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Spin Around Town

Sometimes my head spins with everything I encounter here in Freetown. A few items: A taxi abandoned in the middle of the road with a front tire completely off its axle and bearing a white card with a red L signifying the absent driver as a learner. The apprentice who climbs on top of the poda-poda to hold down sheets of plywood while the poda-poda is racing along the rough dirt road to Goderich. The screams of a child being beaten with a stick inside a house. Children eagerly eating dry cornmeal by the handful. The first avocadoes of the season. Mangoes twice the size I've ever seen them before and deliciously sweet. A beautiful full-moon evening on the beach. Crowds of toddlers and small children rushing at me on my walk home to hug me around the knees and thighs. Calls of, "White woman," "White baby," "American baby," and even "White man," following me down just about any street I walk. Dogs barking by the dozens in the middle of the night. The rumble of large generators. The sirens of the president's motorcade that clear traffic for him twice a day as he makes his way to and from work in his black SUV with the window down so he can wave to his people. Children selling water in plastic bags by calling, "Col wa ta de," as they weave in and out of traffic in the middle of a school day. The "characters" or innards floating in my goat pepper soup. Teenaged girls in sexy outfits walking up and down Lumley Beach Road in the middle of the night and getting into cars with men who pull up beside them. Garbage just about everywhere. A lovely cool breeze in the middle of a hot day. "Please, madam, sit up front," from the driver's apprentice on the poda-poda. "Ah de flog you!" from a boy armed with thin dry reeds he and his friends have gathered and with which they adorn themselves for pretend battle as they march past me. "Suzanne! How much o'clock we can come?" from the little girl in my compound who wants to visit me later in the day. The smile of a child who has been sick and is now better after a little care.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Local Pediatric Clinic

At eight in the morning there is already a crowd at the red metal gate waiting for the outpatient staff to arrive and begin sorting through who needs blood tests and who can be given a prescription, who will have to go to the hospital in town and who will have to return the next day. They are mostly women in their twenties carrying infants and toddlers too weak to walk. Colorful printed fabric about the size of a bath towel and tied across the mother's chest holds each child tightly against her back. Some of the mothers have dressed in their finest clothes, elaborately wrapping bright cloths or scarves around their heads, African style. The toddler girls are wearing party dresses full of tulle and lace in fluorescent colors. A handful of older children stand next to their mothers,everyone straight and tall and watching the gate.

It opens and they move roughly into the compound and around the corner to the covered outdoor waiting area with benches of moulded concrete painted with numbers to designate the occupant's place in line. No one pays much attention to the numbers, especially since there are two sets from one to tweny-five and there is no direction as to who should sit where. Instead each mother and child sits in a place out of the sunlight slanting in under the roof and already dry from the morning washing down.

The nurses come in with the crowd and reappear in their whites from changing rooms behind the waiting area a few minutes later. In a manner a teacher would use in a classroom, one of the nurses addresses the crowd of about thiry women and their children, a few fathers and their children, and myself. She tells them to pay attention. She then speaks in Krio going over the rules of conduct in the waiting area: children must use the toilets and not the floor, all garbage including food wrappers and fruit peels must be thrown in the waste bucket she is pointing out, if a child vomits or otherwise makes a mess there is a bucket of water and a mop the mother must use to clean up, cell phones are to be turned off. You may be asked to leave if you disobey any of the rules. "Are you listening to me?" she asks in Krio. When one of the younger mothers, looking no older than fifteen, fails to respond, the nurse points her out and asks again. "Yes, ma," is the accepted reply.

Then the nurse leaves and everyone waits. Babies are bounced on knees and passed around. One of the babies vomits on an admiring stranger, and the mother goes off to get the bucket. Cloth diapers under plastic guards are changed, at least one is in process at any time. Toddlers wander or just sit silently and stare and everyone knows that these are the very sick ones. There is a great noise of crying mixed with the tiny tinny voices of toddlers talking urgently to their mothers and the lower punctuated hum of mothers talking to one another.

After about half of the children have been registered by one of the nurses, another nurse appears and whispers in her ear. The first nurse then directs all the remaining children and their mothers to move away from the registration area and return to the waiting area. She then addresses the crowd and tells us that we are going to hear about planned parenthood. She calls on one of the mothers, who stands up and leads everyone in prayer. She then defines planned parenthood as spacing the birth of children so as to allow for adequate breastfeeding for each child. She says a baby every six years is the best plan. The nurse thanks her and announces that she will address the other issues related to planned parenthood, namely poverty and the proper education of children. This done, she asks whether everyone has understood. A chorus of "Yes, ma," satisfies her and she signals that registration will start up again.

This scenario has been repeated each of the three times I have brought a student here for treatment this week. I have come either because the parent does not believe the child will be treated without my presence or because the mother was away and the child left in the care of a teenaged uncle and an unattentative step-father. Each of these children was registered, then had his or her temperature taken and finally seen by a nurse practitioner who joked and teased the child into telling her what she needed to know. This same nurse practitioner also confronted me on my second visit asking why I had to accompany the parent and child. After I told her the answer, she proceeded to reprimand the father severely for not taking responsibility for his own child.

Between each of these steps was a wait of about forty-five minutes. After seeing the nurse practioner we were sent to the lab for blood tests, the results of which were given in between one and two hours. Two of the three students were diagnosed with malaria, one of these two was also identified as having sickle cell anemia, and the third was diagnosed with a probable case of parasites and stomach problems resulting from eating too much dry gari, shredded dried cassava that is the cheapest snack the students can buy at school.

All three children are doing better, most likely as much because they were given so much attention as because of the medicine they received. I also made sure each one ate lunch on the day of the visit. This place is a true blessing for the students at our school.