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.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No Better School Today

Don't let any school-aged child read this post. It is common knowledge that the first week of school after a holiday is not real school, so you don't have to show up. That is what I've been told after inquiring what it meant when students I found working the market or simply wandering the streets of Goderich this week told me they weren't in school because, "No better school today." Indeed - and this you really shouldn't let school-aged children see - teachers around here spend the first week reviewing material from the previous term. This is as true at the Goderich Waldorf School as it is at any of the government or parochial schools in Freetown that I have heard about.

More inspiring was our most recent faculty meeting during which we outlined a new schedule that will reduce class periods from a grueling one hour to a more manageable fprty-five minutes, with a longer morning break built in. For those who know what a main lesson is, you'll be glad to hear that we also reduced that period from two-and-a-half hours to only two hours. It gave us time for a third special subject. The faculty also agreed to allow the children in Classes I and II to have free play and games during the period between lunch and dismissal and to organize the schedule so that older students could have academics in the morning and arts and games in the afternoons. I have to admit that creating a schedule for a faculty of six is ridiculously easy compared to the artful application in their correct proportions of calculus and alchemy required to create a schedule for the Rudolf Steiner School, where there are upwards of sixty faculty members.

And so we make a slow start into the second term of the year, but there is a great deal to anticipate. On Monday, a local craftswoman will begin teaching bead work to all the classes. The girls and boys football (that's soccer, of course) teams will continue their after-school training through the rest of the year. And, among other things, plans are moving quickly for the new school to be opened at a new site next September. As with any other academic year, I am full of energy for the reopening of the school, and the cool weather brought in by the harmattan winds has contributed greatly to my generally positive outlook.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Source of Medical Care Located

While sitting in an Internet cafe near my house on Christmas Eve, I met an Australian doctor who had driven here in his 25-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser from India (after shipping it there from Australia). It took him a few years in which he often stopped for several months in one place to work before moving on. He said he planned to continue making his way around the perimeter of Africa over the next few years, but that he intended to stay in Sierra Leone for a while. He said he thought it was an exciting place at the moment (I imagine he was referring to the country-wide efforts to recover from the civil war) and that he wanted to work at a local hospital. He had even identified one in Goderich, not far from where the Goderich Waldorf School is. It is called Emergency Hospital and is run by an Italian NGO called Emergency that provides medical services among other things to civilians affected by war. After I told him a little about our school and the medical issues we have been facing, he suggested I go visit the hospital because he knew they were due to receive a pediatrician soon.

That was over a week ago, and I finally visited the hospital the day before yesterday. It is about a thirty-minute walk from school along dusty roads that are at the moment being prepared for paving, so I was relieved to step inside the hospital compound where the air was relatively dust-free.

Inside the compound the walls are whitewashed, with the red accents of the Emergency trademark. Lovely flower gardens are planted in between the one-storey concrete buildings that house the various wards, an operating room, a kitchen, a classroom, and offices for the staff, both international and local.

When I entered I asked at the reception booth just to see about making an appointment with an administrator, but was promptly introduced to one of the office staff, an Italian man who in turn introduced me to an Australian nurse who gave me a full tour of the hospital. Only five minutes into the tour, she told me that they provide free medical care to all patients under fourteen in addition to free surgical care for all patients. I asked if that included medication, holding my breath already because I could hardly believe it could be true, and she matter-of-factly replied, "Yes, but please do not think we can give your students any special treatment. We have many children here every day and cannot put your children ahead of the others in line...." I had already stopped listening and begun waving my hands so she would stop and I could tell her that the sheer availability of free and reliable medical care was an incredible boon for our school and that we would have no trouble behaving ourselves when bringing students there.

I went on to tell her that we had been using the local Arab clinic, and she nodded in understanding when I expressed my reservations about the quality of the care. Although the nominal charge for consultation made the clinic very appealing to the school, the consultations never lasted for more than a few minutes, and the diagnoses were always malaria and typhoid without so much as a blood test to verify. The patients were then given a prescription for about nine different medications to be filled at the pharmacy, where a charge of about fifteen dollars for a bag full of medicine was the norm with every student we took there. There were no directions or cautions printed on any of the medicine wrappers, but given that most of the parents are illiterate, that was not likely to have made much difference. It was the speed with which the medicine was handed over and the patient sent off that always left me somewhat concerned. There was no follow up by the doctor, and I myself was left in the dark by the pharmacist's rapid-fire approach to explaining in Krio how to dose the patient with each of the medicines. I have to say, however, that despite my reservations, all of the students we took there have returned to school looking and feeling better within a few days. The nurse at Emergency looked at me skeptically when I told her this last bit and said they were always treating people who had been seen at the Arab Clinic and not treated properly.

In the end, it is really a wonderful development for the school, and I cannot wait to report it to the faculty on Monday. I have also been given some leads on funding for a school feeding program through the World Food Programme and an organization that might be able to treat a boy in Class VI who has cataracts in both eyes. When things happen in this way, I feel very fortunate to be here.

A Postscript:
I have been making rather snide remarks about the reliability of the Sierra Leone Post Office while waiting for a few packages sent from the U.S. in early November to arrive here. I had made all sorts of speculations about postal workers not being paid (which is true, it turns out) and therefore giving into the temptation to open and loot packages from abroad, which in my case, at least, was not true. Yesterday I traveled alone for the first time into downtown Freetown to make a last-ditch effort to locate the packages, the contents of which I assumed were already scattered throughout the markets of Freetown.

When I arrived inside the dark hall of the Post Office, I was quickly directed by several very helpful people to the Customs Office, where three more very accommodating gentlemen located the records for the receipt of each of the packages, reissued package slips for me, found my packages in the storage room, rushed me through the customs procedure, carried my packages down to the street, hailed a taxi for me, and even helped me haggle with the driver over the fare to my compound gate. I was nearly breathless with gratitude and exhilaration at receiving the packages, but felt terrible guilty about all of the disrespectful things I had said about Sierra Leonean postal workers. I nearly apologized in the Customs Office, but I was never at any point in the whole process very clear about what was happening, and I did not want to upset anyone before the packages had arrived. After they arrived I was whisked so quickly out of the building and into a taxi that I had no time to make my confession.

It seems I am still learning that there is a great deal that is trustworthy and reliable in this country.