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.