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.