Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hello, picture? Money?!

I’m not sure where I last left off, but I know it was a while ago. I have been in Ethiopia for over three weeks now and will soon travel to Uganda, where I will stay for the next almost two months. I spent two weeks in Addis Ababa, where I lived in Piazza (the neighborhood established for the Italians during their brief occupation and what is now the city center). Addis was an incredibly easy city to live in and I would rate it high on the happiness index for the people there. In Addis, I talked with a lot of organizations and institutions providing services for people with disabilities, particularly for the blind (there is an incredibly high rate of blindness in Ethiopia due to the prevalence of trachoma). Over the course of the conversations I couldn’t help but compare services for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone to those of Ethiopia. Here’s an example of the disparity: In Freetown, Sierra Leone, adults who become blind are referred to a local organization, The Educational Center for the Blind, for rehabilitation, which includes learning to read braille, psycho-social counseling, and skills training. To serve about 140 students, however, the Center only has two Perkins braillers and a few working computers with a demo version of JAWS (a screen reading program for the visually impaired); every forty minutes, the students have to restart the computers to continue using the program. Additionally, the government recently passed an affirmative action program to ensure the admission of qualified students with disabilities to institutions of higher education, but has no measures in place to ensure the successful completion of their studies (such as braille books or books on tape, ramps to make buildings handicap accessible, or sign language interpretation).
Coming to Ethiopia then, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large inclusive education office in the Ministry of Education, resource centers and computer labs (with fully functioning JAWS programs) for students with disabilities at Addis Ababa University (the largest and most respected university in the country), and research centers devoted to studying the experiences and needs of people with disabilities in the country. Despite the accomplishments of Ethiopian government and civil society relative to Sierra Leone, I must keep reminding myself that being relatively better does not mean being sufficient. Talking with people with disabilities, I hear a lot of stories of discrimination and social exclusion, frustration with the dearth of employment opportunities, and complaints about the poor maintenance of the resources that are available. One thing that does encourage and inspire me, however, is the sense of pride that radiates from many of the young people with disabilities that I meet or see about the city. I spend a lot of time in the Sidest Kilo neighborhood, which is the home of Addis Ababa University, the National Association of the Blind, and a majority of the “self-help” groups for the blind and deaf. The neighborhood is full of young deaf students signing together in cafes or outside classrooms and blind people walking together arm in arm with their white canes stretched in front of them. The presence of the young blind people walking together reminds me always of the derogatory saying we have in English of “the blind leading the blind.” Here, however, I think the motto of the disability rights movement as it relates to blindness should be, “When the blind lead the blind…things get accomplished!” Not only are there so many thriving organizations made up of people with disabilities working on their own behalf, but the obvious unity of the people with disabilities and their strong presence in a society that has traditionally excluded them sends a very strong message to the larger community.
Despite all that I have learned about disability issues in Ethiopia, I’ve spent most of my time (it feels like) being a lazy tourist. Last week, I took a 13-hour bus ride up to Bahir Dar, a beautiful city situated on Lake Tana and a popular destination on the tourist circuit through the Amhara region. Bahir Dar is known for the ancient monasteries situated on islands throughout the Lake. While I never made it to the monasteries, I did thoroughly enjoy being on the water! Lake Tana has great walking paths around it, public parks full of tropical flowers, and a huge market full of fresh fruits and vegetables. The highlight of the trip, however, was a day trip I took to Tis Abay, a village home to the source of the Blue Nile. After about an hour’s walk up a steep hill (which, due to a coincidence of timing, I walked with a nice man herding his donkeys up the path and over to a new patch of grass), you are left with a stunning view of three towering waterfalls. The best part is that there are no fences, so after walking down to the falls, I waded through mud directly to the source. Tis Abay was beautiful! But it was also my first experience in an undoubtedly touristy environment and the children in the area were the real indicators of that. The title of this post, for example, was a popular greeting I received from them. Other popular refrains were, “Give me pen/candy/bread.” and “Where are you from?...America! Wow, I have a coin collection; can you add coins from America to it?” It was actually kind of humorous and I got a kick out of their creativity.
From Bahir Dar, I traveled to Lalibela, which should really be added as one of the wonders of the world. The city is a holy pilgrimage city for many Orthodox Ethiopians and has 11 rock hewn churches (seriously, google it—it’s amazing!). Much like the Blue Nile Falls, there are no fences and people are allowed to just wander through the maze of tunnels that connect the churches deep in the ground and climb all over these incredible ancient stone churches. It is otherworldly how the churches start to feel like a giant playground for adults, but are simultaneously so strikingly beautiful that one can’t help but be moved by their significance. More than the actual churches, it is so interesting to witness how the local people interact with the churches and the giant tourist industry thriving around them. I’ve talked with a lot of young people who see tour guiding as their only viable career option, but their communities are only marginally gaining from the profits of tourism and are experiencing the brunt of the industry’s downside. For instance, the compounds surrounding the churches contain what must be hundreds of homes, but the families are being relocated to areas far from the city center to allow tourists a wider range of movement around the churches.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Good-bye, Hello

I’m sitting on my back porch overlooking Freetown on what is my final day with this view—tomorrow I fly to Ethiopia. I’ve been away from the States for almost two months now and it feels even shorter than that. I’ve always thought that I would feel like my Watson year is really beginning when I move to my next country, when I can start making real cross-country comparisons, and when I face the culture shock of moving between two completely new and different places. I guess that means the adventure is really beginning Wednesday morning when I land in Addis.

Sierra Leone has been a wonderful home the past two months and the past few days, especially, have been filled with fun times. The past week, I was able to attend a few official programs, like on September 21 for World Peace Day. I went with an organization that promotes disability rights through two cultural performance groups made up of people with disabilities to two different events. The first was a press conference for an initiative to donate 10,000 crutches to amputees and polio persons at about five sites across the country. It’s a pretty remarkable feat and was empowering to see people who had been using makeshift or poorly worn crutches receiving new ones. The second event was a program of reconciliation between two communities, where violence resulting in the death of a journalist occurred a few months back. One of the communities, Grafton, is home to a lot of persons with disabilities—whenever the government agrees to donate land to associations of persons with disabilities it is in Grafton (about an hour from downtown) resulting in camps of amputees and polio persons and a soon-to-be-constructed training center for the blind.

I’ve had playtime, too, though: This weekend, I went to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, River Number 2. It is a fairly long drive from downtown, but worth it. I went with some of my friends from Vision for the Blind, a wonderful organization I’ve been meeting with, and together we paddled across to a peninsula and enjoyed a wonderful stroll along the shore. Freetown doesn’t have too many tourist sites, other than the beaches, but I did visit Old Fourah Bay College. It was, I believe, the first university in West Africa. Now, it is an abandoned ghost of a building, but it’s really cool to see how people have built stalls and shacks around it, like it’s not an amazing historical site.

In the “Cradle of Mankind” (and the Yohannes Family)

Happy Orthodox Meskerem (Cross Day)! It is my first night in Ethiopia, on what was a somewhat spontaneous extended layover to my original destination of Uganda and, after only a few hours in the country, saying it was the best decision ever is not saying enough. Being in Ethiopia feels homey and familiar, but has also shown me how little I really know about the culture of half my family—I am overcome with a sense of urgency to learn as much about the nation and its people as I can and have realized very quickly that the month I’ve allotted here is nowhere near long enough for that venture.

Little did I know, I arrived in Ethiopia on a huge Christian holiday, Cross Day. I was relieved to discover this, because the city was nothing like I imagined and hoped for: the streets were quiet and empty, unlike the bustling chaotic metropolis I expected. It was a good day to explore a bit though and with a new friend, I saw a great deal of the city, including the National Museum, a monument to the 30,000 Ethiopian troops killed in defense against the Italian army, and the gate toSidest Kilo (my father’s alma mater).I also ate a delicious meal of injera (the national dish—a sour flatbread) and different stews, some of which were familiar and some completely new. Most importantly, I finally tasted tej, a delicious honey wine and what is now my favorite drink. With an endless supply ofinjera, tej, and the best coffee in the world, I am going to become a 400 pound alcoholic coffee addict in less than a month, but at least I’ll be in heaven!

Coming to Ethiopia from Sierra Leone is like traveling to another world and a prime example of how narrow-sided it is to essentialize African cultures, societies, and development. On first impression, it is striking how strong traditional Ethiopia culture and language is here. Since Ethiopia was never colonized (save for a few-year occupation by Italy that no one likes to acknowledge), the language of the dominant Amhara ethnic group has remained the prime means of national communication extending to the social, political, and economic arenas. Everything is in Amharic and already, I’m learning, it is somewhat difficult to find translations. This is probably the first country I’ve been in where I would not feel comfortable just blurting something out in English or French, assuming the person with whom I’m talking would understand. This is very different from Sierra Leone, where English and Krio (a pigeon English) are the national languages.

Another difference is the face of poverty here. It is difficult to explain, but I see a greater disparity in the socio-economic classes of the people I pass on the street here. The men and women, for example, sleeping in burlap sacks on the sidewalks stand in striking opposition to well-dressed healthy looking people walking by. In Sierra Leone, poverty is so extensive that everyone is touched in obvious ways—from open sores and limps to torn clothing. It might sound shocking to say, but a person begging homeless on the street in Sierra Leone does not look that much worse off than someone walking to a formal employment. In both cases, however, I am talking about the average population—both countries, of course, have great wealthy inequality (in Sierra Leone, for instance, they say that all the power and wealth is concentrated in 140 households).

On a more personal note, coming to Ethiopia is greatly significant. I hadn’t thought about the resonance of the journey until I was preparing to board my flight out of Sierra Leone. There was a group of refugees dressed in winter coats (despite the hot weather) and carrying official transit documents in the designated International Organization of Migration bags. I asked them where they were being resettled to and when they said Australia, I wished them a safe journey and wonderful new beginning, but then started to literally sob as I turned away. That moment felt representative of so many of the experiences that have shaped me and led me to seek out the opportunities I am now—working with refugees and on resettlement issues in the United States, listening to the stories of survivors of the Sierra Leonean conflict for the past two months, and coming from parents who maintain an incredible attachment to the homelands from which their families or they personally were driven. Although Ethiopia is not quite the land of my family, it is a country that has played a significant role in my family’s lives and served as a home to my father for many years. Meeting the refugees in the airport felt like the collision between one family’s new beginning and another family’s happy ending: a safe return home.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Home Sweet Home in Salone?

After traversing the country, I am back in my final destination of Freetown, the bustling capital city. I had a wonderful time traveling to three of the four provinces (unfortunately, I never made it to the far East and, learning the nuances and regional diversity of the country. Coming back to Freetown, it took me a few days to feel at home—like all big cities, there is a pace to which newcomers must adapt and people have a way of pretending they are too busy to befriend you. After a week here, I am feeling at home though. I’ve rented a room almost in the heart of downtown traffic (my idea of heaven) and am within walking distance of the state house, most of the organizations I’m interested in meeting, and all of the best markets. I spend hours walking every day and now have a pretty extensive mental map of the city, including all the street corners where I can find Nescafe (a morning necessity), foofoo (my new favorite food), and credit for my pay-as-you go phone. Additionally, an advantage to being in Freetown is that, due to the extreme institutional centralization in the country, everyone has a reason to come here for at least a few days at one time or another. This means that friends I’ve made all across the country are coming in and that I’ve had lots of familiar and kind company.

The title of this post, however, refers to the irony of today: just as I am feeling truly at home here, an evacuation notice was issued to a group of persons with disabilities illegally occupying a building downtown and with whom I’ve been spending some of my days. Following the war, there was mass migration to Freetown, which has created both a lack of affordable housing and employment opportunities (sound familiar?). Persons with disabilities have felt the brunt of this dearth and many responded by forming associations that squat abandoned buildings downtown. On May 11, 2011, the police attempted to forcefully evict a group of about 100 disabled youth from a building in what resulted in countless teargas, rubber bullet, and baton injuries among the youth and respected leaders in the disability rights movement. The necessary precursor to the youth’s moving has, however, not been fulfilled—they have nowhere else to go and so returned to the house. Now, the government is attempting to evict another building full of disabled youth, while again providing no alternatives. It’s really impossible to describe the sight downtown: literally hundreds of young persons with disabilities begging on the streets, because they lack the skills needed to obtain employment and society lacks the accepting attitude necessary to hire them.

Another event of significance to me took place this evening. I was out for a stroll when I passed a young boy crying with his back to the street. I stopped to ask him what was wrong and, between sobs, he explained that he had lost his money. It is common for children to spend their days selling small goods along the road (i.e. biscuits, batteries, and in this boy’s case, charcoal), particularly during the school holiday occurring now. A few people stopped after they saw me talking to the boy and he explained to them in Krio that 5,000 Le (or about $1.20) had fallen from the hole in his pocket and that he was afraid to go home, because he would be beaten. Just then, the passenger of an SUV stuck in traffic next to the scene rolled down his tinted window and handed the boy a banknote for 10,000 Le—problem solved or at least the short term problem of the boy’s daily earning. I feel like this event holds an apt metaphor for my personal experience living in Sierra Leone, as well as the lives of Sierra Leoneans. Personally, I’m good at recognizing when something is wrong and inquiring into the issue. But like what happened today—I was just out on an evening walk with no money to offer the boy and nothing I could really do to assist him otherwise—I feel like I lack the skills and certainly the funds to aid to the organizations and individuals with whom I meet. Meeting with the directors and project managers of various non-profits, I have few answers to their questions regarding accessing donor funds, creating strategic plans, and ensuring the sustainability of their projects. Currently, it is frustrating to be able to offer so little to these people who have been so kind and welcoming to me, but the experience has already taught me a lot about what skills and knowledge I want to make sure to access in graduate school and beyond.

As for the people living here, life is about surviving day-to-day for most and good days depend on a little luck, like making a decent sale or getting a handout from an NGO or individual, such as in the boy’s case. But at the end of the day, that’s just it, one more day has been successfully survived and there are still bigger problems needing to be fixed—the lack of formal job opportunities, illiteracy, or a hole in one’s pocket. For instance, violence broke out one week ago in the southern and eastern cities of Bo and Koidu between the two largest political parties (APC and SLPP) concerning their campaigns for the 2012 election. While the violence was relatively minimal, everyone is rightfully describing it as an early warning sign for potential electoral violence. People are making the apt point that many of the social and political tensions that sparked the decade-long civil war have not been substantially improved in the post-conflict state, particularly education and employment. For example, over 90% of youth aged 18 to 35 are unemployed, a fact that is clearly seen in the staggering number of idle young men peddling cheap goods along the road. These are the youth who could be easily corrupted into committing violent acts out of boredom and a lack of a future. So I wonder, after meeting the young boy today crying along the road, what sort of a future he will have and hope that a solution larger than a 10,000 Le banknote or even a patch for the hole in his pocket will find him.

Better Late than Never (written Sept. 3)

Greetings from Bo, a.k.a. “fine Bo,” Sierra Leone’s second city. I’ve spent just two days here on what was a fairly spontaneous trip to this southern destination. My plan in Sierra Leone had been to split my time between Makeni and Freetown. Instead, I decided to see as much of the country as possible in the rainy season (when travel is a little more difficult) and took off for the northern city of Kabala—a beautiful and pleasantly cool town nestled in the hills. Kabala really stole my heart. My good friend in Makeni is from there and offered to have his family host me. I stayed in their compound directly in the city center for a little over a week. It was incredibly easy to feel at home there—I spent many afternoons joking and cooking with the women living at the home, went with new friends into the town to watch football or dated American action flicks in the “cinema,” took long walks into the hills around the town, and was welcomed by the small disability rights community. I had the opportunity to visit some of the villages around the city with CARE International to see a theatre for development project they’ve just began to teach farmers about more sustainable rice cultivation. Most importantly, however, I celebrated Prayday in Kabala. Prayday is the end of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan and, because Sierra Leone has a large Muslim population, is a widely observed celebration here. The holiday is mostly for children—they dress in traditional attire and visit relatives and family friends for money (a more civil form of Halloween, if you will). For Prayday, I went on a morning walk and found myself surrounded by people dressed in their traditional clothes and all walking in the same direction. I followed the crowd and ended up at the central mosque, where I witnessed an incredible site of hundreds of people gathered together, praying, and singing. It was truly moving to witness their faith. Following the morning prayers, there was a festive spirit in the air—music and dance in the streets, treats being sold, and everyone out enjoying themselves.

On my birthday (August 31), I left Kabala and spent the entire day traveling to Bo. It is not too far a distance, but travel requires changing vehicles multiple times. From Kabala to Makeni, I took a taxi—the standard public means of transportation with three or four passengers squeezed together in the front seat, and four in the back of a standard sized car. In Makeni, I visited my friend, whose family I stayed with in Kabala, and ran into some other friends traveling to Freetown. They offered to give me a ride to the junction 2 hours from Makeni, where I would pick up a vehicle directly to Bo. Already exhausted from the hot cramped journey from Kabala, I was so thankful for the chance to ride in their comfortable SUV and wear a seatbelt! Once at the junction, it took a few hours to get a vehicle to Bo (the car does not travel until it is full). Interestingly enough, the final passenger to arrive was a man with a disability traveling with a wheelchair. Normally, every passenger pays a head fee to travel plus an additional fee of about 2,000 to 5,000 Le for baggage. The driver, however, wanted to charge this man the standard head fee (20,000 Le) plus an additional 25,000 Le for the wheelchair—outrageous and far more than any average Sierra Leonean could afford! This interaction really illuminated what many of my interviewees have been saying: there are no mechanisms here to protect the rights of people with disabilities, no social securities that make the living conditions of people with disabilities equal to those of their able-bodied peers. When I protested against the unfair cost of travel, the driver simply responded that he “has a family to feed.” We negotiated the price down to 28,000 Le for the man and his wheelchair.

In Bo, I am being hosted by the grandparents of another friend from Makeni. When I arrived in Bo around 8 p.m., the couple’s grandson met me at the taxi stand. At their home, I was given a delicious meal of tea and plantains followed by a bucket shower with heated water—a wonderful end to a long day of travel and what felt like a real birthday treat. I had been terribly nervous about traveling on my birthday, because my birthdays are kind of infamous for having things go memorably wrong. I have no complaints about this year though; I didn’t really celebrate, but felt a lot of indirect birthday warmth from friends calling to checkup on my travels and the kind welcome I received at my final destination. Living in Bo now feels very different from its northern counterparts of Makeni and Kabala—it is much more of a metropolitan city with electricity and even supermarkets that sell imported goods. There are also quite a few projects going on by way of disability rights, which will keep me occupied for my time here. I’m looking forward to getting to know the city and then traveling on to Kenema in the east and, finally, Freetown.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reflections on Makeni

After nearly three weeks, my time in Makeni is drawing to a close. It has been a three weeks well spent—something of which I am reminded when I hear people yelling “Hello Fatmata [my Sierra Leonean name]” as I walk through different neighborhoods, when I return home and can’t imagine a better way to spend my evening than chatting with my house mates and increasingly close friends for hours, or when I look back on my notes of all the organizations and individuals with whom I’ve talked. Yes, Makeni has been a good home and the last few days have been especially fruitful…

One of the things I am trying to personally improve on is becoming more flexible. This past weekend was a great exercise in remaining flexible and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. Friday evening, for instance, at a local hangout spot near my house, my housemate introduced me to his close friend, who works as a human rights monitor for the National Commission on Human Rights. The next day, I was riding with my new friend on his motorbike—the preferred means of transportation here—when he abruptly pulled over to visit some friends at a newly constructed residence center for 100 polio survivors. He introduced me to the Secretary General of the center, chairwoman, and some of the other residents. They invited me back on Monday and I spent the better part of the day there talking with the residents, observing their skills training courses (they learn paper bead making, tailoring, shoe making, and mechanics), getting fitted for a custom pair of sandals, and even being interviewed myself! The Secretary General, as it turns out, has a national radio show called “Voice of the Voiceless.” He interviews different, mainly disabled peoples organizations and discusses topics they raise, such as inclusive education or employment opportunities. Well, he wanted to interview me for the show. I was hesitant at first, but allowed him and it was a lot of fun. We talked about the organizations I’ve been working with, my key findings, what I see as the future of Sierra Leone’s disability rights movement, and opportunities for people with disabilities in the United States.

The other spontaneous and positive experience of my weekend occurred Sunday morning. I was out walking and got terribly lost looking for a church I promised to attend with a friend. I ran into the Chairman of the Bombali Amputee Association, whom I’d met last week. On his motorbike—of course—he offered to give me a ride to try and find the place. When we had absolutely no luck, he offered to take me to another church in Panlap, just outside of the Makeni city limits. The church was a fun and incredibly long experience, but had good music and dancing. Afterwards, he introduced me to the Paramount Chief and took me to his home, which is located in one of Panlap’s two camps for the war-wounded and amputee community. He showed me around and invited me to attend the practice of two of the camps groups he’s involved in this Saturday: the amputee football association and the drama troupe. It was a lucky and completely unplanned day.

Of all that I am learning and being exposed to here, there are two things that continue to astound me more than anything else: the absolute lack of educational opportunities and the astronomically large population of blind people and polio survivors, the junction of the two being the people with disabilities and their family members forced to beg on the streets. Since the civil war in Sierra Leone, which ended in 2002, the country has become very well known to the international community for the large number of people left disabled due to the prevalence of amputation as a tactic of war. Coming to Sierra Leone, I expected the war-wounded and amputee population to be the focus of my research here and, while this is no doubt a large population, I have been astounded to see how prevalent blindness and polio are, as well as how neglected these forms of disabilities are in national responses to the needs of the Sierra Leonean people. In one interview I even learned that, although many people were blinded by the civil war, the government refused to register people blinded as a result of conflict for post-war reparations, saying that only amputees were entitled to the money. It took a lot of advocacy by national organizations for the blind to get them included in the post-war assistance plans. Although people with disabilities are identified as one of the most vulnerable populations, services and resources for them are continuously neglected or, at the very most, initially funded, but not maintained. I have seen this over and over, particularly in regards to special schools for children with disabilities or the children of parents with disabilities.

Nationally, education is an enormous problem. Although the government has made education compulsory, there are many children who slip through the cracks due to, for example, obligations to monetarily assist their families. There is also a staggeringly large number of orphans, who do not have anyone to pay their school fees or whose education was interrupted during the war and now lack the necessary education or even the most basic skill training to subsist. People with disabilities are particularly affected by the dearth of educational opportunities and, often lacking a skill or trade, are dependent upon street begging for survival. One of the most common scenes here is a young child guiding their blind parent through the streets, both of their hands outstretched for money. What often happens then, is that the child of the person with a disability cannot afford to attend school and learns only a life of street begging, thus begetting the family’s poverty. As a result, the elimination of street begging, the restoration of the dignity, and the fulfillment of the rights of persons with disabilities are almost always the goals of the disabled persons’ organizations with whom I meet. Through skills training programs for adults with disabilities, lobbying, and community sensitization campaigns the organizations try to build alternatives to street begging. As the Chairman of the Disability Awareness Action Group told me, “I do not want my child to resent me for being disabled.” It is a hopeful beginning to what is becoming a very strong disability rights movement in the country, but that remains humble in the face of the tremendous bounds the country must make before true equality is reached. Just today, I ran into a blind teacher at a school for the blind I recently visited. He was in the streets begging with his son. When I realized that even an education man with a job is forced to take to the streets, I was left speechless. I will be curious to follow-up with decision makers about national priorities. Because I do not yet know that much about the situation facing the state of Sierra Leone, I do not want to immediately point a finger at the government for not doing enough to efficiently assist people with disabilities after the conflict. I am left to wonder, however, if the government is not accountable to the group they have identified as the most vulnerable, to whom are they accountable?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Settling in among the Northern Winds

Hello from the very rainy season of Sierra Leone! As of today, I have been in the country for a little over one week and am comfortably settled into Makeni. It is actually shocking to say that I have only been here for about one week, because sights, smells, and sounds are becoming very familiar. I spend most of my free time exploring the city, but when I walk the streets I normally take to Caritas, the market place, or the other organizations that I frequently visit, I have begun to notice the many layers that make up the scenes. My first few days in the city, I could not for the life of me figure out where people ate meals, bought more credit, visited with friends, etc. Now, I see that it was in front of my eyes the entire time—I guess I just had a lot of mentally adjusting to do. The answer to where all of these things take place is right on the streets, making them incredibly interesting to spend hours walking. Women sit on the side of the road—in makeshift stalls or on benches resting on the gravel—selling rice and different sauces, such as cassava leaf or potato leaf stew, groundnut stew, or fried soup, etc. For about 2,000 Le (or 40 cents) you buy a big plate of the dish and sit with her for as long as it takes to quickly spoon the food into your mouth. While doing this has become my daily lunch routine, the funny thing for me is that it is mainly men who eat in these stalls. They are taking a break from work or living on their own and not cooking for themselves. As a result, the lunch time conversation can range from how good the food is to confessions of their unwavering love for me. Depending on my mood, it is or is not entertaining.

Between these food stalls are other stalls and makeshift stores—mechanics, electricians, phone charging huts, tables with crackers and popcorn, soap makers, and on and on. While I try and find a different place to patron every time I need something, I have nonetheless found my favorites: the man who makes delicious “bean salad” (or ful beans mixed with ketchup, mayonnaise, a homemade sauce, and spaghetti noodles), a hut that broadcasts all the big football games (you pay 1,000 Le or about 15 cents and watch the games with the liveliest audience you can imagine—I saw the Arsenal game this Saturday and Manchester United vs. Manchester City on Sunday), and a phone charging and electrical repair hut with an apprentice who contracted polio as a child and whose studies at the hut are now sponsored by one of the organizations I’ve shadowed. These pleasant and sometimes scary—like when the motorbikes that fill the roads try showing off over the muddy pavement—street scenes make up my day. Life here has taught me to appreciate small things, like drinking coconut juice straight from the shell (which is great for rehydrating after a long day of walking), the sound of rain pounding our tin roof, and responding to greetings in Krio and Timne as I walk down the street.

While these wanderings make up a large part of my day, the larger part is spent with disabled peoples organizations and other service providers to people with disabilities. I’m spending the majority of this week with Daniel, a wonderful young advocate for the blind and the heart behind Vision for the Blind’s office in Makeni. Vision for the Blind has offices in Freetown and Makeni and does a lot of advocacy and sensitization work, but most notably provides training to blind people in soap making, carpet weaving, and gara tie-dying, a form of tie-dying particular to Sierra Leone. This week, Daniel is taking me to some of Vision for the Blind’s partners across Makeni. Yesterday, we visited the YMCA and The Future in Our Hands, both of which sponsor students to attend the training courses, and a school for the children of people with disabilities. Because people with disabilities have been almost fully excluded from the formal sector of Sierra Leone, including income generating schemes and education, they often lack the ability to pay for their children’s school fees and uniforms. This school provides education to the children free of charge through their primary schooling. Unfortunately, like most local organizations in Sierra Leone and those relating to people with disabilities in particular, the organization does not receive government assistance and its operations are on a year-by-year basis pending donor funding.

Then today, I spent the morning at the YMCA, where program managers were interviewing 114 applicants for a skills training program for the most vulnerable of youth, including ex-combatants, children orphaned by war, commercial sex workers, and persons with disabilities. They will narrow down the applicant pool to a final 75 students for the Makeni field site, with three other sites operating across the country. It’s amazing to see the work the YMCA does here, when I’ve always associated them with a gym in the U.S. Then tomorrow, I am going with Daniel to visit the amputee and war-wounded resettlement camp, a school for blind children, and an organization that does skills training for women with disabilities. While I have had positive experiences doing research on the services for people with disabilities in Makeni, the hardship of the research has been encouraging people to talk beyond the static line they are used to giving donors. People here are fluent in the language of development and easily speak the jargon that entices donors to initiate funding in their projects. Most are shy to admit there are any gaps in their work, however, which means that I have to do a lot of reading between the lines. Luckily, I’ve been able to meet a lot of the beneficiaries of these different programs, who give a more honest perspective on the quality—both good and bad—of the various projects implemented on their behalf.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fatmata Discovers Salone

Hello from the rolling hills of Salone! It is my fourth full day in Sierra Leone and I am settled into Makeni, the third largest city in the country—a mere 3 hour drive from the capital, Freetown, via public transport. I will be in Sierra Leone for two months (one month in Makeni and one back in Freetown) before venturing off to adventures in East Africa. The fellowship funding this opportunity seeks to promote independent exploration—the opportunity for individuals to pursue a research project they are passionate about, but with the caveat that they must do it abroad for exactly 12 months and that the project must be entirely self-designed and independent. What I have learned (and what I think the masterminds behind the fellowship hope for us to learn) is that it is not possible to truly be alone despite exercising independence. Along my short journey thus far, I have been met with nothing but the warmest welcomes, generosity, guiding hands, and hospitality.

I was met at the airport in Freetown in the official vehicle of the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues, which then took me to the Don Bosco compound on Lungi peninsula. The SL airport is located on this peninsula, which is about a 45 minute ferry ride from Freetown. I stayed the night at the compound with a wonderful group of individuals, some from the Union and some from the Don Bosco foundation. We shared food and in the morning, they took me on a tour of the schools the mission runs for children and a tour of the larger Lungi community. I then went to Freetown, where my friends from the Union took me to their offices on Fort St. to meet the other members of the Union and the other disability organizations nearby. Coincidentally, the hostel in which I would spend the night was located next door. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city on my own –I came across market after market, slums, the National Museum, the White House (a.k.a. State House), and other government buildings. In the evening, I met some great guys staying at the hostel and in the nearby community. They treated me to my first SL beer—Star, a local favorite—and we spent the evening on the balcony overlooking the city, as they told me about life in the city.

The next day, I decided to travel to Makeni early after doing my first few interviews with the founders of Disability Awareness and Action Group (DAAG). I thought I would take advantage of being next door to their office! Luckily, I ran into my friend from the night before after the interviews, who was able to take me to the “Shell,” where I could catch a shared taxi to Makeni. I say luckily, because there is literally NO WAY I could have found this place! We walked for about an hour through markets, across private property, dodging government vehicles and poda-podas, until we finally stopped. I asked if we had arrived and he looked at me like I was crazy—no, this is where we would catch a vehicle to go to the place where I would catch another shared vehicle. Ohh. After arriving, I had no problem getting a vehicle to Makeni. Upon arrival in Makeni, I was met by my new housemates, who work with our landlord at a mental health project sponsored by the E.U. They also picked me up in a fancy black SUV and took me to the house. I have my own room and a shared bath with a guy working at a microfinance office and another researcher from Cote d’Ivoire. Then there are about 4 others living there and working on the mental health project. I have had a lot of fun getting to know them so far. Like last night for instance, we sat outside during a rain shower drinking palm wine (another local favorite) and debating the future of African leadership. I feel like I have finally found my people and believe me, debates never got so lively at Macalester!

Yesterday was my first day of research in Makeni. The driver for the mental health project took me around to a few organizations and schools for children with disabilities. I made some good contacts and met some wonderful people. In the afternoon, I stumbled upon Caritas while walking. I decided to stop in to see what they do here and they offered to let me use their office as a base. As if any American’s dream has come true, I have internet, a nice desk to put my things in and the opportunity to accompany them on fieldtrips. In return, I am helping them with a few projects, like editing reports and working on a strategic plan for the self-sufficiency of their projects. Not a bad deal as far as I’m concerned.

I suppose the point of fairly detailed account of my first few days is to express how thankful I have been of people’s willingness to open themselves up to me. I have met some amazing people already and am excited to continue fostering these relationships. It is interesting to see how far a little openness can take a person…