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…