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…

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