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.

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