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.