Monday, September 19, 2011

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.

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