Friday, January 12, 2007


Christmas in Makeni

Christmas was quite eventful and thankfully at a slower pace with time to relax. Some of the VSO volunteers located in other towns like to come to Makeni and so they came to stay for a few days over Christmas. Most of the NGO people like to go to Freetown to “party” in nightclubs etc. but I really dislike the Freetown congestion and the confining shanty town atmosphere. Above all I don’t really feel that safe, and thus Makeni is a good small town compromise. Staying with us at Teko Road were Larissa who comes from a small farming community, Mile 91, and she helps to set up micro credit finance for farmers. I am quite interested to see how this works and I’ll go down to Mile 91 and see her. She gave up her job in the HSBC bank in London as a credit officer. Rachel is from the UK and works for a farmers association; Psyche is from the Philippines and is a researcher at the local post secondary school Fatima Institute, run by the Catholic Church, Jim from Ireland and also works at Fatima, Nola from Minnesota gave up her job at Accenture and works in Freetown along with Marianne from the Philippines. All have widely varying backgrounds but share a common motivation and this prompts some really good discussion. It’s also good to air one’s work problems with non-Africans.

Christmas Eve we all prepared a dish for pot luck and I contributed my specialty, cassava leaves with groundnut paste. You buy the leaves in bunches from the young girls in the market (100 leones 5c) and then I go for the luxury route and get them ground by hand (500 leones). Similarly the groundnuts (700 leones) plus grinding (200 leones). In one pot with both oil and water you boil for about ½ hour and throw in a cube, fresh peppers and a local spice called tola (really nice but HOT). The taste of the leaves is strong but a nice balance against a bland rice.

Marianne couldn’t bare the thought of Christmas without traditional turkey. So we went on a special expedition to the market late in the day and although not a turkey could not be found or heard of, there were still plenty of chickens - live. Bargaining late in the day is not a good idea and the price was high 12,000 leones ($5). What’s more the chicken was still alive with feathers and a head with eyes that look plaintively at you. Getting the chicken home was an experience in itself and quite a laugh but watching Marianne do the deed turned me into a vegetarian. I certainly couldn’t partake of the boiled chicken dish that she made.

Desert of my M and S Christmas pud was delicious albeit small but the fruit cake was a real hit. Others revealed their stash of much valued sweet things and even a mars bar was much coveted and shared.

I contributed to the evening entertainment with a film on my computer. The only one of a dozen or more that would run, was a classic “In the Heat of the Night” with Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. No one under 50 knew of the film (most people) but it was a hit and a great film to see again. We could all identify with the heat of southern Mississippi, and for later discussion was the issue of black people in America and how this affects Africans now.

There are surprisingly few Christmas trees or decorations to be found in Sierra Leone and so a green oil drum and some sticks decorated with coloured ear pugs made do very nicely. Gifts were found under the tree the next morning. The local crafts people did well. I asked a tailor to make up a blouse for Psyche ($5) and Rachel got her much needed round table ($10). I received most notably a nice wood carving.

Boxing day was really nice. It seems that a large part of Makeni traditionally spends the afternoon at the top of the local hill about 300 meters up. There a large all day party takes place with music, dancing, picnics, palm wine and generally socialising. I met several of my youth group members there as well as a number of other people that I knew shopkeepers, breadseller, my one legged tailor, radio repairer (he still cat fix my wind up), and even the cassava leaf grinder and a couple of the now familiar honda riders. I got to know the youth group leader Sullay his wife Kadiatu and assorted cousins really well and I spent much of the time with them. I left with them before dark 7pm but in any case the crowd became a bit raucous encouraged by over indulgence of palm wine and cannabis.

New Years celebrations were really noisy. I had a relatively quiet evening get together with Maria and Rachel and a nice local farmer friend David Ngobay, over a dinner. David gave me a thumbs up on the cassava leaves although he said he prefers it with fish. The New Year was ushered in by an outpouring of all the local youths driving around the streets, horns and music blaring in a constant all night wedding like parade. Earplugs were mandatory for any chance at a kip.

The holidays gave me a good chance to meet people in a relaxed setting, to laugh and chat about local and work issues, make plans and gave me the opportunity to let my short hair down. I seem to have done a great deal in the almost two months in Makeni and I have really enjoyed meeting new and interesting people. More importantly, going forward I don’t have to feel the restraint of looking at the M & S fruit cake on my table. From now on it’s simply fried plantain for desert. Actually it’s not bad.

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