Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Back in business

I am back in blogging business. Sorry for the absence but my camera was stolen and I was really quite upset. Thanks to John O’Bryan for magically winging a new one to Freetown via a few other places. The photo is me relaxing in Freetown last weekend.

The past few weeks have been quite eventful mostly at work although a few other projects have progressed quite nicely as well. I don’t think I have worked harder in my life and under such stressful conditions. It seems though that the greater the challenge or impossibility to many, the greater is my satisfaction. A good psychologist is obviously needed, and this doesn’t need any comment from those that know me.

The recent overriding element here is the incredible heat and intense sunlight. The sun is pretty much overhead now and we havnt had any rain for over 5 months. Sweating in 40C has become a way of life. People bring a small flannel or towel to work and even attend meetings placing their towel easily to hand on the table, ready to wipe. It’s really comical but quite acceptable. Regular shirts are impossible to wear since they become drenched in ½ hour. I wear much more comfortable and free flowing African shirts. I drink about 5 litres of water per day and spend a lot of time boiling and filtering in the evening. The dry season here is harsh and brings additional problems of disease. Finding water is quite difficult now; wells are running dry and people will use poorer quality water that is likely to carry disease. Only a few can afford the filter I use in addition to the fuel or wood needed to boil the water. All of this dryness is surprising since I have read that Freetown is the wettest capital city in the world with over 3500mm per annum. The wet season starting in May must be incredible.

My task at work has been to mobilize revenue for the City Council at Makeni and the people seem pretty pleased with the results so far. Someone (I think Suzanne) asked me why it is a good idea to tax poor people and as a corollary how does this alleviate poverty. Good questions. Simple answers though. Services such as health, education, sanitation are expected to be provided by local municipalities. At the moment much of the effort comes from the NGO community with questionable results and they will gradually pull back. An effort however small by the community to raise revenue locally will be recognized by donors at IMF / World Bank and instead of funding NGOs they will be more inclined to assist and fund Government effort directly. Thus I have been working at installing a simple but progressive taxation system. I’ll explain the professional side in a more detailed blog later but thus far we have raised about 150 Million Leones locally this year or about $60,000 compared to about $5,200 in the whole of 2006. People here are pretty pleased and so am I.

These taxes are tiny amounts of dollars but in Sierra Leone the money stretches a long way. People survive here on literally $1 per day per family. I know since I pay some of them. My chief valuation officer with 30 years experience earns just $208 per month and this is considered a valuable job to which many aspire. I am training a computer literate fellow, Adikali to become a valuation officer and he has 4 years of work experience with Makeni City earning now $60 per month. It is just incredible. Many, and I would say more than 50%, are out of work. Nonetheless somehow people do survive. The survival spirit is incredibly strong and brings a good supportive community and family spirit that seems to be much more attractive to me compared to the rather more individualistic and meanness of the western world today. Social problems here are many but there is a genuine desire and effort to help others that I find very attractive.

Among other projects that I have been able to get involved with, I have pushed ahead with the local library. There wasn’t one when I arrived and with the literacy rate at only 26% this seemed like an obvious advantage. The EU (European Union) had recognized this and funded the building which was completed about 12 months ago. However the budget and planning did not include furnishing nor books, an incredibly ridiculous situation. The remaining work was the responsibility of the Makeni Council and without money, an impossibility. My discussions with the EU representative here Paul Giordani ended with his statement “I am very sorry”. Some Canadian funding paid for the shelving, tables and chairs etc all made locally and for about $2,000. This was delivered last week along with some books from the Sierra Leone Library Board via CARE a large NGO. The Board is delighted with the results and they have sent a librarian. Hopefully the opening will be soon. I have announced all of this on the radio (my weekly community radio slot – Paul Kaloop) and people are anxious for the opening. Another NGO Action contre la Faim will donate computers. The central government have allocated an operating budget. I am pretty pleased so far although we still need more books.

I have spent a quite a bit of time in Freetown meeting various people to assist with resources for the revenue projects in Makeni. I am off again today for two days with the City of Freetown who want to install a similar system. There is a good social scene there along with a nice beach nearby. Also some restaurants where I can get more than hummus and chips that appears to be the only menu item available in Makeni. There is a sizeable community of Philippinos and they love to Karaoke even encouraging me to make a fool of myself (under some alcoholic influence) singing Roy Orbisons “Pretty Woman”. Quite a laugh.

Over the Easter weekend a few of the VSO volunteers went traveling up to the north of the country near the Guinean border, to a town called Kabala. A small sleepy town nestled in a valley with some lovely hills and with a 2,500 ft high elevation that makes the temperature appreciably cooler. Local fruits and vegetables are plentiful here as there is more moisture around and less heat. A huge crop of mangoes, avocados as well as garden farmed cabbages, lettuce and carrots. We stayed at the ½ star guest house in town and gladly paid the $8 per night for a room with running water and a generator for a few hours. The town had suffered significant damage during the war and not much had been repaired. However the people are very friendly; different tribes of mainly Fullah but Kuranko, and SuSu. We even met an American PHD student studying rare buffalo in the nearby Loma Mountains – don’t ask why - and he served us a real cup of coffee – Starbucks no less. It was interesting to chat and relax.

Off to Freetown now. The taxi or poda poda trips seem almost routine now. One of the German fellows at UNDP has challenged me to a game of squash tomorrow. I’ll write a blog.

Great to see that the camera and the blog is going again! Looking forward to future news from sweet Makeni.
Hey Paul,

Glad to hear things are going well. When are you travelling back to Canada? I'll be out East hopefully by mid May. Looking forward to all your stories!

All The Best,
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