It is now closing in on the end of May and only one month until my sojourn in Salone is at an end. I have very mixed feelings about leaving and I am somewhat nervous about the reverse culture shock, in particular the living conditions. I have become comfortable living here among the very poor and I wonder how I will be able to adapt to the “first world” again. As I walked back home this evening from the market I met so many people with whom I normally stop and chat. I will miss them and I realize that I have become very much a part of the community. Several commented that they looked forward to council hour on the radio tonight and they were upset when I told them to tune in next week since I was tired “O‘bekimee”. I am now at home having just finished my jollof rice and groundnut paste and with the candles lit, I’ll jot this blog
The rainy season starts around now and if last night was just a taster I am pleased that I will miss the serious stuff in July and August. The rains are popularly welcomed though, since all of the wells are pretty dry and the water quality is poor. Also the temperature eased back a few degrees this morning and the streets were noticeably less dusty. Freetown on the coast apparently has the reputation as the wettest capital in the world with some 3.5 metres of precipitation and this all falls within about 4 months. I cant imagine.
I spent a couple of days in Freetown again last weekend and I am getting to be a regular traveler although it is a dreadful journey. Freetown is also such a cramped and squalid place but my project in Makeni needs a computer application and some co-ordination with the central government. The application is being built by people at a branch of the UN in Freetown. They have also supplied me with some excellent mapping and GIS services. The application needs testing now and so I have left this with the valuation officer. I am a bit worried since he has been away from work for a week with an illness; quite a common occurrence here along with bereavement. The testing will have to wait but my departure date wont and I’ll have to find another way. In Freetown I was looking forward to one day of r&r but VSO somehow knew I was in town and asked me to fill in and make an opening speech for an annual meeting for a local NGO. My grey hair seems to add to the credibility. So I didn’t get to the beach but headed back to Makeni and on the way I annoyingly had my blackberry phone picked.
Today the work at the City offices was frustratingly slow and the Chief Administrator has been holding up the payroll for the temporary staff I have hired and also a significant expense reimbursement. The salaried staff have also not been paid for the past two months and there is something going on. The tax revenue has been successful and so there has been some finger pointing. There is a Council meeting tomorrow and it should be interesting. Meanwhile in frustration I ducked out of the office (my usual coping mechanism) and visited the library. The librarian had invited a school class of 7-8 year olds to see the library and I helped to read a book. The kids so enjoyed it and my spirits were immediately lifted.
Listening to the BBC tonight on the shortwave much seemed to be centred on conflict surrounding religion and in particular the rise of Islam and extremism. Even Switzerland seemed to be under the critical eye since church steeples are permitted in Berne and not minarets. Iraq, Israel and Somalia all heavily reported. I was thinking that a page can be taken out of the religious tolerance here in Sierra Leone. As in most poor parts of the world, religion plays a large part of the local culture and here Christianity and Islam dominate although there are several secret society or “Poro” religions. It seems that there is not just a tolerance but a real embracing of both religions. At the start of any meeting no matter how small, prayers are said without fail. If there happens to be no representative from one religion then the prayers are still said for both. Everyone seems to know the prayers and physical gestures attached to both Christian and Moslem practice. Friday afternoons are reserved for Moslems to attend Mosque and Fridays in any case are acknowledged universally, by the wearing of traditional and smart dress. I make sure that I wear one of my African shirts. Interestingly there are rarely head scarves or covering worn by Moslem women. Religions are practiced openly and without shame or awkwardness. I sometimes approach a shop only to find the shopkeeper kneeling on the mat and I wait until the prayers are finished. Even in busy Freetown a gathering of Moslems takes place on the street or the entrance of a building for prayers. Meanwhile Christmas and Easter seem to be celebrated by both religions with gift giving and the offering of congratulations. The only seeming lack of understanding and tolerance is toward my lack of any traditional belief. I am frequently quizzed on which religion I belong to and the response of neither sets up a frank and open discussion but I havnt found any of the locals being satisfied with this. In an effort to understand, one Christian priest in Freetown very kindly took pains to minister my extraordinary position to others explaining very simply “Paul is very religious about being good” he said and attendees seemed satisfied (although he must have known that I can be bad as well). I think the Salonean secret is about openness and a genuine acceptance of other beliefs. Perhaps this can be exported?
Although there are two modern religions there are 16 tribes each with their own language and customs and this tends to cause more friction than religion. In Makeni and areas of the Salone north, the majority are Temne although there are also Limba, Fullah and small numbers of Mandingo and Mende. The south has mainly Mende but also Susu and other smaller groups. Politics tend to be divided along Temne Limba north and the Mende-Susu south and the coming election is more about tribal contest rather than political ideology. The Government now in power SLPP is dominated by the south and it has been evident that very few resources are allocated to the north. Thus my problems with the library and limited resources for my municipal project. The north party “APC” is starting to gear up and political (tribal) rallies are taking place. I managed to attend one last weekend and the atmosphere was exciting and football crowd like. Certainly nothing negative and I hope that this will keep up until the election in August. There is an organization responsible for the election (National Electoral Commission) and VSO has assigned volunteers to assist. One of the volunteers Yani Tyskerud who comes from Shropshire organized a debate among students about whether voting is a right or a responsibility. I enjoyed this lively debate sitting as one of the judges (grey hair again) and the students clearly have a strong sense of participation.