After two long and sleepless days of traveling across the globe, we have finally arrived in Sierra Leone. The moment we stepped off the plane, beads of sweat began to collect on our foreheads as our bodies felt the shock of the new hot and humid climate. The trip over here did not come without complications, however. It is day six and Jonah still has not seen his baggage. Yes, that means he has been wearing the same dirty, smelly, sweaty Powell’s Books shirt and ripped jeans that he arrived in. YUCK. It has been overwhelmingly frustrating for him to try and track them down…no one seems to have a definite answer as to where they are and when they will arrive. Hopefully they will arrive at the BMI office in Freetown tomorrow. Fingers crossed!
Truth be told, I’m not that bothered by wearing the same clothes for a week; I think the locals are the ones who are bothered, getting bored seeing me in the same outfit everyday and raising their eyebrows each morning as we descend our little hill.
Freetown is frenetic, filthy, and amazingly oppressive considering it only has a million people. Throngs of people invade the streets at all hours, the smell of gas always lingers, and each and every person takes the time to wave or say hello – a strange paradox, it seems, as one moment I’ll see a boy tugging a plastic boat through river of sewage, barefoot and smiling like he just saw Disneyland for the fist time, and in the next an amputee will brush up next to me and ask, “How de body?” with a big toothless grin.
There is no garbage system in the city. It pains me just to throw away a napkin at a restaurant because I know it will surely make its way to the back of the building and end up in a rotting pile alongside a meandering creek. In addition, there has been no reliable electricity since the 80s, and the few generators in use give off noxious fumes that make me lightheaded.
The first full day we were here we were quickly taken to the parliament building where AMnet (Advocacy Movement Network) – the organization we are working with via Compassion First – was giving a presentation aiming to ratify a UN convention that promotes non-discrimination against disabled people…i.e. allowing for equal access of education and employment. Prior to the parliament session, we distributed hundreds of pieces of paper and stickers that youths held up during the session reading such statements as “Mama Salone! We are your children, please help us!” Hawa, the founder and executive director of AMnet, was quick to point out that the children covered the spectrum of disabilities: dumb, deaf, blind, and physically disabled. The parliament members sat at a long row of tables at the front of the room and, judging by their appearances, seemed to listen to the various testimonies with dispassionate ears: perhaps because the disabled is an all-too-familiar site in Sierra Leone, especially Freetown, or perhaps because it is an issue lower on their agenda given that basic sanitation, medicine, and electricity are luxuries for the few. Despite their languid appearance, the parliament members mentioned that they hope the conventions proposed would be put into effect this coming July. If that is the case, and it does actually happen, so much the better for these disenfranchised youths – and adults.
We’ve visited the AMnet office several times to acquaint ourselves with the various staff members and to get a better idea about what we will be doing when we travel to Kambia. Kambia is located on the Guinean border and is known to be a hot spot for human trafficking. The Inter-Generational Project we will be working on will focus on improving communication approaches between elders and youths. Talk about such issues as the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and sexual relationships between these generations is fairly taboo; youths are not encouraged to ask questions about these issues and, as a result, come away ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of FGM and STDs such as HIV. Over the next few days we will be looking at the various models for inter-generational communication and methods for opening the channels of dialogue between people.
We are currently living with a friend of Hawa’s named Michael. He is a Nigerian who works on web development for the president of Sierra Leone, Earnest Bai Koroma. Michael rents a few rooms on the bottom floor of a three-story building and, although it is surrounded by a concrete wall (supposedly to keep people out), there is a steady stream of footfalls outside our window each night: little kids laughing, chickens clucking, dogs scampering away from some unknown danger, and the soft exchanges between mothers and their children. One of these regulars is Joseph, former solider in the Kamajor army. The Kamajor were an independent militia that fought against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF); they employed the use of major superstition to keep them from danger when fighting and, unfortunately, committed many of the horrific atrocities that they were supposedly fighting against.
Joseph is 33-years old and has multiple scars on his head and torso from the war. When I asked him about the parallel scars on his arms, he said that the Kamajor believed such marks would make them invincible to gunfire, and even make them invisible in the bush. I good-naturedly told him it must have worked as he is one of the most chiseled men I have ever seen, but he quickly said, “Sort of,” as he pointed to a few oblong shapes on his head: “Shrapnel.” He lives in a few rooms in the back of Michael’s house with his wife-to-be and two children. He completed his certification in auto mechanics just prior to the war, but has yet to find steady employment since its conclusion. With his soft smile and easy-going manner, it is hard to believe that he was one of the many caught up in the madness of the war where the lines between the good guys and bad guys, so to speak, was wholly indistinct.
That’s it for now…we’ll write again soon.