We are now in Kambia, Sierra Leone, 8 miles from the Guinea border. We left Freetown on Saturday morning and the rain was a sight to see: Enormous springs of water shot up on the side of the road as teens with tattered, useless umbrellas walked along seemingly oblivious to the geysers that lined the street. Our driver, Mohmoh, guided our truck along with a stoic face, unphased as well. Mohmoh transferred refugees for the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) during the war, so it is safe to assume that a heavy rain is tame in comparison. We edged our way to the tip of the Freetown Peninsula and coiling waterways gave way to forests of palm trees. Ali, one of AMNet’s interns, casually pointed out hills that the rebels had occupied during the war. We stopped just outside Freetown to get some bread from young women lining the street and topped it off with a can of sardines. Can’t beat that combination at 8 in the morning.
Kambia is a beautiful and strange place. Being that it is the rainy season, there is a heavy humidity in the air that reminds me a lot of SE Asia. The buildings, or what is left of them, are amazingly ornate: large columns with intricate swirling designs, two and three story buildings with collapsing verandahs, similar to the French colonial buildings in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Before the war, Kambia had regular electricity, even street lights, and all the buildings were intact. Now, carpets of fluorescent moss cover hand railings and the jungle is taking its time in taking over.
We were taken to the AMNet office which serves as our new home, and knew that I was getting used to being in Sierra Leone when Ashley and I were most excited about the massive, spacious mosquito net that hung over the bed. That night we were taken to a local ‘cultural performance’ down by the Scarcies River, about a half mile walk from the office. It is truly a Heart of Darkness type waterway: I couldn’t tell where the water ended and the jungle began; sad and eerie noises floated out of the trees and were lost in the inky night.
Within the span of about 30 minutes, the little square (a dirt plot void of vegetation, really) down by the water was filled with too many faces to count. We quickly learned that “apato” is the Temne term for a white person, and, of course, heard it hundreds of time throughout the night. Funny to think of a white kid sitting somewhere in the middle of nowhere in rural America, who has only seen black people on TV, and seeing a black man walk across his yard on a lazy Saturday afternoon and yelling out “Mom! Dad! A black person!” out of sheer surprise, fascination, and interest. Of course, he’d probably be sent to juvenile hall, be pegged a racist, forced to seek counseling and work through his discriminatory ‘issues,’ and have to apologize to the entire nation via satellite. Unfortunate that curiosity is so often snuffed out by the hollow bonds of all things pc.
The performance was intricate and enlivening. A group of men ranging from little kids to adults, all dressed in the same green garb, began pounding sticks together and on drums. After a few minutes, the first of several masked ‘devils’ came into the circle and pranced around, intermittently shuffling and making large arcs with his arms. The devil was dressed in a huge grass ensemble with two antelope-like horns that protruded three feet into the air. The devil swayed and swished around and when it came close, unfurled a leopard-like skin on the ground, whereupon the audience would place a small bill. The devil would then scoop up the note and it was lost somewhere in the recesses of his outfit. Kids shouted with good-natured fear and glee; had I seen this as a child I probably would have been scarred for a good many years after. The devil retreated, the drumming continued, and the outfits continued to change late into the night.
Arun, the AMNet representative in Kambia, walked us back up the dirt road that led to the office. Arun’s work with AMNet focuses on child protection and the implementation of laws and bylaws by chiefs and their respective chiefdoms. There are seven chiefdoms in Kambia district and Arun works with all of them. Most recently, laws were passed that made the practice of female genital mutilation a crime and punishable by a weighty sum.
As we were walking towards the office in the darkness, we heard the plaintive whimpering of a young girl and accompanying whips of a stick. My body tensed, Ashley grabbed my hand, and I fought every instinct I’ve ever known to rush into the darkness and intervene to the obvious abuses that were happening. I prayed that Arun would do something, do anything, and just as my right foot was about to depart from the road and plunge into the bush, Arun left my side and was soon standing above a girl of 12 or 13 years who lay in the dirt with her mother sitting above her on a stool ready for the next strike. Some soft words were exchanged, Arun helped the girl to her feet, and then unloaded several paragraphs of thought upon the mother. It turned out that the girl had not come home since the morning and the mother was punishing her as she saw fit. Arun did not see it this way. Ashley and I exchanged glances, I fought back the urge to start crying and knew that whatever we would be doing in Kambia, in Arun we would be doing so with a man among men.
Now attending a workshop on the Child Rights Act for a few days and its implementation here in Sierra Leone. More to follow…after the rain. Jonah