Departure from Freetown felt like a numbed and woozy escape from the dentist’s. Freetown is situated beautifully: swooping green hills with the Atlantic beckoning. Sadly, its geography plays the role of a disapproving older sibling to the traffic, waste…more waste. We arrived in Kambia after 5 hours in torrents of rain in a mini-van with no air circulation. It was the first transport in the last 7 weeks that did not result in some sort of grinding breakdown on the edge of soupy roads. Luxurious! I sat next to an Imam who kept falling asleep on my shoulder. His smell a mixture of Old Spice and mothballs. To my right a young boy happily introduced himself as Mohammed. He read a crumpled book called The Voyage of Mimi. The first page set the scene somewhere in New England, the father and son in pleated pants and crisp shirts, speaking with hands on hips about the wind, knots, and jibs. Mohammed’s head swiveled around in exhaustion and Mimi’s voyage would wait to be discovered another day. They slept for most of the trip, the Imam wrapped in a brown Nautica jacked once white, nuzzling my shoulder; Mohammed’s head crushed between his legs.
We were excited to see the Bangura family, our friends who live across from the AMNet office. As usual, the mother out back by the ever-lit fire, cooking. She hugged Ashley, and a few minutes later was removing her breast and telling her about a current ailment. Alhasan gave us a hug, smiled, but seemed to have aged since seeing him just 3 weeks ago. I noticed a series of shaky creases at the edges of his mouth. He informed us that his brother Alusine had left for Freetown the day before because their stepmother was in a coma. We stood there trying to digest the matter while Alhasan fought back the lengthening creases and a shaky voice.
Abas arrived a while later and said he had recovered from malaria. The boil on his leg was healing fairly well.
After numerous greetings and children running full speed into my legs, I spent part of the evening typing up a draft of Child Rights Bylaws for Kambia District. Each district is to submit a draft of Bylaws, with (un)necessary variances, to the central government in Freetown. Trainings for the Child Rights Act are to taken place in all 14 districts of Sierra Leone. We participated in a Child Rights Act training several weeks ago in Kambia. The rights are straight forward and necessary, simultaneously wonderful and disturbing that they are just now being implemented in 2009. The Sierra Leone Child Rights Act now include the following:
1. All children have the right to life and to grow and develop. 2. All children have the right to have a name that has been legally registered, and to a nationality. 3. All children have the right to live with their parents and family and to grow up in a peaceful and caring environment. 4. All children have the right to live in dignity and to be treated with respect. They also have the right to relax and play, grow up in liberty, and to receive education, shelter and the things they need to stay healthy, including immunization against diseases.
5. All children have the right to receive a fair share of their parents’ property if their parents should die. 6. All children have the right to be protected from war and violent conflict. 7. All children have the right to take part in sports, in cultural and artistic activities and in other forms of recreation. 8. All children with a disability of any kind have the right to special care, education and support, so that they can lead full and independent lives. 9. All children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults have to take decisions that affect them. 10. All children have the right to be protected by the Government from having to do any kind of work that is dangerous, or that might harm their health or their education.
11. All children have the right to be protected from harsh torture and harsh treatment or punishment, including beatings. The Child Rights Act does not allow anyone – including parents – to use violence to punish children. 12. Nobody under the age of 18 is allowed to get married.
Wonderful to see these implemented! These are Child Rights that are imperative to the foundations of any healthy community or country. Yet, as I typed up the draft of the Child Rights Bylaws, I was overcome with a feeling of deep despair. It was not just because of the poor grammar nor was it word usage, nor syntax, nor the strange mechanics, that would ultimately confused people. This draft of Bylaws felt a best friend of Echo, doomed to repeat the mistakes that has trapped Sierra Leone, and so many other African countries, for so long. Example:
The Bylaws spoke of transgressions against children such as sexual abuse, forced labor, and manipulations – crimes that need to be addressed clearly. Yet with each crime spoken of – and with each fine to be imposed on the perpetrator – there was linked the phrase “or to be paid in kind.” This payment consists of goods, commodities equivalent to the price of the fine. The scales felt like they were falling from my eyes, but unlike that blessed man in the dusty road – who felt better after the fact – the process made my head ache and my sight dizzy.
“Or to be paid in kind” is one of those frightening phrases that leave room for doubt and misinterpretation, shadows of illegitimacy. Leaves room for people to make use of the devices the words allow: the Gorgon head of corruption. How many fines are actually paid and how many are “in kind” is something I’d like to know. Kindness comes in different shapes, sizes, and quantities, both tangible and intangible, does it not?
Poor word usage is not equal to all things illegitimate, certainly. It remains a symptom of a larger problem: lack of attention – or intent to avoid – details that remain comparably easy to fix. Details that would assuage a host of personal disasters.