This is the quickest blog post I’ve ever done…the video speaks for itself.
This is the quickest blog post I’ve ever done…the video speaks for itself.
I wrote a post in 2010 titled ‘New Used Shoes’. It was a story about three young girls who had never owned a pair of shoes. They were orphans cared for by an older woman in the village. They went to school in flip flops or, more often, in bare feet. And so we went for a little shopping trip and I purchased each of them their first pair of shoes…used shoes because there is nothing new for sale in Sumbuya.
It was a day I will never forget.
I became close to the girls, who considered me their father. Tears upon leaving the village were matched by hugs and dancing whenever I returned. But stability is not the way here and I have lost touch with Lucia–she became pregnant a few years ago and lost her baby at one month.She moved to Freetown and has lost touch with everyone in the village.
Maserai, who is less than five feet tall, had her first child at fifteen. She is now pregnant with her second child. Among other girls I have written about here more than half have become pregnant in a village where the health nurses tell me
that birth control, either by IUD or injection, is free.
Why? Imagine a village with no power and little light after dark. No television or radio. Imagine as well a place with little else to do, other than work or go to school. And the schools were closed for a year due to Ebola, so teenagers have had a lot of time on their hands. And where most of the teachers and ‘big’ people are male–role models for boys. And where many villagers feel birth control methods make women infertile in later years so if you cannot get pregnant you are of little value.
Mamie, the little one in the right of the photo did not get pregnant. We had a joyous reunion in Freetown and Mamie finally got to meet my wife, ‘Mam Shelley’. Mamie lives in a room with a sister and three other women, a situation that is not at all unusual here. She is is not happy and feels unfairly treated by an older relative. As I write this we are looking for a boarding school but may settle for a separate room close to her sister.
We keep looking for Lucia. Recently I wondered out loud with my friend David Stephens if perhaps she has died. “Oh, no,” he said, “she is not dead. But I fear she is in a tight corner.”
A tight corner. It is an apt description for life for everyone here.
Next time…I will introduce you to some friends we are helping to set up businesses selling solar lights. Yes I have a healthy scepticism about many of the NGO’s here, but I haven’t lost hope for Sierra Leoneans. More to come…
This country is addicting. And heartbreaking.
Strolling along the beach between River Two and Tokeh is addicting…if you like sand the colour and feel of cornstarch between your toes. And if,looking back, your footprints are the only ones for a mile. Occasionally a young boy will approach, adding his story to yours. “Who you support?” he asks. It takes a moment to realize he means, “Manchester or Barcelona?”
With a few greetings in Mende or Temne or Krio the smiles become infectious. “How di bodi” they ask. “Di bodi fine,” you say. “And you?” “Thank God,” is always the reply. I have met people suffering in the throes of malaria and still they thank God. As the Mende say, ‘if you have life, you thank God.’
The heartbreak is everywhere.There is rampant inflation in the country…a few years ago you could get 4500 Leones to the dollar…today you can get 7500 Leones. An ugly war followed by two outbreaks of Ebola and the price of rice has doubled in a few years. The government is still dependent upon foreign NGOs, and foreign NGOs continue to provide ‘programs’ that take the place of government. Many tell me the NGOs often pay more for cleaners than teachers receive, so why become a teacher? For those who do receive ‘distance learning’ to receive a teacher certificate it is often three to four years before they are paid.
There are NGOs here with larger budgets than some African states and there is no sign that any of these have plans to wean themselves of the countries they serve, or vice verse. More about that in a future post.
Having said all this, I continue to love this country and her people. It is a place where, despite the heartbreak of it all, smiles come easily.
It has been awhile–two years.
I left Sierra Leone in 2014 not knowing at the time that Ebola had just brought her misery to the country. I recall that $1 U.S. dollar bought something close to 4200 Leones–today you can get 7400 Leones on the street. I’ve maintained contact with my close friends and the refrain is forever Sierra Leone: “It is very, very difficult here…the cost of a bag of rice is always going up….”
Meanwhile, I’ve been focused on my garden, and my grandson, and outrigger paddling. And family get togethers in warm places. I’ve spent less time fishing but more time preparing raw fish dishes–Hawaiian themed pokes with albacore tuna and wild salmon. We have a garden that feeds us twelve months of the year–that garden again.
I’d like to tie up some loose ends with this so I’ll tell you what happened with the project to trash the old labour/delivery bed. And I’ll introduce our upcoming trip to Sierra Leone to complete a project which has brought solar lights to hundreds of families.
The good news? We’ve added two new rooms to the medical clinic in Sumbuya. Our goal of sourcing two new labour/delivery beds was partially met–see the new plinths–not adjustable labour beds for sure but I’m told the nurse/midwives are very pleased.
So, here goes, grainy cell phone photos and all….
I have no delusions about reducing maternal mortality with the addition of a couple of rooms. There are no doctors here–the closest hospital is a German run clinic. I’ve taken the trip–a canoe crossing of the river and another hour by motorbike over a bumpy road. This addition was more about dignity I suppose. When I return to Sumbuya this month I’m hoping to see women labouring with some degree of privacy on the new plinths.
I expect there will be plenty of children and a few men as well…this is Africa, after all.
Coming up…Sustainable businesses selling solar lights? I hope so. Shelley will be joining me on this, her first trip to Sierra Leone. More to come.
Of the scores of photos I’ve taken in Africa, there is one that stays with me. It is a photo of the labour and delivery bed in the clinic in Sumbuya, Sierra Leone.
The leather itself seems anguished–worn in places–torn in others. If you look closely enough you can almost hear the voices of the countless women who’ve laboured here. In an adjoining room women labour on the floor, surrounded by other women, children and babies who are waiting their turn to be seen by a medical attendant. The clinic itself overflows with patients, many of whom wait patiently on the verandah. Privacy is an unaffordable luxury here.
Ebola will pass and, despite the extent of the epidemic, many Sierra Leoneans will never know anyone who died from the disease. Ironically, this is not the case with something we take for granted in the developed world–childbirth. How many women die before, during or soon after giving birth? According to the World Health Organization, the lifetime risk for a maternal death from pregnancy-related causes in Sierra Leone is between 1 in 11 and 1 in 16, or roughly 1100 per 100,000 live births.
By comparison, the lifetime risk for mortality from pregnancy-related causes for Canadian women is 1 in 48,000, or 11 in 100,000 live births. Think of it this way: if you live in Canada you are not likely to know anyone who has died from a hemorrhage or hypertension in childbirth. In Sierra Leone and neighbouring west African countries it is quite possible that every woman personally knows of women (plural) who have died in childbirth.
I can’t solve the issues around maternal mortality, but I’d love to contribute to a more dignified labour/maternity environment for the women of Sumbuya. I cannot wait to hear that women will no longer have to lie on that bed.
Currently I’m initiating a project to trash the bed. I’ve asked the clinic ‘dispenser’ (there is no physician here) to source two new labour and delivery beds. Of course, as with all aid projects in Africa one initiative leads to another–we are also hoping to provide two new rooms for the clinic. One will be for admitting patients (to give the ‘admitted’ patients some privacy) and one will be a small ward with beds.
I asked my friend David if there are enough staff for a larger clinic–currently there are 4 nurses, a number of traditional birth attendants, and the dispenser. “If we have a better clinic it is more likely a doctor will come,” he says, optimistically.
Whether or not a doctor comes, I am sure the women will love to see the last of that bed. And they will….
The number of new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone is diminishing, however, the capital Freetown and Port Loko are still registering new cases. Fortunately, Sumbuya has so far been spared the Ebola epidemic. I believe this is a reflection of just how isolated Sumbuya is–like the fictional village of Liliema in my novel, Sumbuya is at the end of the road.
Unless you are traveling with a motorbike and you are prepared to load it into the ‘ferry’ to cross the river, there is nowhere else to go here.
In March of this year I was in an airport lounge in Brussels, getting caught up on world news after my most recent trip to Sierra Leone, when I first read that ebola had entered the country through neighbouring Guinea.
I’ve logged many calls with my Sierra Leonean friends since then. I am fully aware of the dysfunctional health care system, and of the traditional ways of washing and wrapping and keaning over bodies. This is a country ripe for a virus like ebola.
David, 50ish, lives in Sumbuya. During the war David and his family fled to the bush–avoiding rebels, scrabbling together whatever they could find to eat. I will never forget our first meeting. “I have been asked by the paramount chief to go wherever you go in the chiefdom,” he said. I’ve returned many times since then–and never been assigned a minder–I’m free to wander about. David has become my confidant and best friend in Sierra Leone.
I always ask about ebola and, thankfully, his answer remains the same. “Thanks to the living God,” he says, “for now we have been spared.” David continues to attend Mass daily in the tiny Catholic church in Sumbuya. His beliefs are a mix of Catholicism and traditional spirituality–a mix that is shared by many in the country. He has lived through a war of unspeakable brutality and now he and his family live with the fear of ebola. Still, he thanks God and takes each day as a gift. I love the man.
And Momodu, a young man of 30, his parents killed by rebels, who for the last 15 years has looked after his sister and 2 brothers. Momodu has faithfully driven me across the country many times. Momodu acts like a man who has my back. “Do not worry Mr. Michael–I will get you there!” he likes to say. And he does.
I asked Momodu how it is for him. “There is no work for me,” he says. “No one wants to get in a car with others. There is ebola in Freetown and no one wants to use the hospital or go to a government clinic. It is bad, very, very bad. But do not worry Mr. Michael–please say hello to your entire family.”
And Veronica, mother of 4 girls who lives on the outskirts of Freetown. Veronica who walked to Liberia during the war with her daughter on her back. Veronica, who now supports her family by selling solar lights, is learning the hard way. She tried selling many of the lights by offering credit. Not a good idea with customers who have nothing to give–but this is Veronica. “I will repay you, bit by bit,” she says. “The ebola makes it very difficult,” she adds, her voice trailing into despair.
Yesterday Veronica told me of a family of six–six bodies, in a house. She says the government sends a team to take blood but they go away leaving the bodies in the house, sometimes for days. “Maybe they will come back in a few days to collect the body. It is so bad the family carry bodies into the street.”
Today I called my friend Mohamed, a health care worker in the city of Bo. If you’ve followed my blog you will have read about a morning I spent with Mohamed a couple of years ago. I visited his clinic in the remote village of Momajo (phonetic sp). It was an experience I won’t forget–within an hour of my arrival this man with 3 years of ‘medical training’ post high school managed to sew up a farmer’s axe-mangled foot, treat two infants for malaria and try to save, unsuccessfully, an 18 year old woman who bled to death after giving birth. The closest hospital was two hours away and there was no fuel for the ambulance that day.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine things getting worse in Sierra Leone. Recently I asked Mohamed what he will do if an ebola patient comes to him? “How can we treat people we cannot touch?” he asks. “I must think of my family, the healthcare workers are all dying. Everywhere we are dying.” In the most terrifying of ways, this is what makes ebola different–the inability to touch. Benjamin Hale, in a recent article in Slate.com put this very well:‘Every mechanism we have for caring—touching, holding, feeding, playing, warming, comforting, caressing—every mechanism that we use to bind us to our families and our neighbors, is preyed upon by Ebola.’
And so it is with my friends. I call them weekly, they ask after my family, and they wait.
By now anyone who can read or watch the evening news is aware of the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Nigeria by the extremist Islamist group, Boko Haram. Celebrities tweeted their disgust, members of the Nigerian diaspora marched in cities around the world and politicians expressed their support for the government of Goodluck Johnathan. Much less has been written about the abduction of boys. Boko Haram routinely takes boys to be child soldiers and it is conceivable that the number of abducted boys exceeds that of the girls. Both stories are getting little airtime these days, however the practice of abducting boys and girls has been well documented in the press and byHuman Rights Watch.
I suspect Boko Haram is reveling in the notoriety. Video and photos of their leader, Abubakar Shekau mugging for the camera is reminiscent of the RUF leader Sam (Masquita) Bockerie during the Sierra Leone civil war (1992-2002). As in the case of Sierra Leone, the Boko Haram rebels have made the government of Nigeria appear inept. Suicide bombings and car bombs take lives with regularity in Nigeria and the government seems incapable of mounting any kind of meaningful response.
And what of the girls and boys who have been abducted and who are now off the front pages of the world’s newspapers? One thing for sure is that the girls weren’t taken to be ‘brides’ for rebel fighters as some early reports suggested. If Boko Haram is anything like rebel groups in Sierra Leone, Congo or Uganda, and there is no reason to believe they are different, the girls were taken for sex, cooking, and carrying. Within rebel groups, abducted girls are often passed around by boys and men for sex. If one man or boy chooses a girl as a ‘bush-wife’ she will be spared having to provide sex for the group. The result is that she becomes the property of the man or boy who takes her. Nothing romantic or bride-like at all–the girls become slaves to either the group or individual men.
Rebel leaders do this with a purpose in mind. They need bodies and they know that most children are unlikely to voluntarily enlist. Murder, rape and mayhem are against the traditional ways and local justice can be swift and unforgiving. Rebel leaders recruit by first abducting children and then ‘spoiling’ them–raping the girls and forcing the boys to commit rape and/or murder. In West Africa, girls who have been raped are often considered ‘spoiled goods’. And so it is that even if the hundreds of girls abducted by Boko Haram are able to escape, it is likely they’ll experience shame. Aljazeera reported that of 26 girls rescued from Boko Haram recently, some were pregnant and many were sent to distant villages or cities to avoid the stigma of rape.
The welcome in Sumbuya began at Salima, at the eastern section of the village. Singing school children, drums, dancers.
Everyone paraded through the village to the official welcome at the school hall. The highlight was the G’boi, a raffia covered bush devil. He
danced in the street and on the hall stage, at one point covering and ‘devouring’ me. In traditional Poro lore the bush devils are thought to be real and so it came as a bit of a surprise that the man in the G’boi outfit revealed himself to me while I was ’inside’. Sweating profusely, he offered me an ear to ear grin. I smiled back, somewhat relieved.
This trip was more about educational projects than writing and the size of the welcomes in Sumbuya, Yambama and Bitiyoma reflected a tremendous sense of gratitude. As well as paying for school fees and supplies for several students we are sponsoring eight teachers to
attend three-year ‘distance learning’ teacher certificates. These are people who feel ignored by their government—teachers are often unpaid, the road is worse than it was 5 years ago, people live hand to mouth, and the schools have nothing in the way of supplies.
I brought Scholastic reading kits for primer to grade 4 for four schools. These were so popular I promised to purchase two more kits. There is no mail service in Sierra Leone but my friend and driver, Momodu, has promised to deliver anything I send to the villages.
Similarly, I brought a few hundred solar lights which were given to the kids and teachers
we sponsor. I asked each child for something in return: they must improve to passing grades if they are currently failing, and, if they are passing, they must improve on their their average by 5%. I asked this in an encouraging way—the teachers, I noted, used a different approach. Fingers pointing, voices raised—especially toward children who are failing. Fire and brimstone is de rigeur here, whether in the pulpit or in a classroom.
After traveling to this country so many times and writing a novel that is set here, you wouldn’t think I would still be having life changing moments–but Africa is relentless and I’ll close with this. One of the teachers we are sponsoring for a three year teaching certificate is Susan. We met on my second day in Sumbuya when I presented eight young teachers with solar lights and congratulated them on working toward their certificates.
A couple of days later I saw Susan on her veranda–she was sitting with her toddler son who was clearly very sick. Still, she again thanked me for her solar light–“I can read in the night,” she said. “I am so very, very glad.”
I asked her about her son.
“I think he have malaria,” she said.
I called Momodu and we bundled Susan and her son into the car. He started screaming.
“It is the car,” she said. “He has never been in one.”
The little boy tested negative for malaria, and the medical officer, who has two years of training after high school, prescribed an antibiotic. When we returned to Susan’s I joined her on the veranda.
“Susan, you should give your son the antibiotic now,” I said.
She looked uncomfortable. “The man say I must give him the medicine when his belly is full,” she replied.
I looked around. There was no food–no rice. Nothing. They had been buying rice by the cup, unable to afford a bag. I called Susan’s mother and gave her some money to go to the market.
I should have known better. Solar lights. Scholarships. The people dance and sign their gratitude, but I’ve never known hunger.
This is the first of a three part post on my recent trip to Sierra Leone. This story, about a car breakdown, is eerily similar to a scene in My Heart is Not My Own.
I’ve returned to Sierra Leone. Cartons of solar lights for girls and their teachers. Reading kits for primary to middle grades. Funds to sponsor young men and women for teaching certificates. But first I have to get there…
My driver and friend, Momodu, promises a trouble-free road-trip. “Don’t worry Mr. Michael, the car is good. No problem, I will get you there.”
“No worries, just a flat,” mumbles Momodu. Within fifteen minutes he has unloaded the trunk of solar lights, reading kits, and assorted gear. He jacks the vehicle, replaces the tire and slaps his hands together. “See Mr. Michael, only a half-hour. Now we de go!”
I glance from Momodu to the car–in Canada the vehicle wouldn’t be allowed on the road. Here, it is Momodu’s lifeline–a source of income and pride.
“The spare looks kind of bald,” I say, trying not to sound too grumpy.
Momodu is having none of it. “Lots of tread, lots of tread. We de go now!” He is so enthusiastic, I feel guilty.
“Doesn’t sound good,” I say, staring at the spider-vein crack in the windshield. Momodu is under the car in seconds. When he reappears, he’s covered in oil.
“Leaking oil,” he says. The ever-cheerful Momodu sounds deflated. I’m astounded when he finds a ‘garage’—an open air graveyard of wrecked and abandoned vehicles. Momodu introduces me to Ussef, the mechanic. Ussef looks from me to the car and smiles. White guys rarely travel in anything but a four-wheel drive in Sierra Leone. I wonder if he thinks I’m a poor white guy, or just a stupid one.
I go for a walk. One hour. Two hours. When I check back oil cascades from the car with the force of a severed artery.
”Gear box” Momodu says.
“What, not a U-Joint?” I reply.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Michael. I will drive to Lumley and borrow my friends car.” And so it is that I spend the afternoon in the shade of a mango tree. I take photos of a young woman breastfeeding her baby and drink poyo (palm wine) with a couple of evangelical teachers who say they’re planning their evening ‘lectures’. Eventually, Momodu returns with a car that is more battered than the Sunny. My friend has been on the go, working his butt off for me, for the entire day.
We will make it to Bo well after dark. Along the way I reflect on the difference between my life and Momodu’s. His car means everything to him. The opportunity to drive me is something he takes great pride in–driving me means everything to him. In the hundreds of miles and many days we’ve spent together over the years I’ve never heard my friend complain. Ever.
He regales me with stories of witches and wizards and spitting cobras (30 feet is a safe distance). We argue about women–he tells me you mustn’t give them too much or they become spoiled. “They are different in this country…” he says.
When we return from the provinces I take Momodu and his sister and brothers (aged 17-26) out for dinner. It is the first restaurant meal of their entire lives. At first they are very shy, but after I show them some photos on my laptop they relax with me. Each of them keeps half of their meal to take away. “We make it last longer..” they say.
I remark at how long Maria, Momodu’s sister, takes over her ice cream. “Mr. Michael, I do not want this to end,” she says.
Momodu, sitting at the other end of the table, smiles proudly. “You are our father,” he says.
Why would I drive with anyone else?
Have an Africa travel story? Comments are welcome.