Thursday, December 24, 2009

update on Sierra Leone youth and invitation to you

Dear friends,
At this holiday season, we wish you special greetings. To our friends and those we have yet to meet, all of whom signed on to Bob and Betty’s Sierra Leone blog, we hope 2010 is a wonderful, productive, and peaceful new year.
This is to update you on a couple of positive things that have happened regarding Sierra Leone and to invite you to continue staying in touch if you want to (If you do, just hit reply and write YES in subject line or message area). We are also posting this on our Sierra Leone blog at

And since it is really ‘your’ blog, please add comments (or if that proves cumbersome on the blog, send them to,), news, travels, remarks on international events. It would be nice to have an open forum.

1. Survivors for Human Rights. Since we returned from our academic year in Sierra Leone, Betty has worked with the Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties at the University of Southern Mississippi to create a web page for student survivors of conflict.

The idea is to link Sierra Leone and other students globally to share their stories of survival as well as their hopes, plans, and progress toward greater world respect for human rights. You can see the page at; then click on Project 1991, the year the civil war there began. Please send Betty comments at The students were among members of my two human rights classes in Freetown.

2. Sierra Leone calendars. The photos so many of you enjoyed of school children in Sierra Leone are now available for sale as a fundraiser for more schools in Sierra Leone. Betty donated her photos to Schools for Sierra Leone who made a 2010 calendar. You can purchase it for $15, and after the $3 production costs, all the rest goes to building more schools. Go to

One of Bob’s former students, Raven Wilke, raised more than $800 for the school project in one evening. Betty and I have visited some of the schools. Cindy Nofziger is the U.S.-based director; her colleague works and lives in Sierra Leone.

3. Please stay in touch. Finally, if you would like to continue receiving occasional emails about new blog postings on (a) updates regarding Sierra Leone projects above; (b) – and this is a shift: bob’s teaching, please send an email response back saying YES.

Bob taught a “democratic’ class this fall in which students chose topics to discuss, format for the discussions, and grades. The issues included national security, national health care, affirmative action, gay rights – all chosen by the students. Discussions were civil, informative, and factually-based with sourced information. Now he is seeking ways to instill that kind of student ‘ownership’ of classes into his upper-level seminars. Stay tuned. Bye for now.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Back in Mississippi

Hi folks,
For all of you who have taken the time to look at our Sierra Leone blog, we thank you for your interest, not just in us, but in the people of that amazing country. Betty and I are back in Hattiesburg, MS. If you ever come this way, or want to contact us, our home phone is 601-582-8756. The email is or

if you have some comments you want to post on the blog, please do so.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More photos -below

Be sure to scroll down to Betty's amazing photos of downtown Freetown midnight parade and a daytime stroll by the 'devils, plus family travel in this beautiful country.

to our blog friends - as we leave Sierra Leone

To readers of this blog:
Betty and I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog, looking at her pictures. The fact that you signed up for our occasional alerts on new postings shows your have an outward sense of the world and the fabric that links humanity everywhere. We wish you well in your own important endeavors to make our world a better place for everyone.
It would be nice to stay in touch, in case anyone has any suggestions on how….
Bye for now.

some thoughts on departing

Some final thoughts….
So we are leaving after nine months. But though we leave Sierra Leone, it will not leave us. Sure, there were frustrations with electricity only about a third of the time (at best), narrow streets overflowing with pedestrians, traffic jams, etc. But it’s a beautiful country: the beaches are undiscovered gems; the country is safe; the people are amazingly open and friendly: and that’s not just words – they really are. They work hard when they get work. (We said good-bye recently to Sennuse who breaks rocks for a living and raises by himself his two daughters who are in Cardiff school (see earlier blog postings on the school.)
I’ll miss my students. Almost all of them are sincerely trying to find their way into the professional world (many as human rights activists), trying to scrape together school fees. Given the opportunity, their talents shine, as when they taught human rights in local schools..
Classes are way too big for effective teaching; too much time is lost keeping the class quiet enough to hear not just me but fellow students. Still – there’s been a lot of learning, as noticed in their research papers and reports on the their community teaching.
A history professor described Sierra Leone as stable on the surface and fragile underneath. The same causes that apparently fueled the war, including mass poverty and lack of education and opportunity, are still present. But one hopes the horrors of the civil war (1991-2002) leave people reluctant to allow another one.

Betty and I hope to find ways to link our students back in Mississippi to students here. She has collected the war and peace stories of some of my students, photographed them, and plans to put it all on the web. The student participants want to link up with students around the country and the world. We’re open to suggestions on where this might lead. Locally, the students want to start a Students for Human Rights. (Perhaps they could call it Students United for Rights Everywhere: SURE).
And Betty has commissioned two local artists to paint small signboards, the kind all over town on small restaurants and barber shops, a kind of no-depth, and almost cartoon-like depictions of people eating or getting a haircut. She found a local cafĂ© that will display them for sale. We’re taking a batch home.

Sierra Leone - I hope we come back some day.

You Can Go Home Again

You Can Go Home Again:
A number of Sierra Leoneans have returned to this country to live and work, some after 30 years in the United States. One returnee told me recently he had decided to stay in Sierra Leone, despite the low pay, lack of facilities (sporadic electricity, for example). “I’ve found my soul” here, he said. First, like other returned professionals, his services are very much in demand here. But beyond that, he likes the less complicated lifestyle and social aspects of life here. Another returnee is teaching at Fourah Bay College and pouring energy and new ideas into his work here. We are told that many of the big homes being built on the outskirts of the city are paid for by remittances by Sierra Leoneans living abroad. Some of them may be planning to return, too.

Obama magic in Sierra Leone

Obama magic
As mentioned before in this blog, I got tagged with the nickname Obama, probably because I would call out his name as a greeting before and after the election, and people began returning it. Now when I run through Sunshine Valley near us, a neighborhood of mostly low-income families living on steep slopes bordering a small stream, children and adults call out, even at a distance, “Obama.” I return the greeting.
On some runs in the valley, I play games with the children I see in the distance, across the stream, or high up a slope. We mimic each other’s moves, even throwing in a few yoga positions and end up with a good laugh. A few of the older youth get a good laugh at me because I can’t copy their handstands and other more advanced moves.
It’s energizing when children call out and run up to you or holler from a distance to start the game. It’s not the most efficient workouts, but it certainly is a wonderful way to spend an hour before sunset. I’ll miss those runs and all the people along the way.
Now I have yet another nickname (Bai Bureh, a chief from the 1800s: see separate entry on naming). The other day as I was getting into a taxi, a driver of another vehicle leaned out the window and yelled: “Bai Bureh.” And when two passengers got into the taxi with me, one of them looked up and said: “Obama.” People enjoy greeting each other and are often a lot warmer and open than we tend to be back in the U.S.

university students - insider view

Student accomplishments:
I sent my 168 fall students and 115 spring students in human rights out on a community service assignment to teach human rights in secondary schools. Most of them completed the assignment very well, verified by signature of their supervisor and my follow up telephone calls to the institution. That’s more than 2,500 hours of human rights teaching. Students said they overcame shyness to address classes of 100 or more. And their reports showed they used a variety of teaching techniques which we had used in our class. They also had to learn their material pretty well to be able to teach it. Many students said it was a significant achievement for them and that they enjoyed it. I gave them each a certificate of recognition with their name on it for their future portfolio.

Students are raised on a habit of memorization and recitation from primary school on through secondary school. Critical thinking is often new to them. In my classes, however, students had a good chance to voice their opinions and knowledge. Many, including most of the female students, were hesitant, but after a while, they began participating more.

Student cheating;
While most of my students are honest and hard-working, some 17 (out of about 120) in my spring human rights class apparently cheated on their final research project, copying pages from each other. Since human rights and ethics are inseparable, I recommended their expulsion from the University to make room for more deserving students. A university disciplinary committee is reviewing the cases and will give the students an opportunity to present their case. A number of the students have admitted their cheating to me; a few have denied it, despite documentary evidence to the contrary. One senior faculty member described cheating at the College as “blatant.” Some would prefer less of a penalty such as not counting their report on which they cheated. I think that’s too mild. My syllabus called for expulsion from the class with an F for plagiarism.

Peace and Violence on campus
Last summer, students went on a rampage and destroyed their dormitories after campus student elections. Last winter, a student died during a harsh university club initiation. So this spring I began meeting with campus student leaders to encourage them to make initiatives to try to bring peace back as the norm. A number of groups did so, with handouts, banners, and even a student Peace Summit where leaders of rival factions pledged non-violence. Several students are trying to follow up with an Alternatives to Violence Project involving conflict avoidance training at colleges and schools nationally.

getting an additional name

Naming ceremonies:
For most of our time here Betty and I have participated in the weekly ‘Hash’ club events. This group of up to 100 Sierra Leoneans and internationals every Monday runs or walks through backyards and along dirt paths through neighborhoods whose residents welcome us, cheer us on and point the way for stragglers to catch up
In the honorable tradition of the ‘hash, you get ‘named’ in a ceremony in which everyone pours water on you (a few enthusiasts who empty a bucket on your head). Names range from the ridiculous to the historic. Betty and I were lucky, we got historic ones.
At my naming, many people assumed I would get named ‘Obama,’ which is the nickname that has stuck more than any of the others I’ve been given here (see a separate entry on this. My full name up till now has been Bob Bangura Jalloh Obama Press). At the last minute, my Sierra Leonean friends chose Bai Bureh. He was a local chief who resisted the British imposition of taxes on the homes of people in the 1890s. He led a ‘hut tax’ war against the British and had the upper hand for a few months, eluding capture. He allegedly could become invisible - and could hide under water for long periods (I think I’ll skip trying that one). He was finally captured in 1898, sent into exile in Ghana and finally brought back in 1905.
After our last run/walk, Betty was named “Mammy Yoko,” after a brilliant, beautiful Paramount Chief in the 1800s who “saved her husband from a long imprisonment under the British. She made a personal appeal to the Governor, “who was charmed by [her] beauty and feminine graces.” (Now I know who to turn to if I ever get arrested.
Actually, getting Sierra Leonean names is much more meaningful than some of the rather crazy names often given out. And it means we take an added bit of Sierra Leone history home with us.)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Visit by neice Heidi and Independence Day Activities

At the end of April my niece, Heidi Hoops, came to visit us which motivated us to travel places we had not yet had a chance to visit. It was her first visit to Africa and she really enjoyed it.

Heidi came a few days early so she could get here in time for the Independence Day activities. Sierra Leone became independent April 27, 1961 So the night she arrived, even though she had been traveling straight through from Denver we dropped off her luggage and headed downtown for the “Lantern Parade” at about 10pm. It was difficult to get there due to all the crowds but our taxi driver had arranged for us to meet a policeman who would escort us to a spot near the reviewing stand where the President was also watching the parade. In the end we had several policemen helping us and we finally found a great spot with a few open chairs where we could sit and not have our view obstructed by crowds.

Lanterns are like floats with lights and intricate moving parts manned by people under the float bed. Different neighborhoods build lanterns based on a theme and then drive or roll them though the streets. Everyone that is involved in building the lantern joins the parade so in addition to the float there are lots of chanting, celebrating people surrounding it. Because of that the parade route got very chaotic and even seemed dangerous at times with all the people passing by the reviewing stand. But there were a lot of policemen doing crowd control and so we felt pretty safe.

But as the evening got later and later we were worried about how to get back to our taxi. One man with a radio offered to help us, found us another escort and we barged through the crowd back to our car where our taxi driver was waiting for us. The policemen who had helped us earlier joined our escort and so we were well protected. Then Bob had to tip everyone who had helped us! That’s how they earn some extra money. In our case we were very glad to have their help because crowds here, as everywhere, can be dangerous or at best unpredictable.

So we truly had an amazing experience; one that few international visitors have as you can see from the photos. And fortunately Heidi was ready for an unusual experience.

And it didn’t end there because the next day there were also lots of other independence day activities and again she agreed to come along. We visited a trade fair and did some shopping. Here is Heidi in her very stylish Nigerian headdress. Too bad she didn't buy it!

Then we found a safe place to watch the traditional “devils” parade through the city and traditional dancing.

After a day of rest in Freetown we went off to visit a nature preserve called Tiwai Island, which is inhabited, by lots of varieties of monkeys and chimpanzees in the wild as well pygmy hippos. Unfortunately they are hard to see and I didn’t get any pictures. We just got glimpses of the Red Colobus monkeys flying through the trees. The setting of this island rainforest surrounded by the river is fairly pristine for the moment. But it will only survive if the camp has good relations with the nearby villages and where the local community sees some benefit from the people who visit.

On the way back we visited a school and dropped off some school supplies that Heidi (along with her family) had brought along to distribute to the school children here. Heidi was a big hit when she was teaching the children how to throw a Frisbee.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Human Rights Speaking Tour

We finally got out of Freetown for an upcountry tour organized by the American Embassy and using me as a Fulbright scholar to speak on human rights and alternatives to violence. This gave us only our second good look at the rest of this country (we had taken a quick trip to the second largest city, Bo, earlier). With us from the embassy, organizing the trip, was Amy Challe who added a lot to the meetings.

On our way we discovered that roads ranged from paved and smooth to unpaved, dusty and rocky, but with some new road work evident. When good roads reach more interior cities and towns, it will boost commerce and farming. But we were in an air-conditioned, four wheel drive Embassy vehicle so it was generally comfortable.

In the villages we saw lots of thatched roofs mixed with zinc roofs, walls typically of mud bricks, and plenty of empty, unfarmed land along the way, and in many villages, not much activity. The quietness compared to the noise and bustle of Freetown might be a welcome change but to my eyes life looked rather boring (but then I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and St. Louis). On a separate trip, Betty saw more activity in villages around Bo, especially. This is also the reason why a lot of young people leave the villages for the cities.

But the main features of our trip were the meetings with hundreds of secondary school students, teachers and community leaders who came to our 2-3 hour sessions.

The sessions mainly focused on Human Rights. In Port Loko town we expected dozens of high school students but some 100 showed up. Even so I divided them into groups of 10 (Betty had to step outside because the noise of moving that many metal chairs and desks was ear splitting) and asked them to consider human rights questions then report back to the whole: alternating between male and female student ‘reporters.’

In Makeni, we met with secondary school student and teachers.

In Bo, and Kenema, we met with varying size groups of students and faculty.

And in Bo, one of the more interesting sessions was with key community leaders, including the mayor, an army chaplain, the head of the police, a woman judge, and NGO leaders.

Among questions the participants examined in their groups were these:
You notice the son of your neighbor is going to school but not the daughters. What do you say or do?

You hear screams from your neighbor’s house and realize the man is beating a women (whether his wife or not). What do you do? [Domestic abuse, spouse abuse, was outlawed more clearly in recent legislation]

Preparations are underway for a girl 12 to be circumcised despite her strong protests. The grandmother insists this is the only way for her to become a true woman. You are a member of the girl’s family: what do you do? [Most females in SL undergo circumcision, often at a very young age: even infants have been circumcised. A new law prohibits it for anyone under 18 and then only with the subject’s consent. Chiefs in one area recently supported this limitation. Traditionalists consider it a rite of passage accompanied by cultural training to become a (traditional) woman.]

The local chief (45 years of age) intends to marry a girl 14 whose parents have consented. What do you do? [Early marriages are not uncommon; many young participants during our presentations spoke against it.]

The other main theme focused on was Alternatives to violence. Borrowing a few pages from the Alternatives to Violence Projects started by Quakers for prisons, I asked those in attendance to try a stand-up exercise on violence:

Stand facing someone palm to palm with them. On the count of three, one person pushes the palms of the other. The person on the receiving end usually pushes back, but this doubles the level of violence present. Other options are to hold firm, or avoid (step aside). Leads to lively discussions.

At Bo’s Njala University campus one female student quietly said she never (later she said ‘rarely’) gets mad. And when someone pushes her (is angry) she says “I’m sorry” rather than trying defend herself and cause more anger.

Like students in my university class here (the course this spring has about 60 students – so far), many young Sierra Leoneans are serious about becoming ‘peacemakers’ and helping make their country a good place to live.