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.