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.