Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Seeking alternatives to campus violence
Recently a student was killed and several others hospitalized as the result of a campus club initiation at Fourah Bay College, where I teach human rights as a Fulbright fellow (2008=-2009). Turns out beatings, and rape of females, is a fairly regular part of campus club initiations, at least in recent years. And last year students destroyed their dormitories in a rampage that followed disputes between the rival ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ over campus elections. (The faction names do not designate ethnicity.)
I usually don’t voice my opinion on issues in the classroom, but in my large (130 enrolled) freshman class on human rights, I spoke out strongly to condemn the violence in club initiations and suggested an alternative barrier to club membership: 25 hours of community service. Would graduates prefer to look back one day and tell their children ‘I beat up guys and raped women initiates,’ or say ‘I helped build a school?’
The general sentiment (I hope) in the classroom was against the violence. In the next class I challenged students to consider public statements against it. Several said privately (and one said in class) they were afraid of being beaten if they opposed this ugly norm.
So I have spoken to some of the campus elected leaders and we plan to meet soon to map out public ways to oppose violence and propose a difficult, but non-violent requirement for club initiation, such as community service. Stay tuned.

Obama; schools for Sierra Leone; research; Saharan dust

• Obama. Everyone I know in Freetown was scrambling around to find where to watch the inauguration on TV. The American Embassy provided live coverage in about ten locations; local restaurants featured it. I watched eight hours of live coverage with neighbors in a very modern, three-story house next door. It’s an exciting time for the U.S. – and the world.
The sentiment here is that Obama does not just belong to the Americans; he belongs to the world. And many people in our neighborhood still call out “Obama” when they see me. He is inspiring a lot of people at home and abroad. One commentator in the U.S., a Republican speech writer, suggested Obama’s ‘honeymoon’ might be a long one because the problems he faces are so big and everyone wants him – needs him – to succeed. McCain has said some supportive things recently about his ending torture and plans to close Guantanamo. Image shows children in Bo reading an Obama poster which is being sold in the market.

• Schools for Sierra Leone. Some ex-Peace Corps volunteers to Sierra Leone continue to stay abreast of developments in this country – and help when they can. A group of them have been raising funds for and building schools. Cindy Nofziger is Executive Director of a program called Schools for Salone ( ) and has an on-going fund-raising and construction effort underway supported by ex PC volunteers and others.

• Research. I am moving ahead on my research, tracking down former human rights activists and democracy advocates about what they did and how from 1977-2003. It is not always easy to find them, but once I get a cell no. I’m on their trail. And everyone has been most receptive. I use a digital recorder and upload it onto my computer then start the long process of transcribing them.

• Dust. They call it harmattan; the dust that blows in off the Sahara desert. It is so thick that it has obscured the ocean a few miles below our apartment, and even part of the nearer valley. The dust slips in and makes you cough a lot, covering anything left out with a thin, almost invisible coating. But it doesn’t last forever, fortunately.

Scholarships needed for these children

• On a very modest scale, Betty Press ( had a few readers of this blog respond to her notice that $60 pays for one term of education for children at the Cardiff Preparatory school near our apartment. She has in mind families the principal has identified whose parents have died and who are being raised by their grandparents or whose income is limited. Raven Wilke, back in our U.S. hometown of Hattiesburg, MS. has taken this to another level, raising funds for these children with local fundraiser. A big thank you to Raven for doing this. But more help is always needed. Image shows Sarah and Jestina who are in need of scholarships.

Electric ‘marathon’

In the West, news after storms usually notes how many people are without electricity for a few days. Here the country’s power supply is so limited that most sections of the capital city (Freetown) get only sporadic electricity. Sometimes we go two or even three days (and nights) without it. You develop a rhythm around the power supply: when it comes, you plug in cell phones and computers to recharge them. And you are tempted to keep working on your computer, which I did recently.
The power came on late Saturday night (shortly after I had run our generator for a couple of hours and treated myself to a video on computer screen: Men in Black II. So I stayed up till about 2 a.m. then got up at 7 a.m. Sunday and worked straight for about eight hours on the computer, making ‘final’ changes on an edited proof of an article on Liberian human rights activism scheduled for publication in an academic journal soon.
Still the power continued – all day Sunday, all evening. And I found myself wandering around the empty apartment (Betty was temporarily in the U.S.) not wanting to go to bed while the electricity was still going. It’s a weird feeling. About 2 a.m. I finally succumbed. But at 7 the next morning the power was still on, so back to the computer for email. I was relieved when it finally went off: free at last.
(I’m writing this on battery power)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

We finally got out of Freetown!  Our first upcountry visit was to Bo, the second largest town in Sierra Leone.  A friend offered to take us but the visit almost didn't happen because the gas stations were not selling fuel due to a dispute over lowering the price of gas.  We went to bed disappointed but awoke to our friend waking us the next morning saying he had managed to get gas.  So off we went.  It was a grueling almost 5 hour trip over some pretty bad roads.  The road is being rebuilt but large parts consisted of either mostly potholes or roughly graded  dusty stretches.

Bo was a very friendly place to visit.  I liked it because people didn't mind having their pictures taken.  Bob liked it because he met some Human Rights activists and so he got a better pictures of what had happened outside of Freetown.  We walked around the center of town, stopping to talk to people in the busy market. I bought an Obama poster for Bob at one of the stands. Even here Obama is popular.  A lot of the shops advertised that they were in the diamond trade which made think of the infamous role that diamonds have played in Sierra Leone's war.    

Since there were few car taxis the only way to get around was to take motorcycles, which we  did.  We tried to find drivers who had helmuts until we realized that most helmuts did not have straps and were mostly worn for show.

We only stayed one night but it was great to get out of Freetown and see a bit more of the countryside.  The only bad thing was the long return trip.