Sunday, October 9, 2011
When they were in my classes in Freetown, SL, they carried out my community service assignement: teaching about human rights for ten hours in local schools. They did a very good job. So they wanted to continue that, and they have, some of them are still doing it. Hence Project 1991 is an on-going program of public education about human rights by a group of these students.
Betty and I met with them in the summer of 2011, two years after we had lived in SL. They had been teaching human rights in public schools, at sports events, and want to expand their work. While we were visiting last summer they elected officers and planned some future events.
Meanwhile at the U of Southern Mississippi, where Betty and I teach, students in the USM Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties decided to make fund raising for Project 1991 one of their projects for fall 2011. The campus group Students for Human Rights is taking the lead in this. And two of the Sierra Leone students are on the USM Center for Human Rights facebook page by that name. A dialogue is beginning.
I am proud of my former SL students for carrying on this important work and with minimal funding over the past two years. If anyone wants to contact them directly, they can find the names of Abdul Lebbie or Alpha Barrie on the facebook page above. Ideally they would like to share stories and experiences with other suriviors of civil wars and other human rights challenges. If you want to reach them, they have their own facebook page at "Project 1991 Promoting Human Rights"
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Gladys, our former housekeeper and cook,
Prince, now a successful computer engineer,
and Dr. Desmond Williams, project advisor for Project 1991.
The dark glasses are hiding are our new identity; not really, just hiding an eye infection called Apollo (pink eye) common in the rainy season.
And lastly our reflections on the trip....
Why Sierra Leone for vacation? Why not England, France, or California? That’s not easy to explain. We lived here from 2008-2009 in a comfortable apartment with a distant view of the ocean and electric power one day out of three (or less). It’s a crowded city; some key roads between towns such as Freetown and Bo and Kenema were partially unpaved (but now are paved). And the Krio common language is one I was not very good at learning.
So why are we here again? I guess it comes down to the people. It sounds like an over-used phrase, but people for the most part are genuinely friendly, welcoming. And I wanted to see some of my former students again. (We got here after most had finished their semester, however).
Both Betty and I wanted to see if the human rights volunteer service some of my students were continuing could be formalized into an on-going initiative with at least some funding. And Betty has been commissioning two local artists and encouraging their work as creative sign painters. And she, along with people in Hattiesburg, are funding the education of several local children at a primary school and wanted to visit them.
Also, we like being at least tangentially involved in a country’s development. The U.S. is so vast, one rarely notices impact of one’s contributions, but there – and here- local initiatives do make a difference.
Finally, we prefer to be at least somewhat out of our comfort zone, away from the mesmerizing effect of constant texting, emails, cell phone calls, computers. Life in the U.S. can be very fulfilling; but we want to know what’s going on in other parts of the world and, if possible, be a part of it.
We’re back home in Hattiesburg, MS. It’s summer HOT. The television news is mostly about the U.S. again. Classes are starting. Betty’s new book of African photos paired with African proverbs is out (and beautiful). www.AfricanWisdomInImageAndProverb.com
I only hope that amidst the hustle and noise of daily life, exciting and rewarding as it is, we can keep a bit of Sierra Leone in our thoughts, rejoicing at their progress, recalling the challenges there. And if you’ve traveled with us this far – I wish the same for you and all the best in your daily life.
Sallieu Kamara and Paul Kamara (no relations) are among a small group of Sierra Leoneans who peacefully resisted the abuses of authoritarian governments here in the 1990s. When a military junta seized power in 1992, they and some other journalists refused to stop reporting about the junta’s violations of human rights. I knew that from my previous round of interviews here in 08 and 09. What I learned today in more detail was the day the two of them refused to be cowed by a show of military force.
Their newspaper For di People (For the People) had been shut by the junta for critical reporting. But they instead launched a human rights organization that publicized the abuses of the junta. One day they were both ordered to appear before a hall full of uniformed military leaders of the junta. They were told in very clear terms that they must stop their criticism of face possible death.
As Sallieu recalls the moment, Paul thanked the military for the invitation to be there. He said the military have the duty to defend the country, and that no one disputed that. But, he added, the people have the duty to defend human rights and he fully intended to continue doing so. He suggested they either kill them there and then or let them go to continue their advocacy of human rights.
Several years later, Paul was persuaded to join the junta briefly to help prepare elections. By this time the junta was mostly headed by civilians. In his brief tenure (one month) he several times refused to sign false documents, further angering the junta. Shortly after his last refusal, he was seriously shot by assailants who clearly meant to kill him. Sallieu witnessed the shooting, which he attributes to the junta or its supporters, and was able to get Paul to a hospital where he survived. Today he is back in the Cabinet of a new, civilian government, as Minister of Youth and Sports.
Before I left for Sierra Leone several people donated money to help pay the school fees for children who otherwise would not be able to attend school. My thanks to the members of the Hattiesburg Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (HUUF) and Hattiesburg Public Library for their donations. Here is a picture of the 6 children who are being sponsored and another of Abdul Lebbie who runs NDC ( Network for Disadvantaged Children) with his wife and twin daughters.
This was my first day to really try to get around Freetown and take care of some the activities that we are supporting here. We were lucky that our favorite taxi driver, Sheku, (the one that we worked with before) had just come back from doing business in another city and was available to help us. He already knows a lot of the people I need to see and where to find them. And it is nice to work with someone who we like and trust. Today he also informed us of the latest political news as one of the main political parties here just had their convention and chose their presidential candidate for the 2012 election. On Sunday we were warned to stay away from the area where the convention was being held due to possible violence and heavy traffic. But from what we heard things stayed pretty quiet.
So today I was off to cash some money. I went to one of the major banks in downtown. After being referred to several different windows they didn’t seem much interested in cashing my dollars so I ended up doing it discreetly with one of the street changers in the back seat of my taxi. That’s not how I would prefer to do it but the banks here are not set up for “tourists”. After that fortunately the traffic was not too bad and we were able to get Bob to his next appointment at Fourah Bay College on time.
Then Sheku and I went off to find Meddish, the artist I have been working with. I had some money for him and I also wanted him to do a few more paintings that I could take back with me to sell for him. Meddish only speaks Krio so Sheku helped me out with the translation. Sheku also agreed to buy the boards, and get them cut so Meddish would have something to paint on. Meddish is one of the few people who doesn’t have a cell phone so locating where he is always takes time. His friends at a kiosk where he cuts hair said that he was at his mother’s. So after about an hour of searching here and there we finally found him. This is just another example of what it is like to do business here. It takes time and patience and bearing up under the heat and humidity. Meddish is an untrained painter but I think he has real potential. I am advising him to do some pop art type work some of which you can see in the photos. Later I took him to a small art center where he might be able to sell his work here. He doesn’t have much confidence in his work and I so I am trying to encourage him.
These are the pictures that he painted for me and I picked up later in the week. I think these are some of his best. if anyone is interested in buying these please let me know.
Later in the day I also got in touch with another artist called Sparta. I had sold two of his paintings and so he, too, was so pleased to have some extra money. People are really struggling here to survive. Sparta is a good graphic artist but he doesn’t have regular work. I met him because he had painted the sign for the Obama International Bakery back in 2009.
After working with Meddish I went off to Cardiff Preparatory, the school that was near where we used to live and where I took so many wonderful photos. I was shocked to see that in place of the solid school building there was now a structure entirely covered in tin sheets.
As it turned out there had been a dispute with the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints over who owned the land where the school was located. So one weekend the church sent in bulldozers and knocked the school down. The only things saved were the benches…all the computers, books, and supplies lost or taken. Unbelievable! The teachers and the children marched in protest up to the Presidential compound that is located near the school. There was also TV coverage by that time. President Koroma saw what happened and ordered the church to rebuild the school. But so far they have only built this tin structure. Later it was determined that the school is on government land not on church property.
The picture with the girls running was how the school used to look in 2009.
Florence is the deputy headmaster at Cardiff and we have been sponsoring several children at the school with the help of some other of our friends. One of them is Minkailu who had just broken his arm. The other who is doing really well with her grades is Jestina, shown here with Florence and her mother.
The other two are no longer at Cardiff. Sarah had a problem with her family and is now at the SOS Children’s home with her little brother. I went to see her just before we left the country. She seemed a little sad but gave me a big hug. The home is a good one as far as childens'homes go so I think she will be all right. Jestina and Sarah are special to me because their picture from 2009 is featured in my book. Another student graduated from Cardiff and is now in a state junior secondary school. So things change!
By that time I was tired and ready to go back to the guesthouse for a break. It’s a problem to keep one’s energy up in this chaotic urban environment. As we were driving back Sheku was stopped by a traffic cop who asked to look at his documents. Sheku just showed his driver’s license but would not give it to the cop before knowing what the offense was. If you give over the license it is hard to get it back sometimes. I started writing down the cop’s name and number and so he got upset with me. So finally what was the offense…too many decorations on the car!!! The cops are just harassing people, trying to get money. Finally I think he decided we were too much trouble and he wouldn’t get anything from us so he let us go. This is something taxi drivers have to contend with on a daily basis.
We are staying at a very pleasant guesthouse. We have AC and lights 24 hours and even more important WIFI...though the internet is so slow that is frustrating to use it and with the heavy rains the server is often down.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Each week a group of men and women from a variety of income levels and nations, mostly Sierra Leoneans, go jogging through some of the back footpaths and crowded local streets of Freetown. They often get lost – intentionally. It’s part of what is known as the weekly Hash Harriers run, part of a global program in many countries.
Today Betty and I joined them after a two-year absence. Eventually, every runner who has completed 25 runs gets ‘named,’ at a ceremony that has the runner kneeling and being doused with a bucket of water. Names often reflect personal attributes, interests, or physical characteristics. We were fortunate to get ‘named’ two years ago as (Betty) Mami Yoko, and I as Bai Bureh, a ‘warrior’ who led a rebellion in the 1800s against paying taxes to the British colonial government here.
I like to exchange greetings with local residents as we run through their neighborhoods. And if you get behind, residents kindly point the direction the group has gone. The ‘trail’ is marked by periodic handfuls of confetti, indicating you are “on-on.” If you come to an X you have to turn back; this gives slower runners a chance to catch up.
Two years ago, the run ended in the same place as today. Toward the final half-mile or so, runners can speed up if they like. Two years ago I was flying down a hill toward the finish in first place when a tall Sierra Leonean flew past me. This time only one runner, a guy in dreds, was ahead, and I sprinted to catch him. I was gaining as I heard calls from the other runners that I had gone the wrong way, and the dreds guy wasn’t even part of our group. But it was a fun outing as I loped in well behind the first group of runners. Others walk a shorter route, as Betty did today, taking some photos along the way.
Two years ago when I was teaching human rights at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, I sent students in both my classes (a total of about 250 students) out on a community service project to teach human rights in local schools. They did it; and they did well, according to their reports and m follow-up contacts with their supervisors.
Today, two years later, some of my students are still teaching human rights in local high schools, passing out leaflets at some sporting events, and conducting a radio program that has expanded from one to now two hours a week. I am impressed with their volunteer spirit and dedication to human rights education.
It’s the longest-running community service project I’ve seen students do anywhere, except for a few of my students at the University of Southern Mississippi who kept tutoring Hispanic children in English more than 18 months after our class in Latin American politics ended.
The students here in Freetown call themselves Project 1991, named after the year the civil war began (it ended in 2002). It started when Betty Press selected some of the accounts my students had written about their wartime and peacetime experiences. Many said they wanted to be human rights activists; and they study in the Peace and Conflict program here. They are survivors-turned-activists.
We met on campus with a dozen of the most active members of Project 1991. For three hours they discussed progress to date and plans for the future. In discussions that at times were heated, they adopted three principles: transparency, democracy, and 50/50 (male-female leadership in the group). They plan to transform from a recognized campus organization to a national “community-based organization,” and plan to carry on their volunteer education efforts.
They need modest funding, however, for local transportation, human rights t-shirts, placards, and possible renting an office. They have a Facebook page (Project 1991) and an initial web page (www.usm.edu/humanrights then click on Project 1991).
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
On a four-hour trek into the Gola, one of the world’s dwindling number of tropical rain forests, Vandi Bobby Kallon, pauses, takes a deep breath, and smiles serenely. “I’m happy if I come each day to the forest. The air is pure.”
We’ve just hiked up a rolling hill overlooking a small grassy plain where buffalo roam. There are signs, but we don’t see the buffalo. Bird life is plentiful, however, and apparently some rare birds live here.
Vandi has walked with expert bird watchers through this forest, which straddles the Liberia/Sierra Leone border. He already knows a great deal about the birds, identifies them correctly and helps us spot them. But we are only on the edge of the forest, and the area has much new growth from after the time logging was stopped in 1986. The interior areas are still natural rainforest. Two intrepid visitors hiked the length of it with Vandi in seven days.
Palmer Finando, who arranged our trip, showed us one unusual sight which were some gravestones left during tribal wars between the Mende chased the Gola people out of this area in the early 1900’s.
The challenge is probably political. In Guatemala, for example, a rainforest has been invaded in some areas by illegal logging, some of it by the military. In Brazil, development and roads are steadily opening new portions of the rain forests to settlements and business. Here, the forest’s timber is still an attraction.
But Sierra Leone has taken important steps to guard its forest from destruction. Several dozen guards patrol the area; and there is a buffer zone of community forests where residents are free to use a sustainable amount of timer and animals. Tourism is bringing in small amounts of money for the local villagers near the forest.
Palmer Finando, a really nice man with a vision for the future of Gola, is the forest department’s tourism director in Kenema, nearest city to the forest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.golarainforest.org.
Monday, August 1, 2011
On the drive back with Joseph Lamine of Freetown and Cindy Nofziger, the organizers of Schools for Salone, we stop at one of the other 15 villages their group has built with local labor as the villagers’ contribution. It is Kpakuma, another small cluster of homes on a narrow dirt road and over a log bridge. The women recognize Cindy and Joseph and quickly group behind her singing a traditional song and dancing as they proceed slowly through part of the village. The children are excited to receive pencils.
Christian Kijam tells me his mother is living there and is 116. I ask to meet her. She comes walking out of her home, slowly but steadily, and sits on the front porch to greet her visitors. She doesn’t look near that age; and even with questions I cannot determine her age. Often people in rural areas are not quite sure of their age
Schools for Salone (July 24)
On Sunday we were invited to the opening of a new primary school built by Schools For Salone in Lungi village near Bo. The students and teachers from Ventura, California raised the funds for the school. At the opening there were lots of speeches, singing and cultural activities to entertain the villagers and the guests. The dancers were in masks and costumes, part of the secret men’s (Poro) and women’s’ (Bundu) society, part of the deep cultural underpinnings of Sierra Leone society, especially in the rural areas. In this case the pictures tell the story of how excited and appreciative this village is to have a good, well-built school in which their children can learn.
Betty photographs babies being weighed on a sidewalk in front of a clinic under rehabilitation, part of Sierra Leone’s new law offering free pre and post natal health care for babies and mothers. Free, except when you need to purchase drugs. But wait in a long line and you get your baby weighed or get high protein food supplements given by the Food and Agriculture Administration of the UN. Some were definitely malnourished.
After lunch of cassava leaves and rice (delicious), Gibril Bassie, who runs a human rights organization here, drives me to the Njala University campus. Retiring Dean Abu Seasy shows me around, explaining his lecture classes were usually about 300 students, while a student mentions his government classes had only 40. The main campus, a good drive from the city, was destroyed during the civil war (1991-2001).
We find an Internet café and mange to upload some blog entries, and then join Gibril for refreshments at sitting outside a local café on the outskirts of town. Gerbil, whom I’ve known since 2008, was a military officer, then a Karmajor (armed local militia that fought rebels in contested parts of the country. Though like many here, he has traveled abroad, he chose to return to Sierra Leone after the war. His program visits local schools and community groups to discuss human rights laws and development.
Edward John Bull, SL’s national director of the Catholic Charity Caritas drives up and joins us. SL is changing in visible ways (more paved roads, more homes) and invisible ways, he says: people are less focused on their extended families and more on ‘nuclear’ or immediate families; there is some upward movement into the ‘upper lower class,’ and a small but growing middle class. But there is little movement of the very poor; and the gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing.
Unfortunately it has been too hard to load the pictures for this post Betty will try to add some for the next post.
Monday, July 25, 2011
Lansana sits on a wooden bench on the front porch of his small home in Mandu, a farming village about 18 miles from Bo. The dirt, pot-holed, rutted road, runs from the Mende region to the Temene region (the other major ethnic group). This whole region was engulfed by the vicious civil war of 1991 to 2002. The movie “Blood Diamonds” portrays some of the violence of that war, including amputations by the rebels. But today, a decade of peace later, there have been two peaceful presidential elections and a change of power. Another election is due in 2012.
During the war, massive numbers fled the country or to Freetown or the bush. Lansana had to flee his home and run to the bush. Living in a temporary shelter he built in the bush, he and his family stayed for several years. Some of his children made it to Ghana and were later resettled in Australia where they live today.
But life in the village is not easy. “I’m penniless,” he says. Villagers live on the crops they grow (such as rice and cassava) and the little extra they sell. A group called Friends of Sierra Leone, mostly ex-Peace Corps volunteers, is helping the village construct a cement floor pig-raising facility that could boost local incomes. The government has constructed a grain milling and storage building along with a 36-foot well (none of it yet in use). There is a local school. Houses are mostly mud-walled with old tin roofs or thatch.
I write down and the practice with residents some words in the Mende language. All too soon we are heading back to town, riding again with Bob Moran, a former Peace Corps volunteer from 1972 who still lives in the same village where he was a volunteer. He works for the local Catholic Church at present and is the adoptive father of a locally born son. He visits his family in the U.S. from time to time, but he loves living here.
After a day on the campus of Fourah Bay College to see some of my former students and ones Betty helped coordinate into a human rights education project (more on that later), our third day in SL we head for Bo, the second largest city. Up at 4:30 to catch the 6:20 government bus, we meet Bockarie Kamara, General Manager of the Sierra Leone road transport Corporation. He is supervising the loading, making sure everyone has his or her numbered seat with baggage ticketed and stored on board. Until two years ago he was living in the U.K. like many others in the SL Diaspora. He even likes the damp, cold wealthier of the U.K. But he decided to move back for a very clear reason: “This is home.”
The 130 miles or so to Bo, when we lived here, was a dust-caking, jarring venture on the unpaved, pothole-filled sections. Today, it is paved the whole way. We even doze off in our school-bus type seats (sans headrests). We stop at a crowded area downtown but before we can haul our two small suitcases down to the ground, two fellow passengers graciously offer to help and, suitcases in hand, lead us to a taxi. The two men, Albert and Samuel, are military officers (in civilian clothes). We exchange cell phone numbers and agree to meet socially later in town.
Mohammed Jalloh takes us in his taxi to the Imperial Hotel, a small one at the edge of town where we have stayed before: quiet, small courtyard and restaurant for a reasonable price ($45 for a double). I recognize the gate guard, Edward, who recognized us from two previous stays. Betty likes being in Mende country (the predominant ethnic group here) because her name is a popular one among the Mende, as hotel staff members tell her.
The main transportation in Bo is motorcycle taxies (Okada) for the equivalent of 25 cents a ride. That evening, after a visit to some villages, we hail an Okada in the dark and ride smoothly and at a modest speed into the town. The driver explains he is earning money to continue his higher education in agricultural management. This is a farming country, one with many challenges, as we learn on our visit to a village 18 miles from Bo.
When you land in Sierra Leone you’re not in the capital, Freetown. You are in Lungi, across a very big bay that takes at least half an hour in a fast passenger speedboat. The alternatives are a shaky old helicopter, or a slow moving ferry that doesn’t operate at night. We chose the speedboat for $40 each. Soon the lights of the city were becoming brighter. The city crowds down to the Atlantic ocean, squeezed by low mountains that early Portuguese explorers said resembled lions – thus the name Sierra “Leone.”
A friend welcomed us and took us to his guesthouse with air conditioning and a view of the ocean and bay. The next morning we awoke to a different world, familiar from two years ago but new again: a downtown of tall office buildings competing for space with squat ones of one to several stories, all lining narrow streets overflowing with people, fixed-route, taxies (25 cents per passenger); unpaved back streets dotted with small kiosks and shops; high security walls around wealthier residences often against modest ones; low income neighborhoods of two room homes of brick, or mud walls, mingling with one-room tin shacks perched on steep valley walls with winding creeks used for public bathing. A city of contrasts, an example of income disparity that is global and growing.
There has been some progress in Sierra Leone since we left here two years ago: several key roads in Freetown are being widened. Electricity is a daily occurrence, though this is the rainy season when water levels are higher behind hydropower dams. There are still powerless periods in the dry season we are told. More schools are being built in rural areas. That’s where we are heading next – to Bo, the second city of Sierra Leone, and visits to some villages.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Sierra Leone is moving ahead too, in terms of peace after a civil war. I will be glad to see some of my former students. We want to see if some of them can work with local SL ngos to continue their human rights education efforts.
Well, we're packed. Flying Thursday to London, then after a week with our foster daughter, off to SL. See you there.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
In Kenya, some activists joined the government and actually obstructed justice and human rights, though most kept true to their cause. But donors made the mistake in Kenya of thinking it was time to shift their donations to the government and away from ngos since the 'good guys' had won. Well, that was a mistake, a corruption spiked and abuses continued, including the muder of two human rights investigators.
Sierra Leone, best known to many as the place of 'blood diamonds' which were used to fund the civl war that ended in 2002, is actually a peaceful country, democratic, and making progress on institutionalizing human rights. But many challenges remain, including disputes between political parties.
But a recent study by a Sierra Leonean found that contrary to conventional wisdom, a significant portion of citizens are voting across ethnic lines for the candidate of their choice. this is encouraging because ethnic voting loyalties can lead to violent clashes.
A post-script - on Somalia. The rains have failed for two seasons, according to an NPR report July 10. It's worse than Ethiopia 1984 or Somalia early 90s. Many are two weak to reach refugee camps across the border. The Shabab militant Islamic group, according to NPR, denied access to donor groups until recently. Now the U.S. is considering significant help; other donors would follow.
We'll be taking you along on the Sierra Leone trip. So thanks for your interest. And best wishes for a good remainder of the summer. Please post questions, comments; it's easier than it used to be. And you can share this blog with friends who might be interested. Bye for now
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
The following is from my wife, Betty Press, who has just completed a book with some of her best photos from Africa. Since I am a big fan of her work, I thought you wouldn’t mind getting this email about it. Enjoy! Bob Press
I have some very exciting news. The book that I have been working on for the last year is now a reality. It is called I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb and consists of a selection of my B&W African photographs combined with related African proverbs compiled by my good friend Annetta Miller, a lifelong resident of East Africa. It is published in partnership with Books For Africa.
The book presents a different “image” of Africa, one of hope, celebration, and appreciation for what the African culture has given to the whole world.
Please check out details at www.AfricanWisdomInImageAndProverb.com. The book will be out in early September. For those of you who want to be among “the first” to get the book you can preorder on the web site and get free shipping. The books will be sent out when they arrive from the printer.
There will be several events surrounding the launch of the book and I will be sending out updates on these events as the time comes close.. Or follow me on my blog or facebook. Links are on the web page.
I know there are many people who are interested in Africa who would like to know about this book so please share this with friends on Facebook or send me their email addresses so I can add them to my mailing list.
If you do not want to receive any more information on the book just reply with this message in the subject line “Thanks for this; no updates needed.”
Thanks for your interest in my work.
www.AfricanWisdomInImageAndProverb.com book website with photos; & to order
www.iambecauseweareafricanwisdom.blogspot.com betty’s book blog