Monday, July 25, 2011

Village visit (July 23, part 2)

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.

On the road again (to Bo) (July 23, part 1)

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.

Return to Sierra Leone (July 20)

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

Heading to Sierra Leone, just as a former journalist colleague is prepring a cover story for The Christian Science Monitor magazine on myths we have about Africa. Honestly, what are the first images you have when you think of Africa? If you've had the good fortune to have visited the continent, the images may be of beautiful landscapes, hard-working families, playful children, bustling cities, and yes, slums, poverty and dirt roads. But Africa is moving ahead. More democracy, better health, more education, and more wealth - a growing middle class.

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

getting ready

We are getting ready to return to Sierra Leone for a visit. This has meant renewing passports, getting visas, getting malaria tablets, and emailing ahead to confirm old cell numbers. I hope to interview some former human rights activists I met in 08-09. At that time I asked them to recount how activists had stood up non-violently to authoritarian rule against three different governments (two of them military). Finally, in 2002, the civil war ended, and democracy took hold again. Now, in preparing for a book I plan on Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Liberia's peaceful struggles, I want to learn more about what has happened since democracy was restored; and what happened to those human rights activists.

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

Betty's new Africa photo/proverb book coming soon

Dear friends and colleagues:
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 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.
Betty Press book website with photos; & to order betty’s book blog