Sunday, October 9, 2011

Connecting human rights acvists in U.S. & Sierra Leone

Two groups of students have forged a new relationship: human rights students in Sierra Leone and in Mississippi. It holds promise for new understanding between them. The Sierra Leone students formed a group called Project 1991 at the end of our nine-month stay in Sierra Leone 08-09. Some of my human rights students there had very interesting life stories and wanted to share them beyond just in class. Betty collected them and put them on a web page at of the University of Southern Mississippi. They are survivors of a decade-long civil war that began in "1991."

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

Reflections as we end the trip. August 10

We end with some pictures of our friends...

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).

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.

Courage, Principle (August 9, 2011)

Courage, Principle (August 9, 2011)

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.

Scholarships for children

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.

A typical day in Freetown (Betty Press)

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

The Hash Harriers of Freetown (July 31)

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.

Human rights Project 1991 July 30

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 ( then click on Project 1991).