Thursday, June 12, 2008

The beginning...

My host in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Madame Fo, tells me that
"here, there is no such thing as Aunts and Uncles, cousins, nieces, or
nephews. Here, Every person is a brother or a sister, every woman is a
mother; every man a father."
Her statement resonates the truth of what I have experienced this far into my journey (which is only the very beginning of my first chapter in this country). There is a family and a community that has been open to me here, and even during my transit through London. I have been adopted in a mode of inconceivable generosity, and for this I am eternally grateful!

I was in transit between East Aurora, NY and Gobaru SL when I met Auntie Maggie, and untie Umu in Uncle Josiah's London flat. They are Sierra Leonean citizens who have been scattered across the globe, and have been kind enough to take me in. Auntie Hannah, who has committed her life to empowering and honoring women doing grassroots around the world, reminds me every day that
"if a woman cannot do it, then it cannot be done."

She tells us of an award ceremony in which she honored a principle from a rural school district in SL who taught throughout the country's civil war, when most left. "If we weren't doing this work, would this woman ever have been recognized for all that she has done? Certainly not. This work is what keeps the world going. It (and the women who carry it out) are irreplaceable." This wisdom was the best I could carry with me to Gobaru, SL, a place which has the highest maternal mortality in the world, a place which struggles with teenage pregnancy (53 girls dropped of the secondary school in the community this year alone due to pregnancy), a place in which men outnumber women in university almost 20:1 in the sciences, 3:1 in humanities, but most importantly a place where the ability, spirit, and compassion of women (and men too!) is immeasurable. I will be working with Auntie Umu (the director of the NGO Saving Lives through Alternative Options), two Harvard Students (Maryam Janani, and Amy Wu), and four students from th nearby University of Njala, with the same goal that Auntie Hannah speaks of- to recognize the abilities and talents of youth in the community (especially the young women), giving them a safe and empowering space in which to work and learn, seek help physically, mentally and emotionally, and communicate with other members of the community.

With the help of a Davis Grant for Peace we will be constructing the Pujehun Youth Center for Peace and Wellness. The idea for the center originated from an expressed need by the community, and will be implemented with the assistance of the Harvard College Sierra Leone Initiative, Saving Lives through Alternative Options, the United Nations Peace Building Commission for Sierra Leone, and Sierra Leone is one of two countries in which the UN is launching a pilot project to focus on rebuilding after conflict, instead of just intervening in the conflict and then pulling out. We share this goal, and plan a center where youth can study at night (one of the only lit places in the area), provide peer health counseling in contraceptives, mental health, and wellness (in addition to a referral services), a section for clinical services (for the times when visiting health professionals come to the community), and a space for teaching and learning. With the University of Njala students, we will implement the peer health advising program, a computer class, a class on photography and wellness, as well as workshops on human and children's rights.

I have travelled to Freetown on Sunday night, accompanied by Auntie Umu. We came by car, ferry and then another car, and I only had glimpses of the city by dark. The scenes become like those in a flip book, and the more I try to trace each instant as an image, the more I try to memorize these lines, the more overwhelmed and blank my mind becomes. In some sense, there is no way to process these things so quickly. Every day I spend here I try to capture and understand these scenes, and although they are constantly changing, they have so much in common that they begin to appear uniform. I should try hardest not to think of them as such. That each pocket and street I pass is somebody's home, somebody's life- that is a difficult thing to register in a split second.

The people I have met in Freetown like to discuss politics and often go to great lengths to explain their preferences for specific candidates or officials. I was also able to meet a few of the candidates and politicians themselves. Most often, they speak of what needs to be done to take this country off the bottom of the list of underdeveloped countries. Advise and ideas circle through the room continually- "we must make the country, then make the money." "It is impossible to be in power and not be part of the network of corruption." "People must leave the city and go back to the land." Oh to have such answers! I am wary of these prescriptions. I am especially cautions of suggestions that we send people back to their villages, if we ourselves are unwilling to go and live there. If these are our solutions, let us answer to them ourselves, with our own lives.

Unfortunately, on the second day of my stay, a tree cutting company had a mishap (well actually, they just neglected to tie the tree before cutting it) and we greeted the midday with a giant crash and two bedrooms caved in. Mr. and Mrs. Fo, now referring to themselves as refugees, watched as their possessions were rescued from the rooms, and stacked in the living room or into empty water barrels. They relocated to a different house, while four of us remained in the only room with a ceiling still. That night, as the only thing guaranteed in life, it rained. The house flooded, and yet again to relocated the contents of the living room to the porch outside. Oh what a surprising arrival in SL. In spite of all this, the Fo's have been unwaveringly kind and helpful.

In Freetown, Auntie Umu, Maryam and I met with the head of USAID in Sierra Leone, in addition to the President of the University of Njala. Yesterday, we travelled by bus to Bo (a fantastic ride in which I shared a seat with a live chicken!) and am now staying with the family of David Sengeh ('10) and the beautiful baby Nyalimia. Monday, we head to Gobaru!