Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Grand Finale!

Construction on the youth center has finished. The workers have packed up their things and left (fully certified in basic computer operation!), the walls are layered with a fresh coat of white paint, the curtains that Maryama made hang in the windows, the photographs from the photography class adorn the walls, and a wooden sign, created by our newest team member from Harvard (Amy Wu, ’09) stands in front of the entrance proclaiming its name and purpose to passersby. Maryama and I are preparing to leave, while Amy (called Aminata here in Gobaru) is just beginning; she has a fresh outlook and enthusiasm which brings revitalization to those of us who have been here for a while. We go through most of our days now without considering the little details to which we have grown accustomed, and it is very interesting to reflect back on how we live our life here. How do you flush a toilet without running water? How do you take the shortcut to Pujehun? How do you teach computer to people who don’t speak your language? How do you ride a motorbike in a skirt? Just as we have had to learn these complicated lessons with the help of our host family, we too have become teachers for our newest team member.

The summer school classes Maryama and I taught ended this week, and we finished up the program with a special peer leadership training workshop for the students who we have been working with for the past two months who have demonstrated leadership, scholarship, motivation, and enthusiasm. The workshop lasted for three hours, and included several team-building activities and discussion/planning time. At one point we even blindfolded half the students and took them on a trust walk to a nearby peanut farm planted by a coalition of women working towards gender equality and community development. We crossed through the rainforest, over logs and through mud, and (unfortunately) at one point through a trail of soldier ants. When I think of ants, I think of “A Bug’s Life,” and those cute, harmless little guys. Sierra Leonean soldier ants are a bit different. When those of us who were not blindfolded came across the ants, we instructed our trust-walk partners to “run through this part.” Unfortuantely, our student Sheku did not run fast enough. When we got to the peanut farm, he was still blindfolded and running around in circles smacking different parts of his body and flailing around in pain, trying to remove the biting critters. Other students started to hit him too, just to help out. I should have been a more concerned leader, but, having endured a soldier ant attack myself (and knowing that the pain, while unpleasant, is at least tolerable), I simply enjoyed the blind-folded Sheku ant attack that unfolded before me. After a few minutes he was ant-free and laughing with the rest of us.

Using the peanut farm as an example of a feasible project, we asked the students in groups to create their own projects addressing community issues they expressed earlier in the workshop. One group will plant a youth community garden behind the center to promote agriculture, nutrition, entrepreneurship, and generate funds for the center. Another is doing a food sanitation project in the marketplace. The group working on gender equity will host a soccer tournament with co-ed teams, and the final group is setting up a tutoring program through the center. Amy will meet weekly with the teams to ensure that they are on track with the projects, and if all goes well they will be up and running by the end of the month!

Saturday afternoon we held the opening celebration for the youth center. We spent so much time last week helping our students to prepare speeches and skits. The event was much bigger than I had anticipated- people came from as far as Freetown to cram into the center, trapped for more than five hours by the long list of speakers in the program and the downpour outside. Our MC was the famous Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, a Sierra Leonean medical doctor turned activist and journalist. We were also honored with the presence of the Paramount Chief, the District Chairperson, the District physician, the director of the University of Njala’s public health program, most of the family of David Sengeh (’10), and (most importantly) our wonderful students. It was such a momentous occasion that they actually killed the goat that has been living in our cooking hut for the past year and a half. I wish I wouldn’t have watched it die because that ruined the eating part of the ceremony for me. I am so in awe and grateful for all of these women who arrived at our house the night before the event to prepare all the food. They crammed into our tiny four-bedroom home, and with the dawn we awoke to a mass of ladies (including Ngor Lizzy) cooking the biggest pot of rice I have ever seen. The spoon for the rice was the length of half of my body. I suppose that is how you prepare food for two hundred people, although I am still amazed at the speed and organization of such a feat.

For me the best part of the program was hearing from our students. They spoke not just of the summer school and youth center, but also of the need for education and development. They spoke words of admonishment not just to their peers, but also to their elders- that these aspects of a community are the most important to work toward and build together. We have provided a structure and some basic training in select subjects, but after hearing their voices I have such faith in their ability to learn, to teach each other, and to persevere. They truly understand the importance of collaboration, education, and peace, and I will leave (and hopefully someday soon) return to this place knowing that there is at the very least a core group of young people who are working in unison towards a noble goal.