The staff acknowledged that we were supposed to receive our next walkaround allowance the day before, but made no effort to get it to us. Many had exhausted their funds the night before and had been counting on this payment for their after-school beers.
My new language teacher, Obama (not to be confused with the US president, who elected to skip Sierra Leone on his African tour), gave us a number of Krio phrases to enter into the "Best Phrase of the Week" contest. The prize this week was ice cream, so the competition was stiff. My entry could be translated to "No matter how long the turd gets, it will eventually break off", or "Nothing lasts forever". This was an inspiring metaphor for the remaining eight weeks of our PST journey.
We had a peer teach session, so I elected to crack open the SS4 syllabus and teach binary numbers. I had the other trainees translate their names into binary and sound them out with two different tongue clicks.
The Salone 3 couple who had written the cookbook taught us how to prepare "Village Marinara" sauce using only locally sourced ingredients. They also told us about the trials of keeping pets at site, and two PCVs' experiences with monkey and crocodile ownership.
We did a community mapping exercise where we divided the villagers up into age/gender groups and had each group draw a map to highlight their priorities. The men only really cared about the palm wine bar, while the women focused on the market and water well.
The last class of the day was on dealing with people begging for money. The general consensus among LCFs and VATs was that asking for money and sharing what you have is a big part of the culture and you should routinely dole out small amounts to close friends and neighbors. This would not have been my first instinct.
Football field next to my house
One approach to discouraging bad behavior
Teaching our fake classes
Definitely doing this in every classroom of my school
Village of Jembe
Our health session for the day was one of many on sexual relations, and we were informed that 90% of PC volunteers are sexually active during their service" – this statistic was particularly interesting since at least a fourth of the group had a serious relationship going back in the States. They had shipped in a PCV from across the country to talk about her "host country national" boyfriend; she was given a 30-second spot, wherein she revealed that she did in fact have such a relationship, and was promptly loaded into a jeep to be taken straight back to her village. Three-hundred dollars in gas well spent.
In our session on chemistry experiments, one of the tech trainers used his mouth to suck an acid into a pipette; it was actually supposed to be a base, but they had failed to label the chemicals. We didn't practice siphoning laboratory chemicals but we did learn how to use litmus paper. The VATs informed us that none of our village schools had the equipment to perform such experiments. The trainees had a meeting following this session to decide how to cope with the tech trainers being completely useless.
The Tiwai/Gola Forest trip that was in the works for the weekend was finally declared a no-go because the government had hoisted the rates for all parks to $20/person. $100 had been allotted for the entire group, so all we could manage was a single bus for Kenema (and we had to talk them down from $150).
Our language class went to the lorry park to talk to cukri ladies about what they sold; for some reason they seemed a bit frustrated after we asked for every single dish they made and its price, then left without buying anything.
Lorry park monkey
Cookery shop lady
For lunch we went to a minimall restaurant that served goat soup that tasted disturbingly like an Asian market. Alyssa said she was going to the bathroom then disappeared for half an hour, leaving her plate of food untouched; we searched high and low and alerted all nearby police before finally discovering her in an internet cafe.
Down the street, we discovered a soft serve ice cream machine that served up large cups for 2000 leones. This was amazing. Shortly thereafter, some guy approached me to ask for a set of lucky lottery numbers.
Only entry in the guidebook for Kenema: diamond shopping
Boiled groundnuts, served in someone's chemistry homework
On the trail in the Kambui Hills
Sheep and female condom?
I went to another 2-hour Mass with Rebecca, then looked into buying a bike. I had concocted a plan to start a bike coop/rental microenterprise that we could use during training, then hand off to the community. A decent Mountain Trek went for about $75. Nice road bikes were available for less than $50, but sadly, there were no nice roads on which to use them.
I talked to two guys from Massachusetts who were working with a local church to map unmapped villages. They had been in-country 4 days (their first international trip), and had hiked, on average, 25km through the bush each of those days, and had thus far discovered 12 new villages. They had forded many chest-deep rivers and encountered three spitting cobras. Having been in-country for 4 weeks and having done nothing of any value, talking to them was a slap in the face. I put out feelers for an invitation to go with, but got nothing.
As it turns out, New York is bordered by a jungle paradise, and I ventured out onto a series of bush paths that eventually led me to a very shisto-rific river; with no sandals, I elected to return the way I had come. When I got home, I found two LCFs on my veranda who were speaking with Mama Susan about my progress cooking and brooking and speaking Krio – I had not really done any of these things - this would become a running gag in my host family.
My street in New York
Jungles of New York
Obama gave us the Krio assignment of going to a tailor shop and getting the names of twenty different styles. The tailor we found was able to name two. I led an after school bush walk towards the village of Baka, but by the time I had actually assembled everyone, we had less than an hour of daylight and were forced to stop short. While I was out, Daryn stopped by to talk to my family about my progress brooking, cooking, and speaking Krio.
Obama chose to teach us parts of the body; he pointed to each part on himself and we rattled them off – then he pointed to his crotch. Did our teacher just ask us to give the word for penis? This wasn't in the book; perhaps it was a misunderstanding. After we were quiet for a time, he went through all the other parts again, and then, once again, pointed to his crotch. When none of us responded, he declared that our homework was to ask our host family for the name of our respective gender-specific parts. This would be unlikely to happen in most American classrooms.
I skipped a session on gender equality to go work on my computer at the adjacent hotel. In the lobby, there was a veritable mountain of books from Canada on such varied topics as windsurfing and Canadian waterfowl. A NGO worker informed us that they had been sitting there for some months and were probably up for grabs. I immediately set about finding a way for each volunteer to assemble a box of books to take to their site the following week for their school's library. The owner was sick and took a week to contact the Rotarian lady in charge of the books' distribution, and when I finally got ahold of her she informed me that the books had been claimed and would be immediately distributed to Bo-area schools. I am guessing that, when you read this, they will be in the lobby still.
Now that our language competency had reached the necessary level, Obama began to unload his collection of dirty jokes. These were plenty dirty, but not actually jokes in the truest sense of the word, since they lacked a punchline or any discernable humor, and mostly just made you feel uncomfortable.
After school, we got an earlier start for the previously attempted bush walk, and this time crossed the final stream before Baka. We wanted to keep going but the host family members we had brought along insisted on turning around. When we initially resisted, they talked to some villagers in Mende and claimed that they had warned of bad men and a devil bush ahead.
First casualty of brooking
Chicken visiting our Krio class
Since every woman in the country cooks on a three-stone fire in a semi-enclosed space, and uses a ton of firewood, and is slowly dying of lung cancer, I thought a good general secondary project would be rocket stove construction. The design was easy enough and the workshop at Mapco had a brick maker, but obtaining clay turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. Though there were piles of bricks all over town, apparently the only way to get the clay we needed was to take an expensive bus ride twenty miles down the road and bring back six bags full – and we wouldn't know the price up front. Progress on this project was slow after that.
We had a two-hour mid-training assessment in the afternoon where they measured our aptitude in language, cross-cultural aspects, safety and security, the education system, and community development. Questions included "What are five ways in which Sierra Leone is different from America?", "What are four tenants of Peace Corps' philosophy for development?", and "What is the duty officer's phone number?" - some of the questions, I declined to answer on principle. What would happen if we failed this? According to a guide we had been handed at orientation and I had not opened until just this moment, we needed to score a 60% in all areas to be recommended for swear-in. Suffering through ten weeks of PST, then being rejected at the last moment because I hadn't correctly memorized a phone number might just result in me losing my mind.
News of a mandatory Saturday session sparked an uproar. It was bad enough that they managed to fill 9 hours of every weekday with senseless classes, but now they wanted our weekends too? We finally convinced them to cancel all our breaks (not they couldn't possibly slice an hour off the 3-hour gender equality talk) and move Intro to Islam and our gardening session up a day. "It's going to be a long day, don't expect to go home at 5:30", Tondi cautioned. Our gardening session turned out to be an excuse to use us as slave labor to expand the Mapco farm; there was no teaching aspect – we just spent an hour hacking away at weeds with machetes.
Walking through Shisto water
When I arrived home, my mom said it was time for me to go to the market to buy ingredients for my required cooking experience – but I couldn't go to New London – the good fish and chicken was only available in the central Bo market. I explained that I was only interested in vegetarian cooking – she didn't seem to understand this. She gave me a shopping list with ingredients totalling 40,000 leones – I asked if she would be providing the money for this, and she told me that I was in fact responsible for all of it. I decided I wasn't feeling up to a cooking experience that day.
The trainees and trainers had a football rematch – in true African style, the trainers showed up an hour late. In the interim, we were mobbed by around 600 neighborhood kids. After an early lead, the trainers let us win so that we would have an excuse for a third game.
I had heard from all the other volunteers that they were contacting their predecessors at their designated sites, and so I opted to do the same. Chris turned out to be the guy at the Fourth of July festival that had turned himself orange by spending two years eating palm oil for every meal. He informed me that my site had running water, a functional school, competent teachers, mountain scenery, people to cook my meals and launder my clothes for $25 a month, and easy internet access. This all sounded just about perfect.
PCT slaves on the Mapco plantation
Mark is a character
When I arrived back at the house, I found my host mom had been given a form to evaluate me. It was about twenty questions long and included "Is your trainee brooking?", "Is he contributing to household chores", "How often does he clean?", "What has he cooked", "Is he interacting with the community?" We had a good laugh because there wasn't a single question among them that wasn't "No" or "Not applicable". I pulled water from the well as a token chore; it rained shortly thereafter, making it a rather pointless exercise.
On the road to the rail trail
Old railroad bridge
Mark has a big heart
My neighbor had come from Freetown where he worked as a civil engineer. He was very entertained by me and offered me his daughter for a wife.
100% Vegetarian! Finally, I can wipe my butt with a clean conscious!
Weekly fried food day with french fries, fried fish, fried plantains, ketchup and mayo
Jamming out to Daniel's MP3 collection
Cassava leaf? Petete leaf? Kren-kren? Sawa-sawa? It could really be any of the above
White girl pretending to be African (notice she still has to use her hands for balance)
Our poda poda broke down 5 minutes out of town and we called up Caulker's guy who picked us up in his Peugeut compact. Since there were only four of us, and no one was sitting in the cup holder and straddling the stick, we were expected to pay for two additional tickets; our supervisors split the difference. Nick's supervisor taunted the driver for not driving fast enough and passing other cars – this on a road that was clearly not designed with 2WD in mind. I moved into Chris's house; he had left a weight bench, a kerosene stove, a GPS, 8 cans of hummus, toiletries, random books and plenty of other random stuff; it was a strange feeling taking over someone's life. Caulker took me out for lunch and we got cutting grass stew (a large bush rodent that looks a lot like an otter), and he subsequently ordered four rounds of beers. From there, we went down the street to his uncle's house who was turning 80 that day; in a few minutes, gallon jugs of bamboo wine arrived. We ate antelope stew and drank on his porch until 11 that night. Fortunately an NGO woman arrived and gave me an out, noting that I was probably tired from my long journey, and I was able to get home just before a torrential downpour which apparently held them captive on that veranda until 4 in the morning.
Kenema taxi park
Our poda poda broke down 5 minutes out of town
One of the smaller okada payloads that passed
The Tongo gas station
Standard gas pump - I have not seen this anywhere else in the world. Did we have this in America at some point?
Nick and the chicks
The proud father
My neighbor teachers took me on a tour of the town – the only stop of any note was the World Vision office with high-speed wifi. Most of the other teachers at the school seemed highly intelligent, and shared many of my interests – one had gone to school for GIS – unfortunately, the government had yet to come through with their salaries and they were volunteers in a much more accurate sense of the word than myself.
When I arrived at the school to meet Caulker for lunch, I found a line of students standing outside his office. He took off, leaving them all to await his return. He wanted to go to Koidu afterwards, but I suggested he might round out the work day and try to address some of his students' concerns.
Chris had left his bike behind and I took it on the back road, past a couple really big rocks, out to the main highway. Here, I attempted to bushwhack out to a particularly large rock, but found it difficult sans cutlass whilst carrying a bicycle.
The neighbors made me a delicious batch of rice and green (a type of plasa), and in the twilight, I hiked up the adjacent hill to sit atop the cistern. From this perch, I could take in the karsty peaks that encircled Jaiama, and the mist-filled valleys, and the thunderheads rising up from the horizon, with bursts of heat lightning rippling through them, and the stars that had begun to emerge as the final pinks and blues of dusk faded away. I climbed down and walked home through a sea of fireflies, with volleys of chirps and ribbits and hoots that would make any Sounds of the Rainforest CD green with envy.
Weight bench left by my predecessor
Peace Corps issued mountain bike/towel rack
Kitchen with water filter and gas stove
All the essentials: chocolate drink mix, basil, and 6 cans of hummus
The World Vision map (I'm working on a better one)
Remnants of the war
Old water tower. Why does no one climb this thing?
Chris's world map project
Giant mosque in small village
One of many giant rocks in the area
Entering the bush
When I got up in the morning, there was no cell service or internet. The Airtel tower next to my house had run out of gas. This is one peril of a generator-based power grid. Since no children were awake yet, I was forced to walk to the market myself to find breakfast. Someone was selling cassava and beans – I knew an order of cassava was likely 500, but only had a 5000, so I ordered 1000 worth. This got me ten giant chunks of the stuff, which would probably have been enough for three meals. It still took the lady 15 minutes to find change.
I had arranged to go hiking with Bob the teacher at 8. I called him and he claimed to be 'coming right now'. I called him back at 8:45 and he informed me that he was 'coming right now' (incidentally, this is one of the trainees' favorite Krio phrases: 'A de kom jis now'). When he did arrive at 9:30, he took me back to his house to pick up his camera.
The average walking pace of a Sierra Leoneon is ludicrously slow, but Bob and his friend were actually very speedy hikers, and they were quite skilled at instantly choosing the right path at an unmarked fork. The trail took us through the rice paddies, and up and over a big rock, then continued through dense jungle to multiple small villages – each had an intricately woven vine gate at its entrance. We arrived at one woman's hut just in time for lunch, and she shared with us her family's bowl of boiled bananas and palm oil.
When we had finished our 8-mile jaunt, I went to the principal's house for lunch. After biting into a particularly pungeant chunk, I asked "What kind of meat is this?" Thinking for a moment, he replied "Some kind of deer I believe... or monkey. Do you like it?" "No, it actually tastes a bit rancid." "Oh, that's because they left it sitting out for several days. You will like tonight's better – it was just caught this morning." My lunches were never this much fun in the States.
When I applied for Peace Corps, I was under the impression that I would be walking three miles to a river and wading knee deep in parasites to fetch water every day. But my apartment had taps that forever flowed with clean mountain spring water. A bottling company in the middle of town distributed half-liter plastic bags of the stuff to much of the country. My principal, rather than drink it straight from the tap, would buy these things in bulk. "We don't throw these away – we use them to start fires", he one time explained to me; phew - I was worried they were all headed for a landfill somewhere.
As we sat on his porch, Caulker suddenly declared "Let me give Kim and Stephanie a call." These were two of my fellow trainees – he had gotten their digits at the supervisor's conference. I inquired as to why he might do this. "Oh, just to chat," he replied. Was he daunted by the fact that he was twice their age and married? Not in the least.
He told me we were leaving for Koidu immediately, which translated to 2.5 hours later. I quickly learned to pay no heed to discussed times, but rather, to always insist that the meeting place be my house, and just go about my business and make absolutely no effort to get ready until the very moment someone knocked on my door.
In Koidu, we went to the After Work bar for a beer, then continued to Mum and Dad's Entertainment Center for three more. Gibril, a major player from the NGO, Ibis, joined us. His group was currently bringing Dutch high school students to villages around the region, so they could go back and raise money to keep Kono youths out of mines and get them back in school. He showed us pictures from his recent trip to Tanzania. "Do you have baboons here?" I asked. "No, we ate them all" was his reply. A few pictures later, "do you have elephants here?" "No, we ate them all." Conservation might end up being a bit of a tough sell here.
We went into one of the city's wealthier neighborhoods to the house of a supreme court judge. He had already drunk about half a bottle of whiskey when we arrived. After a brief round of introductions, he singled me out and went on a five-minute rant about how old and unpleasant I looked, and how he hated everything I stood for, then passed out mid-sentence in his chair.
Atop another giant rock
Bob entering the village
Green bananas and palm oil
Quintessential goat path
It was easily 85 degrees when I took this
In the States, people pay $10/lb for cacao nibs, and here they suck the flesh off and spit out the seeds.
Reminiscent of Angkor Wat
My new 4wd jeep (perfect for negotiating the 'streets' of downtown Koidu)
Koidu: "Don't mind our complete lack of infrastructure - just take our billions in natural resources and go."
My principal is a big fan of refreshment centers
I looked for trails into the hills to the west of town and found a logging road that was one steep climb after another. I got breakfast in the mining settlement of New London and asked about natural attractions – I was told there was a waterfall up the next hill to the left. I took the obvious trail to the left and dragged my bike through dense jungle for half a mile but found nothing; when I later returned to town, someone else suggested that it might have been up and to the right. I followed the road up an endless climb, rolling my bike most of the way since the mud and gravel provided too little traction. At one point, I biked through a tree full of ants and was slowly consumed by a hundred of the little guys – unlike with the ants back home, smacking an African ant five or six times does little to deter it from continuing to munch on your skin.
Around fifteen computers had been donated to the school some time ago, but not knowing the first thing about computers, Caulker had kept them sealed away until I arrived. We drove a generator over and I tested them out one by them. A few were dead, and many more needed new clock batteries, but in the end we had about ten that were fully functional. The principal had two applications out for solar panels – these were slated to arrive before I got there for the fall term – based on my growing familiarity with African scheduling, I judged this estimate could be pretty accurately translated as 'never'.
Since the principal had no internet and could not type, I sent out a birthday love letter on his behalf to his woman (might have been his wife, but it seems doubtful). It was full of "U"s and "Ur"s and words in all caps, and was one of the more painful things I've transcribed.
We made another trip into Koidu – my principal has a 4wd jeep from the 90s, but he doesn't drive stick, so he is always recruiting friends to take him drinking. Navigating through the streets of downtown Koidu is more fun than most offroading tracks – giant boulders, ravines, and pits are scattered throughout – how any low clearance car survives here is a mystery. We stopped by a bar and he picked up 'road beers', including one for the driver (I was not driving at the time). We returned to the Judge's house for a really delicious goat and cassava leaf feast. A random gang of gourd-shaking minstrels showed up and performed for several hours – their incessant rattling and piercing songs joined the whir of the generator and the Celine Dion CD blasting from the living room. While in the States, the ultimate goal of wealth is typically to provide peace and quiet, in Salone, noise is a status symbol.
We continued to a downtown bar. No one even attempted to talk to each other – everyone just sat mesmorized by the Nigerian music videos playing on one wall. At midnight, Gibril and his wife finally persuaded Caulker to take me home; he had suggested that I sleep in the car, "Americans do it all the time" he had explained.
New London mining settlement
The goats of the deceased still haunt the cemetery
St. Patrick's School in Koidu
We had planned on leaving for Kenema around 9, but I got a call from the principal at 6:10 informing me that the taxi would be coming my way in 45 minutes. My cell phone didn't work, so on the off chance that the car actually showed up at the checkpoint on time, I raced to get ready and eat the dinner that had been prepared for me the previous night. I showed up 10 minutes late, then hung out with the police for an additional 45. We took the same Peuguet, this time with 6 passengers, back to Kenema. Along the way, the driver stopped to buy an otter hanging from a stick on the side of the road.
In Kenema, we found a driver for Bo and he drove to the entrance of the lot to await the arrival of 4 more passengers. We were parked in front of an entertainment center which was blasting a horrific Christian music video where, accompanied by an uplifting beat and clips of people smiling and dancing, a woman spoke for half an hour about her extended struggle to conceive. About twenty people were gathered around the shop to watch.
Cutting grass for sale
Barn raising next door
Come to Candy Mountain Charlie!
My yard - perhaps the only patch of green grass in 100 miles
Lurking above one of our classes in the palava hut
Nick and I had started our Kono language classes. Unlike Krio, Kono is actually a legitimate language with a distinct grammar and vocabulary, and three different tones. The teacher was clearly no linguist and dispensed with grammar altogether, choosing instead to teach us about names for Kono children, how to tell someone to sit and stand, and random objects in the room – the textbook he had created had only dialogues, with no method for deciphering what those dialogues said. We barely survived a two-hour session, only to return to Mapco and find that he had kept us half an hour late and we had missed a half hour break that (for the first time ever) had included sodas, cookies, peanuts and popcorn.
The volunteers played touch rugby after school – while perhaps not as dangerous as the real thing, it was still plenty hazardous on account of the rocky, muddy, razorblade-strewn field.
We had a Q&A session on travel during lunch where it was suggested by one VAT that my plan to illegally enter Guinea by an informal bush crossing might be ill-advised. Tondi called me in for a meeting to address the fact that I had not yet demonstrated the ability to start a fire or cook a meal for my host family. He also thought it was rude of me to constantly use my computer in class. I told him I hated everything about PST. Given that he had been a training coordinator for the past three decades, he did not much appreciate this.
Shortly after school, we made a hike to Baka by a new route which passed a sacred bush and crossed an elaborate log bridge (complete with handrail). We visited the residents of Baka and discovered that the village consisted of only two houses and had been founded two years earlier; suddenly the fact that no one in New York had ever heard of it made a lot more sense.
Awesome trail through the bush to the village of Baka (which has 2 houses)
Random super-tall tree that grow everywhere here
Bridge of sorts
Another sort of bridge
Mark taking a chance (he made it)
Notice the locals walking straight through as we awkwardly try to cross on the reed bridges
Soaking up the Shisto
Paradise is half a mile west of New York
Our safety and security class on bystander intervention was prefaced with the Washington-mandated statement "Participate as you are able; if any part of this talk makes you uncomfortable, you may step out." As it turns out, I was pretty uncomfortable with the entire session. Matt gave a presentation wildlife that suggested that the bush was filled to the brim with deadly snakes; it was only a matter of time before I stepped on a camouflaged puff adder, 100 miles from the nearest anti-venom.
Daniel had brought his predecessor's bike back from his site visit and volunteered to leave it at Mapco for all to use – he just needed the tube patched. This played perfectly into my plan to bike to Freetown – the back derailers had fallen off two of the loaner bikes we had received, and the third was sized for a nine-year-old girl. Daniel's was the perfect size and I wouldn't have to sign it out. I went to New London, fixed it, and stowed it in my room to await a rapid departure the following evening.
Village Day #3
Kono language class with Fenghai
Prepping for life skills class - kitten is a good source of protein
Yamandu (a really sweet village with boulders strewn everywhere)
Teaching about Malaria