Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The New Africa

In the eighties, all of this was forest, says Patrick Tommy, a community elder of perhaps 60, whose eyes are starting to fade to a pale blue with the onset of cataracts.

We’re hiking up to One House, a neighborhood so named after the era - not so long ago - when there was only a single human residence on this hillside. It’s hard to un-imagine the profusion of houses all around me, of laboriously etched-out earthen terraces colorful with drying laundry, of children in blue and yellow school uniforms toting water jugs, of men and women trekking up and down the slope with goods for sale. It seems extraordinary that, a mere 30 years ago, wild chimpanzees were probably living here.

Across Freetown, in another hillside neighborhood a bit farther from the central business district, people have not yet exhausted the local supply of wood. Plenty of residents there still eke out a living but cutting firewood, or by transforming it into charcoal, the two most common fuels for household cooking.  Is anyone here planting new trees to replace the ones they’re cutting? I asked a tribal chief we met during our initial visit.

No, no one, he replied.

So how will all of these people manage ten years from now? I persisted.

The chief shrugged. They will find something else to do.

In One House, nobody cuts firewood anymore, since they would have to trek far into the mountains to find any, a journey that wouldn’t make financial sense. So the wood traders here purchase their stock in town, off of boats that come to Freetown from “upline,” in the country’s increasingly rural countryside, and haul it up to One House.

High-speed urbanization isn't just a Freetown phenomenon. All over Africa, people are flocking to cities. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 60% of Africa's population will live in urban areas. 60% would be a moderate figure in the developed world; in countries like the U.S. and France, around 80% of the population lives in cities. But it's astounding in a continent where, half a century ago, almost the entire population was rural, surviving mostly on subsistence farming. 

Africans leave the countryside for a variety of reasons. Many seek economic and educational opportunities, or aspects of the modern world - media, technology, fashion, lifestyles - that rural areas simply can't offer. In many countries, Sierra Leone included, violent conflict has driven people from their relative vulnerability in rural regions to the relative safety of cities. Though the war here ended 10 years ago, few people want to go home. From what I understand, for many, the memories of suffering and flight are too horrific and heavy, the devastation wrought to their villages too complete, for them to care very much about rekindling their past lives. 

Personally, I often find Freetown completely overwhelming. The streets are so crammed with carts, vendors, soot-spewing autos and near misses with motorcycle taxis, that just getting to work in the morning can raise my blood pressure a few notches. Most of the people I've met work extremely long days - selling cigarettes, carrying loads, breaking rocks, filling boats with sand - only to earn barely enough to feed their families for the day, then wake up and repeat the next. If I had to choose between their lives and a quiet, peasant life raising animals and growing rice in the countryside, I'd almost certainly opt for the latter.

But while some folks I've met hope to someday move out of the slums, nobody talks about leaving Freetown. And so this city, home to a mere 65,000 residents in the 1950s, with a population of over a million today, will continue to grow. And all of those people will do whatever it takes to get by. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rainy Season Blues

We're on the way back from Mabella, a textbook slum next to Freetown's most bustling business district. It's extremely humid, as usual, and, as usual, I'm covered with a layer of sticky grime. I invariably leave Mabella feeling filthy. Today we saw an eight-year-old girl drink from a mud puddle nestled along the heavily traveled main dirt track through the slum. Foreigners don't come down to Mabella very often, and children - children who no doubt play in mud puddles, and worse - routinely run up to touch my freakish white skin. Though this season's cholera epidemic is winding down, disease remains a very real threat, and given the dearth of toilets, it's certain that potentially harmful germs are everywhere.  Weaving through the marketplace in the upper part of the slum, you're assaulted by wafts of rotting tubers, urine, dried fish, raw meat and feces, and by people hawking a huge assortment of goods. It's easily overwhelming, and by the time we've finished the day's interviews and navigated our way back to our vehicle, I'm beat. 

All I can think about at this point is an icy bottle of soda. I scan the masses of street vendors, who display a department store's selection of goods in front of the car window, one plastic basin at a time: cheap Chinese watches, chintzy-looking DVDs with religious themes, sticky rodent traps, underwear, beef brochettes, swollen mini cucumbers, electrical tape, laundry starch. Finally, I spot what I'm looking for: a young boy balancing a tub of sodas on his head. I call him over, grab one bottle for everyone in the car, and fork over a pair of dirty 5,000 Leone notes. 

The boy looks at the bills, alarmed. My colleague in the backseat takes them from the boy and hands them back to me. What's wrong with these bills? she asks. I take a closer look, and quickly realize that the "dirt" is actually greasy black mold, that has all but destroyed the money. Meanwhile, the traffic ahead begins to flow, and our vehicle lurches forward. The soda vendor, horrified that we may disappear without paying, attempts to run after us, giant plastic tub still aloft. I manage to find two bills with minimal mold damage; my colleague passes them to a runner, who delivers them to the boy. 

Now I'm the one who's stricken. I open my leather wallet, and discover that a gray fungus has colonized the interior. Most of the bills inside have begun to turn black, and some are unusable. 

Freetown is said to be one of the wettest places in West Africa, with about 116 inches of rain a year. That's more than three times the annual rainfall in Seattle. It's certainly the wettest African place I've ever visited. Evidence is everywhere - matches that have absorbed so much moisture that four disintegrate before you manage to light one, towels that don't really dry you off, giant rainforest tree species with enormous buttresses scattered around town and spilling down the hillsides, laundry that takes so long to dry it smells of mildew. And now even my money is rotting.

I make a mental note to buy a new wallet. A cotton one this time. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What It Means to Be Poor

Once upon a time in Congo, the cook asked how much I’d bought my shoes for.

Seventy dollars, I told her, realizing right away how extravagant this sounded. This was close to two weeks’ salary for her, and comparable to what most people in the country cobbled together in two months. Feeling slightly guilty, I tried to put the price in context. You know, I said, people have more money in the US, but life is much more expensive. I told her about typical costs of rent, tomatoes, cell phones.

She wanted to know how much you could earn in a month as a housekeeper in America. When we did the math, she looked at me wide-eyed. If I got a job in the US, she told me, I’d be rich. I reminded her of the high cost of living, but she persisted. I’d sleep on the floor, she told me, and would live very simply. I’d save everything.

There was no point arguing. After all, knowing her, she was probably right. She’d managed to keep her three children in school after her husband had left her, taking several years’ worth of her savings with him, by selling homemade doughnuts on the side of the road, before she landed a much higher-paying job as a cook and cleaner with our organization. She routinely stayed after hours to finish up tasks that could have easily been postponed a day or two. When I asked her for the broom after foolishly tracking a trail of dried mud into my bedroom, she wouldn’t let me pry it out of her hands, but marched over to the room and swept it up. With her work ethic and selflessness, she’d certainly make more out of a low-paying job in America than most people would.

By virtue of being a white person in Africa, I’m inevitably perceived as being wealthy, and compared to most people here, I guess I am. But back in the U.S., I’m relatively poor, at least in terms of income.

Poverty is relative. The poorest households in the U.S. still have access to certain amenities – free public school, food stamps, electricity, television – that the poorest here, in Sierra Leone, do not. How you define poverty makes a huge difference. Materially speaking, I’m pretty poor, but I’m quite happy with my quality of life, and feel rich in terms of the experiences, opportunities and relationships I’ve had. When I went to visit the brother-in-law of one of my former Congolese colleagues who now lives in Seattle, he said that while he felt grateful for the opportunities being there affords his six children, he feels incredibly isolated from his extended family and homeland, the things he cares about most. 

I’m in Sierra Leone to learn about poverty in the Freetown slums, whose infamously poor living conditions have contributed to the largest cholera outbreak in the country’s history, which peaked a few weeks ago. A colleague and I visited a couple of the slums earlier this week, where a few friendly and no doubt curious locals led us through labyrinthine passages between squashed-in houses, past pigs rooting around in garbage and men huddled under tin-roofed porches listening to music. There are no toilets here; one of our hosts told us they simply defecate into buckets in their houses, which they later empty into the sea. By anyone’s definition, it would seem that the people living here are quite poor.

Yet according to a World Food Program report, people in the slums are wealthier than the national average; only 16% of Freetown slum residents qualify as “poor” or “very poor.” And indeed, as a recent Economist blog post pointed out, you see quite a few television sets while wandering around the slums, certainly more than you would in a remote village in the country’s interior. Again, how we define poverty matters.

And so we’re going to ask the residents of the slums themselves what it means to be poor, and what it means to be better off (“rich” might be a stretch, but we’ll leave it up to them to tell us). In the slums, as anywhere else, we suspect that people are trying to improve things for themselves and their children. By asking the locals about what they’re striving for and how one might expect to get there, we’ll hopefully have a better idea of how organizations like ours can help them to do it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I moved to Seattle in December 2011 and have since started a new blog, which you can access here.

(It has very little to do with Africa.) 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mosquitos in Winter

I swallowed the last of my malaria pills yesterday, tossed the empty bottle into the recycling bin and then assembled my scattered belongings for a ride across town to the newest in a series of temporary dwelling places. It's scarf and winter coat weather here, in late-December Seattle. It's easy to forget that a short while ago in Uganda, the mosquitos were out and biting, and the medication might prove useful after all.

Since my plane landed a week ago, I've been feeling about as incongruous as a mosquito in a snowstorm. I took off almost immediately to Los Angeles and sat at my aunt's side for three days, until she finally stopped breathing on the eve of my scheduled return to Seattle. One of the hospice nurses, just making conversation, asked me what I like to cook, and I couldn't remember, since I barely made anything during the 15 months I've spent in Africa. I realized that I have no idea how much it costs to mail a letter in the U.S. these days. I'm feeling sick and sluggish and dazed; the Kampala half marathon was a month ago, and I haven't run since. I've been otherwise occupied with reports and goodbyes and planning the logistics of this transition back to the States.

Which I am so incredibly ready for. I'm finding immense gratification in tiny achievements, like navigating my way through town in a stick-shift truck on loan from a generous friend, buying oatmeal, recalling my long-neglected password at the ATM, spotting familiar mountains on the horizon during unexpected breaks in the typical grey drizzle of the northwest winter.  I'm surprisingly moved by the sight of weathered wood on old Victorian homes, of picture windows glowing golden in the early morning sunlight. I'm not usually this sentimental, but I can't help it. I feel like a long-lost northerner come home again.

I'm not by any means "done" with Africa, I'm just done for a while. I'm even plotting (with some seriousness) a trans-Africa bicycle trip, but that wouldn't happen for several more years at least. In the meantime, I'm planning to plant myself here long enough to begin to feel grounded again.

And so the blog ends here. Thank you for reading. The writing and readership have done a lot to help keep me sane in some pretty far-flung places surrounded by circumstances largely beyond my control. I'm taking back some of that control now. And so this chapter ends, and I don my winter coat and step out into the next.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lango 101 and Why it Matters

...along with the easy happiness I had come to associate with the country, I was aware of a new and perhaps less superficial sensation - that sense of familiarity and alienation that comes to one who knows a place well, but who can never hope to become a part of it.
                                                       -Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow

Every morning on the way to work, we pass a gaggle of construction workers slowly producing a large house from piles of cement, bricks and iron bars. And every morning, I try out one of my new Lango phrases on them. A tia wor a teech, I say today, meaning “I’m going to the office.” I’m going to come visit you this Saturday, one of them tells me. Tell me where you stay. Okay, no problem, I reply, continuing on my way. Plenty of people here say they’re going to visit; I’ve found it best not to protest, just to nod noncommittally. The ones who actually follow through are few, and usually feel awkward when they show up at your door, in your territory.

I must have passed these same laborers during my first couple of weeks here, but I don’t recall them. At the time, I was still assembling my essential Lango vocabulary, and wasn’t bold enough to be greeting too many strangers in a language I didn’t yet have any kind of ear for. And they ignored me, in turn.

Until you learn a language, you will never really understand the people who speak it. This is one of the great challenges of the humanitarian world, where most of the big players are expatriates who have no real personal stake in the places where they work. While I'm hardly among the more influential of these folks, I still find my lack of insider perspective limiting. I'm here to evaluate a project, then to recommend ways to modify the intervention to increase its impact in the future. But, as I am reminded every day, my logic does not always apply here, and what I see as a great solution may well dissolve into vapors when tossed out under the glare of the Ugandan sun. 

Simsim (sesame) drying in the open air.

Here's an example: Most rural families here rely on subsistence agriculture for the bulk of their food supply. The harvest for the second agricultural season traditionally takes place now, in November, and crops are set out in the sun for several weeks. Once dry, they're moved into storage, and provide the family's primary calorie supply for six months or so, until the next harvest.

But: In recent years, the rainy season has been continuing well into November, perhaps because of climate change. The frequent late-season rains prevent thorough drying of crops, which often succumb to rot and must be tossed out. Four months of heavy labor in the fields, gone. And people lamenting their losses, year after year, but continuing to apply the same outmoded harvesting practices.

To my western mind, the answer seems obvious, constructing some kind of shelter, built of local material, that allows for airflow while shielding the harvest from direct rainfall. But so far this idea has been met with rejection. Too much work, say the villagers. We couldn't manage it. I don't know where their skepticism comes from. Are they simply resistant to any kind of change? Would shelters really represent too great an investment in materials and effort? Or are there other technical issues I'm just not seeing?

The point is that seemingly good solutions won't work unless the people they're intended for people are willing to embrace them. To accurately foresee that is no small matter. And while I can never hope to be a part of this place - there's no escaping my western upbringing, or this white skin - I can try to gain insight, by reminding myself of how little I know, by asking lots and lots of questions, and by showing my interest in the Lango, which I partly try to accomplish by making small strides in language learning.

Last week, for the first time in my short humanitarian career, I met a beneficiary who speaks English. I was thrilled; all of the questions that would normally pass through translators could simply be asked, and answers given. She was my age, recently divorced, with four children, two oxen, six goats and one plough that she shares with another beneficiary household. She told me that while the cash she received from our organization has certainly helped, her household is still not back to where it was before the LRA displaced it. Occasional sales of goats keep her children enrolled in school, but it will take some good luck and disciplined management of crop sale money to build the family assets back up. None of this was particularly surprising, but somehow hearing about her situation so directly made the project more real to me, and highlighted its potential value to individual people facing pretty significant challenges.

So when I try out my rudimentary Lango, joking with people about how many husbands I have or asking about what they like to eat, or grow, I'm not just trying to make a spectacle of myself (although that often can't be avoided). I'm trying to forge a connection, to show them I am open to their ideas, in hopes that some of their perspective will find its way into my report, and make the projects designed to help them a bit more effective.

Monday, November 7, 2011

For my Aunt

It’s been a solitary weekend. Although I’ve been introduced to a veritable posse of expats here in Lira, they were all out of town this weekend, headed to Kampala for meetings, Zimbabwe for trainings or Kenya for breaks. There are a couple locals I could call, but frankly, I’m suspicious of their motives; one girl, the friend of a friend’s friend, asked for my number at a dance club at the end of the evening, even though we had not even been introduced, and the other asked if she could call me while tallying up my purchases at the grocery store where she works. Some tell me Ugandan girls are just shy, and won’t start up conversations with white girls they don’t know, and their asking for my number is just an indirect way of proposing friendship. But I don’t feel like putting myself in an unfamiliar situation right now, don’t want to be expected to take a trio of Ugandan fillies out for beers (as inevitably happens) and talk about clothes, and hair, and men.

My heart isn’t here.

My aunt is in the hospital. She’s normally the first one to read my blog entries when I post them, responding each time almost at once, with unflagging praise. Now she’s hooked up to a breathing machine, in an induced coma, fighting an abdominal infection following an extended cancer-removal surgery.

When I last saw her in LA, three months ago, neither of us knew that she was sick. We wandered through the Venice Canals, ogling ducks and display case homes. She insisted on buying me a few tops to augment my utilitarian post-Congo wardrobe. As usual, we nibbled on vegetable slices and fruit and hummus and a little cheese, and sipped wine with her neighbors at a nightly “cocktail hour” in their apartment complex’s courtyard. I kept her company as she fed and cleaned up after the sickly cat of a neighbor who was on an extended trip to Europe. One morning the cat showed signs of kidney failure, and my aunt, the most devoted cat lover I have ever known, tried her best to stay calm as she made arrangements for him to be put down.

In short, her life as I knew it was carrying on as usual.

She was diagnosed in September, shortly before I left for Uganda. Her surgery, in mid-October, went as well as could be hoped for, I was told, although the cancer was more extensive than the doctors had previously thought. I even spoke with her as she lay in the hospital, recovering. She sounded like herself, upbeat, levelheaded and even a bit image-conscious despite the sedatives. “My legs are so bloated,” she told me. “They’ve been pumping all these fluids into me.”

And then my father emailed a few days later. My aunt had returned to the hospital with debilitating pain in her abdomen. Apparently she had acquired an infection during the surgery, and in her already-weakened body it had gone systemic. She was in critical condition, and on life support. My dad was flying out to see her. 

When my 93 year-old grandmother was dying in Massachusetts two years ago, my aunt spent the better part of two months by her side, trying to ease her mother’s considerable physical pain, along with the anxiety and uncharacteristic moodiness brought about by a series of opiate-based painkillers, and her frustration with her sudden helplessness. It seems unbelievable that my aunt now needs someone to offer the same support to her.

And here I am in a rainy town in northern Uganda, carrying on with the day-to-day but acutely aware of the cruelty of distance, with five more weeks to go before my evaluation is complete and I return to the US. According to my father, my aunt’s condition, though still very serious, is slowly improving. He says there’s a good chance she’ll fight off this infection, and although there will be plenty more challenges ahead, we should have a moment to breathe and regroup.

And so, to you, my lovely aunt, I send this message from across the world. I love you. Keep fighting. Come home. Read this.
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