Posts were sparse as I traveled to the villages, in part because of a lack of functioning internet and in part because my “y” and “t” keys were not working for some odd reason. Turns out that “y” and “t” are pretty key in a lot of words.
So much has happened that it’s hard to pick something to write about. I’m living in the village of Pujehun, which is about a mile from Jokibu, the village where One Village Partners has their office. I bought a bike in Kenema so that I can ride between the villages. I brought my pink roller derby helmet from home for riding on motorbikes, and I also use it as a bike helmet. All the kids LOVE it.
This morning I met the town elders and chief and the head of the women’s society, Satah (who is a big deal). She is going to help me learn mende.
i am rather tired and hot right now so this is all for now, but i’ll try to post a photo.
I told Kati that I wanted to learn how to make groundnut stew, which is my favorite Sierra Leonean dish (so far). So on Saturday morning we did the “Cooking with Kati” show in which Kati demonstrated and I took photos. So here’s how to make groundnut stew:
- Peanut butter (preferably fresh-ground without salt or sugar)- about 4 tablespoons
- Small can tomato paste
- Peanut or palm oil (any veggie oil would work)
- 2 pieces okra
- 2 small onions (or one large)
- 1 bouillon cube
- Chiles, finely minced or ground
- Chicken, fish, or whatever protein you want to add (tofu would work too, though they don’t eat it here)
- Optional: This is also really good with lima beans and ground cassava leaf added (spinach could work- grind it in a food processor first)
Heat a couple glugs of oil in a big wok or deep cast iron skillet. Add the onions and cook until tender. Add a few cups of water and let heat until simmering. Add the peanut butter, tomato paste, and chiles. Let this cook until the peanut butter is fully dissolved, about 5 minutes. Salt to taste. Add chicken or fish (and/or beans) and let simmer until the meat/fish is fully cooked.
If using cassava leaf: Add the cassava leaf with the water and let cook at a good boil for 10 minutes. Cassava leaf has a toxin that must be broken down by heat.
Meanwhile, grind or dice the okra and add to a pot with 2 cups water. Bring to boil, then add 1 cup rice and a bit of salt. The okra makes the rice kind of sticky and lets it “slide down easily” as they say here.
Spoon the stew over the rice and eat!
Yesterday I made my first attempt at cooking here, over a charcoal fire. I made groundnut stew- the recipe will follow shortly. It came out pretty good, only a tad burnt. I was looking forward to finishing off the leftovers for dinner, but when I arrived home this evening I was told that some of the boys from the university who are always hanging out at Bashiru’s house finished off the leftovers. Which just goes to prove that college boys are the same … everywhere.
Fortunately, Bashiru got some fried fish (tilapia, my fave!), which was actually more delicious than my stew.
This blog post is filled with everybody’s favorites: food, fashion, babies, and puppies. That is, if I can get the photos to upload. I have enough photos of food, fashion, babies, and puppies to fill a lifetime of blog posts, but as always, slow internet is foiling me. I am now at Njala University, which, contrary to my previous post and not contrary to my original assumption, is in fact in Njala, Sierra Leone, which is about an hour west of Bo. You can find Bo on googlemaps- Njala is much harder to find. I am staying at Bashiru’s house, and he even gave me my own office! The luxury! I will post a photo of my office when-you guessed it-the internet lets me. An undergrad student at Njala, Kati (pronounced “Kadi”) cooks meals for Bashiru when his wife isn’t here (his wife and kids are in Freetown right now because his wife just had a baby and Njala is rather rustic), and stays at his house over break. Kati and I became friends during my first few days here, and when I said I needed to go to Bo to get a few things, she invited me to stay at her family’s home in Bo overnight. I met her mom and all her brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. Her sister Hawa (who is a hoot, I really like her) has twins who are about 15 months old, Kase and Lawrence and they are such clowns. Her other sister has a 3-month old, Tianga, who is also adorable- I have a photo of her getting her hair done (she has more hair than Kase). While I was there, I went to a family picnic at Kati’s youngest brothers’ school. It involved lots of loud music and dancing. As a fundraiser, they had a “dance-off” where the kids competed for who was the best dancer and people donated money to their favorite dancer. Even the TINIEST kids (we’re talking like 5 years old) can dance- they’re shaking their hips and totally going at it. I joined in as well (though not for the dance-off part) after goading from Kati’s family, which they found very entertaining.
I’ve almost given up hope of being able to communicate with anyone here, because though I’ve started to pick up a bit of Krio, everyone here is bi or tri-lingual (Mende, Krio, and English) and they mix the three when they speak to each other. Generally I can’t even tell if they’re speaking Krio or Mende. The children all learn Krio and Mende at home and English when they go to school. I was sitting around the cook fire with Kati’s mom yesterday (also named Kati), and she was trying to teach me some Mende. I picked up “wi” (head), wa (come) and li (go). Lawrence (one of the twins) was sitting there too, and he started picking up on the lesson, so as I repeated “wa” while making a “come here” motion with my hand, he would do the same. Hilarious.
I promised that there would be food, fashion, and puppies in this post too, but I need to get some work done while there’s electricity, so more on food, fashion, and puppies later.
Several people have requested a post about food. You guys are funny. This post is about how my next post will be about food. I promise.
Posts might become more sparse for a bit because Njala has limited electricity and my solar charger is not strong enough to charge my laptop. But I’ll try.
I’m waiting around for my ride to Njala to pick me up. I was supposed to take the University bus, but it’s not running because the junior faculty is on strike- shitty pay raises, etc. So another faculty member who is heading to Njala is picking me up. I’m really glad to be getting the chance to collaborate with these guys- who knows, it could even turn into a long-term research partnership (hey ARLG!).
My meeting at SLARI went well. The director, Dr. Boku, was a Fulbright scholar himself- he studied at the University of Illinois. Bashiru and I are going to give a join presentation at SLARI’s annual work review meeting. I’m hoping to visit some of SLARI’s extension stations at the end of April to get a sense for what they are working on. I’ve altered my research proposal a bit to fit into what I think would be most useful here, which is an assessment of various rice-growing technologies based on their environmental soundness, ease of uptake by famers (including famers’ enthusiasm for them), and potential to alleviate the factors that most limit production. Sebastian (one of my fellow UVM grad students) had a great suggestion to use yield gap analysis to approach that last point- I’ll explain that more in a further post if I actually end up using it, just wanted to give Sebas credit. I miss having all my cube-buddies to bounce ideas off of! I’m actually trying really hard NOT to set my research agenda in stone before I actually even see the agricultural systems I’m going to be working with, but that’s not really how things work here and the official powers that be want to see a formal proposal NOW. So I wrote them one.
It’s an exciting time to be here. The country is, in a sense, rebuilding from scratch. The war was devastating, but people here seem determined not to waste the opportunity in that devastation to create new systems that will (hopefully) work better than the old. There is an emphasis, for example, on decentralizing services so that people have control over them at a more local level, with the hope that they will better serve people’s needs. SLARI is establishing research and extension centers in each district, instead of the former one-center model. (This decentralization does not apply just to agricultural services, but that’s what I’m most familiar with.)
Also, Freetown is just like Burlington in that everybody seems to know everybody else. My taxi driver today is apparently the brother-in-law of the Minister of Agriculture. Also, when I went to the U.S. embassy, one of the Sierra Leonean staff members knew that I arrived on a ferry with Umaru, the BBC journalist (who apparently really does know everybody).
Today I finally met my faculty contact at Njala University, Dr. Bashiru Koroma. I liked him immediately- he’s full of energy and has a great sense of humor. I also met the registrar and several other people whose names I (unfortunately) forgot almost immediately because I was meeting so many people at once. We had a long chat about his background, my background, and what kind of research they’ve been doing at the university and the agricultural research center here. It sounds like one of the things they’ve been trying to do is expand agroforestry here, which was more prevalent before the war but then all went to hell when everyone was displaced. So who knows, maybe I won’t end up working with rice after all. Interestingly, everyone at the university is interdisciplinary by necessity because there just aren’t that many highly educated people who stay in Sierra Leone- my faculty contact has done work in agricultural engineering, environmental management, food security, public health, and agroecology (I have no idea what the conception of agroecology is like here, but I guess I’ll find out).
There are a few people I want to meet in Freetown before I head to the University (such as the head of SLARI, below), so I’m actually going to head out on Thursday. Njala University has three campuses- one in Freetown (where I met people today), one in Bo (Salone’s second-largest city) and one in McKondeh, which is apparently not far from Bo and the campus I will be at. I thought the campus I would be at is actually in the town of Njala- that is apparently not the case. I have no idea where McKondeh is because I can’t find it on my (pretty detailed) map. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
In other news, last night I ate the last of the chocolate bar that Pam gave me as a traveling gift. I haven’t seen good chocolate anywhere around here. The situation is dire.
Heading to the embassy tomorrow to get orientated, then to the Freetown campus of Njala University to meet with Bashiru and check in with the registrar and all that jazz. Psyched to be getting moving on things.
I know, I know, this topic is random and totally not my forte, but this weekend I’ve just been kind of killing time until I head to the university on Tuesday, and I’ve had fun exploring Freetown a bit. Friday afternoon I went with Josephine to her tailor, where she was picking up some clothing that she had made. Having clothes made is incredibly cheap here, and I didn’t bring a whole lot of decent-looking clothes (planning on doing a lot of hiking around on farms), so I’m going to have some clothes made using some of the beautiful cloth sold all around Freetown. Most women here wear a mix of traditional African and European styles, but when people dress up for religious services, they almost always wear traditional styles. The typical style is a long skirt that’s fitted at the top and loose at the bottom, worn with a fitted shirt with long-ish loose sleeves. (I’ll post photos soon, I promise, but I’m hesitant about asking strangers to take their photo). However, there are also a bunch of fashion designers here, some of whom trained in Europe or New York before returning home to Sierra Leone, who take African cloth and use it to make unique, non-traditional designs. Their clothes are not as cheap (though still WAY less than you would pay for such a thing in the U.S.- like $150).
So today, I went to the market downtown and found a material shop that was open (it’s Sunday after all) and bought some more cloth in really beautiful patterns. I have enough now to make a dress and a couple shirts. It will be a bit before I get them finished, but I’ll post photos when they are.
Some “what I’m actually doing” news: I’m currently staying at the LACS guest house in Freetown. It’s one of the nicer places- has hot running water, 24-hour electricity, and a delicious restaurant. Last night I ate the pepper chicken, which came with cooked veggies (YES) and rice. I asked them to leave the pepper sauce on the side and I’m glad I did because WOW was it spicy. I slept in late (so late the hotel front desk called my room to make sure I was still alive) and went into town (my guest house is a bit outside of town) this afternoon to change some money and get a phone and a mobile modem, i.e. INTERNET. YAY. It feels good to have communication with the world now. I called the embassy and set up my “briefing” so I’ll go there tomorrow to chat with them, and then Dr. Josephine Beoku-Betts (one of the other Fulbrighters here now) is joining me at my guest house for lunch. Apparently they have a lunch buffet every Friday with traditional Sierra Leonean dishes- sounds delish. I’m also trying to get in touch with Kari from OneVillage Partners, and Dr. Bashiru Koroma, my contact at Njala University. Also, unknown to me, my new journalist hero friend (Umaru Fofana- see below) turns out to be a lawyer and the most famous journalist in Sierra Leone, according to Josephine. A most fortuitous meeting.
The guesthouse I’m has a really lovely garden next to a steep ravine leading down to the river, so it gets a nice breeze. I really am loathe to leave this guest house, despite the outrageous cost.
Before I arrived in Sierra Leone, I strongly intended for this blog to be primarily a “professional” blog, filled with insights related to agricultural development, conservation, and Sierra Leone and West Africa in general. I still intend for it to be mostly that, but I forgot what a deeply personal challenge it is to move—even temporarily—to a new place that feels as far from home as it possibly could (with the exception that I can communicate with a good number of people here in my first language). This is particularly true in a developing country, where, if one lets oneself, it is very easy to become trapped in a spiral of frustration at things that JUST DON’T WORK. They SHOULD work. They COULD work. Nobody can say exactly why they DON’T work, though everyone has a theory. And as an outsider, there really is not a lot one can do about most of those things. Righteous indignation is one approach- and in fact I spent a very long ferry ride with a young Sierra Leonean journalist for the BBC (who is my new hero) whose approach to general governmental dysfunction and lack of infrastructure is righteous indignation and political action. As a journalist who lives here, he can do something about it. But as a visitor, I can’t, and personally, I can only sustain frustration so long before it turns into burnout and hopelessness and a general desire to give up. I have therefore had to cultivate a certain amount of what I like to call “healthy resignation.” I guess it could also be called “acceptance” but that sounds all new-agey. That is, resign myself to some experiences that really suck that wouldn’t have to suck if “the system worked” (in the words of my new journalist hero)—absurdly long waits for ferries, unpaved roads, general lack of functional infrastructure—and just say “wow this sucks right now” and move on without making generalizations about the hopelessness of things or getting worked up about it.