Saturday, March 3, 2007


What Most People Don’t Know

About the ‘Birthing’ of the CRC in Sierra Leone

If you are in certain circles, you may likely hear some wonderful stories regarding the ‘birth’ of the CRC in Sierra Leone. You may hear that it was a truly international event, with witnesses from Ghana, Nigeria, Zambia, Canada and USA. You may hear of the dedication and sacrifices made by women like Kumba, to work eighteen hour days and sleep on the floor of a ‘spare’ room packed with sixteen others, so as to be on hand to prepare food for hundreds of visitors to Foria. You may hear wonderful things regarding John Phiri, the Zambian pastor, who has come to nurture, encourage and train leadership in the SL church (and, BTW, he is a joy to be around!). You may hear of the forty-three who spent months in preparation to be baptized, culminating in this event. You may hear that people walked for over thirty miles from more than ten villages to participate. You may hear… many things… all true, all good.

What you might not hear is that the road down which trucks needed to come bearing supplies and visitors from around the globe was all but impassable two weeks prior to the event. Only one of CES’s three trucks was equipped to handle the boulders on one stretch of the road, so Bokary, the chief of Foria, ordered a ‘bypass’ to be expedited. You also may not know that the rocks in a nearby stream were deemed too slippery to be safe (several days prior to the baptisms which transpired there) and that a team of young men from the village went out to scrub each and every one. It may not be immediately apparent that for a village the size of Foria, containing just over one hundred houses, to take in close to five hundred visitors, every household needed to welcome guests. Even knowing these extra tid-bits of information may not strike you as all that significant, unless you realize that Chief Bokary is a devout Muslim. Seventy percent or more of Foria’s thousand residents are Muslim. That ratio certainly applies to the voluntary labor that went into preparing the road and streambed. It also applies to the households who welcomed guests.

It’s a mystery to me what factors create religious tension in some parts of the globe but not others. It’s said that greater education leads to greater tolerance but sometimes I think that religious tension in North America is abated by people’s ‘nominalism’ or lack of real passion and conviction about what they believe. In this case, a visit from the chief made things fairly clear. He had been witness to the work of Christian Extension Services (CES) for decades. They had seen how the village’s women could now get clean water from a source near their houses. They had seen that uneducated adults could become literate. They had seen how women trained to become traditional birth attendants had drastically reduced the mortality rate of infants and mothers. They had been witness to the church caring for all people – especially after the war when seed rice was so desperately needed. Therefore, though Bokary and a number of the other influential village elders are Muslim, they committed to holding people of both faiths equally and allowing the church to flourish.

As big a ‘deal’ as the weekend was, I believe that an event can be planned and executed in a matter of weeks if the right resources are allocated to it. An honest celebration of the true birth or inauguration of a church, however, seems to depend on growth from seeds faithfully planted over years. A church that tries to serve as part of the ‘body’ (eyes, ears, hands) of Christ doesn’t emerge quickly, and for this I respect the work of my parents-in-law and others who have given their lives to the task and the hope of its development. Very late in his life, Pa Momorie, the old village Imam and father to Marah, one of Aaron’s field assistants and co-pastor to the church in Foria, confided to Paul and Mary: “When you came, we watched. We watched, and waited to see what you would be like. Mostly, it was good.” This was a big concession for an imam to make – and if stories serve correct, he hadn’t come to this assessment easily.

Being ‘witness’ and ‘testament’ to the grace of God is a humbling endeavor. It’s joyful and scary to see this ‘birth’ taking place, and to know how acutely it will be watched. The words of the pastor who spoke during the ordination of M.B Jalloh and Ben Koroma were insightful as they alluded to this. Essentially: “you (congregation) will know of these men’s failings better than I can ever point them out to you. You can condemn them and smear them into the ground or you can lift them up and encourage them. You must ask for their best and expect it, and help them to become it in the areas where they struggle. The health of the church depends on what you choose.”

Pa Fatelay with his 'Certificate of Baptism': a possession prized so highly that he fled with it and the shirt on his back during the war. He will tell you of the lengths that he went to protect it from rain, fire and other hazards.

So, today we give thanks. And we pray that we, with the whole church, may learn to hold all of God’s people and creation well, putting up as few faulty barriers as possible as God works though us to make himself known.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


Morning View from 'The Round House' in Kabala

I’m a linear thinker. I don’t often really care if plans change, so long as I know what the plan is was, what has been changed, how the new plan will accommodate, and what new ‘destination’ is being targeted. I wouldn’t say that this runs contrary to the way of thinking here – it’s just totally irrelevant. Plans? Why bother? No plan ever works so ‘leave it to God.’ The sun will rise; all else is up for grabs.

So we are facing a fairly logistically challenging couple of weeks. I’ll be leaving to meet Mary and Christy in Senegal in a few days! We will be returning in a week, just a few days prior to the onslaught of major church activity occurring in Foria. Over a dozen ‘toubaboos’ from U.S., Ghana, Canada and Nigeria will be arriving to witness and participate in the celebration of the new CRC. I think it is finally ‘sinking in’ to the event-planning team that it is going to be a really big deal, so now the issues of housing, feeding and transporting the 800 anticipated visitors are rapidly surfacing. So, I’m in my element: making lists, attending meetings, etc., though trying to stay reconciled to the truth: the sun will rise…

I spent the day at the Nar Sarah Clinic yesterday. Theresa was the sole health practitioner on duty, as Peacemaker (‘Peace’) was as a governmental hospital for a conference. The clinic was hopping – though no more than ‘normal.’ I observed the appointments of:

1) A woman with malaria with two children ‘in tow;’ one of which had worms and a bad cough.
2) A young woman in the first trimester of her first pregnancy, along with her husband. She was occasionally bleeding and they were concerned.
3) A child (with mother) who had a terrible burn from boiling water on his stomach. They had been in several times, and the burn was healing well.
4) A pregnant woman with a bad case of worms. She had been waiting until her second trimester for treatment as the drugs can cause miscarriage; but she was having real difficulty eating.
5) Someone coming in for the second in a series of chloroquin injections (to cure malaria).
6) A baby with a swollen ‘fontanel’ (top of head). Theresa asked them to come back the next day to see Peace.
7) A woman in her third trimester, with a series of aggravations.
8) An elderly woman with an infection between her toes (likely caused from standing in stagnant swamp water while rice farming).
9) A woman with major skin irritation.
10) A man with a ‘post-injury’ infection. He received an injection of penicillin and ibuprofen for the pain.

Theresa is the dispenser of matter-of-fact wisdom. She told the ‘expecting father’ to quit making his wife carry water, firewood or pound rice. She doles out very basic medicine, most frequently: chloroquin injections, pain killers, ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution), worm medicine and oral antibiotics. She takes her time though, listening to people and making sure that they understand the treatment. It’s her contention that people often want ‘medicine’ (pills) to make things better, when more healthful practices are really what are needed. “They think that drugs make blood. Drugs do not make blood, they give you energy to find, prepare and eat food. Good food and good diet make blood. If you just take the drugs and don’t eat – they will not help you.” She chastised a few of the pregnant women on this count, telling them that if they did not eat better (and she was very specific) they would die. No one takes you very seriously unless you state things in the extreme.

The conflict between the Fula and the Limba has resulted in a public hearing, which is transpiring in the town square today. I need to amend my last post to say that the ‘truth’ turns out to be somewhere in the middle of the two versions of the ‘story’ I represented. Cows have been killed; this resulted in a Fula rancher killing a Limba boy. No ‘retaliation’ has taken place - yet. The Paramount Chief is in an awkward position, as he is a Limba who is married to a Fula woman. He is one of the two Paramount Chiefs in Kabala (which sits on the border of Sengbeh and Wara-Wara-Yagalah chiefdoms). His inclination was to see if he could wait for things to ‘blow over.’ This precipitated his initial reaction: that the issue would not be addressed until the taxes have been collected for this region. However, the ‘district officers’ (Freetown governmental representatives) were drawn in, as this is a murder case. Thankfully, due attention is now being given to the situation. IMATT, UN officials and others have come to witness the proceedings, as this has been deemed a 'regional issue' with many small grievances (and some big ones) being addressed.

With the help of Aaron and a Sierra Leonean man who works for Red Cross, I was able to secure permission from the police to take a few pictures, which I will put on the website as soon as ‘uploading’ pictures is possible. The pavilion is so crowded that it is difficult to get in to see the actual proceedings, but outside the pavilion, crowds are peacefully assembled in the streets and on balconies of nearby houses with huge banners. One pictorially depicts the shooting followed by an X through a cow, with the header “Enough is Enough.” Others read: “Cows, Yes! Uncontrolled Cows, No!!” (again, illustrated – with fences and cows), “Where are the Authorities?” and “Respect my Place.” I am hopeful that all will go well - though there is some volatile 'talk' in town.

Enough is Enough

Protect Farmers Now!

Well, that’s the news from Kabala-town, where the women are very strong (I tried pounding plantains yesterday) and the men are quite good looking (Paul keeps getting told that he looks very ‘fit’ for an ‘old pa’). Quite contrary to the 7 degree blizzard that many of you are facing in the Midwest, the dusty heat kicking in by 10 AM prevents us from moving faster than a slow stroll. Smiles & winks have replaced pats & hugs as expressions of affection because I am known to growl, ‘too hot!’ I just spoke with Christy Wassenaar who is having a surreal time packing t-shirts and tank tops in the midst of a blizzard – but trust me, you will want them!

Grace and peace to each of you,


Thursday, February 1, 2007


Aaron and I have just returned from a short trip to Foria, where he made further arrangements for research on the mountain with Yegbeh, and I experienced more of the wonders of Kuranko-land, including the making of 'country cloth' and the eating of banana rice-cake bread.

We arrived to find Kabala-town in uproar last night. The 'story' floating around for the past day and a half has been that a Limba farmer killed two Fula cows that were perpetually invading his rice and cassava farm - and that the Fula rancher had retaliated by abducting and killing one of the Limba farmer's children and laying it on top of the cow. This precipitated an escalating conflict in which the Limba had gone and massacred part of the Fula family. With the two ethnic groups up in arms, the Fula, owners of almost all of the shops in town, including the 'grocery', drug store, gas station, and the bakers of all the bread sold in the central square, decided to strike.

Joseph Sesay is concerned, as a similar incident with the Fula and the Yalunka led to a short but brutal war 25 years ago. He's been trying to get the 'straight scoop' unearthed, feeling that it's usually milder than the 'stories' and that centralized public acknowledgement of the 'truth' will be the fastest way to de-escalate the conflict. Essentially, the informal stories circulating are growing in tragic and gruesome detail, while the formal story unfolding is much less violent and quite comprehensible.

Most of the Fula in this region originate from Guinea. Even those born in Sierra Leone frequently do not identify themselves as nationals of this country. They are nomadic traders and herders, and don't heed any official national borders. They are 'Fula' above and beyond any other identity. They also, historically, were slave traders in this region back hundreds of years ago. Even though an outsider like me tends to think of this history as 'ancient', you will still hear Fula quip or joke (to the Kuranko, Limba, Yalunka and other people groups), 'Oh, leave me be, you're all just slaves.' Even Kumba, when introducing me around town two summers ago, brought me into a Fula shop with the half joking / half serious admonishment, 'you watch this man. He's a thief. All Fula - thieves! He'll steal your children if you are not careful...' The Fula trader laughed - as he seemed to know and get along with Kumba pretty well, but there is an underlying tension between the people groups.

Apart from 'ancient' history, this tension is fueled by current conflict between agricultural farmers and nomadic herders. Fula typically enter a new region as herders, make as much money as they can on 'beef' and then use this money as the capitol to start businesses. It's an admirable model, with the exception of one critical factor: this is a subsistence farming region and the Fula recognize no boundaries for the grazing of their cattle. Farm after farm after farm in this region has been destroyed. Even farmers that are extremely vigilant and who build extensive fences often find that Fula cows have somehow worked their way onto their farm and destroyed / eaten a whole crop. This type of occurrence pushes the farmers beyond frustration into real despair, particularly as they feel that they have no recourse or advocate. The chiefs, who by all counts should be an advocate for the farmers, are all too frequently known to be 'in the pocket' of the Fula.

One (of many) illustrations occurred in the village of Borehkoro a few years back. The place was absolutely over-run by Fula cows. Destruction of crops including palm oil seedlings, rice and cassava was so extensive and that the Kuranko were at their wits end. According to Robert Jawara, director of C.E.S. (Christian Extension Services), one could not walk at night without stumbling into a cow - even on their front porches eating from baskets of produce harvested from the farm. The villagers finally decided to 'bring a case' against the Fula to the Sa Nieni Paramount Chief. In this case, the 'evidence' was clear; even documented by volumes of pictures. On the day of the trial, C.E.S. organized dozens of people to witness to the proceedings of the trial. They parked (sat) themselves in front of the chief's house and made it clear that they were present so as to make the 'verdict' of the trial known throughout the chiefdom. The Paramount Chief responded by refusing to 'hear' the case; deciding to 'refer' it to the court in Kabala. This precipitated unveiled grumbling on the part of the Fula: that they had "wasted a cow" (used in bribery of the chief).

Today, bits and pieces of the current story are becoming clearer. It seems that the people of Kabala have been pushed beyond the threshold of tolerance in regard to Fula destruction of farmland. This has led to the poisoning and shooting of a number of cows in recent weeks and months. The Fula, confident that the 'law' will be on their side, recently brought a case to court regarding the issue. The Limba, who happened to be the faction accused, essentially responded, 'fine, let's bring this to court but we'd like some restitution for destroyed crops while we are at it,' ...and proceeded to get organized for the trial. The Fula then failed to show up for the meeting. This did not produce the 'results' that they were hoping for, so they have now closed their shops to emphasize to everyone in town how important they are to the local economy with the hopes that people will recognize how much they 'need' and depend on the Fula. This might backfire on them, as (according to Kumba) much 'talk' is stirring among the Limba and Kuranko about how they need to get their act together and generate capitol for 'their own' shops.

It does not appear, despite the rampant rumors, that there actually were any murders this time around, though it does sound as though these stories were 'borrowed' from real incidents that occurred a few years back in a nearby region. The most significant turmoil on the streets is the result of 'strike breakers,' as some Fula shop owners are not quite sure 'why' they are striking and can't afford to do so for very long. Other Fula seem to be harassing those who find themselves in this position. The Paramount Chief of this region, who so far seems to be a pretty smart and level-headed man, has taken the interesting 'stance' that, though it fall within the rights of the Fula to strike, if they choose to do so, they cannot re-open their businesses without collectively getting permission from him. He has also spoken with the 'head' of the Fula and they together have agreed that businesses like the petrol station must remain open, as it is a 'branch' of a company in Freetown that would not agree to its 'shutting down,' and nor would it be a good thing for the whole of Kabala that depends on it.

For us, the consequences are relatively minor: no good bread, no Magram (my favorite tasting brand of bottled water), no other niceties like biscuits, soap etc. We are pretty well stocked and anticipate that the situation will blow over in a couple of days. I'm all of the sudden craving sandwiches though, now that I can't get bread.

This is a LONG standing conflict, and we don't anticipate that this flare up precipitate any real change... but it sure would be nice if dialogue was set in motion to arbitrate disputes and establish policies leading to a greater degree of justice.

We are looking forward to Paul's (Aaron's dad) arrival this evening!

Grace and peace to each of you,

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Sierra Leonean Land Rights in the Western Province and Beyond

Downtown Freetown, January 2007

“It’s like the wild, wild west out here,” stated Judy Nelson, Director of DOVE International. DOVE is an NGO that cares for approximately 30 orphans dislocated from families during the war. This assessment was made after spending the past two years battling to retain land and water rights of property owned by the orphanage.

Sierra Leone’s political history is fascinating. I’m doubtful that it is possible to grasp all of the subtle impacts it has had on the country’s development. Forgive me if this email is a bit ‘dry’ but I have recently become very interested in the implications of both ‘formal’ and ‘traditional’ governing structures on land ownership – so you all get to be the beneficiaries of my research!

The return of the ‘Krios’ happened right around the same time as Britain began to explore West Africa. Though the British were not under the same ‘mandate’ to form colonies that other European nations seemed to be, Sierra Leone was of particular interest because of its strategic location on the western coast of Africa and it’s natural port (Port Loko). The Krios were freed British slaves, and came in essentially three waves:

1) In 1787 a group of British abolitionists proposed that the ‘ideal’ way to respond to the plight of newly freed black slaves (who, for the most part, were jobless and poor) would be to establish a ‘free state’ in Africa to which they could be re-settled. The British government provided funding for several hundred blacks, as well as dozens of white Europeans interested in trade, evangelism and the building of the ‘Sierra Leone Company’ settlement. The venture proved a ‘near disaster’ and many died of starvation and disease.

2) The Nova Scotians followed several years later. They were black slaves who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence in exchange for freedom and a promise of land (in America). The American victory forced these ‘loyalists’ to emigrate to the British settlement of Nova Scotia after the war. This land (i.e. climate) proved unacceptable, so when the offer came for them to go to Sierra Leone (with the promise of free land), they took it. This new group of settlers was more industrious and independent than the prior, and managed to breathe new life into the project.

3) The Maroons were the third major group of Krio settlers. They were blacks from Jamaica who had revolted against slavery and maintained independence in the mountains. In 1796, Jamaica was conquered by the British, and the free blacks were shipped up to Nova Scotia. They too requested ‘transfer’ to Sierra Leone, and were granted it near the turn of the century.

The Western Province of Sierra Leone (including Freetown, the coastal region directly to the south, and the mountains directly to the east) became a ‘Crown Colony’ of Britain in 1807. The land was purchased from one of the tribal ‘kings’ of that era (though he initially saw the negotiation as a ‘lease’ and his successor succeeded in getting further payment for a ‘sale’ – which was a foreign concept at the time).

Mid-late 1800’s were the ‘heyday’ of Krio society in West Africa. The British desired to sustain their port and to protect their ‘vision of’ and ‘stake in’ the concept of an African free state. However, it was expensive, and they needed for the ‘Sierra Leone Company’ to ‘cover’ its own expenses. The best way to accomplish ‘self sufficiency’ was to increase trade through the Freetown port. This was becoming increasing difficult - as the French were rapidly colonizing the surrounding regions in West Africa. While not wanting to ‘colonize’ all of what has later come to be known as Sierra Leone, they began to realize that the ‘friendship treaties’ that they had established with the ‘hinterlands’ were not enough to impede regional tribal kings from entering into new land treaties with the French. So, they upped the anty – and adjusted the ‘friendship’ treaties to treaties that declared regions to be part of a ‘British Protectorate.’ The chiefs (in many cases unknowingly) forfeited their right to negotiate with any nationality except the British.

Prior to modern vaccines and anti-malarial medicine, Sierra Leone developed a reputation of being ‘the white man’s grave’ (with good reason). The British did not believe that they had the manpower, nor the finances to govern this new ‘protectorate’ in the same way that they were able to govern the smaller ‘colony’ in the Western Province. They discovered the Krios to be indispensable as members of the ‘civil service.’ The Krios assumed such positions as: teachers, administrators, legislators, etc. for the British Empire. They enjoyed many advantages of this status: income, stature in society and, most importantly, land rights in the Western Province.

The rest of the country had a clearly different status as a ‘protectorate’ of Britain. ‘Kings’ of tribal regions were demoted to the status of ‘Paramount Chiefs,’ as no one within the protectorate could hold a title or status equivalent to that of Queen Victoria. For the most part however, the protectorate was still governed by the chiefdom structure. Krio ‘district officers’ were appointed to each of the five additional provinces, and several levels of courts involving solely chiefs, chiefs and district officers, and solely British district officers were developed to govern the country.

That’s it for my brief history lesson! I should acknowledge that most of this information is derived from reading a nice text available in the Kabala market: “A New History of Sierra Leone” by Joe A.D. Alie. I’ve condensed one hundred and fifty pages down to one – which I hope that you appreciate! This history has implications for current ‘land rights.’

The only region of the country where land can ‘officially’ be owned, bought and sold in independent transactions is in the Western Province. In all other provinces, the Paramount Chief officially owns all of the land. Granted, most people seem to be able to negotiate with the chief to ‘hold property’ with a relatively permanent status, but if a chief were to deem it appropriate, they could reclaim it at any time. Some chiefs are more ethical in this regard than others.

In Kabala, the ‘land rights’ issues closest to our hearts and experience are regarding:

a) Land being used as the site for the development of a new Christian school.
b) Land for Kumba and Joseph Sesay’s new house.

In each of these cases, the land involved is a ‘choice spot’ of land, and there are a number of interested parties. The ‘case’ for a particular use of the land is brought to the Paramount Chief. He will make a determination based on several factors:

1) The sum of money that the person is willing to pay for a ‘lease’ on the land.
2) The intended use: Is there a perceived ‘need’ or ‘desire’ in the chiefdom for this kind of development? If so, this may impact (lower) the price.
3) The person asking… (Does the chief have a good relationship with this person?)

In both of ‘our’ cases, the chief has accepted a negotiated price for the land. This still leaves the ‘lease holder’ in a dicey position until the property has been developed for the stated purpose. If one waits too long, a chief may determine that another ‘use’ is more appropriate and reclaim the land. An ethical chief will, in all likelihood, compensate the individual or organization that has paid a leasing price with the option of alternative land – but the ‘alternative’ is usually less valuable and in less of a ‘choice’ location.

According to Yegbeh, a farmer in Foria, rural land-holders in chiefdoms have fairly secure rights to property once it has initially been acquired from the chief. If one wishes to farm land that falls within the boundaries of a neighboring village, they must secure permission from the neighboring chief and ‘pay’ with one bag of rice (annually). Farms within one’s own village boundary can be farmed with no ‘cost’ and can be transferred from one generation of a family to the next. This is true of housing property as well.

Even in the Western Province of the country where ‘land rights’ seem to be clear, there is much confusion (often caused by corruption). In the case of the DOVE International orphanage property, Judy is constantly fighting a battle. As Freetown has tripled in size (during the war) governmental officials have started to ‘eye’ the surrounding hills as places of respite and retreat from the city. Most of this land is owned by Krios who are unwilling to sell – as the land has been passed down from generation to generation. Judy says that the government has recently instated laws that require land holders to re-certify their ownership of property (requiring a fee) on an annual basis. The paperwork is confusing, and often gets ‘lost,’ enabling the government to reclaim ‘forfeited’ land. Many of DOVE’s neighbors have paid significant sums of money in the fight to keep their land, and have still lost rights – with no compensation.

Outside of the Western Province, people are more and more interested in getting ‘government paperwork’ detailing their ownership of property. Despite the ambiguities of land ownership in the north, people are less concerned about chiefs and paramount chiefs taking their land than they are of the increasing practice of governmental officials coming in and appropriating land that had been ‘secured’ within the traditional system.

Reinforcement of ‘land rights’ is of deep concern. The land holders of Sierra Leone (especially in the coastal and mountainous areas of the Western Province near Freetown) are the vital ‘middle class’ of this country. According to Mary Hodges, a British doctor residing in Freetown, land ownership (and rental) provides supplemental income that enables Sierra Leonean professionals (doctors, professors, etc.) to remain in the country – even though their compensation would be much greater elsewhere. It will be fascinating (to me at least) to see the results of colliding ‘traditional’ and ‘formal’ governing structures in the coming decades – as this collision will have a huge impact on the future development of the country.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Mobility Impaired: Electrical Fires, MCL Tears and Blown Radiators

As I write, Aaron and I are stranded on the roadside somewhere between MaKeni and Kabala. It’s night… and thanks to the wonders of the ever increasing cell phone range in the north, we have been able to reach Joseph Sesay to let him know of our predicament (a busted radiator), so help will arrive in a couple of hours. Meanwhile, night sounds are emerging – and they are remarkably like night sounds on a summer Michigan night. Lots of crickets.

It seems that in a country known for it’s impediments to getting work done, Aaron and I have run into a particularly long stretch of frustrations and set-backs. My arrival was slightly complicated by both pieces of luggage being left behind in Heathrow Airport for a few days – joining the now 28,000 pieces of luggage that have been delayed or lost there in the past month. Aaron’s blue suitcase (containing research-related content) was lost on the flight that he took on December 10th and has not yet shown up. On arrival, I was greeted by Aaron at Lungi (a nice surprise) as he wanted to pre-empt the plan I had to take the helicopter (which recently suffered an electrical fire) from the airport to Freetown. Instead, we were treated to a much nicer boat crossing – thanks to Aaron’s friend Allen who owns an operates a small tour company and frequently takes NGO visitors on trips out to the Banana Islands.

As most of you are aware, Aaron had a motorcycle accident a week and a half ago which has resulted in a moderate tear to the MCL, damage to the Vastus Lateralis (hamstring) and ‘laxity’ in his ACL. This is going to change the nature of the work that he is able to do for at least the next few weeks, as the 20 mile hike in to the Loma Mountains, steep climb, and rough rocky terrain at the top are taxing even to one in peak physical condition.

Dealing with this injury has provided us with an interesting first-hand experience of the various medical resources available in the country. Basically, with the help of Mary Hodges, a British physician, a Sierra Leonean orthopedic specialist, and a physical therapist residing here with the ‘Mercy Ships’, we feel that we have been able to get a good diagnosis… though MRIs are not available. In the process, Aaron was turned away from clinics by power-wielding receptionists and doctors who appeared less sympathetic to a white patient than SL patients. He was also sent for x-rays (at a fee) to a friend of the doctor – even though soft tissue injuries can not be detected with x-ray. When he questioned the directive, he was told, “you are not the doctor.” Aaron’s case is border-line, and so we are in the limbo regarding the need for surgery for a short while. The MCL and the hamstring injuries should heal just fine within weeks, and then it will be much easier to tell the extent of the ACL injury – if there is one.

One blessing of the forced delay in Freetown (waiting five days for my luggage to arrive) was that we had an opportunity to spend a good deal of time with Mary and Zed, long- time friends of the Kortenhovens and residents of Sierra Leone. Mary is a pediatric doctor with a specialization in worms. She has been working with Njalla University to develop the curriculum for their CHO (Community Health Organizer) program. Before looking it over, I was under the mistaken impression that this was a fairly ‘light’ medical program, focused primarily on sanitation, basic medications and injuries. I must say, I am now in awe of anyone who tries to get through this program and who can practice effective ‘first responder’ medicine with the limited resources available in this country. There is only one CHO that we know of as far north in the country as Kabala – and often, there really is no back-up for this person, except in cases where they are responding to someone with monetary resources to get to a bigger city. The program requires an intensive three years of coursework and it is very carefully formulated. Unfortunately, it is currently only offered in Bo (in the south of the country) and few from the north are able or willing to relocate for that long of a period of time.

Mary believes that (from a medical perspective) the best investment this country can make is in the CHO and CHA programs: making distance learning possible, creating partial scholarships, doing appropriate follow-up, etc. One ‘advantage’ to training people for the CHO degree is that is not a transferable to other countries as a medical degree, so the expertise has a higher likelihood of remaining within Sierra Leone.

I am realizing more and more that expatriates trying to ‘help’ the situation here work with basically two different operatives:

1) Develop personal relationships and try to do the best thing possible for the individuals with whom you come in contact.

2) Develop ‘systems’ that incrementally elevate the living standards and opportunities for many people by one small notch.

It is really difficult to strive for the middle line between these… to develop personal relationships but try to invest time, energy and money in ways that actually serve a whole community well.

Well, the computer battery is just about to die, so it will be just Aaron, me, a broken down truck and the night road until Asmana comes to find us.

Love to all,


Sunday, December 10, 2006


Site for the New 'Kabala Christian School'

Here is a letter from the newly formed school board. Finding the right candidate for the critical 'headmaster' position of the Kabala Christian School has been a matter of great hope, concern and prayer.

Dear Dennis and Fraser Valley Christian High School Partners –

We are writing to you with joy and thanksgiving. Our interviewing committee has a selected candidate for the position of headmaster for the new Christian School we are building here in Kabala. Let us tell you a little bit about him.

By invitation, Mr .James Tamba Koroma (b.1963) began by giving us his personal testimony. He gave us a glimpse into a life that depends only on Christ for salvation and one who has a life of active gratitude and knowledge of God s love in the world and our job to be for Him. He is known to the community and familiar with the language and conditions of children who live here. We were all moved by his testimony.

He has a Teaching Certificate and a Higher Teaching Certificate granted by Makeni Teacher’s College. This is a post secondary three year degree programme. He fulfilled all the requirements with better than average marks. His training emphases were in Education, Community Development Studies, Basic Mathematics and Language Arts. He has 20 years of teaching and leadership experience in elementary schools. As we progressed through the interview he demonstrated understandings about the specific abilities and needs lower elementary school children have as learners, the daily running of an elementary school and sensitivities about the relationships between staff, community, church and other constituents.

We were thrilled to find a candidate who had all that knowledge and passionate interest in teaching young children; but we were especially excited to find someone who has a strong vision for Christian Education. He brings his commitment to Christ under a considerable amount of training and experience in Christian learning and leadership positions. He has done course work with the Matthew 6 Foundation in Child Care and Education; taken Bible Teaching Seminars with the New Testament Fellowship International; participated with the Joshua International Ministries and does some pastoral work with his church in Kono. He has also worked for the Children’s Home of the Reintegration Programme for "Help a Needy Child International," for orphans in Makeni after the war.

His family of three young children and his wife all participate in church life with him. All this is especially surprising as we considered that he currently is the head teacher of a large Islamic elementary school of more than 1000 students. At this time he is much challenged and pressed by the local community of Moslems to convert or get out of the school. He has steadfastly kept this position for the last years while working as a pastor in Kono. This is a testimony to his community abilities to lead in spite of conflict.

When asked about what would make a Christian School different than a public sector school, he replied that "A Christian School is not only for the education of the mind, it is for the whole life of the child. Christian education should develop and grow the child’s physical and social abilities, his moral actions and his mind. But more. We want the child’s spirit to let God’s spirit to take a strong hold on all aspects of the child’s life. To let God Shape the life of the child. We teachers should create an atmosphere of love, sharing, caring. Children should not only learn, but apply education. In Christian education, we want to teach children to be Christ like and to know the supreme being. To demonstrate the characteristics of love." This is not word for word – but these phrases were jotted verbatim as they came from him in the interview.

Currently he is Baptist by denomination and undertakes pastoral duties as an assistant pastor at the First Baptist church in Koakoyinma – small Lebanon Kono. He is a Sunday School teacher there. But he has expressed that he would be willing and eager to join the Christian Reformed Church of Kabala to strengthen the union and communion between the school and church. As he said, we serve the same Christ!

There is still much to do to finalize and realize this step. More on this later. For now, we are grateful that God has led this man to us; and hope that you welcome him and affirm his appointment. He can’t formally take up duties until March since he would need to give two months notice. In the meantime, when we send him an appointment, we will ask him to do course work so that he can become computer literate. Would you please confirm your approval for this appointment?


Rev. John Phiri

Mr. Joseph Sesay

Mr. Michael M.K. Mansaray

Mr. Robert Jawara

Dr. Johanna Kuyvenhoven

COMING HOME - August 2006

Dear Friends & Family,

I am headed home (for the time being)! Home… to the land where shampoo, lipstick and batteries are now considered terrorist ‘carry-on’ items. I haven’t yet figured out quite what (and how) it is permissible to pack while traveling through Europe to the US. It’s a strange and turbulent world we live in. Essentially, there is just not enough love, and not enough faith. Somehow, sharing the power of the hope God has given us must be ‘lived’ in a very potent and palpable way. I feel a pretty shabby witness to this most of the time.

There is so much more that could be told or written about life in this corner of the world, and in truth, I’d planned another email, but time has run out. I need to be packed and ready to go from Kabala within the hour, and Aaron is beginning to ‘eye’ me skeptically. It’s been really helpful to me to ‘process’ what I’ve been learning through writing these emails, and I hope that they haven’t unduly clogged too many mail boxes. It’s been great to hear from some of you in the process.

In short, Aaron’s research will likely continue until about this time next year. It is now our (tentative) plan that I will return to the States until sometime late December, and that Aaron will make a short return to the US from mid-October until mid-November to meet with his advisor (and be with me!). This timing will also likely permit us to be present for the birth of a new Jackson nephew in early November! I plan to return to SL for a few months around January & February (much more preferable months to skip out on being in Michigan than these beautiful summer ones…).

Much love,

Saturday, December 9, 2006



Near the Peak of Mt. Bintumani - The Highest Peak in West Africa

If ‘Survivor’ plus ‘the Biggest Loser’ doesn’t mean anything to you, you can feel a moment of pride. If the combined essence of these two TV reality shows actually communicates something… don’t raise your hand… no need for confessions… no one is probably watching you anyway… but you might then have a sense of the expedition to Loma. We’re back, and I’m a survivor (and likely the biggest “loser”)… despite a twisted ankle, chest cold and something awfully like poison ivy… though I’m assured that the bona fide stuff doesn’t exist here.

Before that casts too glum of an impression, let me say that Loma is truly spectacular (especially when it’s not raining); it may be one of the best hopes for a ‘conservation park’ in Sierra Leone, and I am very proud to have made it to the highest peak west of Cameroon (in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone).

Prior to our departure last Monday, we heard that there ‘might be’ a shortcut that could be taken to Sinikoro, the village at the base of the mountain. During rainy season, none of the roads that approach this area are trespass-able by truck so a hike in is necessary. The ‘known’ route is about twelve to fourteen miles of well-established trail from Yifin to the base. We were told that if instead we drove a different route, to Kolonko, it would be approximately 10 miles to Sinikoro… and through the forest (which seemed appealing). This new route had ‘opened up’ due to some new ‘farm paths’ that had been cut for increased agricultural activity in the area. So we opted for exploring the new route, which allowed us to drive through Sulia and Koloko (two of my new favorite villages… and keeper of many of the best cultural, craft & dance traditions of the Kuranko people).

A ‘bush’ mile is not a city mile. Every time you put down your foot, there is a rock, a root, a slope or a vine ready to bring you to your knees – and some of the time, these obstacles are completely concealed by tall grasses. About two or three times each mile there is a stream or a swamp to cross. Half of the time, this was made possible by balancing on logs; half the time I either needed to remove my boots or get carried across by Aaron, who was wearing shoes that could get wet. So when I say that the ‘approach’ turned into twenty miles, please appreciate that this was twenty miles for an un-initiated walker, pushing at what seemed to be the fastest possible pace… which ended up being less than two miles an hour… through misting rain and steamy sun.
Aaron thinks it likely that some of the ‘farm settlements’ we passed through never had a white woman walk through them before… which might account for some of the children crying and running away when we approached. There were moments where I began to feel like a walking, talking white woman freak show (especially in the village where we spent the night – where a group of about 30 adults gathered in the dark just beyond the porch where we were eating and stared in silence for over an hour – even Marah and Yegbeh started to get annoyed, though they were laughing about it.) Most people were very friendly though, and thanked us profusely “for walking” through their way. A number of individuals (mostly older men) recognized Aaron from years past and remembered having taken him fishing or into the bush when he was a child.
The inaccuracy of the distance estimate can likely be attributed to two factors:

1) Kuranko are absolutely lousy at estimating distance.
2) Illegal hunting along one of the ‘farm paths’ led villagers to obscure one of the modestly shorter routes.

To the former point: distance is measured in a very subjective way by Kuranko. My favorite illustration of this was a comment made to me last summer, “I’ six mile, but if you have bike, i’ no six mile, i’ four mile.” Similarly, if you ask a young man in his physical prime (like Kulie) the distance of a path, you are likely to get a much shorter estimate than if you ask an old person, or a person with poor vision. We began by walking a known route of about 2 ½ miles to Bamakalia. From there we walked all day, from early morning to late afternoon, through large tracks of forest, swamp, grassland, and the occasional farm settlement. It was evident from the ‘sightings’ of Loma (that Aaron, Marah, and Yegbeh kept making) that we were not progressing as fast as we had anticipated, but I kept being told that there were probably about four or five more miles to go. This projection seemed to hold from about 1 PM to 4 PM. Then we were told by a farm settlement that ‘there was no path’ to Sinikoro, that we would absolutely have to go though Banagarfia (quite out of the way) and that the distance to even just Banagarfia was ‘long’, ‘maybe six mile’ and that once we climbed the tall, tall hill, ‘i no far again.’ So off we went. My sister Kristin always used to chant under her breath while water skiing… “keep it in front of me, keep it in front of me…”; one could see her lips moving from the boat. I think I started to adopt a similar chant, “just keep going, just keep going…” feeling that if I stopped, all would be lost. I was actually elated to see the tall, tall hill… only to learn that ‘i no far again’ simply meant ‘the distance after the hill probably isn’t quite as long as the distance you have already walked.’ It was still a few more miles. The next day, we still had a long walk and climb (8 hrs.) to Sinikoro and up the mountain. Comparatively: a piece of cake.

To the later point: on the way back, Marah and Yegbeh picked up (from villagers) the horrible news that three giant African Elephants have been killed recently in the region where we were walking. Butchering, smoking, drying (and whatever else is done with elephant meat and tusks) was taking place along the most direct bush path to Sinikoro. I had joked on the way though that maybe people weren’t giving us the correct directions due to illegal hunting, but none of us dreamed that elephant were the targets. Since the war, all guns are illegal in Sierra Leone. The killing of elephants has been banned worldwide, and the sale of ivory across the SL border is illegal. Only a few small populations of elephant are left in the country and the kind of gun needed to kill an elephant is ‘doubly’ illegal. So on many counts, this is deeply problematic and troublesome.

Nonko, the man killing the elephants, is a former soldier who was appointed by Siaka Stevens (President of S.L. from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties) to be his personal hunter. He is also attributed to be the man who gradually ‘stored’ all of the weapons that rebels used to take over the north of the country during the war. He apparently carries with him a ‘license’ to hunt elephant that was granted in the late 1970’s (when it was still permitted). Aaron believes that he is astute enough to know elephant hunting is now completely illegal. Everyone here is aware of the country-wide ban on guns. However, there is a ‘blind eye’ turned towards much of the subsistence hunting activity that occurs around the country.

So, why would people not turn him in? He is clearly not well liked or respected by those outside his own family circle.

1) In regards to his activity during the war: People here hold firmly the belief that ‘vengeance is the Lord’s.’ This may be one of the things that helped with a return to a reasonable level of stability in so short a period after the war ended… but in many cases, it seems like it leads to passivity when confrontation is called for.
2) There are very few in the rural north with the education or confidence to confront someone like Nonko.
3) There is a general distrust of the ‘police’ and no one would want to get enmeshed in a court case as an ‘informant.’

Aaron, on his own, has very little power to confront things like this. But the Kortenhoven’s many years of work in this country have resulted in the development of many fortuitous connections. Brigadier RY, the second highest official in the Sierra Leonian military is someone who owes his current position to the fact that Paul K. helped get him out of the bush and surrendered to the UN – while vouching for the integrity of his actions during the war. (Note: the SL military, currently being trained by IMATT, is viewed much more positively than the police.) Serendipitously, RY actually strolled on up to the round house to greet Aaron during a quick visit that he was making to Kabala the day after we returned from Loma. He was already aware of Aaron’s earlier discovery of commercial hunting on Loma and has initiated measures to put a stop to it. He was appalled to hear of the elephant hunting – so it looks as though we are going to be able to effect the fastest confrontation to the situation that possibly could have been hoped for.

So there is some hope. As has been mentioned, Loma has been hit in the past two or three years by some commercial hunting… but the evidence from this past visit indicates no recent activity. This is in part due to the fact that it is rainy season, but we also do hear of many village meetings taking place on the subject and ‘laws’ are being set forth. Sa Nieni chiefdom is discussing the ‘jail terms’ and ‘fines’ for those discovered hunting on Loma, but the biggest threat to the hunters is the thought of having their guns confiscated. If they stick to less protected areas, they can more likely ‘fly under the radar’ with subsistence hunting.

Aaron was glad to see evidence (trails, bedding locations, chewed grass, etc.) that suggests the presence of at least several small groups of buffalo and one or two larger groups of 7-9 individuals on Loma. We were also glad to hear chimps and see a number of different kinds of monkeys. Duiker tracks were evident, though the grasses are too tall during this season to spot smaller animals much. At the base of Bintamani, the highest peak in the range, I got my first look at a Rock Hyrax, the closest relative of the elephant, which looks like a groundhog with big canines. I was most ‘taken’, however, with the spectacular vistas and the beautiful (if tiny) flowers of the mountain.

Aaron has just no returned from a second meeting with Col. Kelly Kumara, who RY appointed to help take care of the elephant hunting issue. Bamakalia and Kulonko are his ‘home areas’ and he has lots of relatives there (including his mother). He has located a couple of eye-witnesses to the hunting and is ready to go with 2-3 soldiers as soon as Aaron can go with them. They will use the opportunity to put out the word both on the illegality of elephant hunting as well as the word that people will face similar consequences for hunting on Loma. One small step towards conservation in Sierra Leone.

Grace, peace and love to all,
An increasingly ‘buff’ Emily & Aaron


Mosque in the Center of Kabala

Riding Around Kabala

Roadside Commerce


Outamba Kilimi National Park was instated in the early 1980’s by a Transylvanian biologist. Stories about this gentleman have filtered through the decades. According to ‘Good Man’, our guide, Geza was afraid of nothing and protected the park with a combative passion.

The term ‘bushwhacking’ took on a whole new dimension after my first experience of really attempting it with Aaron and Yegbeh. You cannot get through the ‘bush’ during rainy season without a machete, wet feet, grass cuts, and likely a few thorns. It was a fascinating experience though. I remember a ‘Music Appreciation’ class that I took at Wheaton College back a decade ago that was similar. In listening to a concert, I tend to settle in and listen to the ‘whole’ of it. The professor took great pains to get us to hear the lines and the contributions of each of the different instruments: the cello, bassoon, the oboe, the bass… by first isolating it, and then letting us hear it with the whole. That is how I felt on this trip… I was with the ‘masters’, for whom every scent, bent blade of grass, scuff in the earth, rubbing mark, broken limb on a tree or chewed leaf ‘spoke’ volumes of the life present in the forest. Without introduction to the ‘individuals,’ though, I had a much harder time identifying them as pieces of the whole. Aaron would say, “do you smell the red river hog?” and I’d say, “no, I just smell… forest… or maybe, maybe I smell something different…” In any case, it was impressive to watch the two of them, and I did learn a few things.
As stated in an earlier email, there are some good signs of wildlife yet remaining in OKNP. Most notably, the hippos and the vervet monkeys. We also encountered the following: multiple Chimpanzee ‘nests’ and a ‘sighting’ of chimps across the river; giant African Elephant footprints, droppings, places where elephant shoulders had rubbed against a tree and stripped limbs of the trees they like to eat from; a Maxwell duiker and many tracks of Maxwell and Yellowback Duikers; Lesser White-Nosed Guenon Monkeys; Campbell’s Guenon; Sooty Mangaby Monkeys; Black & White Colobus Monkeys; tracks of a lone big male Forest Buffalo, tracks and resting spot of a group of fifteen buffalo, tracks of a smaller group of three; Bushbuck horns (from which Aaron and Yegbeh carved and fashioned a ‘playable’ horn); and numerous ‘rootings’ of Red River Hogs. As rainy season brings on the growth of grasses that are about three feet taller than my head (I’m told they will get a five or more feet taller yet!), it’s very unlikely that one ever get a ‘sighting’ of an animal itself, unless they spend some significant time tracking it. So our mission was more to look for the ‘evidence’ to try to discern the scope of wildlife yet existing in the park.

Despite the sound of the above list, the evidence was sobering. Though some diversity remains, it is thought that 70% of the wildlife has been lost to poaching and encroaching settlements of people since the park was established in the 1980’s… much of this destruction has happened swiftly in the past 2-4 years since the war. Buffalo have been impacted to a greater degree b/c they are one of the actively hunted animals. One of the reasons that the OKNP park was established in it’s current location was the fact that it was the least populated part of the country. Prior to the war, a program was put in place to encourage people to relocate. The chiefdom’s had two options: accept a complete ‘buyout’ which included housing in a new settlement on equally good land –or- accept a ‘partial buyout’ which called for the forfeiting of certain land-use rights (including hunting. One chiefdom chose the former, the other the latter. However, during and after the war, many of the people who had accepted payment to leave returned – as there has literally been NO enforcement of the borders or of any of the rules.

Further, one of the chiefs has been selling ‘fishing rights’ in the park that the national government seems to not have the power to control. (This is another situation in which I am unclear on how the authority of ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern/national’ governance falls). Fishing for local consumption would be understandable, but there is true ‘commercial fishing’ occurring. On Aaron’s first visit, he discovered that over 30 fishing nets were strung to completely span the river –right within the first half mile from base camp. Aaron and crew have also been disheartened to hike 12-20 miles out to some of the more ‘remote’ areas of the park, only to discover that new un-mapped settlements with dozens farms exist throughout the park.
Though typically respectful of all the ‘traditional protocols’ of dealing with settlements and different chiefs, Aaron finally did have a ‘run in’ with a man from one of the newly planted Soso villages. After a first warm greeting, the man returned the next day with ‘long face’ to explain that the animals in the park were guided by the spirits. If Aaron and team did not meet with the village to ‘appease’ (pay) them, them the village would not act as mediaries with the spirits. Without their blessing, no animals would be found.

While it is not uncommon for Aaron to approach recognized chiefs of larger areas with a small gift, in this area of the park it had started to seem as though a third of the populace was somehow identifying themselves as ‘chiefs.’ After having paid out a number of these token gifts (including a gift to the true chief of that area – from whom a blessing had been obtained) and having witnessed deeper and deeper evidence of hunting and the destruction of wildlife habitat, Aaron’s group was frustrated. He replied (in Mendingo) “I have a word for you, and you can tell your chief I said this: You are greedy. This is the first area I have been to in ALL of Sierra Leone where I have not been offered kola nut (typical welcome offering). And yet I have been asked for much. You must ‘hold’ your visitors well if you want for them to hold you well. (Finally… and a bit facetiously) You must have VERY powerful spirits at work, because they have not only hidden all of your animals, they have hidden all evidence of your animals.”
One of the unintentional legacies of the first re-settlement of people out of the park may be the willful destruction of wildlife. One still hears undercurrents of resentment in the park to sentiments expressed by park staff and govermental re-settlement officers at the time: that the homes of people should belong to the chimps, etc. Though effort was made to fairly negotiate this (at the time) during the war, park boundaries were not enforced and distinct villages and resettlements have emerged. Unfortunately, it appears likely that people believe that if they quickly hunt and eliminate as much wildlife as possible, that no one will bother to evacuate them again.

There is a current trend, popular with many NGO’s, to try to combine conservation efforts with development efforts. In OKNP, there are plans to build a good school right on the edge of the park, Honda (motorbike) paths and pavilions and outpost camps throughout the park. Some of this might be ‘dreaming,’ as these projects would be completely dependant on external (likely EU) funding… but it raises a good question: “are ‘conservation’ and ‘development’ compatible, or not?” I know the ‘politically correct’ answer to this – I’ve espoused it myself – but… as soon as you build good schools, you are sure to get more people moving to the area. More people, in SL, usually means more farms. More farms & human presence usually means less wildlife.

So, in summation, there are huge challenges to OKNP. The good things are as follow:
1) A diversity of species (though very limited in numbers) still remain is some areas of the park. If well protected, a resurgence would still be possible for the next couple of years.

2) A few people, namely ‘Good Man’, our guide, and Manseray, from the office in Freetown, really know the park well and are passionate and sacrificial about conservation efforts. Note: ‘Good Man’ is not actually employed by the park, but is the one that the park staff turn to for any ‘tracking’ or bush country expedition.

However, the challenges are immense. While clear that the park is understaffed and severely underfinanced, it’s still frustrating that the year-around ‘paid’ staff were completely unfamiliar with the new farming settlements that existed within the park borders. Poaching from across the Guinea border is a huge problem. It would take serious ‘political will’ to preserve what still exists, and the likelihood of income from tourism is slim for a while – until some serious conservation efforts are put in place and resurgence of wildlife occurs. Even if this does happen, the viewing of wildlife in the forest / bush of West Africa is less accessible to the casual tourist than the easy viewing on the East African savannas. Senegal apparently has a successful model, though, so there is some hope… and this is truly a unique place… sandflies, mud and all. Better designed for animals than humans, in my opinion, which may be a good thing.

Love to all – we miss you!
Emily & Aaron

P.S. On occasion, a character trait will ‘stick’ as a name, as is the case for a few people we have met here: ‘Peace-Maker’, ‘Unbreakable’, and ‘Good Man.’ Whenever I would call out to Good Man (in my funny accent), he would look over at me with a funny glint in his eye and say, ‘Good man. Won-der-ful-man.’ Which was true… he was indeed.
NOTE: This posting has been edited to remove some ill-thought-out 'editorial' comments about the work of an indivual in OKNP. I am sorry for any hurt or offense. I should know the complexities of attempting any kind of conservation work in Sierra Leone and the potential for mis-interpretation by some of such activity and the stories that result. Many such stories get told of my husband (for instance: his bringing a mosquito screen / net up to his research site instigated false rumors of diamod mining!) Further, a certain banter and looseness of language is 'understood' among family and friends that should have been revised when I later posted emails to a public blog. My sincere apologies.


If you were to get a description from Aaron of our time in Outamba-Kilimi National Park, it would likely be much more succinct: mud; bugs; muggy heat; rain; mud; bugs; illegal hunting; encroaching settlements; mud; bugs; severely deteriorated camp facilities; un-patrolled land; mud; bugs; and a tragic death of a park guide on the river. Maybe it should be left at that (and if Paul K. is reading this… it probably will be!) but I’m more wordy.

Tragedy on the Kaba
Dry season is a good time to see hippos in Outamba-Kilimi National Park. They are, in fact, some of the few reliable wildlife attractions (along with the vervet monkies, which are so plentiful and curious… you almost want to chase them off after a week). Traveling down the Kaba River to Pool #3 (the naming of places is shockingly creative here) is pretty easy, though there are a few rapids along the way. Coming up on the hippo pool, one can usually spot the creatures from a distance… as they are massive, and the water is pretty low. They are rarely found completely submerged, so one can navigate around them appropriately. Rainy season is another story. The river swells 15-20 feet, expanding to twice the width from bank to bank… and the water moves fast.

Morlei Kagbo, one of OKNP’s guides, died giving a hippo tour during our second full day in the park. This event is not the only significant thing that occurred during our nine day visit, but it certainly colored the entirety of the time.

A group of IMATT (International Military Assistance Training Team) showed up on our second day in the park. Two were British, one Canadian, one Sierra Leonian and one Nigerian. It became apparent that two British had read a good deal about Sierra Leone prior to and during their stay (including ‘In the Land of the Magic Soldiers’ – a book that references the Kortenhoven family). The group was also clearly an adventuring sort: they’d taken every opportunity to explore different corners of the country – including having taken a trip up Mt. Bintamani of Aaron’s beloved Loma Mountains several weeks earlier. On visiting the park, three of the five were set on the mission of making a trip down the river to see the hippos.

I believe that they were aware that the water level was high, and that the paddling would be a challenge, but it’s likely that their language abilities did not enable them to pick up on the side conversations that were occurring regarding who should go with them. We only later learned that the other guides had tried to talk Morlei out of going on the grounds that he couldn’t swim, but the promise of 10,000 Leones (about $3) was just too compelling, and he’d insisted on it.

So, a group of three IMATT soldiers and two guides took the park’s two canoes down the river. Several rapids were passed through without event, but as they approached Pool #3, a hippo suddenly surfaced about 20 yards away, startling Morlei, who panicked and flipped the canoe. One of the strong swimmers from the other canoe jumped out to help the SL soldier, who couldn’t swim well, and Rick, the Canadian IMATT soldier, immediately went after Morlei, but the water was just too turbid and deep. He didn’t get to him on time.

The red canoe was lost down the river, and the other canoe was only rated a ‘two person’ so Stewart returned with the other guide and the Sierra Leonian soldier for a two hour paddle up the river, leaving Rick to look for the body and the lost canoe.

Different cultures and personalities emerge become more pronounced in response to a death. The park personnel went ahead and presented a bill for the overnight stay and the excursion to the IMATT group, which (under the circumstances) shocked them. Chris responded by quietly approaching Aaron with all of their small remaining funds, pretty much an emptying of their pockets, and asked if he could try to get the money directly to the family. Aaron agreed. Then, for better or worse, IMATT made a decision to split the scene and head back to Makeny before nightfall. Aaron encouraged them to make a stop at the local police in Kamakwi to make a ‘report’ and essentially clarify that the incident was an ‘accident’ (more on this later).

Aaron then had to talk another group of (non-swimming) guides out of the idea of immediately going to retrieve the canoe. They were obviously shaken, and also sure that they would be in trouble with the authorities in Freetown if they let the canoe be lost. Even with my limited Krio, it was clear that Aaron was communicating, ‘Don’t make a rash decision when you aren’t able to think straight! A life is more important than a canoe. If you can’t swim, have some ‘sense’.” This seemed to work for the time being, and they agreed that they weren’t thinking clearly. Note: several guides who were purportedly better swimmers came the next morning to try to retrieve the boat. The literal translation of their response to the question regarding their ability to swim was… “If God agrees, I can swim. If God doesn’t agree, it doesn’t matter if I can swim.” Statements like this abound in SL. The fine line between: a) recognition that one is in the ‘hands of God’ and b) a sense of fatalism, that it doesn’t matter which choices you make, because what will happen, will happen… is not always clear to me.

Trouble with Police: Strip aside all notions of police being available to ‘help’ the populace. As Marah says (with a small bit of my interpretation) if you have a brother who joins the police, you have lost him to the ‘dark side.’ Ferenki says that the policeman’s prayer here is, ‘God, give us big trouble today!” It may help to understand that a policeman’s monthly salary is about 140,000L, or less than $50.00. This is not enough, even here, to do more than quite literally ‘live’ on… and if you have a family, not even that. So, police are constantly out looking for any opportunity to collect fines, bribes & favors. This doesn’t make them the best advocates of justice. A death on the river poses a great occasion for them to feign all kinds of outrage and concern that there has been ‘foul play’ (in hopes of collecting a big bribe). After all, why should they not believe that someone ‘tied a rock to the man’ or ‘pushed him out of the canoe to feed to the hippos?’

Therefore, it was of great consequence to the park that IMATT left an ‘accident report’ to clear all of their names. However, when they made a follow-up visit to the station, the police first claimed that ‘no report had been left’ and started in with all kinds of accusations. The first rule in dealing with any kind of problematic situation here seems to be, ‘show NO weakness.’ Secondly, ‘show NO uncertainty.’ So, even though he was not completely clear on what IMATT had or had not done in terms of leaving a report, Diao, the park supervisor, made adamant & angry claims that a report had been made. The police finally acknowledged that this might have happened, but that the person who took the report was not ‘available’. When Diao asked to see the report, the police claimed that it had been ‘removed’ from the log and made him make a second one. Then, they made a big deal out of the fact that it would be improper to make a report in red ink (the only pen available in the police station) so they had to use Diao’s pen – which they refused to return to him. All in all, not a disastrous encounter, but it’s the reports like this that tie my stomache in knots and make my blood hot.

Trouble with Money: Evidently someone from the park saw the exchange in which money (approx. $35.00) was given to Aaron for Morlei’s family. As Daio had been absent on the day of the event, he had no way of knowing that we had spent hours talking with the British IMATT soldier who had not gone on the trip, nor that his park staff was a little soused with palm wine, nor any of the other details that led to this action on the part of IMATT. He only learned that money had been given to us instead of the park, and this stuck in his craw. First, he came by to present us with an inflated bill (for IMATT) that would have eaten up almost all of the money. Aaron explained that, after a tragedy like this, people think differently and that the guests had been deeply shaken up by the drowning. He explained that IMATT planned to go back to Freetown and purchase life jackets for the park (the cost of which would far exceed the bill) and that it would be improper to take money designated for the family and use it for a different purpose. Diao appeared to agree to this, but a day later it became clear that he was still angry, as he felt that he should have been entrusted with the money to give to the family (never mind that he hadn’t been there). Aaron did sort of have a melt-down at one point, feeling as though all of the negative emotions surrounding the accident and the death somehow had gotten pointed at him – which probably wasn’t quite true, but emotions do, somehow, have a tendency to find a ‘target’ and that target is not always (or even usually) rational. We finally did end up giving Diao the money, and providing transportation for the thirty-five mile (4 hour) round-trip to Kamakwi, for the family to come out to the park – so things were (personally, at least) straightened out in the end.

You can probably imagine that all of this had an impact both on our groups work and attitude about the park, but, I think I’ll take a break and send our impressions of OKNP in a separate email. We are currently in Kabala, and I am feeling MUCH better as the 67 sandfly (think: ‘no-seeum’) bites on my right foot and 63 on my left foot have begun to fade away. Alpha, a small 12-year-old boy left mute from some trauma during the war, has been peering over my shoulder for almost the entirety of writing this letter. He’s an extremely curious kid and (we think) quite bright, it’s just too bad that there aren’t many resources here to diagnose learning disabilities. He’s much more patient than any 12 year old I’ve met in the USA, but it’s clear that he would prefer that I shift from typing to showing him more pictures that we have taken and put on the computer.

Greetings to you all (from Aaron, Marah, Yegbeh, and Ferenki too)!


Diang Chiefdom's New Paramount Chief !

A significant historical event has just occurred in Foria. A vote has been taken (and passed unanimously) that will enable a person from any family to be eligible for town chief. To date, each village, section and territory has drawn it’s chiefs from one or two ruling households. Chiefs are chiefs for life; at the point of their death, members of the ruling families will be nominated to ‘run’ and eventually one will be elected by the people.

Not a horrible system… in some cases, it has served the country very well. The obvious difficulties are that the system enables the ‘ruling houses’ to become complacent in their leadership, and sometimes a good candidate just cannot be found in one of the generations from this limited of a pool. Such is the case in Foria today.

As evident as this solution seems, it’s truly a huge step… and one that has not been taken in many other places of the country. One thing that is difficult for me to wrestle with is how so many people here seem to take their ‘lot’ in life in a resigned way. If something good happens, that’s how God must have wanted it (and much thanks is given). If something bad happens, that too must be ‘ordained’ and very little fight is made against it. In a way that I will perhaps never fully understand, people feel themselves to be at the mercy of God, of Westerners, of outside forces that they have no real control over. There have been subtle changes since the war though. As Mary Kortenhoven says, “People feel that they have experienced the worst horrors imaginable. They have survived. This has given some a boldness to speak their mind more quickly if they see an injustice or something that is not as it should be.” So, there are small steps… and some big ones. Women sing songs about how it is ‘better to have only one wife,’ the verses extolling the reasons why and the hazards of polygamy… and though this is a huge sensitive issue, people now listen, laugh until tears roll down their faces and talk about it. The recent vote to make all (still men) eligible for town chief has just taken place in Foria. Perhaps most significantly, a truly ineffective, drug-addicted and divisive paramount chief has just been deposed.

Magbah came from one of the ruling households of the Diang Chiefdom, in which Foria is located. He was one of the few who was able to get a visa to go to study in the USA as a young man, and spent over a decade there. His stories of accomplishments in the USA differ radically from the evidence others have been able to dig up: that in all likelihood, he drove a taxi for a couple of years, and managed to pick up a cocaine addiction. People here view an education in the US as the ‘Cadillac’ of educations and (until recently) have had little capacity to check up on the validity of claims made by returnees of achievements. Therefore, on hearing that there was a ‘vacancy’ for the position of Paramount Chief, Magbah was able to return to the country and be welcomed with open arms.

Getting rid of a Paramount Chief is almost unheard of. Though it’s a bit depressing to see how terribly bad leadership has to be before people agitate for change, it’s encouraging that this finally did happen. It’s involved a long process of grass-roots community involvement and decision-making, capped by an ‘official’ government edict from Freetown. (Note: one of the other things that is difficult for me to understand is the intersection of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ spheres of governance in the country. I think that they do more than co-exist… but I’ll need to get further explanation from Aaron. In any case, Freetown is considered a ‘world-away’ up here in the north of the country. The current president has never, so far as anyone here remembers, actually driven the roads of the northern provinces. The village chiefs, section chiefs and paramount chiefs, on the other hand, seem to have a much more profound impact on a region’s cohesiveness, infrastructure and productivity.)

Rope Dance (In Celebration of a New Interim Paramount Chief)

I asked Kumba today if women were ever nominated to be chief in Sierra Leone. She replied, ‘not among the Kuranko’ and went on to explain how her mother came from a ‘ruling family’ but that eligibility for leadership passed through the father’s line, so she had two strikes against her. Aaron chimed in that the ‘Mende’ and the ‘Temne’ people occasionally elected women chiefs. Kumba went on to say that if she had an education, that she would make people elect her to be president of the country. Before I had time to ask, she went on to describe the first thing that she would do: essentially build a big compound outside of Makeni, where there are vast tracts of fertile land. Then she would round up all of the n’er-do-wells in Freetown and other places, and make them come to the work camp to learn how to farm. She explained how ‘not everyone has an education’ but that people can be taught to farm. She even has a system devised by which people would ‘earn’ their way out of the camp to more independence over time. She also thought this would be a good way to slow down or stop the importation of rice. In a way, her idea is simply a magnification of what she is doing locally on a smaller scale. She and Joseph Sesay pay school tuitions for 20-30 children at any given time, and provide housing to about that many people (mostly children) whose families have been lost or too badly damaged in the war to be self sufficient. In turn, these kids all help with the work of Kumba and Sesay’s expanding farms.

So, changes are taking place… and there is some reason to hope for the better. Magbah still refuses to turn over his golden staff (the symbol of a Paramount Chief’s authority) but a warrant has been put out for his arrest – so that should soon be resolved. It’s not yet clear where new leadership will come from. Though Foria has made the bold move of open elections, this has not yet been embraced by the entirety of the Diang chiefdom, so candidates for Magbah’s replacement are limited. Even without the ‘ruling family’ limitation, it seems as though good chiefs are becoming harder to find. Attribute this to the ‘brain drain’ (if you will) of western countries, and of the tensions that are faced by a people who want the security and wisdom of older leaders but who are living in a world that is fast changing.

Grace, peace and love to all,

P.S. Aside from having a little melt-down last night over my lack of language abilities, I’m doing ok. It’s still really hard, though, to figure out what I should be doing here. Aaron and I went with Kumba to the Kabala Hospital yesterday (a horribly oppressive and crammed place) to check in on a young woman who had had a botched abortion and see what could be done to hold the doctor to account and get her the medical attention that she desperately needed. I found the whole experience overwhelming. Especially as I tend to imagine being in the situation of the people that I encounter.

We have decided that I will go with Aaron, Yegbeh, Marah, Ferenkie and Foray to Outamba Kilimi National Forest (near the Guinea border) on Saturday. It turns out that there is a route to approach the park that will get us within 15 miles of where Aaron thinks it will be possible to do research. So, we’ll make the drive to that point, set up a base camp near the park headquarters, and I’ll wait there with Ferenkie two days while Aaron goes in and determines the proper location for a ‘bush camp.’ Then one of them will make the round trip to get me (and more supplies) while a bush camp is being set up. The plan is to stay for 8-10 days… so don’t worry about not hearing from us! Please keep this expedition in your prayers as this location has produced the most promising sightings and evidences of buffalo of anywhere in the country yet. Water is an issue - among other things. It would also be wonderful if my good health continues – particularly while in the bush! I’m actually really eager to get at least a small taste of Aaron’s official work and reason for being here… though I must say, it’s fascinating to watch how instrumental he is in being helpful in a myriad of different ways to people here in Kabala. I’m not sure how he negotiates all the roles he seems to be called to serve. Being in a country where one has connections, knows the language and the land really helps in a numerous ways while conducting research – but the flip side is how accountable one is to be appropriately responsive to the things they know about – and Aaron knows a LOT. I think that many people in academia ‘fragment’ that part of their life and (particularly while doing a PhD) plow through it in isolation, often neglecting the relationships that surround and support them. That will clearly not be possible here.

PA KONKORO'S BUSH DEVILS - Later Mid-July, 2006

Pa Konkoro is an irreverent man. Having used that adjective… I’m second guessing. He’s a hunter; he taught Aaron most of what he knows about the bush; he’s deeply respectful of others in the village and he lives in the most traditional of ways as a Kuranko rice farmer in Foria. He also, as Aaron says, is completely candid and “tells the truths that everyone knows but that most will not dare to say.” He’s got a strange kind of objectivity that seems improbable for one to come by without any departure from the traditions and context that they have always lived within.

“Konkoro” is not a highly prestigious name. It’s essentially the name given to a ‘dust bin.’ A child might come to such a name if their parents had several children die. A name of complete insignificance would be given to the new baby with hopes that whatever evil spirits had claimed the lives of the earlier siblings would overlook the new child. Pa Konkoro was a namesake for someone in an earlier generation of his family… another way that children often come by names.

Aaron has recently been inquiring about getting a hold of or being able to see some of the old ceremonial masks that are used by the male and female “bush devils.” This has to be approached very carefully, as (in theory) women die if they see the male bush devil (men merely get elephantitus of the ‘balls’ if they see the female one..!). They are rarely seen out of their ceremonial context. To show or sell a mask would be an implicit acknowledgement that it doesn’t have quite the power that people say it does. It would be very important that this was not at all flaunted locally, and the seller would want to be clear that the mask would only be shown to people from another country, etc. where it didn’t hold the same power or meaning.
So, as there were just a handful of close friends of Aaron’s around, my questions surfaced: “What is a Bush Devil?” “Where do they come from?” “What power do they have?” “What do you really believe about them?”

Yegbeh was quiet. Pa Konkoro thought for a minute and then asked Aaron, “Have you ever seen a bush devil that came from the bush?” (Implied: we’ve seen the scars and calluses on legs of the bush devils who parade through town… and none seem too mysterious or unfamiliar…) Aaron laughed and replied, “Yes, the bush devils I’ve seen come from under the cotton tree.” (One of the men in town ‘known’ to serve as a ceremonial bush devil lives by a cotton tree) Pa Konkoro then chastened, “Now you have said too much Aaron!” (Apparently, specificity in countering traditionally held beliefs crossed the edge.) Then, Pa Konkoro went on to muse about how men enjoyed the emergence of the bush devil b/c it got the women out of the way and gave the men free reign to do their ‘stuff.’ Further, he speculated how ‘interesting’ it was that Pa Seku’s pineapples were always disappearing when the women came out with their bush devil… and how convenient it was to blame things on the ‘devil’…

From bush devils, we moved on to discussion of the ‘hunter’s shrines’… “Oh, that’s just the hunter’s being selfish,” claimed Pa Konkoro. “It’s easy to tell a village that meat must be sacrificed to the guiding spirit of the hunters (this in reference to the spirit of the first hunter ever, who came down from Mali to teach everyone to hunt). Then we make the young men cook us (the older hunters) a fine feast.

Conversations like this are fascinating, but I feel like they walk a delicate line. While, to all appearances, someone like Pa Konkoro is ‘debunking’ traditionally held beliefs, it’s also quite clear that the presence of these beliefs in the culture provides framework and ‘richness’ to life that is deeply valued. Revered, in fact. So perhaps Pa Konkoro is reverent after all. Or, in his own words… “an old cow in the corral.”

Cell phones, satellites, BBC radio… all these things are swiftly encroaching on this region. They haven’t made their way to Foria yet, but it won’t be long. What happens as more influences of ‘western’ and ‘rational’ and ‘linear’ thinking hit a region like this? We put great hopes in the positive things: medicine, education, etc. I wonder if we know enough about the traditions that are ‘replaced’ and ‘lost’ and what roles they serve.

Anyway, I’m finally recovering from rice farming. Kumba and Aaron got into a bit of a tiff this morning, as Kumba thinks it’s ridiculous that he should think of taking me into the bush before he has a ‘camp’ set up and knows how long of a walk it will be. She thinks I should come to the farm in Yarah with her instead. My Krio is still quite limited… but even I could understand her exclaim something to the effect of “you can only push the body as far as it can go… and then you must stop! What do you eat while you are in the bush anyway?” (Kumba doesn’t think Aaron or I eat nearly well enough. We’re going to cook up Mary K’s curry dish tonight to try to persuade her otherwise… but she is right concerning Aaron’s eating habits while in the bush.) So we have yet to figure out our plans. My ‘right’ boots arrived today, making many more options possible!

Warm greetings to all,
Emily (and Aaron too)


It’s a lean time of the year. This fact is not readily apparent to the eye, as the rainy season has set in and the landscape is lush as can be. But ‘rice’ is scarce. Harvest doesn’t typically happen until after the rains have gone, so the real abundance of food manifests itself during the dry season… beginning in November. Groundnuts (peanuts) grow in the dry season, as do potatoes and cassava. Mangoes, pineapples and others come to fruit with the beginning of the rains in May, but a meal is not considered a meal without rice… and rice is scarce.

An older man, who was hitching a ride with us part of the way back from Foria today, tentatively threw out the question… “I don’t mean to ask something foolish…” (this, by the way, is Aaron’s translation from Kuranko) “but is it true that some people, maybe from other places, can go without eating rice for more than twelve days and not die?” We replied with an explanation of how different starches (corn, cassava, potato, etc.) have become the main food in different parts of the world. All these things are present here, but to a Sierra Leonian, rice is the pinnacle food, and they cannot imagine life without it. As I’ve said, food is not even called a meal without it. Aaron unconsciously has adopted this way of thinking about food. He’ll often say to me, “Kumba / Munkapri / Isatu has brought ‘rice’” Initially, I’d think ‘rice’ hmm… ok… and only come later to realize that ‘rice’ meant chicken and plantains seasoned in a delicious sauce to go over the top of rice… or groundnut stew, or potato leaf with rice.

Some of Aaron’s friends helped assist reporters from the BBC on a trip up the Loma mountains last year. On the way up, the reporters pulled out ingredients for a chi chi dish of oatmeal… raisins, nuts, coconut, other dried fruit included… which elicited the appraisal “Bon dom boleh” (or ‘Baboon’s Food!’) from the Kuronko / Sierra Leonians of the group. The variety of food that we so highly prize in our supermarkets is not a priority here… the pinnacle of food has been found, and it is rice. Pity is extended to those who have not yet discovered it… my spaghetti is assessed to be ‘worms’ by those who see it.

So yesterday I found myself calf deep in the muck of Marah & Isatu's swamp rice farm. The project of the day was transplanting seedling rice into much larger beds, where they would be spaced far enough apart to be able to grow to maturity. A ‘company’ (or work crew) had been hired to help for the day, as this is a big project. This company was a collective of 18 secondary school girls who banded together and took turns working on each other’s family’s farms. When the family farms are not in need, the girls would hire out their company to work for another farm… for which they would each get about 1000 Leones (about $0.35) compensation. Different companies command different wages and almost all of the farmers (men, women, and children) are part of one. Yesterday was quite heavy work (by my standards) but I’ve come to understand the planting is about the ‘kindest’ of the big projects. Cutting and clearing a farm is considered the most difficult, especially if early rains set in and it is impossible to burn the farm properly in preparation. This can transform the preparation of a farm from days of work to weeks… and a ‘company’ of adult men is definitely needed.
For girls who spend much time on the farm, it was amazing how fiercely they could argue on the proper methodology of planting. To keep things lively, teams (within the company) compete for speed while planting, and this too generated much heated discussion, as it was ensured that plots were divided evenly.

Just more than half of the rice farming is still done in upland areas, though ‘swamp rice’ was introduced in the 1960’s. Upland rice can only be farmed from the same area once every 15 years because of the toll it takes on the land, so people must clear new areas each year. Swamps, on the other hand, are farmable year after year, especially if other crops (like groundnuts) are rotated in during the dry season to keep the land healthy.

Though it seems evident that forest cutting is not sustainable, some desired varieties of rice only grow in the upland areas, and further, many of the best sites for swamp rice have a more or less permanent ‘claim’ on them. People do realize that the cutting of the forest is having an impact on the clarity, quality, and regular supply of water… but it seems that they can’t yet see an alternative.

Well, this has gotten to be a lengthy email, so… I’ll send it and get to ‘bush devils’ next time. The backs of my legs are aching something fierce from my miniscule foray into the life and work of a rice farmer… a whole new market for exercise videos out here… yoga for rice farmers…