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

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