Monday, February 25, 2013

Strike Update...and Future Plans

We are now in the middle of the third week of the lecturers' strike against Njala University and the prospects for reconciliation continue to look exceedingly dismal.  Since I last wrote, the union has met twice, a huge logistical feat in and of itself since the two campuses are two hours apart so transport of some 70 to 80 folks to the host campus requires numerous buses and taxis and lots of patience.  Both meetings (yes, I went to both as a mouse in the back corner of the auditorium) were mostly informational but the intent of the union was and ever remains clear; they will continue their job action until ALL of their concerns have been resolved.

Last Friday, there was a large meeting here in Mokonde and according to the union president, the administration has yet to even respond to any proposal tendered by the union not to mention acknowledgement that there had even been attempts.  During the question and answer part of the meeting, a few lecturers voiced concern over how this was adversely impinging on our students.  One professor offered an idea to have us go back to work with the idea that negotiations would begin immediately and last for a one-month period at which time the union would walk out if no significant progress had been made.  Despite the impassioned entreaties of the naysayers, the vote was clear; 127 lecturers voted to continue the strike while only 16 wanted to go back to work.

This resounding show of support creates a great conundrum for me.  I am totally in support of the lecturers and their cause.  Heck, they are doing, as I mentioned previously, what we at WCU could never do.  However, if I stayed here in the bush to wait this out, and even if we settled this today, I will already have to extend beyond my current Close of Service date which takes me at least into the first week of September while we were expected to end the school year somewhere in mid-July.  
On top of that, I asked myself, why would I WANT to extend my stay? Because I owe it to them?  Put bluntly, I started off on the wrong foot.  The job I was given when I arrived here in Salone was not the position I signed up for.  I was recruited stateside to teach much the same curriculum here in Africa as I did in the U.S.; methods in teaching elementary school reading and writing as well as children's literature.  Remember all those books I sent here and the snapshot of the groaning coffee table in my living room beleaguered with titles including books from the likes of Lois Lowry, J. Patrick Lewis, Rebecca Stead and academic literacy texts from Cramer to Cooper and many more?  Not one of them has been of use to me because I was assigned to another campus to teach adult literature courses and basic English skills classes. Sadly, I am nothing more than a substitute that teaches five courses and they don't have to pay me.

If I stayed, there's another issue that is bound to rear its ugly head before the would-be spring term arrives which is "what else can go wrong to extend this school year even further?"  By our track record, I could be here a long time.  We started the school year a little more than four weeks late in the fall, took off three weeks for the election, had two and one-half weeks off for Christmas, and are now well into our third week of the strike.  We still have three weeks of final exams to complete along with a two-week break so we can grade the exams and students can vacation.  In all, we have literally taught less than 8 weeks in what was to be a 15-week semester.  Given that it makes me wonder what else is going to go wrong?

All this has led me to my next step.  After discussing this situation with my Country Director last Saturday on the phone, I was relieved when she asked me to come to Freetown to discuss my concerns with her face-to-face, to potentially look for other options of service, or (worst case scenario) to pursue terminating my service altogether.  

She and I met first thing this morning and though she said she could offer me a position at a university here in Freetown (Are you kidding? I'm scared to death here in this city!) or I could go to one other institution out in the country (hmm, start over again?) I decided immediately that I wanted to return home. Sure, I could spend time during the strike visiting schools and getting to know the strengths and limitations of the present state of education here in Sierra Leone, I could begin working on developing a curriculum for future use, but it all smacked of "make work" to just keep me busy and had nothing to do with what and why I'd come here in the first place.  

I came to Sierra Leone because I wanted to "make a difference" which almost every seasoned Peace Corps volunteer will swear "ain't gonna happen!"  But in the same breath, they will also testify to the rich relationships they've nurtured in-country, the wonderful changes they've seen take place and that could only be credited to their efforts, and of the continued contact they've had with their friends and host families since they returned back to the United States.  That is what I call making a difference and when I looked back at what I've accomplished here I know that all of this is true for me as well.  Without blinking an eyelash, I thanked my Country Director but told her to proceed in what is known in Peace Corps lingo as "Early Termination" or E.T. I've done all that I can do here and to stay would not significantly make any difference.  

As it stands at this writing (and I'll continue to add more to the blog once I'm returned), I am slated to leave Freetown on Wednesday evening and arrive home Thursday night via Dakar, Brussels, and Newark, and on to Philly International.  
My friend, Jessica, the Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Bo asked me what I was going to do when I got home.  I said that I'm going to drink some whiskey (Jack Daniels, of course) and Luke and I are going to grab a Cheesesteak Stromboli at New Haven in West Chester!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Another setback

Woody Guthrie wrote a song that repeated, "Oh, you can't scare me, I'm stickin' with the union, I'm stickin' with the union...'til the day I die."  We sang it back in the 70s when we went through our various job actions with School District U-46 in Illinois but recently there is cause to sing it here because little Salone has done what the mighty Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education's professor's union, APSCUF, has never been able to muster.  The lecturers at Njala University (both the Bo and Mokonde campuses) voted last Friday to go on strike for just wages.  Strategically, it was planned and announced the day before final exams were to begin and though that has put a huge squeeze on the student body, it will also illicit what is hoped to be a speedier resolution than the three-week strike that occurred last April.  As of this writing there has been no news and we are patiently sitting here waiting; waiting for any tidbit: like whether both sides are at least at the table, or if there is a hopeful comment on any progress made, or if there is a tentative agreement of some kind in the wind.  Thus far, we've heard nothing.

In this, I am totally out of the loop.  Sure, I'm a lecturer but since I'm Peace Corps, I am not allowed to attend any of the meetings, rallies, or other union functions; in fact, Peace Corps wants us to remain totally out of the fray.  The truth is, I only heard about it last Friday when one of my students called to bemoan the fact that everything had been put on hold.  Nobody else, supervisor or fellow lecturer alike, bothered to inform me of this action.  

What I do know is that the Student Senate is planning on meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, February 13th, to discuss this latest snafu and, from what I have heard amongst numerous students, take a stand for or against the lecturers in an effort to jumpstart negotiations so finals can begin.

Of course, this sets us back (almost a week thus far) and that is not including the three weeks allotted for the exams themselves, then the two weeks for grading (and student break) before we can commence the spring term.  It would seem this semester is never going to end and I was thinking to myself last night that everything that could have gone wrong this fall term has.  We started almost five weeks late, we took a two week break for the elections with another week added for the students to actually return to campus, then two weeks later we had Christmas break for three weeks, and now this.  

More news when it happens...

Happy to be Back in Africa

I apologize for the long lapse in communicating with everyone.  We have had, to say the least, extremely limited internet connection here at Njala University...but that is the good news!  So, that said, you won't see any pictures in this entry.  Oh, I had some great ones, but the server here is so slow that I can't even upload one not to mention the six I had planned for this.

But back at the library, our head computer wizard, Thomas, returned from London shortly before I left in December with what was promised as a complete fiber-optic system in transit.  I figured its arrival would appear in "African Time" and I'd never see a single megabyte of it but in mid-January when I entered the library for the first time in 2013, the floor was covered with wiring that looked every bit like Strega Nona's pot again gone awry.  You literally couldn't cross the room for tripping on the pasta-like strands being gathered and lifted and stuffed into the ceiling, wedged behind walls, and laced through new opening made in the backs of computer stations giving new life to the half-dozen old computer towers we've used since I arrived and sparking life into another six new arrivals.  My friend, Patrick, the assistant wizard, approached apologetically saying we'd be without internet connection for at least a week.  Well, that indeed did turn into "African Time" but these past few days I've been able to at least get my students in at night for our Computer Club.  Here (would have been) Theresa and Reggie digging for the last of their materials for our Cross-Cultural Literature class and their subsequent presentation on Russian literature.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I arrived back in-country on Friday, January 18th after a rather uneventful flight from JFK through Brussels and on to Freetown.  A friendly (and very expensive) taxi driver, Mr. Bah, whisked me right to the Peace Corps Headquarters on Signal Hill and I was asleep by midnight.  The next morning I awoke and, though considerably jet-lagged, hied off to the Freetown branch of Njala University where I caught the early afternoon shuttle bus back to Mokonde arriving just as the sun was setting.  Alas, not a half hour after walking in the door, the power and lights went out.  

Undaunted and realizing I hadn't taken a shower since the previous Thursday morning, I turned on the spigot which issued only a few pathetic droplets.  I thought, what a lousy joke this is!  But within fifteen minutes, the electricity was restored and the lights were burning.  When I checked my water tank outside, I realized it was full and on further inspection found that someone had turned off the outside feed valve so with a quick twist of the wrist I was back inside taking a shower with the lights on...and the afternoon sun had warmed the water so it was quite enjoyable.

The following day was like an old reunion.  When I went to fetch water, I was welcomed by one and all with handshakes, hugs, and gleeful greetings.  On the way back from the market, I met Philip's wife, Magdalene.  Here (would have been) the two of them at one of our "watering holes" called the Common Room.  As we neared our path that leads off the dirt road I noticed a young girl carrying a bucket of plantain on her head (picture would have been here).  Asking what she wanted for them (and willing to  pay almost anything within reason) she quoted an exorbitant Le 10,000.  

That's when Magdalene stepped in and not only hand-picked the best of the bunches but got the girl down to 5,000 Leones for five perfect plantains; a far more reasonable price.  I laughed at her haggling prowess and quipped, "Has Philip ever won an argument with you?"

She giggled, "Of course not!"

Of course not.  The next day when I told Philip of our venture, he smiled weakly and agreed, too.

Earlier, I admitted to Magdalene that I wouldn't be cooking them that night for lack of oil but not five minutes later she appeared at my door with a half bottle of oil in one hand and a ripe papaya for dessert in the other.  The plantains were delicious, the papaya divine!

There is no doubt we are making progress on a great many fronts here in Sierra Leone.  Beyond the internet news, power is now on for 15 hours a day (mostly), I'm keeping the bugs down to a minimum (barely), and my class are attending with greater frequency every single day.  We celebrated a Muslim holiday last Thursday with the day off at the university, and I got a call from one of my English 101 students who said a contingent of eager learners wanted class despite the official day off.  Thirty-five showed up for a two-hour lecture and every one left with a smile on their face.

The only other immediate conundrum is (and clearly always will be since the price here is prohibitive) that I'm still working diligently on is a reasonable source for Jack Daniels here in Salone which is high on my Peace Corps Secondary Projects list!  Just so you know, in the interim, I scored a gallon jug of Punjabi gin from a Bo merchant last week for just under $5.00 American (a lifetime supply?).  Since I've not gone blind, I think it will be a great alternative until I return!

So, I'm teaching, helping students in any way I can, eating my rice and drinking a tizzle, and keeping a merry perspective here in Sierra Leone.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Home for the Holidays…

Not very long after I wrote that last blog, I asked for permission and was cleared by Peace Corps to come home for the holidays.  After a grueling journey filled with mishaps and missed connections and 41 hours in the air and on the ground (mostly the latter), I arrived at JFK, late evening just before Christmas Day.  Luke drove up with a huge smile on his face and a travel coffee mug in his hand…filled with ice.  In his other hand appeared a flask, filled to the brim with the elixir I’d done without for months: Jack Daniels.  Now why wouldn’t you come home when family treats you like that? 

Halley and Karim flew in from Oakland the next day (another big reason I had to come home) and we Darigans spent a rollicking time together.  We got a tree…trimmed it…

…ate too much food!

…and certainly drank too much!

Ah, but what fun!

There was another reason I came home.  I had been having trouble with my ankles and feet especially while we were in Stand Fast in Kenema.  They took a beating as we walked all those miles on the undulating and rutted roads there.  However, I also noticed in the weeks before I departed West Africa, that my right foot was flopping down when I walked.  In fact, I couldn’t control it either flexing or stretching. It was very frustrating.  I figured it was either a bad muscular reaction to my orthotics or something more serious.  So, upon arrival home, I called my faithful family doctor, Shabih Khan, and got worked in that very day.  After a quick check he said, “You more than likely have foot drop.  It’s often caused by a pinched nerve in the spine.”  He ordered blood tests, and his wonderful staff set me up with visits to three specialists.  After X-rays, EMGs, MRIs, and myriad follow-up visits, I got the diagnosis.  I have moderate to severe neuropathy, weak nerves, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, peroneal neuropathy (foot drop), and bone spurs on my left ankle. 

None of this was or is serious.  In fact, I was told medication was unnecessary and not recommended and that I should merely get new orthotics, start wearing high-top hiking boots, and hustle back to Africa.  A week later, Peace Corps lifted my Medical Hold so on Thursday, January 17th, I’ll be heading back up to New York’s JFK airport with Luke (sans the whiskey since we’ll be leaving with the morning rush hour) and heading back to Sierra Leone. 

What a wonderful holiday I had…spending it with family, friends, and getting a clean bill of health wrapped in one big, beautiful package.  I also got the treat of a White Christmas…and I volunteered to do the shoveling!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Home Is...

December 3, 2012

Home is…

Every day I’m feeling more comfortable here in Sierra Leone.  I noticed that, in my ongoing journal the other day, and for the first time, I wrote, “On my way home…”  And it is feeling more like “home”.  For instance, I can navigate my little bungalow in total darkness now as if I’d lived here for years (though I do mostly have a flashlight in hand or headlamp on…I might step on a scorpion!).  But today, as I rode my bike to the village market, I was regaled with cordial greetings from students, neighbors, villagers, and fellow lecturers…like I belonged.

As most of you know, I’ve always enjoyed the pleasures of cooking and here it is just as important as ever.  I can attest that, though I’ve lost weight purposefully, I’m watching what I eat make sure to get complete, nutritional meals every day.  Oddly, however, I’m beginning to live the common Salone saying, “If I haven’t had my rice, I haven’t eaten today.”  I literally crave rice and enjoy the toppings, stews as they call them here, and I am ever attempting to replicate traditional dishes in a more healthy form; especially without the MSG they sprinkle on everything!

Here is my bounty from the market today: onions, Sierra Leone-grown rice, and local peanut butter, referred to as “ground-nuts”, that is hand-squeezed into tight, little baggies.   I was thrilled to find freshly dug ginger root here for the first time, too.

The final concoction, “Ground-Nut Stew” with added Lebanese lima beans to complete the protein, turned out mighty tasty!  If I were at home I’d have added a few spices like turmeric, cumin, and fenugreek and included whole tomatoes and chicken thighs.  But this was a great start.
So, I’m enjoying both home-like things here and beginning to fit in, feeling more comfortable all the time.  Then today, while I was taking down the laundry, a sheet caught a gust of wind and got hung up on a small tree at the far end of my clothes line.  On closer inspection, I noticed…

Limes.  That’s when I thought about home…my real home and my family and Christmas (which is not in the least bit evident here).  The temperatures still hover in the mid- to low 90s and it continues to be rainy season; humid and with not a Santa in sight.  Seeing this, I thought of the lime and lemon trees behind my folks’ apartment in Davis and that’s when I just about broke down.  I’m sure they have a few limes that look just about like these and, oh, at that moment, I wished more than ever to be there with them. 

Well, they are close though so far away.  On my living room wall, I have remembrances of home that I look at every day.  It includes them, as well as my own wonderful family and great friends.  It’s easy to see that “Home really is, indeed, where the heart is.” 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Beyond Stand Fast

8:00 a.m. – As I write, we are nearing the two week mark in “Stand Fast” mode here in Kenema City and it would seem there is no end in sight.  We’ve had fits and starts of progress with small glimmers of hope only for them to be dashed by new, unforeseen circumstances.  Here is a brief run-down on what’s happened…

As I said in my last submission, Sierra Leone held its elections two Saturdays past on the 17th to what international observers and numerous groups within the country alike hailed as “free and fair”.  Sure, there were complaints about certain precincts counting more votes than the number of registered voters but that isn’t terribly unusual…hey, in Chicago, we were always reminded to vote early and often!  But not wanting to be too flippant about this, the cause for concern over voter irregularities seemed to be a terribly overwrought.  When results were finally announced late in the afternoon Friday, November 23rd (with over 87% of the registered voters casting their ballots, by the way), the incumbent, President Ernest Bai Koroma, was re-elected by a margin that would deny any doubt that abnormalities played a part in his victory.  The President garnered over 58% of the vote (as you may recall, 55% was necessary to avoid a run-off which we all feared) while the Green guy held steady with just a bit over 37% of the popular vote.  It seemed that this 20% spread was clearly significant.

The night of the announcement, Tony and I went over to the University Canteen with numerous other lecturers, a mixed group of Reds and Greens, while the radio blared out the long-awaited news.  When Koroma’s winning percentage was announced, a hushed, but nonetheless, distinct murmur of voices was evident, not in the room but from the city itself.  It was evident that just about everyone in Kenema was talking but whether it was angry or supportive, we could not discern.  But, the white noise-like rumble in “surround-sound” was certainly disquieting.   Not long after, Kenema was quiet.
To my mind, a combination of things contributed to the surprisingly calm night that ensued.  A drenching rain began as the sun set which kept a lot of people in their homes and off the streets.  Coupled with that, planned or not, the electricity went out about 7:00 p.m.  Finally, the winning margin itself was simply too great to rationally dispute this clear win so most people in the city were caught in the rain, in the dark, without a leg to stand on.  Or so we thought…

Saturday proved to be amazingly calm, too, but Sunday, the day the commission was to announce the results of the Parliamentary seats, found unrest in both Bo and here in Kenema.  A flash mob was reported mid-afternoon in Bo City and a group of demonstrators rallied near enough to Tony’s house that we clearly heard them coming and I could see them on the other side of the university soccer field as they coursed through the streets waving placards and shouting political slogans.  As a precaution, a curfew went into effect Sunday night and the streets were, once again, silent all night. 
That brings us to today, Monday, November 26th.   The campus awoke slowly and students, singly or in small groups, shuffled to class while we awaited word from Peace Corps that Stand Fast would finally be at an end.  What we got, though, was a text message from our Country Director saying she’d be calling soon to discuss plans for our “unique” situation.  Hmm.  That sure sounded like Stand Fast was still standing; and for us, it was.  We learned that the seeming morning calm on campus was an illusion.  In fact, almost right under our own noses, a number of nearby downtown businesses had either been bombed or burned last night and word on the street was that tonight targeted residences would be hit.  Thank goodness Peace Corps, as always, played this with safety uppermost in their minds.  We had about 45 minutes to pack, secure the house, and board the already waiting Peace Corps vehicle to be whisked off to a secure setting. 

8:00 p.m. – So, with the power on, I’m sitting in my little living room, returned to my quiet little bungalow in the bush and am happy to report real quiet…well, other than the rumble of thunder and the tapping of rain on my metal roof as yet another rolling storm lumbers through the area.  I’m totally safe and sound!

From this experience, there is one thing I know for certain abdout Sierra Leone which has been echoed in many, if not all conversations I’ve had of late…the people are tired of war and will go to any lengths to prevent a repeat of that horrible civil war of ten years past.  I truly believe them and even more importantly, I believe in them.  Peace will prevail here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stand Fast

I’ve been in Kenema City, in the eastern province of Sierra Leone, with two other of my fellow Response Volunteers, for a week now.  We shifted into what has been called a modification in our Peace Corps Emergency Action Plan, referred to as “Stand Fast” in the lingo.  Stand Fast is the lowest significant level to be initiated when political conditions in a country become tenuous and where there is potential for violence or danger.  Kenema, as is the entire eastern region, is one-sidedly supportive of the Sierra Leone People’s Party which we refer to as the Greens since they wear green garb while the incumbent party wears red…er, they are referred to as the Reds.  I am happy to say it has been almost pastoral here so quiet are the streets. 

Presently, the populace is patiently poised for the results of last Saturday’s elections and it is, predictably, taking a long time for the vote count.  News blurbs this morning indicated that a very peaceful and successful election was held and International Observers praised this little country for its ability to hold such a contest given that only ten years ago they were in the throes of a violent civil war.

Even though we’ve been without water for almost two days, we have had electricity most of the time and I have to say we are living like kings and queen!  The street food is delicious and bountiful and the Star beer is still Le 3000 a bottle.  For Thanksgiving, we are going to go out and get a Guinea hen or large chicken (there are no turkeys in Sierra Leone) and Tony, the consummate cook with all the equipment, is going to treat us to a feast as he has a few times already.  It’s always interesting to see how you can substitute ingredients when virtually nothing American is available…especially as far as this holiday goes.  But Tony has been in Peace Corps for over five years in both South Africa and Madagascar and has learned all the tricks so it’s bound to be great!

Back to the election, in the final count, if no candidate for president has won 55% or more of the popular vote, a run-off will need to be held on Saturday, December 8th.  According to all news sources, this would be the time for civil disturbance to occur.  I have to say, when PCRV Jessica and I walked through Bo on our way to pick up a taxi to Kenema, the streets were replete with Greens in what appeared to be a city-wide political rally.  The experience, even from the windows of the taxi, was frighteningly crazy.  People, drunk on palm wine or the general cacophony, and bedecked in palm fronds and silly hats (hmm…sort of like our own national presidential nominating conventions) milled everywhere blowing whistles and shouting fervent political epithet for their man (and woman…the Green’s vice-presidential running mate is female!). The almost frantic feeling I got, however, left me with the taste of how potentially dangerous a crowd like this could be if they were rallying nearby the opposition and an altercation broke out.  So, for the time being, we Peace Corps Volunteers are happily clumped together in small clutches for safety’s sake and good reason, living the good S.L. life, and standing fast!  I’ll send out more when we know something; I could be off until January or teaching this coming Monday. In the meantime, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and you enjoy the long weekend! We’ll be here in Kenema where it is easy to be Green.