Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Six wonderful months at Tribewanted John Obey

Cold and not just the weather, but it is nice to be anonymous for a while. Not sure what all the fuss is about London or big, developed cities for that matter. It seems my heart and future lie in Sierra Leone for now. Safe and satisfied with that knowledge I plan on enjoying every second, every comfort and every reunion Europe, the U.S. and Caribbean have to offer. It started with a nice dinner and hot bath in London, followed by Easter Monday in Munich with friends.

Leaving the tribe, the beach and the barefoot lifestyle was hard, so hard in fact it took me three attempts to finally do it. The adjustment is not easy, not waking up to the beautiful, smiling faces of my Salone family, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the feel of hot sand under my feet..... but the sweet memories already make me one of those daydreamers you see on the planes and trains with a grin from ear to ear.

Times at tribe were not always carefree and easy, it's like a big family all living together, you have to take the good with the bad. With a team of 23 there were often disputes to be resolved, and resolved the Salone way, with a lot of talking and a similar amount of palava. The traditional way to handle theft is an interesting one, involving a sorcerer, a bible, a key and an audience. Sickness is another difficult one to witness, particularly when there is little you can do to help or change the situation. Pretty much anytime someone was diagnosed in the community it was either Malaria or Typhoid or a combination of the two. I am quite suspicious that they were the only two tests the doctors knew how to administer.

On the lighter and brighter side some of the highlights included seeing and helping create understanding and lasting change in the team with regards to improved work ethic, customer service, team management and job ownership. The building team now create budgets in excel and our kitchen manager has picked up some skills to deal with issues diplomatically. It takes time for change and having the opportunity to spend 6 months with the team has been such an amazing experience. I am extremely grateful to Ben and Filippo for creating this project with just the right amount of direction and freedom - an awesome vision and wonderful experience for all. From visitors, to volunteers, to the team and local community, well, probably everyone except the sand miners. I am pretty sure they were planning a party to celebrate my departure.

Most certainly the biggest challenge and the biggest highlight was this 'san san business' that I got involved in. Before I arrived to Salone Filippo had prepped me that some trucks had been taking sand from the beach next door and that tribe had recently increased the monthly goodwill payment to the community to protect the beach. It was on my list of things to look into once I landed, little did we know how out of control it would become. In October there were 3 or 4 trucks a day and the headman and elders assured me that before the elections in November this would stop. By the time November came there were more like 50 trucks a day and it was becoming clear that the headman and youths involved had no intention of giving up their lucrative mining business. At this point, with the help of WHH (Welt Hunger Hilfe), we escalated matters to the District Council who swore support and action. Little happened other than letter writing, lengthy meetings and a lot of talk. So now it's December and the amount of trucks coming have at least doubled and they are now coming 24/7. Scores of young men have moved to John Obey from all over the country in search of easy money and a shanty town has formed on the beach with a plentiful supply of alcohol and Jamba....

By January we are still chasing our tails with empty promises of action and now an empty lagoon as well. The beach looks nothing like it did a few months ago and angry neighbouring communities have made it clear that they are also seeing huge changes to their own beaches as well. By February we have jumped a level to  Ministerial involvement. The Minister for lands is first, he should have direct interest in the fact that Sierra Leone is loosing meters of coast line each year. The threat to the environment, to tourism, and to the future potential of the John Obey community is at a tipping point. All interactions are now happening with the section chief, a level up from the head man and he understands that tribewanted is now fearing for the future of the project. He takes us to parliament to meet the Member representing our constituency. He is an ambitious, straight talking man, who immediately sees the threat to his territory and 2 days later he is at the beach, assessing the situation with his own eyes and calling stakeholder meetings. At this point I am withered from being fobbed off by authorities and seeing nothing but an increase in the destruction every day. Anyway, quite skeptical and losing hope we had yet another meeting........but this time something was different and I started to get really excited. This guy was taking no prisoners, he gently and methodologically guided the stakeholders who talked themselves into corners and tripped over their own lies while he took notes. He meant business and 20 phonecalls, 2 weeks and 2 meetings later and we have a temporary ban on sand mining, there have been a plethora of arrests and all the while a new, sustainable strategy is being defined to balance the need for sand for construction with the environmental, touristic and investment priorities of the country.

A happy end, hope is back and only a healthy amount of skepticism remains.... a nice way to end another amazing adventure in Sweet Salone! Looking forward to many more....

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Every Village Needs A Good Limba!

Poyo or palm wine is tapped from the palm tree’s all over West Africa on a daily basis. Palm wine, is enjoyed by many throughout the day and well into the night. The most apt adjective I can find to describe the taste of Sierra Leonean Poyo is ‘tree’ it tastes remarkably like the forest, fizzy, fresh and wholesome!

‘From God to Man’ they say and for this reason palm wine has remained an affordable, mostly un-altered local source of nutrition and refreshment and not to forget its merry making qualities. When tapped early in the morning poyo is light at about 2% alcohol, as it ferments throughout the day it becomes more potent reaching about 7% late in the evening. Only the adventurous dare to drink yesterdays poyo without first mixing it with sugar and water.

Limba Family in Senabu

The only tribe in Sierra Leone that can climb and tap a palm tree for its delicious sap is the Limba tribe, notorious throughout the country for their aptitude in all things creative and cultural and their resourceful relationship with the forests. That being said not all parts of the country have a Limba contingency…So what do these thirsty Limba-less populations do? Well they build a house and potentially offer a wife in an attempt to attract a man of Limba persuasion to come and join them in their village to ensure a plentiful supply of sweet palm wine of course. Although, all Limba’s are not equal it seems, a lazy Limba will leave an unsatisfied village longing for more and as Ishmael was telling me, in their village they are now searching for a new Limba as the current one never taps enough palm wine for everyone.

The other side of scaling palm trees and supplying villages with sweet wine is tragic with many men losing their lives to their calling. A great deal of the orphans in the northern towns of Sierra Leone have been the victims of this handed down heritage.

Spot the Limba.

On a lighter note I’ll end this one with a joke credited to the poyo and pun enthusiast Kieran Hanson:       ‘What did the Limba say to the palm tree? I’d tap that!’ 

Ali with his Jerry Can of Palm Wine

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Updated: Economics of Sand Mining

As I write this I can hear the lorries bounding down the path towards the beach next door. John Obey's beach has been a source of sand for the growing construction industry for almost 2 years now. The quantities of sand being removed have increased at an alarming rate, with trucks coming day and night without a moments rest.

Clear as day the beach is being destroyed, the fresh water lagoon is being compromised by the encroaching sea, the trees are literally toppling over without a base to support them and more and more rocks are becoming exposed as the sand is simply being carted out in the back of trucks en route to Freetown to support the development boom. As for the ecology, the sea turtles have not returned this year to nest and who knows what other species has been forced to move on.

The social degradation is more subtle however..... Here at John Obey the tension runs high and could be cut with a knife. A serious rift has formed between the people getting rich from the sand and the smaller pockets of people who disapprove or who's livelihood has been destroyed by the mining. Our mission to end the sand mining here at Tribewanted has created hostility between the workers here and the rest of the pro mining community. Neighboring villages are also upset by the destruction happening at John Obey and threats of violence from angry youth groups very real.

The local boys here at John Obey no longer shovel the sand, a crew of 40 - 50 boys from the provinces have heard of the fast, easy money to be earned and have set-up temporary shacks on the beach and work 12 hours a day shoveling only to hand over at least 50% of their earnings to their 'sponsor' in the community. Their 'sponsor' allows them the privilege to work on the beach in return for a hefty sum. This new revelation explains the disheartening comments that I have been hearing - EVERYONE is earning from sand mining and that is why it will not stop. Given this fact, of course the leadership in the community will not stop selling their future, they simply do not have that foresight  - this is where the government need to step up and see the long term economic value of protecting one of the most sustainable assets this beautiful country has to offer!

Of course people need to earn, people need to eat...but what happens when the sand runs out? It is not a sustainable source of income, tourism on the other hand has the potential to provide livelihoods for a much wider spectrum of the population for the foreseeable future. 

Tourism has not yet taken off in this gem of a country as is currently reserved for the more adventurous traveler. In the 70's and 80's Sierra Leone was the tourist destination for the rich and famous. The Africana hotel at Tokeh has a helipad - soon to reopen - which would receive the elite from around the world that came to enjoy the natural beauty of rainforest and white sand beaches. The war destroyed that market but over 10 years later, peace has well and truly been restored and the doors are opening again for the world to come and enjoy the rich culture and serene beauty of this country. 

The potential employment and investment opportunities tourism can provide are immense and will last a great deal longer than the concrete buildings made form high saline sand throughout the peninsula. Successful community based tourism at Tribewanted, River #2 and Bureh are living proof of the power  tourism has to improve lives. 

As a result of increased awareness and lobbying the government have recently put restrictions on the two beaches open for sand mining. Hamilton, already destroyed with houses and orphanages falling into the sea, will be open 2 days a week and John Obey, a beach that could potentially be saved if action is taken soon, is open for business 6 days a week from 6am - 7pm, although we still hear the trucks coming throughout the night.

I appeal to you to take a minute to sign the petition below and share with your networks. Once we reach 1,000 signatures this will be presented to the president Ernest Bai Koroma to appeal for a change in legislation to save the habitat for the people of Sierra Leone.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Unforgettable Mighty Moa River Trip.

Here goes an attempt to somehow distinguish between all of the wonderfully unique experiences that made up an amazing 10-day trip through remotest Sierra Leone and give a glimpse of the highlights and lowlights we encountered along the way. The Moa river expedition recce ended just over two weeks ago and almost instantaneously the trip in my mind has moulded into one exotic, dreamlike adventure of hiking and canoeing from one welcoming rural Mende community to the next.

The dream team consisted of Kenneth aka Urban Gorilla and Alusine aka African Ox our ├╝ber-knowledgeable local guides who shared such an infectious love for their country and the wildlife that we all became amateur birdwatchers by the end of the trip. Tom, a passionate ‘West African Responsible Tourism’ developer from London with a penchant for all things pirates, was the reason we were all there as he headed the reclamation for the Secret Compass expedition to come. Kieran an anthropological documentary maker, with Shooting Freetown already under his belt, was there to film his next documentary; Beyond Freetown. KP a Sierra Leonean filmmaker, featured in Shooting Freetown, was also there to make his own documentary about the adventure. Kat aka the pied piper, an enthusiastic Australian Dietician with the power to hypnotize any group of children she encountered. Mark an avid permaculturist and treehugger from South Africa and myself, a passionately curious, adventure loving, Salone fan from Ireland made up the team. 

Our trip began with an overnight stay in Kenema where we had the chance to start to get to know each other, stock up on supplies and build up our own excited anticipations of the adventure to come. After a good night of sleep we set off early to our first destination where we abandoned our comfortable 4x4 and the real fun started. We followed pretty much the same routine of tasks in every community we entered; first step was to locate and greet the headman and explain our mission to the chief and crowds of curious onlookers. Our mission being responsible tourism was often a bit too abstract for comprehension in communities who have only ever had interactions with missionaries, prospectors or development organizations. The idea that we would want to come and enjoy the beauty and culture of their remote area was a surprise to many and a cause for celebration in most.
After observing the ritual gratuity giving to the headman we would seek out staples such as access to drinking water, potential porters to help with our supplies, boat men to share with us their knowledge of the region and navigate the rapids and finally camping grounds.

Our first stop was Senabu a somewhat remote village touching the Moa River at the Guinea – Sierra Leone border. Our welcome was warm and our mission was met with a certain degree of understanding, compared to latter, more remote communities. The realities of what we were doing and the responsibility we held quickly became apparent as I realized what a pioneering force we would be as the first tourists to navigate the entirety of the Moa and encounter and interact with local communities along the way.

After setting up camp on the banks of the mighty Moa the boys went for a swim with an audience of about 40  that had gathered earlier that day to observe our every move while Kat and I hung back trying to decide where to bathe as it did not seem appropriate ladies, to strip down into bikinis and join the boys. There was no bathing that first night… Bright and early the next day after a breakfast of fried fish and chillies we set off on our first canoe ride to Mende-Booima where a long day of hiking ensued. At points the hot sun was beating down upon us as we meandered through the dense jungle with our backpacks – the hard work was exhilarating, the banter was mightly and the changing vegitation meant that we passed through sheltered plantations providing shade and delicious fruit to sustain us on our trek.  

Just before nightfall, exhausted, hungry and 5miles of forest from our target destination we decided to change the plan and stay at the next village we met. And what a wonderful village, Botoma, the welcome we received was immense as we were told that we were the first foreign visitors in over 25 years. The village quickly began to buzz with excitement and the imam shared with us the reason – a local woman had recently dreamt that foreign people would visit and this would bring great fortune to the community in the future, a prophecy… As we set up camp in the centre of the town, the villagers prepared water for us to wash ourselves and the headman assured that no harm would come of us as long as we stayed. I noticed some local boys carrying a television and dvd player through the town, they had borrowed this from the neighbouring village some 5 miles away to set up a cinema to watch some local movies that night. I happened to have a copy of Secret Desire – KP’s most well-known movie, which we presented to the village as a gift. This small gesture was greatly appreciated by the headman and as word spread men, women and children began to emerge from their homes, wiping sleep from their eyes, to join the rest of the village to honour the gift and watch the movie. 

The most magical wake up call started with the traditional Muslim call to prayer followed by drumming and chanting as the Christians competed for worshippers. Speechless we rose from our tents to watch the sun rise over the hills and warm ourselves at the fire with a warm cup of coffee – unforgettable!

The days that followed were equally as magical with amazing displays of hospitality, generosity and insights into the undiluted culture of the local people we encountered. Other highlights included gliding along the glasslike surface of the Moa lost in thoughts with nothing but the tribal humming of the boatmen to be heard. Cooling off in the Moa after a long hike in the mid-day sun, a brief, slightly illegal trip across the river to Guinea, trying local delacicies including cane rat and bitter tomato suace, moonlit bathing in bamboo enclosures, and dancing round a camp fire with women to the beating of their drums, watching the crowds around the campfires enthralled as KP launched into vivid storytelling mode again and again....

Some of the more challanging moments include zipping along almost non-existant dirt tracks on the back motorbikes at an unknown speed with a cloud of red dust obstructing the view. Needless to say there may be some okada riders out there with bruised ribs from my intermitent squeezing during moments of terrified horror as I envisioned a painful end to my own life. One particulary bad ride where we veered off the narrow path into the grass and my feet met with a fallen tree and instantly opened  didn't do much to put my mind at ease on future rides. Thankfully this was the only accident we encountered and apart from some blisters from hiking our first aid kits returned untouched.

Other challanges we faced included the negotiations with local boatmen who didn't always understand that quoting a fair price could cement a relationship with the potential for future work in tourism. Although by the end of the trip our negotiation skills had improved immensly along with other important skills including speed tent set-up/take down and basic Mende to name but a few.

What a thrilling adventure far from the well-beaten path, it has left its mark on me in more ways than just the scars on my toes. I see Sierra Leone through different eyes and feel a deeper understanding for the culture here and will surely never be able to go on one of those regular tourist trails again… AND there is still a documentary to look forward to, which will certainly paint another picture from the perspective of a local Mende film maker and an insightful anthropological film maker  - Beyond Freetown: The Moa River Journey

Monday, 3 December 2012

Training, tourism, river trips and some local superstition....the adventure continues

So it's two thirds into my posting here at tribewanted and I'm starting to get the feeling that time is coming to end and there are so many things left to do. Ben Keane, one of the founders, was here to give some much needed input in the day to day operations of the team and share with us the vision for Tribewanted's Community Interest Company which is being launched this month. Together we spent a lot of time focusing on training the staff and building capacity.

Due to a blundered budget for a project which has now be halted mid air, I have been spending two mornings a week working with a team of 9 builders to instill the importance of planning and accuracy in relation to construction  This is not any normal training session, the group is made up of men from 18 - 45, some of whom cannot read and write, let alone perform basic, necessary calculations. Those within the group who were lucky enough to finish school, usually the younger ones, have a good attention span and show a lot of interest. As for the older ones, it is a struggle, but fortunately pride and large egos do not stand in the way of learning, it is more to do with a lack of confidence from a severely limited educational background. These men are by no means stupid, just try to imagine what life would be like without the education you received both at home and in school - difficult to comprehend, I know!

Education really is the key and on a very positive note, we have managed to get support from an NGO called Street Child to take over the teacher training and rehabilitation of the primary school in John Obey. This alone is key to the future development of this small community.

This weeks community meeting was set to discuss how the community can leverage the tourism that tribewanted brings to the area, a shame indeed, but as many people cannot comprehend the different needs and wants of visiting tourists there is not much in the way of local produce on sale. Lot's of potential though from making country clothes, to bottling chilli sauce and forest honey.


Selection of local potions 
On a lighter note a road trip to Rogbonko with the girls last week was a welcome distraction. Public transport in this country is an adventure in itself. Courtney and I had meetings with Ben, the founder of TW in the morning, so we left in the early afternoon, bikes to Waterloo and from there we haggled for a taxi to Makeni. All hell broke loose when we refused to travel in the car if the driver allowed 4 people in the front of a small Toyota on a two hour journey along the dangerous roads. Kicking up a stink worked and we made it to Makeni with our limbs intact. From there we took another taxi to Magburka and bikes on a 45 min ride through acres of sugar cane plantations as the sun set. Rogbonko is a locally run eco-tourism project set deep in the rainforest and an idyllic place to chill out, sip palm wine and do what us girls do best; learn how to play stick and tyre a fav game here and buy waist beads (worn to give good shape) and love potions from the local traditional healer .....
Village expert in stick and tyre games!

There is a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks, from a 10 day trip in a dug-out canoe along the Moa river to Tiwai islands, a national park which boasts the highest density of primates in Africa, to Christmas with friends on the islands and working closely with the women of John Obey to build confidence, capacity and hold workshops on health and sex education.

Life is good!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Economics of sand mining

Development and the liberal lean towards instant gratification is capable of destroying tourisms' bright future here in Sierra Leone.

The youths at John Obey have been pushed from the bush where they used to go to cut wood to sell as a conservation programme has been implemented to protect the rapidly decreasing forests on the peninsula. From the forests to the beaches….. Sadly these men are now making a small fortune loading up trucks with sand from the beach to supply the construction boom in and around Freetown. At the moment there are about 10 trucks coming down to load up every day and as we move further into the dry season this number will increase to almost 50 trucks a day. This is massively disruptive to the environment and Hamilton beach in Freetown has already been raped to the point of no return with buildings and homes falling into the sea. 

After breaking through the reluctance to speak about the sand mining with the local youths it seems that the money being made from the sand mining on Obama looks like this. A 10-tyre lorry, which retails at 700,000Le (140€) in town will pay:

130,000Le (26€) to the boys to fill it with sand
20,000Le (4€) to the local council as tax
20,000Le (4€) to the community
20,000Le (4€) to the driver manifest (makes its way back to the local community)

A truck can be loaded in under an hour and at peak times each boy can earn up to 200,000Le (40€) per day. This is over 10 times more than the average local daily rate of payment, which will be impossible to compete with. Stopping sand mining is possible but it will put a group of over 30 young men out of work and leave them feeling aggravated unable to provide for their families. An alternative source of income is needed but unfortunately the community is looking to anyone but themselves to provide this employment. 

Tribewanted, Welthungerhilfe (WHH) and other business people with vested interests in the area have been campaigning to educate and sensitize locals about the need to protect the beaches. Logically it makes perfect sense to think about the long-term affects of taking sand away at a rate that cannot possibly be sustained and replaced by the seas. And strategically leveraging the huge contribution sustainable tourism could make if the beaches were protected and thinking about the future of the community and the local wildlife. However like most things in life it’s just not that simple and logic is often defied and subordinated to survival, opportunity, greed and desire … 

At John Obey we have reached the point where the District Council understand the plight and have admitted that they would be ready to support the cause and make this a topic high on the agenda of the new Chairman once he is instated after the results have been announced. Getting the political will behind the issue of sand mining will hopefully have an immediate impact and hopefully we can take advantage of the changing power and ensure protecting the beautiful beaches gets the attention they deserves. 

Please take a minute to follow the campaign on facebook and sign our petition of support:

Friday, 16 November 2012

Sierra Leone Presidential elections tomorrow!

The elections are tomorrow and the country is literally buzzing in anticipation. Since the beginning of last week pretty much the entire community have been proudly wearing their voter ids around their necks day and night.

The two parties going for the presidential leg of the elections are APC (All People’s Congress) represented by the colour red and SLPP (Sierra Leone’s People’s Party) represented by the colour green. Since I have arrived back there has been at least one rally for each side every other week either in Freetown or smaller towns’ along the peninsula. A typical political rally looks a bit like a St. Patricks day parade, lots of colour (Green or red, depending on the party), lots of drunk people and the odd man dressed as a woman and woman dressed as a devil...... Ernest Bai Koromo the incumbent president is set for a landslide win and after quizzing many people in the community the consensus is that he is a fine man and has done a lot for the development of the country in the past four years.
From doing my own research the phrase 'lesser of two evils' rings home. Mr. Koroma appears to genuinely have the nation’s interests in mind but this is Africa and therefore the corruption is at times more open and obvious than in our own countries. The brutal civil war here ended more than a decade ago but it seems the development of the infrastructure and job creation didn’t really take off until Koroma got into power just under four years ago. After the war ended there was an awful lot of international funds being pumped into the country but little evidence of how this money was benefiting the people was to be seen. This visible development since Koroma gained power has secured him a place in the hearts of many. The oposition leader Mr. Julias Maada Bio was the leader of SLPP duing the war when the second Coup that overthrew Strasser and most people are opposed to turn back the clocks to the horrors of the lost decade and looking forward to seeing further development of their beloved country.
Tomorrow registered voters will have the opportunity to choose their new president, the District Chairman (Mayor), their MP and local Councillor. It is expected to be a very proud day and unlike in Europe there will be no secrecy, with each member of the community dressed explicitly to express their preferences. There is little to no trouble expected in the lead up to the elections, despite the high security measures being imposed by NGO’s and International businesses and schools throughout the country. Many NGO’s have been closed for business for some time already and will remain closed for up to six weeks with their employees either on leave or on lock down in their compounds. From where I am sitting this seems over cautious and a little sad but I imagine it has much to do with protecting liability.  

The plan for tomorrow is to don my red T-shirt and head up to the community center to enjoy the buzz, get some photos and maybe even have a glass of poyo and a bit of a boogie with the locals.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, there has been some sad news with the loss of our building team’s first external contract. The news was broken earlier this week after a month or so of trying to find a solution to a grossly miscalculated budget and time frame. Unfortunately for both Tribewanted and Orphund there was no simple solution to be found – money don done! Thankfully one beautiful earthbag building, one block of colourful compost toilets and one bucket shower has been completed before the money ran out.
On a positive note the Orphund team have not given up on their dream to have the first eco-orphanage in Sierra Leone and plans for a quick fix concrete structure to house the kids have been stopped. Fund raising will resume and hopefully the eco-building will as well before the end of the year. In the meantime an important lesson has been learned, we hope, and the building team are back on site restoring and rehabilitating our accommodation before the tourist season reaches its peak in the coming weeks.
Alusain breaking stones

Ali fixing the pulley in our new bucket shower

First earthbag orphanage building in Sierra Leone

The Orphund and Tribewanted building teams outside the new compost toilets

In other news I am very excited to have tracked down a heroin of mine that I met the last time I was here. This lady, Hannah, has one of the most amazing stories of survival and strength in the face of incredible obstacles and since I met her here in February of this year I have wanted to write about her story and harness her strength to inspire and empower other Sierra Leoneans especially her fellow women. We have planned to catch up next week so watch this space....