Under the Cotton Tree – Part 3

Community Participatory Planning and Implementation

 By Dato’ Chong Peng Wah

Beyond the Western Area, the security situation in the other provinces was increasingly unpredictable, particularly in the southern chiefdoms bordering Liberia. We travelled to Sherbro Island via Bo town and discovered that it was attacked by insurgents the day before.  Our party spent the night in a secured mining company’s rest house. The next morning Mr. Brown, our local Krio guide, took us across the Sherbro Strait in an open boat. We were enthralled to see some luxuriant mangroves along the vegetated creeks and rivers as compared to the stunted formations in Freetown. However, our enthusiasm soon wilted upon the open waters as it was very hot and humid. On landing we walked some distance to our rest house under the burning mid-day sun carrying heavy backpacks.

My room was crummy, dusty and appeared to be unused for some time. The metal bedstead was rusted, while both the bed sheet and pillow cases were stained and discolored. The foam rubber pillows felt disgustingly crumbly upon my touch. Although I was exhausted, nevertheless, I tried to tidy up the place as much as possible. Later on I noticed but ignored a slight razor cut across my right wrist. The following morning I noticed that my wrist was swollen and several pustules erupted. I cleansed the infected cut with whiskey and took a course of antibiotics from our UN Medical kit. This confirmed my first impression that my sleeping quarter was not only crummy and most uninviting but   possibly “toxic” as well! The only redeeming grace was that we had a decent mosquito net to keep out the mozzies as dengue fever was endemic and prevalent on the island.

The house keeper was old and frail. From time to time he would appear in front of my window for money to purchase firewood to boil water, charcoal for ironing, cooking oil and candles for the night.  One evening he looked at me pleadingly and said: “Master, no chop” meaning that he was hungry. We were so busy selfishly looking after ourselves that the basic needs of others were forgotten. Speaking of which in Freetown I used to lunch in Amadou’s house once or twice a week. On such visits I ensured that his wife had enough to buy chicken and fish to feed her family. Being the son of a minor chief Amadou was too proud to ask for help and by insisting that I relished his wife’s home cooking I was able to help his family without being condescending.  On “charity days” I would set aside some money for the town beggars after my evening meal. There were many horribly disfigured unfortunates ravished by yaws. During my home leave, Amadou was awarded an UNDP/FAO fellowship to study mangrove management in Malaysia and we were glad to meet up with and look after him in Kuala Lumpur.

Two APOs joined our party and one of them brought along his American wife, who summarily sacked the cook over her excessive use of cooking oil!. It was an unfortunate and hasty move as we were left high and dry without our dinner. I took over the cooking and prepared a simple meal for the rest of our team. Coincidentally, my good friend Mr. Sam Jambowai, a congenial forester came along and took me out for an evening meal. As foresters we did what we do best – “sharing party jokes and drinking Star beer” till the cock crows.

Secret societies are an integral part of Sierra Leone culture. Bondo or Sande for women and Poro for men. Bondo initiation is a rite of passage for young girls. Traditionally Bondo induction ceremony lasts several months, when girls are imparted knowledge needed to become women.

Initiates are taken to the bush where FGM is conducted and emerge as “purified” women worthy for marriage with much fanfare and ceremony (1).  A spirit dancer wearing a thick, heavy mask, symbolizing the supreme female spirit, o-Nowo leads a procession of singing and dancing women and girls.  Non-initiates are not allowed to watch as they dance and weave their way through the village. Ninety percent of women in Sierra Leone have undergone such coming-of-age ritual. Those not initiated are considered to be impure by men and women alike. Secret societies for Temne and Mende men conduct rites for boys as a rite of passage to adulthood. In recent years these secret societies have become political and wield considerable power and influence. No one would dare to speak about secret societies or their rites.  I know of their existence only through an unforgettable personal encounter.

The Sherbro rest house had an open courtyard in the centre of which was a deep well. The portion facing the dirt road in front was enclosed by a low live fence. It was most refreshing after a day of hard, sweaty work in the muddy swamp to bathe at the well. One late afternoon as I was washing and soaping myself at the well, I heard shouting and singing accompanied by drum beats beyond the fence. Out of curiosity, thinking it was a wedding party or local festivity, I peered through the live fence by parting some leaves. I saw a tall dark figure wearing an enormous black mask leading a procession of dancing women and girls. I did not know it was taboo to look at the o-Novo, spirit dancer. They saw me and instantly a group of hysterical women charged into our courtyard yelling and shouting angrily at me. I was mortified and felt naked in my sarong, beleaguered and berated by an angry mob with no means of escape nor understanding of what they were shouting about.  Luckily Mr Brown, who appeared from no where, mollified them. Finally they proceeded on their way singing and dancing as though nothing had occurred.  Later I discovered that Mr Brown gave them some of our provisions and money to recompense them for my transgression. Non-initiates have been known to be killed upon their accidental encounter with Bondo/Poro practices in the bush.

Except for a few hiccups, work-wise everything proceeded as planned. Consultancy findings were presented and discussed at seminars and meetings with concerned ministries (2). UNDP, the funding agency, agreed to fund several additional priority activities.  It was wonderful to return to FAO headquarters for debriefing and to be pleasantly seduced by “la dolce vita” in Rome before returning to Kuala Lumpur for a short break.

Two years later, Mr Patrick Tesha, the African Desk Operations Chief, insisted that I returned to Sierra Leone in 1989 to provide advice on the planning and implementation aspects. The main thrust was to promote participatory forest management and environmental protection through the support and involvement of local communities in resource creation and management.

In precolonial days the tribals respect and protect their forest heritage and environment. They take what they need and live in harmony with nature. They respect their Paramount Chief who enforces compliance at all levels. After gaining Independence in 1961 the Paramount Chief and chiefdom heads were replaced by elected representatives or political appointees. With population increase, rampant poverty and breakdown in communal cohesion, all forms of natural resources are neglected and over-exploited. No one takes responsibility for anything, least of all public property and forests. This social dilemma, where common shared resources are depleted by self-serving individuals in violation of the common good, is succinctly described by G. Hardin in 1968 as “the tragedy of the commons”.

Our team engaged the coastal Sherbro ethnic communities in the Southern Province that included Shenge, a fishing village in Moyamba District. Their basic demand for forest products was determined and matched to existing sources or plantations. Community forests or wood lots will be managed by local villagers or “Forest User Groups” with usufructuary rights. Many coastal village chiefs were women who knew the issues well but could not institute reforms without central policy direction and financial support.

Next we visited Yelibuya island, located north-west of Freetown and travelled northwards along the coast into Kambia district in the Northern Province. This district borders the Republic of Guinea to the north, and Port Loko District to the south. Home to diverse tribes, notably the Susu ethnic group, many of them are muslims. It forms an important trading link between French speaking Conarky and Freetown. Kambia District is the rice bowl of Sierra Leone.  Extensive tracts of coastal mangroves and tidal swamplands were converted to rice fields. Without a protective mangrove fringe, saline intrusion is a growing threat leading to reduced paddy yields. Large quantities of firewood are needed daily for fish drying and smoking at Yelibuya Island, Kortimaw Island and other fishing coastal villages. photo Dried Fish TradersWomen monopolize fish processing and trade while the men are fishermen. We enlisted the help of several NGOs to promote the use of energy efficient stoves and fish smoking house designs as well as solar drying kilns.

I stayed at the Bintumani Hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Aberdeen as I was assigned a new project vehicle. The hotel had standby generator and swimming pool. Two notable events occurred during my stay. The first incident took place on Christmas eve when the hotel was gaily decorated with festive lighting. The Sierra Leone Airline that ferried passengers to Lagos broke down and all the passengers were transferred to our hotel. Many Christian Nigerian travelers were upset because they could not spend Christmas at home with their family. Some of them became unruly and almost tore the reception hall apart. The police and militia from the garrison were called in to control the violent group. We remained in our rooms until the unruly Nigerians were escorted by armed soldiers dressed in combat fatigues to the Lungi International Airport the following morning. The second event was the arrival of the West African Harmattan.

Harmattan is a dry, dusty, northeasterly West African trade wind that blows from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea in late November to mid-March corresponding to winter in the northern hemisphere. It picks up fine reddish particles from the Sahara desert and carries them across West Africa for hundreds of kilometres out over the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes, the haze limits visibility, blocks out the sun for several days and interrupts airport operations. The harmattan haze can induce airborne diseases like conjunctivitis, respiratory infections and even meningitis. During this season many people have eye infections. I stayed indoor most of the time as the ubiquitous fine particles would contaminate my diskettes and driving in the thick haze was dangerous. I kept all the doors and windows closed and sealed the gaps with wet towels. Occasionally I would turn on the hot shower rose in the bathtub to humidify the air. In spite of such precautions the dust particles are so fine that it is almost impossible to dust proof anything. It was a trying time and a new experience for me.

On my second mission I was surprised that Mr Brown, our Sherbro guide and young Harry, the project carpenter had passed away. They seemed to have succumbed to simple ailments like coughs and colds. Only later did I realized that the incidence of HIV-Aids was a growing problem and those with weak immune system could easily succumb to common infections. It was a chilling thought and timely wake-up call. The economic and political situation in Freetown had deteriorated in that more people were unemployed and destitute. Illegal rough diamonds were offered  for sale everywhere and smuggling was rampant. Mining profits were siphoned out of the country to tax havens to reduce income tax liabilities by unscrupulous companies. Illegal surface diamond and gold mines sprouted everywhere spinning out of control. Failure to maximize and transform the country’s resource rents into benefits for the people fueled cIvil unrests in the southern and northern provinces. Our field work was severely affected and curtailed. Unlike the first mission I was more “desk bound” and had more time to socialize with fellow consultants in Freetown.

I presented our consultancy findings to the relevant authorities knowing only too well that without concerted political will and support of local communities many of the initiatives suggested could not be fully implemented (3). A beleaguered government concerned with its political relevance and survival, cannot be relied upon to undertake long-term community development in a meaningful and sustained manner. How do we reconcile ourselves with such depressing realities?  Except perhaps to reflect upon the comforting notion that tomorrow is another day – ” Hope springs eternal in the human breasts; Man never is, but always to be blessed……”. While the country requires more international assistance than ever before, many donor countries have trimmed their aid budgets due to the growing political uncertainty and general donor-fatigue.  On the ground many donor-driven projects failed not because they were ill-conceived but due to the lack of local support and community involvement. Not being able to do enough is never an excuse to do nothing – it is our hope that Sierra Leone will enjoy peace and success.

Ave atque vale – for we too had taken shelter and contemplated “UNDER THE COTTON TREE”  and left our hearts behind.

Postscript:  “The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002) began on 23-March, 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), with support from the special forces of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government. The civil war lasted 11 years, enveloped the country, and left over 50,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced internally and externally” (4).

References & Notes:

(1)  FGM = Female Genital Mutilation.
(2) “Proposed Management and integrated utilization of mangroves in Sierra Leone”, (English)  Chong, P. W., 1987, Freetown, 138 p. Accession No: 280949. FAO-FO-DP/SIL/84/003 www.fao.forestry/mangroves/

(3) “Mangrove Management Planning and Implementation”, Chong, P. W. 1989, 76 p.  FAO-FO-DP/SIL/88/00 (Chong, P. W, FAO Online Catalogues)
(4)  Wikipedia extract.

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