Friday, March 6, 2009

Dispatch from Sierra Leone - History and Future

There is so much to report, and it is all in my journal. I'll write more when I return next week. For today's entry I choose to write about Banana Island, which we visited on Wednesday, and Bunce Island, which we will visit tomorrow, Saturday.

Sierra Leone was an integral link in the slave trade. There is even a town here named for Captain Newton, who wrote "Amazing Grace" after he began to think his involvement in running slave ships might not be such a healthy thing for his soul. Slaves from all over Africa were brought to Bunce Island, which had a castle and an Anglican Church in which to house slaves, and guns for protection. From Bunce, which is just up the river from Freetown (which did not exist during the slave trade) the slaves were shipped to England, the American colony and later the United States, and the Caribbean.

Banana Island is at the southern end of the Freetown peninsula. A 20 minute canoe ride, in a fifty foot canoe powered by a 15 hp outboard, will take you across the Atlantic to Banana from Kent. The country is all so beautiful, and marred by the poor living conditions of the inhabitants. The mountains run right down to the Atlantic. The ride was a delight. There will probably be photos available of me being two-man carried through the water to be deposited in the canoe. I expect to charge admission to see those photos!

Banana Island was a Portuguese settlement. The remains of slave occupation is mainly of those the Portuguese brought to work on Banana Island. However, there are some ruins of buildings in which slaves were housed for sale and transport, and a circle of stone marking the pit into which sick slaves, those too sick to sell and transport, were thrown to die.

This juxtaposition of natural beauty and painful, horrible history is very hard to process. I do not know when I will recover from some of the things I have seen. I imagine I will recover, but I'm not sure I should.

The staff in the hotel have learned we are here to see a school we are helping to build. My waitress this afternoon, when she brought the bill for my tea to sign, got up the courage to tell me there is a school in the Eastern section of Freetown, a primary school, which has no support at all. She broke my heart. These people want education for their children. Education is required for primary age children. At the same time, while primary education is technically free, it costs money for books and uniforms and pencils and paper - all the things we take for granted. I was glad to be able to tell her about FAWE, Forum for African Women Educationalists and she will tell her child's teacher about them. I don't know if they can help - they probably can't help every school. But at least I had something to tell her that might mean hope.

Freetown, I wrote above, did not exist during the slave trade days. It was founded by freed slaves who wanted to return to Africa after the United States emancipated our slaves. Before the ten year war, which ended around 2001 or 2002, the hills that surround Freetown were all woods. Now every square inch is covered with housing. During the war much of Freetown was burned. Churches were burned down. The police station was burned down. The people who did not leave for England began to build on the hillsides. Now, there is rebuilding in Freetown. At the same time the houses remain on the hillsides, side by side with the shacks of the "squatters" who were displaced from their villages in the countryside and make their living now selling goods up and down the streets, taking advantage of the traffic jams.

I seem to be dumping my brain into this blog, so it may be truly rambling. But you have not experienced driving until you have been a passenger in a car on the streets of Freetown!

One last item, from yesterday, Thursday. We received an invitation, off our schedule, to attend the opening of an exhibition at the National Museum in Freetown, an exhibition of photographs called Women's Voices. I have left my notes in my room, but this much I remember. Women from two villages were given digital cameras and rudimentary instruction in their use, to record their lives and the lives of the women in their villages. I believe they took pictures for a year. The youngest woman was 12 years old. After the pictures were all taken and the sponsoring organizations gathered them up, the women were brought together with the male leaders of their communities, and the photographs, and told the stories that the photographs represented. The women found their voices. Now they, and this exhibit are part of the drive for equality of women alongside men in Sierra Leone.

As one of the women from the project said yesterday during the opening ceremony, woman was not taken from the man's backbone to walk behind him, or from his headbone to walk above him, or from his footbone to walk under him. Woman was taken from his side, from his ribs, to walk alongside him as equal. It was so powerful an image. And as the indigenous woman official who gave the opening remarks said, if we have done something wrong in supplanting for one month the regular exhibits of the museum with this exhibition, it is with very little apology that we do so.

As an old, aging hippie feminist, I tell you, these women are on the move. And they have support for the changes they are hoping to make.

My time is up. I'm going up to enjoy the view of the Atlantic and the black kites (raptors) soaring back and forth in front of my balcony, and get some rest from the enormous multitude of images that flood my brain every day here. God's Peace be with you all, and may you add to your prayers for today, the girls and women of Sierra Leone, some of whose stories I will try to tell in future posts.

Yours faithfully,

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