Sierra Leone was a piece of cake in comparison, with many farmer leaders speaking better English than I do. Beyond the contacts my friends provided, Ministry of Agriculture extension officers gave me immense support in locating knowledgeable farmers. I had the best workshop in Taninahun, where the Extensionist took care of the translation into Mende, their language. When asked about the ceremonies they hold, I could feel their fears. Ebola crisis and the droughts made them run out of food for several years in a row and ceremonies for ancestors have been neglected. Now they are fearful of this year's harvest, as the ancestors must be angry. Not sure how well they received my pragmatic suggestion that the ancestors would understand if you would hold the ceremony even with little food.

'Undeveloped' swamp farm
The Ministry wants the farmers to cultivate more in swamp areas because they yield better harvests. 

This 'developed' farm got flooded only last year
The little funding available it uses to 'develop' the swamps (you know: block the stream with dams, fill the lowlands and bring water in canals) with contractors before handing the lots over to farmers. 

I explained to several Ministry high officials that this approach only kills the goose that lay golden eggs, and presented an alternative package of solutions. Knowing the level of corruption involved in this business, I probably had better listeners among Taninahun farmers. The positive response from farmers and local chiefs on conserving traditional farming practices encouraged me to set the stage for launching a project on documenting them in Sierra Leone, and I am waiting for a local professor to take the lead.

Water falls among favelas
Freetown is the most beautiful Capital I have seen. Its numerous blue water bays playing hide and seek among tall reddish hills are an attraction enough. Its many little streams hurrying down to join their mother, sneaking around one boulder only to crash over another, under the shades of huge mango and cotton trees, provide an idyllic setting. 

Junk in the river
Unfortunately, Freetown is also the most polluted Capital I have been to. 

Rich and poor living together
Unlike in Abidjan and many other big cities, in most barrios of Freetown the rich and the poor bang shoulders, literally. Thus, I see here an opportunity to run my social experiment on urban housing

Yes..., that's exactly what they are
doing, at the headwaters!
I theorized that here the poor use environmental violence (sewage water, open-air defecation, plastics, old furniture..., you name it) as a strategy to prevent their eviction through economic force. Thus, without guaranteeing their permanence in the area, whatever solution to clean the place would not have their support. I proposed confiscating the lots of landlords who allowed illegal squatting, applying fines for money illegally earned. Use these resources and property taxes to build proper housing for poor renters and reorganize the barrios.

Yes, she is washing clothes with that water
One Sunday morning I guided (though I barely had 2 weeks in Freetown by then) my friends and a municipal councilor, who wanted to re-visit their childhood playground- the river, now crowded with slums. My friends, influential activist sisters, thought the political atmosphere is not yet ready for a proposal that revolutionary. Yet, they were nice enough to invite me to a meeting with Freetown mayor to discuss the clean-up project.

Crowding the water spring
The clean-up, I thought, had to begin with the politicians and their technical cohorts. Water supply to Freetown is so bad that, for drinking, most slums depend on the same filthy stream water, which finds its way through the cracks in laterite rock base and then comes out as springs further down. Electricity supply goes off at least 3-4 times on a good day and stays 'out' more than 'in'. The rich set themselves up with generators and huge water tanks, and the poor..., thanks for dropping by. That wonderful idea of power meters supplying energy only through prepaid cards, especially in slums, seems to have made them no longer responsible for providing a 24-hour supply. 

The centuries-old agreement, which respected Freetown lands only for the 'krios' (returning ex-slaves) and inner lands only for the other tribal people, was rescinded recently by a shrewd politician. He overruled city regulations, flooded it with his own tribe and won the Presidency by a landslide. (That is the 'democratic solution' for the problems of rural societies.) Now he is overjoyed seeing thousands of people daily lining up the main city avenue to watch his entourage flash-by. The reason being the police stopping even a dog from walking the road for half an hour before he comes!

All my baggage of experience did not amount to much in finding a way to cross this damaged bridge. Though the rest of the passengers were locals, they were no less than 80km away from their homes. Neither they nor the driver would agree to drive back to Kankan to find a better place to pass the night, because the chances of somebody coming to pull that monster out within the next day or two are nil. They would simply throw their hands up, "that is Guinea". I later learned that an alternative road to Kerouane would be 4 times longer. If I were to go back to Kankan on my own and find another route to Ivory Coast border, I still had to convince the driver to download that mole of luggage on the roof to retrieve my bag.

A big noise erupted behind the truck; two military pickups had arrived. As the night fell, the military poured over the trapped front truck tire thousands of suggestions; only words, no deeds. Meanwhile, our driver was assembling some tree branches at the edge of an old river crossing below the bridge. Seemed like he wanted to fly over the muddy riverbed in his tattered van. A military man saw this and simply took over the project. Their new 4WD vehicles crossed the river with ease, and headed towards Kankan with little regard to the rest of the stranded.

Our driver had intensely observed every inch of the military crossing. As soon as they were done, he cranked up his engine. Knowing how it stuttered even on small climbs up to now, I never gave it a chance. Worse in this darkness. To our utter surprise, he was on the other side in five minutes. Then he parked his van and went back to help a low car too to cross the river. 'That too is Guinea'. In a few more minutes, we all were on our way to Kerouane!

Three hours more of rough-seas-voyage and the driver stopped the car, but for a meal, at 10pm! Now, that got me worried. Fifty plus km more, I was told. I expected Kerouane, a small Prefecture like Tougue, to have at least a guesthouse. I wanted to set up camp at a cheap place and interview some farmers. But, how to find the hotel and get them to open it at midnight? The worst of the road was yet to come and we got to the town only around 1am. I do not know how, but managed to see a sign for a hotel, though the driver would not take the luggage down anywhere else but at his terminal, some 2km further down. No moto-taxi, nor any vendors to ask about where to sleep. Not even a police station to sleep in their lock-up, like in 1994 in that Orinoco Delta town. I hooked up a small talk with a guy in a motor bike waiting to pick up his wife from our car.

Kashyapa A.S. Yapa
March 2017, Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa.

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