Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Nights to Remember

all pictures can be enlarged by double clicking on them
photo taken on the Kabala Road (from Makeni) - here a women holds her husband's "slit drum" as we all waited for our transport - taken in March 1969

Mende men at the Kenema Agricultural Festival December 1969

Lokko Group at Kenema Trade Show (aka Agricultural Festival or Cacao Show) 1969

Most nights in Kenema were quiet. Sunsets came rapidly. Our area of Kenema, although predominantly Mende, was somewhat of a mix with some members of the Lokko Ethnic group living a few houses down toward Kenema, and with the Fula Section Chief compound about 1/4 mile from us - this was where Alhaji Pa Maju Bah and his many family members lived. Kenema was the seat of the Eastern Province and deep in the heart of Mende country. However it was the commerce there that attracted other groups - and because Kenema was also the major upcountry seat for the diamond industry - the town in those days was flourishing. Downtown, days would be busy. Night time was very quiet since in those days there was limited night time activities. There was a movie theater about 3 miles from us and on the eastern edge of town. At this place grade B movies were shown - including many Italian produced cowboy movies. The theater was owned and run by local Lebanese and the movies were many times preceded by Al Fatah training films - this was to say the least a bit disconcerting. Movies such as "Jango Strikes Back," were a popular showing - most people liked these movies however for us they tended to be a joke. Over our two years we may have gone to the movies 2 or 3 times - but going there was a bit trying since the walk was 6 miles roundtrip and the roads at night were not lit and quite dark. There were no restaurants in Kenema Town in those days. Thus - most of our nights would be spent at home or visiting our local neighbors. We did have - during our first year - a Peace Corps couple who lived nearby. Their names were Margaret and Mark Davis and they taught at the boy's secondary school on Blama Rd called Holy Trinity. Mark and Margaret came from New York City (I think Brooklyn) and were in the Peace Corps group preceeding us. The Sierra Leonenans thought Margaret and Susan were sisters. From time to time we would visit and eat with them. It was from Mark that in our second year I bought his enlarger and developing pans and made a dark room for my black and white pictures.
There were many nights that we sat at home, hoping that we would have electricity (which was quite erratic), either preparing for next day classes, or listening to the somewhat exotic music and stations that we picked up on our short wave radio. I especially enjoyed the music of Radio Guinea and Radio Mali. Of course we listened from time to time to USIS/Voice of America News in "Special English," and often to the BBC. On an occasion the Sisters (Sisters of the Holy Rosary) would invite us to dinner at the Convent. This might be for one of their religious holidays, one time they kindly invited us to celebrate our Thanksgiving, and for the big holidays such as Christmas or Easter. Dinners were rather formal, prepared by their cook, Pa Joseph Simbo, who had been in the West African Expeditionary Forces during WW II where he had learned to cook. The sisters meals were very European - meat and potatoes or similar type foods. Once when they celebrated Susan's birthday they even had a birthday cake. For me the cake looked beautiful. However the beautiful white frosting was as hard as rock, and the cake was fruit cake, something that I just did not like.
There were several nights that in those days we also ate meals with then Father Ganda. He was the very first Sierra Leonean Catholic Priest and lived nearby. From time to time he would invite us to lively dinners at his house. Discussion could be very political as he was often unafraid to speak out about political and other happenings in the area. I liked Father Ganda and our students did also. People were proud that the Church had finally selected an African to lead.
I also remember a number of wonderful nights when our neighbors would call for us and let us know that we should come and listen to their singing. Our neighbor, named Bonya (I never knew her last name) was a wonderful singer. So we would come to our neighbors house, sit on their veranda and listen to the women sing secular songs (in Mende). The music and singing was haunting. The give and take between the lead singer (Bonya) and the group of other women, was eery and beautiful. From time to time I would bring my tape recorder and record what they called their, "Mende sing." I remember one night especially when both Bonya and Mama Hokey sang. It was pitch black out - there was a light rain providing back ground noise, thunder and lightening off in the distance, as the women sang their wonderful songs (Ey Bondu Nyamungo) while I listened dreamily to it all. As I have said before, I found the harmony unusually beautiful. There was something very peaceful about it. And all the women sang so well.
One other time - I am not sure what the celebration was for (it may have been during Ramadan) on a moon lit night the Lokkos, who lived nearby, were having a celebration. We heard it begin from our house, and decided to go and see what we could. Although the moon helped to light our way - it was still dark. However their drumming was strong, and as you got closer to where the men were playing the drum beating became all encompassing. I remember almost getting dizzy by the unbelievable drum playing of these men. I think that night there was some dancing (mostly acrobatics) being done as well. Earlier, such celebrations had been discouraged by the government, as the government was leery of the Kenema area, a hot bed of Mende politics. However, peace had finally come to our area and folks felt comfortable about dancing and singing again. The Lokkos were "cousins" of the Mende - their language had similarities and by history they had probably been split off from the Mende several centuries before. This night I remember returning to our house feeling almost dizzy from the very impressive drum work. The drumming was so loud, and so very impressive as I stood by and watched and listened, that I remember at one point feeling as if the drum beat was coming from inside my chest as I listened on. I think it was that night that I began to realize that there was always an undercurrent of cadence to life in Kenema. I became aware of this undercurrent of daily rhythm and cadence that provided background to daily life. I found this all very comforting.


Sean Farren said...

Did our paths ever cross. My wife and I, Sean & Patricia Farren, also lived in Kenema 1967-69. We lived above Barclay's Bank, not far from Mark and Margaret's house. I taught at Holy Trinity while Patrica help out with the admin at both Holy trinity and the Holy Rosary Training College, as it was then, now a secondary school. You might also remember our eldest daughter was born at the hospital in Panguma.

Sean Farren said...

Delighted to have come across these accounts of life in Kenema where I also worked 1967-80 at Holy Trinity. My wife and I lived over Barclay's bank on Dama Road, not far from Mark and Margaret.
Log on to slip,ie, website of the Sierra Leone Ireland Partnership.
We left in the summer of 1969 with our first daughter, born at Panguma.

sl 68-70 said...

Hi Sean. Although I am sure that our paths crossed while we both lived in Kenema I do not remember you but that - of course - may be due to the element of time. I may have visisted Holy Trinity once in our 2 years in Kenema. I knew Margaret and Mark Davis, and a few others who lived in the house on Blama Road (Lloyd Ziegler US Peace Corps 1969-72 comes to mind - I think it that house there was a VSO and perhaps a Canadian volunteer?). We should remember your wife since during our first year we taught at the TTC - however we had little administrative responsibilities and thus probably were never introduced to her. For some reason however I your last name sounds familiar so perhaps at sometime we did meet. Thanks you for your comment. We live in Vermont (USA) and have been to Ireland a few times to visit friends in Wicklow. Best wishes Chad

sl 68-70 said...

and by the way I do remember a student at Holy Trinity named Sam Allie. He was very smart. I often wondered what happened to him.