Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rice on the Upland

An upland rice farm near Panguma - Lower Bambara Chiefdom c. 1970 Pictured here in the back is a typical 
upland farm house, and rice growing among stumps of trees and brush - a very typical farm in Mendeland.
photo © by Chad Finer

Rice was the staple food in Sierra Leone, and the upland rice grown there was very tasty. In comparison to the Carolina bleached white rice that most of us knew the Mende brown rice was meaty, tasty, and as we got used to the pepper - this became our staple as well. Rice was grown with the slash (cutting the brush with a machete) and burn (burn the areas where the rice was to be planted) method. During the end of the dry season the brushing of the farms took place and just before the rains the rice was broadcast planted. Although at first the farms appeared messy with remnant tree stumps interspersed with the growing rice, but we became used to this method of farming and its appearance. Farmers would built their shelters (farm houses) to get out of the sun and/or rain.  Here they might cook a late meal. In the farm house was stored a warm overcoat,  an umbrella, cooking utensils, tools for farming, or even a sling to drive birds.  Under the palm leaf roof a farmer might get out of the hot day and rest a bit. However, at the end of the day, the farmer would pack up and head home to the nearby village to sleep in his house. From early March until late September or October the rice, grown on the hills (the Mende did not like to work in the swamps) grew tall and green, and as the dry season began (November) the rice dried and was harvested by hand. It was a one time a year harvest. Despite the introduction of new types of rice that could be grown 2 or even 3 times a year, the Mende stuck to their traditional rice which was grown in sufficient amounts and in fact tasted much better. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


a small, raw diamond of industrial quality - this was shown to me as I traveled on the bush road from our house
 to the village of Vaama Nongowa  c. 1969 -  photo © by Chad Finer
There was much talk regarding diamonds and diamond mining during our days of training and before we received our assignments. We were told, or warned not to get involved in this enterprise. Diamond mining in Sierra Leone was surface or alluvial mining. The Diamond Corporation in those days had to some degree been nationalized, but this seemed to me to be in name only. The higher echelon seemed to be orchestrated by Europeans (white men)- some from Europe, and some from South Africa, which in those days still suffered from apartheid.  Warned not to buy or even dig for diamonds, we kept away from the frequent offers to buy them from the many illicit dealers in our area. It was common to be accosted by men in my travels who would try and sell me a diamond - I always refused.  I might be passing by on a remote bush trail when I would be passed by someone carrying diamonds. The usual scenario was as follows: as I crossed paths with one of these men he would stick out his tongue to reveal a number of diamonds that he carried in his mouth. When this happened at first I was not sure what was going on. Usually - a friend that I was traveling with let me know what I was being shown.  As I spent a lot of time trekking in our area - this became a common occurrence. Most of the concentration in diamond digging and mining took place to our east (Kenema District and Kono District). In these areas the mining was controlled partially by government soldiers, and mostly by Diamond Corporation security that to me seemed somewhat outside the law. These areas were controlled and required passes to be there if you did not live there. In all cases an identity card was required. However, these areas were vast and controlling who entered and left the area was challenging for the Corporation. Illicit diamond was rampant. Many of my treks in the bush passed by illicit miners in remote sections of the bush.  Alluvial or surface mining involved mainly a simple process of digging along the surface and then sifting the diggings trying to find a diamond. It was labor intensive. Many a village man abandoned their village life and headed to the diamond digging areas to seek their fortune. Very few succeeded. This translocation of men led to wild and lawless settlements in the diamond digging areas. Women, children, and the old were left in their villages to try and manage, while these illicit diamond diggers headed off. Many of the settlements - predominantly men who also left behind many of their village traditions in the process - were at times scary areas to be in. Periodically the government soldiers would drive off the illicit miners from the area, and these men would head to nearby towns like Kailahun or Kenema. Usually penniless and hungry, this influx of men would for a while result in the increase in petty crimes in the towns. What was clear was that the great lure of diamonds in these areas led to a dislocation of traditional values. Men, driven to find their fortune, left behind their wives, their parents, and their children. In these  areas they found lawlessness, crime, and lack of social structure.  Just as in the Gold Rush Days (in the US) these areas became boom towns and dangerous. I have written elsewhere about my occasional travels through these diamond areas.  In fact, one such trip left me detained in a bush jail for several hours by a soldier bent more on intimidation of me than anything else. As my Sierra Leone friend worried about my plight, I was more amused, knowing both that I was in the area legally and with a Peace Corps pass (ID). The soldier's purpose was to make me squirm a bit. When his superior came to the post - he asked, "What's the Peace Corps doing there?"  The soldier - unable to come up with an adequate response was chastised and I was released.   
Although this rich supply of diamonds in Sierra Leone had some potential to help the country's economy - most of the time it did not. Too many times this industry led to corruption of officials and to a smuggling undercurrent being driven by both the artificial pricing of diamonds in Europe and America which kept the value of diamonds and very high levels, and being driven by greed. This industry, which had great potential to support many in country ventures such as education and other infrastructure projects unfortunately was more likely to lead to men abandoning their villages and families, and heading off to find their fortunes in these wild areas where crime was rampant, where there was little in the way of social structures, and where less than a handful ever met with success. Many times these diamond digging areas turned into wastelands where lawlessness and chaos seemed more likely.   And who really benefited?  Those in power. Those across the seas in Europe and America. Europeans if you will. The average Sierra Leone citizen saw little if anything. And as the corruption became more prominent - greed became overwhelming. Diamond selling became a means by the few to become rich. It was diamonds that was later to become the means by which some could finance armaments that had never before been seen in Sierra Leone. Automatic weaponry financed by the blood diamonds snuck its way into the Sierra Leone persona and charismatic, quixotic, and evil men drove this charge, bent on control, drunk on power,and with their selling of  diamonds, able to finance the horror that became an 11 year battle to steal a country. They bought this sophisticated weaponry and handed it to a youth that was ready to be bad. They kidnapped children and made them (coerced them if you will) into child soldiers. They created camps where women were used as sex slaves - and this was all done as a war policy. And they made the children kill their own. These war crimes included the maiming and killing of its own citizens as a policy of horror and terror. This all had never been seen in Sierra Leone before. From 1991 to 2002 this horror - this civil war - sat down on a poor country. Folks left in droves to escape the killing and the maiming. As rebels and others roamed the country creating havoc, those who could ran away. For a decade there was little schooling. For ten years the social fabric of the country was in stress and challenge. And the scars of this horror - have left a disheartening memory on the psyche of this proud country. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pa Maju Bah - Al Hajji and Fula Section Chief - Kenema, Sierra Leone

Pa Maju Bah of Kenema was the Fula section chief. Photo taken  c. 1969 during Ramadan at Pa Maju's 
house on Dama Road. Fula musicians play typical Fula instruments, and wear typical traditional Fula 
clothing.  -  photo © by Chad Finer
Al Hajji Pa Maju Bah was the Fula section chief in the area of Kenema where we lived. A gentle and distinguished man, he was the prominent cattle dealer in Kenema Town, and the leader of all the Fula in the area. He lived modestly, had many visitors daily, had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and was disappointed in the United States trying to be God by traveling to and landing on the moon (1969). As he complained to me on one of my visits to his house, he was disappointed that, "Americans were trying to play God."  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Mama Mabinty makes wax prints. Aminata Lahai helps out.
Kenema Town  c. 1970
photo © by Chad Finer

Pa Foday Koroma, village chief and weaver of country cloth - Bitema Nongowa   c. 1969
                                                              photo © by Chad Finer

From my earliest days in Sierra Leone I was moved by the many talented people that I came in contact with. In our Freetown training in July 1968 we, as volunteers were treated to The Sierra Leone Dance Troupe on a special night when we all had finished our summer school there and were headed on to Njala for more language training and for training in agriculture. The Dance Troupe performance was spectacular - it was always so. That night at a Freetown hotel all the Sierra Leone tribes represented themselves well with inspiring song and dance, and with marvelous costumes. I was so very moved by what I saw. Upcountry was no less inspiring. In our neighborhood were wonderful singers, wonderful musicians, and wonderful craftspeople. Traditional singing dominated the area in those days, although certainly High Life was popular and could be heard at local bars (Jattu's Bar was a short distance away from our house we could hear High Life coming from their speakers). I loved all the music - but there were other talents. In our area Country Cloth was still being made. This labor intensive cotton textile, grown with the rice, harvested also with the rice harvest, and then cotton thread was made by the women, who dyed the thread various colors (blue, brown, and white or natural), before the weavers (always men in those days) would line their tripod looms and make the cotton cloth. Country Cloth was very valuable, but time and 'progress' was making it a rare commodity.   I found the Country Cloth unique.   In our area there were carvers who made everything from wooden carved fertility figures to helmet masks used by the iconic spirits of the secret women's society. The carvings were  incredibly artistic, abstract, and beautiful. There were also women in our area who made garrah cloth, wonderfully dyed tie-dyed material, or wax prints. These were sized as Lappas - roughly 3 feet by 6 feet in size. Talented tailors would them make this material into beautiful dresses and shirts. These were very popular with the Peace Corps Volunteers. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Forests and Villages

Jay Clark - PCV - at Joro, Dama Chiefdom - Eastern Province - fixing furniture
photo © by Chad Finer

Jay Clark teaching at Muslim secondary School in Joro
photo © by Chad Finer

Jay Clark swimming AT Joro Falls - 1968
photo © by Chad Finer

me at Joro Falls - late 1968
photo by Susan Finer

In the Kenema area there was a vast forest of exotic and tropical hardwoods. I remember there being the headquarters of the Sierra Leone Forest Industries in Kenema Town where much of the wood was processed. This sat up toward the Kambuii Hills several miles to our north. At Forest Industries you could buy wood products such as bowls – we did purchase a number of these bowls to bring home and give as presents to our family and friends.  The most impressive part of this industry was the huge trucks that daily would pass by our house from the south (Dama). These long trucks would haul the most gigantic logs that I had ever seen – each intact and on a very long flat bed. Many of these logs were more that 80 feet in length and some as wide as 10 to 12 feet in diameter. Usually the trucks that passed by us had one or at most 2 logs. Daily, 10 or 12 trucks would pass by our house on the way to forest industry headquarters t o off load the wood and then head back out. At headquarters the wood would be processed for furniture, lumber, and other goods. It was clear, from all this activity by our house, that the tropical forest of Sierra Leone was rapidly being devoured. Except for the Kambuii Hills that ran diagonally to the north and east of Kenema – there was very little in the way of nearby and valuable forest. Most of this harvesting came from forests well to our south and east. Land in our area had been heavily farmed by the slash and burn method. In our area there were some large cottonwood trees but most of the land, depleted by the farming process, had scrub trees of little value.  Near Joro, some 25 miles from where we lived (and in Dama Chiefdom to our south) there was some untouched forestland. This spread to the east from Joro up to where there was a beautiful waterfall and swimming area that we visited several times. In Joro, two volunteers, Jay Clark and Charley Goudiss  lived and taught at the Muslim School there. A pleasant town – Joro had a large and busy Saturday market. Situated on the main road to Kenema Joro was a rural town. The falls up in the hills to the east were safe for swimming and we thus paid at least two visits to this area. A trip to Joro was easy for us – getting on a lorry in Kenema was then a straight shot of about an hour (or less) to Joro. Jay and Charley lived right on the main road – thus we could leave school on a Friday and be there easily by supper. The village had a nice rural feeling to it.  A women next door to them cooked for them – and she made tasty ‘African chop,’ that we would have. Their tin-roofed mud house with concrete floor was dusty, but typical of the houses throughout the area. A central room with large veranda through the front door, and small veranda in back, was lined by several rooms off the central area.  Covered by a tin roof Jay and Charley had some somewhat uncomfortable furniture to sit in. On each side of their house were nearby neighbors. I remember that we enjoyed visiting such villages.