Thursday, 8 February 2007

What's in a name?

There’s an exception to every rule however (see end of my last post). Pendembu town, Wednesday, proved that exception. Here I met a school teacher, Augustine, who gave me a decent interview about the family planning education he was now teaching, thanks to our training. He gave me all I needed in an interview, crudely, a bit of background to his life, his career, what the problems for his students were in terms of teenage pregnancy and the like, and finally, how marvellous our training had been. He voluntarily talked about the gender balance component of the training, and then out of nowhere said ‘I would teach that to my children, but I wouldn’t want my wife to hear it. Teach a wife that and one day it will be the wife beating the husband, not the other way around’. I looked at my colleague Margaret from the health programme. She was stunned too. She tackled him. I kept the ipod running, this was a lively debate. We got nowhere though, we were just women. I lamented afterwards to Margaret that it would probably take a man he respected to change his attitude. You can’t win ‘em all, and with some judicial editing, the interview will still say everything I need it to. And Margaret will be back to teach the module again.

On the drive that morning, Gassimu and I walloped along the country roads, him dodging the ruts and holes with the ease of a man who has driven this road so frequently he could do it blindfold – we call the three hours from Kailahun to Kenema the Gazza Strip (sic) because he can drive it in two. I bounced along firing questions at him about politics. Gazza wore all my idiot questions good-naturedly. ‘But why isn’t the APC popular here? Why only in the north?’ ‘It just not.’ But when I asked why the SLPP (the government) was so popular I got a surprising answer. ‘Well, a tink, its partly de name, yu no, de People’s Party. Its of de people yu no? And a tink its also partly de symbol: de palm tree. Every man e get someting from de palm.’ Is that it? People voted the government in because they chose a good logo? It would be like half of Britain voting labour because the rose was a really important cash crop which also produced a drinkable drop of moonshine.

And the irony. The SLPP made people feel they were grass-roots, and then they embezzled as much as they could lay their hands on. Made themselves African Big Men. Allegedly. The evidence is everywhere. A couple of years ago the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education was the victim of a 419 scam. He lost millions. But it’s ok, he didn’t use his own money. He used the salaries of the entire teaching staff for that year. And did I mention that lack of education was a trigger for the war? He went to prison. Lost his job too; the two don’t always go together.

Gazza didn’t realise how annoyed I was with the people of Sierra Leone for not scrutinising their government better. And how annoyed I was with the government for not providing quality education which might help them do it. How annoyed also with all political parties for campaigning on personalities not policies.

We were pulling into the outskirts of Pendembu when we had to stop. In front of us around four hundred women were dancing in unison, marching towards us in a hip swinging shuffle. ‘We better stop’ said Gazza, and looked a touch worried. If this was a secret society on the move we needed to keep a low profile, they could get a bit shirty. This is the time of year when young girls and boys are initiated into the secret societies. One society for each sex. They used to be about teaching adolescents how to behave as adults, how to be parents. Now they’re a vehicle for traditional leaders (Zoes) to make money. For the girls, part of the initiation is circumcision; or the sanitised acronym FGM (female genital mutilation).

As I had my breakfast that morning I had listened to a Woman’s Hour podcast of a Somali-born Dutch politician talking about her own circumcision. Sitting in the landrover, locking the doors in time with Gazza, I thought of this and winced as women moved past us, around the vehicle, young girls smiling among them. I try to understand everything I see and hear in this country, try not to judge that which I do not have to live with. But this I cannot tolerate, this disgusts me. It is barbaric.

When we finally arrived with Margaret, some 1000 women had passed us. ‘Were you scared Gazza?’ she teased. He mumbled something and clearly yes, he was terrified, but so was I a bit. Though I think we both knew that as white woman I was his ticket to safety. Last year one of our national staff was pulled off a motorbike when he drove into a village conducting the male initiation. They wanted to forcibly initiate him. Margaret corrected us both however. We were wrong, it wasn’t secret society, it was a march to placate the spirits. Three women in two days had died in childbirth. The women of the entire area had come together to plea for this to be the end of the dying.

Our first interviewee of the day was Teresa, a sweet and tender-looking 17 year old school-girl who has been teaching her peers about sexual health. We’ve been training groups of children to do this, and off they go with temerity, telling friends about STIs, masturbation, pregnancy. You name it, they talk about it, loudly. In her crisp, white burka, with blue fringing, Teresa looked like a nun. Her English was flawless, and it turned out she spoke French too – the only good thing to come of being evacuated to Guinea during the war. Teresa told me how joining our Children’s Club had given her confidence that she’d not had before. How now it was easy to stand up in front of 200 school kids and talk about periods. You had to hand it to her, this quiet young woman was pretty plucky. A perfect interview ended with an offer to visit her home, all the better for the photos. She went ahead while I interviewed Augustine. I was glad to get away to Teresa’s house. When we arrived she wasn’t in her uniform any more, and was instead wearing what looked like a swimsuit with a skirt wrapped around her waist. Suddenly this schoolgirl was an incredibly sensuous woman, in the swing of her hips and the low cut of her swimsuit. Not good for the photos. And also now obvious why teaching girls how to make sexual choices is so important. She showed me the washing she was doing, her school uniform. My heart sank. But then my camera’s battery ran out, so we decided to come back another day. I wished I’d got one of her at the school. But then the school was empty that day, all the women and girls had gone on the march. The boys just went home.

On the way out of Pendembu we saw the women slowly returning. ‘And the children have missed a whole day of school for this.’ Margaret said contemptuously. ‘And tonight another woman will probably die anyway’. Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Kailahun District has barely any doctors and not many more nurses. Instead Maternal Child Health Aides do both jobs with meagre training. People don’t have the money to pay MCH Aides anyway, so they go to traditional midwives who have little idea of what to do when a woman experiences complications during birth.

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