In our throw away societies we never re-use, we just re-buy. I have just sat with my local stall holder who sells food and drinks and watched her bag up sugar in small plastic bags cutting off the excess on top and placing them in a small box. When I asked her why, she showed me the small butter pats she sold in small bags tied on both ends. The aluminum drink cans are saved here to make coal cookers seen everywhere. (I have introduced a simple technology called a rocket stove made from 3 tin cans, but those cans here are hard to find, but it would reduce the need to burn coal). I met a few local blacksmiths who collect scrap metal and in their small huts under a fire with cleverly made bellows from bicycle wheels and cranks, they smelt the metal and forge machetes, knives and other tools. The local alcoholic drink of choice here is palm wine (poyo) which is made by the tapping of the palm trees. As there are a few simple establishments selling the local treat, it is nice to see the plastic water bottles being re-used for the cloudy liquid that requires a bit of getting used to. I see small boys and girls walking along in the mornings with large bundles of wrapped up palm fronds on their heads, when I asked what they were used for I found out they were for replacing the worn out areas of the thatched roofs I see all around me.
Food wise for all the imported packaged cakes and cookies available in some stalls there are locals making peanut brittle, sesame crisps, ginger biscuits, peanut butter, honey, fried plantains, banana chips, fresh seasonal fruits widely available anywhere, sweet and savory snacks of many shapes and sizes, bread baked in wood-fired bread ovens, and the street food available has many variations of simple themes. People are starting to grow cashews, and peanuts are grown everywhere. Small farms are they key to Sierra Leone’s and Africa’s survival, this continent can feed itself and even export food, but that needs to be carefully nurtured. Once any country (or continent) gives away its ability to feed itself, it gives it all away. Imported eggs, chicken and rice are a large percentage of what is now being consumed, but before the war that was not the case. I’ve spoken with locals trying to reverse the trend of imported staple foods, but the battle is tough and once entrenched in dependency, it’s a hard hole to dig out of.
On the bicycle side of things I have seen repairs which are unimaginable back home. At a program the other day the freewheel (cogs on the back wheel) was turning freely both ways. My head mechanic took it apart, made a small spring out of a strand of brake cable by wrapping it around a small twig, and gently placed it under the pawl to let the ratchet mechanism work once again. When a puncture happens in the bush and you are caught out with no patch kits I have come across tubes that are tied-off with tiny pieces of string or tough roadside grass holding the air perfectly. Tufts of grass laid out along the highway alerts you to a broken down vehicle ahead, in a land where things are scarce, or expensive you get creative. Where, like in so much of the developing world a stick and a tire or rim entertain kids for hours, once I left an unneeded circular chain guard in the room we did a workshop in on the floor, as I got the participants together for a group photo a young kid in his mud-stained t-shirt came by with his stick rolling along the discarded bike part, he gave me a nod and a smile as he ran past wheeling his newest plaything. In places where so many things are throw away items, we have given up on our own ingenuity to make things and enjoy the simple things in life.
Many teachers say they also are the students, well I came here to lend a hand to a country reeling from the after-effects of a brutal war, and suffering, on a financial scale, terrible poverty. It is true that Sierra Leone is not a grand picture of health in many ways. Yes my time here has helped change a few lives, and taken away some of the burdens that come along with that poverty and lack of infrastructure, but on the other side what I will take away from this country and my time spent in the tiny villages mingling with the people, is the untapped wealth that doesn’t get mentioned in the news. Life goes on here, and people are happy. Change is needed but not on a scale that big business would like us to believe. Sierra Leone can actually have a say in its new direction as a country living in new-found peace. The elections went smoothly and the media didn’t get the riots it may have been waiting for. A peaceful re-election isn’t so sensational. Malaria and cholera outbreaks are much more newsworthy than ‘Boy rides bicycle to school and helps on the small family farm’, or ‘Sierra Leone nearly creates zero waste because of re-use’, but these are the realities behind the sensationalism. The locals here are living the re-use, re-cycle anthem that green activists strive to get the populations to attempt in the west. Litter is a problem, but it is plastic from water bags that is the most visible, in a society that doesn’t buy many packaged goods, and large electronic items aren’t all-pervasive, the rubbish produced or not is a direct affect. The world can learn quite a lot from looking with different eyes to our fiscally poorer brothers and sisters. I know me for one have learned as well as taught, and hopefully a balance in African growth can be found before it is too late and Sierra Leone becomes another bastion of unchecked economic growth and replaces one set of problems with others that can have much further-reaching detrimental effects on so many other levels, locally and world-wide.