Naked children covered with ashes from head to toe barricaded the Green Scenery (an Environmental NGO) Jeep as it came to a stop in the middle of Gangama village in the Nogoba Bullom Chiefdom, Bonthe District.
The Children were dancing and shouting at the top of their voices with joyful abandon, and then older women and men appeared all in grins and disbelief.
Like the blind men and the elephant, they curiously surveyed the jeep, some kicked the tires to feel the rubber, others ran their hands all over the vehicle to get a feel of it and yet still others thumped the vehicles with their heads – yes unbelievably. The children became more confident that the jeep could be touched, so they wasted no time and fingered the car everywhere hands and fingers could go.
Who could believe that in the twenty first century, in the age of computers and shuttles to the moon, 90% of those villagers in Gangama were seeing a vehicle for the first time in their lives!
This was not to be the only shocker, and after spending 5 days in the “middle of nowhere” (Ghangama village) we came to realize that the grim statistics, the unenviable position Sierra Leone has been occupying in international reports including the UN Human Development Index which had been gluing Sierra Leone to the rock bottom position began to make sense to us.
The journey to Ghanghama
We went to Ghanghama village to determine whether some thick bush was indeed a forest to be preserved. We were taken by the Director of Green Scenery, Joe Rahall who discovered that there were some special trees which were being raided by unknown people who pay as little as fifteen thousand Leones (Le15 000) to locals in the village to cut it down.
A forest lover and a non-deforestation campaigner he moved swiftly took us along with some experts to look at the bush and see whether it is in fact a forest worthy of protection.
The journey for Gongokama forest in Ghangama began…
The village is about 275 miles from Freetown and 130 miles from Bo where we stopped briefly to refuel the vehicle.
As we inched away from Bo little did we know that we were moving back in time.
We had left the tarmac for about 5 hours and we drove speedily and continuously raising red dust that flew up to the sky as if attempting to change its colour and because the sky was too far from it, it came down with a vengeance and sat on the grass and trees that lined each side of the road and proudly changed the green lush to brownish red.
We pushed on hitting 100 miles per hour until we came to an intersection where two men from Ghanghama had been waiting for us for over four hours so they will show us the road leading to their village.
We have entered Bonthe District; it was sandy because the main Bonthe town is an Island.
The Ghangama people had rallied three other villages to help them construct a road so we can enter the village.
They say they worked on the road for over four months using only one pickaxe and a shovel which were the only tools available to them.
The road they made stretches for about 6 miles.
It was such a huge job to do as they had to fell trees, clean up grass, fill up valleys and flatten mounds to construct the road. Nobody paid them a dime, the only motivation was that a vehicle will come to their village for the first time in history for all to see and they will be the pride of their region and then development will come – at least that was what Joe Rahall told them.
Development really needs to pitch its tent in Ghangama.
The town had 23 huts 9 adult males 12 adult females,25 male youths, 24 female youths, 51 boys and 16 girls. No school, no clinic, the nearest clinic is in Baoma Kpenge, 22 miles from the village, no Church 1 Mosque and no latrines.
Talking about latrines, we woke up in the first morning we spent in the village with tumbling stomachs, thanks to the assorted variety of food we got on the road.
We came out and started asking for the toilet, after asking 6-8 people where the toilet is and receiving grins and gestures we could not understand from them then we realize that 96 percent of the villagers could not speak krio, they only speak Mende! Then two of the experts we traveled with decided to speak their mother tongue at least to get respite. They told us we have to move a little distance away from the village into the bush.
I laughed all the way to the bush and we were quick to disappear behind trees where we did our thing – in the traditional way of course.
I was amused because few days before I went to Ghangama I was at the plushy hall at the Bank Complex in Freetown where UNICEF had flown in Dr Kamal Karr and he was telling a group of NGOs about the successful methods to get communities to stop open defecation and actually build latrines for themselves through Community Led Total Sanitation” (CLTS).
But then a woman from Plan International had asked who among the hall remembered the last time he or she openly defecated, we all gave her some embarrassed smiles expressing the impossibility of such a suggestion. As I did my thing 275 miles away from the Bank Complex behind some bush in Ghangama I imagined how the participants in that workshop would have reacted if they had any inclination that I have used the bush.
The whole concept is about how to prevent the water source of rural communities because the feaces of the same villagers are washed back into the stream or well where they take water to drink.
That is the same situation in Ghanghama, the spot they told us we could use was not far from a little stream, one of the main source of their water. One could imagine during the rains what would be the health situation.
I put that question to the village headman and he told me there is always a huge outbreak of Cholera in the village and the surrounding villages, no doubt they are eating each others excreta. The CLTS project has to fly with winged chariots and settle for sometime in Nogoba Bullom Chiefdom.
The most interesting situation is that the very spot apportioned for squatting was the very few spot in the village where one can get signals from Celtel’s network, how ironical. So the three or four people with mobile phones could embrace civilization through the use of their phones and dabble in the Stone Age, like living in two worlds at the same time.
Most of the children move around naked, it was like normal. The parents manage to put some clothes on the girls, which barely covers their private parts and as the children grow older and begin to discover themselves, they then find pieces of cloths to cover their bodies.
None of the 67 children and the 49 youths in the village let alone their parents had darkened the walls of a school, – there is no formal education, the nearest school is at least 15 miles away from their village and nobody cares to walk that distance to be educated.
The only form of education is koranic recitations, the children play or work in farms all day and at night they light a fire on top of a hill of ashes left after similar fires after koranic lessons have subsided. The children want the hill of ashes to mount; they took pride in the height of the mound because they will get commendation from the ‘Karamoko’ (Koranic teacher) who will translate the height of the mound to mean that his students have stayed up longer into the nights to study.
Even with this informal education the girls are neglected no girl joins the school which only caters for boys – so much for gender parity.
Some of the boys as little as seven had come from surrounding villages sent by their parents to be taught the Koran. They are under the control of the Karamoko who hardly have time for them except to beat them to recite the Koran or work in their farms.
“These children are the little devils” said Patrick the only man who went to school and have settled in the village. He said that these kids steal everything in their farms. He said that he tried to set up a formal school in the village but the parents could not pay the Le500 he asked them to pay for the year. “I have to eat and if they cannot pay me then why waste my time” said Patrick.
Nobody had seen a regular Police officer (Acha’s boys) in the village except the few who had gone into Bonthe city or Bo. However, crime is being controlled by the chiefs and sanctions imposed to regulate them.
Before we left the village, the stream where they fished was out of bounds so it will replenish and everybody obeyed.
The whole Nongoba Bullom chiefdom had 222 villages including Ghangama and there is no marked difference between each of them. There are no Secondary schools and only 5 primary schools and three clinics in the whole of the chiefdom. At least the road to Ghangama village is now accessible, so they will definitely welcome some developmental programmes. By Mohamed Fofannah