When travelling around Kabala city in Koinadugu district of Sierra Leone, there are times it feels like a corner of paradise on earth. The little guest house is surrounded by verdant mountains, capped by cotton-wool clouds above wooded slopes. There’s a slight nip in the air, which you don’t get back in the capital. Shortly after sunrise, there’s the smell of burning charcoal as the women start their day cooking. Others are hard at work pulling water out of the well, while the men sit around to smoke and talk politics.
Today the plan is to visit the Yagala communities about an hour from Kabala. A flat tyre has given me time to write about my trip in the Northern Region.
Driving past these communities, often far from a paved road, people are busy with their daily lives. It’s hard not to be constantly taking pictures, creating memories of beautiful Mama Salone (Sierra Leone). But one still sees the remnants of Ebola – posters, billboards, the skeletons of emergency care centres. It’s an issue that comes up repeatedly in community dialogues on how Ebola was pushed back by the communities themselves. I remember coming to the field when the Ebola epidemic was at its peak — the scenario of chaos, convoys of white vehicles, ambulances with blaring sirens, orange barriers around those in quarantine, and silent streets. Anywhere you turned was a flood of white cars, people from different agencies with their agency T-shirts, caps and jackets, on the ground supporting communities and families. It was busy! All you could hear on the radio were blaring Ebola jingles while public safety messages played on TV.
Now, the same communities, streets and people, seem calm and relaxed. I guess that is the way of life: people adapt, survive and move on. As they say here, “Ebola don don!” (Ebola is finished).
My mission was to monitor the Village Development Committees under the Girls’ Access to Education project, funded with UK aid from the British people through UNICEF. I sit with community members huddled together in a small courtyard. I am not a new face in the community. They know me, not by name, but as the “UNICEF lady.” A warm welcome awaits me like they know what I am here for. They jump straight into what impacts education for girls – from teenage pregnancies to school fees to caring for siblings, to the long distances to schools and broken bridges that make the journey even harder. What impresses me most is the knowledge within these communities: they are hard to reach, barely have food to eat but all — and I mean all — want their children, especially girls, to be educated. As one woman leader tells me, “Communities are engaging and are more aware – we feel empowered by being a part of Village Development Committees. These platforms have helped us give a voice.”
Visiting rural areas of Sierra Leone never ceases to bring fresh surprises. There’s a natural beauty here that simply cannot be defined. In the last five days, I have travelled through Kambia, Port Loko, Bombali and Koinadugu districts. Due to the rainy season, farming communities are busy sowing paddy in the rice fields. With schools closed for the summer break, children join in the farming, and help their parents cook and clean. On our drive to Bombali and Koinadugu, the highway is smooth apart from the occasional hill and mountain with regular groups of homes on view alongside the road. Life here is far from electricity, television and the Internet. Looking out the car window, I see communities huddled around a small fire, cooking, talking and singing. Women are wrapped in a laapa (two yards of cloth just enough to cover them). Possessions are few, but there are smiles here.
As my white UNICEF vehicle rumbles down the highway, children, women and sometimes men wave, calling out “Aputo, aputo!” (a white person). You stop at a checkpoint and a large crowd throngs at your side window to sell groundnut, cucumber and cassava root. This time around, as I’ve travelled without a stock of crisps and cashews from Freetown, I enjoy roasted corn, warm groundnut and cassava root from the roadside. Nothing beats the freshness of these roadside snacks. Mama Salone at its best.
Aarunima Bhatnagar worked as a Communications for Development Specialist for UNICEF Sierra Leone during the Ebola response and recovery.