Travel Notes: Sierra Leone as recounted by Serena Caimano. Part 2

After a flight that lasted more than ten hours, Serena Caimano landed in Sierra Leone. Curiosity and the desire to experience that reality first hand made her heart open like a flower. Serena wanted to understand how Elgon and COOPI were actually affecting the lives of those people. Everything she would see and feel went way beyond any expectations she could ever have had. Happy reading!

Day 1

“Massimo, Silvano and I* arrived in Freetown when it was already evening. We were met first by a wall of humidity. Then the deep shadow of the cityscape struck us, where here in this place, electric power is truly a rarity. Leaving the airport, we walked in the dusk towards the embarcadero. I had to hold my little suitcase up so it wouldn’t get dirty. Only the roadway is paved; the rest was dusty, beaten earth.

 Once we passed the stretch of sea that separates the city from the airport Giacomo and Laudana, who live in Freetown, greeted us warmly.

 fter speaking for some time, it became immediately clear that our worlds were very distant. Or, perhaps it was just me. Maybe I was outside of this world. My mediocre familiarity with the African situation, as a reader of the Internazionale Magazine, and its real problems was eminently clear from my very first comments.

Around midnight it was time for bed. It was hard for me to get to sleep because the music from a little bar on the beach, whose volume knew no bounds, being louder than even inside a discotheque, made no sense to me.

Day 2

“Along the road we took to reach the COOPI Headquarters, I saw a bit of Freetown in the light of day. There was a lot of traffic. Along the side of the road, which was grimy and dusty, there moved a noisy human procession: pedestrians who walked around every sort of obstacle, pedlars with baskets of goods on their heads, mothers with their children on their backs, animals romping, loafers watching the traffic go by, teenagers in noisy groups. Everyone was going somewhere, usually wearing flip-flops or slippers or even barefoot. Only those who wore a uniform had real shoes.

 It was hot. But what was truly unbearable was the humidity. From early in the morning, there was the sensation of always being sticky and dirty.

We stopped for a time at the COOPI Headquarters. Giacomo told me that their main source of funding was from the European Community, which often performs Mission Audits, visiting the city and checking the administrative documents in that office. The COOPI Project in Sierra Leone is checked constantly, as much if not more than a private business.

 So that I could better understand the project, Giacomo filled me in on the context.

 Sierra Leone is a country with many natural resources, which more often than not benefit only the few, who are frequently foreigners, rather than the local population. The upshot is that Sierra Leone hardly exports anything. The balance of payments strongly impedes development, further depressing the country’s economy. That is why COOPI’s objective with the cashew project is to activate a productive supply chain that starts with farming the plants donated to the local population and ends with the export of the cashews to foreign businesses.

 In the beginning, COOPI had to work very hard to get people to understand what an opportunity it would be to plant and grow cashew nut trees. The reason for the resistance was that, for the people’s mentality, having to wait 4-5 years, from when the trees are planted to maturity when they began to produce fruit, was utterly incomprehensible. Therefore, COOPI provided much training and instruction, for the benefit of the project on how to rotate the cashews with other crops that provide an immediate yield, to provide economic support to the farmers as they wait for their trees to mature and produce fruit. Another obstacle COOPI had to overcome through education was the belief that cashews produced poisonous fruit (only the outer shell is toxic).

 Cashews have a higher market value than either coffee or cacao. The cooperative assists in the sale of the nuts, which in 2017 was successful for the very first time with the export of two containers full to a Dutch company. This result, which represented just a starting point for Sierra Leone was extraordinarily important, as it is one of very few exports from the country.

 When I met the farmers, their gratitude and their hope was palpable. This got me to thinking about how little it takes for the very rich people and cultures like ours to support important projects for those who not so well off.

We had lunch at the seashore outside the city, on a beach. Even then, what I saw was unreal. Unreal because of its uncontaminated beauty. The beach had the whitest sand I had ever seen, umbrellas and deck chairs and a tropical sea where mostly white people were happily bathing and enjoying themselves. It was a Sunday, so most of the Freetown expat community go there to get away. I was speechless. I thought, how can inferno and paradise be so close to one another? I also realised that it is not the places that determines where you stand, but people’s behaviour.

 Later that evening we came upon a game of Futsal. Except for the goalies, all the players on both teams had only one leg and were moving about and playing well on their crutches. It is within the rules to either kick the ball with the one good leg or hit it with a crutch. The players’ ability to always stand and move on two of the three supports they had was surprising. Though still young, they are disabled war veterans. They had been mutilated in battle during the civil conflict that ended in 2002. Clearly, they were children at the time. I had no thoughts about what I was seeing. I could think of nothing. It was much, much larger than me.

Day 3

The objective for that day was to visit the Krissi School funded by COOPI. When we arrived at the school, my heart nearly stopped. About eighty children of different ages were sitting on the ground in the dust, with their backs to us, under the shade in a space in front of the classrooms. They were listening to something their teacher was telling them, in an attempt to entertain them while waiting for us to arrive, since we were terribly late. Each had their own uniform smock. They were simply delightful. When we arrived, despite the threats of the teacher who was armed with a switch, the children turned toward us alight with enthusiasm and began to fidget and squirm, trying to get up, “opoto, opoto, opoto, opoto”.

 Though the teacher tried to calm them down, the children couldn’t help themselves. Then, all of them turned around as one, with 160 eyes looking at me, and together they began to sing the song they had prepared. All together they sang Silent Night in a chorale. It was just too much for me. I couldn’t hold back the tears. But I didn’t want to let them see that their surprise made me cry! When the song ended, I was still shaken by the wave of emotion that washed over me. Then two of the students who had been chosen to greet me, approached, and recited a speech all in one breath. I hardly understood anything they said. It must have been a statement of welcome and gratitude for the support that COOPI gives their school. I was astounded. Nevertheless, even though by then I was exhausted, I gave them a hard-won smile as I struggled to think of some appropriate questions to ask them. They did not answer me. So, I asked some simpler questions.

 Finally, we all broke ranks and I could start to breathe again. But, those wonderful children didn’t want to leave. Each one wanted to high-five. Each one wanted to look right at us and smile. Everyone wanted to pose for selfies with our smartphones and then they wanted to see how the photos came out. They jumped around, laughed, pushed and shoved like all the children in the world. It was so clear to me there, that we are all equal.

 The families go to great pains to send their children to school, which is very expensive. The challenge for COOPI is making it possible to keep the schools open so these children can continue their studies. The educational system is terribly backward. The teaching method is ridiculously notional. All the teachers do is teach facts like the population of a country or the name of a river. The lucky ones who can come to the West have to work twice as hard to catch up to our students.

 Finally, Giacomo came to pick us up in the car. It was time to head to Makeni, the inland town where we were going to spend the next few days. Along the paved road, all my emotions, the tossing and turning all night and the heat overwhelmed me. I fell into a deep sleep. Once we arrived at our destination, I was barely able to crawl off to my room, where totally wrecked from my emotions and fatigue I collapsed.

*Serena Caimano left Italy together with Massimo Salvadori, West Africa Area Manager at COOPI Headquarters in Milan, and photographer and filmmaker Silvano Pupella. On the ground, she also travelled with Laudana, COOPI Project Administrator in Sierra Leone and Giacomo Mencari, Head of Mission with COOPI in Sierra Leone.