Hello, part 2 of the last week’s updates. This post will cover Wednesday, I also posted Sunday-Tuesday just before this one—so maybe check that out first! :-)
This update is sponsored by Beth Stevens. Let me tell you just a bit about this remarkable human being. She is a professor at Pierce College, and has had a stronger impact upon my life than perhaps anyone outside of family and close friends. I literally could not overestimate what her presence and teaching meant in my life (and continues to mean). With that in mind, I thought today’s update would be especially appropriate to post in her name, because it concerns women being empowered by education.
What a day this became. I’m actually only going to share about the first half, because the second half contained that on-going situation I mentioned in my previous post.
Anyway. The day began with a drive to the WoH offices (the vehicle was necessary for the later trip, so no exciting okadah updates here). There, we picked up Ruth and Hawa (another member of WOHSL leadership staff), and Florence (a girl who, for safety, comes to the office in the morning and stays all day while her mother is away working. She also helps out with various tasks and jobs, and I’m convinced that one of babies [Richie] of the fair trade ladies just uses her as his personal “carry-me-around-or-I’ll-scream” person).
We (by, we, I should say that I actually mean Sidi) loaded up the car with teaching materials and food and water packets (here in SL, if you need water on the go, many people buy 500ml plastic bags filled with water; you bite one corner and drink it up)! We were off to the village of Magburaka for a Transformation Training day. The main center for WOHSL operations is in Makeni, but they also conduct “outreach” work in other locations. Transformation Training is a 15 week (all day, every Wednesday) program that disabled women attend and learn together about a variety of subjects. The goal is to first and primarily restore a strong foundation for each woman in understanding identity and personal value (for many, being a disabled woman in Sierra Leone can really destroy one’s understanding of self), and on this foundation knowledge and skills can be built and gained.
The training is conducted by Ruth and Hawa, so after introducing myself and meeting the eleven women in the program, I retreated to the back of the room to sit on an extremely structurally-suspect bench with Kim (it was her last day with us, before she left for Ghana *crying face*) and listen and observe and take a few unobtrusive photos of the happenings (I take my job as intern very seriously). I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting, but observing the training really impacted me.
Before the lessons began, the women were sharing their favorite learning experiences so far (they have been meeting in Magburaka for a few weeks now). It was extraordinary to just sit and listen to these varied and very personal responses.
Iye was the first to speak up. She loves that she can now write her own name and signature for the first time. There is power in knowing and communicating the letters that make up a name: the jumble of letters that emphatically state individual autonomy.
Later in the afternoon, after the training was finished, I asked Iye if I could take a photo of her holding her notebook. This led to every woman proudly showing their work (which is what you will see in a couple of more photos).
Mariatu explained that the best thing she has learned so far has been about ORS (oral rehydration solution). Rehydration is extremely important, really at all times, but especially when one is sick. The women learned about when ORS is important, why it’s important, and also—most usefully—how to create ORS. It is a mixture of salt, sugar, and water (differing levels for differing amounts). For Mariatu, this information was infinitely valuable. It gives her the power of knowledge. Knowledge that gives her choices. When she or her family is vomiting, she knows that staying hydrated is necessary and also how she can accomplish that. Information and action.
Adamsay is very soft-spoken and shy. She waited until all the other women were finished talking. In fact, the lesson was about to start, before she interjected and asked to share about what she loves about Transformation Training. Very softly, she explained that when she was a child in school, teachers did not give her the attention that she needed—even as she was struggling to understand. On top of that, her fellow classmates would make fun of her and belittle her because of her disability. However, at Transformation Training, Ruth and Hawa give her real, tangible attention, and she feels encouraged and supported by the women she is learning alongside. Adamsay is free to learn, because she has teachers who listen as well as they explain. Perhaps even more importantly, she has a community of ten other women who are learning alongside her.
I really appreciated being able to observe the training from the back of the space. Ruth and Hawa alternated teaching the different segments of the training, having women volunteer to “re-teach” along the way and while they asked and answered questions.
A couple of hours into the training, it was SNACK TIME. Kim was more excited about this than probably anyone else (I say this with nothing but love and respect). There was a close-call when she thought it was snack time, but it wasn’t yet, that left her with REAL disappointment. But, thankfully for Kim/everyone, snack time did indeed arrive at last. It was preceded by handwashing.
If there is possibly any positive thing that arose out of the Ebola epidemic, I suppose it might be the necessary focus on sanitation and hygiene that it brought. Compulsory handwashing stations are now very commonplace in certain public settings (churches and schools, for instance) in which I never saw them before.
Anyway, Ruth, brought her own mobile handwashing station to each woman. It consisted of an empty bowl and a small pitcher of water (that was refilled as necessary) and a bar of soap. It may seem a small thing, but I like the commitment shown to both improving understanding through practice and the cheerful humility of Ruth—the head of WOHSL—in going to each woman individually where they are.
THEN IT WAS SNACKTIME. Whoooo! Everyone (including Kim and I) was given a packet of biscuits that were of comparable taste to animal crackers, so I was quite pleased personally. At around this point, three children (who had mothers in the program) showed up and stared for a while. And, since I know the easiest way to bribe a child into loving you is to a) play intricate high-five games with them (this has never not worked for me anywhere in the world) and b) give them delicious biscuits, that is what I did. By the end of the day, I had three new members of my crew under the age of 7!
After snacktime, they spent an hour or so discussing different disabilities, learning about causes and considering both preventions (vaccines; get that high fever down) and possible corrections. However, importantly, the focus is never on the disability as something “wrong” with the woman. It is more about allowing each woman to gain and carry as much knowledge and information as possible. Certainly, the knowledge of vaccination can help to prevent their child from getting polio, but it also allows them to understand their own individual disabilities: they were not cursed, there is not something evil in them, etc. This discussion was also supplemented by a story from Hawa, and their special workbooks that include all the information they're learning in both words and images.
And, then, it was LUNCHTIME.
The entire morning, while the teaching was going on, some women from the Magburaka were cooking food (brought along by WOH) as assisted by Florence.
Rice, cassava, and fish---AND A WHOA! AMOUNT OF PEPPERS. You all know I am pathetic when it comes to spice (typical response from me at restaurants in the US: “Is there a way I can get no stars? Okay, thanks.”). But, it really was delicious. I just had to drink a lot of water. Also, this is basically the same meal that I learned to make with Memunatu, so yeah. Expert here.
After lunch, I know that the first item on the teaching agenda was a deeper discussion into disabilities NOT being a curse, because I wrote that down in my notebook (how you’re getting a detailed account of last Wednesday), but after that, I sorta stopped paying as close attention. I know, I know! Joker.
But, I couldn’t help it. My new crew was getting restless, and started to make a bit of a disturbance, so I brought out the secret weapon: crayons! Many of you may know that a dream of mine is to create and implement an art-based program for children in West Africa (art from all mediums, because expression is so important; also art = how humans learn empathy). Therefore, short of carrying around filmmaking equipment everywhere (teaching youth to create their own films is like my ultimate dream), I always make sure to bring some art supplies with me.
Right then and there, in the back of the space, I implemented my stealth art program. Its presence here was a crayons and a coloring book, but next time, I’ll be even better prepared.
I ADORED getting to see each of the kids individual personalities come through in how they were collectively coloring a page. The 6-years-oldish girl (I'm saying age, because I did not write their names down right away and am a failure) was very hesitant and kept tapping my leg to see if the color she chose or the place she was coloring was “alright.” Florence, who had joined in, was intently coloring red lines around EVERYTHING. She was also trying to direct the other children with what colors they could use and where. The 3-years-oldish boy was a mischievous sort of troublemaker and kept getting swatted away by the other children, until I gave him a piece of notebook paper, and he proceeded to color circles over and over: tapping my leg each time, so I could show my enthusiastic approval. The 6-years-oldish boy took to it immediately and chose interesting colors and intricately colored in and outside of the lines the book set. He was very sad when his mother had to leave early and he had to follow. About ten minutes later, he came back on his own and just sort of slid back into the circle. All four of them expressed concerns when they thought someone else was doing something incorrectly or perhaps that they were doing something incorrectly. Taking a cue from my mother (the person who taught me the value of art) who always said, “There are no mistakes in art; you simply make something different than what you had first planned,” I showed my support for every crayon decision they made (except where it infringed on someone else’s decisions: like Florence trying to control the color scheme ha). It was a purely delightful time, and I promised them that I would bring the crayons (what’s left of them; they were unfamiliar with crayons, and so every single top was broken by the end of the afternoon) back next week (tomorrow at time of writing).
It may seem a ridiculous thing, but I could see the distinct personalities present and expressed, even in the relatively controlled environment of a coloring book (thankfully, they did not know that you’re supposed to stay inside the lines). Outlets for expression are exceedingly valuable. Each culture (and individuals within a culture) art differently. That’s why it’s important.
Have you ever noticed that young children use different shapes to express pictures? My almost-3-years-old nephew is currently using multiple circles to represent complex ideas. I got to talk to my sister on the phone last night and she said that he explained a recent circle drawing as being her changing his diaper, while he’s angry, because he doesn’t like his diaper changed. As much as that made me laugh, it’s also so interesting that he is imparting such fully formed concepts in a fashion that is wholly individual. This is why representative art is important. I could create an art piece that explained my nephew’s concept, but it would look completely different than his. The idea is not all that matters. The medium and form of transmitting the idea is also important. I could share other people’s stories, and there is value in that. But, how much more value exists in allowing people to choose how they share their own stories in their particular and individual form and concept?
Anyway. As this post has hurtled past 2,000 words, I really should wrap up.
Having thought a lot about it, I don’t think there is any way that I feel I could publically share what happened after we had left Magburaka without feeling extremely exploitative. I do not want to contribute to a narrative of Africa that is incomplete at best and grossly skewed at worst.
On that note, I will instead end this post with the promised Sidi Pose™. If you didn’t read the last post (well, you should, obviously haha), then you wouldn’t know that Sidi the WOH driver likes nothing more than posing with set-pieces for intricate impromptu photoshoots. Here we are at a bridge. You know how I said that I request and receive consent for every photo I take? Not with Sidi. Nope. I asked no consent. Instead, I was COMMANDED to snap a photo of him. Hahaha
Thank you, everyone! I promise I will be update again tomorrow!