Monday, April 02, 2007

Taaaaay Tambaka -- Stories and Photos

I’m heading off on a family trip to Malawi later today. People back home often think of Africa as a single neighborhood -- “Oh, you live in Sierra Leone?” they say, “My neighbor’s son’s girlfriend is spending the summer in Namibia. You should go visit.” In fact, the continent is massive, the world’s second-largest: 11.6 million square miles, spanning desert, jungle, savannah, mountains, and everything in between. (The U.S., in contrast, is 3.7 million square miles, and all of Europe is less than 4 million.) And getting around is never easy. Flights between African countries are generally infrequent, unsafe, and expensive. Often it’s easier and cheaper to fly via Europe. Trains are generally non-existent, except in southern Africa where colonial relics still ply old trade routes, and roads – well, let’s not get into the roads. But here I am, off to Malawi – 3,493 miles from Sierra Leone – where my baby brother is working as a Peace Corps volunteer. We thought we were smart, moving to Africa together, but his placement is probably as far away from me as it could be. Oh well -- $1600 and 16 hours of flying (via Accra and Nairobi) will get me there, eventually. **********************************************************************************

Last week I was at the border of another (much closer) country: Sierra Leone’s northern neighbor, Guinea. Nestled in a crescent-shape from the Atlantic on one side to Cote d’Ivoire on the other, and hugging Sierra Leone and part of Liberia in between, Guinea is as desperately poor as its neighbors and was recently named the most corrupt country in Africa. Strikes and civil unrest crippled the country in January and February, though things are now reportedly calm. (

I was with three of my researchers, exploring a very poor and remote part of northern Sierra Leone: Tambaka chiefdom, Bombali district. To get there you drive for 3 hours from Freetown to Makeni on a good road, then another 3 hours on a bad road to Kamokwei, then another hour on a worse road to the Kabbah ferry. The ferry itself is a glorified raft pulled by hand (with the help of steel cables) across the broad and deep river that marks the border of Tambaka chiefdom. (The picture above is actually another ferry, at Tamparay, which we were forced to take in one direction because a van had gotten stuck on the Kabbah ferry.)

Once over the river, the roads get even worse – narrow dirt tracks, often climbing steeply over bare boulders and across treacherous bridges. (The bridge above, located just before the Tamparay ferry in Sella Limba chiefdom, was actually one of the bigger and better-maintained bridges on the route.)

The chiefdom feels more wild than other parts of Sierra Leone, with sparse population and dramatic vegetation (such as enormous green ferns right out of Jurassic Park.) You drive for miles and miles between villages, and there is often little sign of human habitation. On one end of the chiefdom lie the Otamba-Kilimi national parks, probably the only place in Sierra Leone to see animals like elephants and hippos. We stopped by the park one Sunday morning and hoped to catch a boat (canoe) down to the hippo pools, but the park was short on paddlers and we were short on time. The views from the launching pad (see photo) were worth the stop, however.

Tambaka chiefdom is deeply neglected and breathtakingly poor. In the whole chiefdom – one of the largest in the country in terms of geographic area – there is not a single junior or senior secondary school, meaning children wishing to continue past primary school must travel dozens of miles (and cross a ferry), on terrible roads and with essentially no public transport, to attend school in bordering chiefdoms. Needless to say, very few do so. (See the picture above of a primary school in Taneneh village, with two elders in front of a blackboard with an English lesson. This is a community school, in which the teacher is paid not by the government but through contributions from the poor villagers themselves.)

Health facilities are similarly lacking. In Sanya, the section headquarter town nearest the Guinean border, elders told us they lost 2-3 pregnant women per month because there was no transport to bring them to the nearest facility in Kamokwei. Recently, 5 women died at once because the local dispenser – the only medical professional in town – had gone to Makeni or Freetown to collect medicines.

In such a setting, many people in Tambaka say they’ve been forgotten by Sierra Leone, and in many ways they are more connected to Guinea than to their own country. (At a weekly trade fair in Sanya, for instance, the traders selling fabric, ground peanuts, and flip-flops quoted prices in Guinean francs, though they accepted either currency.)

Back in Freetown, friends ask where I was last week and I tell them I went upcountry. Looking for props, I add that I went “Taaaaay Tambaka,” which means (with emphasis) “Aaaall the way to Tambaka.” But even Sierra Leoneans look at me with blank faces. Maybe Tambaka really is forgotten.

The last photo is of a taxi from Guinea as it passes through the Tambaka chiefdom headquarter town, Fintonia. I can't imagine how these Peugeots navigate the roads we struggled to pass with a sturdy 4x4, but I'm told they manage -- though with many stops along the way for passengers to disembark and even help push.