Tribewanted Sierra Leone: 6 months and 4 days have passed since we first camped at John Obey, on the virgin beach. I now find myself heading back to NYC. Talk about a culture shock.
We have built an eco –tourism cross-cultural community from scratch. 5 expats and 30 locals, solar power, permaculture gardens, water harvesting, compost toilets, bucket showers, earth-bag domes and traditional wood homes. 73 tribemembers and counting have visited us from all over the world and participated in these developments, and we were financially sustainable in February for the first time. More than I would have ever imaged. It has been the most intense, humbling learning experience of my life. Living and working on the beach with a community of fishermen for 6 months, I am now conversational in krio, I learned to appreciate the culture, I learned about sustainable community living and pushing canoes in the ocean, I learned to make a bonfire and build an environmental home, pump water from a well and make compost. I witnessed firsthand the impact that Tribewanted made on its workers and the larger John Obey community and I learned about patience, the science of peace. Although I have had them tattooed on my back for 12 years, I finally learned to appreciate the four elements. The beach and the red earth, the vibrant, untouched forest, the ocean and the lagoon, falling asleep to the sound of the waves every night. The scorching sun which gave us power and amazing sunsets, the clean air and strong winds bringing in mighty thunderstorms. I understand why it all used to be holy to our forefathers, and they just might have been right about what to worship.
I left among a wonderful celebration of rice with groundnut sauce, ginger beer, poyo (palm wine), bongos, singing, and some tears. I was glad to provide microloans for 22 of our workers before leaving, and take applications for 30 more local men and women, which we will shortly begin to promote on Tribewanted.com. I was happy to see the finished new toilets for the fishing village and help Abu (our 16 year old apprentice earth dome builder) record his first rap song at a Freetown music studio. (he now goes by “Street Fame” at John Obey). I was happy to see the pride in Yenken’s eye (widowed, mother of three) when she showed us her new stick/mud/zinc/tarp home that Tribewanted helped her build, and finally see her kids go back school. This and much more I will miss dearly.
After 6 months being in the thick of it, it is my opinion that Sierra Leone has huge potential to be an example to the world in green energy and agriculture, water harvesting, eco-tourism and more. But it has big weaknesses as well; first and foremost there needs to be a shift of accountability, especially at the government level and in the upper class. I have seen many of them behave as if they are above the law, which they unfortunately are. Bureaucracy at its worst is everywhere and no one takes responsibility for it. The only time we heard from the government in 6 months was after the BBC World Service did a piece on us, and Immigration came to Tribewanted to confiscate our passports because someone at their immigration office had given us incorrect visa extensions. We had to pay, again, to get them back.
I have crossed the Liberia-Sierra Leone border and to my surprise, the Sierra Leone border was dusty and corrupt, while Liberia’s was paved and a lot less corrupt.
I have seen outings leave hundreds of kilos of rubbish behind on adjacent beaches and not pay the local community anything. I have seen how cheap life is, with four drownings at these outings in less than a year.
I have seen illegal shipping from Japan, Korea and China destroy the fish life and local fisherman’s canoes, I have seen all kinds of rubbish wash up from the ocean, from broken bottles to syringes from Freetown’s hospitals, as there is absolutely no recycling in the country.
I have seen definitions of “success” on cell phone advertising boards, and they imitate the worst kind of western materialism- a Hummer, a girl on each side, pimp outfit, cash in one hand, champagne bottle in the other.
I have seen the protected peninsula forest being destroyed to build huge mansions in ever-expending Freetown, as most people invest their money in concrete. 150.000 trees/year are cut just in our neighboring fishing village of Tombo to make charcoal and smoke fish, and a big challenge in the coming years will be to provide these illegal loggers alternative sources of income to bring them out of the forest.
If one wants to invest in Sierra Leone in a for-profit business, the local currency, the leone, would cause huge headaches. I’ve exchanged my dollars for leones at the bank, but the same bank denied us exchanging dollars back to travel out of the country, refusing to take their own currency. I have had our insurance deny one of our workers disability compensation for being unable to work due to tetanus because he didn’t have a receipt from the pharmacy showing he purchased meds.
I have seen apartments and 4×4 vehicles in Freetown charge exorbitant New York prices and ask for one year payment upfront because the owners are used to getting money from big NGO’s that skew market prices, making it impossible for locals to afford leasing such things.
On the beach, we experienced how weak leadership at the village level can lead to lack of development even when the funds are there, with goodwill money going in various pockets but not a dollar being spent on development for the community.
The president seems to be a good man, and it sounds like he is aware of these issues. But he is just one man, and something is left to be desired about the people surrounding him; three ministers of tourism have changed in the last year, each with little experience in tourism.
To me, these and a lot more were daily experiences in Sierra Leone, part of the journey, but for the country to rise above poverty, all of these and other issues need to change, and that change must start with the people.
But back at Tribewanted, most problems ended. I witnessed the beauty of the country and met remarkable tribemembers of all ages, from all walks of life; Sierra Leone tends to bring very interesting and daring individuals. I discovered how we can live comfortably using only 5% of an average American’s daily water supply and less than 5% of an average American’s energy use, without having concrete between the earth and our feet for 99% of the time. Most importantly, I witnessed the will of people who never had a full time job before, turn up on time 25 days a month and work hard for 8 hours a day. I have seen their pride about what they accomplished and have seen them take ownership of the project, I have seen some of them step up as leaders. After 6 months, I am confident Tribewanted John Obey can be managed locally and can be a source of income and positive change for its workers, their families and John Obey as a whole for years to come.
The challenge now is to take Tribewanted from a purely eco-tourism project to a wider global sustainable living communities model. If we are to change this pending environmental disaster we are bringing upon ourselves, we need to change our consciousness; we need to move away from consumerism and greed, constant growth and indebting ourselves to buy things we don’t need. We need to minimize time spent on videogames, tv shows and social networks that dumb us down, we need to fight antagonism and apathy. Rather, we should aspire to live more sustainably, being more in touch with nature, while still enjoying most of the comforts we are accustomed to. Six months in rural Sierra Leone have profoundly changed me and I hope to be able to take all that I have learned back to the “first” world, in order to change my lifestyle there as well. I look forward to returning to Tribewanted in another 6 months, time will be a good test of true sustainability.