Reporting from Wandor – the ‘Place of In-Between’

Baama Konta, Wandor / Gorama Mende
June 28, 2017

By Rupert Allan


The familiar smell of woodsmoke is drifting into my nostrils in the cool shade of the morning. The rain has finally stopped, and the hubbub of the small dusty village is comforting. I am sitting on a concrete veranda, tapping away at the keyboard of my super-fast field-mapping laptop, with QGIS running in the background. A small black goat sits in the corner of this porch, and a small tame monkey – the pet of one of the village boys – came walking over my feet a few moments ago. Surrounded by smartphones, charging from the computer, this is the nerve-centre of Wandor/Gorama Mende chapter of WAMM.

The locals are walking past with buckets and bowls on their heads – a boy with a stick and bicycle-rim – and when I say ‘cool’, I mean ‘african cool’. In other words, a mild sauna. We are mapping these two chiefdoms of north-eastern Sierra Leone for and MSF healthcare project which is launching here, and last night I fell into exhausted sleep to the noise of the generator in the MSF house – a shell, slowly being populated as the project initiates. A massive four-wheel drive MSF truck sits outside, alongside the ubiquitous MSF Landcruisers. Yesterday, I made my way from Kenema on a motorbike as far as the ferry, a hand-pulled cable ferry on which men pull the cavle through with notched clubs. The way had been hard. A puncture, this late in the day, too, had made me quite stressed. Stuck by the roadside, I showed some local villagers ‘passing time’ under a tree the Smartphoone App which we are using to build the community map for the area. They were thrilled to see the names of their villages on the App, and took to my usual evangelical zeal with reciprocated enthusiasm. I have long stopped worrying about whether I should display hi-technology here. People assimilate it quickly, but are nevertheless excited to be part of it.

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The rider, ‘Gombo’, had gone up the road to fix the tube, and I caught up with him a few minutes later, by jumping on the back of the next bike to ‘come along’. Three-up is the standard way to ride here, so I squeezed on behind a regular punter. Coming from the ferry on this side is more challenging, and we came across a Toyota Landcruiser struggling to get across some of the floodwater from the rains. It was approaching dusk as the chain went on the bike, and I thought the best thing to do was to help. Between us, the rider and I put the chain back on, with the help of the leatherman I carry, and we got back on the road.

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Much reuniting was had once I arrived, with Sulaiman, come down from the north, to join our campaign, pleased to see his colleague Alberta, who was also part of the Missing Maps project last year. Much has been made around here of this Missing Maps Ebola-Busting Border project, and a degree of pride exists about having been involved. I’m pleased. Pride gets places mapped, and it seemed to work well in that project, as it is in this.

It is half an hour on. Now I am sitting in that same position, but the scene has changed. I’m on the phone on WhatsApp, surrounded by boys returned from school, and other onlookers, and as I follow remote instructions delivered from the peerless David Wenk, website-techno friend of the project from his office in Camden, North London, sirens at his end compete with goat-bleats at this. We are the centre of the village’s quiet attention. ‘Him Savvy the Computer!’ I hear, in Krio. I’m good at getting help, I think, as I speak with Ivan in the other ear, on the other phone, who has called in from Dakkar, Senegal, in response to a request for help hacking into the OSMAND App on Smartphones with GPX dots of all the villages our mapathon volunteers around the global Open StreetMap community have traced in this part of the continent.

I won’t go into the rudimentary method of toileting that I went about an hour and a half ago, but suffice to say, there are contrasts in my daily life at the moment which sometimes seem almost too extreme to mesh. If I think all reality might be virtual, or resign myself to ‘multiple realities’, then maybe I can deal with it…? The reality is, though, that many many mothers and infants die in the act of childbirth here. Unbelievable and unacceptable numbers. And our work will help to stop this.

Before long, we will have a map of every village that can be spotted from the sky above, with an addressed way to get medicine to each, and a basic profile of their biggest vulnerabilities and local health provisions. This will be invaluable to MSF as they start their health campaign to stop this death toll. Without village names, it has been impossible to trace where diseases like Ebola are spreading, and how to get to patients, or where they are likely to have been sent for further treatment.

It is weird that this digital world can have such an impact. Time was, the IT world had nothing to do with physical, visceral and material things in small, poor countries. Now it is integral. And as I look around at the goats passing-by, I realise that the crowd of onlookers have settled-down to my presence, and are treating it more or less casually, that there should be some ‘pumwui’ sitting in their midst.