Up and Riding [6]

Countryside near Segbwema, South East Sierra Leone
Thursday, June 15, 2017—Dispatch 6

By Randy Thomas Jones


In the role-playing during Saturday’s training process I had pretended to refuse to allow the survey to proceed, but relented with a little more polite convincing by the surveyors-in-training, but I had one more trick up my sleeve, and at a random point during the survey I launched into a completely unrelated and fabricated story about some recent goings on in my pretend village, not allowing them to get a word in edge-wise. In fact, both of these situations, or ones very similar to it, were encountered within our first few days of work in the field. General discussion ensued, and all the new surveyors had been given their first notice that completing the task successfully would require some thinking at each new village.

Randy chats with villagers. [Photo Credit: Ivan Gayton]

Sunday was a “day off,” which for Ivan and me meant a full day of attempting to catch up, he mostly concentrating on giving us a reliable path for data transfer, considering that electricity and data signal both seemed in short supply. The mobile Server (that small device I mentioned earlier called an “Edison”) had also broken down, very uncharacteristically. And of course, it was only on this occasion, when we actually needed a back up, that all of the extra Edisons Ivan usually brings, were left back in North America. A solution is jury-rigged, and we will proceed on schedule for Monday morning with day two of training, a day in the field, and actually attempt to gather data, though our goal here would be training, not high production. In any event, we are interested in establishing quality first. Even with the best attempts at gathering this kind of data, it is a standard procedure to “clean the data” before sharing as a courtesy to other users, and for practical usefulness. But the original gathering must still be done with care and attention.

In short order, we make a brisk departure, which is to say we eventually depart together about 10h00, after most of the surveyors, motorcycle riders, and the usual hangers-on have been present at our guest house since about 07h00. The guesthouse is typical of many African compounds. The household is run by “Grandma,” who is the head of a variously large family that seems to include about ten children under 5 and an assortment of other relatives and friends that swells to about 20 people on an average day. The kids faithfully come down to the water pump (the famous seemingly bomb-proof India Mark II) to get water, which they carry up the hill to the big house. This task is impossible to accomplish without smiling at us and waving hello, grinning and laughing if we pretend to play hide and seek with them, or dance alongside their movements as they pump water. I never knew that it was a requirement to dance as you operate the water pump, but it makes a lot of sense.

Convoy. Photo Credit Rupert Allan

Convoy of bikes during training. [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

Each village has its own unique character; they have varying sizes, and of course any particular village is in the mood of the moment when we arrive in our convoy. The concept of a convoy has to be explained to the drivers; and one of the motorcycle teams is lost for a couple of hours until we meet up again. It is mostly easy to find the chief—it is not a big deal, just par for the course. Sometimes we end up at the chief’s house, and visit on the front veranda. The surveyor is often invited to sit, everyone who is able to grabs a bit of any available shade, and of course Ivan and I are offered the best chairs. I try to stand until I am specifically invited in, but only get away 60% of the time with my insistence that the chief retain the best chair for himself.

We don’t want to appear the overlords, but in practical fact, we are to some degree. We are arriving from high income places with what is a small boon to the local economy, the money that we are spending locally for food, lodging, supplies, and wages for the surveyors and riders. Especially since the Sierra Leone Leone (the unit of currency) has plummeted in value. Our guesthouse, for example, has only cost 50,000 SLL per night, the princely sum of 7USD. We get our favored “Bread and Egg” in the morning for 1USD (7500 is the current exchange) composed of the excellent local bread (shaped like a French loaf, though our morning sandwich is only about 25cm), 2 fried eggs, and mayonnaise. It is cooked locally in the market on a small burner stove; it is a typical thing to see in West Africa. Ansu seemed to frown at us the first time or two, but becomes friendlier once he realizes we will be loyal customers, and really don’t mind waiting—as long as he doesn’t make us wait longer than the locals!

At the village interviews, Ivan and I try to hang back; Stanley and Alberta, who have the more dynamic leadership personalities, and also experience, don’t need practice filling out surveys; they watch like mother hens as the trainees take turns running through the surveys, mostly successfully. Ivan clucks over his GPS points and spelling of names, my bent of expertise goes toward the stylistic, and together, along with the generous talents of Stanley and Alberta, a village is completed, and the convoy moves forward. Ivan, however, ever the technically-minded and knowledgeable manager, will get progressively more anxious, especially as the day proceeds successfully: according to him, the data is not really gathered until it is safely downloaded into his Server, and then protected by a secondary copy to a cloud location. Data quality and protection is a matter of life and death in the work we are doing.