Wandor Introductions – Chiefdom Health Catchment Areas

Wandor Chiefdom, Kenema District
July 7, 2017

By Rupert Allan

Typical homemade wall chart in PHU (Primary Health Unit) [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]
Health Centre in Tunghie – Catchment Area Record. Wandor/Gorama Mende Chiefdom

As I look into the village chief’s eyes, I realise that he is near to that age described as ‘in your prime’. And so are many of the chiefs I have met in Sierra Leone. We are bonding in a common understanding. I am trying to show him how the smartphone app I have installed on his phone works for SatNav. My trainee mappers are asking him questions to clarify on the Open StreetMap exactly where the community is. There are many Baarmas, and resources went haywire during Ebola here. We have ridden on the back of motorbikes driven with incredible skill up these rutted and rocky tracks to get here. We are deep in the heart of Diamond Country. We are trying to establish a community-sensitive format by which to represent these communities who are so seldom in contact with the outside world.

It is always weird to be treated with gratitude here. I appreciate it. I suppose I am privileged enough to be doing something which my extremely critical outlook can justify, yet which is fascinating and ultimately mitigating some of the problematics of cultural imperialism here. But we are standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, and it feels somehow dishonest to enjoy the welcome that we invariably receive because others delivered all that life-saving healthcare. It wasn’t me inside that unbearably sweaty HazMat suit during the dark days of Ebola. I wasn’t here. I was in some other sweaty place on the other side of the continent, I guess, and working hard on another precarious community, but this particular battle was never mine.

We are developing a mapping team which can reach far into the forest and mountains of this area, to establish the basic facts of how to reach people, and how they can express the challenges of Water, Sanitation, Disease and Healthcare which encounter them at every move. To update and improve the medical map.

Memory drawn sketch map of PHUs in MSF project area, the best current map of health catchment area held in the regional Health Centre, northern Kenema District. [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]
Randy is facing one of these very challenges today, here in this corner of the continent has been described to me as the ‘White Man’s Graveyard’. Malaria. We have left him sweating it out in the dark room at the back of the ‘guesthouse’. It came on amazingly quickly, in this district of Diamond Mines and rebel strongholds.

At some point on our ‘classroom’ on the concrete porch, we were explaining to our survey team one of the finer points about how to encourage the community to take ownership of the map. He suddenly turned to me and said ‘are you feeling cold?’ within ten minutes he was lying in bed, swooning, a shivering wreck. But he will be OK. Luckily, he has the tolerance and immune system of a well-nourished specimen from the Global North. And he has had it before.

Randy in Class, Seconds Before Feeling The Malaria Chill [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]
But in any case, I had to go it alone supporting our star mapping coordinator Alberta, vetting and coaching our new team of mappers. I am the ‘Big Boss’ of this, but felt the weight somewhat, as Alberta started to complain of a headache, and I looked around me at the blank faces, and stepped-in to continue the session. She recovered quickly, but I carefully monitored Randy with half a logistician’s eye on the nearest hospital four hours (yet only 54km) away, down these ‘impassible’ bush roads. Things are rudimentary even here in the best guest house in town. Taking a shower is done by standing in a bucket (aka in Krio: ‘rubber’) of water next to a toilet bowl – the only feature in the small washroom, except for the huge drum of water.

But now, under my mosquito net, writing this, we are happy. It was a good day. We have a bright, interested, and intrepid bunch of new mappers, thrilled about having a free offline “Sat-Nav”  (OSMAND – Open StreetMap for Android) on their own smartphones. They are thrilled too, to be part of the plan to access better medical and civil assistance, and I must admit that riding down that crazy hill from the village, I was beaming with pride myself, to be part of such a scheme, once again, thanking those who so brilliantly came before us in this campaign to make things a little better.

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.


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.


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.

How villages get their names

As is often the case with aid workers, the etymology of the local village is a question often directed at locals. Gorama Mende proved no exception to this rule.  Our local mapper, Alieu (who was in Magburaka during the Ebola outbreak), was a resident of Gorama Mende, a region nearby to Kortuhun, Fulawahun and Kpetema. Fortunately for us our Mende-speaking friend was extremely keen to give his take on how villages, including his own, acquired their name.

In his small hut, late one night, beneath the most beautiful stars in the whole of Sierra Leone, Alieu gave this splendid explanation on etymology:

“when a child is born, they take a name, but as they grow, they might become, for instance, a fighter.”

Unfortunately, in Alieu’s eagerness to make this point, to have his say, to pronounce his take on the situation, we never got to the actual ancestral origin of Gorama Mende. We can conclude it is a name which has likely resolved over time to fit the village and its people. That said, we’d still like to learn the etymology of the village (inquisitiveness is part of every mappers DNA).

If you are able to help us get to the bottom of this mystery we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch.


Ebola and the Magpie

Wales, United Kingdom
May 28, 2017

By Rupert Allan

[Editor’s note: Here Rupert Allan describes his experience on an earlier trip to Sierra Leone in 2015, where he led a two week intensive training for Field Team Leaders, and managed an earlier surveying project.]

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there was general panic. Our mapping project was born, but so too were many other systems. One such was the Magpie App, another lo-tech-meets-new-tech solution, this one for recording burials. Here is an impression of how I first came to hear of it:

It’s lunch time, and we are about to go out from our teaching classroom into the corridor to eat what gets brought in by the catering lady. Jollof Rice and Chicken. But then somebody mentions the Magpie.

It is a warm but cloudy day in the capital. We have been training for two days on the Data collection App Open Data Kit (ODK). Sierra Leone was mapped by motorbike using this downloadable software during the Ebola outbreak, in a (successful) contribution to getting a handle on stopping the disease. Already I have guarded myself against shaking too many hands or having other tactile contact with the people here – those magical comradery handshakes so memorable from the West Africa of years ago that I remember when, in 1989, I was building a school in the Liberian bush.

Field Team Leader Victor on the Guinea border-crossing issues.
“Cross Border and Kiosks” [Red Cross Video]

I have already heard from Victor of the way in which people would avoid the ‘Safe and Dignified Burial’ technique desperately encouraged by disaster relief organizations. Distraught and grieving people just wanted to be left alone to tend to the traditional intimate washing of bodies by all the family, but it is this very intimacy which had to be prevented by desperate humanitarian actors. Tales of how families would use their back door to take a body for burial over the porous borderline and into the neighbouring unregulated country are fascinating and initially amusing.

Somebody describes to me the Magpie app., the only way, but a depersonalized way – to keep abreast of the unfolding disaster at the time. Some of the details of what the ‘Enumerator’ was asked to log – safe geo-tagging, photographic data, all flies in the face of talks of ancient intimacy, reducing this kind of anonymous horrific evidence to a DATA BASE entry. It has been so very impersonal, but so critical for the survival of these ravaged but peace-loving communities, and it puts a lump firmly in my throat even now as I try to relate it.

But when you bear in mind that drivers in the capital, as my driver points out, don’t know how to react to the new traffic lights because more than two generations of drivers have passed since the last traffic lights were vandalized in the civil war, (another terror which was only just abating properly when Ebola struck) it makes you wonder what West Africa has done to deserve not only these natural disasters, but these assaults on their national identity. Sierra Leone has seen brothers slaughter brothers, and one cannot even console oneself with family social traditions of peace and intimacy, honoured since before the time of borders, white men, and territory. But one thing remains, and of course will always remain, which is that people are loving, human, and dignified, throughout, and regardless of, what has been heaped upon them.