Mike Simpson works on international environmental projects with partners in West Africa and Latin America. He is the executive director of One Sky — The Canadian Institute of Sustainable Living in the rural, northern town of Smithers, British Columbia.

Monday, 10 Nov 2003


It’s the bags that always get me when I travel. I’m always leaving with an epic number of bags and trying to scam my way to Africa with way too much stuff. This trip I’m at 296 pounds and through my first airport. Only four more airports, 74 hours of travel, and who knows how many check-in counters and persuasive arguments to go. My all-time record without getting charged is five airports and 356 pounds of solar collectors, inverters, books on alternative technology, environmental education materials, and other stuff that for some reason I think will be useful. Usually it is useful.

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This time I’m carrying, amongst other things, two deep-cycle sealed batteries for a solar system, female condoms for an HIV/AIDS program, three gross boxes of regular condoms (that is 144 condoms in case, like me, you don’t buy in large quantities), a Barbie doll, and gifts from some Sierra Leonean refugees now living in Canada, which include bras, panties, coloring books, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I am going to a country ranked as 173rd out of 173 countries on the U.N. quality-of-life index. There are a lot of needs besides Barbie dolls. Normally I don’t travel with useless stuff, but we just sent a major shipment by boat and these are the leftovers. I was going to slow down on the care packages and chuck the Barbie doll, but it has a little girl’s name on it and this is the sort of silly little detail that will seem worth it later to a family in some sweltering corrugated iron shack with an assortment of kids running around.

The security guard in Smithers was hard on me. I live in a small town in northern British Columbia where you would think security would be lax, but she insisted on measuring my carry-on bag with precision. It is the kind of diligence that you don’t expect after you have managed to check in overweight bags. It was four inches too thick. Nikki, who is our communications coordinator, had just dropped me at the airport, said her goodbyes, and left me with a three-page list of things to get done in Sierra Leone. It was too late to ditch things. At this point in life I can travel with just one carry-on bag of personal stuff, including my computer and workbooks. But each item is well thought out and much needed. The security guard was telling me I had to leave my three shirts and underwear behind, and she exclaimed “What is this?” as she held up my shaving cream. I raced to the bathroom, donned four shirts, stuffed my pockets with underwear, put on my fleece jacket and my winter jacket, and waddled back to the security desk to proclaim my bag regulation size. I got on the plane next to about 35 wide-eyed miners from the Eskay Creek gold mine, all the while sweating, swearing, and undressing in the aisle.

When am I going to grow out of this kind of behavior? When am I going to go to bed before 3:00 a.m. the night before I leave? When am I going to be one of those organized people who has everything worked out before they travel? Why was I backing up my computer at 1:00 a.m. and trying to get my tractor chains fixed on my snowplow and my car battery charged at 7:00 a.m. before I raced to the airport, reports in hand, late as usual, for a month-long trip to Nigeria and Sierra Leone?

Basically, I’m cheap. That must be it. Here I am heading up an organization that has grown in three years from nothing more than an idea to a million dollar (Canadian) annual budget with nine Canadian staff, six overseas staff, two overseas offices, and enough programming to keep a project going in Latin America, five organizations busy in Nigeria, and a host of programs alive in Sierra Leone. Yet I am getting on the plane wearing four shirts and worried about excess baggage. I gotta get a grip on things. I gotta remember to concentrate on the bigger picture.

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And what is the bigger picture this morning? Well I am living the bigger picture. I am getting on a jet plane, sucking huge amounts of fossil fuels to travel to a very poor country carrying marginally useful stuff, all the while participating in the global economy. I better have good reasons or I should resign myself to being part of the problem and stay home.

In short, I am off to work on a host of issues with our partner, Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone. We plan on a trip to the war-torn Kono region where the diamond industry has left a landscape scarred with alluvial mining debris and a war that has ravaged both the environment and people. It is part of our “Blood Diamonds Are for Never” campaign, which draws the links between resource extraction and war. The area has been very difficult to travel to until recently. Reports are still marginal. Our organization has been actively campaigning for a year now, and while there have been some significant breakthroughs, the diamond industry is still a huge problem. Or should I say challenge.

After that, I am off to do strategic planning workshops and work on a renewable-energy initiative in Nigeria. Hopefully I will coordinate with some cool folks doing canopy walkway research in the jungle. Hopefully this will all somehow make the world a better place, justify my excessive carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption, and make me feel like the excess baggage and sleepless nights were worthwhile. Hopefully …

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More mañana.

Tuesday, 11 Nov 2003

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone

I made it. Had to ditch some brochures and move heavy stuff into my check-in baggage … but I made it.

I have my doubts about my entries making it to Grist by email. Everything here in Sierra Leone is difficult. There are only three servers in the entire country, constant power outages, a war-ravaged telephone system, and a current fuel shortage for generators. Maybe it will work. We will see. The best chance is to send at night. The local One Sky staff are constantly battling with email.

Several years ago, I realized I was writing without courage, with a desired outcome instead of straightforward honesty. It is hard to write exactly what I am really thinking. The “Dear Me” forum encourages some straight talk.

So what am I thinking? Honestly? What would I really write in a “Dear Me” entry after four days of travel and a full day of meetings? I think today I would write about being sick of this business, tired of being an executive director, and fed up with this world of crazy human beings on what seems like a doomed planet.

It has to do with the size of the problem. The issues here are so serious, but it’s the small issues, particularly internal organizational issues, that seem to wear me out. It seems we are fighting a huge battle against time, which is particularly acute here in Africa, where one can add war, extreme poverty, and health issues to the growing list of things to deal with. I am convinced this is an apocalyptic mentality of the environmental movement that grew out of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. It does not need the additional burden of complicated group dynamics. We have enough worst-case, end-of-the-world scenarios such as climate change and species loss and pollution to keep us busy.

I sometimes wonder if I am stuck in a fearful psychological rut since I often seem so convinced that our species is whupped. There are so few people working on environmental protection. I think there is a misconception that there are a lot of environmentalists solving the world’s problems. Not here. Most people are just trying to solve the problem of how to survive the week. In fact, it seems like we North American environmentalists live in a restricted world with its assumed vocabulary that is so foreign to the rest of the world’s reality. It feels like the rest of the world could use a lot more help while every second thing I read in Canada has the phrase sustainable development in it. I know part of this personal feeling is that despite our successes, the setbacks seem to keep mounting.

We have been working here for three years and we just had a staff review of our work to date. Opinions are mixed with some people thinking we are getting somewhere, others willing to throw in the towel and move on to something else, some patient with current standards, others wanting to raise the bar. Many of the issues are common to organizational health. Many of the opinions change by the hour. Power dynamics, communication issues, lack of policies on this or that are all accentuated by working in a difficult country where everything seems to take more time and more effort.

Just sending this email might take me an hour or so. First of all, there is a fuel shortage, so a lot of people have turned their generators off. They have generators because the power system rarely works. This house has no telephone line, so I need to go to the Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone office where hopefully the phone line will actually work. Hopefully the server will be functioning. Luckily we installed a solar photovoltaic system so we can power the computer systems with backup electricity that does not rely on fuel. All this to “fire off” an email that you can only send from the capital city.

At the end of the day these are only small challenges, logistics of working in the developing world. What pulls down my day are the exponential personal issues that seem to mount up in any group dynamic. I know this is common to so many people who work on social justice and the environment. We seem to be able to conjure up “issues” no matter how well things are going.

My thought for anyone working in this movement is to keep cheering people on despite all the so-called issues. The situation might be pretty desperate and we might need a lot more people, but we have such good people that maybe things will work out. It is what I think most about working with people here. They work under incredible pressure and deserve kudos at every opportunity. What is an accomplishment in Canada is a superhuman effort here.

Funny how I can start out this email a mite discouraged by the world and our predicament and then end up feeling good about the people I work with on a planet not quite devoid of hope. Dedicated social activists and environmentalists are like that for me — they seem infectiously optimistic. It makes my earlier discouraging pause of doubt seem like a luxury none of us can afford. Maybe I should write “Dear Me” entries more often.

Wednesday, 12 Nov 2003

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone

My day started at 4:59. Awoke to the sound of prayer being sung on loudspeakers. It is Ramadan and a lot of people are fasting and praying. It lasts a month. I lay in bed for a few minutes listening to a beautiful voice through miraculously functional loudspeakers and thought what a wonderful day it was going to be.

I got up and reviewed strategic planning documents and read over some organizational management materials. At 7:00, people were starting to wake up in the apartment so I walked down to talk with some nuns I met years ago. By 8:00, I ventured down to do battle with cyberspace demons with the Internet provider. He was trying to figure out what the problem with the Internet was. With my help and to his dismay, we managed to crash the satellite system.

Later in the morning I met with the executive director of Friends of the Earth and then with a group called the Conservation Society. They are trying to protect one of Sierra Leone’s last remaining forested areas next to Liberia, which has huge value in terms of biological endemism. They are completely on their own and hardly anyone knows what has been going on there since the war. We made cursory plans to travel there later in the week.

Then I hitchhiked in the back of a sand truck with Kristin, one of the One Sky employees, to the rural village of Lakka. We are basically the only NGO that I know of that is working in Sierra Leone without transportation. It takes longer to get around, but there is value in traveling with other people. You can fit 22 people into an eight-passenger minivan here. It makes for great conversations. And our people walk more. In fact, they walk a lot, and life here is lived on the street. There are four young women working for One Sky in Sierra Leone. They live in a so-called “dangerous” market area, yet seem to be completely safe. Everyone knows them because they walk and talk and have formed community. It is noticeable for people here because all of the other NGOs drive around in $50,000 Land Rovers advertising their causes on their doors. Our people carry their water on their heads to the house, ride in overcrowded buses, and live on low wages, all the while speaking Creole to the locals. In short, they relate and people notice and it keeps them safe. Sometimes I feel bad that we don’t have more money, and other times I figure it’s a blessing.

When we got to Lakka, Kristin introduced me to the ecological center staff. The center is a ramshackle collection of huts made with leftover United Nations refugee tarps on a piece of land donated by the local village. The village was impressed with Friends of the Earth and their consistent desire to teach about appropriate technology, so they donated a chunk of land.

Pa Conteh, an older man, gave me a tour of the organic agriculture plots. He showed me some drip irrigation plots they are experimenting with and posed for pictures next to an organic compost-enriched cocoa plant that literally was 10 times the size of the regular plants. We looked at 12-foot trees that were planted last year from the nursery, inspected corn that had been ravished by monkeys, and pondered over his plans to expand the use of marigolds and natural pesticides.

Probably the highlight was to look at the “demonstration building” that was made of local materials, including roofing tiles that were constructed using a pedal-powered cement tile maker. It is a pedal-powered technology that a One Sky employee, Jud, borrowed from El Salvador, adapted in Vancouver, and has been promoting in Sierra Leone. The locals have not recovered from the idea that a Canadian woman would carry cement on her head, help move bricks, and struggle to work out the details of building with an assorted crew of volunteers, ex-combatants, and impoverished old men.

The building is completed now and eliminates the need to use zinc roofing that wears out, is expensive, and is hot to live under. We celebrated by drinking palm wine and making flowery speeches about rebuilding Sierra Leone and protecting the environment. Everyone joined in, and it seemed the longer the poyo flowed, the more eloquent the speeches got. Eventually an old spindly lady had everyone in tears laughing as she insisted on a “cultural dance” accompanied by a lot of stomping and clapping. You cannot beat Sierra Leone for having fun or good company.

At the end of the festivities, we walked a mile or so down the road trying to get some transportation. It eventually showed up in the form of a busted-up, beat-up, barely surviving minivan with square wheels and we all made the squeeze to Freetown. I think I hit the sack about 11:30.

Thursday, 13 Nov 2003

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone

Tuesday was Remembrance Day. It almost slipped by unnoticed until I caught sight of the date on my watch. Remembrance Day is the most serious holiday of the year for me.

Yesterday at the eco-center I was busy taking pictures when a 17-year-old boy shyly approached me. He’s an ex-combatant I first met three years ago. He was proud to tell me that he helped to build the roof on our demonstration building and that he was now in third form at school. I knew this kid well when I first came to Sierra Leone during the war. He was a tiny and ferocious little tyke who had earned his nickname M for carrying out extra-judicial executions on behalf of the rebel movement. By the age of 13, it was rumoured that he had killed 86 people, and nobody, even the most hard-core kids, seemed to doubt the story. This country became infamous for the number of children used in battle. I was moved to see how people now accepted him and integrated him into their activities and lives. In fact, I was moved just to see him smile and talk about normal 17-year-old boy subjects.

Interesting how the small things during formative years can last a long time. Three years ago, I had taken a group of about 20 young boys on a jungle foray to search for monkeys and jungle wonders. Each boy was an ex-soldier ranging in age from 9 to 15 years, and a walk in the jungle was a unique break to show off how they could carry sticks and push and shove each other into bushes the way small boys seem to do. Yesterday M asked me if I remembered the jungle walk, and then went on to recall in minute detail everything we did. Do you remember so and so and do you remember stopping for water and do you remember this and do you remember that? In truth, I could not remember much. I did remember so and so, who M told me has now gone mad and is living in the hospital. I could vaguely remember where the water was. In the end, I chose to listen to him recount all the details of looking for monkeys. I was just glad to hear him talk, to see how genuinely pleased he was about this long-ago experience in nature.

One Sky is working to promote sustainable living globally. We have a pretty weird way of going about doing this, but it all makes sense to me. War is the antithesis to living sustainably. One Sky has been trying to draw the links between war and environmental degradation. The war in Sierra Leone was driven by conflict over natural resources, specifically diamonds. Apparently almost 20 percent of armed conflicts in the world are now over the control of resources.

Although we are here working on the ground, trying to help a local NGO promote alternative technology, we have also been working on a “conflict diamonds” campaign to stop the underlying driver of similar resource wars. It is not easy work, but there have been some successes. Recently an agreement was signed that will push countries to monitor their diamonds and control the use of “blood diamonds” in the jewelry industry through something called the Kimberley Process. It is a good thing this has been signed since One Sky has spent the better part of one year running a “Blood Diamonds Are for Never” campaign and we have been worried that there would be no agreement about “independent and regular monitoring,” which lies at the heart of the negotiations.

It seems like we are involved in rather divergent activities, yet it does make sense to me. We cannot solve the world’s problems with solutions that only address the apparent issues. It is good to plant trees and to develop appropriate technologies, but we need to address why those trees were cut in the first place and why people are so poor that they make decisions that degrade the environment.

The international trade in diamonds is a classic case of what was driving the war in Sierra Leone and what led to such desperate conditions that 13-year-old boys were shooting people. It might seem weird that in order to protect the tropical rainforest, we end up working with ex-combatants on strange projects all the while ranting about the international trade in diamonds. Remembrance Day reminds me that we have a lot more work to do to explain ourselves and that the struggle to promote peace remains inextricably linked to sustainable development.

Hopefully this email won’t be as hard to send as the last one. More later.

Friday, 14 Nov 2003

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone

It is going to be an extra underwear day, and a busy one to boot. I have had a range of illness from typhoid to meningitis doing this line of work and I can tell this is just a “keep hydrated and keep going” kind of day. Sierra Leone has every disease you can imagine, and the crowded conditions and filth everywhere make for easy bug catching. The sewers here are open or broken so human waste of every conceivable kind just flows through yards, backs up behind mounds of plastic bags and rubbish, or becomes an interesting puddle for a rag-wearing toddler to sit down in.

We are in the middle of a two-day strategic planning session and due to leave tomorrow morning for Koindu in the north. I still have to get my Nigerian visa sorted as they are being difficult at the embassy. It took two hours of sweaty, patient waiting in a sauna office for the consular officer to tell me that I needed a letter before he would even give me the form to fill out.

Kristin is down for the count with shakes and a bellyache. Working here is about high performance under marginalized conditions. Anything that one dreams up is tempered by illness, lack of resources, or broken equipment. It requires a mindset aware that you are going to have to perform handicapped by something. No matter what you do, it will not be what it could be simply because something will go wrong. The goal is to move forward anyway and forgive the results.

I could not do this work without being surrounded by good people every day. The One Sky and Friends of the Earth staff are outstanding individuals. They have an ability to keep smiling and laughing and joking and staying optimistic. The odds of failure here are almost 100 percent when it comes to long-term environmental health or even a modicum of social stability. I say that as an optimist who works in very difficult countries but who cannot ignore the overall exponential trend toward environmental degradation and economic marginalization. While it is easy enough to romanticize poverty and keep a smile on my face because people are so friendly and West Africans are so easy to laugh, at the end of the day it is hard not to see how screwed up war and extreme poverty can be and the long term impact they are having.

The people I work with here know how life could be and this human ability to vision is what keeps inspiring social and environmental change. Olatunde, the executive director of Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone, is an older man driven by memories of what life was like before the war and visions of how life could be drawn from an extensive collection of ragged books and dusty magazines. He has broken glasses and wanders around in the same old T-shirt and crappy shoes, moving people who affectionately call him “daddi” to keep going, to quit complaining about the lack of this or the lack of that, and to see the future. It can be hard to complain when I see him keep struggling, keep going under conditions that are so demanding.

Whenever I hear people talk about Third World unemployment or work ethic, I feel like shoving their senses into how hard life here really is. Simple statistics don’t do it justice. Only a few years ago, life expectancy here bottomed out at 25 years, but does that explain how hard people have to work to survive? Simple things become so demanding and tragic. I heard a woman wailing yesterday because she lost a sum of money that was significant by local standards and was convinced she would be beaten up when she got home. She probably was beaten up. It was about $3, but the locals were looking at her with pity as though she had misplaced $15,000.

S, another ex-combatant, spotted me on the street yesterday and walked with me downtown. He is on his own now, trying to get through school by the grace of some expatriate who pays for his tuition. The school wants an ID card and he has no money for food let alone the photo, so he stopped going. Simple little obstacles, every day, but each one has such significant ramifications.

They have a saying here that one often hears. “Oh Salone,” they sometimes exclaim, followed every once in a while by an “Oh Africa.” You draw in your breath and it is said as one would sorrowfully sigh about some lost cause, yet the sentence usually ends with a smile. It is that moment that we smile anyway despite what we know to be true that keeps me inspired. If we judge our planet’s future by looking at its current predicament, could we do anything other than say “Oh Earth” and keep smiling? It is going to be a long, hot day, a thousand things will go wrong as we try to carry out an underfunded environmental program in a marginalized poor country, and on top of that my belly aches and now I am getting a headache.

“Oh Earth” — gotta get up and try to send this while it is still early in the day.