10/20/2010 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tribewanted Sierra Leone: Official Launch!

Tribewanted John Obey. October 20 2010. Two weeks have passed since we officially launched. It has been a remarkable success, filled with experiences to last a lifetime, as well as major headaches that have tested our resolve.

After one final push to have the compost toilets, the bucket showers, and the kitchen ready, and after one last push to clear the container from customs, our first 11 tribemembers finally arrived on October 1, in the middle of the night. The weather was forgiving and we were able to camp the first tents under the stars.

The following day, we had our official launch, the whole village as well as neighboring chiefs and many journalists were present. We sacrificed a sheep for libation on the site of our first earth-bag bungalow and made lots of speeches. Followed by pojo (local palm wine), local dishes and a lot of local music, dancing and even glass eaters. At dusk we played football on the beach, and then the tribemembers dined on our newly completed dinner table under acacia trees, lit only by candles, before a bonfire. It was a fully immersing local celebration for all, unlike anything I have ever seen.

Worked resumed on the following days and we couldn't have hoped for a better group of first footers, ranging from a 16-year-old American girl to a 62-year-old retired Brit. Together with the tireless local staff of John Obey, we worked to build the first earth bag bungalow, to install the solar panels and to begin work on our permaculture garden.

We visited the John Obey school, went shopping in the local markets, went to a local baptism celebration at the village, pulled enormous fishing nets full of fish with 50 fishermen, took krio classes, celebrated Ben's 31st birthday the local way, played more football, and cooked together many, many meals together. We have commenced work on five toilets for the community and put together a procurement list for the school (walls, benches and blackboards to start).

Every day, I learn something new: how to skin a small bush deer, how to lay an earthbag, or manage a solar system. One has the feeling that what we are doing is truly unique and never been done before here. All issues, even touchy ones, are discussed openly in our morning meetings with the entire staff, and we all learn from one another a great deal.

After two weeks, some of the tribemembers departed, among an impromptu musical farewell by the community, all quite emotional. Some said it was the best experience of their life; others extended their stay, including the 62-year-old retired Brit.

Outside John Obey, the problems begin. In no particular order, in the last two weeks I've had to pay $3,500 to clear a container full of donated solar panels meant for community development, after getting the run around for months from various ministries, giving us empty promises that we would receive duty free concessions.

I even had to pay a couple of hundred extra dollars for storage charges while we attempted to receive duty free...

On another occasion, the police caused an accident when they stopped my pick up truck in the middle of Kissy road, the most trafficked road in Freetown (the only paved road to enter and exit the city), inevitably causing it to be hit by a bus. A mob gathered, as it often happens here. We stayed put in our vehicle and fortunately, an army official who witnessed the accident took our side, the police officers that caused the accident scattered, and we drove away with only the front right side of our car missing...

Three days later, at the local gas station, "dirty diesel", what is usually used to grease engines, was put in my tank instead of normal diesel, leaving me stranded and damaging the engine.
Recently, Immigration thought it useful to change their tune on allowing our tribemembers to receive visas upon landing, effective immediately. So after two weeks of getting our tribemembers cleared at customs without a glitch, we had less than 12 hours to get a visa for our incoming 16-year-old tribemember, who would have not been allowed to board the plane otherwise.

On the same day, the contractor in charge of building us a fresh water well, a counselor in some distant district, the only person who we made the mistake of hiring outside of John Obey and paying upfront, after six weeks of drilling eight dry holes, (we've had to fetch water at a nearby stream up to now) caused an accident when his team, while traveling at night, lost control of their well rig which crashed into a local home, causing an injury for which we had to pay. When they finally almost completed a functioning well, the same team disappeared without cleaning the well with chlorine, and when we confronted the contractor about their incompetence, he lost his temper and accused us of being drug dealers in front of the whole community! Something that I found very amusing, but we are nevertheless taking actions against him.

To add injury to insult, while the chlorine solution was being mixed in a water tank before being poured in the water well, Issa, one of our staff members, took a shower with it at night, causing temporary damage to his eyesight. Despite all the setbacks, we should be 24 hours away from having clean fresh water on site.

In other news, I've had a crab enter my tent at 3 a.m. and been shat on by bats while sleeping on the hammock. Yesterday, as our generator (A.k.a. Necessary Evil) broke down, we finally officially turned on our solar tower, powering LED and CFL lights, a refrigerator, various cell phones and computers totaling over 1 kw/hr of energy; all very exciting.

It has been a test of tenacity. Heaven and hell simultaneously. Enough experiences in two weeks to fill a book. At times, work has been more gruesome than it was back in New York, but we do have a virgin beach all to ourselves and I still bathe in the currents where the river meets the ocean at sunset.

Most importantly, we have formed a real family with the John Obey community...and so we endure. After six weeks of work, I m taking my first day off at a nearby beach resort, sleeping in a real bed for the first time, where I passed out for 14 hours...