Sata's Education

For anthropologist and midwife Sudy Storm of Ashland, two things keep taking her back to Sierra Leone, Africa, to teach birthing and help rebuild a war-torn village.

"It's that I know my presence gives them hope and I know I've saved a lot of babies and mothers in delivery," she said.

Now working on her master's degree in applied medical anthropology at Oregon State University, Storm, 59, has gathered a wealth of cultural information that will be expanded in a visit this summer and become part of her graduate thesis.

Storm is known in the field as an "independent volunteer," one who belongs to no church or group. She raises funds for her efforts, buys and transports medical supplies to Africa and has learned a range of skills, from building latrines and schools to giving vaccinations.

From friends and family, Storm recently raised $1,000 to build 16 latrines as residents of Kambama labor to rebuild homes sturdy enough to keep out rain and disease-carrying mosquitoes. The residents are still recovering from 10 years of violence in the Sierra Leone civil war, which ended in 2002.

Storm began work in Africa in 1999 as a midwife-teacher in Senegal, connecting with her present village in 2005. Storm realized the presence of Western attitudes and technology were causing some harm, so she went to Southern Oregon University to train as an anthropologist.

Now she's adapted enough to local customs and attitudes that villagers have adopted her into a family, built a house for her, given her land and named children after her.

"Sata," as Storm is called, learned to consult with stakeholders of the Mende people, do a census and perform "community-based participatory research," in which villagers outline their priorities and Storm supports them.

The first priority, Storm learned, was for homes. The residents insisted on building a good one for her, made of mud brick, corrugated tin roof and poles from the jungle.

"They insisted on making it three bedrooms, because then it might bring more 'strangers,' as they call them" and make their lives better, she said. OSU is aware of her work there and considers it a prime spot for further research, she said.

As an anthropologist, Storm said she's adapted to and honored strange customs. The Mende people are Muslim. The men take several wives. They consider fat women healthy and beautiful and praise them when they put on pounds. Women have secret societies to learn roles and so do men.

They actively work for Storm's safety, fearing her men back home will be angry if something happens to her. They live in the present, so that if someone has a birth, marriage, illness or death, they drop everything for weeks or months and help out.

"They will walk in your house and start talking to you, even if you aren't dressed," Storm said. "If you make food for yourself and others arrive, everyone eats it. They believe that if you are alone, and go for a walk by yourself, there is something wrong and one will follow you."

And sometimes, men tell her what to do and she will respect it, just as the village women do.

After years of this, Storm said, "We don't know everything and have caused a tremendous amount of harm believing we do. We don't respect other cultures, and I've had to look at my own arrogance and ego about what's right and wrong and humble myself."

Before the war, the village had prospering coffee and cocoa fields, since reclaimed by the jungle. It's a long-range vision and a huge undertaking to clear them and replant to get a sound financial footing, Storm said.

Storm said villagers told her they had a dream she would come and that when a white person had spent one night in the village, everything would change — and so it has. But, harking back to the days of colonial oppression, villagers still carry a sense of "white privilege" — an attitude that villagers are "stupid and ugly" compared to whites — "and I do all I can to show them we're all the same," she said.

Storm has trained 110 midwives in Africa and passed along her knowledge about how to handle birth problems outside a hospital setting. She plans to get her doctorate in applied medical anthropology.

"When you have a bunch of initials after your name, those initials give you power and a voice dealing with the village and those who affect their lives," she said.

Storm heads back to Sierra Leone for four months next summer. Donations for the Sukuli (School) Project go entirely to improvements in the Jawei Chiefdom in southeast Sierra Leone, a project started by her granddaughter Cassydie of Ashland. No money will go to her pay and expenses, she said. Visit www.themoonlodge.biz/sukuli.html or call 541-488-1444.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

(Correction: The spelling of Sudy Storm's name has been corrected in this story.)

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