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Making an impact in Sierra Leone

Roger Harris from Concern Worldwide UK recently visted projects in Sierra Leone. Here is his personal account.

According to the United Nations, Sierra Leone is now officially the world's poorest country, where a staggering one-in-four children die before their fifth birthday and life expectancy is only 42 years. It is still recovering from a brutal 10-year civil war that ended in 2002.

During these years more than half of the 5.7 million population fled their homes: to
neighbouring countries, the capital Freetown, or the bush.

In the city slums I visited, the stench of sewage and rotting garbage is overwhelming. Living conditions are squalid and children play in ponds of stagnant water and sewage. Disease is rife, and combines with malnourishment to kill the weak and vulnerable. Children in particular suffer and death rates are high. I did see some malnourished children in the villages but they are often hidden away from view.

Concern has been working here since 1996. Initially we were providing relief for displaced communities. But when the war ended we moved our focus to long-term
development projects with urban and rural communities to improve poor people’s
health, help them earn a viable living and strengthen education. On a recent visit to
Sierra Leone, I saw the positive impact of Concern’s work.

As I travelled to rural villages along rough, single tracks and over felled trees that
serve as rudimentary bridges, I was struck by the isolation and poverty of the
communities. Although some of these villages are only 15-20 kilometres from a main road, it can take hours to reach them. They are only accessible by fourwheel
drive vehicles – in one village we were the first outside visitors they had seen in months. Families in these villages do not have enough food to last them all year and without money to buy more, they often go hungry.

Due to the villages being so isolated, health and medical care facilities are far away and seriously ill villagers have to be carried for hours until they reach a clinic. As a result, many die before they get medical help. The nearest school is often at least 10 kilometres away, so young children receive little or no education. Access to local markets is also extremely difficult. During my visit I saw villagers drying out chilli peppers which they sell to buy food when the rice harvest runs out.

Livelihoods and Education

Concern is working with villagers to find ways of producing extra food and generating cash so people don’t go hungry. In Malenkay village we have helped set up a farmer field school, focussing on the most vulnerable households: those with elderly, ill or
disabled members; those headed by women; or with orphans.

Village members learn different techniques for growing productive crops. They also
receive the seeds, tools and training they need to implement the new methods and decide what works best for them. Through the school Concern has introduced new
crops such as sweet potato and soya beans – both are highly nutritious and help provide variety in local diets.

Health

Concern is also working to improve health and sanitation in the villages, many of which only have dirty and unsafe water for drinking, cooking and washing. In Masheku Bana village, Andrew Thollui, told me ‘There is a problem of dirty water in the village. Children often get sick and some of them die.’

Concern’s community health workers help communities improve hygiene and the quality of the water supply. In many villages Concern is helping to provide wells with pumps, training villagers to manage and maintain them. One such village is Masekory, where Ibrahim Kamara told me: ‘Before we had the well we had to go a long way to fetch water. Children became sick because of the dirty water. Since Concern built the
well, children are healthier and don’t get so ill.’

What impressed me most about Concern’s work here is the way we are working together so effectively with communities, helping them overcome the many problems they have. And what stood out for me in particular were the planning ‘maps’ that villagers had produced with Concern’s help. These plans show their vision of how their community will look in five years’ time: with schools, clinics and better houses. It is our job to help them make these visions and dreams a reality. And with your help, this is exactly what we are doing.