Obama’s Bumpeh Chiefdom fans

Obama may not be visiting Sierra Leone this week, but he has fans in Bumpeh Chiefdom.  You don’t need to look far to see people proudly showing their support for Obama.

Mr. Bendu, left, of Moyeamoh village, proudly wears his Obama hat in front the Obama picture on his front porch. (He's holding the chicken I've been presented with.)

Mr. Bendu, left, of Moyeamoh village, proudly wears his Obama hat in front the Obama picture he keeps on his front porch. (He’s holding the chicken Arlene’s been presented with.)

Mr. Bendu, Moyeahmoh village, displays his Obama watch.

Mr. Bendu, Moyeahmoh village, displays his Obama watch.

Woman Sampa dancer in Rotifunk wears her Obama shirt.

Woman Sampa dancer in Rotifunk wears her Obama shirt.

Registering births – a basic human right

I’ve always thought of having a birth certificate in the U. S. as a legal right of U. S. citizenship.  But I never stopped to think of it as a basic human right.  Maybe that’s because we’ve always had birth certificates here.  I frankly never thought much of it because I never had to experience what it’s like to have to prove who you are.

Mr. Sonnah described birth certificates in Sierra Leone as being a basic human right – that your birth is documented and you as a person are legitimized.  Simple and straightforward – but not easy in today’s rural Sierra Leone.

Mr. Sonnah, teacher and volunteer organizer at Rotifunk’s Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET), said birth and death registration is required by law today in Sierra Leone, but the majority of rural communities either do not understand this or do not have the means to do it.

Sixty percent of Sierra Leone’s population lives in rural areas with little to no national government presence.  Traditional paramount chief rulers are the primary – and often the only – means of ensuring basic law and order, and delivering the fundamental systems of organized societies.  Systems like registering births and deaths.

So CCET is embarking on a project to organize a grass roots system to register births and deaths on a monthly level down to the smallest villages in Bumpeh Chiefdom.  With 208 villages, many of them remote with barely drivable roads (in good weather) and little or no public transportation, this is no small task. 

The birth and death registration project is the brain child of Bumpeh Chiefdom Paramount Chief Charles Caulker.  When Chief Caulker asked if Sherbro Foundation could help with sponsoring an initial training workshop, I asked him to explain why this project is important and how it fit within the foundation’s mission of furthering rural development.  I could intuitively make the connection, but wanted his perspective.

Paramount Chief Caulker in village meeting with his official staff bearer & horn blower.

Paramount Chief Caulker in village meeting with his official staff bearer & horn blower.

Arlene, he said, NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and UN groups like UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) come to Sierra Leone all the time to do studies and planning for their aid programs.  We can’t accurately tell them about our population demographics, especially for children and children under the age of five – one their major program target groups.  They then can’t do accurate forecasts and plan program budgets.  They’re spending money to provide for children born in the past, and we can’t accurately tell them how many we have and where they are today.

Sierra Leone is a country where 60% of its population is under the age of 24 years of age.  The Infant Mortality Rate is still is 74.95 of 1000 live births – 11th highest of 224 countries worldwide.  (From CIA World Factbook, Sierra Leone – last updated 2013) So, accurately counting children and planning program services for children is indeed an important part of rural development.

There are more immediate and practical reasons why the people of Bumpeh Chiefdom need a birth registration system.  Without a birth certificate, you cannot gain admission to schools and get the free health services the government provides. You must prove you are a Sierra Leone citizen. Nor can you cannot get a passport or contest election and run for local office. 

I asked Mr. Sonnah what people do today without birth certificates. They are penalized for not having one when they need it, he said, by paying a fine of Le 5000 (about $1.25USD). Then they are given one.

Proving your birth and place of birth is more fundamental to us, Mr. Sonnah said.  Beyond proving you are a Sierra Leone citizen, people want to claim their home village.  They want to claim the cultural set (tribal group or ethnicity) they belong to.  These are social rights that are important to us.

When we consistently give people their rights to citizenship, Mr. Sonnah said, then we can ask them to perform the responsibilities of citizens.  Things like paying taxes and voting, both institutions still in the early formative stages in Sierra Leone.

Chief Caulker was frustrated with the lack of accurate population data and people in his own chiefdom missing their personal documentation.  So he’s decided to organize a model program to register births and deaths in his own chiefdom.

Bumpeh Chiefdom is divided into thirteen sections, each with a Section Chief and local leaders.  Like the paramount chief, section chiefs are elected from traditional ruling families.  They rule for life and are responsible for the welfare of the villages in their section.  They periodically meet with Chief Caulker and other chiefdom leaders in a Chiefdom Council to discuss issues that affect them and their people.

Bumpeh Chiefdom Council meeting - town hall style.

Bumpeh Chiefdom Council meeting – town hall style.

This cascading system of traditional leaders will be used for the birth and death registration system.  Villages will have a representative trained to keep a ledger recording births and deaths as they occur and bring them to their Section Chief.  Monthly, sections will report their data to the chiefdom level to compile overall stats.

It’s a simple manual system for now.  But it’s the strong organization of traditional chiefdom leaders used to working together in a collaborative process that will make it work.  That and the inclusiveness and steady hand Chief Caulker brings to managing chiefdom programs.

An old tradition will also be reinstated with the birth registration system.  The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation will ensure each child born has a tree planted in their home village to recognize their birth.  Read more about CCET’s Economic Tree Nursery project and how this will be used to provide birth trees here.

The Sherbro Foundation is pleased to be sponsoring costs for an initial workshop where village representatives will be trained on registering births and deaths.

Growing trees with economic value

Let’s talk about the another part of the Sherbro Foundation’s work – helping to spur economic development in a rural community.

On my last two trips to Sierra Leone an idea was percolating in my brain that finally crystalized.  I recognized I wanted to do something beyond the cycle of donations for traditional nonprofit work supporting education, health, community services and the like.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are important and much needed.  These are a lot of what Sherbro Foundation is doing, too.

But I also wanted to do something else.  Something more.

The more is giving the chiefdom a boost in economic development, and their main economic livelihood is agriculture.  This chiefdom is blessed with fertile land for agriculture and rivers with which to irrigate.  It is lacking the means for most people to develop and expand beyond subsistence agriculture, or to further develop agriculture as a business.

Doing more is helping people expand and diversify their family farm crops, increasing their own food security and allowing them to sell a little excess for much needed cash.

Doing more is also helping spur small farming business that can expand, and in doing so, create paid jobs where none now exist. Getting jobs with regular paid wages can help people join the “formal economy” where they can then pay their own children’s school fees and buy their own mosquito nets.

I was astounded when Bumpeh Chiefdom Paramount Chief Caulker told me what typical cash incomes are in many small villages.  It may be as small as 50,000 Leones/year.  This is little more than $10 USD.  $10 per year, that is.  This is the bottom of the subsistence scale, an informal economy of barter.  You locally trade or sell small amounts of what you grow.  Otherwise, you live off the land, and the fish in the rivers.  Or small game you may be able to hunt.  Bush beef we called it.  You may be able to raise a few goats and chickens.

Tending a vegetable garden.  Day care on your back.

Tending a vegetable garden. Day care on your back.

The most disadvantaged are young adults, eighteen and up, ready to start out on the own.  Also women divorced or separated from husbands, left to fend for themselves and their children.  The families of these groups literally do not have any excess money to loan them to start their farms and vegetable gardens.  With no money for tools, seed, and fertilizer, these groups are stuck. Stuck in extreme poverty.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation, Rotifunk’s all-volunteer group for community development is beginning to tackle this area by starting a tree nursery for trees of economic value.

The idea came up one day on my last trip when we needed to escape the heat of a tropical afternoon in the dry season.  Come on, said Chief Caulker, let’s go pick grapefruits.  We took chairs beyond his house and down a hill to an old citrus orchard started by his father fifty years ago.  I didn’t know citrus trees live 50+ years; maybe the non-hybridized kind.

Boys catch grapefruits being picked.

Boys catch grapefruits being picked in mature fruit orchard.

Picking fruit meant sending boys to shinny up a tree in their bare feet to drop grapefruits down to other waiting kids.  They hold out gunny sacks to break the fall of fruits and not squash them.  Then we divvy up the fruit so everyone gets some.  We sent someone to find bread and made “sandwiches” for the kids with groundnut paste – roasted peanuts you grind up with an empty bottle on a board.

We were enjoying the grapefruits and Chief Caulker reminisced about how he had had “his tree,” his birth tree, and how this is no longer being done.  Probably another casualty lost to the war. Your Tree is where your umbilical cord is planted after your birth together with a tree seedling.  It grows as you grow, and it’s Your Tree.  An old custom in many parts of Africa.

A charming and practical custom, I agreed.  We need more trees planted in this country.  I see fire wood being cut left and right.  How are trees being replanted?

This led to a conversation about how we should start planting trees and get the new community based organization – the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation, still an idea, but at least that day drafted on paper – to start this.

Four months later, as I write this, CCET volunteers are planting the Economic Tree Nursery.  The rainy season has started, and it’s time to plant trees.

CCET has started with fruit trees they are germinating from seed and growing themselves to seedlings.  Orange, grapefruit, lemon (we call lime) and mango.

CCET will transplant seedlings to small polythene bags and nurse them til next season, when local people can buy them at a small nominal cost for their farm or garden. Mr. Sonnah, agriculture teacher and CCET volunteer explained, people take things more seriously when they have to pay something for them.  Same thing at home, I said.  These small fees will go back to purchase materials to start new seedlings each year.

Mr. Sonnah said getting fruit trees will improve a family’s food security, giving them another food source and diversifying their diet.  Fruit trees are typically planted near rivers and streams, helping keep them watered.  As trees mature, they then protect the water catchment area. Trees are like sponges, taking up water, and their roots prevent run-off and erosion in the heavy tropical rains.  These water filled trees then help keep streams from easily drying up in the dry season.  People will need chiefdom permission to cut down economic trees and pay a small fee, as well as replant the tree.  This is to discourage trees being cut for firewood.  Acacia, a fast growing “weed tree” can be used for fire wood.

Village woman extracting oil from palm fruits in her canoe.

Village woman extracting oil from palm fruits in her canoe.

CCET is also starting to nurse oil palm seedlings they bought from Njala University’s agriculture school.  Oil palms are native to Sierra Leone, and the oil from the palm fruits is a mainstay of the local diet.  Palm oil is increasingly used globally for a variety of applications, and is a good cash crop.  The Njala seedlings are a new variety that will produce faster,  fruiting in about four years.

Nine hundred teak seedlings from another source have also been added to CCET’s tree nursery.  These need special care with careful pruning and cultivation as young seedlings.  Next rainy season they’ll be bigger and stronger, and ready to be sold and transplanted again for future lumber harvesting.

CCET will organize workshops and 1:1 training on how to plant and care for all the trees that will be sold.  With 60% of the country’s population under 24 years of age, these are skills that were lost in the war years and now needed for young adults and women needing to become farmers.

The custom of children getting “their tree” will start again, as well.  CCET will ensure each child has a tree planted at birth.  In this way, you will also be able to tell how many children were recently born in a village by counting the number of new trees.

This project is a good example of how a few people can make a big difference when they work together and just get going on a practical first step.

Many benefits follow this project: economic development, food security, environmental protection, protecting cultural traditions, empowering youth and women as farmers.

Sherbro Foundation is glad to have contributed the funding to buy farm tools for the tree nursery and the oil palm seedlings.

Adult Literacy – what do they really need to know?

It’s estimated that 70% of Sierra Leone’s population lives at the impoverished level of $2 USD/day or less. This is sometimes globally called the bottom billion, the lowest tier on the ladder of the world’s seven billion population.

This is true of rural Bumpeh Chiefdom. As you move into more remote villages, the percent no doubt climbs above 70% to most if not all of these communities.  With this kind of poverty comes lack of education.   

If you want to provide adult literacy education, where do you start? Literally, where should you begin in this kind of environment?

A good place is to know the group you aim to educate.  This is where Rotifunk’s Center for Empowerment and Transformation, a local all-volunteer group of Rotifunk teachers is beginning their work on adult literacy.

Shortly after Prosperity Girls High School Principal, Rosaline Kaimbay came to Rotifunk to begin her work on the school, adults expressed their interest in learning to read and write.  Others had attended school, but had to drop out and wanted to continue and develop skills to join the job market.  Or to help their own children as they progress through school.  The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation has made adult literacy for these people a cornerstone of the Center’s work.

I asked about a profile of the current adult learners.  All are now women; hopefully the men will follow.  The majority of the women are single heads of household, divorced, separated or widowed.  They are mainly in their mid-30’s, but range from 20 years old and up.  This is the group that would have had their schools abruptly shut or interrupted during Sierra Leone’s civil war when towns and villages were abandoned to rebel fighting.  In the early years of rebuilding following the war, schooling would have either not yet been available, or the cost beyond the reach of rural families.  Girls’ education would traditionally have been given low priority, especially as a girl approached marriageable age.

Women fetching water for their vegetable garden.

Women fetching water for their vegetable garden.

Early primary school learning for these women has long been lost and forgotten.  They moved on with their lives in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers, doing the work available in a subsistence agriculture community.  They became small traders and small farmers.

In one way or another, 70% of Sierra Leone’s population is involved in agriculture.  Either they grow things themselves, or they are small traders who buy agricultural products like rice, palm oil and vegetables in quantity from small farms and bring them to resell in larger village and town markets.

Small traders may also buy “general store” items in larger towns to resell in local markets – cooking utensils, plastic buckets and basins, soap, batteries, plastic sandals, cloth and so on.

These are working women, working in what’s called the informal economy.  It’s the economy of small farmers whose schedules are driven by the planting and harvesting seasons, and of small traders who must be available for market days in towns and villages where they sell their wares.  They need knowledge that will help them improve their current lives, and on a flexible schedule.

Women selling fish in Rotifunk's market.

Small trader selling smoked fish in Rotifunk’s market.

Traditional reading and writing is not the first priority for these women.  The typical classroom reading, grammar and writing kind of stuff that you get over twelve years of public education is not of immediate use to them.  Basic arithmetic is a priority.  Vocational skills tailored to their kind of work are another need.

The volunteer teachers at the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation are embarking on a “functional adult literacy” program. They will teach their adult learners what they need to know to successfully conduct their business and improve their lives.

Traders need to know basic computations to ensure they’re getting the best price for their goods, how to calculate interest for the small loans they invariably take (or maybe give to friends), and skills on how to better market the goods they sell.

Small farmers need to know about applying fertilizer and manure, when and how much, and how to “add value” to their agricultural products by further processing or packaging to get a better price.

They would all like to know more about female reproductive health and social skills to better manage conflicts (known here as palavers), useful when you’re living in the confines of a small village.  And they’re enjoying recreation organized specifically for them – women’s football (soccer) teams.  Where else would a village mother find the time (or give herself the permission) to play sports and release the pent up stress of living in poverty and develop the camaraderie of a group of peer women.

There’s no curriculum for this kind of functional learning, so the Center’s volunteer teachers will develop their own lessons.  Experienced teachers know how to do this, and build as they go.  They understand these things when they lived embedded in the community with their students, and are committed to working with them.

Now, how to give these women the time from their busy lives to take advantage and improve themselves?  Sound familiar? I have no doubt this program will grow and the merits be known by word of mouth from the initial group of students.  Success breeds more success.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation – another bright star

Trying to do good in another country is not always straightforward.  First, you need to find well-defined projects you believe will “do good” in the area you want to serve.  Then you need a trusted partner on the ground who shares your objectives and can effectively deliver the nuts-and-bolts work, and do it with integrity.

The Sherbro Foundation is fortunate to have found such a partner in The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation.  CCET is a grassroots, all-volunteer nonprofit group of Sierra Leoneans organized for the development of Rotifunk and Bumpeh Chiefdom.

It’s quite a name and tells you right off what the vision of this group is. It’s no less than the empowerment and transformation of their community.

I was fortunate to have had an early and impactful learning from my old days in the Peace Corps that I’ve carried with me all these years.  To make lasting change or improvements, don’t show up with your pre-cooked “solution” and try to give it to people who aren’t sold on – or maybe even aware of – the problem you’ve selected for them. This is generally true anywhere, and even more true when working with a rural community of another culture. 

Still today, I see too many NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) trying to solve the problems of the world with their own “programs”.  They may not spend enough time in the developing country communities they want to serve to jointly set priorities and agree on approaches to use.

It was a stroke of luck that found me back in Rotifunk for my third return trip right as the concept for the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation was taking shape.  I was visiting more of the chiefdom and better understanding the extent of the needs there.   I arrived already frustrated in not finding existing nonprofit organizations in the U. S. interested in supporting the kind of small community projects I saw needed in Bumpeh Chiefdom.  Grant applications, even if successful, can take months if not a year or more to process. I was already toying with the idea of creating my own nonprofit.

At the same time Prosperity Girls High School had just started their first senior high class, and with that, hired several new teachers.  More competent and committed teachers joined those already at PGHS, ready to serve this rural community.   Within a month of their arrival, several of the new teachers joined up with existing teachers to form the concept for a community based organization.

The Center concept

I asked Mr. Sonnah and Mr. Kamara, PGHS teachers and thought leaders in the Center, how their concept had come about. Both relayed the same story.  Some old university friends of theirs representing an NGO had come to Rotifunk to do a survey.  They challenged them to create their own community-based organization.  Come on, they said.  You’re in this rural place with time on your hands; you have the education and potential to be doing more. 

Mr. Sonnah and his 7th grade class.

Mr. Sonnah and his 7th grade class.

The teachers had already seen how PGHS principal Rosaline Kaimbay was struggling to start adult literacy classes, holding intermittent lessons on the front porch of her house after school let out.  The majority of the adult students were women whose educations were interrupted, or maybe never started, because of the war.

The teachers agreed adult literacy would become the first core program for the Center to take on and they would do it on a volunteer basis.

Mr. Kamara in a moment of relaxing.

Mr. Kamara in a moment of relaxing.

More projects soon followed.  The Center’s current project portfolio includes:

  1. Adult literacy – starting with creating a curriculum of practical skills for small traders and farmers that are illiterate, mainly women.  
  2. Girls Scholarship program – paying school fees to keep teenage girls in Rotifunk’s four secondary schools at a time when drop out rates for girls climb and families have great difficulty paying for the cost of an education.
  3. Tree nursery for trees of economic value – nursing small teak tree and oil palm seedlings and starting citrus and avocado trees from seed to provide to the community at nominal cost.
  4. Computer literacy – building the computer skills of local teachers in preparation for organizing the community computer lab the Sherbro Foundation has facilitated with a donated shipment of fifty computers now on their way to Rotifunk.
  5.  Registration of chiefdom births and deathshelping set up a model process where none now exists in Bumpeh Chiefdom, or most of rural Sierra Leone.
  6.  Adult sports teams for women – organizing women’s football (soccer) teams to give women still traumatized from the war a physical outlet for stress and team building for a peer network.

Within five months of their initial conceptual discussion, the Center volunteers are busy planting trees, teaching computer skills, and developing lessons on basic computations for illiterate market women.

This is what I call empowerment.  They’re getting going on concrete, practical programs that can help transform their community using  the limited resources they have.

The Sherbro Foundation is proud to have helped with start-up costs for the Center.  We have donated money to pay fees for the Center to officially register as a nonprofit with several Sierra Leone ministries, making them eligible for local grant funds.  We have also provided money for classroom furniture to be locally built for the computer lab, and to purchase farming tools and oil palm seedlings for the tree nursery.  We will fund a one-day workshop where people will be taught how to complete the birth/death registrations.

More will follow on each of these projects.

Mr. Sonnah explained the Center’s logo to me and how it symbolizes what they plan to accomplish.  A man and a woman are together holding one torch light.  Light brings about transformation, and men and women are equally balanced in holding one light.  They are surrounded by olive branches depicting them rescuing the chiefdom from its past traumas.  They are transforming the chiefdom to be a better place.  Mr. Kamara said in his quietly confident manner, we are developing our brothers and sisters, and we know with our work today, tomorrow will be a brighter day.  We see our future as bright.

The Sherbro Foundation sees their future as bright, too, and we’re happy to be helping them on their way.