But are they happy?

This month we had American Independence Day when we (should) reflect on our country’s many freedoms and gifts, including the right to the “pursuit of happiness.” After spending time in Sierra Leone of late, I’ve thought more about what constitutes happiness.  Sierra Leoneans are known for being warm people and smiling – a lot.  But are they happy?

Westerners seem fixated on pursuing their own personal happiness.  Books abound on how to find happiness.  We have the Happiness Project, Authentic Happiness, even the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. Time Magazine’s cover story on this cleared up one thing.  Our Founding Fathers weren’t referring to each individual’s pursuit of happiness when they signed the Declaration of Independence.  Rather, they meant a government should be charged with providing an environment that fosters the happiness of its citizens; that gives you the opportunity to freely embark on your own pursuit.  The rest is up to you.

The country of Bhutan has gone a step farther with defining the “Gross National Happiness Index”, and how they as a government will measure the wellbeing of their citizens. They feel governments should be accountable not only for economic prosperity (GDP), but also for the general welfare and happiness of their citizens (GNH Index).  ie., why have economic prosperity unless the average citizen is better off.  http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/articles/

Sounds good to me.  It’s an especially good message for developing countries to not get stuck on the treadmill of ever increasing GDP to the exclusion of their citizen’s welfare, and, well, happiness.

On any country index of wellbeing and happiness measures, Sierra Leone ranks near the bottom.  At least as measured by macro-measures like per capita income, child mortality rate, etc. Extreme poverty is not a happy place to be.

But what about individuals – real people.  These are some of the sunniest people I’ve met anywhere.  Sierra Leone has been called the Land of Smiles. As Westerners coming from the land of grumps, where people feel they never have enough, you are literally basking in the sunshine of the smiles of Sierra Leoneans.  Their singing and dancing.  Their strong sense of community and family.  But I’ve been wondering, with all the hardship in their lives, are they happy?  So, I decided to ask.

On my last trip, I went with the Paramount Chief and his family to spend two weeks in their ancestral village while they started preparing the rice swamps for next season’s planting.  This is a remote village of about 200 people and 25 houses.  I came with no organized group as a buffer or filter – no church mission, no NGO, no visiting ministry delegation.  Just them and me.  As guest of the chief, I was legitimized.  I was seen as OK to talk to.  In a village like this, there’s plenty of time to relax and talk.

They just came back from working 6 hours in the rice swamp & can still smile.

They just came back from working 6 hours in the rice swamp in the hot sun & can still smile.

So I asked people in a poor village, in one of the lowest income districts of one of the poorest countries in the world – what makes you happy.  I thought I better first get clear on a working definition of happiness here. This usually led to discussion of whether they had enough of what would make them happy, or, on the other hand, what they dislike or fear (unhappiness). Here’s some of the people I met.

Hawa, age 35, was born here.  She, her mother, and previously, her grandmother have been small traders, selling farm goods in bigger towns and markets.  She wants her daughter to get an education and be a nurse.  She would be happy when she has money to build a better house.  She also likes to be a business partner with her husband growing rice and making palm oil to sell in the city.  She’s proud when she gets what she needs, like repairing her house in the rainy season to not leak, and sending her daughter to school. She fears being poor. If you’re sick, you can’t go to the hospital without money.

Nurse Adama is happy she safely delivered another baby at the village health clinic.

Nurse Adama is happy she safely delivered another baby at the local health clinic.

Mary, age 30, was born here and is married to a farmer. She makes banga (smoked fish) and palm oil.  It’s hard for her because she doesn’t have money for public transportation to take her things to market where she can earn more. Her family had to flee during the war and live for a year in the bush, collecting wild yams, bananas and fish, and slept on the ground.  People got some money after the war to come back and rebuild, but not enough for a zinc roof.  She has five children, aged 5 to 15, and feels good when she can educate them.  Then they can take care of her in her old age. She hates poverty, sickness like malaria and elephantiasis, and thieves.

Sembu Bendu, boat captain.

Sembu Bendu is happy as boat captain.

Sembu is a 45 year old man and captain of the paramount chief’s boat that operates like a weekly bus on the river to take people to the big Saturday market in Rotifunk.  He was born here, and has a wife and child in Freetown.  He is happy that he could return here after the war with a paid job, and one that he enjoys.  He’s also happy that he’s healthy.  He needs a zinc roof, a better health clinic and new outboard motor.

Abdul is 36 and came from another village to work for the paramount chief.  He lost his parents during the war and never went to school.  He likes hard work and enjoys planting rice.  He does whatever is needed on the farm, like climbing palm trees for coconuts and tapping palm wine.  He has three children, including an 18 year old boy who helps on the farm.  He’s happy when he has money for a good house, food and can pay school fees for his kids. He’s proud when the chief trains him to do work on the farm or sends him on errands.  He likes good clothes. He fears sickness and when married women flirt with him.  (Adultery is punishable with a stiff fine in this chiefdom.)

Masiry, oldest woman in village on her front porch with Arlene.

Masiry, oldest woman in the village on her front porch with Arlene.

Masiry is 70 and the oldest woman in the village.  She came with her husband over forty years ago to farm for the chief’s father.  She has three sons and two daughters, most of who are in Freetown.  She wants her children to be teachers, lawyers and even president.  One daughter finished high school and runs a small business in Liberia.  Most women voted in the last election and she was happy there was no violence. She will be happy if this president does well for his country.  She enjoys when she can do business, buying rice and palm oil here to sell in Freetown where she can double the price.  She’s proud to have a farm and be able to work it.  With more money, she would pay for her children to get more education.  Then they can take care of her when she’s old.  (Or older!)

Town Chief Ali Kamara in front of his house.

Town Chief Ali Kamara in front of his house.

Chief Ali, at 70 is the oldest man in the neighboring village a half mile away and the town chief.  He was born there, as were his father and grandfather.  He has fond memories of village life as a child, when he and his friends fished and sang and “behaved like devils.”  He had at least 15 girlfriends as a young man. When asked what’s difficult about now being town chief, he said collecting taxes and settling woman palaver cases. When husbands have girlfriends it’s the worst.  He laughed, saying he used to do the things he now has to give fines for (as adultery).  He’s happy he has good health and is strong  enough to still be a rice farmer with his children.  He has fifteen children, the oldest 48 years old and eight that are still in school.  When asked if the things that make you happy change over time, he said he’s only happy with a good house with a zinc roof that doesn’t leak in the rain, and when his children come to see him.

I don’t find people to be all that different in other cultures and countries.  Most people are looking for the chance for a decent job that pays enough for housing and daily needs, to educate their children, have good health and access to health care when they don’t.  And a peaceful town where they can live free of crime. 

With the economic downturn and natural disasters of recent years, maybe the developed and under-developed countries have come closer together in what makes them happy.  They want the basics to live comfortably and have their family and friends around them.

Most people I know who go to Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, feel uplifted after their visit. It isn’t so much because while there they feel they “did good” (altho hopefully they did that). It’s because they have taken in all the smiles, warmth, feeling of community, and celebrations of Sierra Leone.  When the music starts, the dancing begins.

Singing & dancing in the village on one of our first nights there.

Singing & dancing in the village on one of our first nights there.

Are Sierra Leoneans happier than Americans? Or are they sadder? Who really knows.  I do think Sierra Leoneans have a more realistic understanding that unhappiness will visit them.  It’s not if, but when. That’s reality for them.  But, in the meantime, they smile.  They don’t act as if they’re entitled to be happy and behave like victims when unhappiness does come their way as many Americans do; the way many Westerners lament, why me? Or dwell on some unhappy event long after it’s past.

So, when you’re not being visited by unhappiness this day or week or year – why not be happy? Why not smile like a Sierra Leonean?  Smile, and maybe you, too, will feel happy.

Adult Literacy Program Has Started

Adult literacy classes organized by The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) in Rotifunk started in May- June.  Here’s a picture of some of the adult learners in a lesson at one of the local primary school buildings.

Adult Literacy students in primary school classroom

Adult Literacy students in Rotifunk primary school classroom

These adult students are women typically in their 30’s with little to no literacy.  As small farmers and market traders, mothers and perhaps single parents, their lives are as full as working women everywhere.  But they are committing themselves to gain new skills that will help improve their small businesses and allow them to take bigger roles in supporting their children’s education.  You can read more about these women and the literacy program CCET is customizing for their needs here: adult-literacy-what-do-they-really-need-to-know/ .

Classes will take a few weeks break now.  It’s planting time for farmers and vegetable gardeners, and these students need to focus on getting their crops in and off to good start as the rainy season moves to a peak.  It’s also Ramadan, the annual month of prayer and fasting for the Muslim students.  These women need to be home cooking in late afternoon and preparing for their family breaking the daily fast at sundown. This is when adult classes would normally be taught – after the day’s work is done and before it gets too dark to see in this small town with no electricity.

The adult literacy instructors from CCET need a break, too.  They are teachers at Prosperity Girls High School, and just completed an intense couple months of preparing students for exams and conducting exams.  They need time off for holiday and to visit their families living in other towns.

Teaching can be a bit hard in the peak of the rainy season anyway.  I’m sitting in my greenhouse as I write this and listening to the rain drumming on the glass above me.  We’ve had unusually heavy rain for July in Ohio.  But this is nothing like the monsoon rain in Sierra Leone’s lowland plains where 100-120 inches a year is the norm, falling all in a seven month period.

Today’s rain is bringing back memories of trying to teach in Rotifunk in July and September when the skies opened and dumped a solid white curtain of rain on the metal roofs of classroom buildings.  No one could hear you when the rain was like horses galloping over your head.  You had to just pause and wait for it to pass before resuming the class.  A break in classes right now for Mother Nature is in order.

I smiled when I saw the above picture of adult students perched on short primary school benches with legs stretched out in front of them, intent on their lesson.  The teacher doesn’t have to keep control of a room of fidgety teen students here.  These women want to be here. They’ve been asking for classes to resume their education after ten or twenty years’ break, or to just begin now.  I can’t wait to see how they progress come September.

Tree Nursery – see them grow

CCET-SL volunteer and local teacher Mr. Sennessy (left, blue shirt) and Mr.s Kaimbay, CCET-SL Director and local principal, left, watch as a young volunteer prepares her seedling bag.

CCET-SL volunteer and local teacher Mr. Sennessy (left, blue shirt) and Mrs. Kaimbay, CCET-SL Director and local principal, right, watch as a young volunteer prepares her seedling bag.

It’s the rainy season now in Sierra Leone and planting time.  Rotifunk is busy planting tree seedlings to raise in their nursery for trees of economic value. 

Thanks to cell phone pictures and Facebook, we can all now see the nursery taking shape and seedlings growing.

The tree nursery is a project of Rotifunk’s home grown nonprofit organization, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation.  CCET-SL’s aim is to empower their community in development with projects like the tree nursery.  With these projects, they hope to transform lives of the average person in Bumpeh Chiefdom.

I shouldn’t say they hope to transform lives.  They plan to transform lives. With simple, concrete projects like the tree nursery that will have clear payback, this isn’t a leap of faith.  Next year, the trees will be ready for people to plant in their own gardens and farms to improve their family’s diet and gain income by selling their surplus.   Citrus, coconut and oil palm trees, as well as teak trees for future lumber sale.

Bumpeh Chiefdom is a rural area rich in agriculture.  So, economic development here starts with agriculture projects. To read the whole story about the Economic Tree Nursery,  click here to see an earlier post.  Sherbro Foundation has supported the nursery project with money to buy farm tools and young oil palm seedlings bred for early fruiting.

Filling polythene bags with soil that will allow seedling to form deep roots.  This looks like rich silty soil from the Bumpeh River floodplain.

Filling polythene bags with soil that will allow seedling to form deep roots. This looks like rich silty soil from the Bumpeh River floodplain.

Rotifunk community gets involved with preparing the bags to hold seedlings.

Rotifunk community gets involved with preparing the bags to hold seedlings.

Seedlings will be nursed in the nursery, watered and protected from hot tropical sun in the dry season til ready to plant next year.

Seedlings will be nursed in the nursery, watered and protected from the dry season’s hot tropical sun til ready to plant next year.  Families across Bumpeh Chiefdom are eligible to get trees at a token cost.

CCET-SL volunteers and local teachers Osmun Kamara and Phillip Komoh.

CCET-SL volunteers and local teachers Osmun Kamara and Phillip Komoh.  I’d guess these are coconut seedlings.

Breaking the barrier of illiteracy

Junior Secondary School 3 students (JSS3 or 9th grade in the U. S.) across Sierra Leone last week completed the BECE exam.  The Basic Education Certificate Examination is a standardized exam administered throughout West Africa by the West African Examination Council to certify students are ready to progress to senior high school.

This is a quiet milestone. But progressing to high school should be celebrated as a big deal for a country where 56% of adults over the age of 15 years in 2011 have never attended formal school. (World Bank data) This number seemed high to me.  But if you stop to think, it’s again that group of young adults whose educations were interrupted by the war and its aftermath.

JSS3 students from four Rotifunk secondary schools are glad the rigorous BECE exam is over.  Twenty two subjects are offered, and students expected to test in 10-13 subjects that take 2 to 2 ½ hours each.  That means 5-6 days of testing for each student.

To pass the BECE, students must pass at least six subjects, including English and Math.  Sierra Leone pass rates last year were only 50% of test takers in Language Arts and 57% in Math; it’s not an easy exam.  Less than half the students taking the BECE in 2012 in the Southern Province where Rotifunk sits passed the overall exam.

Four Rotifunk secondary schools are taking the exam:  Walter Schutz Memorial Secondary School (where I taught many years ago), Prosperity Girls High School, Ahmadiyya Islamic School and Rotifunk’s Christian academy.

Student debaters at Walter Schutz Secondary School and their teacher after completing a debate.

Student debaters at Walter Schutz Secondary School and their teacher after completing a debate.

Prosperity Girls High School was the stand-out in 2012, not only in Rotifunk, but in Moyamba District (one of 12 administrative districts in the country). 100% of PGHS girls taking the BECE exam passed. This is significant given the area’s first all-girls secondary school had only been open three years when students first sat for the BECE last year.  It was the first time each individual girl took the exam, and the first time the school sent students to sit for the exam.  It was also the first year JSS3 – or 9th grade – had been offered at this new school.

Prosperity Girls High School was recognized by the Ministry of Education for their exceptional results.  It was noted their results could be compared with schools in the district open for a hundred years. Their net results were seen as second in the district, given their actual scores and smaller number of students.

So, how did PGHS pull this off?  It starts with an excellent principal and excellent teachers who are capable in their respective subjects and highly committed to their students.  But their secret ingredient is holding what Principal Kaimbay calls a camp – a month long study camp.

JSS3 students hunker down at the school and live there dormitory style all week while the teachers conduct comprehensive reviews of the whole curriculum.  Principal Kaimbay sleeps at the school with them, getting them up at 5:00 AM to begin an early study period before review classes start at 8:00 AM.  They have afternoon breaks for sports and rest, and evening review classes begin again after dinner til about 10 PM.  They can go home for the weekend, and return to begin the condensed study program again on Monday – for a whole month.

This approach delivered results.  Every girl passed in 2012, allowing PGHS to open their first senior high class (10th grade) for the current 2013 academic year.  Mrs. Kaimbay attributes their success to the comprehensive review and keeping the students focused.  We make sure we review every subject and the full curriculum before the exam, she said.  We try to verify knowledge and assist each student.  We provide the  focus and discipline for studying that they would not be able to get if they were studying at home.

Twenty eight JSS3 students from PGHS sat for the BECE this year.  So, it requires not only discipline for the students, but a huge commitment by the teachers and principal. As in countries everywhere, the teachers and principal are the heroes of this story.

I asked PGHS teacher Mr. Sonnah how it was going a couple weeks ago.  Great, he said.  They did a better job preparing the study camp this second time around, so he expects to see results on par with last year. 

Sherbro Foundation knows  JSS3 students from all Rotifunk’s secondary schools have worked hard to be ready for the BECE.  We wish them all the best as they await their results.

Growing the ranks of students ready for senior high is essential for this rural community – and for the country – to continue their development journey and move beyond poverty.  There will no doubt be barriers to the students completing senior high and then joining the workforce.  But academic readiness should not be one of them.  It should be an enabler.   Fortunately, in Rotifunk students are being given a good start. 

You can help.   One barrier Sherbro Foundation is helping to remove is the burden of school fees for rural families unable to pay them.  Consider contributing to the Girls Scholarship Fund that awards school fee scholarships to girls in all four Rotifunk secondary schools.   $22 USD pays fees for one senior high girl to attend school for the year.  $18 USD covers annual school fees for one junior high girl.   You can find an on-line donation button in the right hand column of the website.

West African Peace Corps?

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, this article caught my eye.  ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is sending forty volunteers from their states to serve in education and health care in Sierra Leone.  Twenty have arrived to serve as French and Science teachers in eleven of the country’s upcountry districts, with twenty doctors and intensive care nurses to follow.

I think of ECOWAS as akin to the European Union.  The purpose given for this Volunteer group: “ECOWAS Volunteers are young men and women professionals from the 15 Member States, who contribute to regional development efforts and the consolidation of peace and reconstruction in crisis affected-communities of the region.”

They will work under “at times, difficult conditions” and help “to strengthen the capacities of local organizations, establishing and supporting partnerships between communities.”

Sounds like something a U. S. Peace Corps Volunteer can identify with.

I applaud their effort.  Another sign that peace and stability have taken hold in West Africa with countries sending volunteers to promote peace and development  in their fellow states.

I would say to these volunteers, you’re likely to get more out your experience there than you feel you are able to give.  Experiences that will serve you well for the rest of your life.  Most U. S. Peace Corps Volunteers fondly say this of their Peace Corps service.  Enjoy it!

Read the full article here: http://awoko.org/2013/06/26/sierra-leone-20-ecowas-volunteers-to-serve-in-sierra-leone/