Africa is my Home: A Child of the Amistad

If you have a child in your life, this is a wonderful book to get and read with them.   “Inspired by a true account, here is the compelling story of a child who arrives in America on the slave ship Amistad —and eventually makes her way home to Africa.”

edinger coverAuthor Monica Edinger is a fellow Friend of Sierra Leone and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. We both made our first trip back to Sierra Leone together in 2011 after many years.  We were privileged to visit the ruins of Bunce Island, an old slave fort in the Freetown harbor from where captives like Magru, the girl in her book would have been shipped. Truly amazing.

I read about Magru’s story after I returned home,  She was an actual nine year old girl in Sierra Leone sold into slavery, sailing on the Amistad ship to Cuba in 1839.  You may recall the Amistad story from Spielberg’s movie of the same name, where captive slaves were able to revolt, take over the ship, and in trying to return to Africa, ended up in the U. S.  Fortunately, the northern U. S. , where their diplomatic and legal case ended up going to the Supreme Court.

It’s most interesting to read stories like this one of the Amistad and the nine year old girl, Magru, from the African perspective.  I’ve learned a lot about this chapter of Sierra Leone’s history in reading various things; but that can be for future posts.

You can read this story of a nine year girl on the Amistad ship in Monica’s beautifully illustrated book with your kids.  You’ll probably learn something yourselves. Thank you, Monica.

You can watch Monica’s Trailer linked here.  http://medinger.wordpress.com/africa-is-my-home/

Interview: The 50/50 Group on Women’s Rights in Sierra Leone

This sounds like a worthwhile effort: women don’t understand their legal rights? Translate them into local languages and present them orally – on the radio, in community listening groups.

Reinventing the Rules

Check out this interesting interview by the World Justice Project with the founder of the 50/50 Group in Sierra Leone on her work helping women learn about their rights.

Can you tell me a little bit about your project in Sierra Leone and what was the rule of law challenge that inspired you to create this project?

Well first of all let me tell you who I am. I am Nemata Majeks-Walker, the founder and first President of the 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone. The 50/50 Group is a group that empowers women to take part in politics and public life through training and we also advocate for the legal empowerment of women. Now what inspired me to carry out the project is the fact that whenever rules are passed, whenever laws are passed, they’re not implemented. The laws don’t reach the people for who they are designed. For example…

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Computer Lab Project: First Pictures

The Computer Lab project is now reality! The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) in Rotifunk is the proud owner of a computer lab with 50 modern laptop computers with Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010. And the first pictures are in.

We wish to once again thank the U.S. donors, Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for taking the lead in outfitting the computer lab with up-to-date computers.  We hope you enjoy now watching the transformation of this community as both adults and high school students acquire their first computer skills.

The computer “lab” today is still temporary quarters in a house Chief Caulker has loaned them for now.  Building a new classroom building for the computer lab open to the community will be the next step in the project.  Installing a solar energy system to power lighting for evening classes and to charge computers is also part of the plan.

But with tables and chairs made by local carpenters and computers in hand, computer classes have begun.

Teacher and CCET leader, Mr. Sonnah earlier 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, another teacher and CCET leader 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.

High school computer students, L - R: Bumpeh Christian Academy, Walter Schultz Sec. School, Prosperity Girls HS

High school computer students, L – R: Bumpeh Christian Academy, Walter Schultz Secondary School, Prosperity Girls High School

I, too, see their future getting brighter each day.  I think you can see it in the pictures that follow.

High School students practice on front porch of the CCET offices

High School students practice on front porch of the CCET offices

Adult students get computer instruction

Adult students get computer instruction

CCET teacher instructs adult students.

CCET teacher instructs adult students.

Teachers and adult computer students

Teachers and adult students in front of the temporary computer lab quarters.

Women in adult literacy class in an afternoon lesson

Another CCET program: Women in an adult literacy class in an afternoon lesson

The Girl Effect

Walter Schutz Secondary School students

Walter Schutz Secondary School students in Rotifunk

It’s September. School is starting again and I’m thinking of the Girl Effect.  Getting girls into secondary school in rural Sierra Leone, and keeping them there, is at the core of Sherbro Foundation’s work.

If I ever stop to think of why I put my personal effort into working on this, I only have to be reminded of one thing.

The Girl Effect.

The message is simple. “Invest in a girl, and she will do the rest.”

She’ll invest in her family and community.  With millions of girls in the world, that’s millions of chances to make the world a much better place.  I like those odds  – and return on my investment – when compared to most other development programs.

But I don’t need to explain it. This video says it all.   Click here:  The Girl Effect   

“If you change the prospects of an adolescent girl on a big enough scale, you will transform societies.”    

Mark Lowcock, DflD Permanent Secretary
Prosperity Girls High School 7th graders

Prosperity Girls High School 7th graders

You can be part of the Girl Effect transforming Rotifunk and Bumpeh Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

Please contribute to Sherbro Foundation’s Girls Scholarship Fund.  Your $25 will pay school fees to send a girl to secondary school In Rotifunk for the year.

The school year is starting and she needs your help.

Click to Donate here

Donations from all countries are welcome through this Paypal link.

Why do people need a computer in rural Sierra Leone?

What will people do with a computer in a rural area like Rotifunk when they have no electricity and no Internet service beyond spotty mobile phone coverage – if you have a smart phone. If most people have at best limited literacy, what does it matter if they have access to a computer?

My original motivation for getting PC’s to Rotifunk was to get job training skills into school programs there.  I especially wanted young girls to get a jump start on skills needed for good jobs in today’s economy.  That’s still a primary objective.

As I got more involved, I saw professionals and leaders already there in Rotifunk did not have computers. The Prosperity Girls High School principal, teachers, chiefdom administrators – all well educated and capable people were being held back by not having a computer to modernize documents and records, improve their productivity and have access to all the information that the Internet can provide.

But I soon found computer access in a rural area can do much more.  It starts with the smallest computer of all – the smart phone. With a smart phone and its Internet access, people can do a lot to improve their day to day lives.  Everyone.

If more than one person, that often where the cell phone cell is stronger.

If there’s more than one person, that’s often where the mobile phone signal is stronger.

When I made my first trip back to Sierra Leone in 2011 with friends, we observed that things largely looked the same as we had left off in the 70’s. Not encouraging.  Then we started seeing one important thing that had changed.  People were walking around with this thing in their ear and talking to themselves.  Just like at home, but we weren’t home.  Wait a minute.  Those were mobile phones everywhere.

The juxtaposition of mobile phones next to a mud house took a minute to register and get used to.  Especially a woman in a traditional lappa with a baby on her back, maybe cooking outside on three stone talking on a mobile phone.

This is not just yakking.  With limited incomes, it’s a pay as you go system.  You buy units from a local vendor and people use them carefully.  I had to get used to people otherwise effusively friendly, abruptly hanging up on me.  They’re conserving units.

So what do they use mobile phones for?  Many things.  In an area where roads are beyond miserable and public transportation infrequent and expensive on their incomes, you can do a certain amount of your day to day business and personal connections now by your phone. Like calling ahead to make sure a shop has the goods in stock you need for your local business or to resell in the market.  You can check prices while you’re at it and find the best price.  Maybe you can arrange to have your order delivered to you with someone you know and avoid the trip yourself.

Cell phone towers announce you're entering a small town.

Cell phone towers announce you’re entering a rural town or village – here Rotifunk.

Most women work by virtue of being small traders as they call it in the informal economy.  They buy goods in one place at a good price and sell in another. Phone orders and other requests are especially empowering for women.  The Internet and phones are good ways to level the playing field. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you look like. Money talks.  And you don’t have to leave your children or waste time you could instead use to do other chores for your family.

I’ve seen many applications for mobile phones now that mobiles have taken hold in Africa.  They involve getting fast and timely access to information, and avoiding costly and difficult trips on bad rural roads.

Farmers can call Agriculture extension services or other advisors to find out why their crops are doing poorly and get advice on what to do.

Health care is one of the most exciting uses of this “mini-computer.” When a woman goes into labor, a call can go to the nearest  health clinic to be ready for her, and where available, arrange for a vehicle to take her.  In a country with one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world, access to health services when needed is leading to dramatic improvements for mothers and infants.

Likewise, mothers can call clinics to consult with a nurse or community health officer about their family’s illness.  Hours of unnecessary delay can make all the difference when a small child has malaria or acute diarrhea, and parents can be advised on what to do by phone.

Texting health messages to rural clinic health practitioners was noted as one successful measure in averting a replay of last year’s major cholera epidemic in Sierra Leone when hundreds died.  The rainy season is cholera season.  Rains were bad this year, but cholera incidence was not.  Texts went out alerting clinics on symptoms to watch for and what to do.

Banking and paying bills by phone is the next innovation in Africa and coming to Sierra Leone. Traditional banking dings poor people twice.  Bank account minimums and transaction fees are cost prohibitive for people living on $2 a day. Then you have to pay for public transportation to get to a bank, since villages and most small towns have no bank.  Rotifunk only last month had their first small credit union type bank open.

Now, pay by phone services are starting to pop up.  You can pay bills using the same mode as buying call units.  You give a local vendor the information on who you need to pay and how much, pay cash and they transmit the funds to pay your bill. Services are starting that let you use your phone like a debit card. You avoid bank fees – and can stay off those miserable roads wasting your time.  People will need to get used to these services. But the cost-benefit seems clear to encourage use as they become available.

Sierra Leone’s journalists even created “citizen journalists” in the country’s 2012 Presidential election with mobile phones. The government promised free, fair and transparent elections.  So, journalists gave mobile phones to average citizens to report back real time what was going on in their remote polling place.

This video gives an overview of how rural, low income people’s lives are made better with that mini-computer, the mobile phone.  Mobile for Development life stories.

CNN notes other innovative solutions mobile phones made available to people in Africa in their article: Seven ways mobile phones have changed lives in Africa. 

Yes, some of this is just using phone service, and you don’t even need a smart phone.  But others connect computerized services by phone.  And once people are comfortable and proficient with using mobile phone functionality, it’s not a huge step up to using a computer.  And a computer can bring educational, productivity and job skill opportunities to a rural area.

I watched an illiterate girl sell me mobile phone units in Rotifunk.  She had no trouble punching all those numbers into her mobile phone that then connected with a computer that activated my phone with call units. She mastered this in no time because it was a job for her.

I look at mobile phones as the training ground for introducing IT technology to a country ready and willing to use it.

The Computers Have Arrived. Who’s first to use them?

Fifty laptop computers arrived in Rotifunk a week ago.  The shipment generously donated by Schneider Electric and TIP Capital were picked up from the shipping company’s warehouse in Freetown, and carried to Rotifunk by car.  Our dream of a computer lab for this rural town is starting to take shape.

This 77 year old student is a fast learner.

This 77 year old student is a fast learner.

A few things I found needed to be worked out.  After anxiously opening the boxes, they found they wouldn’t turn on. Someone realized the battery is discharged after sitting in a ship for a month.  This means carrying them to a house with a generator to recharge in this town with no electricity.  When they started, a message popped up about wanting to do a WIndows 7 update.  But in a town with no Internet access, you can’t receive automatic updates.  There’s way to handle this, too, in Sierra Leone, and someone was coming from the capital with a Windows 7 program disc to do their magic.

School’s been out for summer break and teachers are just returning to Rotifunk from their holidays to start the new school year.  I called Teacher Osman Kamara who volunteers with the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) – the new owners of the computers – to hear how it was going.  Osman had not yet arrived in Rotifunk himself, but said they will now be gearing up to start computer literacy classes.

In the meantime, some adults have been coming forward expressing their desire to learn to use a computer.  Really, I asked.  Like who?  I was interested to hear which people were among the first to make their interest known.

One is the chief Imam, Osman said.  The chief Imam is the leader of the community mosque.  I thought, well, ministers need to write and keep sermons, so an Imam must do the same.  Yes, Osman said, And he needs to keep written records and make certificates for things like marriage licenses.  So, he wants to learn to do this on a computer.

They’ve acquired a printer and can now print things for teachers and other users – like a marriage certificate for the Imam to present to a newlywed couple. Or exams teachers have prepared. It didn’t take long to learn that printer ink is not cheap.  They will need to charge a small printing fee for these requests. That’s far cheaper than going to the capital to use a computer or printer, when you add in transportation costs and a two day trip. 

I can visualize the CCET office quickly becoming the local Kinko’s or Staples of Rotifunk.  Unfortunately, now run with a generator that’s another expense for fuel.  We’re keeping a solar energy system as a priority on our project list.

Chief Caulker early on expressed interest for the chiefdom clerks to learn how to computerize their records.  They are starting a systematic system for recording births and deaths in the chiefdom.  Computer records will be perfect to not only maintain data, but to start making spreadsheet reports on their statistics.  Likewise, they keep land use records on who has rights to parcels of land and when they acquired these. 

I listened to a land dispute case in the chief’s daily palaver court in a small village last February.  People bring their disputes and complaints before the chief for settlement as in a court.  In this case, the land was on the border between small villages and no one could remember when or if the person claiming land rights had gotten them.  Who’s the oldest man in this area? asked Chief Caulker.  A motorcycle taxi was sent to collect him in hopes of getting an objective and accurate reading on this. The day will soon be here when the chief could make a cell phone call back to Rotifunk for the computer data base on this.  Well, if the village has a cell phone signal, which this one did not.  But that will come, too.

The wheels of my brain start turning.  When you move beyond computer literacy lessons and into actual applications, they need data management procedures.  Do they understand the need to back up data, and how will they do this?   A memory stick or blank CD will work initially, but they’ll soon need something like a remote hard drive. Mr. Kemoh, one of the teachers who studied IT technology will surely understand this. 

I asked an enterprising young Rotifunk man how he would use a computer if he had one. He would start a business to transfer songs to people’s cell phones.  Playing music on your cell phone is hot in Sierra Leone.  And you’d be surprised how many people have cell phones.  People who can download the latest songs on a computer can have a thriving business transferring these to people’s phones for a small fee.

Movies and videos are of course equally popular. They also open a whole new window on the world for people who have been to date isolated.  With a computer and video projector I brought last February, we could show movies in the small village we stayed in of 25 homes. (Had to bring a generator, too, of course.) I brought a number of videos where children were lead characters in hopes of being both entertaining and educating.

What I hadn’t counted on was American English being such a barrier. When the subject matter is culturally different and the language is different than yours, or just hard to understand, you can imagine interest falls off quickly.  How long could you watch a “foreign film” with no subtitles.  Action films of course, do better.  I found the early Harry Potter films hold universal appeal.  Even when we fried the video projector with power surges coming thru the generator.  (Only the fuse I hope.) Rather than give up, we just turned the computer screen towards the crowd gathered outside the house.  With some small speakers I brought, that sufficed for our village cinema.  The kids were happy.

Some adults just want to learn to use a computer because it’s now there. You may be asking who that handsome guy is typing away in the picture at the top of this story.  It’s Chief Caulker’s Uncle Stalin.  Seventy seven year old Uncle Stalin wanted computer lessons when we were together in a village.  He had been a bursar on a freighter carrying goods to and fro from England in his younger days.  That’s where he had learned to type. 

I had panicked when I bought PC’s to take two weeks before my last trip and found they were loaded with Windows 8.  I had to quickly teach myself how to use them to teach others.  In two lessons, Uncle Stalin had mastered Windows 8 basics. He could turn on the computer and start up, locate the last Word document he made and start typing a letter without help.  He was thrilled, and so was I.

It’s not too late for him – or for anyone in Rotifunk – to meet their aspirations using a computer. Yes, we have some ground to make up.  But my experience so far would indicate, that’s not going to be a big problem.

 

 

 

 

 

Rebuilding Bumpeh Chiefdom after Sierra Leone’s civil war

Rebuilding Bumpeh Chiefdom after Sierra Leone’s civil war

Rotifunk, the seat of Bumpeh Chiefdom, was devastated in Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war.  About 55 miles southeast of the capital, Freetown, Rotifunk was hit hard as rebel soldiers burned and looted their way to the capital.  Every building in the town of about 10,000 was burned except for a church and a mosque, and its people forced to flee. The town abandoned for several years.  The result:  total collapse of the socio-economic fabric, and a once bustling town found itself in abject poverty.

Rotifunk's busy Saturday market.

Rotifunk’s busy Saturday market.

The war ended in 2001. Now a safe, peaceful, country, Sierra Leone is still, however, one where 70% of families struggle to survive in the aftermath of the civil war on $2 a day or less.   This is true for the rural community of Rotifunk and Bumpeh Chiefdom where agriculture is the main livelihood.

Back on its feet, Rotifunk has rebuilt itself to once again serve as the center of trade, education and health care for the area. Rotifunk is known for its lively Saturday market, where farmers and small traders from across the chiefdom come to sell their wares.  Fish from local  rivers are plentiful, as well as locally grown fruit and vegetables.   Rotifunk is preparing for its future by educating its children.  Four secondary schools are now operating, including all-girls and Islamic schools.

2013 was a milestone year for Rotifunk.

IMG_0352 - CopyMore girls are going to secondary school in Bumpeh Chiefdom than ever before. With four secondary schools open in Rotifunk and Sherbro Foundation’s girls scholarship program, village girls who previously couldn’t afford it are advancing into a secondary school education.

A Community Bank opened that treats account holders as members and shareholders.  Accounts can be opened for as little as Le15,000 (<$4 USD). This enables low income people to save in a safe place that invests bank holdings and pays interest, instead of charging steep fees. Saving small amounts of money for the future has long been a problem in rural areas.

Computer class at CCET office.

Computer class at CCET office.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation was created in 2013 as a “community based organization” to lead community development projects for the chiefdom.  This volunteer group focuses on education and economic empowerment.  It has partnered with Sherbro Foundation to establish adult literacy and computer training programs, as well as manage a girls scholarship fund.  A major drive is underway for chiefdom reforestation by planting 90,000 income producing trees over five years and setting up environmental management practices for the chiefdom.  Villages will plant and manage their own orchards, with income from fruit and lumber going into community development projects at the small village level.

Growth Center bakery prepares to bake bread.

Growth Center bakery prepares to bake bread.

A UN funded Growth Center also opened in 2013 with equipment for small cottage industries.  A wood fired oven bakes French style baguettes and a welding shop repairs motorbikes and other metal work.  Still to be set up are a tailoring shop with routine and industrial sewing machines and a town cinema using a big screen TV for sports and other programs.  A canteen is to provide drinks and refreshments. Individuals get job training in operating each service and small fees are charged that go into managing and later expanding services.

The Rotifunk  hospital, once the envy of the whole country and destroyed in the war, has been reconstructed thanks to Norwegian donors.  Plans are underway by the United Methodist Church mission to staff the hospital with health professionals in a range of disciplines and to outfit with up to date medical equipment.  The UMC relationship and original mission doctors date back to the 1890’s.  Sierra Leonean health professionals will now expand and run the hospital in 2014.

Rotifunk is indeed back on its feet and actively working to regain its place as a hub of services and excellence for rural Sierra  Leone.