The Extra Gift Adult Literacy Brings

Adult Lit classI wondered why the group of adult literacy students were so motivated to come to class at the end of their busy day.  They are mainly working women who are single mothers, too.  They come three afternoons a week to enthusiastically join in lessons in a dim, hot primary school classroom on a hard wooden benches that sit low to the ground. 

Adult studentsBabies share the space with their mothers, quietly nursing or getting passed around to fellow students to hold for a while.  Small children play outside, waiting for their mothers to finish. Lessons go from 4:30pm until 6:00pm when it’s getting too dark to read in the unlit classroom in Rotifunk, a small rural town in Sierra Leone with no electricity.  Day after day, week after week they come, filling two classrooms. 

After spending time with them, I found there was a gift they received that went beyond learning to read and write.  A special gift.

Olivia Bendu, 47 yrs, 6 children, in Advanced group and proud to be learning again.

Olivia Bendu, 47 yrs, 6 children, proud to learn again in Advanced group.

This day’s lesson for the level one class was two letter words.  At, to, in, on, by.  They drilled on spelling each word, then using it in a sentence.  Each student took their turn standing at the chalk board with a pointer reciting and spelling each word.  If anyone stumbled on a word, their fellow students encouraged her on. It was support group as much as it was classroom. 

After classes, I interviewed each adult student. I had told them I wanted to talk with each of them and hear their personal story.  They came willingly, and spoke candidly about their lives and personal situations.  In fact, they followed me around town if they had missed class, stopping me to have their interview.

Zainab Caulker, 28 yrs, market trader, wants to become a nurse.

Zainab Caulker, 28 yrs, market trader, wants to become a nurse.

Many were abandoned by boyfriends and husbands after having one or more children. This often came after dropping out of primary school years before because their father had died or left, or because the family just couldn’t pay for school.  Without money, teenaged girls often get involved with an older man (older than them with a little money) and become pregnant.  More likely than not,  the man doesn’t stay with them for long. Or perhaps they have a husband who dies.  Then it’s repeated again with another man.  

Kadiatu Sillah, 15 yrs, father died; no one can to pay for school; wants to learn  to be a seamstress and support her mother.

Kadiatu Sillah, 15 yrs, father died, no one to pay for school; wants to be a seamstress and support her mother.

To care for and feed their families, the women become market traders, buying rice or palm oil or vegetables from village farms to re-sell in bigger town markets. Or food vendors, selling food they cooked. These are some of the only options available to an illiterate woman.  They make up the informal economy, where people buy and sell just enough to scrape by, never managing to get ahead. They have to eat most of the day’s profits.

Some of those who had husbands were the wives of teachers, one of the only paying jobs in town.  Once they became mothers, they never managed to pursue or finish an education because there was no option for adults.

Victoria Koroma, 31 yrs, five children and no husband; sells donuts, wants to be a nurse.

Victoria Koroma, 31 yrs, 5 children, no husband; sells donuts she makes; wants to be a nurse.

Whether fifteen or fifty years old, the women had similar stories. So, why go through this extra effort of starting school now.  Some students were learning the alphabet for the first time, the teacher’s hand held over theirs, guiding them as they repeatedly traced four letters at a time, A – B – C – D.

They told me they were coming to school to learn to read and write and learn numbers so they could get a job.  Or, so they could better manage their market business.  If their daughter was sent to sell the donuts they made, they needed to better keep inventory.  They wanted to count how many they gave them, and were any lost and unaccounted for at the end of the day. They wanted to count change accurately, and know they weren’t cheated. 

Importantly, they wanted to follow their children’s progress in school and check that their lessons were done.  Or help tutor them when needed.

But after thirty five interviews, something more became apparent to me.  Another theme emerged that was a big underlying factor in motivating these adult students to come to school. 

By coming to school, they were gaining self esteem.

Zainab Caulker, two children, wants to follow her children's lessons and learn to be a secretary.

Zainab Caulker, two children, wants to monitor her children’s lessons and learn to be a secretary.

The lowest person in society’s informal caste system is the illiterate woman.  Illiterate men may find jobs as farmers and laborers, and by virtue of being paid, their stature goes up a notch.  Uneducated men can be village leaders.  But no one is lower in stature than an uneducated, illiterate woman.

I heard stories repeatedly of men leaving them, often for a woman with some education.  An educated woman likely contributes to the family in a bigger way – perhaps by finding a paying job, or by better building their own farm or market business. They have knowledge to better bring up their children, taking care of their health and monitoring their school work.

And an educated woman has more self esteem.  It’s unspoken, but you can see it.  They think better of themselves, they hold their heads higher, and men find that attractive. 

Zainab Kamara 39 yrs, 5 children, friends who can read and write inspired her to come to school; wants to learn to build her business.

Zainab Kamara 39 yrs, 5 children, friends who can read and write inspired her to come to school; wants to learn to build her business.

Women who have been told directly and indirectly that when they can’t read and write they are lacking and worth less than others, are ashamed of themselves.  And that shows in how they conduct themselves. They let themselves be taken advantage of, and are discarded for someone the man perceives as better.

In the Adult Literacy classes, the women were being shown they are worth something and that they have a future in front of them.  The teachers encourage them and invest their time in them.  Their fellow students support them.  This American woman (this white woman) is taking an interest in them, and “sponsoring” them to learn. 

Lucy Manley, 35 yrs, 4 children, no husband; wants to learn nursing and  midwifery.

Lucy Manley, 35 yrs, 4 children, no husband; wants to learn nursing and midwifery.

And week by week, they can see they are learning things.  Things that make them proud and encourage them to learn more.

One lesson the students seemed to get into was greeting people in English.  Hello, my name is Lucy.  How are you?  I hope you are well today.  Each student got up and practiced her greetings in front of the class.  They laughed and joked, and made sure each person had their turn. 

When I asked Lucy after class what she learned that day, she broke into a huge smile.  I learned to give greetings in English, she said, and I felt civilized.  I can give a speech – in English.  This made me proud!

Aminata Otterbein, 60 yrs, saw other educated people her age and wants to learn herself.

Aminata Otterbein, 60 yrs, saw other educated people her age and wants to learn herself.

This response felt priceless to me. So, what was the actual cost of building this kind of self esteem in forty five women and five men?  A few hundred dollars to buy exercise books and pens for each student to copy the day’s lesson, and to run off copies of lessons and tests for the advanced class like math problems.

Fortunately, the teachers at the Center for Empowerment & Transformation continue to volunteer their time for the Adult Literacy program.  They are the heroes of this story. The teachers come to patiently teach again at the end of their long school day to help develop their sisters and brothers, as they call them.  It’s reinforced by students who really want to learn. 

I was seeing empowerment take place right in front of me, and the transformation in these adult students was visible.  It was palpable.  This really was priceless.

Sherbro Foundation is proud to have contributed the cost of exercise books and learning materials to launch the Adult Literacy program. 

Growing a Baby’s Future in Sierra Leone – The Newborn Baby Project

“Children born today have no provision that will guarantee they survive.” — Paramount Chief Charles Caulker, Bumpeh Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

Every newborn life holds the promise of tomorrow.   Yet, Chief Caulker’s recent comment is reality in Sierra Leone. 

But maybe you can grow a baby’s future.  Literally.

Planting a tree for a newborn infant is an old Sierra Leone tradition.  Now, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) in Rotifunk is kicking off a new program to plant an income-producing fruit tree for each newborn in Bumpeh Chiefdom.

And they’re taking it to the next level by opening a bank account for the newborn where income from selling the tree’s fruit can be deposited and grow. In 12 years, it will fund the child’s education.  Simple.  And that’s why it should work.

Being a newborn baby in rural Sierra Leone is tough.  The proverbial deck is stacked against them, but it’s slowly getting better.  Sierra Leone is no longer among the countries with the top ten infant mortality rates.  It’s No. 11, and, that’s a post-war low of 75 infant deaths per 1000 births in 2013 — a 50% drop in ten years.  

Baby Abraham is a healthy baby.

Baby Abraham is a healthy baby.

Little Abraham is one newborn in Rotifunk awaiting his tomorrow and what it will bring.  Born to a single mother, he crossed his first milestone by successfully reaching his first month’s birthday. A healthy baby delivered in a safe delivery, he now faces the challenge of moving beyond the poverty of his peer group.

Children survive only to be stuck in a cycle of poverty as they become adolescents.  Breaking this cycle in rural villages is a tough nut to crack.  In subsistence agriculture environments like Bumpeh Chiefdom, there’s very little left over after feeding and clothing your family for things like schooling.

It’s clear to all that education is one of the biggest keys to escaping the poverty cycle.  Yet, sending your kids to the local primary school may be as big a stretch as you can make.  Secondary school – often in another town involving room and board – can be an impossibly high hurdle.

The Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation has kicked off a new program designed to help Bumpeh Chiefdom parents prepare well in advance for clearing this hurdle.  The Newborn Baby Project combines the old tradition of planting a tree for a newborn infant with a new opportunity:  savings accounts in a newly opened rural community bank.

CCET is reinstating Bumpeh Chiefdom’s practice of newborn tree planting by providing fruit trees that will produce $100 of income a year for years to come.  They will also initially pay the minimum balance to open an account for the infant in the community bank.  Parents are then expected to add to the account with income from selling the tree’s fruit and other savings over time. 

By the time the child is twelve or fourteen years of age, they should have money to fund their secondary school education and, hopefully, additional money to help their start in life as a young adult.

Two mothers at their babies' naming ceremony.

Two mothers at their babies’ naming ceremony.

CCET is using another old tradition, the Naming Ceremony, to initiate the program.  Parents gather family and friends a week after the child’s birth to officially announce the child’s name and seek blessings for the infant.  This is the time to plant the infant’s tree, and allow the child and the tree to grow up together. 

The innovative part of CCET’s program is to open a bank account for each newborn in their first weeks of life, paying the required minimum balance, and then have income from the child’s tree added over time.  Parents are encouraged to add to the account when they can. 

In the West, we take savings and bank accounts for granted.  In October, Rotifunk opened its first-ever bank, a rural community bank.  This bank operates more like a credit union does here in the US.  Account holders are seen as members and shareholders of the bank.  Money held by the bank is invested in conservative investments and income is paid out to shareholders. 

As a community bank, accounts can also be opened for a small minimum deposit – as small as Le15,000 or about $3.50 USD.  Having a safe and accessible place to save small amounts of money has long been a barrier to the world’s lowest-income people saving money. 

They want to save.  But the amount of money they can set aside for saving is usually so small, traditional banks don’t want to bother with this kind of account.  Traditional banks also impose transaction fees that can be as large as the deposit or withdrawal the saver wants to make.  Add to that, problems with access.  Traditional banks are usually located far from small village savers in bigger population centers. 

With the new community bank in Rotifunk, the Newborn Baby Project will now start providing for the infant’s future within their first weeks of their life.  The symbolism of a child and their tree growing up together will be expanded with an income producing tree and a bank account to grow that income.

Growing a child’s future – that’s what this project aims to do.   Sherbro Foundation is happy to be part of this program by providing initial money to open newborn bank accounts.


I confess – I’m not a blogger

I thought I should confess.  I’m not really a blogger.  I’m the founder and executive director of Sherbro Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting rural Sierra Leone.  I also happen to blog.

There’s been a lot positive comments lately about the Sherbro Foundation website and the blog.  Readers find the content informative and interesting.  Information that is hard to otherwise find.  You like the way it looks.  You enjoy reading the blog with your morning coffee. You’re forwarding it to family and friends.  I appreciate those comments. Truly. Thank you.

But I must be doing something wrong.

Arlene and CCET Volunteer, Foday Fofanah view palm seedlings.

Arlene and CCET Volunteer, Foday Fofanah view palm seedlings in the tree nursery.

I am hard pressed to remember one comment that said: “The work you’re doing in this impoverished country of Sierra Leone is important and much needed.”  Or a commenter who said: “it’s great Sherbro Foundation has a scholarship program that helps keep girls in secondary school to finish their education.”  Or: the tree-planting project is a wonderful way to stimulate development in rural areas through agriculture, and at the same time provide environmental protection. Or: how wonderful to see computers donated to this rural area and people using their first computer.

So, I must be doing something wrong.

My purpose in blogging is not to become a popular blogger and draw attention to myself.  Rather, it’s meant to be a vehicle to educate people on life in today’s struggling rural Sierra Leone and generate interest in the work of the Sherbro Foundation.  

Walter Schutz Secondary School students

Walter Schutz Secondary School students

Interest, support, and frankly, readers, donations. That’s how the work will continue to get done.  And it’s through the Foundation’s work that there will continue to be content to put in a blog.

So, I’m going to re-examine how the Sherbro Foundation website content is organized and be more transparent on why we’re there.  We exist – and I blog  – in order to fund projects in rural Sierra Leone communities.  It’s as simple as that.

You don’t get something unless you ask for it:  I need you, dear readers, to contribute to Sherbro Foundation projects.

If each one of you who wrote a comment about the blog to date sent in $10, together we’d send 80 girls to secondary school for a year by paying their $20 annual school fees.  Imagine. Girls are not going to school because their parents cannot afford $20 a year for school fees. 

Or, together we’d expand the tree nursery program so surrounding chiefdoms can get income-producing fruit trees quickly for the coming planting season.  For $10, you could buy 50 fruit tree seedlings.  Orange, guava and mango trees mature in a few years to produce $100 worth of fruit per tree – year after year for 20 years, 30 years and more.

This is kind of like those programs that give villagers goats and chickens to raise. Except, I don’t know of any goats or chickens that live for more than 20 years and produce $100 income every year. I also don’t know of any animals that provide environmental protection by holding the water table, preventing erosion and fighting global warming by taking greenhouse gases out of the air. 

All this for an initial investment of 25 cents a tree. The next time you’re drinking a Starbucks latte, think of how many trees that purchase could plant.

So, my blog readers, thank you so much for enthusiastically reading the blog.  I’m grateful you think I’m a good writer and blogger.  But what I really want to be is the best foundation director who can motivate people to join in supporting our projects.  And I want to give you more than a few idle minutes of blog reading.

I want to give you the experience of helping a remote rural community in Sierra Leone make a big leap toward a prosperous future. 

One hundred percent of your donation goes directly to projects in the community.  Really.  Sherbro Foundation and our Sierra Leone counterparts are volunteer organizations.  And any small expenses we have are paid by a separate donation.

Convinced?  All you need is a major credit card. Go to the Donate tab: Donate 

We take donations via Paypal (no Paypal account needed), and accept currencies from the US, Canada, UK, EU, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mexico.  If we missed yours, let us know.  And, we pay the currency exchange fee. 

So, go hit that Donate tab.  It feels a lot better than tapping out a comment.  Trust me, you’ll feel good. 

As long as I’m asking, there’s one more thing.  Please continue to forward Sherbro Foundation articles to family and friends.  That helps a great deal.  But instead of saying, “Hey, I found a good blog you may enjoy,”  can you please say, “Look at this great foundation I found doing work in rural Sierra Leone.  We should support them.”

What is it like to be Sherbro?

Uncle Stalin Caulker at 77 years old is a fast learner.

Uncle Stalin Caulker is a fast learner on using a computer.

Sherbro Foundation is named after the Sherbro people.  I realize most of you do not know who the Sherbro are. So, I asked  the oldest Sherbro man I know to tell us what it’s like to be Sherbro. 

Seventy eight year old Stalin Caulker is the only remaining uncle of Paramount Chief Caulker of Bumpeh Chiefdom.The Sherbro are said to be the oldest tribe in Sierra Leone. They’re a coastal people who inhabit most of the lowland coastal areas of Sierra Leone.  The Caulker family goes back to the 1500’s.

You can google the Sherbro to get a more historical account.  I thought you’d rather hear directly from a Sherbro on what he thinks defines the Sherbro.  Uncle Stalin said they know about all things having to do with water, because they grow up around water.  They’re expert rice farmers.  And the Sherbro, he said,  started Poro, the men’s secret society, now prevalent across Sierra Leone.

Here’s what Uncle Stalin had to say in his own words.

Fishing net stretched across river inlet.

Fishing net stretched across river inlet.

I thank Almighty God because I am a Sherbro and always by the sea.  We eat fresh fish.  I mean newly caught fish from the sea.  I can swim and all Sherbro know how to swim because you are forced to. Elders throw you in the water and ask you to swim to the land.

You are also taught to fish at an early age.  We have so many ways of fishing.  We make use of the strong tide from the ocean [that’s comes up the river].  We use the hook, cast or throw a net, or cross a net across the river when the water is dry [tide is out].  When the river is full you come and raise  the net so that all the fish that have gone up the river will remain in the net.

Cutting newly germinated rice in rice nursery to transplant in rice swamp.

Cutting newly germinated rice in rice nursery to transplant in rice swamp.

The Bumpeh river is unique in growing mangrove rice.  The paramount chief of Bumpeh chiefdom is my hero.  He plants eighty bushels and more of rice.  We start by brushing [cutting back] in February.  You give one month interval, and say in March you burn the {remaining} bush.

Then you broadcast the seed rice in a rice nursery.  You start ploughing the mud in April after broadcasting the seed rice. You turn the mud again before starting to transplant the seed rice after forty days interval.  Then you start harvesting at least 90 or 100 days {after planting}.

Poro was started in Sherbro land, then was adopted by others.  You belong to the clan and can participate in all activities after initiation.  You become a different person, a real man.  You are known by your {new} name like Kpana-Bom, Balaka and so on.  After that you learn all kinds of skills from other people like medicine for snake bites and belly ache, how to set traps and a lot of things. 

The clan expects you to know how good men behave. When they call members to come together, everybody must come because you don’t know why they are calling.  Maybe they are going to teach new skills, so if you don’t go you have yourself to blame.

You warmed my heart – on a subfreezing day

I was at the Cincinnati airport Friday at 7am having taken the red eye, and scraping snow and frozen sleet from the car in the predawn six degrees. Without a winter coat.  Only twelve hours earlier, I was in San Francisco at an outdoor cafe having lunch in 67 degree sunshine. 

But I got home, and just as I was dead tired and feeling sorry for myself with a cold coming on, I started reading Friday’s comments on the Sherbro Foundation website.  And you immediately warmed my heart.

Chief Caulker with village children at his rice farm.

Chief Caulker with village children at his rice farm.

I never expected to get as strong and positive a response to Sherbro Foundation as we have received this past year – our first year of existence.  Nine months actually. When you start a new, somewhat obscure nonprofit with a couple family and friends, you hope to just get through the first year.

When create your first website and start your first blog, you feel kind of naked.  You’re putting yourself out there for everyone to see and judge.  With the Internet, this literally means anyone in the world.

The website went public at the end of May.  In our first seven months, we’ve had over 4000 views (pages viewed).  This is probably not so remarkable, especially given I’m still stumbling through how to optimize the site being found on search requests.  But, for me, 4000+ was good.

What surprised me was that you visited the site from 52 countries!  Even Cambodia, Bhutan, Chile, Ecuador, and Jordan.

But it was the nature of the comments that surprised me more.

  • You said the site provided important info about rural day-to-day life in Sierra Leone you can’t find elsewhere.
  • You found the website content to be high quality.
  • You think the projects we’re supporting are worthwhile and important to do.
  • You’re enthusiastic about the blog, and forward it on to others as an example of a “good” blog.
  • You think the website is attractive and well designed.  (Thank you Word Press for making that so easy.)
Parents of one of the Rotifunk girl scholarship students in their home village.

Parents of one of the Rotifunk girl scholarship students in their home village.

To hear these comments means a lot. Informing people on life in today’s rural Sierra Leone is a primary objective for the foundation.  To be told you write a strong blog, is more than I ever expected to hear as a brand new blogger.  Remember, I was a 30 year Procter & Gamble technical manager, where creative writing was not something we learned. But we did learn about clarity of thought.

To know that people are behind you in the work you’re trying to accomplish means everything.

Someone asked me for my advice on writing a blog.  I said, it’s all about having something to say that you personally know about and strongly believe in.  Then it just flows.  Yes, you still need to edit and reduce the conversational prose.  But it starts with having something authentic to say. My experience in rural Sierra Leone is my own personal journey, and one I feel strongly about.

A couple people said I could improve the blog with more pictures and videos. I fully agree.  My material is all the real thing from my own trips, or occasionally something topical from a colleague in Sierra Leone or a newspaper there.  As I make more trips there, I’ll strive for more media as illustration.  Initially, I didn’t want to be a tourist and have a camera come between me and people I’m trying to develop a relationship with.  Trips there are long (24 hours door to door), expensive, and most people would say arduous.  Not something you casually or frequently do.

If you have questions or comments, don’t hold back.  Feedback is how one gets better.  If there’s something you’d like me to address, let me know and I’ll do my best to try.  Advice would be most welcome.

The people in Sierra Leone and Bumpeh Chiefdom appreciate your support. I’m fortunate to work with people there who have a strong vision, and the capability and commitment to deliver on that.  Sherbro Foundation is following and supporting their excellent lead.

So, wishing you a very Happy New Year. I hope you stay in touch with Sherbro Foundation to see what we’re doing in 2014.  It promises to be an even better year.