The Embrace of Sierra Leone

The Embrace of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone doesn’t just say hello. It embraces you in a rush of sights, sounds, crush of people, heat, humidity, smells, women’s clothes the colors of tropical birds, drumming, music, throngs of kids with smiles from ear to ear. Life spills out onto the street and the village front porch. Here’s some of my images and impressions in returning to Salone after 14 months.

img_1918.jpg
In Freetown, you invariably find yourself on Siaka Stevens St., the center of town, in a crush of traffic with the famous 200-year old cotton tree in front of you. The winter’s harmattan dust was hanging in the air, making it hazy all day, but much of that haze is now diesel exhaust pollution.

USD cash exchangeI have two visual barometers for the Salone economy. Freetown’s beaches were empty. No tourists, which adds to unemployment. People can’t afford to go to their own gorgeous beaches.

The other is how big a pile of leones you get when exchanging dollars. 5,000 and 10,000 denominations are used, and so devaluated, they’re only worth $0.70 and $1.40 each. 

The leone devalued about 25% during 2016. Petrol prices soared. People say the economy is at its worst in years.

IMG_4885
Leaving the highway for small feeder roads to Rotifunk is entering another world. The Ribbi ferry is virtually unchanged since I used it 40 years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer; a platform on pontoons and you’re manually pulled across. A crowd of small children collect on the other side chanting, Ah-bey, ah-bey, ah-bey — Temne for chief. They know Paramount Chief Caulker is coming bringing them sweets. He started this during Ebola and continues it with every crossing. “I can’t do much to really improve their lives, but I can at least make them smile for a couple hours.”

IMG_5115
Our first week included a trip down the beautiful Bumpeh River to Mamu village to celebrate the opening of new primary school. Taking a big boat with the Paramount Chief, front right, for an official visit is not an everyday activity. So, it’s a party on a boat. Gliding down this unspoiled river, pure joy.

IMG_5140
Bundu devils from the women’s society join drummers and singers to welcome the chief to Mamu village. Traditions in a small village like Mamu are very much alive and well. Opening a new school is a happy day, this school built with donations from young Norwegians.

IMG_2788  IMG_2769
Back in Rotifunk, there’s simple pleasures of seeing friends again and meeting new friends.

IMG_2105
Early evening is a favorite time of day to stroll down the hill to see vegetable gardens being planted and tended in the rich flood plain of the Bumpeh River. Raised beds of various leafy greens, a diet staple, and peppers were coming to life. Kids “fished” in a field well, bringing up salamanders from the mud. They’re probably added to the pot for dinner.

IMG_4972
Another moment of joy was walking into our partner CCET’s new education center at 5 p.m. when it was abuzz with activity. Three adult literacy classes and the first regular high school computer class, all going on in the main hall. Most adult literacy students are single parents. Babies are welcome.

IMG_2109This mother of twelve shows us it’s never too late to learn your ABCs for the first time, and how to “carry over” when adding three digit numbers.

Women have graduated from Adult Literacy and entered other vocational training as primary school teachers, nurse aides, a policewoman and one ready to start as a surveyor’s assistant.

 

IMG_2372 (2)
Computer training classes for Bumpeh Chiefdom students and adults was a dream five and a half years in the making. It grew from offering classes in one school to a full education center in its own 2,600-square-foot building built during Ebola. I learned to dream big; then it happens.

vlcsnap-error383   IMG_2036For Bumpeh Academy, one of the Chiefdom’s newer schools, progress happens in small steps. Very small steps. Senior high classes, previously run “second shift” in a primary school, moved to the main school addition, still in progress as funds are available. In 2015, a concrete slab was poured for three classrooms. In 2016, a zinc roof and partial walls between rooms were added, and classes started. I was happy to hear from Vice Principal Koroma, above, SFSL funded part of the addition with the school fee scholarships we paid for girls. They used the money to buy bags of concrete. Still, children at Bumpeh Academy are in school learning. 98% of Academy students taking the 2016 senior high entrance exam passed! And they have a new Peace Corps teacher, Ethan Davies, above, right corner.  

MVI_2603_Moment
Visiting Bumpeh Chiefdom’s small villages is always a trip highlight. Nyandahun, one of the oldest and smallest villages with 25 houses is the birthplace of Chief Caulker’s grandmother. It has a long tradition of women village chiefs. Chief Lupe Bendu, above left, definitely has a chiefly demeanor. By tradition, she’s considered the queen of Nyandahun. Asked how their village orchard will help them, she immediately replied, “It will help our children and we’ll use it for their education.” 

IMG_2625 (2)
Passing village homes like this one, I’m reminded why our Women’s Vegetables Growing and Village Orchard programs are so important. They’re simple to implement, following local agriculture traditions, income can be earned quickly, and it goes directly to families that need it the most.  With cash income, their children can go on to secondary school in Rotifunk.

IMG_2296
There’s little for a village child to look forward to without education. But we don’t want them to be leaving their villages. We want to teach schoolchildren and their parents they could be earning a good living growing coconuts like these, and guava and cashews. Make agriculture a small business.

IMG_2538
Developing the local village economy includes having cash to set up a small front porch shop for neighbors. A dilemma is not losing your small profits to transportation costs of going to Rotifunk or Freetown to buy cheaper goods to sell. There’s little public transportation from a village like Mosundu.

IMG_2190  IMG_2168In full swing, CCET’s fruit tree nursery grows a variety of trees from seed: orange, grapefruit, lime, avocado, guava, cashew, mango. Three workers plant seeds collected from local fruit, and water and nurse them for a year+ until ready to plant in the Village Orchard program. Some go to newborn parents, restoring the tradition of “baby trees.” Some will be sold for income to continue to operate the nursery. Abdul learned to write and make signs in Adult Literacy class.

IMG_1992  IMG_1988Bumpeh Chiefdom is a prime coconut growing area. Pa Willie personally raises coconut seedlings in a closed pen behind his house to keep out thieves. The coconut, husk, shell and all, is embedded in soil until it sprouts. It’s a longer-term venture taking two years, but they’re worth more. Pa Willie’s tree-growing skills date back to working in a Liberian rubber plantation before the war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sherbro Foundation wins P&G Alumni grant to expand the Computer Center

Sherbro Foundation wins P&G Alumni grant to expand the Computer Center

Sherbro Foundation is awarded a P&G Alumni Foundation 2016 grant

vlcsnap-error310

 

The $12,235 grant is awarded on behalf of our Sierra Leone partner, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET), and will help expand their computer center.

Left, Oliver Bernard, CCET volunteer facility manager at the Center

 

 

pg_logo

Former Procter & Gamble employees fund their alumni foundation with the mission of economically empowering those in need.

DSC04545Sherbro Foundation Executive Director and P&G Alumna Arlene Golembiewski, left with Sulaiman Timbo, submitted the proposal. She said, “CCET’s new Center offers practical education programs, before unavailable in this community, that improve student earning potential, like computer training and adult literacy.

They are preparing impoverished people to find wage-paying jobs in the formal economy. And providing skills to develop small businesses.”

The Computer Center has a slate of education programs and community services that satisfied all three Alumni Foundation objectives for the grant. 

MVI_2758_MomentHigh school students like Zainab, left, get practical job skill training on computers. 

She wants to become an accountant and knows she must be able to use a computer to get a job.

IMG_2031 (2)Adults develop small business skills. Left, Francis Senesie teaches petty market traders and farmers math and business basics like computing profit.

Adult computer students apply their own small-business examples with instructors available to guide them.  

MVI_2260_Moment(7)The Center itself is a new entrepreneurial venture, offering previously unavailable services like copy & printing that fund its nonprofit education programs.

The grant will pay for adding new computers to the Center and a color printer for the new printing service. CCET will buy remaining equipment the Center needs, like a generator to back-up their solar power service and a chest freezer to expand a canteen service.

The grant will also be used to pay initial operating costs while the new Center develops its customer base for copy and printing and other Center services.

The Computer Center is bringing the first and only IT technology access and training to rural Bumpeh Chiefdom’s 40,000 people. It’s the only place in Moyamba District with 300,000 people to get an IT certificate covering all Microsoft Office software programs.

The grant required a P&G alum to participate in the project. Arlene Golembiewski, Sherbro Foundation founder and Executive Director, was a 30-year P&G employee and is a member of the global Alumni Network.

How a small, rural nonprofit becomes self-reliant

How a small, rural nonprofit becomes self-reliant

MVI_2260_Moment(5)Mr. Bendu, a primary school head-teacher, came into the new printing service at the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET) to get some UN Children’s Feeding Program forms printed. He walked out of the new Community Computer Center 20 minutes later with his copies.

It was effortless. It would have taken less time if I hadn’t stopped to interview him. Four months ago, it could have been a 2-day trip.

IMG_2795CCET’s new printing service in Rotifunk is scoring a home run for their customers and for themselves.

CCET’s mission is to help community members become self-reliant. But they can’t keep assisting residents unless they themselves become self-reliant.

Left, CCET staff Oliver Bernard, Sulaiman Timbo, Rosaline Kaimbay

The first few years in the life of a small nonprofit are tricky. You’re getting projects off the ground, and need a little cash to fall back on when the unexpected happens. Donors are just learning who you are. Grant applications are often a year-long process before you see any funding – IF you’re approved.

Grant givers ask for your sustainability plan, which can feel like wishful thinking. How can you ensure the future success of your programs when you’ve just started to deliver something using donor money?

vlcsnap-error688It takes a paradigm shift.  You can help people while you earn income offering needed services that fit your nonprofit mission.

Left, CCET Managing Director Rosaline Kaimbay at CCET’s new Center

Our Sierra Leone community partner, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation, laid early groundwork for self-sufficiency with new, much needed community services that earn income to fund their nonprofit programs.

IMG_4244Only four months earlier, to get anything printed Mr. Bendu faced an all-day or an overnight trip to the capital, crammed into a minivan bus or on the back of a motorcycle taxi on treacherous roads. His transportation costs alone would have been 10 to 20 times the cost of the printing. The time wasted is just accepted, a common inefficiency holding back developing countries like Sierra Leone.

Today, there’s a win-win in Rotifunk. Mr. Bendu and other Bumpeh Chiefdom customers no longer waste their time and money. Instead CCET provides local printing and other services people need. And CCET is making money to fund their nonprofit programs like computer training and adult literacy.

The Rotary Club of Ann Arbor, the Procter & Gamble Alumni Network and Sherbro Foundation funded CCET to start their new services.

img-20160820-wa0000-1These three grant makers were happy to invest in projects giving this rural community services they never had before, knowing income goes to support nonprofit programs.

CCET’s printing service can make simple photocopies or print 500 school report cards or church memorial service programs.

IMG_4916 (3)Sulaiman Timbo, left, and below left, is printing service and IT manager

Sulaiman can prepare custom layouts and type up forms and documents for customers, and then immediately print them.

A color printer is on its way that will expand the business, offering full-color election posters and event flyers, and color photos. More business opportunities.

No one else in their district of 300,000 people provides a printing service like this.

IMG_2018Cell phones are now a way of life, and this means daily charging in a rural town with no electricity.

CCET charges phones in a secure drop-off service seven days a week. People may now bring a battery pack to charge as well.

NGO training session Mar 2017The CCET Center rents meeting and workshop space for NGO and government programs during the day, when no classes are in session. It’s the only place in town and for miles around with a facility to hold professional meetings for 20 to 100 people.

The building’s solar power lets participants use their computers. And they can print meeting materials right there. It’s also a good venue for wedding receptions and other special parties.

IMG_2016.JPGNext on the list to introduce is a small canteen for cold drinks, snacks and catered meals. The room next to the main hall, left, is ready.

Across the street is the only small hospital within a two-hour drive. Staff and visitors want meals and refreshments in a comfortable sit-down space — as well as market day visitors, teachers and NGO workers.  A refrigerator is coming soon to kick off this service.

IMG_2248There’s also a growing need for internet service. People may not own their own computer, but they want to be connected to the world around them by email and Facebook.

The local professional community of teachers, religious leaders, chiefdom authorities, nurses and health care technicians, and NGO reps needs to communicate with organizations around the country and beyond.

CCET plans to start a small pilot internet service and grow from there, based on demand.

So, when a small, rural nonprofit wonders how to become self-reliant, leaders should ask who are their customers, and what do they need?

More girls in school than ever, but more want to go

More girls in school than ever, but more want to go

I was excited to see enrollment of girls was up when I visited Bumpeh Chiefdom’s secondary schools in February. Girls, in fact, were now equal in numbers to boys enrolled. This is a big step forward in Bumpeh Chiefdom, where poverty forces most girls to drop out by junior high.

But I soon found still more girls want to go to secondary school and can’t afford to.

The Sherbro Foundation Girls Scholarship program is changing this. We set a goal last summer of doubling the number of scholarships from 150 to 300 girls.

Thanks to your support, we met that goal and sent 300 girls to secondary school last September.

A small donation of $25 meant a Bumpeh Chiefdom girl could attend school for a full year.

Hear from some of the girls I recently met,  what it means for them to get a scholarship and how hard they work to stay in school:

vlcsnap-error123Some like Alima Kanu, left, JSS II (8th grade), are the oldest and first child in their family to go to secondary school.  She comes from a small village where her parents are rice farmers. Her scholarship to Bumpeh Academy made the difference in her continuing in secondary school.

Alima told me, “This scholarship helps me and my family is happy when I have this scholarship because they don’t have money to pay for school fees. Me too, I’m happy. I thank all the people that give me the scholarship.”

The purpose of SFSL’s scholarship program is to not only get girls into secondary school, but to support them in finishing high school.

With her scholarship, Isatu Kargbo, left, completed JSS III (9th grade) and got the highest result of 127 students taking the senior high entrance exam.

Now in SSS I (10th grade) at Bumpeh Academy, she said, “My father couldn’t pay my school fees. CCET help us and give me a uniform. I’m very happy to be in school and give thanks.” CCET, the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation, is our local community partner that administers the scholarship program.

Like many girls, Aminata, SSS IV said, “Thank you for donating your funds to enable me to continue my schooling. I appreciate it so much. Honestly, had it not been for your support, I have to stop going to school because my parents are poor and therefore cannot pay my school fees.”

Emilia, JSS III, wrote in a thank-you, “I am happy and delighted when I got this scholarship which every girl wish to have this opportunity. If not the intervention of you I would have been a drop-out because my parents find it difficult to pay my school fees. Through the help of Sherbro Foundation I am continuing my schooling.”

“I have been out of school for many years…You are now my light to see in the world.”  — Thuma, SSS III, on her scholarship

Sherbro Foundation supports five Bumpeh Chiefdom secondary schools of all faiths with scholarships. I met with the 50 girls at Ahmadiyya Islamic Secondary School receiving scholarships this academic year.

Fatmata, left below, said, “On behalf of the girls in the school, we express our thanks and appreciation for the scholarships. Also, last year for the uniform scholarship.”

vlcsnap-error362She went on to talk about the challenges the girls face in going to school. There are 208 villages in the chiefdom and only five secondary schools. Many girls must walk 4 or 5 miles or more each way to reach one of schools, often making them late for class. And the tropical sun is hot walking home on an empty stomach to get their one meal of the day.

Some just drop out after primary school. Other girls may get rides to school from motorcycle taxi drivers common on the rural roads, who may then coerce them into sex. A number have become pregnant.

vlcsnap-error133 (2)Kadiatu, left, told me most girls have no lights at home and have difficulty studying at night. By the time they get home and do chores, it’s dark. At the equator, it’s dark by 7 p.m. year-round.

Rechargeable solar lights are one possible solution the program can evaluate. Another girl added that they would like to have a library where they could study after school.

These are problems girls face in all Bumpeh Chiefdom secondary schools.

But the most poignant message was from a girl in the back of the room who stood to speak as our meeting was ending.

vlcsnap-error946 (2)“Please add more scholarships so we are all able to go to school. There are girls at home waiting for this same opportunity. I am fortunate, but there are others who can benefit and want to become educated and literate.”

With girls waiting for their chance to go to school, we want to set our sights higher and grow beyond 300 scholarships in the next school year.

Stay tuned for more in the coming months on Sherbro Foundation’s 2017-18 Girls Scholarship campaign.

Breaking the cycle of poverty takes only peanuts

Breaking the cycle of poverty takes only peanuts

Emma Sesay used to take out a loan at a high interest rate to send her children to school. Emma is the mother of six children. Six survive of the eight she gave birth to. Getting six children through school is tough for a poor rice farmer in Mobainda village.

vlcsnap-error035
Arlene Golembiewski, SFSL, Emma Sesay, Bumpeh Chiefdom Paramount Chief Charles Caulker

Emma was part of Sherbro Foundation’s Women’s Vegetable Growing project last year that helped her grow peanuts. Asked how the project helped her, she said, “I usually need to take loans. I no longer need a loan at high interest to pay for my children to go to school. I sold my peanuts when I needed to pay the school fees.”

Sherbro Foundation just funded a third group of women vegetable growers for the spring 2017 growing season with money raised in our year-end fundraising.

Rice farming is traditional in Mobainda village. It’s a labor intensive, taking 10 months of back breaking toil, but you make little money.

Rice farmers are often forced to take a loan from a local lender at interest rates of 50% and more to send their children to school. These informal village lenders can charge this much because villagers usually have no other option for a loan.

Lenders collect as soon as a farmer harvests. To pay off the loan, farmers are forced to sell their rice at low prices when the market is flooded with lots of other newly harvested rice.

The family then eats what’s left of the rice harvest as their staple food in the coming months, leaving little to nothing as seed for the next crop. They often run out of rice before the next harvest. It’s called the “hungry time.”

Junior high is when most children drop out of school. By this age, eating must take priority over paying for a child to continue in school.

The family may need to take out another loan just to buy rice seed to plant their next crop. And so the cycle of debt and poverty continues.

The Women’s Vegetable Growing project is starting to break this cycle of poverty.

This year’s project again supplied 75 women with 2 bushels of peanut seed, 100 lb. of rice as food before the harvest, and a drying tarp to improve their crop yield. With these supplies worth about $80 each, women are producing income double and triple what they make in rice farming. And they can continue to grow rice and fish in local rivers and streams.

Emma harvested twelve bushels of peanuts from her two bushels of seed last year.  She saved a bushel as seed to plant this year. She is still doing her normal rice farming, so she could wait until the price of peanuts went up after the harvest, and then sold hers to pay her children’s school fees.

Asked how they spent money earned growing peanuts, each woman in the program immediately said, I can pay for my children’s education.

Yata Williams, left, shows the two bushels of peanuts she saved for seed from her ten bushel harvest. She said, “The project helped with many things. It solved our problem of paying school fees. There was money left to buy a market.” Yatta buys things she sells as a small front porch business or neighborhood “market.” Soft drinks, sweets, soap, cigarettes – small luxuries you’d have to travel to a bigger town to buy. The family now has a another income source.

Fula Musu Mansaray, below, in Nyundahun village joined the 2016 project and had a good harvest. She and husband, Musa, also sold peanuts to pay for their children’s education.

L to R, Lupe Bendu, village chief, Fula Musu, Chief Caulker, Musa, Arlene

They are making the most of Fula Musu’s participation in the Women’s Vegetable Growing program. They saved eight bushels of peanut seed from their harvest. They will plant four times as many peanuts in 2017 as she received last year, and grow their small business.

Fula Musa was one of eight women in the project from this small village of 25 houses.

The project will expand to cover another 20 families this spring. So every family in Nyundahun will benefit, a huge economic boost for a tiny village like this.

 

The Women’s Vegetable Growing project is teaching villages they can diversify their farming by adding peanuts and make more money.

Last year was a bad year for growing rice with prolonged drought and grasshoppers eating crops. Families could fall back on their peanut harvest and have some money to spare.

Before the Vegetable Growing project, a $30 bale of peanut seed was out of the reach of these women.

Now, they’re showing what they can do with this small investment and taking their first steps to self-sufficiency. It only took peanuts.