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Welcome to Sierra Leone

Welcome to Sierra Leone
02/11/2017 Claire James

I can’t quite believe it, but it’s been a whole month since I returned from Sierra Leone. It’s been a completely action packed and extremely busy month; yet it’s also allowed me to have just a little time to be able to reflect on everything that I experienced, saw and encountered during my time there.

In my role as Fundraising & Communications Intern, it’s my job to write the website content, news updates, social media updates (now there’s a spoiler!), as well as writing fundraising asks and writing to trusts and foundations about our work. My trip to Sierra Leone was about experiencing the country, understanding more about it and what we do; meeting our partners and see how they work and get to see first-hand where your (the donors and supporters) money goes. As well as meeting project beneficiaries and capturing their stories and photos, to share with all of you.

Whilst I was away, many of you kept up to speed with the trip via my social media updates under the #InternTakeover and it was great to see so many of you following my adventures out there and interacting with it as well. So thank you for being so engaged with it all. I’m glad you enjoyed sharing the experience with me, as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you.

This past month has been a bit of a blur, as, if nothing else I’ve had to get used to western life again; although I was very grateful to see somethings, including fully functioning flushing toilets, taps I could drink the water from, a decent cup of tea and salad I could actually eat without worrying about it! It’s funny what you miss when you’re away from home right.

Sierra Leone was an experience I’ll never forget and an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was told before I went by a friend of a friend before I left, that ‘Africa is a very special place’ and if I’m honest, I didn’t know how to take what she had said. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and that in itself was another challenge of the trip! Having been there though, I know exactly what she meant! It’s a wonderful, vibrant, welcoming and hospitable country; even though I can only speak for Sierra Leone, but that doesn’t matter.

What did I expect from Sierra Leone? –

Well, having never been to Sierra Leone before; indeed Africa, ok anywhere outside of Europe, I’ll be honest and say I hadn’t got a clue what to expect! Colleagues had warned me about the heat, although it really should have been the beautiful rains that pour down at this time of the year. Welcome to the rainy season – 6 months of rain, followed by 6 dry months, an education all of its own.

My House mate told me to expect the 80s (when I wasn’t born) – so that was difficult to imagine too. In that he meant clothes style wise and perhaps in some ways he was right. Yet, on the whole, they’re pretty up to date with everything; a theme that occurred a lot, that of them not being as ‘behind the times’ as we might think they are.

After a long trip and a lot of traveling (which I admit to being useless at – although you have to learn these things). We arrived.  Driving through from Lungi (Freetown) to Bo I couldn’t help but be completely distracted by the countryside and landscape – lots of palm trees, bananas growing on the side of the road and what can only be described as a rainforest either side of the road.

On the road to Bo

Throughout the next couple of weeks it became clear that Sierra Leone is a place that gets under your skin and it did an excellent job of getting under mine. From the people to the language, the food (a little hard, well the palm oil was anyway) to get used to; to the beauty of the country.

It’s hard to condense and fully I feel, do justice to all that I saw and everyone I met and spoke to during my time there. Some things really stuck me and through words and photos I’ll try to convey it all. Below I’ve tried to list somethings that stuck/ have stuck with me to allow you to get a feel for what we do and what it is like in Sierra Leone.

I mean for instance you don’t expect this in the UK do you –

  • Women (usually although sometimes it’s children) – walking with buckets on their head, carrying goods, including water, food, etc.
  • Bare soil roads – it’s deep orange/ red over there
  • Beeping horns warning vehicles they’re in the road! It’s a bit se-real, but you do end up embracing it, even though I’m not so sure I wish to EVER drive out there!
  • Gratitude & Hospitality – everyone is so thankful to you and couldn’t look after you enough; I have NEVER been fed so much food in my life.
  • Being a spectacle – I’m not royalty, but having to wait in a car in the rain whilst they found an umbrella for me, is probably the closest I’ll ever come to being a royalty. It’s really very serial being seen as so important, when I was there to see them! Perhaps my lasting and most ingrained memory is that of my first visit, which I went on my own for with the field officer – almost 200 people came out in the rain to meet me and brought me a wealth of goods to sample/ as gifts, including bread, coconuts, oranges and groundnuts (peanuts) we left with about 20kg of them as well! That’s some gift, or some impression I made right!
  • Food Hygiene & Health and Safety – they’d have no numbers on their rating out there, there is nothing wrong with the food; it’s just things are presented as we would or cooked in environments we may recognise as appropriate, it still tastes lovely though. Being out there made me realise, even more than usual, just how cautious we are about EVERYTHING! Somethings are necessary, but some things probably make us look mad if you look at it from the point of view of people in Sierra Leone!

Over to you –

So, think about Africa. What do you imagine it to be like? Think about all you see, all you are/ have been told. The many campaigns by charities and organisations about this part of the world and then ask yourself what imagine you have of Africa?

  1. Is it of starving children from Band Aid in the 1980s and more recently in 2004?
  2. Is it of poor, sad, hungry and helpless looking people who can’t do anything without our help?
  3. Or – Is it, happy people trying to make a living for themselves and their families –simply wanting to gain a livelihood that enables them to support themselves and their families.

For many of you, I imagine it was a mix of the first two points, right?
Well, in fact, during my time there it was the final point that was true. Whilst there is still a need for our help and assistance with projects, in terms of need to be supported by extra funds. It is also true that their main priority is to gain a livelihood that they can be proud of and that enables them to provide for their families. Pride and being able to look after their families is a top priority for them and it’s completely the same here; only there is a real and quite scary stigma on those that can’t do just that!

I’m extremely proud to say that, that is exactly what APT Action on Poverty is doing. Helping and supporting people to gain a livelihood for themselves, in order for them to be able to provide for themselves and their families. Our work is providing young (and old) with skills that will equip them with the ability to have a livelihood to help them meet their and their family’s needs.

When we say family over here, we think about our immediate family, husband, wife, children, etc, but this is another cultural difference between us and many African nations; that of supporting the family, meaning supporting the extended family to as well your own, as you’re the one in work. Whilst this is a great attribute to have; it’s also a massive burden! I mean, imagine going to work every day and having to split that money between everyone, including your aunts, uncles and grandparents, if they weren’t in work! You can see how difficult this would make life can’t you.

However, this is changing as more people access opportunities and the ability to gain skills that enable them to gain employment. APT Action on Poverty have been working for over 20 years in Sierra Leone with our partners MAPCO and CARD to allow these opportunities to happen and help people have livelihoods that allow them to lead a sustainable futures that will continue after our projects finish; without our support.

Although I can’t tell you every story I heard during my time there, I will leave you with Adu’s story.

Adu was until recently the only Blacksmith in the community of Feiba; which is great for him and his business, but Adu wasn’t quite so happy, as he is getting older and had no one to pass his skills on to. An old fashioned tradition that perhaps we have sadly lost too much of an extent here in the UK, yet it’s still an integral one in Sierra Leone.

Met Adu

 

Adu wanted to share his skills with the local youth, but no one was interested. For some reason, the skill had been wrongly put down as one only for those who have a disability. Thanks to the work of our project partners MAPCO this has changed and earlier this year Adu got to see his first trainees graduate as fully qualified blacksmith. Meeting me and when I asked what this project meant to him, he simply replied –

“I can now die happy.”

He continued, by adding; “I have passed on my trade, my skill to others to carry and ensured that there will always be a blacksmith in our community.”

I can’t tell you how overwhelming that comment was and how it still brings tears to my eyes, even now. Many of us sit there and often think, x, y and z charity are doing an amazing job, but rarely do any of us see/meet the people whose lives our money has changed.

For Adu he has a business that is growing, he has young men that he has trained and watched grow and become skilled men, able to look after their families and for the first time in his life, he also isn’t scared about letting his community down either. It’s with immense pride and honour that I can say that WE, indeed, YOU, made this happen and I, on behalf of Adu and all our other beneficiaries would like to say a massive and truly heartfelt thank you for your continued support.

Without you, we couldn’t do our work and we couldn’t change the lives of Adu and his community for the better.

 

Thank you.

 

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