Stories From Sierra Leone

Building a Nursery With Sahr David Kpakiwa

I arrived in Sierra Leone on the last night of Ramadan, which was when I met David. Being that he was a dear friend to the Wellbody staff, he was in attendance at a small gathering that evening at the volunteer house. When I first met him, I was amazed by how articulate he was. After I complimented him on his English, I was stunned when he told me his formal education did not extend beyond primary school. David and I grew to be great friends over the course of my time in Sierra Leone, and we were together everyday. I felt fortunate to learn so much about David’s life and to be in such great connection with him. He was a man who was sent into exile as a child and fled a civil war as an adult. On the weekend, he taught me how to chop wood, how to clear a field, and how to plant an array of crops. At night, we would talk of religion, philosophy, and the purpose of life. He kept me positive. He helped me cope and confront some of the world’s most complex issues, and he taught me a great deal about perseverance through his demeanor and stories. 

Leaving David was very difficult, but the reassuring pictures from David last week have trumped my sadness and doubts with relief and excitement. David has been persistent in his agricultural efforts since my departure. He has demonstrated the core traits of any good businessman: persistence, dedication and positive thinking.

When I first started contemplating agricultural projects to implement, I was not thinking about David. I was thinking about young students and filling up my personal free time. Students in Sierra Leone are required to take an agriculture class to learn about different cropping seasons, types of yields and mixed farming. When you look at a student’s notebook, you will find that they have drawn pictures and written definitions, but the application of agriculture is learned at home. So I found an old experiment and started it with the children that lived by the house. It took an avocado and four toothpicks and an empty bottle of mayonnaise.

The stem at the bottom is an extension of the tree, which fed the fruit its original nutrients. The stem shows how fresh the fruit is but also could show the children how the fruit was connected to the tree. Before the seed germinates, this stem will fall off.

David saw what I was doing and we began to talk about the usefulness of trees and the prices of different fruits. Trees give shade for cash crops like coffee but also shade out pests, to decrease the needs for pesticides. Fruits are seasonal so prices fluctuate between a price floor and price ceiling within weeks. When it is the height of the season, price floor, finding a tree is the only problem. At the beginning or end of the season, price ceiling, you can be the only person in the market selling, complete price control. This is only true in a closed market.  Kono is between 6-7 hours in the dry season, and 12-14 hours in the rainy season from Freetown. This limits the market’s accessibility. The distance is actually only two hundred miles but a dirt road for half of the trip, and the sprawling traffic in Freetown make the trip a nightmare. It was announced early on during my fellowship that within three years the road would be finished-cutting travel time in half. I knew that if David had enough fruit he would be ahead of the market. He would be able to access a larger market through a more accessible infrastructure. I got excited about this information and began expanding my project. I started giving neighboring children the fruit for nutrition and showed them my toothpick project while I ate. I was buying avocados from the market at approximately 25 cents each. I felt really good. I was sharing fruit with the children who needed the vitamins. Plus my fruit were eventually going to germinate and I was going to give away the trees to people who wanted them.

I put avocados in milk, coffee and oatmeal tins, jelly and Nutella jar, and vitamin B bottles.

This premature, foolhardy thinking eventually failed. Most of the avocados had died. I had left them outside in our walled off back area and the sun had dried out the seeds. David knew I was upset. He had seen how excited I had been during the previous weeks and knew that it had turned out a disaster. My off time had gone to waist. My hobby had begun to turn into an eye sore: rusted cans, left over medicine bottles, and mosquito haven glass jars. 

I had been blinded by my own excitement. Even though David showed a lack of enthusiasm and my boss, Ahmidu Barrie, told me it was not going to work, I had convinced myself that it would. I had wasted three weeks on an idea that amounted to nothing. I had failed. Moreover, I had led the kids in the village to believe that this idea was solid and it was going to work. Luckily, my access to the Internet led me on a new course, oranges. I read a blurb that used paper towels, plastic bags and orange seeds with results in 14 days. So I tried it, desperate to get something I could be proud of and consume my mind and free time.

14 Days Later:

Once again my colleagues gave me a high five, but I could tell their lack of enthusiasm. I had germinated the seeds, but I had no plan for what to do next. I soon realized it wasn’t something that could be considered a success. They really weren’t worth much at all. It was small, it ruined my handkerchief, and it wasn’t to scale. I started to realize that Ahmidu and David were only supporting my goofy experiments because they thought it was funny and made me happy.

I started to realize I was going about my project the wrong way. I could use the Internet to learn a trick or two, a science project that stuns a few eyes, but would never amount to anything tangible. The project quickly moved from me thinking about my grade school science fair to an agricultural accomplishment. I remembered the most important lesson I learned from Professor Fried’s social entrepreneurship class: Ernesto Sirolli: Shut Up and Listen. I had not been listening. I had been so focused on trying to do something new and innovative that I had blinded myself from achieving something tangible. My intentions were good, but my results were poor. Instead of consistently looking into my MacBook, I turned to my local resource-David.

A week later, David called an old friend, Mr. Matouri, who had worked with David in the past on reviving the Kono District. The next Sunday, we were off to David’s childhood village to see an old friend about getting real results. Mr. Matouri had already been way ahead of us. He had started germinating orange seeds for his own land, just a few, but that is all he wanted. He had pealed the dried seeds and placed them in industrial sand. He said we didn’t have to water them, because it rained everyday, and we would see the first signs in 14 days no less, no more. He walked over to the street and picked up an empty sachet of water and cut the top. He said after three to four weeks you could put them in these bags or purchase polypot bags, which will let the plant grow more.

When David and I returned home we began to take seeds from the ground, market, clinic and schools, and peeled them everyday. We had amounted thousands of seeds in matter of weeks.

18 Days Later:

24 Days Later:

 

Within a month we had hundreds of seeds germinate, too many to know what to do with. I had to start thinking about where we were going to keep all of these saplings once the rains stopped. We had to find a shaded place to keep all of our plants moist. They would need to be watered everyday to ensure they survive the extremely hot 8-month dry season. We needed water at a close distance because traveling with heavy 10-gallon jugs would be far too taxing. Most importantly, I needed to take the backseat. 

David and I sat down, and he explained his plan to me. I had so many questions because I couldn’t really understand how all of this could happen. He wanted to use bamboo from a nearby village and told me it would be more expensive than wood. Little did I know if we used wood the nursery would not have lasted the year because termites would eat the wood and it would rot. We could only travel by foot or motorbike, and he was talking about 20-foot bamboo sticks. I didn’t have any idea how we would transport 20-foot bamboo sticks. I would have never known where or how to get them. 

The next weekend, David and I went on our next adventure to a different village. It was the densest green I had ever seen and resembled a rain forest. The thick stacks of bamboo sticks resembled ones I had seen in Hong Kong being used as scaffolding. We walked around, and I was a bit confused as to how the landscape was so different. We looked for someone to buy the bamboo from and eventually found a landowner willing to sell us some of his bamboo. David made a deal with him to purchase and transport the bamboo to David’s house by foot. Women from the village, seeking any opportunity for a day’s wage, were willing to walk 5 miles with 20 foot bamboo sticks on their heads. Once again, I was blindsided by how local business works. The women walked 10 miles that day balancing long stalks of bamboo on their heads all the way to David’s house. I would have never assumed that this was a possibility and probably would have eventually spent three to four times the amount of money on renting a car for the day. I was at the clinic when the bamboo came, and I was excited to get to David’s house to see what he had accomplished.

 

I was ecstatic to see David’s drive to complete tasks quickly and with care. I was standing underneath the structure, and David suddenly jumped up and grabbed a rafter. I was afraid that the whole nursery was going to fall down, but then his brother jumped up and nothing moved. As we all jumped up and grabbed on, we were filled joy and excitement. It was a great day in Kono.

The next problem we encountered was how to get fertile soil. I went to the market to purchase fertilizer, and David told me he knew where to get strong soil. So I trusted him. We walked twenty minutes from his house to last year’s town dump. When we got there, I was convinced there was no way he was serious. I thought he was just showing me how the town disposed of trash. David told me to look a bit closer, and then I realized there were flourishing papayas and mango. I did not realize it, but we passed a man on the way up who elected himself to move the trash and turn the soil (he needed a job, and it was worth doing). We were not the only ones to purpose the remnants for positive use. All of the nutrients and rotting fruit peels serve as fertilizer to the soil. Most importantly for us it was at a very low price.

Within the week, the nursery would be finished, equipped to manage thousands of plants less than ten meters away from a hand-dug well that would never go dry.

It was only a few weeks later that I left Sierra Leone. I left David with the hardest task of all - the next five years. David will have to prepare for the fires that occur in the dry season and have to defend his trees from the ten-foot grass. Until now, David will have been responsible for watering each plant two times a day. Soon, the rains will come and he can plant his trees. The trees will grow during the rains, take root and be prepared for next years dry season.

David standing with the nursery before I left

A recent volunteer for Wellbody Alliance just emailed me these pictures, and it certainly made my day, even from a thousand miles away, a happy one.

Continuing to germinate different seeds

The smaller plants: the orange, tangerine, and grapefruit. The larger plants:  the avocado and mangos

 

After I left David purchased Mosanki Palm nut (pre-germed nuts), used for palm oil, from a nearby NGO. Palm oil is one of the agricultural based export products made in Sierra Leone. (Palm oil is food in most foods but most commonly used in cooking oil.) 

David brought some flower at the Wellbody Alliance Guest House to bring cheer to volunteers, staff and the local community

 

David and I planting flowers around the Guesthouse

As many volunteers before me would remember, David’s house served as a refuge to a place that can seem overburdening. David built his beautiful property with the help of his brother who purchased 15 acres for him several years before. He had planted all of his bushes and flowers years before, which have now grown into a well-planned garden.  His beautiful flowers and colorful plants can bring anyone to smile and relax. The gentle breeze rolls across his property and flowers surrounding his porch gently move in the air. When I was there, I felt at ease. It was a place to get away. 

 I was excited that David was keeping up what we started, but even more thrilled to know he has continued to utilize his nursery. David’s entrepreneurial spirit is clearly marked by his own advancements since my departure. David is responsive to the market. He knows the palm oil industry is growing in Sierra Leone and wants to become a part of it. I generally talk to David once every couple of weeks. It is exponentially more expensive to call across the continent than it is to call to the United States. I hope that my relationship with David will continue as I try to continue to support his efforts to expand his business. I believe I have made a life long friendship with David. He will continue to be a supportive friend and mentor to me.  I hope David is as happy as I am that we had the opportunity to spend time together. I hope David knows what a large and important impact he has had on my life. He is a rare and resilient man, full of ambition and dedication to his work. Our friendship, work, and time together has truly become a tremendous blessing.

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago

The second best time is now

~African Proverb

Quantifying the Barriers

About six weeks ago, I left Sierra Leone. The 100 days I spent immersed in the Kono peoples’ lives served as an enlightening experience, which taught me about economic inequalities, perseverance, loving thy neighbor and dedication to ones work. It also served as a constant struggle to contemplate the meanings of social inequality and how the global community can reduce that struggle. I am still attempting to reflect on my experience and trying to take the perspective of the Kono people in the effort to understand the barriers to lifting oneself up by their own bootstraps. It is not something that I can easily articulate. As an economics student, I believe economic inequality and structural inequality is where I can start.

I. The Structures of poverty

Many scholars take the easy way out and blame the culture, poor decision-making, government corruption, chiefs and the mineral curse to rationalize the delay in development. These scholars illustrate crucial issues that plague economic growth, but we need to seek the truth from facts. Western ideology has enabled global economic development and has brought life changing farming innovations, modern technology and affordable health care around the world but yet these developments have been unable to lift the 600 million people from extreme poverty. Less spoken about are the negative effects that are inherent outcomes of Western models. We contend that freedom of speech allows for increased publicity of government corruption but also leads to promising advertisements from casinos or diamond mines. The pursuit of property creates incentives to further our personal wealth and economic growth, but also restricts growth when speculative land purchases drive up price as a result of the intrinsic value. In the United States, we argue that free markets enable growth and that government corruption and asymmetric information, such as unclear export and tax laws, prevent businesses from instituting foreign direct investment. Although government corruption and weak undereducated local officials contribute to the delay in domestic growth, American import laws and farm subsidies contribute to this delay as well. I will argue that within the resource curse, negative and pecuniary externalities serve as the core factors that have delayed development in the Kono District and caused the diamond market to fail in meeting the needs of the local populations.  

A. International Superstars and Local Media

With no formal education, an individual can only educate themselves by what they learn from others or external forces, such as the radio. Within the rural villages in the Kono district, there are no more than five radio stations and limited access to educated teachers or models of success (a village with no access to roads, running water, power, sanitation or product variety for consumption would seem like an unattractive place to live for a college education individual). This leaves the local population with very limited or no interaction with individuals attempting to understand their needs or create functional models to help innovate their own prosperity. Therefore, the main external influence carrying advice becomes the radio. All of the stations have advertisements from local diamond dealers promoting a “great price”. These advertisements advance the notion that diamonds make you rich. Every person is beholden to the information available. Constant influence subsequently becomes the strongest influence.

The United States most profitable export is its media; September 2012, approximately one year before my arrival, Rihanna’s single had traveled 5000 miles to Kono. This catchy single did not intend on creating negative externalities, but intentions and outcomes are often different. DJs would play the song “shine bright like a diamond” everyday. At the end of every hour there is a five-minute segment from BBC, but the rest of the hour is interrupted by DJs playing the notorious Rihanna line “shine bright like a diamond.” I cannot begin to understand how much influence these wealthy pop stars have over the general population but they remain some of the only successful American names they know. Other than President Obama, these artists serve as the majority of American influence. Rihanna, Chris Brown, and Eminem are more widely known than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. I come from a place where not a minute goes by where I have the choice to search through millions of global intellectuals and role models in the palm of my hand, but these individuals are beholden to the five radio stations and the messages they carry.

Both these examples of external influences send messages concluding diamonds are a way to gain economic prosperity. The radio stations, the music artists and the diamond dealers all gain the profits, but the countless independent diggers for these diamonds come home empty handed. An inability to adequately to feed their family, send their children to school, or provide basic needs.

B. Labor Market Efficiency and Employment Opportunities

Within the free market, each individual is trying to create the largest gains to increase personal profits. Independent diggers will spend months or even years searching for the tiny rock they believe will change their lives. The next step is for them to find a buyer. A middleman is also trying to maximize his own gains. This middleman’s goal is to collect as many diamonds as possible at the lowest price he can buy. Of course this allows for more people to enter the market creating price competition, and higher employment, but the externality leaves the independent diggers, with the smallest gains and the hardest work. Our Western notion is that hard work creates success. The extremely valuable diamonds are most commonly found within industrial mines. Moreover, most of a diamonds value is gained after the raw commodity is cut into elegant jewelry. This leaves diamond laborers who find the gems with the smallest share of final profit.

This informal market only accounts for a fraction of diamond exports out of Sierra Leone. The large alluvial diamonds that can be valued up to $70 million or more are found within industrial mining, mining deeper than six feet. Once I asked a South African worker the biggest diamond they found that week and he connected his index fingers and his thumbs. This type of mining requires expensive government contracts and mining equipment that prices out the local population. Where labor is abundant, labor is cheap. No one forces the men and woman to enter the mines, but the eight-hour days digging in the sun leaves them questioning, whether the $2.50 wage was worth it. Someone once described the scene as men with shovels, and blistered hands, all digging deeper into each of their own earthen pits. These conditions seem almost impossible to endure for days at a time, let alone years. But yet, men and women seek this daily wage to make basic ends meet, while hundreds of millions of dollars are extracted from their labor every year. It was no more than two years ago that the labors formed a strike outside the mine. There were 22 gun shot injuries and one woman was shot and killed. Within this same time period, the company that the laborers rioted against, African Minerals Ltd. has rebranded itself, Octea Mining, and increased its output.

C. Pursuit of Property

In the West, many people criminalize chiefs for their inability to service the villages in which they live. This is certainly true and I have very strong distain for these individuals, but when judging someone else we also must judge ourselves. If my ancestors ventured into an uninhabited area and registered their findings with government officials to claim ownership, they would have the right to purchase that land. In the United States, we would allow that newfound wealth, land, to pass down to our offspring. Yet many people will still criminalize the chief’s property claims, which within free-markets would be considered acceptable. I believe that many chiefs in the Kono District are unwilling to sell their land below its intrinsic value because there is the chance that the diamonds below will yield lasting wealth for their offspring. These potential contracts from Western investors may entail millions of dollars in gains. Even if these individuals were willing to sell at the mark value price, it would still leave disequilibrium between the market evaluation, due to speculation, and price a small farmer can afford. This means some would have to sell their property for less than its value, for the betterment of others. Potential financial gain serves as a valid reason to preserve their ownership of their ancestors land. It is a simple investment that they can hold out for the future.

D. Market Valued Interest Rate

At the local Koidu banks, the prime-lending rate is 24%. This leaves massive barriers to entry. As a college educated individual, I cannot think of a small business that could definitively yield a 24% gain in a year, leaving an inability for institutional banks to serve the local community. In the 1990s, a new type of finance, microfinance, has proven to show success around the world, but this is not a one size fits all banking solution. This type of lending requires the same type of attention given to large borrowers but at a smaller level. It includes bankers reviewing personal balance sheets, previous employment and evaluating viability of return on small loans. This increase in attention to smaller projects has shown that banks can decrease lending rates and loan loss rates simultaneously. Often times these loans are given out to existing businesses but in Kono most businesses closed during the war and were restarted within the last ten years, limiting their previous records and proof of sustainability. Rural parts of Sierra Leone are locations where individuals do not have strong enough education backgrounds or previous employment records to qualify for many of these types of loans, once again leaving the informal economy as the lender of last resort rather than institutional banks. This type of lending is restricted by its own ordinance structure and fails to reach the bottom 20% individuals who earn less than $1.25 a day.

E. The State and Viable Tax Rates

Within the United States, individual states battle to attract businesses to come to their state by decreasing tax rates or becoming right to work states. In the Euro Zone, Ireland has attempted to use internal devaluation to decrease the real wage rate to attract external investment. These examples are a Western demonstration of the race to the bottom. Similarly, the West African nations have to race to the bottom. If a state has a high export tax on diamonds, dealers have incentives to smuggle their diamonds across the boarder to a neighboring country to yield a larger profit. An inability to protect the countries hundreds of miles in boarders makes smuggling diamonds an easy task. Therefore, countries have raced to lower their rates to ensure that they can offer the dealer the best price. The overall effect is that the government revenues for development decrease and the profits for the dealers increase. This results in diamonds having little to no positive effect on the communities from which the diamonds originate. The assumed ability to stimulate local economies has been decimated by profit maximization by the unfettered free market. In 2012, 296,334 carats were exported from Sierra Leone. In the first half of 2013, there were 331,471 carats or $102 million exported from Sierra Leone but with the minimal 5% export charge, government revenues only added to $5.1 million. But yet these exports will have minimal effects on the local population with the mean wage at $0.32 per hour (Bankole Kamara Taylor, 83). Firms within this market do not pay a wage that corresponds with productivity because of labor abundance.

II. Changing the Structure

This past November, Dambisa Moyo pointed out that the world is rapidly changing in an era where African leaders are turning away from reliance on private capitalism for economic growth and turning to a new model. The Chinese have dwarfed what private capitalism has contributed to Sierra Leone by committing to a $8 billion infrastructure project that will build a new airport, port, mine, power plant and 155 mile railway. This commitment is approximately 800 times what the government will receive in revenues from the export of $200 million in diamonds this year. It was the United States that innovated the modern transportation system, but it is China that is implementing this system globally in the effort to benefit African countries’ domestic growth in an attempt to create stability as a means to grow Chinese state owned enterprises.

This deal does not fix the problems related to media, property, diamonds, interest rates or viable tax rates. It will certainly not aid Sierra Leone in its effort to create strong government revenues through iron export, but is a step outside the box and a new attempt at development. Similar to microfinance, it attempts to bring an essential part of a functional market to Sierra Leone, an ability to efficiently transport goods and services. It will drive the price of power down to allow more households to benefit from the ability to see at night, and is a fraction of the cost of personal generators. It eliminates the need to take two taxis and a boat or a four-hour car ride to get from the airport to the city, while also cutting transportation time in half. The $8 billion is two times the country’s 2013 GDP. It will allow local businesses to transport products more efficiently. It will drive up the value of the virgin beaches that remain untouched by the hotel industry. Most importantly it allows for small entrepreneurs and businesses to efficiently bring their ideas and products from the rural areas to the big cities.

Our goals should not be to change governments, but to offer people the tools to change their own lives. Create more efficient markets for increased employment opportunities. Empower people to empower themselves. All of these ideas are embedded in the deal brought by the Chinese model. Only time will tell if this stimulus can create more efficient markets that allow tenants to become owners, the poor to be enfranchised, and connect the smallest ideas with the global economy. 

Walking Past

 A child who will not have the ability to go to school,

A child who will use palm nut as a daily meal,

A child who will die before turning five,

A child who was born with HIV,

A child who has TB,

 

A youngster that I can hug,

And one that will make me laugh,

A little friend that will make me smile,

One to tickle,

Another to chase,

One who is thirsty,

Another who is hungry,

 

A boy with no shirt,

A naked one too,

One with pearly whites,

And one whose are brown,

One with a sick mother,

Another with a drunk father,

One that doesn’t see their parents,

Another that has no parents,

 

A six year old who sells to eat,

A twelve year old who fishes to eat,

A ten year old who scavenges to eat,

And many more who beg to eat.

I will improve their English,

I will plant trees at their house,

I can teach a few addition,

I can ensure they eat,

 

But I still feel helpless,

I sense as though,

For the majority of them,

 The next day,

Or the next year,

The end result,

Is just as if I walked past.

A First Day of School

            The last month has really put life in perspective for me. At the beginning, I felt that the same standards should always apply for every person in the world. No person should ever cheat another. No person should ever try and swindle someone. But how can I hold a person to a standard that I never had to be held too?

            Monday was the first day of school in Kono. On Thursday afternoon, I was approached by two of the neighboring girls for school fees. Each individual child’s trimester tuition can range between $3-$6. A child’s uniform and shoes costs less than $5. The books that they use are the same bluebooks used for a college exam and even in high school. This $11 either gives a child structure for the day or leaves them sitting at home alone, with an inability to learn how to count or read. I was not going to take that human right from these girls or their siblings. I quickly got the money and handed it to the girls. Their faces lit up with excitement and they ran down the street to go and get their supplies. I smiled, ear-to-ear, seeing them happy about chance to learn.

            It was no more than 2 hours later, the two girls asked the doctor I lived with to pay their school fees. To make matters worse, I heard them right outside the door as they asked him to pay their tuition. It filled me with anger and frustration; I felt I had been taken advantage of. I felt as though these girls had just played “the white man” for cash. I then proceeded to go outside and tell them to go home and that I did not want to see them over at the house.

I was confused; I was upset; I felt tricked.

            Immediately after telling them to leave, I sat there bewildered as to why they would ask someone else for schools fees. I had just handed them the money. Why wouldn’t they trust that I would take care of them? I didn’t know what to do. As I sat in my house at the table, I reflected on that day and contemplated why this would happen.

I let the night pass and into the next day frustrated with them, thinking that I would never be prone to that type of deception- no matter the reason. After coming back from the clinic, I sat down and soon realized that I had no right to judge anyone else’s actions. I had no right to think of myself as a more refined person. I had no right to think I worked harder than they did to get to where I am.

I have concluded that everything I have is a result of luck. Today I deem myself a product of my environment. Had I not taken full advantage of what I was given, I would be more of a failure than I am a success. My school was paid. My food was given to me. Every indulgence, every “necessity” and every luxury I have enabled me to develop and grow.

I have no right to judge someone who was given nothing. I had no right to judge these girls who may have just wanted a bar of soap. They may have wanted a shirt that was not littered with holes. They may have wanted a light, so they can see something in the night, not to spend their nights in complete darkness and fear. Most likely they would have bought a deck of cards so they have something more to do than flip a coin or play with the sand.

I am not forced to live with a relative because my parents could not afford to feed me. I did not have to endure a civil war. I do not have to bear the pains of going hungry. I have not felt the struggles of working without food in my system. I never had to question whether to eat or to feed the child next door who has not eaten in days.  

I Am A Product of a Very Lucky Upbringing

            It was the very next night when I received a letter from the girls’ next-door apologizing for their actions. I attached the letter to this blog post because I think it is important to see that “it was not their fault.” The children were really only seeking ways to get real necessities. With no other way of having anything, they chose to use a lie to make ends meet. Maybe they did it to hold their pride. In reality, they were trying to survive. These girls have no access to eggs or chicken because they are too expensive. Their family raises chickens but to eat one would not be in the budget. Most nights they do not eat fish because it too is costly.

That night I talked to a gardener friend, who was upset that the children had also stomped out some of the plants that he had planted at my house a few months ago. He voiced his frustration with what the children had done and that his hard work had gone to waste. I then decided that we would replant the plants and the children would be able to come and help. So at 7AM, the following morning, I invited all the children to come to the house for coffee and cookies and asked if they would like to help plant new flowers. It was quit obvious that they would be more interested in the cookies than the flowers but it definitely quickly registered with them that I had forgiven them and that everything was going to be okay.

            We spent the entire day ripping out the grass and weeds, carrying stones to the garden, and digging holes. The children only asked that I bring them water and so I did. The children quickly moved from stepping on the flowers to protecting the area around the flower with rocks to keep the weeds from growing. We even had extra trimmings to plant in front of their home.

Having the matter resolved and the children happy, with something to do and take pride in, allowed me to come to terms with many of the challenges they endure regularly. It was an amazing opportunity for people of all ages to be involved in something together. Something I am sure that will eventually become fruitful.

I will never fully understand how these children have made it this far in life, not feeling sorry for themselves but only enduring the greatest challenges by surviving and taking care of one another. Even though many of them are not even related, they ensure the safety of each other, they take care of one another, and they are family. Sometimes it is just their smiles that help me to remember that the best moments are the moments shared with others. They are only human and humans have needs.

Now, I feel that the same rights should always apply for every child in the world. No child should have to cheat a person to survive. No child should ever have to swindle someone to eat once a day.

A Topical Understanding

Koidu, Sierra Leone

            Koidu, Sierra Leone is the least developed place I have visited in my short life, but I have constantly questioned why. What every woman aspires to have on her hand comes from the ground right below where I am sitting. Twice a week, Koidu Holdings blast deeper into the mine to extract more diamonds. This industry has had little to no effect on the wellbeing of individuals living in the area. I constantly question how one of the most expensive natural resources is being extracted from an area with no improvement to the community or living conditions of individuals in the Kono Distract.

            Koidu Town, which is an hour walk from the clinic, is the most urbanized location. The strip of stores and restaurants still cook food outside over open fires by using coal and wood. This was the signal to me that development has been slow to non-existent in Koidu. Moving from outdoor cooking to indoor cooking can show better access to running water, sanitation, gas lines, ability to allow smoke to exit amongst very many other simple things. Even within Koidu Town the water is brought to locations by carrying 5-gallon paint jugs of water over 500 meters to each individual location. This is a sign of poor sanitation because of a lack of access to water to properly clean silverware and dishes. When walking down the street there are also limitations to what types of food can be offered. The market for different types of food is very low as a result of levels of income. The Kono District is a place where disposable income is so low that individuals are forced into producing low cost crops such as rice, beans, cassava, plantain, banana and groundnuts. On the day-to-day, these crops seem to be peoples entire diet, with very limited other options. The largest income earners are individuals with businesses on the strip, NGO workers, government workers and employees from Koidu Holdings. Subsistence farmers are yielding different crops but do not seem to be making large enough profits to expand their farms to increase returns. Many of the business owners are also foreign workers who have brought their own funds to start a business. These foreign workers are good for economic growth but also create divisions because they live better than the local population.

            Infrastructure here in Koidu is very poor. The few paved roads are littered with potholes and most areas are only regularly accessible by motorbike, making the transportation of HIV and TB patients very difficult. The light from the Koidu Holdings site is the brightest thing in Dorma Village. Other than the lights at our house, it is a kilometer before finding someone with light produced by something other than batteries. The city has recently committed to installing 10,000 solar panel streetlights. This will allow children to exit their homes to get vital time to study underneath the street light.

            The education within the district is only supported until 6th grade. This leaves children at the ages of 11 or 12 with no access to education unless their parents can pay approximately $20 to attend high school. The $20 fee covers the tuition but not a $2 dollar notebook or $3 uniform. After accounting for all of this, a parent must be spending over 15% of their annual income just so their child can move beyond the sixth grade. When raising a family on less than one dollar a day, sending one child to school means that a parent will not be able to feed their family for 20 days.

The general budgetary restraints do not account for any of the other barriers that prevent children from accessing education. It does not account for 10-year-old child taking care of his 8-year-old brother, while his mother is struggling with paralysis in the hospital. It does not account for a child’s aunt raising him and 6 other children because two of her sisters died from HIV. It does not show the maturity and strength of an 8-year-old girl who struggled to take care of her mother instead of attending school. It does not depict the struggle of working while eating nothing but dry rice for weeks at a time. The financial gap quickly goes from a challenge to the largest barrier between learning the most basic skills such as counting to ten, recognizing letters and a destitute life of poverty.

            The United Nations is planning to leave the Koidu and centralize their efforts in Freetown, the capital of the country, ten hours away. When walking down the street you can also see abandoned facilities with missing windows where the UN troops used to stay during the conflict. It seems as though funding for this population has rapidly declined during the post conflict era, leaving the population living in a poverty trap to fend for themselves. I do not believe this is the United Nations fault, but funding for places like the Kono District often fade over time as other international tragedies call for immediate funding. It is the classic example of putting a huge band-aid over an open wound rather than the longer process of cleaning the wound, inserting stitches, applying antibiotics, and finally the large band aid. This is not a result of incompetence by the United Nations, but a reality of funding and the low success rate of long-term development projects.

            The thing that stresses me most about the Kono area is the lack of structure for children Children have little to no structure or anything to play with. The children from the house next door play with a deck of 26 cards everyday. The only other three things I have seen to occupy children are old tires, soda caps nailed to a stick and the occasional soccer ball. This signals a challenge for the next generation that will need to be fixed in order for real development to be made in this area. I have not seen one child with a book, even the adults here struggle to find anything to read or stimulate their minds.

The most positive signal for development around Dorma Village, where I live, is that people have moved from thatch roofs to tin. Tin roofs will last a much longer amount of time and also save individuals money, but are also more expensive to install. There are huge segments of people surrounding Dorma Village that do no have the ability to save enough or make enough in a year to cover the costs of a tin roof. The Engineers Without Borders from Princeton are improving the access to safe water, which will reduce water born illness. This will also make Dorma a more attractive place to live in the area because safe water and access to medical attention are close by.

The People

Every person here has welcomed me with open arms. Individuals have asked to go to their homes for dinner, asked me to come to their churches. When I enter the home of an HIV patient, they always offer me the only seat the own to take care of me as a guest in their home. Every patient I meant thanks me for coming and thanks me when I leave. There is no deed left forgotten by the people in Kono.

My coworkers have been more than willing to sit down with me and explain everything. They have welcomed me with cheerful excitement every morning. My coworkers are a pretty young crowd and I enjoy their young and lively demeanors. Joining them to watch European fútbol matches with 75 other people on a single TV was an amazing bonding experience.

 Everywhere I turn I see little children yelling “Whiteman, Whiteman!” Many of the children become afraid of me when I come to say hello, but other times I turn to look behind me and one is stretching out to hold my hand. The children here may have very little, but it does not prevent them from smiling and laughing. The looks on their faces when they discovered that hopscotch was something they could draw in the sand clearly depicted how easily they could be occupied and excited about something so simple. I hope that I can continue to show them new games so that they can interact with different children to improve their social skills and connections within the village.  

The majority of individuals are Muslim or Christian, approximately split right down the middle. The religious groups are integrated together; it is not as though they are divided. Throughout the day you can find yourself hearing the speakers projecting daily prayer from the Mosque. There is a strong trust in religion here and a competitive atmosphere to get Westerners to come to their Christian church.

The Job

            The Wellbody Clinic seems to be the most trusted clinic in Kono. People come to the Wellbody Clinic because it is more affordable and feel that they are treated better here than at the government hospital. The first two weeks I was here I went out with different individuals in the TB Reach program and the HIV program. This week I have spent in the office helping with the data collection that is done by the field workers I had spent time with during the first two weeks. I am starting to finally understand the entire organizations programs, day-to-day functions and the clinical functions (as a result of feeling under the weather already).

            The HIV program functions as an arm of the ‘human right to health’ that Wellbody Alliance truly represents. The HIV supervisor and I went to many different villages to personally check up on HIV positive patients. Patients range from an array of categories. Wellbody actively treats patients and their spouses, mothers and their child, single men/woman as well as orphaned children. Each individual has a different story but all of them have a similar issue- nutrition and food. The HIV drugs have shown strong results. The drugs allow people to live normal lives, but when they are waiting for harvest or income they no longer can fund food to eat. The medications although effective, can make individuals who are taking the pills without food very sick. As a result people are forced to make a decision take the medication and become sick or not take the medication and allow their immune system fail. These individuals are not only stuck in a poverty trap but also become too sick to even have a chance at making ends meet. The living conditions for many of these individuals also consist of dirt floors and mud walls creating a very strong chance that they may become more ill from other issues as a result.

            The clinic plans on having over 20,000 people come through their doors for medical attention. This is a critical location where the average life expectancy is 47. Sierra Leone is also a place where 1 in 8 woman die during childbirth and 1 in 4 children die before reaching the age of 5. This clinic serves ensures that mothers can care for their children and children have the opportunity to survive. Everyday I come to the clinic I see countless infants that are sick and need medical attention. I can’t imagine what this population would do without Wellbody.

            There is also the TB Reach program has screened over 50,000 people. TB is passed through cough and within living quarters where a whole family may share one bed it is easily transferred. They have found 6,000 subjects and constantly working with limited supplies to ensure each one of those individuals gets tested and treated. The grant that Wellbody received has enabled them to extend their outreach but also made their name well known throughout the district.

This clinic has a very great reputation amongst the surrounding population and I my hope that I can uphold and help improve the clinic for the next 8 months. I am excited to be a part of this organization and their goals. I wake up everyday feeling that I can help others accomplish great things everyday. I feel that individuals here have truly dedicated their lives to making a difference.

Montra Of A Minerva Fellow


Go to the people.

Live with them.

Learn from them.

Love them.

Start with what the know.

Build with what the have.

But with the best leaders,

When the work is done,

The task accomplished,

The people will say,

'We have done this ourselves.'

-Laozi, 老子 ”Master Teacher”

Appreciation

I want to start my Blog by thanking Union College. Union has enabled me to grow and mature during the past four years, and has now allowed me the opportunity to extend my growth during the next ten months. I would also like to thank the Union College Professors for preparing me mentally and emotionally to create change in the world. The Union College Professors challenge students to find their passion for learning that will continue for the rest of their lives. I would also like to thank the generous sponsors who have enabled the program to be the healthy Fellowship it is today.

I am not the only fellow leaving from Union.  We all carry unique perspectives that enable us to connect you to the developing world. It is not that often in media that we have the opportunity to find a true connection with the developing world. I so encourage everyone to discover and relate to the stories, thoughts and pictures of my fellow Fellows. I have the hope that we can all further our affirmation that people around the world are not all that different.

Meredith Adamo : Save the Children - Nicaragua

Eric Spector: Bagru Textiles - India

Ben Weiner: Engeye Health Clinic - Uganda

Jacqui Smith: Yanapuma Foundation - Ecuador

Andrew Vinales: Yanapuma Foundation - Ecuador

Ariel Blum: The Global Child - Cambodia

Rebecca Duffy: The Global Child - Cambodia