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