Iona reflects on her recent trip to Sierra Leone as part of her year on ‘Step into the Gap’…..
It is not long since I stepped back onto English soil after an incredible month spent in Sierra Leone as a CAFOD ‘Step into the Gap-er’, and already it seems somewhat of a dream. Arriving in cold, grey, snowy England at Heathrow airport could not have been more of a jump from the tropical, humid, blue-skied Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.
For me, Sierra Leone has been a country of paradoxes. A country where seemingly barren, red, dusty ground nurtures surprisingly lush, green, tropical vegetation. A country with one of the highest annual rainfalls on the African continent, Sierra Leone is lush and abounding in natural resources, and yet is one of the most impoverished in the world.
A country which has experienced violent civil war in recent history, yet is populated by people of such warmth, welcome and generosity. A country where people struggle for food, yet where a portion size less than a plate piled high is inconceivable. A country where people go with little or nothing, yet insist on sharing all of what they have.
Someone said it is in the tension of paradox that creative life blossoms, and this seems to sum up my experience of this incredible West African country.
The trip was one of exposure to some of the work that CAFOD is doing in Sierra Leone, and alongside seven other gappers, I spent a month being introduced to and exploring the projects being implemented out here, primarily through CAFOD’s in-country partner, CARITAS Makeni.
Having started off in the hustle and bustle of coastal Freetown, our group headed inland to Makeni in neighbouring Bombali district bordering Guinea. From here we took trips out to surrounding villages and communities which gave us our first experience of ‘African roads’. Imagine a red dirt-biking track, add in regular craters, and a plume of rust-coloured dust arcing out behind the vehicle, and you will be fairly close. It is a miracle the suspension in cars lasts as long as it does.
We went to see the projects that CARITAS Makeni are implementing, and the communities with whom they are working. These were mainly in the areas of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), and Livelihoods. The ‘disasters’ in the areas we visited consisted of drought, bush fires, and flooding from a nearby hydro-electric dam. The dam’s tagline was along the lines of ‘sustainable energy for the nation’, ironic given its capacity to destroy the livelihoods of individual communities within that nation, communities who, incidentally, were not receiving the promised ‘sustainable energy’ anyway. This oxymoron revealed the complexities of international development to me, and the multitude of factors in play.
The work CARITAS does in Sierra Leone is at the opposite end of the spectrum from this dam. The projects we visited were grass roots, simple, community-led and designed, and therefore also community-owned. CARITAS worked with individuals, face-to-face, building relationships as well as sustainable futures. The warmth of welcome Polo, our CARITAS guide, received at each community was testament to this, with exuberant exclamations of ‘Aw di body’ (Krio for ‘how are you’) and warm handshakes.
One of the most inspiring characteristics of the nation I encountered was a proactive attitude of working with what is available. Unlike other impoverished countries I have visited, there was almost no begging. Rather than sit and wait to receive, there was incredible entrepreneurship; everyone was doing or making or selling something, regardless of age or gender. The impression was of an independent nation of go-getters, rather than a dependent, needy one. An impression further strengthened on meeting with particular communities. Frequently these communities had very little, sometimes not even the basics such as access to clean water, or sufficient meals a day. Despite this, we visited one community to find they had already started work on the proposed plans for a community centre CARITAS had promised, without CARITAS input, and using what little they had available.
That somewhat overused saying, ‘give a man a fish, feed him for a day, give a man the means to fish, feed him for life’ sums up my experience of the work of CARITAS here. However, as CAFOD manager in Freetown, Sam Danse, reminded us, this is not a one way relationship with CAFOD as donors and Sierra Leonian’s as passive recipients. The people I have met in Sierra Leone have taught and given me so much more than I could ever return.
There are truths, wisdoms and beauties of humanity which have become lost in Western society which abound there; authentic community, love of neighbour, an understanding that the world is not just for me, now, but for future generations, and a capacity to live abundantly in the present regardless of whether it is at work, play, in sickness or health, poverty or riches. This leads me to question, who then is the more impoverished?
Application close for next year’s Step into the Gap on 25th April 2013.
For more details of this unique opportunity, click here