It’s not very often that I have to start a fire for myself here in the villages. The woman who cooks for me, Baindu, usually helps me with that. At times, though, I end up needing to split my own wood, gather tinder, and light a match (usually the first of many). Through vigorous fanning, huffing and puffing, I can usually coax along a few wavering flames, enough to boil water or warm a can of soup. Of course, it would be far easier to borrow a few live coals from an existing fire, but there is something highly satisfying in starting my own that justifies the effort; sometimes I discover new methods or tools for future fires, more commonly my reward is limited to sooty pride won through sheer perseverance. Even if my food doesn’t turn out, I maintain the unassailable moral victory of my fire.
In a way, OVP’s past and present work in three Sierra Leonean villages is similar to building fires. After the devastating civil war, the people here had nothing. Their homes had been burned to the ground, their farms repossessed by the jungle. No wood, no tinder, no matches, no fire. Jeff Hall led dozens of humanitarians in helping villagers to slowly but surely rebuild their communities and relight fires. Today, with basic needs such as clean water and solid housing largely met in these villages, we need to continue growing from humanitarian relief towards sustainable, community-led development. It is time for the villagers to be lighting fires on their own.
A few days ago, I saw the first of those fires spark to life.
Regina Fofana is a 39 year-old mother of four living in Foindu village who left school after 7th grade. A lively, bright-eyed individual with a quick smile, Regina works as a Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA) and is a leader of a local women’s saving group. She was one of 20 women selected by her peers to attend a 3-day, OVP-sponsored training of facilitators in Reflect, a program focused on empowerment, literacy, and community development. Held in the OVP Partnership Library in Foindu, Regina and her colleagues learned how to lead groups in a transparent and respectful manner, keep good records, and plan activities. However, it was during the afternoon session on Day 2 that our expert local trainer, Joe Davies, ventured into territory that would have the greatest impact.
Over time, Regina has come to hold certain things to be true. 1+1=2, cat is spelled c-a-t, women in Sierra Leone cook food, but men don’t. Joe encouraged Regina and the women to rethink these notions, as well as everything they had been taught in school and society, from religion to gender roles to political systems. What are our assumptions, where do they come from, why do we believe them? Are there not other ways to see the world, other lenses through which we can view our own realities? Is there really only one way to build a fire?
In a matter of hours, it became clear in the faces and energy of Regina and the other women that they were beginning to see themselves and think about their lives in a completely new way. For me, it was truly amazing to witness the growth of these first few flames of self-realization, flames that I believe are at the core of true individual and community development.
Regina was equally excited, and she intends to share these new perspectives with her Reflect group, and to change the way she approaches her work as a TBA: ‘Before now, we depended upon others to provide us everything for our work, not knowing that my fellow TBAs and I can work together to make small contributions to buy the supplies we need.’ Her ultimate goal is to ensure that everyone in her community realizes their own capacity to question the status quo, examine problems in their lives, and collectively become agents of change. Regina was confident in her assertion that ‘We can do things on our own if we work together.’
Encouraging as this new approach may be, the Reflect training is only the first small step for OVP and our village friends as together we embark on a new and challenging stage of our journey. Both the organization and the communities will need patience, humility, and most importantly, an unwavering belief that it is the people alone who must realize and sustain their own growth. OVP’s role is to share ideas and perspectives, facilitate and encourage; the communities must do the rest.
Supporting women like Regina as she starts to fan the flames of her own development gives me hope that OVP and these communities are on the cusp of something deeply profound. Ultimately, this sense of opportunity inspires me to continue building my own fire here in Sierra Leone.
“I now view myself different as compared to the past.
This new knowledge I have gained is very important.
I am a changed woman now.”