Health Ministers Conclude Emergency Summit on Ebola

On Wednesday, July 2 Health Ministers of eleven African Nations met with health experts, World Health Organization officials, Aid Organizations and survivors of the Ebola Virus for a two day summit on containment and crisis strategies.

The Health Ministers agreed on priority actions to end the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

Blog 2The Emergency Ministerial meeting on Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) ended with the ministers agreeing on specific priority actions to end the Ebola outbreak. The scale of the outbreak is unprecedented, with over 750 of known reports and 4445 deaths since March of 2014.

At the end of the two-day meeting, they agreed that the current situation poses a serious threat to all countries in the region and beyond, and called for immediate action. This coordinated action and response will involve all stakeholders, national leadership, enhanced cross-border collaboration and community participation. They stressed that there is a direct threat to adverse social and economic impact of the outbreak to West Africa.

The adopted inter-country strategy includes addressing a number of gaps and challenges to successful coordination which include: financing, communication, cross-border collaboration, logistics, case management, infection control, surveillance, contact tracing, community participation and research.

To meet these needs the World Health Organization (WHO) will establish a Sub-Regional Control center in Guinea to act as the coordinating arm to consolidate and harmonize support for all major partners in West Africa. They will assist in technical support and resource mobilization. The ministers also stressed the importance of continued research on the Ebola Virus.

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The Common Strategy adopted highlights:

  • National intra-sectorial meetings involving key government ministries, national technical committees and other stakeholders to design a plan for the immediate implementation of strategy;
  • Improve awareness and understanding of the Ebola Virus through community organizing of religious and political leaders;
  • Strengthen surveillance, case finding and reporting of contact tracing;
  • Deploy additional resources to key “hot-spots”;
  • Identify and commit additional domestic financial resources;
  • Organize cross-border consultations to exchange and facilitate communications and information;
  • Share experiences with countries that have previously managed Ebola outbreaks.

Latest News on Ebola Outbreak

A US citizen is being tested for the Ebola virus in Ghana, which has had no confirmed cases of the virus in the current West African outbreak.

The man has been quarantined at the private Nyaho Clinic in the capital, Accra, health officials say. The man was believed to have visited Guinea and Sierra Leone in recent weeks. Staff at the clinic had also been quarantined and provided with protective clothing.

Ebola’s Surge in Sierra Leone Requires Emergency Action for OneVillage Partners

As hopes of containing the Ebola Virus are fading, OneVillage Partners (OVP) is responding to the emerging crisis with the intent to keep staff safe, and to do whatever we can to support the villages by offering preventative measures to maintain their health and safety.

In the last month there have been over 100 cases documented in the remote eastern villages of Sierra Leone and nearly 759 documented cases in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone with over 467 fatalities. The first recorded Ebola Virus cases have now migrated to the region containing the villages where we work. OneVillage Partners has made some tough decisions as we follow the news closely concerning the world’s largest outbreak of the Ebola Virus since it was first discovered in 1976.

Many more cases are suspected.  Also concerning are reports of distrust and panic by the general populace. We have confirmed reports of rocks being thrown at public health workers conducting Ebola sensitization and rioting in front of the main hospital in Kenema (where our bank is located).  In the last week in Bunumbu, the location of our head office, angry community members attacked an ambulance, removing three potentially infected people from its enclosures. The first cases in the capital of Freetown were also reported last week. Doctors without Borders has called the situation “out of control.” Several organizations have pulled out of Sierra Leone, and nearly all non-health related organizations have pulled all non-essential staff from Kailahun District (where we operate).

Tough Choices for OVP and our response to the Ebola Virus

Ebola Blog 1In late May OneVillage Partners postponed the planned trip for Blake High School students to Sierra Leone. The students had been researching their trip for the past 6 months, and were ready to leave in one week before our unfortunate but wise decision. As the virus spread, we decided to return our summer interns from Amherst College to the states just 9 days after their arrival in Sierra Leone. This decision was made for a few reasons: the risk of having to use public transportation where the virus is known to spread, and the risk in the villages themselves, where residents do not habitually seek medical assistance if they are sick. In fact, one of the reasons the Ebola Virus spreads is that the villagers are distrustful of isolation in medical facilities – it goes against their cultural beliefs of having family members offer primary medical care.

Sadly, we recently made the difficult decision to send our Sierra Leone staff back to their home villages where they wanted to be with family, and pulled the rest of the ex-pat (non-Sierra Leonean) staff to Freetown (west Coast Sierra Leone) due to 4 new cases of the Ebola Virus in Kenema where they lived. Today we heard of the first documented case in Freetown (capital and largest city in Sierra Leone) and made the toughest choice – to send our remaining staff back to their respective home countries. They depart next week. All staff will be on either a small stipend or pay for the next few months, and will hopefully be reinstated once the crisis is over. We realize this could take at the earliest three months and may be up to 6 months or more.

In the meantime, OneVillage Partners is developing Emergency Intervention Plans to prevent the spread of this deadly disease to the villages where we work. OVP has aided in the dissemination of information on Ebola and preventative measures that people in our villages can take. We will stay in close communication through our established reliable networks to monitor the risk(s) of returning staff.

We are in process of raising $25,000 to apply towards the current crisis and toward regrouping once we determine the risks to staff are no longer present.

Because the villagers have a trusting relationship with us they now believe the Ebola Virus is true and are reaching-out to help themselves in establishing routine preventative measures in their respective villages. OVP’s quick response to the crisis and our dissemination of information has been praised by local officials and village chiefs. We have been instrumental in dispelling the myths and rumors around the virus, in addition to the sanitation supplies to prevent the spread of the disease. The distrust of government and health care systems is almost as big of an issue as the virus itself. This is where OVP can make a huge impact.

Ebola Virus Disease – EBV – (Ebola hemorrhagic fever)

History: The Ebola Virus first made its way into our consciousness in 1976 as outbreaks occurred in the Congo Basin. The fatal virus has never spread outside these remote areas until now. Why is this significant? Because Western Africa, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are countries with more mobility across borders, which makes containment much more difficult. Since February when the first Ebola Virus cases were documented in Guinea, many felt that the protocol for isolation and containment would allow for the virus to “burn out” as it always had within a few months. This did not happen. The virus spread out of Guinea and into Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many believe the first entry into Sierra Leone happened when a corpse was transferred back home to a village for burial. Traditional burial customs of washing the body by hand risks the transmission of the disease to family members. In addition, any healthcare workers and traditional healers who do not follow strict procedures or are unfamiliar that they were dealing with the Ebola Virus are often the most at risk.

As people get the virus, which is often undiagnosed initially, they tend to hide it due to the stigma and the fact that those they see who go to medical isolation centers often to not come back. There is great fear and a refusal to admit illness. Ebola strikes fear in people because the virus is so deadly and there is no cure. The case fatality rate is as high as 90%.

The Ebola Virus got its name from one of the first outbreaks of the virus in a small village along the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ebola Transmission: Ebola is a severe acute illness often characterized by a sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. The incubation period can be from 2-21 days before vomiting, diarrhea, and even internal and external bleeding occur. Ebola is transmitted in humans through close contact with blood, body secretions, organs, or other body fluids of infected people or animals. The virus is felt to originate in fruit bats as the natural hosts. Before now, it was only seen in remote villages in Central Africa near tropical rainforests.

Ebola Treatment: with no cure, the only treatment is to rehydrate the patient orally and intravenously. These supportive measure if started early can lead to recovery.

Ebola Blog 2Ebola Blog 3

Growing Concern: With the mobility and the potential for those to flee their villages to larger population centers, there is a potential that the Ebola Virus may continue to spread outside of the region.

Linkages for more information on Ebola and Sierra Leone:

http:/zdea/www.promedmail.org/

www.cdc.gov

www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/en/

www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: A Wedding and a Funeral

As her time in Sierra Leone comes to a close, Alissa encounters a wedding and a funeral that perfectly sum up the nature of life and change in Foindu.

While staying in Foindu, I am constantly reminded that life is continuing as usual, even though living in the village occasionally makes me feel like the world has been paused. Change somehow always finds a way to creep in.

A few days ago, I woke up to the news that Regina’s uncle had died. She took me to her late uncle’s house, where family and friends had gathered. We sat there for a while. Everyone was speaking in Mende, and didn’t look particularly sad. Many of them were talking about random things and laughing. It looked like a casual family gathering, except for three women (the man’s daughters) sitting in a row apart from the group relatively silently. Eventually, two women brought large pots and started two fires, cooking rice in one of the pots and cutting up leaves to make a sauce in the second. I went back to my house so the family wouldn’t feel the need to feed me. Later that afternoon, I heard a woman singing and crying near the house. I went to the street and saw a group of people walking towards the town, one of which was Regina.  A few minutes later I saw a coffin being carried up the road.

That night, Regina explained the Muslim death rituals in her community. When someone dies, the family gathers to sympathize with each other and puts together money to host a meal while friends stop by to share their sympathies. Poor families just make rice and a soup, but some rich families can afford a sheep, goat, or even a cow to put in the sauce.  After the feast is cooked and served to the sympathizers, the family goes to the mosque and prays over the body. The body is then carried in the town coffin to the cemetery, which is near my house on the outskirts of town. There, the men dig a hole and the people pray and sing before burying the body and bringing the town coffin back to the mosque, marking the grave with flowers that they plant. Regina said that 3 days after the death, they would have an offering of rice and another feast, and then on top of that, the family would host two more feasts: one 7 days after the person’s death and one 40 days after the person’s death. She said that this is very expensive for the family, so they have to take out loans from friends and all pitch in to help pay for the feasts.

On Saturday, three days after her uncle’s death, I was awoken at 4 a.m. by the sound of movement in the room next door. When I got out of bed, I found Regina toiling over two large pots, one full of rice and one full of a sauce that she was preparing for the feast. When the food was prepared, family members stopped by with various containers, taking the feast to the family.

Later in the day, my fellow intern Aaron and I walked into town to get water, where we happened on a marriage in progress. Our friend Saidu, a teacher at one of the primary schools in Foindu, explained that is was a Muslim marriage, one of the three kinds of marriage common in town (the others are Christian and Traditional).

He explained that all we had missed in the ceremony up to that point were the introductions as the groom’s family came to the bride’s family. We were able to watch as the groom’s family asked for the bride to be sent out. According to tradition, the bride’s family sent out a woman wearing a shroud that covered her face. The bride’s family asked “Is this who you wish to marry?” and the husband’s family replied “This is not the woman.” The bride’s family sent out three to four different women (traditionally the bride’s sisters or cousins) before sending out the bride. With each wrong bride, the bride’s family asked the groom’s family for transportation money to go and find the right bride, which the groom’s family happily hands over. When the bride is brought out and the groom’s family says “This is the woman,” there is singing and rejoicing. The bride, wearing a white shroud, then sits on a mat placed on the floor in front of the groom’s family.

The groom’s family then gives the woman a package of kola nuts, wrapped up in large green leaves tied with a thin string. This package represents their love for her. The bride then slowly unwraps the string around the package, being very careful because if the string breaks, the marriage will be off. As she unwraps it, she stops at certain intervals, when the groom’s family will give the bride’s family more money, before she can continue with the unwrapping. Once it is unwrapped, the wife begins to eat the nuts. Typically, the husband would join her on the mat and they would feed each other some nuts to symbolize their love.  At that point, they would be married.

However, since it is currently Ramadan and the groom was fasting, the bride (now a wife) just ate some of the nuts by herself. The wife then takes the remaining nuts and divides them into two parts. One half she hands to her mother, who distributes it to his family. The other half she hands to her father, who distributes it to his family members. I was given one nut and became “part of the marriage.” The nut was very bitter and turned orange where I bit into it. A prayer was then said, with everyone covering their faces with their hands at particular points. This was promptly followed by the new wife receiving a lecture from the elders about the importance of obeying her new husband.

The wife’s family then went into the house and selected two people, one man and one woman, to present to the husband’s family as the caretakers of the marriage. The caretakers are someone the couple can go to if an issue comes up while they are married that must be resolved by an outside party. In this case, they selected the wife’s mother and her elder brother. The husband’s family then gave the wife’s family money to show they approved of the choices. The husband then selected one man and one woman from his side of the family to act as caretakers of the marriage as well. The husband’s family then gave the wife’s family more money so that they could take her to her new home. They also gave the wife’s family food that had been prepared by the husband’s family earlier in the day. Everyone who wasn’t fasting took part in the feast. The imam then blessed the marriage and the ceremony was over. The families celebrated with dance and song for the rest of the day.

And thus life goes on in the village of Foindu; there are births and deaths, marriage and heartache. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to witness it, and occasionally be a part of it. As my time comes to a close in Foindu, I am finding a great appreciation for the people here; their culture, their resourcefulness, their openness, their willingness to help each other and look out for each other, the simplicity of their lives and relationships, and their appreciation for those in their community. I feel honored to have been able to have been a part of their lives for the last two months, and I know that the experiences I have had here and the people I’ve met will have a lasting impact on my life.

Thank you OVP,

Alissa

Me and Iye Brima

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 6

After a brief interruption, Alissa continues to share her experiences in Sierra Leone. In this installment, she spends a late morning and afternoon trying her hand as a basket weaver, playing village games, trying not to worry about children’s cooking habits, catching fireflies, and falling asleep to Madonna.

Hi OVP Supporters! Here is part two of my “day in Pujehun.”

After reading for an hour or so, I decided to take a walk through the town to visit people who stayed behind for the day (mostly old women and children too young to go to school). I passed the blacksmith tent, a zinc covered structure with a wheel to stoke large flames, where men sit pounding metal taken from worn down signs. I then passed the town basket weaver, one of my favorite old men in the village who has a kind smile and rocks a bright pink shirt. He called me over and motioned for me to try weaving the basket, showing me how. It was surprisingly simple, and I found it calming. He said I did a good job, and didn’t immediately undo anything I had done, so I’m going to assume I did alright.

Sierra Leone Plymouth Partnership May 2007 TH photos 355Walking through the village, I pass tons of goats, chickens, roosters and ducks. There are also a few dogs and cats that roam freely. I think the birds are the worst. My fellow intern Aaron often remarks, “They are just rats with feathers.” They never leave you alone, especially during meals, constantly searching for a bite to eat, and trying to get into the pots and plates for rice. One chicken even ran through my shower the other morning, giving me quite a start. All the animals are missing some feathers or have scars and patches of fur missing. Some are even missing entire limbs (not exactly adorable). The birds are all marked with a piece of cloth tied on their wings, signaling what family owns each bird. As for wild animals, there aren’t many that come into the town, with the exception of lizards, which mostly appear at night. There is a corner of my room that I call “lizard haven.” Every night when I walk into the room, I hear a lizard dart into that corner.

Around 11, the children flood back into town on break from lunch, knocking down fresh mangoes from the trees that grow in one corner of the village, or cutting up fresh pineapple. They always give me a piece, which is absolutely delicious. All the fruit here is delicious, because it is given time to ripen, and grown truly organically. The pineapple is my favorite.  It is sweet, refreshing, and lacking the sour flavor I associate with pineapples in the U.S.

The village then quiets down for two hours as the children return to school. But by 2 o’clock school has let out and the children rush back into town, bringing their laughter and madness. Many change out of their uniforms and head into the bush to work on their families’ farms, but others stay behind. It isn’t long till they’re crowded around my porch, drawing me into their favorite games.

The children here are extremely resourceful, using everything at their disposal to make games to entertain themselves in this land without electricity. My favorite game is a mix between monkey in the middle and dodgeball. This game involves running back and forth between two throwers on each side, trying not to get hit with the ball and earning points if you catch the ball. This also frees any teammates from jail. The two teams switch rolls when all the people on one team are out. Often times, kids don’t have a ball to use, so they make them out of trash, wrapping pieces of plastic around an object and tying it until it reaches the desired width and weight. There is also another version of this game where everyone piles their shoes in the middle and runs back and forth between two throwers trying not to get hit, all while lining up the pairs of shoes, then picking them up pair by pair to get points.

Picture7There are also some smaller group games, such as a rock game. Players have a bunch of small stones which they spread out. The player then picks up one and throws it in the air, picks up another rock without moving any of the other stones, and catches the thrown stone before it hits the ground. As the game progresses, players move on to picking up two rocks with each throw, then three, then four. The children can play against each other by trying to be the first person to accomplish the feat.

There is also a game that can be played 1 vs. 1 or team versus team that involves putting a foot in on a clap command done in a specific rhythm. Points are gained if you put in the opposite foot from your opponent (if you put in the same foot twice in a row it becomes the other persons turn to try and get points). Children also just amuse themselves through playing with trash they find lying around, pushing circular iron wheels through town with a stick, or examining boxes they find lying around.

By 4:00, women begin returning from the bush in order to start cooking dinner, though some prefer to prepare it while in the bush. Most wear only bras, and many are topless, which here is completely accepted. However, women are prohibited culturally from wearing anything above their knees. It takes almost no time to become desensitized to this. If anything, it will be weird to wear shorts above the knee at home and to not see women letting their breasts hang out.

I move down a few houses to where our cook begins preparing her fire. The people here are experts when it comes to fire. They can create large flames out of what look like very old coals and control them expertly, knowing their temperature and what food needs what temperature/ fire size. I find it very impressive. The children also begin helping to cook, cutting up vegetables and cleaning them as well as cleaning the dishes. The children here do more chores than any westernized children at far younger ages. It is not uncommon for me to see a two year old expertly yield a large knife to peel an onion.  I always find it a bit unnerving to see these young children carry around knives, but they have grown up with this as the norm.

12. Fruit is harvestedKids here tend to play with dangerous objects or use them shockingly casually. As dinner is being prepared, some children (with ages ranging from 2-5) lit a fire using the basket weaver’s shavings and unneeded wood, and amused themselves with that (“Don’t play with fire!” My western mind shouted). There was also a surreal moment when I sat down for dinner once and a very little girl (2 years old at most) came up holding a stuffed bunny. Her brother came up next to her (a 4 year old), casually holding a machete (“Don’t play with sharp objects!” My western mind shouted). That’s just how it goes here in Sierra Leone, the land where 2 year olds expertly yield knives and machetes.  It is certainly not PC by American standards.

Finally dinner is ready, it is a meal comprised of rice on top of which some vegetable and palm oil mix is added (called “soup” here, but it is not a liquid), that occasionally has fish or beans mixed in for protein. Some meal options include potato leaf, “abi” stew, gran gran, cassava leaf or groundnut soup.

After dinner, I join my host father on the porch, where he plays the radio every evening while relaxing in his favorite chair in front of his small store. The nights here are my favorite time. There are no lights and a wide sky, so the night is filled with stars we never get to see in the U.S. Tonight I saw a light moving in the sky. My first thought was “Oh, a shooting star!” Then I realized it was just an airplane. Isn’t it nice that I am in a place where my first thought is shooting star instead of plane?

The moon then began to rise, tonight extremely bright (a full moon), climbing impossibly quickly into the night sky. Children begin running around, able to see very clearly because the moon is so bright. In the grasses in front of my house I can see a kind of firefly. One of the boys I have befriended named Kareem (he is my host father Lehai’s apprentice and one of the kids I read with at night ) said that in Mende they are called “toe-bi-bey” and explained that they are little stars. I told him that we call them fireflies in America and that little kids catch them and make lanterns out of them. He really liked that and went out and caught a few. They are much smaller than what we have in America, and faster, so it took a while to catch them (I helped). We then let them go. It was a really sweet moment and was comforting for me to have that similarity to home.

I head to bed around 9 p.m., but everyone stays up far later, listening to the radio which plays Nigerian music most nights, and sometimes has an American music night. This night I fall asleep to the sounds of Michael Jackson and Madonna. I don’t know how they have the energy they do to do all that they do every day, going to bed after 11 p.m. every evening and waking up before 6 a.m. every morning!

Goodnight everyone!

Till next time,

Alissa

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 5

In this installment of our blog, our wonderful intern shares one of her mornings in Sierra Leone with us.

Hi OVP!

This week I thought it would be best to share a picture of a typical day of my life in the villages, and my random observations (though I must admit that this “day” is actually comprised of my activities and observations over several days). I’ve had to split this post into two parts, so this week you will only hear about my mornings.

Each morning I wake up at 5:40 to the sound of the mosque bells and the roosters’ crows. I start a short run by 6 a.m., just as the town is beginning to wake up. After I return and take a quick shower, I head to the village market. Passing through the town, I am constantly followed by cries of “Alice!” which is the name I go by here (Alissa is too foreign for them to pronounce correctly). They are always happy to see me (Pujehun can be a bit like “Cheers,” “where everybody knows your name/and they’re always glad you came), and are pleased when I say hello in the very limited Mende I’ve picked up.

A typical conversation:

Villager: Bissie (Hello)

Me: Bissie (Hello)

Villager: Kahunyena (How is your body today) (or Beeyaee (How was your sleep))?

Me: Kayan Gwoma (Good, praise be to god). O biya bey (How about you)?

Villager: Kayan Gwoma.

This is followed by more words in Mende, which results in a completely blank stare from me, which in turn results in them laughing good naturedly at me and my lack of knowledge before sending me on my way.

A woman carries tangerines.

A woman carries tangerines.

When I arrive at the market I am met with hellos from the women there, who now know me well, as they walk by carrying their wares on top of their heads before setting them down on the market tables. In Sierra Leone everyone (especially women and children) carry things on their heads, placing a rolled cloth on top of their heads to balance the object on. I’ve seen some insane things carried that way, from large buckets and basins of water (they don’t spill a drop) to egg cartons piled high with eggs (I think they were boiled) to a log carried from deep in the bush (this man had made his balancing circle out of leaves).

At the market, I debate between rice “pop”, a purple-ish sweet, warm liquid made of rice, lime and sugar that is eaten with chunks of bread (this is my personal favorite food in the market), fried sweet bread (most of the food you can buy here is fried), fried meat pie (a little bit of spicy meat and veggies — I’m trying to increase my spice tolerance), fried dough balls (served with a spicy sauce drizzled on top), cassava balls (served with the option of salt or a spicy broth) and more. I really enjoy trying different meals and getting to know these talkative, lively women.  After I have finished chowing down, I head back to my porch, stepping under the awning just as it begins to rain (it is rainy season right now and the weather is living up to the title).

Under the porch, my host siblings are crowded around a bowl filled with rice and leaf “soup”. This communal bowl is how all children in the village eat. I was told by a villager, “If they eat together they will love each other.” The children eat with their hands, taking a little of the soup and mixing it with the rice, forming it into small balls in their hands and eating it. Looking out at other porches, I see similar scenes playing out. Though this is not the case with my host siblings, I notice most children here have very large bellies (but no fat in other areas) with large bulges, far larger than typical belly buttons should be. When I posed this question to my mom, a physician back in America she sent back this reply:

“The children with the swollen bellies, from what you have told us, almost certainly have a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor. This is characterized by adequate caloric intake, but a deficiency in protein. Children are especially vulnerable to this as their growing bodies require protein for growth. Because of the lack of protein, fluid leaks out of vessels into tissues and what are called “third spaces” in the body of which the space in the belly between the intestines and the belly wall is one. This fluid, called ascities, builds up causing the belly to swell and the belly button to protrude out. This fluid build-up can also happen with liver failure, heart failure and certain cancers which are the usual causes in the first world. Kwashiorkor is common in Africa as meat is just too expensive for many people to have adequate amounts of protein in their diet.”

A bowl of the little fish villagers eat.

A bowl of the little fish villagers eat.

It makes sense from what I’ve observed. Most people here can’t afford any protein, and when they can, its tiny fish that they catch nearby. Also, even if a family gets fish, it tends to be the adults who get to eat it as they have been working on the farms all day.

Time in the town slows due to the heavy rain. Everyone is trapped on their porch, wrapped up in sweatshirts, fleeces, and pants, shaking from cold when it is only 60 degrees outside. I, however, love when it rains here. It’s a comfortable temperature to me!

My host mother spends the morning braiding my sibling’s hair, as well as the hair of a few of her friends who brave the rain to get to our porch. The calls from the village women to braid my hair have been steadily increasing as the days have gone on, up to 2-3 times a day. I’m going to have to give in one of these days. They especially like my hair when it is wet (they keep touching it and asking to braid it). I am also told on a daily basis that my skin is very white, as if I needed a reminder!

Village women braid their friend's hair.

Village women braid their friend’s hair.

The women share a small handheld mirror, one of the few in the village, staring into it intensely. Most people here almost never see their face, myself included. I haven’t seen my face since I arrived in the villages, an odd but liberating experience. This is why both kids and adults love having their picture taken. Since they so rarely see themselves, a picture means all that much more to them, producing smiles, laughter and cries of joy.

One of my neighbors, a teenage girl, runs over with a few limes and mashed up green leaves in her hand. She showed me how she uses this as a kind of homemade nail polish. She lays out the mashed up leaves on a plastic bag and squeezes the limes onto it, mixing them up with her hands. She then puts a little of the leaf mix onto each of her toes, cutting another plastic bag into strips and tying the leaves to her toes using the plastic. She asked if I wanted to try it, but since I didn’t know how long they had to stay on I told her I would do it next time. She came back later in afternoon to show off her nails, which were now stained orange.

Eventually the rain lets up and the children change into their uniforms and head to school. The adults also pack up and most of them head off to their farms in the bush. After being surrounded by people all morning, I am left in relative tranquility; the only sounds are distant yells of children at the school. I get comfortable in my chair and open up my book to get in some reading while I can.

Part 2 is coming soon!

Till next time,

Alissa

 

 

 

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 4

Alissa continues her exploration of life in rural Sierra Leone by spending the day at a Primary School.

Hello again OVP faithful!

After a week of my tutoring sessions, I had a chance to sit down in the classroom of the class 4 teacher at the primary school in Pujehun. The school starts at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, with an hour break at 11 a.m. Classes end for the day at 2 p.m.  so students can leave to help their families with farm work. I found that all the lessons were in English in Class 4, even though I know from experience that most of the students don’t really understand English. All the students wear uniforms, the girls blue dresses, the boys a blue shirt and khakis, but many of the children’s uniforms are clearly hand-me-downs from older siblings.

Students stand in class lines.

Students stand in class lines.

The day started with students lining up in class lines, singing the school song and listening to morning announcements (this day the main announcement was a warning of the impending examinations, which will determine who is allowed to move up to the next class). The students then filed into classrooms where they sit three to a bench with short tables in front of them; though in my classroom there are not enough benches for everyone. Three students sit on the desks or in broken chairs.

The teacher started the day with English reading. However, there were only three copies of the book for the entire class, so 10-13 kids had to crowd around 1 book.  The teacher then read sentences aloud and had the groups repeat them.  However, many students did not have the chance to look at the book to follow along because they couldn’t see, while others struggled to read upside down. It was frustrating, especially because the teacher was clearly trying to do his best with what he had, taking time to ask the class questions about the reading and explain words, quizzing the kids on what word was which, and having them spell them aloud in order to keep them following along. However, it was clear that most of the students were just learning through memorization. This explained a lot of my struggles with my evening tutoring kids, who often shouted out words that start with the same letter as the word on the page, but are unrelated. They had simply learned by memorization. Sounding words out and thinking critically about letters is not an option when you can barely see the book you are supposed to be reading.

After reading, the teacher went to the black board to start a math lesson, teaching simple addition and subtraction. The students

Older students add fractions.

Older students add fractions.

seemed to have an easier time with this, though many needed to use their fingers to count or draw and take away/add lines and count them to solve the problems. When the children knew the answers they would raise their hands, occasionally snapping or shouting out yes enthusiastically to try and get the teacher to call on them. When called upon, they stood up to answer the questions. Anytime a very tough question was asked and many students got the answer wrong, a correct answer warranted four claps from the class. However, I noticed many students weren’t writing anything down. It became clear that they didn’t have notebooks or even paper to write on (many wrote on scraps of paper if they wrote on anything at all). When the teacher put problems on the board that he said would be due tomorrow, many students ran out of the room, returning a few minutes later to write the questions down.

The teacher explained to me that it takes a long time for anything to get written down because most students don’t have paper or pens, and when the students ran out of the room they were getting pens from friends or siblings in other classes. The students have to share these materials because their families can’t afford them. It was also clear that most of the workbooks were old, torn, stained and drawn on hand-me-downs, which was an additional challenge in the classroom, and another learning material lacking at the school. The class then broke for lunch.

After eating, I was literally thrown into teaching without any guidance. The teacher had to leave for a meeting and thrust a piece of chalk in my hand. I had just become a substitute teacher. The absence of teachers was worse for other classes, forcing the headmaster to walk between three classrooms, trying to control students. He teaches Class 2. The teachers for Class 1 and 3 also had to attend the meeting, but they didn’t have anyone to replace them.

I decided to build on what the students were being taught before. I started with addition and subtraction, showing the students how to use columns to keep everything straight, which actually went very well. I should mention that these children are the equivalent of 4th graders, and I was shocked they didn’t know addition/subtraction.  I normally think of math as fairly universal, but the students were learning lessons I did in first grade. I had the children come to the board to solve problems, since they didn’t have spare materials to use.

Older students sit in their classroom.

Older students sit in their classroom.

It got much harder when I tried to teach English using the only 3 books. I tried to have each of the groups read a sentence out loud, but that only kept one group occupied at a time, and most kids still couldn’t see the book, much less read it. It really gave me an appreciation of what the students/teachers here mean when they complain about a lack of materials. In America, we don’t really appreciate having pens and papers and books to read (any books at all). It’s no wonder they need help reading on my porch every night. It’s probably some of the most individual attention they get when it comes to their schooling.

I have found that students here can recite entire books and lessons from a day of schooling. Rather than teaching students to think critically and problem solve, schools here run by a memorization method. This kind of learning is challenging for tutors to break students of, and makes it much harder for individuals to find new ways to solve problems, since they are not given tools to figure out difficult problems on their own. Though this is clearly not beneficial, my experiences at the school and on my porch have given me a better understanding of why it happens. In rural communities where students don’t have access to resources, classes are too large for individual attention, and teachers aren’t paid by the government so they need to go to their farms every afternoon, it seems inevitable that children are forced to learn through memorization. There just isn’t enough time or resources to teach them any other way.

The inevitability of their situation, and the lack of any easy or immediate fix, is a serious challenge. I believe in these kids, and have now spent many nights with them. I have seen their thirst, their drive, their creativity, and their resourcefulness. All I can do is have faith that these kids are the future and that as education becomes more valued in these rural communities, change will come.

Till next time,

Alissa

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 3

This week Alissa shares her experience teaching a group of children in Sierra Leone to read.

 

Hi OVP Supporters!

The nights here in Sierra Leone are amazing. The sky is wide and the stars are gorgeous. There is no electricity in the village so all the stars are visible, even the ones we can’t see anywhere in the states. However, my favorite thing about the nights here are my impromptu tutoring sessions.

A group of village boys poses for the camera.

A group of village boys poses for the camera.

A few days after I arrived in Pujehun, a wonderful group of children came up to me on the porch with a book and asked me to help them read it. This request has turned my porch into a learning hot spot in the evenings, where children of all ages crowd around a book and try to read it aloud in English while I help them learn the hard words and correct them if they make a mistake.

Most of the readers are in Class 4 at the primary school, but many older kids come to try and help (or learn as the case may more accurately be), as well as many younger children who don’t know how to read, but enjoy repeating the words  and looking at the books/ spectacle. I have found that the main readers, two boys named Kareem and Frances and two girls named Iye and Kay, struggle with certain sounds, particularly words that feature -sh and -ch in the middle, so I have spent a lot of time teaching them those sounds. They are gradually picking them up.

I have also been teaching them that they can break down words they don’t know, sounding out each letter/ syllable, a method they don’t learn in school. The children struggle with p’s, b’s, l’s, r’s, g’s and j’s, and don’t always know the right sound a vowel should make. They also tend to miss the suffixes of words, not saying the –y,–s, -ing, -ed and –est’s, though they get the beginning of the words. I’m teaching them to slow down and pay attention to the words on the page.

It’s been interesting trying to teach the children, and they are very eager to learn. It can also be exhausting, giving me a much greater appreciation for teachers of my past. I find it challenging to teach and learn in these group reading environments.  All the children are crowded around one book, which leaves many kids out. Another challenge is that the better and faster readers, like Frances, tend to take over the reading, leaving others like Iye and Kay in the dust.  I’m trying to slow him down and am making the girls read a few sections alone to try and combat that problem.

We started with a children’s book, probably 1st or 2nd grade level in America, though these fourth graders were struggling through it. That didn’t surprise me since they don’t understand a lot of the things I try to say to them in English. After that book, we worked through two of their school workbooks, which they were able to handle better. The workbooks were a lot simpler and had tons of pictures. It wasn’t long before we finished those.  Sadly, the children don’t have more books to read so we haven’t met in a few days.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are critical educational advantages in the states. Besides the obvious discrepancies in materials and a language barrier, there are other, less obvious differences. The other day, I tried to help my host sister, Jen, learn her ABC’s. She has spent weeks looking at a piece of cardboard that Leahai (my host father) had written all the letters of the alphabet on. After a week or two she could recite the alphabet in order, pointing to each letter and saying it. But if you asked her to point to a certain letter, or if you pointed to a letter and asked her which one it is, she can’t do it. She also confuses herself if she has gotten a letter wrong, to the point that she can’t even do the alphabet in order again.

An older Sierra Leonean student writes in school.

An older Sierra Leonean student writes in school.

I tried to help her by having her write out the letters A, B and C several times in my notebook, using my pen. It became clear very quickly that she has never held a pen before (she’s 5 years old) and has no muscle memory/strength. I realized that children here don’t spend time drawing or scribbling with crayons/pens/pencils as they are growing up (if they do these things it is with their hands or a small branch). This small difference causes huge repercussions. Because Jen had never held a pen, she couldn’t even draw a straight line, much less letters. I ended up writing them with her. It was not a successful experiment learning-wise, but she was so excited to use a pen that I realized this could be productive for her. Just the feeling of using paper and pens was enough to make her smile, and gave me hope that in the future brighter things will come.

These kids are all so sweet and eager to try.  They truly enjoy going to school and are committed to learning. They are thirst for knowledge in the hopes that they will one day get jobs that will allow them to help support their families. The fact that they are held back by things that we tend to take for granted in America is eye opening, and makes you truly appreciate the advantages we are given. Sometimes it’s the small things that make all the difference.

Till next time,

Alissa

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 2

This week, OneVillage Partners’ intern Alissa explores the backbone of Pujehun: Agriculture.

A few days ago, my fellow intern and I visited Sao Allieu’s farm (Aaron’s host father, a big, strong man with dark skin and an aura of strength and charisma). Sao took us down a narrow bush path, through swamps, grasses and ant lines.

First, Sao showed us some rice fields. Each field contained a tent with roofs made of thatch that they call their farmhouses, where they can rest, clean and cook. In some of the fields the green, grass-like stalk of the rice had already begun to grow. In others, men and boys were clearing the fields using machetes, and in others still women were weeding, spending all day bent over to the ground with tools in their hands. Many of the women had young babies and children tied on their back with cloth to add to their burden, but they were all cheerful when we stopped by and very nice. We were also able to see a woman de-husk the rice, pounding the rice (henya or henja in Mende depending on who is speaking) and then throwing it into the air and catching it with a basket to separate out the husks (they call the basket fele in Mende).

Cutting Palm Seeds

A man scales a palm tree to harvest palm oil seeds

Sao then took us through a palm tree grove, which can be found all throughout the bush. He explained that the tall trees are the ones that grew naturally, whereas the short, stockier ones are those that were planted by humans. He said that the seeds have slightly different tastes. In the palm trees, men were sitting high up, cutting down the palm oil seeds. To do this they use a sling-like instrument (called a bali in Mende), that they wrap around the tree and then shimmy up. With nothing to catch them, it is both very dangerous and very impressive. Sao gave us some unprocessed seeds to try. They have a soft shell that you can bite into, which causes oil to release into your mouth as you bite into its stringy core. Sao said when they had harvested enough of the seeds they would process them, turning them into palm oil.

He also took us past ground nut (peanut) fields, maize (corn) fields, pepper bushes (Pujehun means “where pepper grows too much” in Mende) and a cocoa tree grove (which they harvest from in October-December). Sao also showed us yams (which are huge and look and taste like potatoes) and gave us one for dinner that night. We had the yam and a chicken for dinner, which was a bit expensive but tasted so good after days of fish as our only protein and rice as our only starch.

IMG_2326

A delicious pineapple from Sierra Leone

Sao also cut a pineapple for us. They grow everywhere in the bush, you just have to cut them off the plant (they then replant them by burying the head of the pineapple). They are super sweet and very good, my favorite thing here so far (here they aren’t sour at all, basically just a source of sugar that is also refreshing). Actually, all the fruit here is tasty. The mangos, bananas and pineapple are much more flavorful and sweet than anything you can get in the U.S. Mango and banana are in season right now and are absolutely amazing. The best part is that we often get fruit, especially pineapple as a gift from the villagers, which is very nice of them. The wonderful thing about the food here is that you know it is always fresh, whether it is the pineapple or the starch, slightly sweet cassava root. Another favorite of mine is the peanut butter (which they call groundnut here), which is smooth (I prefer that over chunky), organic and extremely tasty (people pay big bucks for this stuff in the states!).

A day ago Sao again took us to his farm to see the palm oil processed on a large scale. Sao first unloaded two steel drum barrels of palm seeds (tuwei in Mende), which had been boiled the day before, into a large tub made of stone and concrete built into the ground. He said if processed right, two drums produce about 10 gallons of oil (filling two 5 gallon containers). Then another man arrived and began mashing the seeds into pulp with his feet. He did this using a particular technique. Balancing on two long sticks, he used his toes to pull the seeds together and his heels to crush them, with quick and powerful strikes. He moved in a backwards run/walk to do this, balancing on the sticks. “In the west you have machines to do this,” said Sao. “Here we are the machines.”

17. Men begin crushing seeds to make pulp

A man begins crushing palm seeds to make pulp

The crushed seeds let off a sweet, lush, distinct smell. With one man working, the mashing took over two hours. Then the men left and the women and children arrived. They clogged up the drain with stones, used palm oil pulp and mud and then filled up the tub with water (I helped in the water bucket chain). When it was filled, a woman got in and began straining the pulp, as well as shifting out the seeds that hadn’t been smashed (using a basket) to be smashed separately and added in (so every drop of oil possible is collected). As she did this an orange/foam layer collected on top of the green water (this unprocessed oil is called gborteh in Mende, which is pronounced like bor-te). The women carefully extracted this top layer and then boiled it to remove the impurities, creating the red palm oil (gulae in Mende). This was an all day extraction process. While the women did this, the kids played in the sandy dirt, drawing pictures and making sandcastles, which was comforting to see.

That is just a taste of the bush experiences I’ve been having here. These people work incredibly hard for long hours in the African heat, with many of the men not returning till after 7:00 in the evening. I’m often exhausted just watching them, doubly so whenever I try to help out. I am always surprised when they come back from farm and still have the energy to cook and talk and stay up anytime past 8:00. Their daily strength (both physical and mental), resilience, and commitment to their work and their family are truly inspiring.

Till next time,

Alissa

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 1

OneVillage Partners has sent two summer interns to Sierra Leone. Throughout their time in the villages, they will be keeping a weekly blog to share villagers’ stories as well as their own experiences. Stay tuned for more information.

 Hi OVP supporters! My name is Alissa Rothman, and I just finished my sophomore year at Amherst College in Amherst, MA. This summer I am interning for OVP in Sierra Leone, living in Pujehun (the eh in the middle is silent) in June and Foindu in July. Throughout the summer I will be interviewing townspeople and sharing their stories, as well as writing my observations in a weekly blog.

We arrived in Pujehun last Thursday, after spending two days in both Kenema and Freetown. Pujehun is the smallest of the three villiages OVP currently works in, with about 750 inhabitants. The houses are mostly made of mud brick, through there are several with a concrete exterior like my host house. They all have zinc roofs (given by OVP) which I was told are better than thatch roofs because they last longer, leak less and keep in the heat during the cold nights. The buildings are packed in tightly, aligned in rows to create small dirt streets. Most of the houses are located on the same side of the main road (which leads to Foindu in one direction and Jokibu in the other), with only one row of homes on the other side.

In my house there are two families, each occupying one room in the three room house (I have a room to myself). My toilet is a latrine, which is basically a hole in the ground. Let me just say, it is as unpleasant as it sounds, but I’m learning what hours are better to use the latrine (in the mornings and evenings the bugs tend to be less active). My shower is outdoors and made of reeds and large leaves, with stones lining the bottom. I absolutely love it! It’s actually pretty in a way, and I am finding that there is absolutely nothing better than a cold bucket shower after a morning run or in the evenings after spending a hot day walking around in the bush (there is barely a second here that I don’t have sweat on my brow).

My host father’s name is Lehai. He is a contractor/ stonemason who occasionally works in the bush (which is what they call the forests here) and runs a small store out of the front of his house in the mornings and evenings (he’s a triple threat!).  Lehai is 31 years old (he knew he was born in 1982, but thought he was 24). I told him he was actually 31 without thinking, and I think it bummed him out a little, but we made a joke of it when I told him he could be 24 for as long as he wanted. He has learned a little English on his own since he never went to school (which would explain the struggles with math).

My host mother’s name is Baindu Lehai (when women get married here they take their husbands first name as their last). She works in the bush and sells fish, always carrying one year old Aista, a stoic baby who doesn’t know quite what to make of me, on her back. Aista doesn’t smile or wave at me, but also doesn’t cry due to fear, which has happened a few times with other young children. It’s quite unsettling. Baby Aista reminds me that all babies, no matter where they are from, are the same. She loves hanging on the legs of her mother and father, never wants to be put down, and already knows how to cry on cue in order to get what she wants. Lehai and Baindu have two other children, a boy and a girl, who are currently living with relatives (I fear I may have stolen their room for a month).

The other family consists of Fudia, who is our cook and washes our clothes, her husband Nabio, an expert frog fisher who can always be found sitting on our porch, and her tween daughter Jenifer, who is very smart. Yesterday she pulled a Tom Sawyer-esque move when my fellow intern Aaron was trying to take pictures of her de-stemming peppers and village children kept getting in the way. She told the other children that the only way they could be a part of the picture is if they helped de-stem. The work was done in a quarter of the time!

I am gradually learning the pattern of the days here. The town begins to rise just as the sun begins to peak over the horizon, waking up at 5:30 to the sound of the mosque drums and the rooster’s crow. By 8 o’clock the children have eaten and gone off to school, and by 9 most of the adults have headed into the bush. The town is then quiet, with just a few men (mostly loggers) and older women laying around, while the children who are too young to go to school and too old to be carried on their mothers backs in the fields rule the village for a few hours. At 11 the school children flood back in, grabbing some fresh mangoes off the trees or food from their house before heading back to school at 12. Between 12  and 2 the town is extremely peaceful, laying in wait for people’s return. At 2 the children come back, and laughter and energy return to the village. Most of the children then head into the bush to help their families on the farm until the evening. People begin trickling back to the village at 4, mostly women who begin preparing meals, while the men often stay out till 6 or later, some not returning until long after the sun has set.

I’m going to end my observations here for today, but I have plenty more to talk about: the food (the fruit here is incredible, fresher and sweeter than anything you can get in America), my struggles with Mende (just when you think you have a phrase down you find out you’ve been saying it wrong the whole time!), my evening English tutoring sessions with children on my porch, what a day in the bush is like, palm oil processing, people’s love of pictures and much, much more! I’ve already learned and seen so much in one week (I’ve already filled about a third of my journal!).  I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Till next time,

Alissa

Lighting the Flame

Aaron Ackerman, OneVillage Partners’ dedicated Field Officer, recently wrote this moving reflection on his experiences in rural Sierra Leone up to this point.
 

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.”

-Regina Fofana