10 September 2008

Sierra Leone: Amidst Hard Work, Poverty Still Rules Country's Interior

Freetown — It is ironical to see a set of people working extremely hard for their daily survival and for the development of their communities all to no avail as poverty has prevailed over their lives thus making their struggle very difficult.

This is the situation of many residents in the rural areas of Sierra Leone. From Kayakoh in Koinadugu to Buedu in Kailahun, Sefadu in Kono, Wala in Port Loko and Kamalo in Bombali, people are working hard but because of lack of proper management skills, lack of incentives and non-availability of improved farming techniques, most of their efforts are wasted.

Kamalo is one of the many villages in Sierra Leone that are completely cut off from civilization. The village is situated in the Sanda-Loko chiefdom about 47 miles from Makeni and it takes two and a half hours for a forerunner jeep to reach the village.

Two and a half hours through ditches, potholes and fallen trees across the road. Villagers, especially women, are seen carrying babies on their backs with huge piles of farm produce on their heads. Some others carry bundles of clothes as they move from one village to the other.

Women whose bare breasts dangle on their chests like oranges could also be seen at rivers as they launder dirty clothes for their husbands and numerous children.

This recent trip to that part of Sierra Leone made me believe that the myth that Sierra Leoneans are lazy was not only a folktale but also based on assumption and myopia.

In the rural areas, women and men work on their farms from dawn to dusk. It is hard for one to set eyes on able-bodied adults and youths in those villages during the day as most of them would have gone to their farms. Instead, one will only see young children and the aged around. Yet, the people are poor, hungry and filthy so I had to ask myself why.

Along the roads from Pailla to Kamalo and Makali going to Kamakwie, poverty is visible on the faces of the people. Along the way, I saw naked children and some with patched clothes manning check points to collect one hundred leones from vehicles that ply the route.

Most of these children do run to the bush whenever a vehicle tries to scare them away. Reminiscing on this act by these children, I remember the roles played by children during the war and my heart beats for the future of Sierra Leone.

Even the outlook of minibuses that drive through the road shows the high level of detachment of the area from civilization. Despite the presence of police officers at some of the check points along the way, 'poda podas' still get overloaded sometimes and teenagers sit on their carriers.

"The road is bad. We have to overload to cover up for the fuel we burn while traveling through this kind of a road," Mohamed Kamara, a driver said to me. But does that mean endangering the lives of the passengers on board? I asked myself with a nod.

According to the 2004 census report, Makali has a population of about 473 people and Kamalo slightly over 800. These numbers have significantly increased over the years. The villages lack potable water, power supply, good roads, and sanitary system.

It is common in those parts of Sierra Leone for young men of ages between 20 and 30 years having three to four wives with children ranging from 6 to 13. Can there be any proper care for the family with such a big size and little income? No! Local councils need to increase their sensitization drive for a proper family setup.

Mohamed B. Sesay, a farmer, said the village is home to many senior citizens of the country. It is also the paternal home of President Ernest Bai Koroma and bank governor, Samura Kamara but the village has been abandoned by succeeding governments including the incumbent.

"Kamalo has given birth to many great people. Most of them are in the city. They own farms here but have turned a blind eye to the realities of their people. One of the most common epidemics here is diarrhea and the major reason for that is because we drink from the Marwolkoh River which is not healthy," he said.

Apparently, farming is the swiftest means of becoming wealthy in the world today but in Sierra Leone this is not the case. Farmers constitute the poorest in the country. In Kamalo and Makali, farming is done in large scale but unfortunately this has not reflected in the lives of the people. Many of them cannot afford good housing and thus live in thatch houses.

Farmers grow rice, beans, pepper, groundnut and benni on a land space ranging between four and thirty five acres but their health situation is terrible. Most of their children have protruding stomachs which is not too healthy for them. They drink, bathe and use river water for domestic purposes.

Chairman of Ataya base farmers association, Chernoh Kamara, claimed that they are being exploited by those who buy their farm produce. "Those who take the strain to come through this difficult road to buy our crops are making huge profits. After harvesting, we do drying but we lack storage facility. Late marketing is also causing low quality and slow profit," he said.

Kamara said a bag of pepper is bought from them at Le 40, 000 and sold for Le 100,000 in big towns. Earlier this year, farmers in Kamalo harvested okra and bitter balls which cost over millions but were left to destroy because there were no markets for the crops.

Extension Coordinator, Alpha Yayah Mansaray explained that the dilapidated state of Sanda Loko chiefdom is largely because the farmers are not practicing mechanized farming but subsistence.

"They also need incentives to buy seeds and other equipments to hasten the farming process," he said adding that farmers need proper education on how to market their farm produce in order to maximize profit.

The deteriorating situation does not only affect the farming sector but also the health, education and infrastructural development of the Sanda Loko chiefdom. While residents have lost hope of ever having power or water supply, there is little or no medical care for residents in the area.

Yeabu Turay told me that she lost her mother after a quack doctor injected her with crystalline when the old woman had a heart attack. "I felt sorry for the 'pepper doctor' and I could not report him to the police," she said.

The education sector is no exception. Children walk miles to go to the only primary school in the area. Sometimes they had to cross rivers to go to the school. They put on rags and appear very untidy in school.

The RC Primary School, which is the only in an area called Madina Fullah, sent 30 pupils for the last National Primary School Examination (NPSE). Parents of some of these pupils grumbled that they were being asked by the head teacher Peter K. Sesay to give Le 5,000 and a fowl in order to get their results.

But a teacher from the school, Abdul Kamara, denied the allegation saying: "I have just collected the results. I am going to take the results from house to house," displaying one of the results to me from a transparent polyethylene bag.

I was surprised on my first night at Makali to see group of villagers running to the house where I was lodged to watch television. When I asked the care taker of the house, she told me that some of the people are coming from as far as two to three miles from the house just to watch a movie.

"Well this is the only well-constructed house here and the only one with a generator, video and television so whenever we put the generator on, you will see them coming in huge numbers," Aunty Fatty said adding that the people lack basic social amenities so whenever they get half of such an opportunity, they always grab it.

She also confirmed to me that most of the villagers that were present that night were pregnant women or nursing mothers. "Some get pregnant while in class 5 or 6. Parents here are very poor and cannot take care of their children. They will rather give their female children away for as low as a pan of groundnut. They cannot control their kids because respect goes with money," she said.

This drew my attention to the plight of women in Kamalo who have a higher percentage than the men in the village. Most of the women make meaningful contribution in the farming process but benefit little.

After brushing the lands, women do the clearing, mapping and planting. They also remove the bean seeds from their shells. Women and men work together during farming but it is disheartening to note that the men are fully in charge of the money.

Coordinator Ibrahim Vasco Kamara said it is a tradition for men to be in charge of the money since they are the breadwinners of their respective families. Nevertheless, until the development drive is localized, farmers will continue to be poor and their communities remain underdeveloped while big towns continue to get congested everyday.

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