14 May 2012

Sierra Leone: Tali Lennox Visits Women Shaping the Future of Country

Photo: AllAfrica
Woman selling traditional medicine in Freetown.

press release

Model Tali Lennox has recently returned from Sierra Leone in West Africa, one of the world's poorest countries, as an ambassador for Christian Aid Week 2012, which runs from 13-19 May.

Tali visited poor communities in the fertile Bonthe region of southern Sierra Leone, an area that, before the ten-year civil war, was an agricultural centre of the country. She heard how, after the multinational food companies left with their equipment during the war, the people were forced to rely on inefficient subsistence farming and malnutrition became a daily battle.

But a Christian Aid-funded project, run by the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone (MCSL), is not only providing the communities with the seeds and tools that allow them to get the best out of their land, but has established a fishing project and taught local women and young people to lobby their government for schools and other local amenities. It is helping hundreds of people to work their way out of poverty.

'I have grown up around charity work, but this was the first time I got to see how small changes can transform lives in such a big way," said Tali. "People are being provided with the kinds of things we in the UK would take for granted. The country has so much potential. They just need the right tools, and that's where the donations have been so vital."

Tali visited the remote town of Gbap, an eight-hour drive from the capital Freetown, where on the way she met Ganyeh Seilu, who lost five children to malnutrition. But now, thanks to assistance from MCSL which allowed her to buy tools and seeds, and the building of a new Agriculture Business Centre which allows the local women to process rice, cassava and nut oil, meaning they get a higher price at market, Ganyeh is now not only able to feed her children but send them to school.

'Subsistence farming was my only source of income, and the process was very labour-intensive. I used to have pain all over my body," Ganyeh said. "Now the machines at the Centre make things easier. It means I don't just work to survive but I will be able to pay school fees and uniform for my children, and for medical bills when they are ill. This project has restored my respect in the community as a woman."

Tali also visited St Theresa's Primary, a school which had been built as a result of local lobbying from Village Development Committees (VDCs) which have been set up to encourage women and young people, both of which are traditionally excluded from the decision-making processes in Sierra Leone, to have a say in community life. The VDCs have encouraged the school attendance of girls, who traditionally receive less education than boys in a country ranked in the world's top ten for gender inequality.

One pupil Patricia Sawie (pictured above) is now able to attend school and said: "My mother was a farmer and never went to school. I would like to be a teacher, then a head of state, a President. I'm lucky."

Headmaster Michael Tucker said: "Two years ago, the building was a death trap. The benches were falling apart, the ground was sand, when it rained, the water would come straight through the roof and school was cancelled for that day and the next.

'MCSL and Christian Aid saw our problems and came to our aid. People here are hard-working and will develop through education. What men can do, we are seeing more women doing. I expect a woman to do my job one day. And that day is very soon."

Tali also travelled to the fishing village of Mo-Albert, where families have formed co-operatives, and taken out loans from MCSL to buy better boats, nets and environmentally friendly smoking ovens. The bigger boats help the fishermen improve their catch and the new ovens allow the women to cure the fish so it can be kept longer and sold at the market for a higher price. The loan is paid back to MCSL from the improved income.

One mother whom Tali met, Adama Koroma, had lost five children to malnutrition. "Most of my children passed away during the war. Some of them became sick and I didn't have enough money to take them to the health centre.

'Five years ago, our husbands used to go out to fish in dug-out canoes and small nets. Therefore, the income we got was not enough to take care of our families.

'Now life has improved greatly for us. I have kids, enough food to feed the family and because we can sell the fish, I can think about paying for my children's education and medical bills - and my grandchildren, too."

Over half the population of Sierra Leone live on under £1 a day and almost one in five children do not live until their fifth birthday. Life expectancy is 48, three decades younger than in the UK.

'Things like education, healthcare and gender equality, we take for granted in the UK," Tali added. "That wasn't the case in Sierra Leone, but now more girls are going to school which is amazing but there is still so much more to be done. The hope is that the next generation will not have to go through the same struggles and challenges that the last did. Lives are being transformed, thanks to Christian Aid. It's an inspiration."

To donate to Christian Aid, give online at www.caweek.org , call 08080 006006 or text 'GIVE' to 78866 to give £5. The first £5m donated to Christian Aid Week 2012 will be matched by the Government pound for pound, so that the charity can help more people in poor communities around the world work their way out of poverty.

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