Reports from the Field - September 2013
Hope Preparatory School In Session!
What began as a small school with no permanent walls merely two years ago, the "Hope Preparatory School" has been built from the ground up drawing upon the strength, diligence, and creativity of the community and partners here at the Community Hope Project.
Robert, project coordinator, says about the new changes:
"There are more to be done so many children will be able to have education and makes them better people in the society, as they are THE FUTURE LEADERS OF TOMORROW, but if we fail to educate them then we will have bad leaders or no leaders in the future. Education is power and power is education. We need more, more, more people to come and be part of this great movements we can bring a great change in the lives of people of Hill Cut Community, any kind of contribution is NOT small, but have something to do to change a child life and the community as a whole."
September 16, 2013
Friday through Sunday were full and rich. On Friday, we came and met with the kids in the Hope Preparatory School (which is housed in the Hill Cut Community Center) and read/sang a picture book to them (Chika Chika Boom Boom). We watched the youth crafters at work, and learned more about gara, batik, and kola nut forms of dying and decorating materials. We spoke with Foday Thoronka (Director of the school) about building a small hand washing station for the kids to use when they come out of the latrine. This will go well with the water filter project and his health education curriculum.
That evening we met with the women’s organization, and with representatives of both the adult literacy group and CBO, and made donations to each on behalf of the CHP. We left the choice to them about how they wished to use the money, but the adult literacy group will most likely spend theirs on textbooks. The women’s organization is debating about how to use their donation, but it will probably be a combination of seedlings for their garden, additional solar lamps to rent (this has been a good source of income for the group, and a useful resource for the community), and more microloans (these have been a huge hit). We did also create a second microloan fund through the CHP-Hill Cut (a third, oversight organization), and it will provide larger loans (something the women unanimously recommended, when we asked their advice on how to improve the program). These will be available to women (and now men as well) who have proven themselves able to repay their loans on time.
Friday night we shared a delicious meal (cassava leaf and ground nut stew over rice) with my (Dr. Lewis') adopted family (Tenneh, Quinlan’s pen pal; Fawuzey, Sophia’s pen pal; their grandmother; Robert: and several other extended family members and friends). On Saturday morning, we met with the Hill Cut Water Team for a technical training on how to set up and maintain the filters. Lacking the actual biosand filters (thanks to the delivery delay), Anelah crafted several little models using plastic water bottles, straws and tape – they were very cool. I will be uploading photos and videos of this and other activities upon my return, and more will be coming afterward, when the rest of the team returns home.
In the afternoon, the whole community (and some local media) gathered for an award ceremony and (filter-free!) filter launch. We showed photos and gave a basic explanation of the biosand filters, using Powerpoint. This was followed by speeches recognizing and celebrating the hard work of many people on both sides of the world in making all these projects come alive. Seven community members were singled out for particular honours for having consistently gone above and beyond the labor of others in the community. Six received certificates of recognition for their outstanding work and commitment; one received a certificate of excellence for her success in school. All received monetary awards.
Following the award ceremony, there was a large community celebration, starting with a meal (fish, piping hot spicy sauce, and rice) and continuing with music and dance, dance, dancing. Sierra Leoneans really can cut a rug (or a concrete community center floor), but Jason and Anelah threw down some mighty moves that the kids immediately wanted to mimic. I expect they have gone “dance viral” across West Africa by now. I also danced, but when I dance, it is a thing of such transcendent beauty, that onlookers are moved to silent, grateful tears. Realizing this, and not wanting to stop the party, I stepped outside and chatted with folks instead.
We arrived home late that night, sweaty, sticky, and exhausted, to find that the water was out (this happened a couple of times during our stay; water delivery is unreliable). No showers, no washing. Fortunately, the water came back after about an hour, so we were able to clean ourselves up. And that was when the power went out.
Today we observed (and helped with!) more of the gara and batik-making, with the artisan-trainer. At mid-day, we took fifty kids to the beach to fly kites, some of which they made themselves. This was delightful. We did it as part of a peace initiative (Under One Blue Sky) being organized by a friend and partner to the CHP, Anna Gilmore, for Emergency USA. We all had a wonderful time, and the kids sang, danced, laughed, and had snacks as well.
The women’s organization, the CBO, the adult literacy students, the CHP-Hill Cut membership, the school children, and other members of the community have asked me to send everyone their thanks and blessings. The level of good feeling and hope in the community is palpable.
September 12, 2013
After two days of travel (San Diego to Newark to Brussels to Dakar, Senegal to Freetown, Sierra Leone) involving many forms of transportation (car, bus, plane, ferry) and varieties of walking (stationary and moving surfaces, stairs, elevators, escalators), as well as occasionally skipping (Anelah), lurching (me), and waddling (Jason), we were greeted at the airport by Robert, our local Project Coordinator & dear friend, with warm, joyful, welcoming smiles and hugs. A mere five hours later, we made it to our lodgings (the Freetown airport is not actually in Freetown).
But we made it, and it has been a wonderful, productive trip. The Hill Cut organizations that formed out of this partnership over the past two years have all been working diligently; we could see the changes and improvements all around the community since our visit last year.
The new crop of sweet potatoes in the community garden were harvested today, the community center has been painted, new furniture has been added, and the solar-powered phone charging station has been in full swing. That station has proven to be an important source of income for the local CBO, alongside some of the other initiatives we funded last year.
Classes are now in session at the Hill Cut Community Hope School, so we were able to see the three classes in action. We were also welcomed to the community on the first day with a beautiful, welcoming serenade by members of the Hill Cut Community Women's Association (HCCWA). This organization has grown in strength, and members are a great support to one another. The microloan program has been tremendously successful, with a more than 90% pay back rate. The women are in their third round of loans, this time with loans made to groups of women, rather than to individuals. We have been interviewing women on their perceptions of, and experiences with the loan program, and what kind of a difference it has made in their families lives. They have realized significantly higher profits in their businesses with the loans (because they can purchase more supplies to work with). The women report that the increased income has helped them pay for food, medication, necessities & improvements in their houses, and school fees & supplies. The HCCWA uses the interest income to support projects, events, gifts, and gatherings of their membership, as well as contribute to larger community projects.
The adult literacy classes are still going strong, although the numbers ebb and flow a bit depending on how late members need to work (in September, many mothers work longer hours to earn enough money to pay their kids' school fees). We have seen and talked with a number of the members during our visits.
We met with the local water team (made up of representatives from all three local organizations), and Jason and Anelah gave a very nice powerpoint presentation (one they were up all night perfecting) on the whats, whys and hows of the Hydraid biosand filters. We met with the larger community tonight and Jason & Anelah repeated the presentation, followed by a rapid (and expressive!) translated version by one of the local water team members. Lively discussion and Q & A ensued.
We had been expecting the Hydraid filters to arrive before or during our stay. Unfortunately, we discovered today that our shipment delivery has been delayed for two more weeks. It is now scheduled to arrive when our last team member, Kaylan, and her stalwart mother, Maren, are in the final days of their stay. We fervently hope that this new delivery date is accurate, so that Kaylan (who knows these filters) can help set them up. If not, it will mean that the local water team will have to handle all the set up. To prepare for that eventuality, we'll be meeting and working with the team daily, using models to show how to build, maintain, and troubleshoot problems with the filters.
When not engaged in the above activities, we've been unintentionally locking ourselves in bathrooms (me), cooking meals with rocky rice (me), fighting epic battles with spiders larger than our hands (team effort), fending off ravenous mosquitoes, and sucking atrociously bad exhaust fumes driving around traffic-congested Freetown looking for equipment and random supplies. blah.
We've also been talking with folks, touring the community, hanging out with kids, and watching a couple of new projects develop: a gara/batik/kola nut collective (the trainer is showing us some of the fundamentals), and a youth traditional craft collective (intent on learning and teaching crafts, after homework, and selling the products to help cover school fees, etc.)
Okay, it is late here, so I will sign off with a promise to send another report in a couple of days. Just a quick message from community members to you all: they send a special greeting and thank you to all the people who contributed to this project (with money, labor, and other forms of support). They were blown away by the generosity and involvement of so many people: behind our small travel team, there is a core team of about 15 amazing, hardworking individuals, and behind each of them are families and friends who support all this work physically, financially, and emotionally. well over three hundred people have helped make all of this possible. I believe the positive effects are rippling through all of our lives. Thank you all so much.
Hill Cut Community Update
INITIATIVES IN PLACE
Both the primary school (with 32 children in two classes) and evening adult literacy classes (11 students) are going strong. CHP supports the salaries of teachers for each, as well as that of Robert Kamara, our Project Coordinator. Both groups (and in particular the primary school) face challenges: there is a constant need for resources (furniture, books, materials, meals). Still, both the morning and evening schools provide opportunities for learning that would not otherwise be available, and the community takes pride in this.
The adult literacy class has been a source of inspiration and a critical base for planning and collaboration. Last spring, it was a group of women from this class that gathered together to form the local Hill Cut Community Women’s Association (HCCWA), an organization that acts as a co-pillar of the broader community. Their work and focus (on health, nutrition, social cohesion, and the educational and economic advancement of local families) is complemented by the Hill Cut Community-based Organization (HCCBO), which organizes around broader community projects and income sources (like the solar-powered phone charging station, moped, and training classes).
One of the CBO members, and a wise elder in the community, Pa West, is also the top student in the adult literacy class. We had the pleasure of meeting (and dancing with!) Pa Suree West last summer, and he was brimming over with enthusiasm for books, reading, and writing. He is model and a beacon of hope for people of all ages across the community.
Last year, we also had the pleasure of meeting the top student in the Hill Cut primary school, Jeneba Thoronka. Jeneba was standing apart from the crowd when we arrived, holding a book in her hand, a shy smile on her face. An excellent student with a promising future, Jeneba passed the first major exam (given at the end of 6th grade) with one of the highest scores in the country. Her score made her eligible to enter the 7th grade. There is a barrier, unfortunately: in Sierra Leone, the cost of education for students who make it to this level, factoring in books, uniform and activities fees as well as tuition, runs around $125/year. This is a sum that is comparatively low to many Americans, but for all of the families in Hill Cut, represents a substantial (often prohibitive) sum.
Jeneba’s family could not afford it at all, nor could they afford the cost of her elementary schooling when she was younger. Fortunately, she was able to attend the local Hill Cut primary school (at no cost). She was one of the older students, but she worked exceptionally hard, never losing focus, and she “caught up” and surpassed grade level expectations. Because of her success in school, and her family’s situation, Jeneba was one of the students selected (by the Women’s Association) to receive a CHP-sponsored scholarship to attend 7th grade. We hope to help her continue her schooling, and welcome donations, 100% of which go to support Jeneba and students like her.
Jeneba is a delightful, motivated, intelligent, thoughtful bibliophile, and we believe she is destined to do great things for her family, her community, and the world. She has recently been connected with a 7th grade counterpart at the Grauer School (28 7th graders between Freetown and Encinitas have recently begun to correspond with one another), opening up a wonderful avenue for exchange, learning, perspective-building, and global friendship.
Investing in individuals like Jeneba and Pa West, and working with local community organizations (like the HCCBO & HCCWA), serve to strengthen infrastructure, improve public health, create educational, training, and entrepreneurial opportunities, and foster justice, dignity and hope for all.
TRAINING. Community members have long expressed a desire to set up training classes in the community center, during the afternoons and evenings. Foremost in the minds of HCCBO and HCCWA members are computer training, and tailoring classes. Both ventures require significant initial investments, since computers, sewing machines, and other materials must be purchased. Skilled local trainers must also be engaged.
CLEAN WATER SOLUTIONS. Water was early identified by the Hill Cut Community (HCC) as a significant concern, and the CHP has been working with the HCCBO on possible solutions. In March, the CHP was awarded another TGIF (The Green Initiative Fund) grant, this time to learn about, install, and share knowledge related to, the Biosand water filtration technology with both locals in HCC and with the extended UCSD community. A small group of CHP volunteers will be traveling to Freetown this summer to work with the HCCBO and community members to assemble Biosand water filters, and investigate potential for expanding the project to other communities. The will ideally have both public health (clean water!), and economic benefits, as well as generate a sense of community pride as HCC becomes a “point source” for expertise and training on this technology.
LOCAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP. Last summer, we set a small microloan cooperative in motion, with administration and oversight through the HCCWA. Local women gain access to funding to start or expand their businesses (“petty trade” in palm oil, soap, cloth-dying, etc.), and the HCCWA benefits from the (reasonable) interest payments on the loans. Two rounds of loans have been distributed (loans of $50-$200, depending on whether the women borrowed independently or collectively). Payback rates have been high: about 80% for the first round, and nearly 100% for the second round. The HCCWA will be initiating the third round of loans soon. We had hoped that we would be able to help fund more significant entrepreneurial ventures (with loans to cooperative groups of women) in the thousands rather than the hundreds, but the (Davis) grant we pinned our hopes on ran into a roadblock. Thus, this aspect of the project remains small. We are currently seeking foundational support and potential grants that might help us expand our support for local innovators and entrepreneurs.
FOOD SECURITY. As we near the end of the six-month dry season, the community garden (which is set on a hillside due to a severe lack of land available for cultivation in the community) lays fallow, awaiting the first rains. Seedlings (of cassava and sweet potato) will be purchased by the HCCWA and members will again plant on the sloping hillside. The food grown last year represented both a small income stream for the HCCWA, and an important supplement to many local families’ food supply. In Hill Cut, most people eat only one meal, late in the day. This is a challenge for anyone, but particularly for children, who are hungry much of the time. One of our hopes, and the hope of the HCCWA, is to help them purchase their own land (the land on which they currently garden is generously loaned to them). With their own land, they would be able to increase their crop yield, reduce the need to travel an hour to the local market, and feed more people in the community.
Social Media Roundup
Follow us on our Facebook page!