Award-winning model Tali Lennox recently visited Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, as a Christian Aid Week (13-19 May) ambassador. Around half of all Sierra Leoneans are forced to try to survive on the equivalent of just 80p a day, with more than half the country’s population relying on subsistence farming for their income.
“I have grown up around charity work with my mum," says Tali. “But the invitation to Sierra Leone was not only an opportunity for an adventure, but also for some perspective on how things are for people here. It’s very different from the life I lead as a model.”
Tali visited poverty-stricken communities in the fertile Bonthe region of southern Sierra Leone. A once-thriving agricultural hub before the country’s eleven-year bloody civil war, Bonthe has 52,000 acres of fertile land; enough to feed the entire country. Expensive mechanised farming equipment was however simply left to rust during the war, leaving crops in short supply and the spectre of malnutrition a serious problem.
“It’s so lush and green and beautiful. People’s stories were heartbreaking but every single person we spoke to felt that Sierra Leone was improving. And in such simple ways too,” says Tali.
One woman who has first-hand experience of the devastating impact of war is Ganyeh Seilu.
“She lost five children to malnutrition, which was totally shocking to me,” Tali explains. “She barely survived on the food she grew, and was unable to access the healthcare the children needed.”
Now Christian Aid’s local partner, the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone (MCSL), is helping women like Ganyeh to gain access to faming tools and seeds at a brand new Agricultural Business Centre. The Centre helps vulnerable women in 14 communities to grow their crops in greater volumes and sell them for higher prices at the local market.
Women like Mariama Jabbie, who was given hoes to tend her land and seeds to grow rice from MCSL, have been able to change their daily lives for the better.
“Mariama told me that ‘hunger used to be our greatest enemy’ because it meant that two of her children could not concentrate at school when they had not eaten. But now, because she is able to harvest more crops, she can produce more food to feed her family and sell at market.
“All four of her children are now going to school and getting much more to eat,” Tali reflects.
Tali also saw how a new school building was constructed as a result of local government lobbying by the Village Development Committee (VDC) set up by MCSL.
“The school now has a 98% attendance rate of children in the community and many more girls are being encouraged to study,” explains Tali.
At the old school building, headmaster Michael Tucker tells Tali about the difference the new school has made: “Two years ago, the building was a death trap. The benches were falling apart, the ground was sand, and when it rained, the water would come straight through the roof so that school had to be cancelled for that day and the next. The new school has changed everything.”
Pupil Patricia Sawie (pictured) is now able to attend school regularly. “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,” she smiles.
Her headmaster Mr. Tucker adds: “One day I expect a woman to be doing my job, and that day is coming soon.”
Traditionally excluded from decision-making in Sierra Leone, women and young people are now encouraged by the VDCs to attend education and adult literacy programmes.
“More than 60% of adults in Sierra Leone are illiterate so these programmes really do give people a chance to fulfil their dreams,” says Tali.
Fishing is a major source of income in Sierra Leone. Tali visited the tiny coastal village of Mo-Albert, supported by MCSL.
“I met John Beier, who had been fishing for 35 years. He showed me how you should always have hope. It is never too late to change your life,” says Tali.
“MCSL and Christian Aid offered the fishermen of Mo-Albert a loan to buy new boats, nets and smoke-free ovens. The villagers then pay back the loan each month from the profits of their improved catch.”
John Beier, 55, spent years relying on old nets and dugout canoes to fish.
“Before this project started we had many difficulties fishing because we were doing it on an individual basis. We used dug-out canoes which meant that the catch was very small,” recalls John.
Now John and his 20-year-old son are able to go out fishing with a new boat and nets, as part of a newly-formed village co-operative. This has improved the Beiers’ catch by “tens of dozens” and also significantly increased their income.
“I think my son will catch more fish by the time he’s 30 than I will have done in my entire lifetime,” John tells Tali.
“Sierra Leone has so much potential, especially the way it has pulled itself up after the war. It has the potential to move onwards and upwards. The people just need the tools to work their way out of poverty and that’s where even the smallest donations can make all the difference,” Tali concludes.
Christian Aid Week 2012 runs from 13-19 May. Donate online at www.caweek.org , call 08080 006 006, or text “GIVE” to 78866 to give £5.
The first £5m donated will be matched by the Government pound for pound, so that Christian Aid can help more people in poor communities around the world work their way out of poverty.
All photos: Christian Aid/ Lee Thompson