Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) and their work in Sierra Leone

When Chris and I were travelling, we had the good fortune of travelling with a friend of mine from Nova Scotia, Andrea MacDonald. Andrea is the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Gambia Association, which works both in The Gambia and here in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone, their project is called the Nova Scotia Sierra Leone Program (NSSLP). Andrea was here visiting some of NSSLP’s projects and invited us to travel with her. We went with her to Koidu, Kenema, Bo and then back to Freetown. This was a great way for us to see other parts of the country without going through the trials of using public transportation or paying a lot of money for a private vehicle. Some of the roads were pretty bad (as evidenced by the mud-soaked truck in the photo) and we were thankful to be in a 4x4 vehicle. So thanks Andrea!

Over the 5 days we spent travelling with NSGA, we had the opportunity to visit some of their projects, and I really wanted to say something about the work they are doing here. The NSGA’s work focuses on peer health education. Their motto is “learn and teach others”. The also do voluntary counselling and HIV testing in coordination with health services here. We were able to see some of their peer health education work in action. In Kenema we visited a boys school that had a peer health education program around HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health. It was so neat to hear the boys that are the peer leaders in this program talk openly and without embarrassment about how you can get HIV, how to prevent it, how to have safe sex, and other topics that are so important to sexual health. These boys share this information not only with their peers at school, but also with their families and communities (many of them come from villages outside of Kenema). Without open and frank discussions on these subjects, health issues like HIV (with prevalence rates currently around 2%) and teenage pregnancy (already a big problem here) are sure to become more serious problems in the country.

(As an aside, one of the boys from this group in Kenema told me at the end of the session that he wanted to marry a white woman :-) I don’t think he was proposing to me, because I was there with Chris, just expressing his general dream!)

The project that NSGA is involved in in Kono District (the eastern part of the country) was really interesting to learn about. They are doing the HIV testing and counselling and peer health education component for a larger project that is run by the German Technical Cooperation, GTZ (GTZ has a similar role to that of CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, in Canada). This project aims to help youth that were displaced by the civil war to urban areas like Freetown, or to the diamond-mining areas, resettle in their old villages. A 3-month pilot project just finished, and GTZ aims to soon launch a five-year project to do the same work, resettling 30,000 youth.

This is how the project works: GTZ “scouts” find young people in Freetown, or in the mining areas in Kono that want to go back home but don’t have the means to go themselves. The scouts then visit the home communities and mediate with the villagers to ensure that the return will be accepted and peaceful (some of these youth may have been perpetrators of or witnesses to atrocities committed during the war). GTZ provides returnees with basic support in terms of transportation and getting set up with farming and housing when they return to the village, and works with them to educate them and the rest of the community in the areas of hygiene, water and sanitation, reproductive health and HIV. This education work is where NSGA comes in. They also work with district health teams to HIV counselling and testing for returnees and villagers.

With Andrea, we visited one of the villages where resettlement has taken place as part of the pilot project, the village of Gbematambadu (photo of villagers to the left), about 15km outside of Koidu (on a TERRIBLE road). The villagers and returnees talked about their experiences thus far (they had been back for about 3 months I think). Everyone generally seemed to be happy with the new arrangement. The returnees were able to feed themselves from their farming (as opposed to living on Le 1,000-2,000/day doing alluvial mining in the diamond areas), and the villagers appreciated having more young people around to share in the work. While there were certainly ongoing challenges (housing and education for the new influx of children seemed to be two big ones), the project seemed for the most part to be successful.

The whole concept of the project is very interesting, as the general assumption in the west is that anyone working and receiving a salary is better off than someone depending on subsistence agriculture, and that moving to an urban centre is better than being in a rural area. However, this GTZ project seems to demonstrate that this is not the case. In fact, rural communities have a lot to offer. Although subsistence farming has its own challenges and is by no means easy, at least people have a certain measure of control over whether or not they can feed their families. Trying to live in a city and pay for lodging and food for your family on only pennies a day (Le 1,000 = about $0.28 CDN) is pretty tough.

In addition, returning to their home communities offers people a support network that they likely did not have in Freetown or Koidu. From my own experiences here, I’ve seen that extended family networks are very important, especially in rural communities. If you live close to your extended family, when you are sick, they will take care of you. When your harvest fails, they will share their food with you. You help each other with work in the fields and in the house. Children take care of parents, grandparents take care of grandchildren, siblings take care of siblings. Again, it’s certainly not a perfect or an easy life, but the family and community networks in rural communities act as an essential safety net for people here, in a country where social services provided by the government are limited or non-existent.

At the community meeting, people talked about what they had learned from the peer health education program. Topics included prevention of sexually transmitted infections, child spacing, and basic sanitation. Some spot checks in different project areas have already seen some changes in behaviour (for example, always covering food and water to prevent contamination, hanging laundry up instead of laying it on the ground to dry, etc.). In a year or two, other bigger changes (such as in the birth rate or rate of STIs) will hopefully be visible as well.

I have more to say about rural communities and about both agriculture and mining in the country, but those will be topics for other posts. For more information about NSGA’s work in Sierra Leone and The Gambia, or to donate to NSGA, please see their website,

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