Traveling to Sierra Leone

Hi there! After taking a few months to settle into my new role at ACDI/VOCA, it’s time for me to go out and spend some time in the field. My first visit is going to be to one of our projects in Africa.

I’m heading out soon to Sierra Leone where ACDI/VOCA is implementing the Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion (SNAP) program. This is a Multi-Year Assistance Program (MYAP) funded by the US Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace (USAID/FFP). The primary goal of the program is to reduce malnutrition, and the program provides food aid to pregnant women and children under the age of two. In addition, the program strengthens the whole household through training and support to improve their farming practices and increase agricultural production –  improving not only the amount of food they grow but also their ability to sell it in the market – increase access to credit, and improve livelihood opportunities through vocational and numeracy/literacy training. You can learn more about our project here.

As many of you know, Sierra Leone has been hit hard by the recent outbreak of Ebola. Many households have lost family members who were the primary income earners. People have been too sick to work and public gatherings have been restricted, so markets are closed and harvests have been limited or lost. All of this has contributed to an even greater need for income and access to food.

Because of the social and economic devastation caused by Ebola, the SNAP program has added an additional component: the Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion Plus (SNAP+) project is an Emergency Food Security Program that is also funded by the US Agency for International Development’s Office of Food for Peace (USAID/FFP). The program promotes the economic and social recovery of Sierra Leoneans who have been directly and indirectly impacted by the outbreak of Ebola during the current and past year. The main component of this program provides a monthly payment to households that have been identified as extremely vulnerable for eight months to support food purchases.

A Little About Sierra Leone

map_of_sierra-leoneSierra Leone is on the coast of West Africa, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. Guinea, in the north and east, and Liberia, in the south, are its neighbors. It has a varied landscape, with beautiful beaches and mangrove swamps along the coast, wooded hills and a plateau in the interior, and a mountainous eastern region.

Many histories of Sierra Leone begin with the arrival of European explorers and colonists, but it is important to remember that Sierra Leone has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Not just a country that experienced waves of invaders and settlers, archeologists and linguists have traced artifacts and language patterns to show that the Bulom (Sherbro), Temne, and Limba have been in continuous settled occupation along the coast, followed by inland immigration from the Mende as well as the Fulani.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the land and gave Sierra Leone its name, which means “lion mountains.” In 1808, Sierra Leone became a British colony and remained under their control until 1961, when it gained independence. In 1991, the country’s democratically elected leaders were overthrown, and a civil war between the government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people (about one-third of the country’s population).  After a decade of fighting, the war ended in 2002 with the assistance of UN peacekeeping forces and contributions from the international community.

As a result of its colonial history, the official language of Sierra Leone is English, but its use is limited to an educated, literate minority.  Krio – a Creole dialect – is widely spoken throughout the country allowing different tribal groups a common language, and there are large groups that speak additional languages including Temne, Mende, and 15 other indigenous languages.

Another significant note in Sierra Leone’s history is its role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Sierra Leone was a minor source of slaves for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade during the 17th and 18th centuries. Following the American Revolutionary War and later the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, Freetown – today the capital of Sierra Leone – was the site of multiple resettlements for freed slaves. Further, in the early 19th century, Freetown was the headquarters for the Royal British Navy’s West African Squadron which captured slave ships headed for the Americas. They brought the freed men and women to Freetown and allowed them to resettle there, contributing to the Creole makeup of the city’s population.

The destruction, displacement, and destabilization that occurred during the civil war period have contributed to Sierra Leone’s status as one of the world’s poorest countries. Poverty remains widespread with more than 60% of the population living on less than US$ 1.25 a day. Unemployment and illiteracy levels remain high, particularly among youth. However, Sierra Leone has made considerable progress since the end of the civil war, establishing good governance and peace building as well as improving health, education, and economic growth rates.

For further reading, a brief country profile is available from the BBC here.

A UNDP profile is available here.

What Will I Be Doing While I’m There?

I am going to support the SNAP+ cash transfer program. I’ll be conducting gender equality and protection trainings with SNAP+ staff and partners in order to help them identify and address possible negative or unintended impacts of the cash transfers to poor and vulnerable households specifically related to possible exploitation or gender-based violence. I’ll be working with SNAP+ staff to develop monitoring processes that help us ensure women and families are receiving the payments and are able to spend it on food purchases. We’ll work together to finalize our protection structures, to make sure women and families can report problems and get help if they need it. I’ll also be traveling with SNAP+ to villages where the cash transfers are taking place and training them in methods to collect information from the program participants about how things are going, to identify areas of concern, and to use that information to adjust our procedures.

I’m really looking forward to meeting our Sierra Leone team and to visit this incredible country. I know many of you probably read the word “Ebola” and are worried about me traveling to this country, but I promise you — while I advise everyone to follow the State Department and WHO’s travel restrictions to this country — those of us that are there for work are taking proper precautions.

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