Our second week in Sierra Leone was taken up by a trip out to one of the three districts where the SNAP+ program is operating. The SNAP program and its emergency cash distribution add-on SNAP+ are being implemented in three areas: Kailahun, Tonkolili, and Bombali.
Because of the geographic spread and the size of the program, our strategy was to work with the main office staff in Freetown as well as the district office staff in Kailahun. These staff would be thoroughly trained not only to lead the community sensitization and monitoring that we put in place, but key staff would also then train the district staff in Tonkolili and Bombali to carry out the same practices.
After completing the first week in Freetown, we spent the second week visiting the district office in Kailahun, which is where the cash distribution program was beginning activities first. The Gender Focal Points — the staff person who leads gender efforts in his/her office — from both Tonkalili and Kailahun had joined us for the Freetown trainings. Therefore, they would be joining Lydia and me in Kailahun to practice their training skills. They would be the key staff responsible for training the remaining district staff.
The distance from Freetown to Kailahun is approximately 417km (or 260 miles), but a few hours outside of Freetown, the paved road turns to gravel and then to red dirt, rocks, and mud. Particularly in the rainy season, the roads become difficult to navigate, nearly impassible in some places, so the journey takes at least 8 hours. We spent the whole first day traveling, with only a short lunch break in the town of Kenema. We arrived in Kailahun with only enough time to greet the district office staff, catch up on preparations for the next day’s training, and go to the guest house for dinner and some sleep.
Our only full day in Kailahun was dedicated to a 1-day version of the longer, 3-day training that was conducted in Freetown. We were able to condense the original workshop because the sensitization and monitoring methods were finalized, and the focus of the training was to educate the team on the concepts and procedures. Lydia and I also wanted to ensure that the district Gender Focal Points — Tejan and Francess — were fully equipped to conduct the trainings with the other district offices after our departure, so we had arranged for them to lead the training with our support.
Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law was in full effect, and we arrived at the office that morning to discover that the generator had broken and there was no electricity to power the office lights. The generator could not be fixed quickly, because it required parts that had to be driven in from Freetown. We could do the training without air conditioning or a power projector, but the meeting room did not get enough light from the windows for everyone to see (and we at least needed fans to circulate the air because it was very hot and humid)! Luckily, the project manager was able to secure the meeting hall at the guest house where I was staying, so we relocated, and after a couple of hours delay, the training began!
It was wonderful to work as a team with Francess and Tejan, who were great facilitators of the session. Once again, we had a dynamic and engaged team who took to the topic with interest and enthusiasm. We had quite a few interesting debates on gender as a concept as well as how to protect participants in the SNAP+ program. Despite starting late and working through the heat, the participants had a lot of ideas to share. There was both a lot of laughter and a lot of reflection and thoughtfulness as we discussed what it meant to be an “Ideal Man” or “Ideal Woman” in Kailahun, and how those ideals shape ourselves and our program participants in both helpful and hurtful ways.
There were two main disruptions during the training, one bigger than the other. Because the hall was quite warm, we had left the doors and windows open, with ceiling fans circulating the air and keeping the room as cool as possible. Shortly after lunch, school must have let the children out because suddenly, we could hear children’s voices shouting and laughing. The guest house was within a compound, surrounded by a cement wall, but the road in front of the compound rose at an angle, so that there was a place at the front where the wall was shorter and topped by metal fencing. I realized that there were small, school age children lined up at this point in the wall, and they had a direct line of vision into the training hall. There was a line of faces peeking up over the wall and through the fence bars. Because they were shouting in their local language, I didn’t realize what was happening until Lydia leaned over and said, “They’re talking about you.” Sure enough, as I listened closer, I heard them saying “Pumui! Pumui!” which means “white person” in Mende. Quickly, the project manager walked over to the fence and scolded them, and they scattered, screaming and laughing. But every now and then, I’d catch someone peeking. It turns out, this little incident was only a preview of the attention I would receive the following day! (More on that to come.)
But the biggest disruption to the training occurred shortly after the lunch break, when there was a sudden commotion right outside the door of the training hall. As Tejan was leading the team through a discussion of our community sensitization process, there was a large metallic clatter and a bellow — people jumped up to look out the windows and door. We realized that someone had tied up a live cow in the parking lot, presumably because it was going to be dinner soon. However, they had miscalculated the length of the rope, and the cow was within striking distance of a motorcycle that was parked nearby. The cow, for whatever reason, decided to attack the motorcycle and had gone full force at it, butting it with its head and horns, knocking the motorcycle over and then kicking at it. Obviously, the owner of the motorcycle was very upset that his property was being damaged and was trying to get the cycle away from the furious hooves and horns without further injury to either the animal or the vehicle. Eventually, both were separated, but it drew quite a crowd. It took a little bit to get everyone settled down again and back to focusing on the training. It’s not everyday my training gets interrupted by a cow!
(Sure enough — later that evening I heard the sounds of the cow being… prepared. There was a joyful celebration happening for those who were breaking their Ramadan fast, but I was grateful for the chance to escape to Francess’ house and spend the evening having dinner there.)
It was a very full, very long day, but despite the unexpected interruptions, we had another great training with another great team who thanked us for the useful information and were happy for the opportunity to further improve their abilities to address their community’s needs. The following day, we would visit some of those villages to test our monitoring tools and conduct pre-distribution focus groups so that we could identify potential risks or concerns.