After completing the training with the Kailahun SNAP+ team, our next day’s activity was to conduct focus group discussions with a small sample of people who had been selected and registered to receive the upcoming cash benefits.
Our objective for conducting these focus group discussions was twofold: 1) Lydia and I had trained staff in facilitation skills and the focus group methods we would be using to monitor the program, so this was an opportunity for them to practice and receive coaching; and 2) although no money had yet been distributed, it was a valuable opportunity to ask questions from participants to anticipate potential problems we could address prior to distribution.
It was determined that we would visit three villages in Kailahun, in the Chiefdom of Pejewest. For the first focus group, the entire team would all be together. After that, we would save time and increase our coverage by splitting into two groups, with Lydia and I accompanying different groups to conduct focus group discussions in different villages.
In many ways, these focus groups followed normal patterns, with the whole village turning out to greet us and learn why we were there. We began each focus group with the whole village as an audience, going through traditional greetings and introductions, particularly to the village elders or council. They were welcoming and glad to have us there. It is worth noting that, in addition to elders who took roles of community relations to other villages and were in charge of managing their own village, because Sierra Leone is a country with a balance of both Christians and Muslims, councils tended to have both a Mullah and a Christian religious leader on the council who were given equal respect. Opening prayers were offered in both traditions.
In both villages I visited, we were led to a kind of meeting hall in the center of the village. It was an open air pavilion that had a cement pad, a knee-high wall running around the whole area, except for two openings that served as doors. There were posts at the corners and other key areas that supported a zinc roof. The village had been asked in advance to participate, so they knew we were coming and were ready to jump into action when we arrived, bringing chairs and benches for participants to sit on, and crowding around the outside of the pavilion during the speeches and greetings. Eventually, though, with the permission of the village elders, we politely asked if we could speak privately to the program participants, and they good naturedly left us alone in the pavilion with a small group of 10-14 women.
The language in Pejewest is Mende, so the facilitator conducted the focus group in the local language, while an interpreter explained to me the responses (I already knew the main questions being asked, but the interpreter let me know if any additional, follow-up questions were posed or if there were shifts in the conversation). We asked questions about their plans for the money, which elicited a lot of hopeful responses, showing the dreams these women had, not just to buy enough food for their families to survive, but to regain dignity and visibility they felt they had lost. In particular, they needed medicine, they wanted to put their children back in school because they believe education is so important. Although they talked about the struggles they had experienced, they showed a hopefulness that gave them animation. When we asked about possible problems or concerns, we were able to identify some concerns the program needs to — and will — address. But they also talked about how grateful they are, how so many of their families and communities were praying for them to receive this help. Help that no one else could offer because no one had it to give. One woman said, “My brother is so happy for me to have this money, because he wants to help me, but he can’t afford to pay for it.”
Although I didn’t speak the language, the women often directed their comments to me as they were speaking, as if to see if I was taking in their words and to gauge my response. They grew animated and gestured, especially excited if I posed a follow-up question asking for more detail. When I conduct facilitation skills trainings, I spend a lot of time on listening skills, including body language and facial expressions. Even though I couldn’t speak their language, it was important to show that I was listening closely and cared about what these women were sharing. At the end of each focus group discussion, we ask if the participants have questions for us, and they immediately wanted to talk to or know more about me.
First, they wanted to share their gratitude and thankfulness directly to the American people! They know that the cash benefit program is being funded by USAID — the United States Agency for International Development. This means, they were very aware that it is paid for by the American people, through our tax dollars. It became clear that as a white American, one of the very very few they see, I was sitting there as a representative of what they consider to be an incredible generosity and kindness. They thanked me over and over again, saying that they loved the American people and are so grateful that we care enough to help them. That it was hard to believe that anyone cared enough for someone as poor as them. I hope any American reading this post takes a moment to reflect on what a difference they are making — without even knowing it — directly on women’s lives in Sierra Leone and other places.
Then, they wanted to know more about me! Did I speak any Mende at all? Who am I? Am I married and do I have children? Because my name is Jenn, they asked if they could give me a Mende name, and they told me my new name was Jeneba. Everyone was thrilled, and when the staff introduced me as Jeneba in any other village, it of course required the story, but I had immediate acceptance. They danced and sang a song for me. And they asked if they could be my friend. Could they visit me in the US?
The hardest part of it all was that we couldn’t touch each other. Due to EVD and the way it is transmitted through contact, there are restrictions on touching — no shaking hands, no hugging. This is obviously for everyone’s safety. But in the energy and spirit of these encounters, it is very hard to follow. I definitely had a hard time holding back from shaking hands and even hugging women who clearly were reaching out to me. Once or twice, when a woman was reaching to grab my hand, one of the staff had to loudly — almost shoutingly — remind them of the no touching rule by saying, “Ebola! Ebola!” Although, it’s not a perfect system, and one older woman couldn’t resist, so she quickly patted my arm and squeezed it before saying goodbye. (After getting in our truck, I was then handed a bottle of sanitizer and instructed to cover any uncovered skin with it — not very pleasant.)
The focus group discussions were an important opportunity to gather information that we will be using in our preparation and planning for the cash distribution. I was proud of our staff, who facilitated very well and who deepened the bond of trust between themselves and communities where we are operating. Many of the women said, “No one has asked what I think before. I’m so happy you came to speak to us.” We will continue this process as the program continues, building that trust and ensuring that we are making sure that the program is operating well and that the communities are able to share with us both what is going well and if problems are occurring.
In the meantime, I will keep those women’s stories with me, and I hope to go back before too long and see how they are doing.