I was familiar with Africa as a continent from news, wildlife and travel programmes. Now that I have visited a small part of Africa, it is no longer easy to remain detached from it and its people, and it is so different to our own.
On my visit as a CAFOD Step into the Gap volunteer to Sierra Leone in January, it seemed like a different world even to the one I thought knew. We saw some of the projects which have already been set up over there, such as chicken farms to help the locals build a livelihood. We talked to some of the local councils and Catholic Youth Organisations and were made aware of some of the issues they face. Access to healthcare is difficult in Sierra Leone, especially from rural communities, for many reasons including the poor road system; for many the bumpy dirt tracks are the only way to the hospital. Education is a big issue too; parents struggle to afford school fees and so the children often have days, even weeks, off school because of this. The parents of these children desperately need sustainable ways and means of earning money so they can afford to send their children to school, otherwise their children’s’ futures hang in the balance.
With healthcare, there are many concerns. HIV and AIDS are widespread, with 14.1 million children in sub-Saharan Africa having lost one or both parents to AIDS by May 2011. For many women in rural communities, life is hard in Sierra Leone. They farm all morning and walk to the market every afternoon in the burning heat to sell their produce so that they can afford to raise their children. But the women in the Tissor community still performed a little celebratory dance when they received four watering cans!
Behind the courageous smiles of the people are often the memories of the Sierra Leone Civil War. It raged from 1991 until 2002, an attempt by the Revolutionary United Front, referred to as ‘the Rebels’, to overthrow the government. The war was horrific, with the use of children as soldiers, and innocent civilians often had their arms or legs amputated by the rebels to act as examples to anyone who tried to challenge them. Inhabited houses were burnt down and senseless violence reigned. The war has left its scars on the people here. They are understandably very reluctant to talk it and prefer now that it is peaceful again to focus on the future and moving forwards.
CAFOD funds the work of partners in the country such as Caritas Makeni such as vocational projects to enable people to learn a trade and support themselves and their families. We visited one such project in the centre of Makeni. The locals at the project were from difficult backgrounds and they were learning to make items to sell out of recycled materials. Caritas Makeni teaches skills which empower people to build a life for themselves and achieve things independently of aid and helps them develop the confidence they need to be successful.
CAFOD wants to make sure that everyone in the communities benefit from help offered, and our partners work in ways to ensure that everyone benefits and that profit is shared out equally. But we know that there are other communities who could do with the same support if only we had the funds. My trip to Sierra Leone highlighted some of the issues which still need tackling and made me realise the extent of the difficulties local people face with dignity. However it also made me realise just how similar we are to the people there. I talked to them and saw that they have the same feelings, the same dreams and aspirations. It is only chance which determined that they were born where they were and I was born in Britain. But circumstance is the only difference between us. Deep down they are still our brothers and sisters and we should keep reaching out to help.
CAFOD Step into the Gap Programme Volunteer.
CAFOD Romero House, 55 Westminster Bridge Rd, LONDON SE1 7JB 0207 733 7900 CAFOD is the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development which works with communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to fight poverty and injustice. The official Catholic agency of England and Wales, CAFOD works with all people regardless of race, gender, religion or nationality.