Turning Theory Into Reality: Vanderbilt Student Reflects on Lessons Learned in Sierra Leone

April 24, 2017

Sierra Leone, road

Josiah Holland, a Vanderbilt Human and Organizational Development student currently interning with Just Hope, recently returned from a trip to Sierra Leone with David Reeves, our Agriculture and VSLA Program Manager. He shares about his experience below.

Driving along well-worn, dirt roads in Sierra Leone, I came to better understand a reality generally true for the world’s impoverished. Despite having learned in driver’s ed to look 12-15 seconds down the road, in Sierra Leone you will break an axle if you don’t focus on swerving around the potholes ten feet in front of you. Those of us who live with financial security can afford to prepare for what the future holds. For those in extreme poverty, like many of the people Just Hope serves around the world, planning for the future is made impossible by the daily onslaught of hurdles and barriers to overcome.

One road took us to Katik, where I met Maada, the leader of an association of blind farmers. He explained how last season, with Just Hope’s help, they grew the best corn they had ever produced only to have it ravaged by wild monkeys the morning of the day they had planned to harvest it.

James, a charcoal maker and member of a savings group, told me about how last year during the rains he came down with pneumonia because of the poor working conditions.  

Muhammad, the caretaker of a school in Lunsar, shared that the cost of manure for farming has tripled in the last two years and now costs the equivalent of nearly a month’s wages in his community.

Jenneh, one of Just Hope’s field officers, explained that her neighbors struggle to survive the dry season (November – May) on their earnings from the previous farming season. By May, when it comes time to plant, the cost of seeds has doubled and the average family will have eaten all of their seeds from the previous season to avoid starvation. This forces them to buy seeds on credit with exorbitant interest rates, which they plan to pay off at the end of the season. As fate would have it, their crops are worth very little at that point because of market saturation.

However, in each of these situations, there is hope.

Just Hope’s field officers are currently helping the blind men of Katik prepare compost for the upcoming season and plan to plant peppers and groundnuts, which will be left alone by the monkeys.

Sierra Leone, composting

Savings group members like James are able to take loans from the group social fund when they get sick in order to receive medical treatment and pay someone to carry on their work.

Field officers are working with Muhammad and other farmers to test compost made with urea instead of manure (costing only half a day’s wages compared to a month’s).

In response to subsistence farmers’ needs for seeds, Just Hope is initiating an interest-free seed loan program that will be managed locally, involve training in sustainable agriculture practices, and reduce food insecurity through economic empowerment.

My studies at Vanderbilt have taught me the theory behind identifying, understanding, and solving problems within organizations and communities. Working with Just Hope’s programs in Ghana and Sierra Leone has provided me with a real model of doing that internationally. Just Hope enters communities, establishes relationships, assesses the needs and assets of individuals, and works with those entrepreneurs to arrive at solutions that make it a little more feasible to look down the road as the potholes grow fewer and farther between.

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