Heifer International country director Rashid Sesay shares his vision for the organization's work in Sierra Leone

by Bill Fitzgerald

If you’re reading this now, that phrase is probably at least mildly familiar. World War II… The Korean War… The Vietnam War… The Civil War in Sierra Leone.

We’re not a relief agency: those valiant folks go in often while the bullets are still flying, or the storm tide is receding, God bless ‘em. Heifer focuses on what comes after… how do people who are devastated by war, or just born into devastating circumstances, rebuild—or build—lives where they have enough food, can send their kids to school, pay for needed medicines or improve their living conditions?

Over the years, that focus has taken us into Poland, Germany, Russia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia… and lately, Sierra Leone. The Civil War in Sierra Leone (1991-2000) was brutal, possibly more so because it wasn’t born in Sierra Leone but in neighboring Liberia, and imported by the rebels of General Charles Taylor, now on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Even before the war, Sierra Leone was a poor country. Today, 70% of its population lives in poverty; it’s ranked in the bottom five on the UN’s Human Development Index.; the average annual income is about $750; 2/3 of the adult population are illiterate. And the civil war did this beautiful country no favors: 50,000 were killed; almost the same number were maimed, usually by the rebels’ trademark of having hands or feet hacked off; staple crop production dropped 70%; and 90% of all livestock were killed or taken away.

A small ray of light entered the country three years ago when Heifer International’s Sierra Leone country office opened under the direction of Rashid Sesay, a native (country directors are always natives in the country where they work). Heifer’s work fit in perfectly with the government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper; agricultural development and food security are key foundations for economic growth and poverty reduction. And as it is with the Heifer model, the government has targeted smallholder farmers to provide better access to markets and processing facilities.

To fully understand the situation in Sierra Leone today, imagine if U.S. farmers had been forced to flee the countryside and settle in cities. Imagine everything you buy at the grocery store had to be imported from another country. Imagine there were no livestock. Imagine only 8% of the roads were paved. Imagine there were people from neighboring countries taking refuge and placing extra strain on the faltering infrastructure. Imagine tens of thousands of women in your area who had been raped by an invading force and who now had to support themselves and the children they’d borne, the “living scar.”

But then, imagine you came across this idea of sharing and caring. Of treating women with respect and dignity. Of providing for those in genuine need. Of justice. Even, of passing on the gift. Then, things start to change.

And the change is working. Starting in Kailahun District in the east, the first area affected by the civil war and the last area to be disarmed, Heifer Sierra Leone now works with some 5,000 families in four projects around the country. It’s a humble start, but Rashid Sesay has a vision of doing great things. “My vision is that Heifer Sierra Leone will go to every part of the country and have more capacity to target more families.”

Bill Fitzgerald is Heifer International's creative director. You can read his previous posts about project visits in Sierra Leone here. 

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Heifer International

Heifer International is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization working with communities to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.