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PC(USA) delegation concludes onsite visit to Sierra Leone and Liberia

West Africa Initiative participants show resilience and growth

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Luke Asikoye with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Valery Nodem of the Presbyterian Hunger Program visit a pineapple field in Liberia. (Photo by Rick Jones)

LOUISVILLE – For two weeks, a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) visited 10 villages in the countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. The villages are participants in the West Africa Initiative (WAI), a partnership of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbyterian Hunger Program and Self-Development of People.

WAI was launched in 2008 to help communities become self-sufficient and resilient. Both countries had suffered in the wake of several years of civil war. Coupled with the outbreak of the Ebola virus two years ago, the countries have had to learn to rely on their own strength to provide for their families.

Working with partners, PC(USA) helped organize the overall structure of the program and train the participating communities on building community gardens, starting new businesses and marketing their products to other villages and towns. In addition, WAI encouraged communities to break out of their silos and work together. The delegation liked what it saw.

“When we talk about resilience, this program and all of the people we’ve visited are the best teachers for what resilience looks like on a day to day basis,” said Valery Nodem, international associate for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “You take two countries with a history of civil war and the outbreak of Ebola and you see communities come out and work to rebuild, never complaining. This has made an impact and that is exactly what CPJ ministries were invited to do here.”

Through WAI, the participating communities have been able to develop organizational structures to store and distribute seeds, train farmers to prepare the lands, participate in group farming and provide better opportunities to educate children.

“I like to see communities believing they should count on themselves. There are many communities around the world that do not put in the personal effort to rebuild at the grassroots level, but it has been different with those connected with the West Africa Initiative,” Nodem said. “I like seeing the children and adults grow. I see communities becoming more assertive and speaking up about the injustices they see. There’s definitely been a big impact.”

Communities told the delegation they are learning to work together, nutrition has improved and they are able to save and buy needed tools and equipment to help.

“All of this has had an effect on the fabric of the family. When there is war, corporate mechanisms can come into play, but this traumatized population is getting back on its feet and re-establishing values,” said Luke Asikoye, international associate for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “People are coming back to reclaim their property and their lives. WAI is trying to show that you can create a livelihood and stay in the interior and have a rewarding and better life.”

Residents of a Liberian village update the PC(USA) delegation on progress through the West Africa Initiative. (Photo by Rick Jones)

WAI is structured with overall project managers and regional facilitators. But the direction and overall goals and objectives are determined by the communities themselves.

“This fertile land is making it possible for people to live off of the land, grow food and make money to send their kids to school,” Asikoye said. “We see things happening here and people are finding ways to survive, despite still being traumatized by what they’ve experienced over the years.”

“One of the things more debilitating than Ebola and civil war is a sense of powerlessness, sitting and waiting for someone to solve their problems,” said Winston Carroo, WAI project director. “The communities we visited have come a long way from that point. They are realizing they have the power to solve their own problems.”

Thomas Hackor coordinates the work in Liberia. Having grown up in one of the villages, he knows firsthand the struggles people have faced over the years and he’s seen positive change through WAI.

“Everyone is treated equal; both men and women. People are learning the value of women and in many villages, the women are taking charge,” he said. “People have learned to work together and love one another. They are developing business skills and are very confident in the work they do.”

This was the first visit to WAI communities for the Rev. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator for Self-Development of People. He says he was encouraged by what he saw in both countries and believes there is a market for their products and services beyond their own borders.

“I believe many people in the U.S would rather spend less money with major companies and invest their dollars in local businesses,” he said. “There’s been a movement to buy materials and support communities that will directly benefit. I don’t want to buy something that will make the CEO 300 times richer. I want to purchase products and services that will go toward helping a community.”

Despite its success, WAI participants still face a number of challenges including the need for better communication and transportation in remote areas, as well as new technology. Other threats include deforestation, global warming, pests and disease.

Asikoye, who has lived in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, says the people need the love and support of the church. “We tell them they’ve got their dignity. Our job is to love and work with them on their issues—not remove those issues, but work with with our partners to solve them.”

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The West Africa Initiative is made possible by gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing.


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