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PC(USA) ministry group visits Sierra Leone and Liberia

Team to meet community leaders, assess progress of West Africa Initiative

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

The sidewalks of Freetown, Sierra Leone, are crowded with businesses selling everything from food to electronics and clothing. The city is still working to come back from the Ebola virus. (Photo by Rick Jones)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – The air is thick and humid on a typical day in Freetown. Driving along the streets of this seaside community, you’ll mostly find young people peddling their wares to the motorists as the temperatures hover in the mid-’90s. They’re selling everything from fruit drinks and bananas to bicycle tires and shoes. Women balance trays of neatly stacked fruits, nuts and eggs as they make their way along the sidewalks dotted with small businesses. Everyone is seeking to make a living side by side every day.

Three ministries with Compassion, Peace and Justice are in Sierra Leone this week to see firsthand how work is progressing for the West Africa Initiative, a collaboration of Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), Self-Development of People (SDOP) and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). For the past several years, the program has been working to support and strengthen rural communities’ capacity to develop self-reliant and independent organizations that are engaged in all aspects of food production, as well as the economic and social well-being of its members.

“I last visited communities associated with the West Africa Initiative program in Liberia and Sierra Leone two years ago, right before the Ebola epidemic started. I remember seeing all the good work they were doing to produce the food they needed for themselves and their families, and how green all the farms were,” said Valery Nodem, PHP’s international associate. “The stories of Ebola and how it impacted communities broke my heart. Even amidst that, it was good to know that the groups we worked with had an advantage on others, as they had food available in the communities and were not relying on markets.”

Alonzo Johnson of Self-Development of People (left) and Valery Nodem with the Presbyterian Hunger Program (center) meet with Joseph Rahall of Green Scenery (right) discuss land-grab issues during a meeting in Freetown. (Photo by Rick Jones)

Accompanying Nodem on this trip are Luke Asikoye, PDA’s international associate, and the Rev. Alonzo Johnson, SDOP coordinator. Asikoye lived in Sierra Leone between 1999–2000 and remembered the difficulties the region faced during the war.

“I am most happy to see how resilient the people are in the midst of everything they have been through from war to the Ebola virus,” Asikoye said. “This is an important opportunity for us to see how well these groups are moving on their own to improve their lives.”

On the group’s first full day in the country, the team met with Joseph Rahall, founder of Green Scenery, a nonprofit group that has been working on environmental and human rights issues in Sierra Leone since 1999. Rahall told the group he’s been working closely with rural communities on land-grab issues, trying to educate residents about the process so they can make better decisions on how to best lease or sell their land.

“Investors don’t like us because we are trying to help the people,” Rahall said. “We give people information and training so they can be empowered to ask questions. The government often accuses us of driving away investors because we are asking questions. But it is our belief that people should benefit from the businesses that seek this land.”

Rahall and other organizations believe investors are making significant profits on land deals in Sierra Leone while residents come away with little to show for it. In some cases, land lease agreements are up to 50 years.

The ministry teams will spend the rest of the week meeting with communities involved with the West Africa Initiative. This weekend, the group will travel to Liberia and spend several days meeting community leaders.

“I’m so excited to go back to both Sierra Leone and Liberia and see how they are recovering after these difficult times,” Nodem said. “They are a testimony to what resilience really means, and we have seen that during almost 10 years of working with them.”


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

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