LEADERS ONCE AGAIN
A World Institute for a Sustainable Humanity (AWISH)
Before the civil war in Sierra Leone, Kamboma was known as one of the best-producing agricultural areas in the Lower Bambara chiefdom of Kenema District, in the southeastern part of the country. The Mende people there grew rice, cassava and vegetables and sold them to surrounding communities. But 11 years of war between a rebel army and government forces left Kenema devastated. Then came unusually heavy rains, and flooding. Roads connecting the villages were destroyed. There was little access to education, health care, or seeds, machinery and other farming resources. The farms of Kamboma became destitute, and so did its people.
But the people of Kamboma, led by local women’s associations, came together to develop a plan. They needed to get their income flowing again, but the war and the floods had left them unable to produce enough food to eat, let alone to sell at market. The war had also torn apart the traditional society of the Mende, particularly its customs of gender equality. While traditionally women and men shared work equally and men were responsible for producing food, in the aftermath of the war women took up much of the slack as the primary food producers for their families. Women were now disproportionately stressed by the double duties of domestic maintenance and subsistence farming. In addition to caring for children and keeping their households running, they worked in the fields and threshed rice by hand, a difficult and time-consuming task. They often had to keep their children home from school to help with the work. They were barely getting by. They needed a way to produce more rice faster and more easily so that they could focus on building their community’s economy and caring for their families.
The community partnered with a non-profit called A World Institute for a Sustainable Humanity, or AWISH, to organize a project that would bring mechanized threshing technology to Kamboma, as well as a new approach to its traditional farming practices that would require the cooperation of every member of the community.
When AWISH came to First Peoples Worldwide with a request for funding, we recognized the opportunity to support Indigenous capacity as it grew from the ground up. Not only were the people in Kamboma taking their future into their own hands, they were organizing and mobilizing their community in a way that would last far beyond the initial project. We proudly awarded AWISH a series of grants amounting to US$32,600 over four years.
With funding from Keepers of the Earth, AWISH purchased a modern threshing machine, as well as hand tools such as hoes and cutlasses, and began training farmers in Kamboma to use a high-yield method of rice production known as Inland Valley Swamp growing, which takes advantage of the wet, swampy areas surrounding rivers. The method was long used by the Indigenous Peoples in the region, but this traditional knowledge had been destroyed by years of war. AWISH also conducted financial and crop production management trainings in the communities, and helped the community associations build transparency and accountability measures into their organizations. With this new training the associations began to organize men, women and young people to accomplish the various tasks required to make the new system work.
Land had to be cleared for the planting of new rice. Stones had to be carried from the river to build the housing for the new machinery. Skilled laborers constructed the “milling center,” while others brought water in buckets carried on their heads. Seed rice was planted, fertilized (using new methods outlined in AWISH trainings), weeded and harvested.
The community also installed drainage systems to protect the rice crop from flooding, and built a storage facility so that high-quality seed rice can be properly stored for use in the next planting season. In addition to storing their own rice, the community will generate income by renting storage space to other local producers.
The young people of Kamboma played a critical role, doing much of the heavy lifting and retrieving seed rice from remote villages that could only be reached by foot.
“[The] youth are [the] foundation pillar in every successful project implementation and accomplishment,” says AWISH director Alpha Beretey. Because they are also beneficiaries of the project, the involvement of the youth in getting it off the ground will strengthen its long-term viability.
Over the course of the project, incomes grew in 1,500 households, impacting 2,500 people in 12 communities. Not only was more food produced for the growers, but the cost of rice was reduced to more manageable levels for those who buy it.
“About 90 percent of the total population of the Indigenous peoples can [now] afford good quality food and feed their homes multiple times a day, rather than the normal one meal per day,” says Beretey. An estimated 650 children who had dropped out of school to help with rice production were able to return to classes. Any extra income generated through the project will go toward maintaining the threshing machinery and its housing, and replacing other tools as needed.
The community associations in Kamboma have also begun to use the skills they gained through the project in other areas, organizing communal work for more efficient cultivation of peanuts, cassava and palm oil. By making food production easier and more efficient, the organization hopes to help empower Kamboma’s women in particular. This, he says, is the key to the community’s future.
“Putting earning in women’s hands is the intelligent thing to do to speed up development and the process of overcoming hunger and poverty in the community,” says Beretey. “Kamboma women usually reinvest a much higher portion in their families and community than men, spreading wealth beyond themselves.”
The community also plans to use surplus seed rice to foster expansion of the project to its neighbors. “The need to expand the inland valley swampland rice cultivation exercise [to] satellite communities and chiefdoms can help reduce the pressure on the newly empowered community, and fetch food sufficiency for a wider farming population,” says Beretey.
First Peoples Worldwide is the first grant making organization to support agricultural advancement in Kamboma. Before receiving our grant, says Beretey, the lack of funding limited the community’s ability to implement new and innovative ways of returning their farms to productivity. The FPW-funded project, he says, “renewed hope and made the [community] self reliant.” With the lifting of food production stresses from the community, the traditional initiation rituals of bondo and poro, among other community activities, were revitalized.
In order to expand its work even further, AWISH has now joined with seven other organizations in the region to form the Coalition for Community Transformation and Development. With a grant of US$1,500 from First Peoples, the members of this new coalition will register their organization with the government and begin agricultural development projects on a scale none of them could achieve alone. We are very proud to be able to give this new organization the boost it needs to get started, and we look forward to seeing where this new initiative will take the community.
Kamboma has come a long way since it began its partnership with AWISH four years ago, but from the very beginning the community has known how important and how fruitful this work would be. They held a ceremony upon launching their first project that was attended not only by the entire community, but by the media, regional chiefs, NGO leaders and even members of Sierra Leone’s parliament. The event garnered national and international attention for the extraordinary work being undertaken by the entire community. Kamboma was in control of its destiny, and could once again be proud of its leadership role in the region.