**For background information on the Shelter, read Jonah’s entry “Makripodis Secondary School and Fountain of Mercy Shelter.
As is the case in many poor countries, people in Sierra Leone are very much geared towards the here and now. The majority of Sierra Leoneans live in constant survival mode, where basic living necessities such as food, water, and shelter are often hard to come by. Therefore, their thoughts and actions are directed towards satisfying immediate wants and needs, tending only to what seems absolutely essential. Society in general therefore, mirrors this mentality and it is evident everywhere you look. Houses continue to be built on hills they know will slide come the rainy season, gas tanks are filled to the amount that will just barely get them to their destination, a visit to the hospital is only obligatory once the fever has reached the point of no return, electrical poles continue to be destroyed for scrap metal even though they know it will bring them electricity if they are left standing, domestic servitude or child labor is often favored over the education of girls, corrupt bureaucrats continue to pocket foreign aid at the expense of the people they were elected to represent, and on and on. The most frustrating part of all of this for me is that I can understand (minus the bureaucrats) the motivation for this self-destructive behavior – you do what you can to survive even if the consequences are toxic. And so, the cycle continues.
One of the more observable aspects of this culture of immediacy is the way in which people handle their money. The vast majority of Sierra Leoneans lack any experience with formal banking services or practices, and there is little in the way of proper financial management training in their primary or secondary education. Often when people have the money, they choose luxury items over practicalities, omitting the option all together of accumulating savings for future investments or emergencies. The importance of savings renders useless when you’re constantly thinking about today – buy what you can now because you probably won’t have the money tomorrow – often the rationale behind such impulsive decision making. Therefore, (more often than not) Sierra Leoneans find themselves unprepared when lightning strikes – turning what needn’t be catastrophic ordeals turn into catastrophic ordeals. The complete void of financial planning and anticipation of such events makes dealing with them extremely difficult. This is noticeable on an individual level as well as the societal level; it is evident in family households as well as government institutions, resulting in a debt ridden, uneducated and ailing society.
Since its founding in 2007, the Fountain of Mercy Shelter Home has been operating off of 200,000 Leones per month – a little over $50. $50 is supposed to feed 28 adolescent boys and girls for an entire month. Sometimes that means there is one meal a day, sometimes that means there is one meal every 2 or 3 days. When a student is sick, Reverend Spencer puts his faith in the power of prayer to heal the child because $50 is not enough to feed 28 kids for a month and pay for hospital and transportation fees. A proper house for the girls to live in (currently 9 girls live in one 7×10 ft. room) remains a distant dream because $50 doesn’t leave any money at the end of the month for non-essentials. This is truly survival mode.
When Jonah and I first started discussing ways to help the shelter home, we knew that we had to do something that would completely change the way the shelter operates. Given the transient and unreliable nature of donors (good-natured as they may be), they should not be considered a solution to the shelter’s problems. If we put all of our faith in donors, what happens when the money runs out and the donations stop coming – where does this leave them? Complete reliance on donors only perpetuates the culture of dependency which has permeated throughout Sierra Leonean society (a blog for another day). This is not to say that donations aren’t necessary, because they are, vital in fact, but depending on them for long-term financing is a recipe for disaster. For the shelter, we knew we had to help them become self-sustaining so that money could be generated from within, and donations could be seen as a supplement to their own income – the shelter needed a profitable enterprise.
Our goal for the shelter is twofold – the first being tangible and the second an ideal. Goal #1 is to provide two meals a day, every day for the shelter kids. The second is to work with the students and staff members to refocus their perspective from survival mode to a more future-oriented mentality; this would encourage savings, goal setting and a strengthened work ethic. In order to help them find confidence in the future, however, today’s needs must first be met. We worked on a plan that would alleviate both short and long term struggles. Our solution was to start an agriculture project run by the students and staff of the shelter home, whereby the food grown would supplement the student’s diet and the surplus would be sold in the nearby markets to accumulate savings for future investments and emergencies.
An agricultural business seemed appropriate for a number of reasons: first, the shelter is located in an area with vast, fertile land, perfectly suitable for a number of different local crops. The Village Chief of a neighboring community offered to donate us 10 acres of land on which to start our project (truly a blessing from above). Not only is the land endowed with good soil, a river borders the site which will provide year-long supply of fresh water to the farm. Second, the Sierra Leonean government has made domestic agricultural production a staple of their overall development strategy, endorsing both small and large scale farming to reduce the country’s dependence on imported food. This has resulted in fewer restrictions on land use for agricultural purpose and increased support for community agricultural development. Third, agriculture as an academic study is compulsory in secondary education due to the significance of farming in Sierra Leonean culture; 2/3 of the labor force is engaged in agriculture, 90% of which are women. Both business and agricultural skills would be learned in a practical environment with the advent of an agriculture project at the shelter, an invaluable asset to students who have a limited opportunity to advance to university. Competence in agriculture at an early stage could help the shelter student’s transition to a promising career in commercial farming. Lastly, farming takes time, nurturing, and perseverance. There are factors completely out of human control which can lead to unpredictable outcomes. However, with patience and hard work, the rewards are plentiful. I was reminded of this reading through Proverbs a few days ago. Proverbs 13:11 says, “Wealth from get rich quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard-work grows.” In addition to practical skills gained, the shelter students will experience personal growth and pride in ownership and responsibility; something that they can carry with them throughout their lives.
After a few months of planning, fundraising and preparation, our ideas have finally become a reality. The agriculture project and business plan was conceived and designed together with Reverend Spencer and a few of the teachers at the school. After months of working with lawyers to navigate the convoluted government ministry procedures and formalities (i.e. bribe under the guise of an “expediting fee”), we were able to officially secure the donation of the full 10 acres of land through the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Department. For the first year, we are going to clear and plant on three acres of land, which gives us plenty additional acreage to expand when we’re ready for it. Our main crops are pepper, cassava, potato, groundnuts, cucumber, okra, and eggplant. We have hired a farm manager, Pa Fatorma, and one additional full time laborer, Abdul Smith. The shelter students work on the weekends and have been given personal plots to manage (growing a crop of their choice) which will be integrated into their agriculture curriculum at school. Just last week, we were able to purchase a motorcycle for transportation to and from the farm site. A savings account has been opened for the Shelter with close to $100 to get them started. Reverend Spencer and the students are incredibly proud of their project, and for the first time, hopeful that the future is bright.
More updates and pictures of progress at the Fountain of Mercy Agriculture Project coming…
If you would like to donate to the agriculture project or anything else at the shelter home, please click here. We are grateful for any donations!