(Written just after I returned from my first trip to Sierra Leone in early 2010)
Sierra Leone is made up of two parts. Freetown (the capital city) and everything else. Otherwise known as the city and the provinces. We spent the majority of our time in a village about a 6 hour drive from the city. I’d like to acquaint you with life in the provinces.
They have no electricity. Let that sink in. That means no lights, no A/C (it was 98 degrees in the shade when we were there), no refrigerator, freezer, stove, microwave, dishwasher, washing machine or dryer. And of course that means no TV, video games or computers.
They have no running water. You know what that means. No toilets, sinks or showers. Enough said.
They (the majority) don’t have vehicles. That means they walk. A lot! Everyone walks everywhere. There is very little auto traffic on the red dirt roads but I’ve never seen so many people walking the roads, as I did there. They do have taxis available which are small motorcycles. So if you have a long distance to go and can afford it, that’s the way to go.
But without a car, how do you carry things? On your head, of course. We saw little children carrying large trays of various foods for sale on their heads. Some had bananas, some had peanuts. This woman even had several dozen eggs balanced on her head!
And what about laundry? You wash that in the stagnant pond. How do you get those wet clothes back home to hang them out to dry? The same way you got them there. Load them back into that hamper and place it on your head. It was really amazing to see all the things they can carry that way. I kid you not, as we were leaving Freetown on the ferry, we saw a man carrying a fridge (those are available in the city) on his head! I will admit, he was also using his hands for balance though. Ha! I am confident that the people of Sierra Leone have the best posture in the world.
Now it’s not just the adults who walk everywhere. Many children walk miles each day just to get to school. Oh, and did I mention, they have no public education? No, if you want to go to school, you must pay school fees. If your parents can’t pay the fees, you don’t go for that semester. You may have to get a job selling soda at a road-side stand until you’ve made enough to pay your fees.
I realize I’m describing a very different way of life than what we experience here in the western world. And I’m not saying it’s all bad. There is absolutely something to be said for simplicity. If the opposite lifestyles ended there, I wouldn’t have left my husband and four kids to travel to Africa and see these things for myself. Granted, the things I’ve described can cause hardship, but they are manageable things and the people there do manage. They have families that they love and find joy in funny antics of children. They sing and dance with great enthusiasm. They have hard work that gives a sense of accomplishment when completed. They have bright children who excel in school and earn scholarships to continue their education abroad. They have the joy of new life when a baby is born.
But amidst all these normal human emotions they have something as a population that we don’t have. They have an intimate understanding of the pain of death. The infant death rate, an indicator of a country’s overall health, is staggering. Over 80 infants in every 1000 births will not reach their first birthday. Compare that to the U.S. where the rate is 6 of every 1000. The life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 55. That makes a 27-year-old middle-aged!
Daily, we hear the word “crisis” applied to a wide variety of issues in the evening news. Most of these issues don’t deserve the designation. But the poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water in Sierra Leone is truly a crisis. Health care is costly and not readily available. But if more people had access to clean water, the need for health care would not be as great.
I asked several children what happens when their hand dug well dries up and they have to drink from the stream. “It makes our stomach jump!” they told me. This is how they describe the diarrhea that comes from ingesting the contaminated water. According to the World Health Organization, diarrheal disease accounts for an estimated 4.1% of the total DALY global burden of disease and is responsible for the deaths of 1.8 million people every year. It’s estimated that 88% of that burden is attributable to unsafe water supply, sanitation and hygiene, and is mostly concentrated in children in developing countries.
Drinking water is not a luxury. It is a necessity. We can live longer without food than we can without water. We have clean water available right in our sinks and yet most of us still buy purified or spring water at the store. Imagine if all you had to give your children to drink was toilet water. Would you do it? Remember, it’s either let them drink that and possibly die from the diseases caused by the contaminants or refuse to let them drink the dirty water and know that they will die within days from dehydration. What kind of choice is that? It’s ridiculous to us. But it is exactly the kind of choice they make daily. Dehydration death is guaranteed. Contamination death is a gamble. They take the gamble but they don’t have to. This is something we can fix.
With the work of LetThemLOL, Global Outreach Mission and their partners (who provided a drill rig to be used in Sierra Leone) hope is rising and change is coming. Within a few short months using a crazy laughing ring-tone and merchandise sales, LetThemLOL raised the funds needed to provide a fresh water well and sanitation training in Moribatown, Sierra Leone. Over 1000 people now have access to clean water in this town. This is not a theory on paper or an idea of what might be possible in a few years. I saw it happen in five days.
When we arrived, the hand dug well near the elementary school was close to being dried up. Once it dries, they have a few months of being forced to walk long distances to the nearest stream to gather contaminated water for drinking. But when we left a week later, there was a beautiful well pumping fresh clean water into the hands of excited school children who had never seen such easy access to healthy, life-giving water.
And this is just the beginning. 1000 people have clean water. Many more still do not. Get involved. Tell a friend, make a donation, buy a ring-tone. Whatever you can do will make a difference.
Thanks for taking time to read my thoughts on my trip to Africa.