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Fighting starvation on ‘zero zero point-five’ diet
8:46am Friday 11th May 2012 in Features
The red envelopes of Christian Aid week will soon be dropping through Britain’s letter-boxes. But where does the money go? News editor GAVIN AITCHISON reports from Sierra Leone.
WE CAN hear the women before we can see them. Their anguished song ripples through the trees and stops us in our tracks. They cross the path a few yards in front of us and we see the object of their heartache – a small makeshift coffin and, in it, the body of a baby boy.
We stopped in the village of Baoma-Kpawila for a good news story; to see a new grain store intended to help sustain the villagers through the winter. Instead, we find ourselves reluctant and conspicuous witnesses at a funeral procession.
Iddrisa Mbayoh was eight-months old, we later learn. He had been ill for some time, becoming emaciated and pot-bellied; tell-tale signs of severe malnutrition. His death sparked intense grief in the village, but more startling to this outsider was the air of resignation. There is not enough food, malnutrition is rife and babies die. That’s the way it is here.
“It is not uncommon in this village,” our local guide confirms, once we are back on the road. “Nor in the surrounding villages.”
Nor, he might have added, in much of the country. The child mortality rate in Sierra Leone is second only to Afghanistan’s. One in ten children dies before their first birthday, and here in the Bonthe District in the rural south, life is especially tough.
Christian Aid staff talk of families here living on a “zero zero point-five” diet: no breakfast, no lunch, and only half a meal at night. Severe hunger is the norm for many and the very word “break-fast” takes on a whole new meaning for those to whom it is denied.
The 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone ended a decade ago, but although the country is doing its best to get back on its feet, progress is slow. There is a population of 5.7 million, but vast swathes of society remain crippled by poverty and a scandalous poverty at that: one that simply need not exist.
The country is blessed with natural resources – diamonds, gold, minerals and enormous tracts of arable farmland. Wherever you go you see tropical fruits: watermelon, banana, papaya, pineapple and almost inconceivable numbers of mangoes. But the lack of investment and infrastructure are astonishing. Sanitation is poor and only half the population has access to clean drinking water. It might look like paradise, but it’s not.
In fact, life is so harsh for so many, that Christian Aid has this year made Sierra Leone the focus of its fundraising week.
The aim is not to give the poor enough to tide them over for a few weeks at a time, officials stress. It’s about giving them the tools to make their life better for ever. The demand is immense but the successes already achieved give grounds for real hope.
The Methodist Church of Sierra Leone (MCSL), largely funded by Christian Aid, has launched the Bonthe Food Security Project, setting up close-knit groups focussing on food production, water sanitation, fisheries and community development. Many of the ideas seem elementary, but they have brought communities together and the results have been stunning – as people like Mary Samuels testify.
Three years ago, Mary was struggling to survive in the remote village of Gbap (pronounced bap). She was feeding herself, her husband and five children on five cups of rice a day between them, and she never ate in the morning.
Then, project officials selected representatives from 25 of the village’s most impoverished households to join a cooperative, farming together instead of alone and sharing resources and rewards. For the first time, they made a surplus to sell at market.
“Because of the increased production, we have increased what we can eat,” says Mary. “We now eat ten cups of rice a day, we have enough to eat in the morning and all my children are going to school. That would not have been possible without this project.”
A few miles away in Baoma Kpenge, an agricultural business centre has improved efficiency, enabling farmers to get more from their crops of rice, ground-nut or cassava, a starchy root that is a staple part of the diet here.
By peeling, washing, grating, draining and finally frying the root, it can be turned from a moist vegetable that quickly rots into a fine flour called gari, a useful base for countless dishes and a foodstuff that can be stored for months.
Until recently, villagers would work individually and manually, using a grater fashioned out of a metal plate with holes punched through it.
Then, the MCSL bought a grating machine, enabling villagers to do the same work in a fraction of the time, preventing crops from needlessly going to waste. A rice hulling machine and industrial nut-cracker have also proved beneficial, and a tractor has enabled the group to take their wares to market to sell.
At the moment, the Food Security Project works with 64 villages, and over and over again it is helping local populations to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. But for every village where the projects are making a difference, there are numerous others that could benefit were the start-up money available.
Back in Gbap, at the health clinic, local doctors see one malnourished child every ten to 15 days, a lower rate than several years ago but still a grave concern. While we are there, a little girl called Aminata is brought in to be weighed, found to be considerably lighter than she should be, and put on to a life-saving nutrition supplement.
Just like Iddrisa a couple of days earlier, Aminata is eight months old and has had a tough start in life. She looks to have been spared the same fate, but for countless other children, there are no guarantees. Through Christian Aid’s work and its supporters’ generosity, great progress has been made but there is a long way yet to go in a country where surviving to adulthood remains a notable achievement.
FARMER Gaiyeh Sellu was widowed four years ago and has six children aged four to 12, so she knows how tough life can be.
She grows rice, palm kernels and cassava, but struggled for years to make ends meet. Every part of her work was done by hand, so the labour was intensive, the yield small, and life as a whole draining.
“It was difficult for me to have sufficient food to give the children,” she says, matter-of-factly.
The Agricultural Business Centre in Baoma Kpenge has turned her life around though. She comes here two or three times a week, working with other women, using the centre’s machinery to speed up the job, and reaping the rewards.
“The centre has been very beneficial to me,” she says. “I bring produce here for processing. Before this time, we did not have such facilities.”
Gaiyeh also uses the centre’s tractor to take her crops to and from her farm, and enjoys a mutually beneficial system that allows farmers to pay for services with some of their surplus crops instead of cash.
“Before, it was difficult for me to have sufficient food to give the children,” she says. “Now, my children are going to school and I can buy books and pay their medical fees.”
CHARITY fundraisers are holding a raft of events across the region for Christian Aid week, which runs next week.
Events begin this Saturday, May 12, and include:
• Saturday, 10am: coffee morning at Hambleton Methodist Chapel
• Saturday, 10.30am: coffee morning at St Catherine’s Church, Barmby Moor
• Saturday, 11am to 5pm: Marathon Spinathon at Roko Gym, Clifton Moor. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 0113 244 4764
• Sunday, sponsored walk in Scarborough. Contact email@example.com
• Monday to Friday: Christian Aid staff and supporters will cycle from Morecambe to Bridlington, attending fundraisers and helping collectors. To help, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 0113 244 4764
• Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm: cake stall in Boyes department store, Scarborough. Contact email@example.com
• Wednesday, 11.30am to 1.30pm: Fundraising lunch in Green Hammerton Village Hall. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
• Wednesday, 7.30pm: Curry and quiz at The Parvin Restaurant, Haxby. £15 per person. Contact email@example.com or 0113 244 4764
• Friday, 8.30pm to late: acoustic music event at The Bay Horse, Stamford Bridge. Line up available from blueskiesam.co.uk
• Saturday May 19, 9.30am to noon: coffee morning at Stamford Bridge Methodist Church Hall
Are you organising a fundraiser for Christian Aid week? email firstname.lastname@example.org
What the money buys
• £1 could pay for a rice and gari transporting kit: nylon bags, needle and thread to sew these up, cartridges for labelling.
• £4.17 could pay for a bushel of rice or ground nut seeds.
• £5.35 would pay for a set of tools made up of a shovel, spade, pickaxe and watering can.
• £6.50 pays for one set of four tools made up of large and small hoes and a large and small farming knife.
• £180 can pay for a cassava-grating machine.
• £2,252 could buy a business centre’s palm nut cracker.
• £3,686 pays for a business centre’s power tiller.
• £4,505 could buy a palm oil processing press.
• £7,170 pays for a rice milling machine.
• £2,430 could pay for a fishing boat.
• £3,063 pays for an engine for a fishing boat.
• £31,958 would pay for an agricultural work centre, fully equipped with a rice milling machine, palm oil press, palm kernel cracker, cassava-grating machine and drying floor for rice.
HOW TO DONATE: To donate to Christian Aid week, phone 08080 006 006 or visit http://www.caweek.org/
•Gavin Aitchison visited Sierra Leone on a media trip organised by Christian Aid.