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The revered reverend
8:47am Wednesday 16th May 2012 in News
A York minister tells GAVIN AITCHISON about his life-saving project in Sierra Leone.
IN a quiet York suburb, thousands of miles from home, the Rev Francis Nabieu is enjoying some peace and quiet.
He is in the second year of a five-year secondment to Clifton Moor Church and enjoying the calm after a terrible storm.
Back home, in Sierra Leone, Mr Nabieu, 54, is revered for his loyalty and courage. When civil war erupted in 1991 others fled, but he flew into the warzone and stood by his people.
He lost friends and family in the conflict, his own father dying in a refugee camp in Guinea, and he was placed on a rebels’ arrest list.
But he remained in the country and then, when the war was over, helped to set up a life-saving project that is bringing fresh hope to devastated communities.
All over Britain this week, Christian Aid campaigners are raising funds for the Bonthe Food Security Project, which is funding long-lasting improvements for farmers and fishermen in the remote, rural south of Sierra Leone. Few will know that one of the architects of the project is right here in York.
As president of the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone (MCSL), Mr Nabieu felt compelled to do more to secure a better future for the country’s poorest people – not by throwing money at poverty, but by giving communities the tools they needed to help themselves.
He said: “We had been running a number of projects with Christian Aid and we thought we should identify a particular deprived community.
“Also, the European Union put out a tender and we applied and won funding.
“Bonthe was one of the most deprived areas even before the war. Then when the war came, it became more deprived.”
International farming and fishing companies pulled out during the conflict, and the rebels set up a base in Gbap village. Locals fled and when they returned, their homes, school and lives had been ruined.
“Bonthe was really devastated,” said Rev Nabieu, who himself comes from Bunumbu in the east.
“But now, there is a lot of change from five or six years ago. The food security project is not just giving money to people; it is giving the skills and the tools for life. I would say to people here that the money you give to Christian Aid is giving a skill, and putting a smile on the face of a child who never thought they would go to school.”
The food security project, the focus of Christian Aid week, works with rural villages to set up farming and fishing cooperatives. It has paid for agricultural centres to increase harvests and process the crops more efficiently, and for better boats, nets and life-jackets for fishermen, so they can venture into the more abundant deep waters.
Mr Nabieu was in Ireland when the war broke out, but having been placed there by the MCSL, he felt compelled to return.
“Leaving would be running away,” he said.
“You still had thousands and thousands of people there – you could not run away because they looked to you.”
There was little reason for the war, he said, other than greed and corruption, but the conflict lasted for 11 years. Families across the land lost loved ones, school buildings were destroyed and many women and children were left widowed or fatherless. “We have paid a high price for our peace, and that is forgiveness – allowing yourself to live with the same people who set fire to your house, or raped that woman or girl,” said Mr Nabieu.
“We said, let us try to live in peace and to do that we need to forgive – not forget, but forgive.”
Local courses on conflict resolution and peace helped lay the foundations and an inter-religious council helped to nurture peace, but it was not easy.
“We are rebuilding, but it is difficult to rebuild people’s lives when they have been shattered,” he said.
“We still need help from governments outside Sierra Leone, but we need them to not just give money.
There is hope of a new Sierra Leone if we keep building and maintaining democratic structures. What the international community needs to do is to watch that we build those.”
Having seen the war out and served 11 years as president of the MCSL, Mr Nabieu moved to pastures new, to give his successors space to work. He was placed in York, as minister for the church at Clifton Moor and New Earswick, and says he is enjoying the relative tranquillity.
“I enjoy it, he said.
“It is not the same as I have been doing. This is different and a bit quieter.”
• THE Reverend Nabieu is not the only link between York and Sierra Leone.
Last autumn, Christian Aid co-ordinator Steph Cooper, from Haxby, went to the Bonthe district with a number of the charity’s interns, including 22-year-old Jess Durham, a former Manor CE School pupil.
Later in the year, Eustace Mensah, a Christian Aid programme manager in Sierra Leone, spent ten days in York, working with various churches and speaking in York Minster, as part of a month-long UK visit.
Also last year, retired Heslington vicar Nancy Eckersley and her husband John walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats, raising thousands of pounds for projects in Sierra Leone.
Miss Durham said the fishing element of the food security project had completely transformed lives.
She said: “With the large boat there is no fear of capsizing and drowning. The boat has also brought the men together as a team. Before they fished for their own household as the dugout boats could only take two people, whereas now they work as a co-operative.”
• To donate to Christian Aid week, visit caweek.org or phone 08080 006006. The first £5 million raised in Christian Aid week this year will be matched by the Government.