A Story of Progress

A Story of Progress

Publication info

Posted
10/3/13

The picturesque farming village of Koromasilaia, Sierra Leone, is surrounded by trees and farmland. The sounds of rural life fill the air: small children squealing over a soccer ball, the laughter of their older siblings floating from the schoolhouse windows, a chorus of birds chirping, the metallic echo of a hand-operated pump as a woman draws water from a well.

Looming over Koromasilaia like a fortress is a granite mountain, Balandugu, its broad summit pock-marked with small caves.

Fasineh Kabba climbs Balandugu with his family to celebrate each New Year. Fourteen years ago, however, he climbed it for a very different reason.

When war arrived in Koromasilaia in 1999, Fasineh, his wife Amina and their 3-year-old son Amara abandoned their home, and the fields that were their only source of sustenance, and fled to Balandugu.

“We deserted the village and hid in the caves,” Fasineh says. Separated from their farm they survived by foraging wild bananas and yams. After the fighters left the following year, Fasineh and his family returned to what remained of Koromasilaia.

“Almost the entire village was burned down,” Fasineh says, including his home. His fields were untended and overgrown.

Like most people in this remote area, Fasineh and his family had no source of food or income except what they could grow.

The villagers re-cultivated their fields using traditional slash-and-burn techniques. Fasineh brought his farm back to life, but as his family grew, his production hit a ceiling. He could not produce enough to eat or sell.

Like many of their neighbors — and farming families across the rural, developing world — Fasineh’s family endured a hungry season.

In this part of Sierra Leone the hungry season comes in August and September, the two months before rice is traditionally harvested. In nearby Kamasokola, Yanka Sesay grimaces when she describes the toll the hungry season took on her five children. “We’d be down to one meal a day, just a little rice in the morning,” she said. “At night my children would get so hungry they would sit in the corner and cry until their bodies got hot.”

For adults malnutrition means weakness, illness and a reduced ability to work. Chronic hunger causes a spike in infant, child and maternal mortality. Children who survive hunger often suffer setbacks in physical and cognitive development. Women and girls are often hardest hit during a hungry season. They are usually responsible for assuring their families have enough to eat and are often the last to eat when food supplies have dwindled.

One of hunger’s cruelest tricks is that it reinforces and replicates itself. Yanka says that when forced to choose between school for her children and food, she chose food. In that circumstance there is no good choice.

Children who aren’t in school are more likely to stay in poverty and not have enough to eat later in life. After spending all her meager resources on food, Yanka says she couldn’t even pay to vaccinate her children, leaving them vulnerable to debilitating diseases.

Another way hunger perpetuates itself is through the impersonal forces of the marketplace. Fasineh explains that the farmers of Koromasilaia would get money to buy food during the hungry season by selling shares of their upcoming rice harvest to merchants in nearby towns — a short-term fix with major long-term consequences. With so many hungry families willing to sell futures for cash, merchants could pay rock-bottom prices. By selling their rice before it was harvested, farmers increased the likelihood they would run out of food even sooner the following year.

For families affected by conflict or natural disaster, emergency food aid can save lives in the short term. But CARE was determined to help Fasineh, Yanka, their families and their neighbors overcome the underlying causes of their hungry season. Instead of offering food, in 2009 CARE began working in Koromasilaia, Kamasokola and dozens of nearby farming communities to bring about a new era of food security.

With support from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, CARE’s local effort began with field schools to teach sustainable conservation agriculture techniques — like clearing brush by hand instead of relying on fire. Farmers learned to preserve the soil’s nutrient balance by rotating crops and diversifying the foods grown to include yams, cassava, beans and corn.

Crop diversification benefits the health not just of farms but also of people. In the nearby village of Dogolaya, Saffiatou Jallou, a mother of five, is part of a group of mothers and expectant mothers who gather weekly to learn about proper nutrition for pregnant and nursing mothers and small children. Led by a nurse, group members don’t simply talk about healthy food — they grow beans, eggplant, okra and potatoes in a large garden and practice cooking techniques, such as steaming vegetables, that preserve nutrients.

“When I was pregnant with my first four children, I had severe headaches and anemia,” says Jallou. “Because of the CARE mothers’ group, I knew what to eat when I had my youngest son. I was very healthy and didn’t get headaches or anemia.

Another key innovation CARE brought to the region was improved rice seeds that grow in less than 3 months instead of 5. They allow local farmers to get two harvests during the area’s 6-month growing season.

“It was difficult to accept the new techniques,” explains Fasineh. “We spent our lives doing it the traditional way.” Fasineh says CARE took the time to teach his community using demonstration farm plots. This allowed everyone to compare the new methods to the old ones over an entire growing season.

“The following year we all switched to the new techniques,” says Fasineh. By growing two rice crops a year, he has doubled his output. And he credits crop rotation and an end to slash-and-burn practices with doubling his production of protein-rich cowpeas.

In Kamasokola, Yanka says the sustainable agriculture techniques have transformed her and her neighbors’ lives. By improving their yields, they have eliminated their hungry season. Yanka introduces her chubby infant son as proof of how well nourished her family is now.

Improving crop yields is only one of CARE’s achievements in Sierra Leone. Now that people are free from the fear of starvation, they can plan for their futures. Along with the field schools CARE helped farmers create Village Savings and Loan Associations. These community-managed groups allow farmers to save money to buy more seeds, tools and farm animals. Yanka uses the money she’s saving for her children’s education.

Last year, for the first time, she could afford to send her 13-year-old son to school. Just as hunger can trigger a vicious cycle, having enough to eat can start a virtuous one.

In Koromasilaia, Fasineh and his neighbors have begun pitching in to send as many local kids to school as they can afford — boys and girls alike. With anguished memories of how violence cut short his own education, Fasineh is determined that his children complete school. And he says that, in the years since the civil war, CARE and partner agencies have helped revolutionize local attitudes about educating girls.

“Before the war only boys were sent to school,” says Fasineh. But now people understand that denying opportunities to girls benefits no one.

When a girl is educated, she can help herself.

He wants his two girls, Fatima, 9, and Hawa, 6, to get an education — not just because of what they might do for their families but first and foremost for their personal well-being.

“I don’t want my girls locked in a house,” he says. “I don’t want them to be dependent on a man.”

Fasineh Kabba, 39 is a farmer in Koromasilaia village near Kabala, Sierra Leone.

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