May in Sierra Leone
In May I visited Sierra Leone for the first time. I flew into Freetown airport. It was dark when I arrived and I only had to travel 1km to get to my hotel where I ate and slept before waking up and seeing Sierra Leone in the light for the first time and preparing myself to make the 5 hour trip to Kenema.
That morning I was struck by the overwhelming brightness of the sun and the heat radiating from it. Being in the shade is mandatory in Sierra Leone and I knew it was going to be tough working and transporting gear in the heat. We (I travelled with Fred, Peace Child’s Programme Manager) left the airport hotel to meet our driver, Andy, and started on our way to Kenema. I spent the first two hours glued to the window, admiring as whole families flew past sat on one motorbike, and watching as street vendors sold livestock and exotic fruit and veg.
We stopped at a market on our way to Kenema and were immediately surrounded by children selling luscious fruit. The noise was overwhelming, people speaking in Krio and shouting at each other, dogs barking, trucks flying past and music blaring.
As we came closer to Kenema the landscape changed, huge green trees and thick bush lined the road. Significantly, a lot of the women we met who had businesses in this area of Sierra Leone used the climate and lush environment to their advantage and had started farming and selling fruit and vegetables as their business.
Being around people from Sierra Leone for one day it was clear the huge differences in culture. Krio is a difficult language to understand but its use of occasional English allowed me to communicate with the locals much more easily than I had imagined. The locals, by the way, were incredibly welcoming! I received presents of fresh fruit, chopped and prepared, and, stewed fish and goat with a rich spicy sauce on more than one occasion. I was easily won over!
People were curious to ask about me, where I am from, what I was photographing and ‘would I take their picture’. I chatted when it was possible before the language barrier muted the conversation. If it wasn’t possible, a smile and a handshake was the usual way to greet someone.
Be The Change Academy Graduates
The purpose of our visit was to travel to villages and towns surrounding Kenema to visit graduates of the Peace Child classes. Each time we met up with one of the ladies, we were greeted with a smile, it was obvious that they held Peace Child in high regard. Not only for the help that they received during the course, but because since learning how to run a business many of them had increased their profits and in many cases expanded their businesses and found new markets in their areas that were more profitable for them. One woman exulted that she no longer relies on her husband to pay for everything, and often he’ll come to her to ask for money!
Working at dusk and dawn aloud me to take portraits of the woman without having to battle against harsh and contrasted sun light and the midday heat. I tried to take the portraits as accurately as possible to show what the woman do in their business that has made them successful. Sierra Leone is a naturally a colourful and bright place, coupled with the bright fashion and smiling faces it makes for beautiful pictures. In particular shooting a banana farmer under some verdant trees at her village, turned out to be one of my favourite moments on the trip.
During the week I became friendly with the team at Peace Child’s Be The Change Academy, those that run the classes. The highlight of my whole time there was watching each of them taking a class at a village. Each class had approximately 30 people watching. In contrast to the UK, the classes were outside under the shade, the women often had their young children with them, and everyone paid attention and involved themselves with the class. It was clear that the women knew the classes were beneficial and potentially life changing opportunities. The teachers were engaging and the relationship between teacher and student was informal, supportive and friendly.
According to one of the ladies that I chatted to, a lot of parents in Sierra Leone do not ‘invest’ in their daughters and don’t send them to school. When money is tight, they often chose their son instead to go to school as there is a far higher chance of a males being employed and earning money. Often women are illiterate in the poorer communities. Peace Child has adapted and invented creative and easy-to-follow pictorial solutions allowing everyone to learn basic business skills through an illustrative means.
Peace Child have been working in the poorest communities and specifically teaching women. They are actively addressing and rebalancing the problem that it seemed was part of the country’s culture when it came to eduction. So many of the woman have gone on to earn money and become successful due to the brilliant classes run here.
Written by Ben Stevens, Photographer for Peace Child.