Swords into ploughshares

Jonathan reports from Sierra Leone where he finds much hope in place ravaged by recent war

For a good number of us, an important part of living at Findhorn is leaving it from time to time in order to make some money. This is more or less inevitable for a community with a population of around 450 people living in one of poorest parts of Great Britain.

We have been able to do a lot in terms of strengthening our local economy – a study undertaken a few years ago by our local enterprise company estimated our contribution to the economy of the north of Scotland as being over 400 jobs and around £5m per annum.

Still, as long as we have a global economy distorted so as to make it more profitable to cut down forests than nurture them back to life, we will be obliged to look outside for some of our income. Not that I am complaining. Self-reliance in its more purist form is greatly overrated and all healthy systems need flows of information and exchanges with their surrounding areas. Plus, it is fun to get out of the hothouse that is intentional community once in a while.

This is especially true if, as in my case, such trips take you to truly interesting and inspiring places. So it is that I find myself in the second city of Sierra Leone, Bo, doing an evaluation of a Comic Relief-funded project being implemented by MAPCO (Movement for the Assistance and Promotion of Rural Communities) with support from its British-based partner, APT – Enterprise for Development.

The words ‘Sierra Leone’ and ‘war-torn’ have become more or less inseparable in recent years. The country was engulfed in an atrocious civil war for the duration of the 1990s, fuelled by puppet-masters outside the country competing for access to its huge diamond reserves.

In some areas, between 70 and 90 per cent of the buildings are reported to have been destroyed, and there is plentiful evidence of this in the villages that the evaluation team moves through.

Times of hardship bring people together in most wonderful ways. (I find this insight most cheering when considering the kinds of changes in lifestyle that the coming energy famine will impose on us all in the near future.) Here in Sierra Leone, something akin to the ‘blitz spirit’ prevails.

This is best reflected in a resurgence in cooperative, community-wide initiatives.
Much farming is now done cooperatively, as the villagers realise they need large teams working together to re-claim land that has been lost to wilderness over the lost decade of the war.

Great work teams are also engaged in re-building the community infrastructure.

One of our meetings is curtailed when someone arrives from a neighbouring village to say that they need help laying the floor of their new mosque. All hands are needed – even pregnant women and those with young children – and within minutes, the village is empty.

Revolving savings funds generated by the villagers themselves are allocated among the members to help pay for hospital bills, funerals and school fees. Tools and equipment are shared between all.

There is an air of happiness in the communities we spend time in – that great vibrant sense of well-being that will be familiar to all who have spent time on this astonishing continent.

Until recently, hunger was daily reality and the terror of war only recently passed. So many child soldiers. So many young women with children resulting from rape. So many that have lost limbs or parts of limbs in the gruesome conflict. So many stories of people fleeing their homes in the dead of night for the safety of the forests as the word passes through that the rebels are coming.

Now, all that is ended and the process of reconstruction, supported by organisations like MAPCO, is in full swing. MAPCO’s team of workers is as devoted to their work and to the communities they are serving as any that I have seen in 25 years working in Africa. The extension workers are often away from their families three weeks out of four, out in the villages teaching new farming techniques or how to operate the new soap-making equipment, weaving looms and other small enterprise technology that MAPCO’s engineers have designed and built.

Just in front of MAPCO headquarters in Bo, there are the half-dismembered carcasses of what was a fleet of armoured personnel carriers operated by the UN Peacekeeping force. Over time, this is being cut up and converted into agricultural implements, village-level food-processing equipment and tools for local enterprise. Swords into Ploughshares indeed.