One Year of Growing Family Prosperity & a Growing Relationship with Grace Hands

(Pictured above: My colleague John Eikelboom with Grace Hands students)

In October, I was able to spend a weekend with Karim visiting two projects that COFA supports and meeting the wonderful people who make them happen. I’d been working on health projects the previous week in Bo, and was headed home right afterward.

We met up with Karim at Grace Hands Primary School in the town of Mile 91 (91 miles from the capital, Freetown), about halfway between Bo and Karim’s base in Lunsar. The whole school greeted us, even though it was Saturday (October 14). Three of my colleagues from Bo had come along, including John from Canada (also on his way home), Anteneh from Ethiopia, and Ahmed from Sudan and Canada. You can’t feel more welcome than when 200 children are singing, laughing, and running around you.

 

Grace Hands Primary School

The primary school is just part of Grace Hands Orphans Ministries, the work of Pastor Francis Lamin and his wife, Marion. The school building was going to be their new house, but they saw how badly a school was needed, and so it’s a school. It’s been one of the schools supported by COFA (and the pre-COFA GoFundMe campaign) during the August “Nourishing Young Minds and Bodies” programs for the last 4 years. In 2022, COFA provided funds to build a toilet building, with four separate rooms. The school is bursting at the seams with students—with more attracted each year—and the Lamins have planned an additional building and are searching for funds. Karim and his Vision 8 charity is the conduit for COFA’s contributions, and the school community expressed profound thanks to all of us before everyone settled down to lunch prepared by the school cooks. Many of the students at Grace Hands are orphans and others are just poor local kids.  No one pays to attend. The community also has its share of widows—like every Sierra Leonean town I’ve been to—who lost husbands to Ebola, general poor health, and accidents. The Grace Hands widows had a special message for us—they need a leg up so they can start businesses, grow food, and do other things to support their families (more on that below).

The Grace Hands Widows

The Grace Hands Widows

 

Growing Family Prosperity

COFA’s biggest investment, started a year ago, is “Growing Family Prosperity,” aka “the agric project,” which has supported 30 families with more than 300 extended family members, in 6 rural communities. We drove many miles over rutted dirt roads to get to Gbomlimba, one of the villages, where we were greeted in customary Sierra Leonean fashion, with a song. Mohamed Sesay, an agriculturist and the project manager, introduced us. Two of the full-time extension workers were also there.

Warm greeting at Gbomlimba

Warm greeting at Gbomlimba

 

We met all five families just when they’d completed a full year of financial and technical support—our first graduating class! Each family was ready for the coming year without further financial support. We got to see and hear how that came about and were impressed and inspired.

Gbomlimba farmers, my colleagues, and me

Gbomlimba farmers, my colleagues, and me

 

Walking to the groundnut fields (far enough away that the goats won’t go there!)

Walking to the groundnut fields (far enough away that the goats won’t go there!)

There’s too much detail to include here, but a few points from the baseline assessment in 2022—where they were found to be among the poorest in the village with some land that could be farmed—will give an idea of their lives before the agric project.  All five families live in mud brick houses. One has a cement floor and the others have earth floors. All have pit toilets and get their water from a hand pump or stream.  Two families have beds, one a chair, two have cell phones. They had very little farm equipment—a machete, a hoe, and a knife. One family had two chickens and the rest had no animals. They grew a few crops, but all had to borrow money to buy seeds. Three families had incomes of less than 100 Leones per month—less than $5. Two earned 150-250 Leones per month—up to $13. All but one family was in debt at the time, mainly borrowing money to buy food and some to send children to school.

Over the course of the year, the families were provided with farm tools, watering cans, seeds, fertilizer, two chickens and two goats (and help building animal enclosures), and continual training and technical assistance.

Gbomlimba rice fields

Gbomlimba rice fields

 

Mohamed Sesay showing us a sample of the seeds saved for next season (Karim at right)

Mohamed Sesay showing us a sample of the seeds saved for next season (Karim at right)

They grew sequential crops of rice, maize, groundnuts (peanuts), cassava, hot peppers, cucumbers, okra, krain-krain (see my earlier blogpost), and sweet potatoes. All year long, there was produce to eat and to sell, as well as seeds that were saved to plant the coming year’s crops. And seeds even more precious were sown: many more children started going to school as parents were able to pay the fees. The families in Gbomlimba and the other villages are already planting their next rice crops, and Mohamed and the agric project staff are interviewing and assessing families in 4 new villages plus the widows of Mile 91 Grace Hands. In all, 25 new families will start the program with the same inputs as last year, but with some changes. Instead of chemical fertilizer, Mohamed has started a composting center in each village, with the aim of using only organic fertilizer—better for the environment and less expensive. While the 2022-3 graduates won’t be getting seeds or other commodities, the staff will continue to monitor their progress and provide advice as needed, with regular visits to each village. They have also established farmer organizations to foster solidarity among the beneficiaries, to set goals, and for mutual assistance.

COFA the goat! (OK—I made this up, but everything else is true)

COFA the goat! (OK—I made this up, but everything else is true)

 

The people we met, both at Mile 91 and Gbomlimba, were incredibly grateful for COFA’s support. I’ve never been comfortable being thanked, and especially in this case, it’s clear that they’re the ones doing all the hard work. Karim, the Lamins, Mohamed and the extension workers—they’re the ones with the ideas of how to help their communities.  I try to give feedback and inject a few ideas, but mainly I feel privileged that COFA has made these few things possible.

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