Mohamed Maada Kabia at work in the fields of Katik Village, Sierra Leone. He is chairman of the village’s Blind Farmers’ Association. Photo: WIA
By David Tereshchuk*
In Sierra Leone, a West African country that is recovering from both civil war and the Ebola epidemic, it is vital to support communities who are now developing self-reliance in food production and working to improve their members’ health and well-being.
UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has joined forces with the international ecumenical organization Agricultural Missions Inc.’s West African Initiative (WIA), and in Sierra Leone, it is also partnering with the country’s Council of Churches (CCSL). The program is fostering community leadership that encourages more effective growth and distribution of local crops such as moringa, cassava, and groundnuts, and spreads nutritional awareness by establishing regular hygiene and sanitation practices like the simple but essential habit of washing hands.
In Katik Village in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province, Mohamed Maada Kabia is an experienced farmer, and a remarkable one for continuing to conduct his livelihood in spite of being blind. He is not alone, either.
During their country’s 1991–2002 civil war, control measures to counter river blindness were not maintained, leading to him and many fellow villagers to be infected by the disease carried by black flies.
Though struggling to navigate rural life without sight, Kabia and others like him did not give in to despair. Instead, they came together to form the Katik Village Blind Farmers’ Association, with Kabia as the current chairperson. With the help of a well-developed network of sighted helpers, including family members and youth in the community, association members perform every single farming task from land preparation, weeding, and tending crops, to harvesting and marketing—even if these tasks may take longer than it did before they were blinded.
This association was among the first groups to get involved in the UMCOR-supported program. They received seeds, tools, and leadership training for members of the group and their sighted helpers, as well as financial and technical support. Kabia has also learned to weave mats to supplement his income through sales in the local markets.
“Life has changed and everything has changed for the better,” says Kabia. He lists among the benefits that have come from the program: substantially increased food production, which has also meant a surplus available for sale at the market; products made from Katik’s main crop of moringa (such as oil from the seeds and tea and powder from the leaves); microcredit availability that supports people’s incomes; and knowledge on how to prevent Ebola’s reappearance and the spread of diseases. Perhaps most of all, says Kabia, is the fact that “the training workshops have made us know the essence of unity and togetherness—group work in both farming and business.
Thinking in particular of the nutrition workshop that was held in his village, Kabia recalls, “I learned a lot of things that will help my family. I did not know these things before. I will encourage the men to share the best food with their wives and children.”
UMCOR’s Executive Secretary for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security, Alice Mar, feels the program exemplifies the organization’s desire to both build on the strengths of communities to help them move forward, and to harness the power of collective action in improving lives.
“Those two values come through very clearly here,” Mar says. “These blind farmers had already organized themselves and a support network. The program came alongside them with some additional training and resources and enabled them to further improve their farming and livelihoods while also empowering them and connecting them to the wider community. It is amazing to see how they have become leaders and influencers in the community.”
One of the Association’s members sums up the program by saying, “Because of this program, we have been able to rise again, and life has become meaningful once more.”
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*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to UMCOR.org