Sierra Leone water project: Tribal communities work together to improve health

Hygiene training helps 123,000 in 150 villages

BO, SIERRA LEONE

As we emerged from the canoe on the banks of the Sewa River, singing in the distance told us that this was going to be an extraordinary day. We were in the bush an hour east of Bo, in central Sierra Leone. Hiking up a trail to the small forest village of Lowama, we saw a procession of about 50 villagers coming toward us singing praises to God, thanking Him that their prayers had been answered. It was an unexpected but exceptionally warm welcome to a small contingency from Latter-day Saint Charities who had come to teach villagers about hygiene in preparation for a water well being constructed in their village.

Life in rural Sierra Leone is simple — no electricity, plumbing, or refrigeration. Yet the people are resilient and work together for the common good. In rural villages, obtaining water is the work of women and children as young as seven years of age.
Life in rural Sierra Leone is simple — no electricity, plumbing, or refrigeration. Yet the people are resilient and work together for the common good. In rural villages, obtaining water is the work of women and children as young as seven years of age. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies
Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

In a picturesque setting of mud-walled, thatch-roofed homes and open cooking fires, we listened to rice being pounded for the evening meal and observed beautiful children everywhere as we were escorted to the chief’s home. We visited with the village elders in the shade of an open porch. The chief told us how much he appreciated our efforts to help improve his community. While Bo is the second largest community in Sierra Leone with more than 130,000 people, most people live in rural villages that don’t even appear on a map. Here, people have no paved roads, electricity, or water systems.

Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies
Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

More than 400 families rebuilt Lowama following a lengthy and devastating civil war that ended in 2003. In this community, some women and children make a long trek daily to haul drinking water from a neighboring village. Cooking is done over open fires on hot coals of wood briquettes made by the villagers themselves. Most families keep the coals alive 24 hours a day, as it is easier than restarting them.

Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

We were in Lowama to film the beginnings of a clean water project sponsored by Latter-day Saint Charities. To ensure ownership of a well by the community, each project is started with the formation of a water committee and training in hygiene for families months in advance of the well digging. If a problem arises, the community will have been empowered to find a solution without reverting to getting water the way they had for generations — out of streams with questionable purity.

Children in Lowama, Sierra Leone, follow visiting Church members to the riverbank to bid farewell. Their families look forward to a new well, constructed with the help of LDS Charities, that will soon be operational there.
Children in Lowama, Sierra Leone, follow visiting Church members to the riverbank to bid farewell. Their families look forward to a new well, constructed with the help of LDS Charities, that will soon be operational there. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies
Wells in central Sierra Leone must be dug 9 feet below the low water line to a depth of 30 feet.
Wells in central Sierra Leone must be dug 9 feet below the low water line to a depth of 30 feet. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies
Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

“The Church has always been more concerned with building people than water systems,” said Matthew Heaps, clean water initiative manager for Humanitarian Services. “Our training has increased our impact in reaching that goal. This training allows families to discover the importance of hygiene, how to keep their hands clean, and how to properly care for water once it has been obtained from the well. Our goal in each community is for them to feel complete ownership so they will maintain the well and take responsibility for their health.”

Even clear water from streams is often teeming with bacteria that can cause intestinal diseases. Nearly two-thirds of the people of Sierra Leone don't have access to clean water.
Even clear water from streams is often teeming with bacteria that can cause intestinal diseases. Nearly two-thirds of the people of Sierra Leone don’t have access to clean water. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

The key to success in such projects is the people themselves. For the Bo area and the town of Kenema one hour to the east, LDS Charities contracted a project manager, hygiene supervisor, 10 site monitors, and 10 hygiene instructors for this 150 well project. Each is a member of the Church, and most are recently returned missionaries.

“People have come to realize they really can prevent sickness in their community,” said Inmpey Cabinah, a recently returned missionary who oversees hygiene training in nearly 150 villages. “This is a new concept for them because they have never experienced this kind of training. While other people have come to Sierra Leone to dig wells, they have never emphasized hygiene — the things people can do to prevent sickness. We teach seven lessons in each community, such as good sanitation and how to wash hands properly with soap. Then we go back to see if people are really doing the things we taught them.”

A long-time resident of Baomahun recalls joy that clean water brought to her village. LDS Charities is constructing 150 wells in Sierra Leone.
A long-time resident of Baomahun recalls joy that clean water brought to her village. LDS Charities is constructing 150 wells in Sierra Leone. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies
Villagers in rural Sierra Leone congregate at the well before sunrise and again before sunset. Each well provides clean water for an average of 800 to 900 people.
Villagers in rural Sierra Leone congregate at the well before sunrise and again before sunset. Each well provides clean water for an average of 800 to 900 people. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

Inmpey oversees 10 hygiene instructors who are also returned missionaries. Each hygiene instructor selects and trains a volunteer facilitator in each of 10 villages to conduct weekly hygiene training for two to four months. This train-the-trainer concept extends the training to 150 villages and some 123,000 people. This is essential in villages with no bathrooms, and it also ensures villagers’ commitment to the need for clean water to prevent the disease and death so prevalent in emerging nations. Interestingly, most of these small communities — averaging about 900 people each — consists of Muslims and Christians, who work together with Latter-day Saint Charities for a common good, regardless of their different beliefs.

Many villagers walk long distances to get water, returning with 40 pounds in containers on their heads.
Many villagers walk long distances to get water, returning with 40 pounds in containers on their heads. Credit: Photo by Howard M. Collett/ LDS Philanthropies

Once hygiene training is under way, the project manager hires an experienced contractor. Each site monitor works with the contractors in 10 villages to help organize the communities and select volunteers to provide manual labor. The wells in these areas are dug by hand to a depth of about 30 feet. More than 31 cubic yards of rock and dirt are removed — one bucket at a time. Surprisingly, most wells are dug in less than one week. Concrete casings are then cast on site and lowered one at a time to line the well, which is about six feet across. The well is then capped with a concrete pad, and a hand pump is installed.

Richard Gobba oversees water project development in Lowama and eight other villages. “As site monitor I assist in coordinating the contractors, the technicians and the community,” he said. “I work with the community to help them provide their own labor, and I help ensure that a better job is done in each community.” Gobba said that because of the sacrifice individuals make in contributing to the Church Humanitarian Fund, LDS Charities also encourages sacrifice on the part of community members to provide sand, hand-cut rock and labor to help build the well.

Most communities charge each family a small fee to help maintain the well. But in one enterprising community, the leaders decided to use the fees to buy goats. The goats would give milk and when the well needed maintenance, a goat would be sold to pay for it. The investment paid a far better return than interest in the bank.

Once the pump is operational, women and children line up their buckets at sunrise and for the next two hours take turns pumping clean water for their cooking needs that day. This needed ritual takes place every morning, during the wet season or the dry season. While still an arduous task — women carry as much as 40 pounds of water on their heads and small children carry up to 15 pounds on theirs — it is much less time-consuming than walking a mile or more for water. The greatest benefit is that the water is free from the harmful bacteria that can cause disease that too often proves fatal for infants and small children.

The value of clean water cannot be completely appreciated until it is realized that Sierra Leone has the world’s second highest infant mortality rate. Water-borne typhoid fever is one of the leading causes. Last year, LDS Charities provided clean water in Sierra Leone and 22 other countries for nearly one million people. Funding came from individual contributions to the humanitarian fund on meetinghouse donation slips and through LDS Philanthropies.

“If I could speak for the people of Sierra Leone,” said Mustapha Turay, project manager for the new wells, “I would say a big thank you to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for blessing our lives, for coming to our aid at a most needed time. Thank you for saving lives, for saving children who would have died, and for creating jobs for our brothers and sisters who are employed in this water project.”

After an afternoon of successful interviews and filming, it was time to go. As we left by canoe, the village children came down to the riverbank and waded into the water to say their goodbyes. We circled back toward the shore one last time to bid farewell and received shouts of “Thank you,” “We love you,” and “Goodbye!”

We sat there feeling humbled and grateful. For so much of the year we live in air-conditioned or heated comfort, with easy access to clean air and water. We rededicated ourselves to doing more with whatever resources we can bring to those who need them. While we are changing other people’s lives, they are changing ours as well.