"Now, they need shoes, we buy shoes" | Visiting a savings group in Sierra Leone

By Kate Shaw, Social Media Communities Manager, World Vision UK

Last week I travelled with blogger Annie to Sierra Leone to visit one of our child sponsorship projects there and hear from the community about the effects Ebola has had on their lives. One of the most inspiring stories to come from the epidemic was that of a local women’s savings group who had banded together to make sure their families did not go hungry during the crisis. Over the course of several days we met with their chairwoman, attended their annual paying out ceremony, watched them process cassava, and on a merry and thankfully rain-free morning (this being the rainy season in Sierra Leone, of course), helped them to weed their cassava farm.

We were in Jaiama Bongor, one of World Vision UK’s child sponsorship communities in Southern Sierra Leone. There, the mothers of the community had long been working together to sell cassava to a local entrepreneur Hawa, but when markets closed during Ebola and they were struggling to support themselves with their small farming, Hawa suggested that they get in touch with World Vision, who had helped her set up her cassava processing plant several years ago.

We were able to provide them with the box and basic rules to incorporate themselves as a savings group. The women all pay in a small amount each month, and can take loans to make investments or pay for medical bills and other emergency needs. They’ve also continued to farm cassava together for additional profit, and we’ve provided the women with a processing machine, so they can now sell Hawa a partially processed product (wet cassava cake) for a higher price.

Mariama, the president of the local mothers savings group told us about the change the savings group has brought. “Now, when a child needs shoes, we can buy shoes. Before, you ask the man, he thinks, he waits, the child doesn’t get shoes. Now, they need shoes, we buy shoes.”

Before beginning the savings group, times were hard, but the women now feel empowered and able to make decisions for themselves. Life is still difficult and many of the women are focused on paying school fees or buying medicine for a sick child, but they are also making changes for their community.

Mariama’s sister Hawa described the struggle she went through to make ends meet before the savings group. “I was doing my gardening work, growing groundnut and peppers. We use it as food to eat, and the little I get from selling, use to support the home and my children. When my child was sick, I needed to ask for money, but there was none. We were fighting very hard to survive.”

During Ebola when markets closed and food was hard to buy, the savings group used some of their savings to make sure their children had enough to eat. They continued with their cassava farm, but they also went around to subsistence gardeners like Hawa, buying up peppers, and cucumbers, and groudnut. School meals do not exist in Sierra Leone, so even now that Ebola is over, the markets are open, and the children are back at school, a lot of mothers have continued to use some of the money to make lunches for the local schoolchildren.

The women all speak fondly of the box that has brought so much change and dignity to their lives, and I feel like ‘the box’ has become a metaphor for all they’ve achieved. We’re curious to see the physical object. ‘Can we see the box?’ we ask. The large green box contains 31million leones (about £3000), and never normally comes out unless it is time for a paying in. It’s carefully protected; it takes three different key holders to open the box, and a fourth stores it at her home. Soon it will be time for the savings group to pay out their profits to their 25 members and begin again, and everyone has a plan for where the money will be needed most.

Some are planning to buy kola nuts or palm oil. In December prices for palm oil shoot up, so the women stockpile it now and wait for the profits. Another woman tells us she has three kids to take care of, so she is waiting for the share out to take care of her children and pay their school fees so they can get back to school. Everyone is eager to see their money.

‘More money than the Queen’

The next morning, we had the incredible privilege to see the money being paid out. All the women seemed to have been filled with joy, and it was amazing to see the spontaneous singing and dancing that took place as women shuffled, danced, and celebrated their way to the front to receive their share of the savings.

Once all the women have received their money, the singing and dancing broke out in force. One member told us, “I’ve never seen this much money before, this is a great day."

During the distribution, the box sits prominently, unusually empty and open. It will stay that way for the next few weeks, until the women are ready to start their savings again. But in the meantime, everyone has buying, trading, and investments to do with their profits.

“The house I am sleeping in is damaged, so when I get the money, I will buy zinc so I can finish building my house.” Hawa smiles excitedly.

Seibatu, a grandmother, has another plan. “My son died, so his children are with me. That money I will use to educate them and the balance I will use to buy Kola nuts,” she tells us.

Getting to work

During the rainy season, the women come together once a week to weed their plot, where they're growing okra, groundnut, and plantain in addition to cassava. They weed between the hours of seven and nine each morning, when the sun is low enough that it's not too hot.

It was a true community event when Annie and I rocked up last Wednesday morning, eager to help. Sleeping babies nestled peacefully on mothers’ backs as they worked, and singing broke out sporadically. Just as the sweat began to run a little too freely, we headed off into the woods to an older patch of cassava, ready for harvesting.

When fully grown, the cassava plant is taller than a man, about six feet tall. The main bounty is the roots, which grow like ginger, but in sweet potato size and colour. Families here also pick the leaves to make curries at home or to sell at the side of the road, and the stalk of the plant is used to replant the cassava for another harvest. It takes seven months to a year to grow a cassava plant until it's ready to be pulled.

Fresh from the field we all pile into the World Vision truck, and women scramble in, eager for a lift to the next village. It’s there they’ve set up their processing site, where they take the cassava and turn it into the more valuable ‘wet cake.’ Women gather round and sing, quickly peeling, passing, washing and getting the cassava ready.

Then they move over to a small shredder like machine, another gift from World Vision that helped them get started last year. Once passed through the machine, they then squeeze the excess liquid from the pulp, keeping it to make starch to sell, and pack the wet cassava into 50 kilo bags, to be sold to the cassava factory down the road. The money from each 50 kilo bag then makes its way into the box, to be shared out among the women later.

The women’s savings group was formed during the Ebola crisis with help from World Vision, but now operates largely independently, and makes me enormously positive about this community’s potential, and just what else can be achieved through sponsorship. As we get ready in the office for Hampton Court Palace flower show next week the memories of another garden I was in thousands of miles away re-emphasises just how vibrant the ‘ups’ of life can be when viruses are vanquished and children protected.

On the first day we met them, I had asked Mariama if there was a big goal she was working towards. She told me simply: “We are investing in our children, so tomorrow, when they have grown older, our children will be able to be independent and take care of themselves.”

The ups and downs of our Ebola response are being reimagined as part of John Warland’s World Vision garden at the Chelsea and Hampton court flower shows this year. In the aftermath of Ebola, our support of children in Sierra Leone, is more important than ever. Discover how sponsorship can help safeguard children in the aftermath of Ebola, and find out more about the World Vision gardens»