"Things were very different before" | Visiting a savings group in Sierra Leone

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

After three days following the local women’s savings group in Jaiama Bongor, Sierra Leone, we were eager to speak to a family to find out the difference the new investments had been making. After a morning at the farm and processing cassava last week, we drove down a few streets to speak to one mother and daughter, Mariama and 12-year-old Mabel.

“Before Ebola, children used to play altogether and families came together more.” Mabel begins, when I ask her to describe how things have changed. “Things are back to normal now, but during Ebola, we weren’t allowed to come together, and schools were shut.”

“There was just the osusu savings club too. Mum used to have to borrow money, to survive, to pay for schooling.”

“Things were very different before I could join the savings group,” Mabel’s mother Mariama told us. “We were part of the osusu, but you don’t get any interest with that and it wasn't as beneficial. The osusu money was very small - just enough for the family affairs.”

The osusu wasn’t always fair, either. Mabel wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, and watching the way the osusu worked has been part of the motivation for this career choice. In the osusu system, all the members pay in the same amount every month, and each month one member gets all the money. There’s no interest paid, so you only ever get the same amount that you’ve paid in, and sometimes the head of the osusu would skip your turn.

“Being a lawyer, you can defend your family against violators, and defend your country against external aggressors,” Mabel summed up.

I got worried – “has she experienced violators herself?”

“No,” she responds, “but I’ve heard my parents talking about injustice, and I want to change that. During the osusu we didn’t always get our money back.”

Mabel is part of the local Kids’ Club too, which gives her lots of scope to begin fighting injustice now. One of her favourite activities has been learning about her rights at a recent meeting - her right to education, right to play, right to have a say in choices that affect her, right to avoid being asked to dropout of school and begin child labour.

Mariama explained how she finally gave up on the osusu. “When I took my last osusu last year, I went and joined the savings group.”

“With my first loan of 400,000 leones, I invested in Kola nuts, and used the rest to cover my children’s schooling. It was a blessing. My child got very ill, and I used the money to take her to the hospital, and then pay for her medicine.

“But then Mabel took her exams, and she had a very, very good result, and I had nothing. We sat down and cried. I had spent almost all of the loan on medical bills and I had nothing left.

“But with this group, I went to the women of my village. And even owing 400,000 leones, still not having paid the loan, they gave me another 400,000, with interest of 40,000. Mabel went for the interview and I paid her school fees for secondary school and bought all her school supplies.”

Mabel is in her second year of secondary school now. Each morning and afternoon she makes the five-mile trek to school with her friends, and her mum packs her off with a lunch so she has something to eat during the day.

“Now it’s a very big change,” Mariama smiles. “I’m confident because there is always a bank to loan money. Before, my daughter didn’t even have the proper shoes, but now I can buy them.”

“I have five children; I hope to send all of them to school now.”

Mariama has paid back both the loans now, and at the sharing out yesterday she received her share of the group’s profits - 1,600,000 leones (or about £184).

“When I got that money yesterday, I came home and prepared a special meal for my family. I bought a chicken and made stew…but there are no leftovers!” she laughs when our interpreter asks.

“Right now our home is in disrepair. The roof leaks, so I’m investing in Kola nuts and paying my children’s school fees, and then I’m going to buy a piece of tin to repair the roof,” Mariama explains.

“My brother died of Ebola in Kenema,” Mariama responds, when asked how Ebola affected her. Mariama, it turns out, is Jebbeh’s aunt, and is married to the schoolmaster we met the day before. They’ve clearly taken Jebbeh in, as she counts her as one of her own children. And the community, in turn, is taking care of this family. Mariama (the chairwoman of the savings group) has given the family of five a room to stay in her house while their roof is repaired.

It’s lovely to understand all the connections between the people we’ve met over the past few days. Everyone’s stories are intertwined, and time and time again we return to the same themes – Ebola, teenage pregnancy, and maternal mortality, but bright forces for change too, like the savings group and the Kids’ Club. This community is amazingly thankful for the changes World Vision and child sponsorship has brought, proud of the changes they’ve made for themselves, and determined about the causes they still need to fight for. You can find out more about child sponsorship in Sierra Leone here»