A morning with Ena Conteh in Freetown, Sierra Leone: guest post by Penny Lawrence

Penny Lawrenceto persuade her to write it down: “I recently spent a morning in one of Freetown’s slum areas. Since the horrific civil war (1991 – 2002), which was finally ended by the UK military, elevating Tony Blair to superhero status in Sierra Leone, Freetown has doubled in size to somewhere over 1.5 million. When we arrive in Grassfields we are greeted by the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) committee – men and women who have volunteered to represent and support their community to maintain the water and sanitation facilities that are slowly being installed by a consortia of international and national NGOs. Ena Conteh is a member of the WASH committee. She and I strike a bond as we look one another in the eye (most unusual for those few of us women over 6′ tall). As we wander around the back alleys of the Grassfields area of Freetown, Ena gradually reveals her story. What emerges is a striking and human version of those tired development phrases ‘caring economy’, ‘fragile livelihoods’ etc. sierra leone water 2She lives with around 30 of her extended family. They’ve lived in Grassfields all her life. The war led to even worse overcrowding and a real strain on resources, especially water. At the mention of water, she breaks into a chant with her colleagues, with the refrain ‘we want water’ – making their demands very clear in a traditional way. “So” I innocently ask “who in your family has a job?  “No-one has a job”’ Ena laughs, “there are no jobs”. She explains that her family survives through ‘rewards’. Family members offer to do tasks for people, carrying shopping in the market or selling things that others throw away, in the hope that they will then reward them. We arrive at a latrine and the conversation turns to more earthy matters.  A family has built the latrine for both for their own use and for 7/8 neighbouring households. The deal is they are given the design, the cement, tools and the technical support if they use their own labour, find precious space on their tiny plot of land and are willing to share the latrine with others. With their new-found skills and tools, the family has also started building a washing ‘room’ (a tap and a bit of privacy) for men and women on their last remaining bit of yard. Ena explains she and her fellow committee members are responsible for ensuring good hygiene practices – the kids are taught songs about washing hands and the women educate one another on how diarrhoea is passed on. On our way again, we get back to chatting and I discover that Ena has three children of her own and all of them go to school. The Sierra Leone waterchallenge is that they only have one school uniform between them, so it is worn in turn by whoever got told off for not wearing school uniform the previous day.  I try to envisage what a one-size school uniform looks like (without much success).   By now we’re at the rehabilitated water point at the bottom of the hill. This newly commissioned well serves over 1,000 people in these overcrowded slums, but is run ‘properly’, according to Ena and the rest of the committee. ‘We charge people a small fee to cover repairs and maintenance and we don’t charge ‘extra’ fees like the privately owned wells’. ‘What happens if people can’t even pay that?’ ‘We know who those families are and we let them take the water anyway’. Time to be on our way to the next stop. ‘Thanks’ and ‘Good lucks’ are exchanged. It is clear that Ena is proud of her role in lobbying and organising her friends and neighbours to get access to what they feel they need most. The ‘we want water’ chants start up again.  Then, just as we depart, Ena shyly asks if she can please have the empty water bottle I’m holding.  A painful reality check as we go our separate ways.” Penny Lawrence is International Director of Oxfam GB]]>

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5 Responses to “A morning with Ena Conteh in Freetown, Sierra Leone: guest post by Penny Lawrence”
  1. Abi

    Not sure about the claim “the horrific civil war…finally ended by the UK military”. I think it is an inaccurate representation of the facts. The ones who put their lives on the line were the ECOMOG soldiers. The Brits arrived afterwards to clear up the not-so-threatening “West side boys”, after the real bloodshed had been brought to an end – ask the Sierra Leoneans. Otherwise, a good read from Penny – but just tired of Britain trying to claim glory for what it did not do. It is a slap on the face of those who actually put their lives on the line – all from West Africa!

  2. Lauren

    I too visited a water and sanitation project in Freetown in 2008, in a different slum called Susan’s Bay. Back then I was an Oxfam Bookshop manager, and this was my first trip outside of Europe. The thing that still sticks with me is the powerful sense of pride that emanated from the community-led project. It is so good to see that the water work is continuing in other slums around this fantastic city, with just as much enthusiasm!

  3. Andrew W

    A whole morning in a slum? That really must have enlightened you to their daily realities.
    It’s a shame we focus on such staged, planned meetings. No doubt your in country partner was well aware of the visit weeks/months in advance? Just enough time to get the ‘appropriate’ households to talk to and correct places to visit.
    Try spending a tad longer there next time.
    Duncan: This is a bit of a cheap shot, I think, Andrew. Firstly, Penny, like most other senior development workers, has also spent much more extended periods in poor communities (something you didn’t think to ask), but also because once you get to be senior in an NGO it becomes much harder to do long-term immersion. In my experience, people who are decent listeners and curious about people’s lives can get a huge amount out of a day in a ‘slum’, and often learn stuff that challenges their preconceptions and sets them thinking along new lines. What would you suggest – not going at all?

  4. Penny Lawrence

    How kind of Duncan to leap to my defence!! Whilst its true that I was privileged enough to live and work with an urban community in Sudan and a rural community in Zimbabwe for a number of years, that was now some time ago. Its too easy at senior level to make decisions with your heads in the policy clouds and not grounded in the realities of poor people’s experience, no matter what your background. I travel a lot with Oxfam and to me it remains a critical part of my job to connect with poor peoples realities even if these days it is only for 2 or 3 days in a week or so’s trip and to bring this voice and experience into my decision making as a senior leader in Oxfam.