Visit Report – West Africa 2009

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In June/July 2009, Jane Best (CEO of RIJ) visited Gambia, Senegal and Liberia see the results of projects previously funded by RIJ. This is an account of her experiences.

24 June 2009
The civil conflict in the Casamance region of southern Senegal is West Africa’s longest running civil war. It has not received much international attention. The security situation fluctuates as does refugee flow. When skirmishes occur people flee their homes and farmland to the safety of Gambia. Over the last 23 years, an estimated 3,000-5,000 people have died and at least 60,000 have been displaced.

Refugees International Japan have been funding projects through Concern Universal for over 6 years. I visited the region in 2003 and am interested to see what progress has been made since then. For project information, see “Providing agricultural support to returnees in Sindian-Sous Prefecture, Casamance, Senegal” in 2008 on the RIJ website. RIJ has just sent funding for a new project in the area – this is not yet posted on the website.

Today I will set off to visit the Western Region of Gambia, an area where many refugees flee to. I will be able to see the results of projects previously funded by RIJ.

24 & 25 June 2009 (Gambia)

At present there are around 7,000 registered refugees in Gambia, but there are many more who have chosen not to register, mostly so that they can integrate quietly into the Gambian community and/or because they are living with relatives and do not wish to draw attention to this.

UNHCR provides some support to refugees through implementing partners but this support has been cut recently – a familiar story that I hear wherever I have traveled in the last couple of years. Generally speaking, the refugees in Gambia are well accepted by the host communities – the refugees are not separated in camps and most projects work with both groups. Access to water is a problem that most people mentioned. The government has built lift pumps in many areas but these need mechanics to mend when they break down and are costly to repair. Concern Universal initiated the SMILE project some years ago – RIJ funded an early SMILE project. These projects install rope pumps that are easy to use and easy to repair, thus ensuring the community can take responsibility for pump maintenance themselves. I saw SMILE pumps that are well used, but where the well is deep (30 metres in one case) it is hard work, taking a good minute to begin to draw water. Apart from this particular one, the SMILE pumps are clearly helping ease the pressure on existing wells, especially where refugees increase demand

I visited the hospital in Bwiam and met the Chief Executive of the hospital. The 200-bed hospital opened in 2003, but can only accept 100 in-patients now due to a shortage of doctors and nursing staff. The hospital provides medical treatment to all refugees with ID cards and has received subsidy from UNHCR through the Red Cross until this year. This support is also at risk.

We visited two Gambian schools along the Senegal border. Both schools have peace clubs for the children. These clubs promote peace and encourage integration in their communities through the medium of drama and sport. One group sang a peace song for us – the words were powerful. The school fees for refugee children have also been subsidized by the UNHCR through its implementing partner, but this is another expenditure that faces cut-backs.

On my previous visit there were a lot of schools made of grass and matting to accommodate refugee children. These have gone and the children have been integrated into host schools.

Refugees from the Casamance flow back and forth over the border into Gambia; the main influx occurring in 2006 as a result of increased conflict in the Casamance. Since then the hostilities in Casamance have generally decreased, though conflicts between new factions flare up from time to time. I was told that the army presence has increased creating fresh tensions. Some people told me they are afraid to return to their homes if they are near army camps for fear of being caught in crossfire.

Previous funding from RIJ for projects such as seed distribution to host families, training in community activities and market gardening have gone some way to creating more cohesive communities and easing the pressure of hosting refugees.

26 June 2009 (Liberia)

I flew to Monrovia on a small Beech 1900D airliner – a fantastic flight. Monrovia airport is very basic with limited facilities. The atmosphere of post conflict was set by the number of UN aeroplanes, far more than any others. It reminded me of my visit to Sierra Leone in 2003. The war destroyed a lot of the city of Monrovia and many buildings are ruins.

The hotel is basic but comfortable and very expensive. Demand for accommodation has meant prices are high.

Refugees and IDPs began returning home in 2004 but few people have gone back to the countryside with 50% of the population staying in and around Monrovia, living in squatter camps or several families renting small rooms. Many people live on less than a dollar a day and women and youth are particularly vulnerable. Young women heading up households have had to resort to selling on the streets and become prey to abuse.

27 June 2009 (Visiting Graduates of IRC/RIJ Program)

I met with members of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) team who are working on a program providing education to counter youth and child labour. IRC extended the program with RIJ funding to provide training and start-up opportunities to vulnerable young women.

We met with several graduates from this scheme and I heard their stories and learned about their ambitions. They were all delighted with the opportunities that the training program had given them and excited about the future. One young woman said of the program “It took me off the streets”. She wants to go on and set up her own business then she can train other women in the same situation as she was, to have a future too. It was clear that they had all gained confidence and self-respect as a result and had found an independence they could not have hoped for two years ago. Some of them had jobs in hotels or restaurants while others have set up their own small business in their home or renting space with some one else. I heard how people had moved from place to place or country to country during the 14-year conflict – which took two parts, the second exodus occurring in 2003. We crossed a wide river where thousands died trying to get to food supplies in the port when two factions clashed on either side of the river. Lots of people have made shops out of old shipping containers left abandoned as they try to earn a living.

30th June 2007 (Nimba County)

Before we left Monrovia for Nimba county we visited the Business Domestic and Occupational Training Centre where the IRC beneficiaries studied. The Centre trains up to 220 students in two shifts. I saw two classes for hotel and catering students. The Centre offers “real-life” experience in hairdressing and has a café where students cater for customers from nearby offices.

The road to Nimba took us through Bong County where Charles Taylor commanded the war from – I heard how he recruited local people to fight or killed them as they fled. The destruction of homes on this road was minimal as combatants lived in the area.

IRC office in Ganta was our base for the visit. Ganta is the main commercial town of Nimba county and near to the border with Guinea. The main street was razed during the war and has been rebuilt since the war ended.

Electricity and water supplies are intermittent. The RIJ-funded project supported trainees in Ganta. I met five of them working in tailoring shops. There is limited opportunity for work in Ganta so most trainees felt that tailoring provided the best opportunities. The graduates received follow-up business training earlier this year to prepare them for developing their work.

Most of the graduates are renting space off their former trainers as the cost of working on their own is prohibitive. Just one has been able to rent with three other people. Two of the graduates were very positive about developing their business and are attending adult literacy classes. The others seemed to be overwhelmed by the challenge they face. This is not unusual – the economy of Ganta is poor and the market for their work is limited. I hope that the positive graduates can serve as a a model example to the rest. All of them have children to support on their own.

I then joined the Gender-based Violent (GBV) team on a visit to a town called Karnplay, two hours drive on a very bad road from Ganta. I sat in on a community meeting discussing problems of domestic violence and how to address these problems. There were both men and women present and I was impressed at the open discussion. Abuse is a huge problem in Liberia – 75% of women were abused during the war, mainly by combatants – since the war abuse has been within families, in communities, from agency workers and generally from people they know.

Members at the meeting reported how they are encouraging more women to train as teachers; that they have seen a reduction in rape cases as a result of community education; how one woman who had been badly beaten was persuaded to return home for the sake of the children and she is now getting support from IRC social workers. Local radio broadcasts a women’s program twice a week, receiving calls from all over the county that they link to the appropriate contact.

We heard the story of an 11-year-old who had been raped in her home when her mother was out. The family was new to the village so she did not know the man. She was looked after at the hospital and helped back into the community. She thought she recognised the man who had raped her but it turned out to be a false accusation which caused further embarrassment and pain.

We met a group of teenage mothers who receive health care and counselling from IRC workers. This covers family planning, understanding of HIV/AIDS and how to help avoid further teenage pregnancies in the community. The chief anxiety amongst the mothers was their own education and skills training.

I was learning the extent of problems in Liberia following the war. With over 50% of the population living in Monrovia, the outlying towns and villages are poor and offer little work opportunity. Mobilising the youth is a problem in so many countries of return.

4 July 2009 (Change of Plans)

Unfortunately we have had to change our plans for the visit to the Casamance region. There has been a lot of unrest there recently and the government ordered a curfew from 7pm to 6.30am. It is clearly unwise to travel in the region at the moment. This is a great disappointment as the same thing happened when I visited the region in 2003. The project RIJ funds in Sindian Sous province is a good one and I was looking forward to seeing the results. This unrest may set back the start of the new program. We plan to travel to Bwiam tomorrow as it is near the Senegal border and it may be possible to meet with some of the beneficiaries in Gambia. It is easier for them to travel on back roads to meet us – travelling in an NGO vehicle will draw attention and make us vulnerable. You can see more information on this at: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/72d903e85f62eb1287c03e7faae0e7c5.htm

5 July 2009 (Casamance)

Concern Universal runs a peace-building project in the Casamance. The project aims to strengthen village communities and wider civil society capacity to lobby for peace. After assessing the security situation in the Casamance we decided to visit two villages near the Gambian border near Bwiam with members of St Joseph’s Family Farm, partner of Concern Universal. Both villages have army posts stationed in the village. The first village, with 600 residents, had a great community spirit and many leaders within the community came to meet us. They have rebuilt the school and health post and both are active. There are four teachers at the school, all paid by the government but the health post is run by the community and all medicines are purchased by them. Interestingly, they were very complimentary about the army leader who joined our meeting. Five to six years ago, the situation in the village was very bad and the villagers were ready to give up; however, the commanding officer encouraged them to rebuild and not despair. They are grateful to him and delighted to see him back. (I heard later that the commanding officer who was there inbetween was very unco-operative.) They were all very proud of what they have achieved in their village. The rural-urban drift is a problem and the youth leader told how they are trying to attract people back to the area after finishing school. They had constructed a youth centre that will be a focal point for the youth and they plan to use local radio to inform people nearby of the centre’s activities.

The second village has about 500 residents but is failing to attract many people back because it is just three miles from a rebel camp and having the army stationed in the village makes them feel vulnerable. When the army came to the village, they took over one of the larger houses and forced the owner out. This obviously created some friction and it is clear there is some work to do on building a community spirit. The peace-building project has almost finished constructing a new school with the aim of bringing more people back.

Monday 6 July 2009 (Meeting the Beneficiaries)

Members of the CARA project funded by RIJ came to meet us in Bwiam because we could not travel into Casamance to meet them. Some 25 people travelled 5-6 hours to Bwiam to meet us – very impressive. This project supported the resettlement of returnees through developing sustainable farming practices and income generating activities along with good management of natural resources. Beneficiaries of the bee-keeping project brought their products along and told us how they were marketing the products in their communities. They have developed a body cream from the wax – this cream has antiseptic properties and provides good protection to the skin. We heard how bees are affected by various factors, such as heat from bush fires or disturbances and so production has to be carefully controlled. Some members were encouraging them to sell their products more widely but they feel they have to get the presentation right before they can do that. Although we were encouraging them to make a point of using recycled containers, I felt there was an element of pride reflecting their low esteem following their experiences as refugees.

The seed bank was a successful initiative with 85% of participants paying back their seeds and some 60% of members having seeds to plant for the coming growing season. Those who have been unable to retain seeds had to use them for paying for equipment and other costs in setting up their farms. Literacy is another problem that needs to be addressed and the women present endorsed this. All members agreed that to build the capacity of the women helps the whole community develop. It was a lively discussion and it was excellent to meet them all. It tested my very rusty French too!

I was sorry I could not visit them on their farms but this was definitely a successful meeting.

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