ActionAid’s Leslie Sinoway and celebrity supporter Sarah Alexander visit Sierra Leone to see how people are rebuilding their lives after the country’s civil war. Help a child affected by conflict with ActionAid's #REBUILD campaign.
It was still dark at 4am on a windy Sunday morning when Sarah and I arrived in Sierra Leone. Our mission? To investigate how child sponsorship is helping to rebuild a country devastated by civil war.
Wheeling an enormous bag - nicknamed ‘the beast’ - full of pens, pencils, pads, bubble-blowing mixture and other goodies that kids go wild for, Sarah and I negotiated the organised chaos that greets you at the airport.
To get to the capital, Freetown, you must literally go round a mountain – we tackled this by boat.
Later that day we went to explore a symbolic bridge we’d heard about – the Peace Bridge – which played a significant part in stopping the rebels from the surrounding bush coming into the city and overthrowing the delicate new government.
500,000 people killed in the conflict
Even though I knew there had been a lot of causalties of the war in Sierra Leone, I was shocked to learn that 500,000 people were killed in the conflict, and almost half the population was displaced. A desperately rundown community still lives on and around the Peace Bridge in extreme poverty, 11 years after the war ended.
The next morning on the drive to the rural Bo district we sit bumper to bumper in the heavy Freetown traffic, and I can see many people of all ages, shapes and sizes busily getting ready for their day. We ascend higher and higher out of the higgledy-piggledy, war-torn city and suddenly all we can see are lush rolling hills.
Three bumpy hours later we reach Blamawo, where Sarah meets Iye Mammy. She’s 25 and has had eight children. Only four survived. This community is luckier than many, as it has a medical centre - only 40% of people in Sierra Leone have access to healthcare resources.
Children traumatised by war
Blamawo also has a well, housing and a school, and many of the children are sponsored. But it’s clear that so much more help is needed. More children need to be sponsored. So many have been affected by the conflict – it’s hard to fathom, but in the last decade 10 million children worldwide have been psychologically traumatised as a result of war.
Bright, cheeky little seven-year-old Ali grabs Sarah’s hand and makes friends. Later on I teach him how to blow bubbles – it’s amazing seeing the initial wonder on his face and he quickly catches on and shows the other kids what to do. Ali is waiting to be sponsored.
The next morning we go to Mbundorbu village, where Sarah meets Jane. The last time Jane saw her husband was when rebels attacked the village and she escaped to the bush. Her house was bombed out so now she lives in a borrowed home and tells us how her life today, right here, right now is still difficult because of the conflict.
All of a sudden it’s crystal clear - everything is a knock-on effect of the conflict. This is why sponsorship is so vital in war-affected countries. We have to rebuild lives by giving children the basics they need – water, food and healthcare.
Working with orphaned and homeless young people
Back in Freetown, we visit the Mayemie Training Centre. Funded by sponsorship, it’s a refuge for anyone who’s orphaned or homeless. Many of the young people we meet there were former child soldiers or turned to prostitution during the war. Here they are taught a skill - welding, carpentry, tailoring and catering.
Sarah and I meet a former child soldier Mustapha, 24 who tells us his story. He was captured by rebels after they killed his father. Mustapha was rescued but then tragically lost his mum to illness. Sadly, this isn’t extraordinary: the average life expectancy is just 47 in Sierra Leone.
Mustapha is training to be a welder but ultimately wants to finish his education one day. Knowing that 65% of all Sierra Leoneans are illiterate, I understand why this is so important to him. He ends his story by telling us that all the lads there feel like brothers and then shocks us by saying, "we are all suffering from the same disease and that disease is called war."
Why is child sponsorship so important?
On this trip, we were constantly amazed by everyone’s incredible, indefatigable spirit despite the tragic circumstances brought on by the conflict faced by so many.
And this is just one of many countries that ActionAid works in that suffer the knock-on effects of conflict.
More than 2,000 children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda are waiting for sponsorship.
Sarah now sponsors a three-year-old girl in Sierra Leone.