“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.
She 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 challenge 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