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Mon 08 May 17


Each year thousands of subsistence farmers in Ghana are incapacitated, even killed, as a result of exposure to commercial pesticides. There are no reliable statistics on the numbers involved, so the scale of the problem is not officially recognised. However our research suggests that the problem is very serious.

Most victims of pesticide poisoning do not report to hospital and simply suffer in silence; those that do seek medical help often don’t associate their condition with their having handled pesticides — they may complain of headaches, blurred vision, rashes, muscle aches or general lethargy. But it is only in acute cases, where someone collapses whilst spraying, that the connection between cause and effect is clear. Pesticides damage the nervous system and internal organs, especially the lungs, liver and brain. Children are especially vulnerable. The effects are cumulative and may not show up for months or even years. Men can become impotent, and women suffer miscarriages or birth defects. Cancer is also a risk. Sadly for many the damage is irreversible.

Village Meetings & Workshops in Ghana

We have for a number of years been investigating poisoning incidents with our local partner, the Network of Rice Farming Association, and we have reports of incidents in some 46 villages in the Volta Region. In three that we have looked at in more depth we have the names of over 90 individuals who have suffered health effects following spraying. This includes 57 men and 33 women, and some of these individuals tell us that they very nearly died. We also have the names of seven people who have. The villages are Akaa, Akpafu Mempeasem and Gbledi Gbogame — the pictures were taken at training workshops or community meetings we have held in these villages. More broadly, we have reports of another 28 deaths believed to be due to pesticide poisoning, including two suicides. We think this is the tip of a very large iceberg.

Something Needs to be Done

We are now working on a publicity campaign to make our findings available to 150 local stakeholders in the hope that some will start asking serious questions of those in authority, and especially officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of Food & Agriculture. Our list includes officials from these departments as well as Paramount, Section and Sub-Chiefs, Assembly Men and Members of Parliament in the Volta Region. We will also be organising radio broadcasts to warn farmers that they need to be careful. We are not against the use of chemicals; it is their flagrant misuse that is causing the problems.

The elephant in the room is the availability over the counter of these attractively-packed poisons. Anyone can purchase them, and yet many (most?) are unable to read the instructions; and very few have received training or use protection when spraying. We also know that at the end of the day many subsistence farmers wash their kit in local water bodies putting aquatic ecosystems at risk (fish and invertebrates are extremely vulnerable to these toxic materials). Some farmers also routinely spray just before harvest, and no one checks for pesticide residues on food in local markets. It’s only commercial crops like coffee and cocoa that get tested (because these go for export).

Ghana has legislation in place to prevent the misapplication of agro-chemicals, but enforcement is ineffective. Chemical sellers are rarely checked to see that staff are literate and trained — we have found teenagers left in charge of stores. The law requires that those hiring men to spray for them must make sure that they are properly protected, but this too is ignored. And no one challenges the chemical manufacturers that promote their products on large road-side posters and over radio, and in some cases actually wrap free sachets of ‘soothing cream’ with their products!

We have contemplated approaching the pesticide importers and distributers, but this is a daunting task and beyond our resources. There are currently over 50 suppliers in Ghana, including 44 importers and 27 distributors, and that’s just the registered ones.* Chemicals are also smuggled across borders (we actually bought DDT in one market). It would take a major campaign to get all chemical sellers to stock protective equipment — and government pressure and or some really bad publicity for the Pesticide Industry to agree to subsidising equipment so that subsistence farmers can afford to buy it.

We are aiming to meet as many stakeholders as we can over the next few months to press home the stark message that ‘Ghanaians are poisoning themselves’ — I am here paraphrasing a chief in Gbledi who spoke at one of our meetings. He explained that he himself was a victim: he once bent over and tipped pesticides from his knapsack sprayer down his back and ended up in hospital fighting for breath.

* The figures are from an on-line database organised by the Pesticide Industry [www.pesticides1.com] which lists no less than 2,080 pesticides (three quarters produced in China). Surprisingly, the main chemicals that our farmers say they use (Eduwodzi, Sarosate, Tackle, Weedoff etc.) are not listed…

We are most grateful to Tony & Judith Yarrow for supporting this project.

Thu 15 Dec 16


Oslo Amputee Camp

This morning we paid a visit to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender & Children’s Affairs in Makeni to ask about the work of the Disability Section, and in particular, what it was doing to support blind and visually-impaired children in Bombali. The answer was ‘very little’ because the Local Department’s budget has been slashed — in the second half of 2016 the office received just 18% of what it was expecting.

Within these constraints the Department's Disability Section is doing its best to support 13 ‘Disability Camps’ in Bombali District, some catering for polio victims; others, for amputees,* and this is just one of its social programmes. We met with half a dozen amputees on Monday when we visited the Oslo Amputee Camp just outside Makeni (pictured here).

The Department’s cuts follow Ebola and the demise of so many local companies and businesses, which has in turn triggered widespread price rises, not least fuel, which have gone up by 60% in recent months. And that’s not all: yesterday, with Christmas approaching, all of the petrol stations we visited in Makeni were saying that they had ‘no petrol’, whilst black marketeers were shame-facedly selling petrol on their forecourts at inflated prices! And of course, the people most affected by these price rises and scams are those living in extreme poverty in camps like Oslo.

Sentru, who is hearing-impaired

A second surprise finding was that researchers from Social Welfare had recently come across a mysterious and very unpleasant new disease that was affecting children. It causes puss to ooze from the ears. And as if that was not bad enough, they told us that in the heat, the puss gives off a foul smell. They had found that in one village they studied, Kathantha Bana, possibly as many as 50% of the children in one school catchment area were affected, and it does not appear to be related to Post Ebola Syndrome.

We suspect that the disease might well have be affecting some of the children that saw on Monday in Sowulia, where we found no less than six children suffering from hearing loss, and some had ear plugs. The photo shows one little deaf girl, Sentu, eye-balling Jill and Daniel as they try unsuccessfully to communicate with her.

The worrying thing is that local Health Centres have no idea how to cope with this condition, and we suspect that this will also be the case in most local hospitals, where facilities are primitive.

Sierra Leone can do without another mysterious and highly unpleasant illness like this.

* During the Rebel War (which raged for most of the 90s) many atrocities were committed, often by youths on drugs. This included hacking off people’s limbs. Some jokingly gave their poor victims a choice and would say: ‘long sleeve’ or ‘short’? Thousands were affected, and many of those that survived are now living in the camps.

Mon 12 Dec 16

Today we visited eight villages to the north of Makeni (Sierra Leone) to see how many children with disabilities we could identify. We were particular interested in those who were visually impaired and not attending school.

Over the course of about five hours, Jill, myself and two of our colleagues from Vision for the Blind, Daniel and Benson, were introduced to 22 children or young persons who had some form of disability and we were told of 3 more. This included:

• 4 children who had lost the sight on one eye (through accident, cataracts or Ebola);

• 6 other children who had other problems with their eyes;

• 8 children who were hearing impaired or could not speak properly — 6 in the same village;

Mariatu loses an eye to Ebola

• 3 children who had multiple medical problems; and

• 1 teenage girl who had lost her toes through leprosy.

Many of the children had not had visited a health centre, some had been treated with traditional medicines (which, when eyes are involved, can be really dangerous); and a number were in a very pathetic state.

We were particularly moved by the plight of one young girl, Mariatu -- shown in the photo with her mother, Margaret. Mariatu and 17 members of her immediate family caught Ebola, and only Mariatu and her mother survived. And then Mariatu went on to develop Post Ebola Syndrome and lost the sight of her left eye.

There really is no justice in the world...

Sat 10 Dec 16


Gibrilla Sesay in Eye Clinic

We are in the north of Sierra Leone, where yesterday we met with Gibrilla Sesay, a trained Ophthalmic Nurse who is responsible for the Eye Clinic in the Old Government Hospital in Makeni.

Gibrilla, who used to work with Sightsavers in Freetown, has two small rooms and the bare minimum of equipment. In fact, most what he has (shown here) is old and donated by visiting professionals and by well-wishers. The bottom photo shows racks of glasses at the Unit -- they are able to grind lenses on site!

Gibrilla gets a pittance for a salary, barely enough to support him and his small family. In fact he receives significantly less than a teacher, as his formal qualifications and experience as an Ophthalmic Nurse are not recognised by the Ministry of Health. It is only his passion for the work that keeps him doing the job.

Over the last four months Gibrilla and his colleagues have screened around 500 Ebola survivors in Bombali District and the findings are currently being collated as part of a national assessment programme.

A significant proportion of those who survived the virus have reported problems with their eyesight (and a range of other medical problems, from headaches and painful muscles, to lethargy). Indeed, we discovered recently in correspondence with the main eye specialist at the Baptist Eye Hospital in Lunsar that many of those suffering visual impairment are affected in just one eye.*

Gibrilla Sesay in Eye Clinic

One of the difficulties facing the researchers is to know how much of the eyesight deterioration is due to Ebola and how much the result of the patient having poor eyesight before falling ill. So few had ever had their eyes tested...

Nothing is easy in Sierra Leone, but it is refreshing to meet committed and dedicated people like Gibrilla who are doing their very best under extremely difficult circumstances. We hope to call on his services in the months ahead for our project working to get blind and visually-impaired children into mainstream schools.

* The virus was found to remain in the eyeball (and the testes in men) long after the person was considered to have been cured, and surgeons have been reluctant to operate on patients for this reason.

Tue 18 Oct 16


Our Financial Year runs to the end of July. Here’s a note of some of the things that we will be putting in our Annual Report for FY 2015-16:

AFRICA: Our main focus during the year was getting our projects in Sierra Leone back on track in the wake of Ebola. The country was declared Ebola-free in November but there was an unexpected Ebola death in January, which prolonged the uncertainty and delayed a planned visit.

Mike Flood & Jonathan Conteh in Kondeya (2016)

Our main work was on inclusive education for blind and visually-impaired (BVI) children (in Bombali), and educational and livelihoods support for rural women (in Bombali & Koinadugu). In Ghana we successfully completed the first phase of a training programme for subsistence farmers in the Volta Region; and we made an exploratory visit to Zimbabwe.

UNITED KINGDOM: We also worked to promote public understanding of the nature and causes of poverty in low-income countries: for example, we uploaded a wide range of human interest pieces onto our website and Facebook Page during the year; and we mentored a small number of volunteers / interns.

Main Achievements

Our partners in Sierra Leone were: Vision for the Blind (Project B150), Education for Women and Grassroots Education & Development for Women (B158), and Domestic Concern for Women (B155). With and through them we:

• conducted a detailed survey of the needs and aspirations of 23 BVI students from seven schools in Makeni; and provided practical support to 13, and some assistance to another ten;

NETRICE workshop in Akaa Village attended mainly by women subsistence farmers (2016)

• set up and equipped visual impairment units in two schools — we think these are the first such units in the country — and we trained 17 teachers in special educational needs (SEN);

• provided functional literacy and non-formal basic education for around 350 farmers and petty traders, primarily women;

• prepared ten new case studies on violence against women and girls in the Makeni area, and supported a sensitization programme on the prevalence and consequences of domestic violence and early marriage / teenage pregnancy in over 20 mosques and churches -- this reached well over 2,000 people and was very well-received.

We also worked with the Network for Rice Farming Associations in Ghana to promote sustainable agriculture in the Volta Region (Project B157). This included:

• empowering over 160 subsistence farmers (60% women) with knowledge about sustainable agriculture and integrated pest management (which inter alia minimizes the use of pesticides);

• collecting data on over 50 pesticide incidents in the region that caused injury and in some cases, led to death; and

Response when NETRICE Team asks students in one school how many are involved in pesticide spraying!(2016)

• reaching nearly 6,300 students (and 200 members of staff) at 12 high schools with presentations on the dangers of pesticides — in many high schools 30-40% of students are involved in spraying; and they have no training and don’t use protection.

We also lobbied senior personnel in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency about the urgent need to implement key aspects of legislation on pesticides, and we have been invited back to address the EPA’s Committee on the use of Pesticides.

In May Jill and Nick met with the Zimbabwe National League of the Blind (in Bulawayo) to explore the potential for working together on disability issues; and they raised with senior civil servants and politicians (in Harare) the plight of people who are BVI.

Reporting to Donors & Supporters: We submitted three project reports to funders/donors during the year (one on inclusive Education, two on sustainable agriculture/the schools talk programme); we also prepared a report on DCFW’s work on domestic violence and teenage pregnancy, and we drafted a report on the Women’s Education Programme.

And we have a full programme of activities for the current Financial Year and some challenging targets to meet!

Photos: The top photo shows Mike Flood with Jonathan Conteh, Director of Vision for the Blind (sitting on Mike's left) talking with GEDeW's Learning Circle in Kondeya (Jonathan has taken a special interest in this programme and knows the circles well); the middle photo is of a 2-day NETRICE workshop in Akaa Village, attended mainly by women subsistence farmers; and the bottom photo shows what happened when a member of NETRICE's school team asked how many students were involved in pesticide spraying!

Fri 29 Jul 16


Ali Martin Sesay opening specialist equipment for the new Visual Impairment Units in Makeni

In Sierra Leone very few children who are blind or visually-impaired (BVI) go to school: parents do not see the need for it; schools do not have the facilities, and teachers are not trained in Special Educational Needs (SEN). For the last three years we have been working with Vision for the Blind on a Comic Relief-funded project to establish an enabling environment for Inclusive Education in Makeni.

We had to virtually suspend the work during the Ebola emergency (when we supported various initiatives to help the blind community protect itself from infection.*

We were able to return to the work when the schools reopened in late 2015. In essence, we are:

Meeting in the new VIU at UMC in Makeni

o providing practical training on disability awareness for teachers;

o setting up Visual Impairment Units in three schools;

o providing various forms of academic and emotional support for BVI children; and

o organising an integrated public sensitisation programme on disability awareness (including looking for BVI children who are not going to school).

We have also been talking with officials to understand some of the barriers to the implementation of the 2007 Child Rights Act and the 2011 Persons with Disability Act.

Our target is to get 50 BVI children into mainstream education (we are currently helping 23); at least four schools with an enabling environment for Inclusive Education (with the necessary facilities, staff with SEN training, and general acceptance of BVI children’s right to an education); and a practical model of how current legislation can be used to deliver Education for All.

We are also concerned that BVIC are seriously disadvantaged when they enter mainstream schools where their special skills (in Braille, typing, etc.) are not assessed and they have less choice in exams (because they don’t take a number of subjects, including Maths) which prevents them ever getting a distinction. They have to remember the exam questions (which are read to them), and if they type, they cannot read what they have written...

We have discussed these issues with the Commissioner and Executive Secretary at the Commission for PWD and the Dept. Director of Education in Makeni, and also with staff at the Bombali School for the Blind (in Makeni) and the Milton Margai School for the Blind (in Freetown — the photo below was taken at the second meeting).

Meeting with staff at the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown

The Government is currently working on a policy paper on inclusive education (in coalition with INGOs and NGOs) and this paper is due out at the end of the year. We have prepared a short submission describing how BVICs are discriminated against in schools, and we will be submitting this shortly. We are also concerned that the school inspection system doesn't work for many schools. For example, in Bombali (where we are working) there are two inspectors and they have over 800 schools on their books. We understand that some schools have not been inspected for 10 years!

The top photo is of our friend Ali Martin Sesay (former Disability Commissioner for the Northern Region) examining some of the specialist equipment that we have provided for the visual impairment units; he is shown here with VFB's Education Officer, Benson. In the second photo, members of our team are holding a meeting in the Visual Impairment Unit at UMC Secondary School in Makeni, which is now furnished and will be operating in September.

* BVIP were particularly vulnerable to infection as they rely on touch, which the Government told people to avoid…

Mon 25 Jul 16


Mike & Joe meeting with GEDeW's learners in Fasaway

For the last 12 years we have been working to help local partners in Sierra Leone provide non-formal basic education and functional literacy for rural women and teenage girls, and over 4,000 (and their families) have benefitted.* They have learned to read and write simple words, and also sign their names; and they have learned about basic healthcare and community and social issues -- and about their rights and responsibilities as mothers and citizens.

Pate Bana Masimbo Learning Circle in Bombali

We have also supported livelihoods projects to increase economic independence and food security (our last involved the distribution of seed rice and groundnuts, which really helped many families during the Ebola crisis).

One of the objects of my current visit was to talk with Grassroots Education & Development for Women (GEDeW) in Kabala and Education for Women (EFW) in Makeni to see if their learning circles can become more self-sufficient. Sadly, it has become very difficult to raise resources for this kind of grassroots community work; Government doesn't want to know, trusts and foundation have less money to distribute (because of the low interest rates) and there are so many good causes; and very few private individuals seem willing to support small, low-profile NGOs.

Meeting with EFW's learners in Makump Doron

In this respect I have now visited 8 circles -- heavy rain yesterday prevented us from visiting 3 more. The visits to three of these circles are shown here, Fasawaya (in Koinaduugu) and Pate Bana Masimbo and Makump Doron (in Bombali) — this last village was really badly affected by Ebola; dozens died, including some of our learners.

We have been very encouraged by the response we received: in all but one of the circles the learners agreed to pay either 1,000 or 2,000 Leones a week for their facilitator -- members of the other circle, Ismaia, simply could not agree.

The amount, equivalent to 12 or 25 pence, is not much for us, but it is quite a burden on a subsistence farmer or petty trader who may have to justify the expense to her husband....

For our part, we will over the next year be supporting our partners with more facilitator training and also helping them develop some new learning units and at least one new funding proposal.

Meeting with EFW's learners in Makump Doron

To help get the message across, I asked Vision for the Blind's Director, Jonathan Conteh, to accompany me on the visits. Joe knows GEDeW and EFW well and has visited most of their learning circles many times before. But most importantly, he is a powerful speaker and he knows how to get messages across. (Joe is seated next to me in the top photo.) And the fact that he is blind helps change people's attitude to disability.

We understand that paying regularly for their education will be quite a challenge for our learners, but both GEDeW and EFW are determined to do what they can to make it work. And both groups have recently taken on new Board Members, who I was able to meet for the first time. Indeed, both Boards promised to do all they can to make their grassroots operation sustainable.

We had a surprise for one of our colleagues, Fatmata Sesay, GEDeW's Director: we took her a laptop computer, and when she saw it she hugged it like a baby. The smile on her face said everything!

* Men also benefit, but we try to ensure that they are in the minority. Interesting, during our recent meetings the circles requested that the number of registered male learners be allowed to increase from 20 to 30%.

Sat 23 Jul 16


Ammish & Lena discussing a new rice irrigation scheme just outside Hohoe in the Volta Region

Our main partner in Ghana is NETRICE (The Network of Rice Farming Associations). Our current joint project involves empowering 500 subsistence farmers in the Volta Region with knowledge about sustainable agriculture and how to minimise the use of pesticides whilst protecting people’s health and the environment.

NETRICE has also been giving talks to high school and college students about the dangers of using chemical sprays — in some high schools we found that a third of more of students are involved in spraying (without any training or protection).

So far the current programme has reached well over 6,000 students. And we have also been gathering information on pesticide incidents in the region and lobbying for current laws and regulations on pesticides to be properly implemented.*

Workshop in Akaa Village with mainly women subsistence farmers.

The photos show:

1) two of our colleagues, Ammish and Lena, visiting a novel rice irrigation scheme (which will enable farmers to systematically flood their fields);

2) a two day workshop (in Akaa) for subsistence farmers (over 80% women) which provided practical instruction on integrated pest management (sustainable agriculture), and also when and where to use pesticides -- and do it without killing themselves!; and

3) the Ministry of Food & Agriculture in Hohoe, where we have been doing a little gentle lobbying -- it was interesting to learn that some years ago one of their officers had died from pesticide poisoning.

Ministry of Food & Agriculture Offices in Hohoe in the Volta Region

We were also able to inform the Director / Chemicals & Registrar of Pesticides at the Environmental Protection Agency in Accra of some rather dubious promotional initiatives that the chemical companies have been involved in that he was not aware of. We particularly disliked the way companies were attaching small capsules of soothing cream to their most toxic 'red top' chemicals for people to use if they found their skin itching!

* Despite legislation, there are no effective controls over the sale of pesticides in Ghana: subsistence farmers routinely use these highly potent chemicals on their crops and in food stores without training or protection and with very little appreciation of the risks. We have to date documented dozens of health-related incidents including 20 deaths although most of these still need to be authenticated... and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tue 05 Apr 16


Many students in poor countries are actively involved in spraying pesticides on local farms. They do this to help their parents as well as to pay for school fees, uniforms and books. But in doing so they put their health — even their lives — at risk as few if any receive any training and they don’t wear protection.

NETRICE school talks in Volta Region March 2016

For some years now Powerful Information has been working with the Network of Rice Farming Associations in Eastern Ghana to investigate how more sustainable and safer agricultural practices might be introduced in the Volta Region. One of our aims is to reduce the high incidence of injury and death among subsistence farmers from exposure to pesticides and make their practice more sustainable and less damaging to the environment.

In March NETRICE made presentations to over 3,800 students at nine high schools, and three more talks are planned shortly. The fact that so many heads and members of staff attended (well over one hundred) is a testament to how important they considered the issue.

Our colleagues were alarmed (although not surprised) at the proportion of students who admitted to spraying: in two thirds of the schools it was 25% or more, and in one school, 44%, with one quarter girls. A breakdown is given in the table below.

The talks were given jointly by agricultural specialists and educationalists and followed a set routine: this generally starts with a formal presentation which looks at why farmers use agro-chemicals, and also presents the results of our local surveys of farmer-practice (keeping chemicals under the bed for safety; washing equipment in streams at the end of the day; storing food in used pesticide containers, etc.).

Our Team also cover 'good‘ and ‘bad’ insects, and explain how chemicals can upset the balance of nature, especially aquatic ecosystems, as well as how they affect people’s health; and they talk about how crop quality and yields can be improved, and risks and costs reduced, with Integrated Pest Management —IPM is where pesticides are used, but only as a last resort.

And we are always careful to discourage children from spraying and not tell them how to do it!

The schools in the photos (from the top) are: Mempeasem Junior High; Tapaman Senior High Technical; and Jim Bourton Agricultural Senior High — the bottom photo actually shows the response when the students were asked ‘which of you are involved in pesticide spraying?’

Following the talks NETRICE emailed copies of our ‘Trainers’ Resource Pack on Sustainable Agriculture & IPM’ to 38 Tutors, and they will shortly email copies to another 17, so schools will have some good written material that they can refer to in coming years.

If you would like to help us extend this programme to other schools in the region, please get in touch. Thank you!

NETRICE school talks in Volta Region March 2016 Table

Fri 19 Feb 16


According to Girls Not Brides 18% of girls in Sierra Leone are married by the age of 15, and 44% by 18. Moreover, a recent study of health found that 56% of women had been attacked and beaten at some point in their lives; and another noted that very few people were aware of the laws around gender based violence (GBV) and pointed out that the problem was especially acute in hard-to-reach rural communities, where levels of literacy are low and there is entrenched discrimination under Customary Law.*

Painting of Young Bride

Last year we responded to a request from Domestic Concern for Women (DCFW) to fund a specific programme of work designed to sensitise people in communities in and around Makeni to the problem of early marriage, teenage pregnancy and GBV. We have now received a report on the work and we’d like to share some of the findings with you. It is a sad fact that many women don't know (or can't exercise) their legal rights,** and this makes them highly vulnerable to abuse. The Ebola crisis has made the problem worse.***

DCFW is a small community-based organisation run by Aminata Conteh. Her report describes visits to some 22 mosques and churches to sensitize worshipers and press home the point that girls should be going to school, not married off young. Indeed, early marriage (which is illegal) is potentially life-threatening because girls are not fully developed, either emotionally or physically, and many suffer life-changing injuries in childbirth. But girls have a right to an education and they should get to choose who they marry. Aminata reckons that she was able to reach well over 2,000 people through her presentations, which clearly went down well as many of the mosques / churches have asked her to return. (See our blog of 20 August.)

Gender Based Violence

Aminata is convinced that the incidence of GBV has increased over the last couple of years as a result of Ebola and the closure of so many businesses (and schools). This and the fear of contagion has put many families under enormous pressure — which may explain the recent spike in teenage pregnancies.** Aminata explains how over the last 9 months she has intervened directly in no fewer than ten cases of assault, including five rapes, three involving children. She is shown here (left) talking with Aminata Kargbo (another of our partners) in Education for Women’s office in Makeni.

Here are some brief notes extracted from her reports:

• In April, 60 year old Ya Marie was raped by her lodger. The incident took place when Ya Marie was looking after her grandchildren. Sorie had pretended to be sick and attacked her after everyone had gone to work. She was too ashamed to report the attack, but she told her daughter, who told Aminata, and Aminata went to the police. Sorie was subsequently arrested and convicted; he is now serving a 7 year sentence.

• In May, Isatu was seriously beaten by her fiancé, Thomas. Aminata was approached and called the couple together to see if the matter could be settled, but a fight started — actually in Aminata’s sitting room while she was trying to mediate. Thomas lashed out when Isatu asked him to return her mobile phone and Aminata was unable to separate them. The couple were still fighting when the police arrived. Thomas was arrested and sent to court where he was sentence to three months in prison.

Aminata C & Aminata K

• In June, Aminata found 11 year old Fatu selling sachets of cold water on the street to make money. She was staying with her step-mother Elena after her mother contracted Ebola and died. But Elena beat and ill-treated the girl and refused to buy her things for school. Aminata discovered the truth when she asked Fatu why she wasn’t at school, and she took her straight to the Family Support Unit (FSU). Elena was taken to court where she was given the option of six months in prison for child neglect or paying a fine of SLL 200,000 (~£25) — that’s a fortune for someone living on the breadline.

• The same month, 16 year old Isata was raped in town. Aminata reported the assailant to the police, 65 year old Issa. He was detained and sentenced to 7 years in jail. And another girl,

• 16 year old Yainkain, was made pregnant by Abdul, a local teacher. This incident led to Yainkain being driven out of her home and onto the street. Aminata tried to talk with the parents but they wouldn’t accept their daughter back so she took the girl to the FSU, and whilst the police did succeed in getting the parents to take her in, when Yainkain went into labour (at 2:00 in the morning) they would do nothing to help, so Aminata and her husband accompanied the frightened girl to hospital where they were both required to give blood. Sadly, Yainkain’s baby died. We understand that the police are still looking for Abdul…

• In September, 11 year old Bilkisu was beaten by her step-father Alhaji because she refused to go onto the street to sell water. After Aminata reported the assault Alhaji was charged and fined SLL 1,500,000. The same month

• Neneh was raped. She was just 7 years old. The child had been sent by her uncle’s wife to sell water on the street. 19 year old Saidu had seen her and enticed her into a derelict building where he raped her. Saidu was detained by a neighbour who heard the girl’s screams and called Aminata who accompanied him and the distressed girl to the police station. Saidu appeared in court and was sentenced to 3 years; and Neneh’s parents were fined SL 500,000 for forcing such a young girl to be out on the street. Neneh spent two weeks in hospital recovering.

• Amie was five months pregnant when she was beaten by her husband Abu Bakarr and this caused her to abort. With Aminata’s help Abu was sent to court where he was fined SL 2,000,000. Then, just one week later

• 23 year old orphan, Christiana, was raped by two men who fled the scene. Aminata took the young woman to the police station to report the incident. The assailants are still being sought.

Such incidents are all too common in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere), and it is good that Aminata and her colleagues were on hand to help. But what really upsets Aminata is that, after she has worked so hard to bring perpetrators to court, all too often they will meet with close friends and relatives of the victim and use money to persuade them to drop the case.

• Kadiatu is a case in point: in April her husband Umaro gave her SLL 300,000 to do trade and three months later he asked her to give it him back with SLL 200,000 interest. But Kadiatu had used some of the money she had made to feed their two children and she only had SLL 250,000 left. Umaro got angry and hit her many times and then told her that if she went to the police he would divorce her. Kadiatu’s plight came to Aminata’s notice and as a result Umero appeared in court. However, some months later the case was dropped when Umaro settled out of court.

Can You Help?

Aminata is struggling to raise funds for her work: at present she is wholly reliant on Powerful Information but we are basically project-funded and we are finding it very difficult to fund this kind of work, and we have very little unrestricted funding.

IDS Report on GBV in Salone

If you would like to help, please get in touch some very desperate women and girls will be so grateful for your support. Thank you!

* The reports are: ‘Demographic & Health Survey 2013’, Ministry of Health & Sanitation/ICF International (2014); and ‘They Call Me Warrior: the legacy of conflict and the struggle to end sexual & gender-based violence in Sierra Leone', Elizabeth Mills et al., Institute of Development Studies (2015).

** Women’s rights are enshrined in three Gender Acts (2007), a Sexual Offences Act (2012) and CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (which the Government signed in 1988).

*** Seema Yasmin ‘The Ebola Rape Epidemic No One’s Talking About’, Foreign Policy, 2 February 2016

Thu 18 Feb 16


Our colleagues in Vision for the Blind liked the article that we posted yesterday (below) about their training workshop in Makeni. However, they have pointed out that I did not explain properly WHY the young boy Sorie was significantly older (bigger) than his class mates. Visual impairment alone is not enough to explain this…

Ali Martin at the Bombali School for the Blind

It may also be that when Sorie became blind his parents spent a lot of time trying get him treated before they came to properly understand his condition; or perhaps they were too poor to pay for treatment; or maybe local schools were reluctant to take him because they couldn’t cope with his disability.

Actually, Sorie was lucky because before joining his Primary School he was taken in by the Bombali School for the Blind (5 km outside Makeni) where, apart from his studies he was able to learn and acquire some basic survival skills. But this took a couple of years, and this explains the age difference.

Of course, some BVI children are not so lucky and their families abandon them. This has been the experience of several of our blind colleagues — one of whom, Ali Martin, went on to become of the first Disability Commissioner for the Northern Region in Sierra Leone! He is seen here at the Bombali School for the Blind in 2012.

So you never know what potential lies within people and where they will end up if only then are given the chance!

Consulting with the Stakeholders

Last month we worked with VFB to design a survey for BVI students in Makeni, to give us a better understanding of their personal circumstance, so that we can tailor our support programme to their specific needs and address as many of their concerns as practicable. We also asked them about their aspirations. And in January VFB interviewed 19 of them and we (PI) analysed the results using one of our bespoke databases. It turns out six of the students want to be teachers; 4, lawyers; 2 politicians, and one, President!

BVI Students at VFB Office in Makeni

And this afternoon 16 of these students came to the VFB Office to discuss our joint programme in more detail, and I was able to speak briefly with all of them over our Skype link (as shown in the photos). In particular we wanted to ask the students’ advice on the design and operation of the visual impairment units that we will shortly be setting up in three of their schools. These will contain brailled copies of the main text books as well as a range of specialist equipment (Perkins Braillers, Marburgh and Taylor Frames, recording equipment, etc. etc. and including simulation spectacles).

We will be using this last item as part of our school sensitization programme, to give sighted individuals some experience of what it is like to get around with limited or no vision. We suspect that this will have a very profound effect on their attitude towards their BVI colleagues and will help improve their understanding of this condition that a significant minority in the population have to live with day in, day out.

Wed 17 Feb 16


We had a bit of a breakthrough yesterday — for the first time we were able to participate, directly from the office, in a training workshop taking place in the north of Sierra Leone. We have not been able to do this before because of the poor state of broadband, and the high cost of communicating with mobile phones (~60p/minute over Skype).

Sorie in his class

The workshop has been organized by our partners Vision for the Blind and is taking place this week in Makeni. It involves training two new members of the VFB team to take part in our joint inclusive education project for blind and visually-impaired (BVI) children — children like Sorie, seen here (right) in his primary school just outside Makeni. Sorie is significantly older (and bigger) than his class mates because he is so far behind with his education because of his visual impairment.

We started the project 3 years ago with a grant from Comic Relief but ran into trouble in May 2014 when Ebola struck and Sierra Leone went into lockdown: travel and meetings were severely restricted, and all schools were closed. This effectively put our project on hold, although we were able to support a number of initiatives, not least a series of 10 hour-long radio phone-ins on Ebola (organised by VFB) which targeted blind listeners who’s specific concerns were not being addressed by either the Government or the media.

I had hoped to be at the Makeni workshop, but decided against travelling when three new cases of Ebola were identified in mid-January, just one day after the World Health Organisation announced West Africa ‘Ebola-free’.* No one knows how this latest outbreak will pan out, and after consultations with Comic Relief we decided to await developments: restrictions on movement and assembly makes project management very challenging! But we are now discovering some real benefits of operating at a distance — not least the reduced costs. This is possible because of the internet and the understanding and close working relationship we have with our partners.

Sorie in his class

The workshop is preparing Ibrahim and Benson to join the team: Ibrahim is seen here on the right of my screen; others taking part include Jonathan (VFB’s Director); Daniel, who runs VFB’s Makeni Office and is now managing the project; Foday, Joe’s Assistant (centre screen); and Fatmata, Daniel’s Assistant (left). Both Joe and Daniel are blind.

What is so nice about this development is being able to interact directly with our colleagues (over Skype), and exchange diagrams (by e-mail) on a real-time basis. We started by making sure that everyone was on board and understood the basic terminology, and we did this by outlining the project aims and working through our ‘Theory of Change’ (ToC) model. We are right now gradually building up the different elements of the ToC, starting with the activities and outputs (bottom image). On the right of the screen is the project’s goal — an enabling environment for BVI children in selected Makeni schools — and on the left, the enabling factors — being able to identify new BVICs in the area who are not currently in education; schools willing to accept disabled students and adopt the inclusive education approach; and politicians and policy-makers willing to listen and do what they can to see that legislation that has been on the statute books for some time is enacted.

Disabled children have a basic right to an education (and free medical services) under Sierra Leone’s 2007 Child Rights Act and 2011 Persons with Disability Act — and Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability. In respect of the former (right to education), there is not as yet a clear policy on IE in Sierra Leone, and without this no one will take responsibility for implementing the legislation; and in respect of the latter (free medical treatment) a Medical Board is required and this has not yet been established. So apart from supporting BVI children directly, setting up visual impairment units in three schools, training teachers in SEN (Special Educational Needs), and sensitizing stakeholders (sighted children, their parents, etc. etc.), we are also lobbying three Ministries (Education, Health & Social Welfare) to put pressure on them to enact the legislation.

* A 22 year old woman who died on 15 January in neighbouring Tonkolili District tested positive for Ebola. What has worried officials was that whilst the country was supposedly in a state of heightened awareness Ebola had not been detected in this young woman when she reported to hospital with a fever, and as a result of her subsequent travelling she put over 100 people at risk in four districts including Bombali.

Thu 15 Oct 15


It is International Day of Rural Women and we should like to remember the plight of millions of women and girls in rural parts of the so-called ‘developing world’ who are on the front line when it comes to poverty, insecurity and lack of healthcare.*

Fasaway Women, Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone

Last month, the UN General Assembly approved a new ‘Global Roadmap’ with the broad aim of ending poverty, combatting inequalities and promoting prosperity by 2030. The Roadmap’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 Targets have gender equality and women’s empowerment at their core. There is also a target to ‘double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers’, and in particular, productivity and incomes for women.

Powerful Information is making a small contribution to meeting these goals through our various education, livelihood and skills-training programmes, which are run jointly with local partners. We are focused, in particular, on the first five Goals: ‘No Poverty’, ‘Zero Hunger’, ‘Good Health & Well-being’, ‘Quality Education’ and ‘Gender Equality’.

We currently have one grassroots community programme in the Volta Region of Ghana, which aims to train 250 women (and an equivalent number of men) in sustainable agriculture and through education reduce the appalling incidence of death and injury caused by pesticide misuse. We have another programme in Bombali and Koinadugu in Sierra Leone, which is providing non-formal basic education for over 300 women a year -- the photo is of women in GEDeW's learning circle in Fasawaya in Koinadugu.** And we are supporting a small initiative that is providing counselling and practical support for women and teenage girls in Bombali who have been threatened or abused by their partners or other family members.

Sustainable Development Goals

As I write, the women farmers in Sierra Leone that we support are harvesting their groundnuts (peanuts), and they will shortly be gathering in their rice. This is all part of a Livelihood Programme that is helping reduce food insecurity. Our programme proved a lifeline when Ebola struck, as it helped offset the effects of the sharp escalation in prices.***

If you would like to donate towards our work and support rural women please click on the 'Make a Donation' Button below. We are struggling to fund this year's learning circles. A few pounds can make a real difference and help the women and girls from Fasawaya and the 14 other circles that we support. Thank you so much!

* The International Day of Rural Women recognizes “the critical role and contribution of rural women in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.” It was established by the UN General Assembly and first observed in Oct 2008.

** We have been running this education and empowerment programme for 12 years. Thus far it has benefitted close to 4,000 women and girls, mainly subsistence farmers and petty traders, who have learned how to read, write and count and now understand basic hygiene and healthcare, and their rights under the law. (GEDeW = Grassroot Education & Development for Women.)

*** Sierra Leone has now gone 18 days without a case of Ebola. It has another 24 days to go before it is declared free of the disease.

Sat 12 Sep 15


Tens of thousands of subsistence farmers — and their families, friends and neighbours — are injured each year by the misuse of pesticides. Many are hospitalised; some are damaged for life; and some die. Farmers use these aggressive chemicals to clear land and also to tackle a multitude of pests and diseases that attack their crops and food stores, but most do so without training or protection. No one knows how many are affected because most of the victims are in poor countries where few health centres keep records and people are often buried within 24 hours of death. (Post-mortems are virtually unheard of.)

Meeting with Pesticide Victims in Nsuta

This is why we started a Pesticide Incident Database as part of our sustainable agriculture work in Ghana. We now have over 50 incidents recorded. We are doing this work with NETRICE, an umbrella organisation representing Rice Farming Associations in the Volta Region.

We became interested in the problem of pesticide abuse many years ago when we were involved in an organic agriculture project in West Africa, in Ghana, Benin and Senegal. Many of the stories that we heard then have stayed with us — the four children who died after their grandmother rubbed pesticide into their hair to kill head lice; the three little kids poisoned after eating gari (cassava) from a bowl previously used by their mother to mix pesticides; and the two students who died after walking through farmer's field and eating water melon which had just been sprayed …

We started serious data collection in 2010 after it was reported that over 40 subsistence farmers in the Volta Region had died the previous year from pesticide poisoning. With NETRICE we organised a survey of 200 farmers in the region and 87% reported that they had suffered adverse health effects following spraying. Most didn’t realise that pesticides can be dangerous to health. And we held meetings with some of the people affected — the one shown here was in Nsuta and involved 28 farmers.

Since that time NETRICE has have been collecting incident details from farmers’ groups and agricultural extension officers working for the Ministry of Agriculture. The quality of the data is variable, as is only to be expected — we usually get the name of the village and the sex of the victim, but people’s names and exact dates and often missing. We are confident about the data on 16 incidents, half involving deaths, including a depressed 36 year old man in Santrokofi Gbodome who deliberately drank pesticide — his mother reported that he died an agonising death in hospital a week later. The other incidents resulted in 21 men, 15 women and one child being serious injured.

Pesticide Spraying Demo in Asato

Following a workshop we ran in Brewaniase (in Jan 2010) a man told us that he had become impotent after spraying pesticides for many years: he was unable to sit comfortably as the muscles in his legs had been permanently damaged. Sadly, this condition is not uncommon — John, one of the extension officers who is helping us, reckons that the condition may affect half of the men farming in some areas where there is heavy pesticide use, including the region in the south where he is from.

That same year a man from Have-Etoe collapsed after using herbicide to prepare his land for planting: by the time someone found him he was in a coma and died soon after. Another man, in Nyagbo, became dizzy and incoherent; he was rushed to hospital but passed away. In 2011 a woman in her 30s collapsed after spending the day spraying her rice and garden eggs in Asato; she died in hospital several days later leaving four children. Soon after this we organised our first farmers’ workshop in Asato — the adjacent photo was taken during a practical demonstration of how to kit up and spray safely.* The following year a man who earned his living spraying, who came from Andokofe (one of the communities we visited last week), is also reported to us as having died from exposure to chemicals. And we have had two more reports of deaths from the village where the young man committed suicide: in 2012 a mother of six fell sick and died after using a spray in the fields; and the same happened to a mother of four in 2013.

But it is not just those who do the spraying who are affected: when we met the Treasurer of the Unity Farmers' Group in Hohoe on Sunday she told us that she nearly died after inhaling spray drift from her husband who was working nearby. She was hospitalised for more than a week. We also learned of the case of three members of a family in Santrokofi Benua (where we have been staying) who went to hospital suffering from nausea and sickness after a neighbour sprayed his yard.

The quality of the data collected on more than 30 other incidents that we now have on our database is somewhat less satisfactory: we are confident that the incidents took place but important information is missing, such as dates and names. The incidents in this category include 11 deaths (4 men, 4 women and 3 children) and 18 people injured (13 men, 2 women and 3 children).

One farmer from the village of Aveme, tired after spraying his fields all day, left his half-empty knapsack sprayer on the roof of his field shelter — many farmers sleep on the job as their fields are a long way from home. During the night while he slept the machine leaked and soaked his clothing. When he awoke he felt dizzy and weak; he was slipping in and out of consciousness and unable to help himself, and died shortly after. In separate incidents in Dekpor a man and a woman died after spraying their rice plantations and sleeping in the fields nearby; and in the same village a baby girl died after being breast fed — prior to this her mother had spent three days spraying.

Roundup in Magazine

Then there is the case of the teacher in Gbefi who is reported to have gone blind after regularly spilling chemicals on his skin during spraying; and the seven month old baby boy in Havorgordo left sleeping while his mother was spraying: the baby awoke and started crawling around and his clothes got soaked in chemicals. He died five days later in hospital. In Logba, parents left some chemicals in their daughter’s bedroom: thinking it was milk powder, she ate some and passed out. She was rushed to hospital and we think survived, but we have still to confirm this. (It has to be said that even if local medics recognise that they have a case of pesticide poisoning, most have neither the resources nor training to deal with such cases.)

Glyphosate: Eighteen of the incidents in our database are reported to have involved glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in ‘Round-up’, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, widely used to clear the land prior to planting — it’s a lot cheaper to use chemicals than pay (and feed) labourers to hack down the vegetation with machetes.

Roundup Poster in chemical cabin in Ghana

Looking at some of the publicity we’ve seen in Ghana you’d be excused for thinking that glyphosate was virtually harmless — here are two examples, one from a catalogue (the person spraying is unprotected); the other, shows a Roundup poster in a chemical seller’s cabin that we visited — the only protection shown is a face mask. Glyphosate is actually classified by the World Health Organization as ‘slightly hazardous’ (ie a Class III pesticide), although you do need to bear in mind that this assumes ‘normal use’, and what is ‘normal use’ to a possibly illiterate and untrained subsistence farmer in Africa may mean something quite different from what the experts have in mind (like mixing chemicals with bare hands and spraying with little or no protection).

Monsanto brought glyphosate to market in the 1970s after it was found to be an effective herbicide. Today it is the most widely used herbicide on the planet. In March the International Agency for Research on Cancer (an arm of the WHO) concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. We hope they are wrong but we are watching to see how the story unfolds and how Monsanto and the various government control agencies respond.

* We promote Integrated Pest Management with the use of pesticides as a last resort — see earlier blogs below.

We are most grateful to Tony and Judith Yarrow for sponsoring this project.

Sun 06 Sep 15


Eyeing up Molecricket in Nyagbo

Our new project in Ghana is investigating the misuse of pesticides in the Volta Region and training farmers and high school students how to avoid poisoning themselves and the environment. Sadly, we are too late for one of the farmer leaders that we met on our previous project — he passed away after spraying, and is reported to have had all the symptoms of pesticide poisoning. He is seen here at a Farmer Field School that we organised in Nyagbo, on the left relishing the prospect of getting this juicy mole cricket home and into the cooking pot. (They are a local delicacy!)

The problems are enormous, not only because of subsistence farmers’ lack of training and ignorance of the dangers, but chemical companies’ complacency in not doing more to educate users and make protective equipment cheaper and more widely available; chemical sellers’ irresponsibility and possibly criminality in the way they supply these potent chemicals to people who are ignorant of the dangers; and the Government’s failure to enforce its regulations on the import and use of dangerous chemicals. Here are a few examples that we ourselves have experienced in the last week during our visit.

Pesticide Billboard in Jaskikan

Illegal Substances: The Director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s District Office in Jasikan (one hour north of where we are staying) told us on Wednesday that a lot of illegal pesticides are being smuggled into Ghana across the border from Togo. There are many entry points and border checks are inadequate. Moreover, the labels and instructions on the chemicals are in French, which few locals can read. Some suppliers also break up the packs and adulterate the chemicals; this means farmers can easily use the wrong dose. And then there are the banned substances: we ourselves bought DDT on our last visit — we were running a training workshop (in Brewaniase, on the border) and six farmers said they were using DDT, so we gave one of them 10 Cedi (~£3) and asked him to buy some for us. Within minutes he had been to the market and returned with half a Cola bottle of DDT!

Soft Sell: One large billboard that we passed on the way to meet the Director was promoting a selective systemic herbicide for maize called Sun-2.4D using the registered trade mark ‘Sunshine’. (The benefits of pesticides are widely publicised.) The manufacturer had included some small type at the bottom which announced that their product was a ‘WHO Class III chemical’ and ‘slightly harmful’. (The correct term according to the World Health Organisation is ‘slightly hazardous’.*) But we were gobsmacked later in the day when we visited chemical sellers in Hohoe and found bottles of pesticides being promoted with a tiny container of cream attached. The containers read: ‘EFFECT Cool and refreshing awake brain refreshing relieving itching pain’! You can see several capsules of cream in the photograph; they are on the bottles with red tops (ie the most toxic).

Pesticide Seller in Hohoe with cream

Irritation of the skin (and the nose, throat or eyes) is one of the symptoms of mild pesticide poisoning. Other symptoms can include: headache, dizziness and nausea; thirst and loss of appetite; sweating and diarrhoea; weakness or fatigue, restlessness, nervousness and insomnia. Chronic exposure can also cause impotence in men, and there is increased risk of infertility in women, perinatal death, spontaneous abortion, premature birth, fetal growth retardation, congenital malformations and early childhood cancer. With severe pesticide poisoning there can be chemical burns on the skin; an increased rate of breathing; uncontrollable muscular twitching and, unconsciousness leading to death, for which the small pot of cream will be little comfort…

Illegal Selling: People who want to sell pesticides need to obtain a licence, and for this they need to fill in a form, attend a training workshop (organised by the Environmental Protection Agency) and pay a fee. We visited several chemical stores in Hohoe. The owner of the first had left his teenage daughter in charge — seen below, on the right. This isn’t the first time that we have come across this highly irregular and illegal practice, but nothing is likely to happen because the law is not enforced. Indeed, very few people know what the law says. At a meeting with one District Chief on Friday a woman told us that a few days ago she had seen a man mixing pesticides with his bare hands; we don’t know what happened to him but she said that she developed a splitting headache shortly afterwards.

Section 44 of the 1994 Environmental Protection Agency Act states that “a person concerned with the use of a pesticide shall inform any other person who uses a pesticide of the dangers involved in the misuse of pesticides”, but this hardly ever happens. Moreover, “a person shall not require or permit an employee to handle or use a pesticide in the course of employment without providing and requiring the employee to use the protective facilities and clothing which will permit safe handling”. It is common for subsistence farmers, especially women, to employ others (usually men), to do the spraying for them, and either they are not aware of the dangers or they choose to ignore them. The Treasurer of one local farmers’ group in Hohoe told us on Sunday that she had been hospitalized and nearly died after she breathed in chemicals that her husband was applying nearby.

Girl in charge of chemical store in Hohoe

Protective suits are expensive and many stores (like the one shown) don’t stock them.

No Testing for Contamination: Section 44 of the Act also states that “a person shall not harvest or offer for sale a foodstuff on which pesticides have been used except in compliance with the prescribed practices including the interval between the application of pesticides and the harvest.” There are suspicions that contaminated foodstuffs are reaching local markets because of the widespread ignorance amongst farmers of the right chemicals to use on their crops, and the right dosage to apply, and when. Moreover, there is no testing of foodstuffs (except on products like cocoa and coffee which are for export) — and no post mortems on people who die after exposure, as is most probably the case with our farmers’ leader in Nyagbo.

In our next report we will provide more examples of personal tragedies resulting from pesticide misuse.

* The WHO classifies dozens of pesticides as either ‘extremely hazardous’ (Class 1a) or ‘highly hazardous’ (Class 1b) and advises against use of such chemicals in developing countries, with their use restricted to specially-trained persons. Class II is ‘moderately hazardous’ and Class III ‘slightly hazardous’ but questions have recently been raised about whether one of the most widely used Class III chemicals is a carcinogen. And it's the one linked with many incidents of poisoning in Ghana...

Sun 30 Aug 15


When you’re running development projects in Africa, getting feedback can be a problem: it’s not that communication is difficult (it can be, especially in the rainy season), nor that our partners are particularly secretive, it is more that people have a different sense of what is relevant or important. How often have we been told that a meeting took place in a particular village and that prayers were said, but there is not a word about who was present or what was discussed and agreed; how often have we received reports on livelihood programmes that paraphrase the contract but say nothing about the crops being grown, the kind of problems the farmers have been grappling with, and how our colleagues were able to help? This can make it all the more surprising when you find out later what actually happened… Sometimes the news isn’t particularly encouraging, but there are also times when it is. Here’s one of them.


We (Jill and Mike) are in Ghana at the start of a new two year project with the Network of Rice Farmers Associations which aims to reduce the misuse of pesticides by subsistence farmers. We are staying in the small village of Santrokofi Benua, just outside Hohoe in the Volta Region. Over the next 18 months NETRICE will be training 500 subsistence farmers in low-input agriculture and the safe handling of pesticides, and also making presentations to high schools across the area — in our previous project we discovered that 40% of the students regularly used pesticides and did so without any protection or training.

During our first day’s discussions with our friend Ammish Owusu we learned so many things about what he and his colleagues at NETRICE have been doing (and forgetting to tell us...) Last summer it seems the President announced that Ghana would stop importing rice in 2016; and shortly after this one of the main FM radio stations called Ammish to ask whether he thought this was possible. Live on air Ammish told the interviewer that he thought many trees would need to be felled and more swamps cleared, and farmers would need machinery, equipment and financial support. He also reported that when the Government last imported tractors in bulk they had been given to politicians and not to farmers. After this Ammish was contacted by no less than four more FM stations and interviewed live; and then the main national newspaper, the Daily Graphic, carried a major article on what Ammish had said.

Mike & John Extension Officers

As a result of this, Ammish was invited to a Pre-Budget Tax Consultation meeting in one of the most expensive hotels in Accra and attended by 90 leading business men and women. From the platform he told the collected dignitaries about the difficulty farmers were facing and argued that the Government should give more practical support, including for example subsidising cutlasses — or rather, removing the import duty on the raw materials used to make them. Following this the Financial Director of main cutlass manufacturer, Crocodile Matches, invited Ammish to visit him. And when details of the 2015 budget were published two months later, it was announced that import duties on certain raw materials would be reduced. But Ammish didn’t think to tell us…

If the Government is serious about eliminating rice imports then it will have to do a lot more than it has to date. Our next meeting was with two of the Agricultural Extension Officers we worked with on the last NETRICE project — seen here (centre) with Ammish (left) looking at some training manuals that we brought. John and Mike told us that there were far too few Extension Officers available to help the farmers. Moreover they were so poorly paid that they had to undertake farming themselves to supplement their income; and they had not received any money for fuel or maintenance of their ageing motorbikes for the last 3 years. One wonders how the Ministry of Agriculture expects them to do their job. Mike works in 6 communities serving around 10,000 farmers!

Moses Segbe in Hohoe

They then explained just how much they had gained from the training that we organised two years ago on Integrated Pest Management (low input farming), and that they were now training their colleagues. And in relation to the problem with pesticide misuse, John told us that in the south (where he is from) they “grow a lot of vegetables” and “use of lot of pesticides”, and “perhaps half the men are impotent” as a direct result of exposure to chemicals. Indeed, we learned that a couple of the farmers that we met on our last visit had died unexpectedly and with symptoms of pesticide poisoning. But there was no proof — people are buried quickly and post mortems are extremely rare.

On a more positive note Ammish told us that the number of farmers groups that now belonged to NETRICE had grown to 43 (from 21 two years ago) and their membership had doubled, to 1,600. He also said that many groups were pleading for him to come and train them now that they had seen how their neighbours had benefitted. 70% of the members are women.

And then there was the young farmer that Ammish had been helping: Moses Segbe, Chair of the United Farmers Group in Hohoe. Ammish worked with Moses to prepare a Business Plan to submit to YES, the Youth Enterprise Support Initiative, and Moses had been successful. He is one of 107 applicants who will be receiving financial support — over 2,000 had applied. And that’s not all, earlier this month and as a result of his proposal, Moses’s got to meet the President. When we met earlier today Moses proudly showed us a copy of the Daily Graphic that ran the story.

But Ammish hadn’t thought to tell us this either …

Thu 20 Aug 15


Earlier this year we responded to a request from Domestic Concern for Women to fund a small programme of work designed to sensitise people in the Bombali District of Sierra Leone to the problem of early marriage, teenage pregnancy and gender based violence. We have recently received an interim report on the work, and it is very moving. What follows is an edited version with some added context.*

Map of Sierra Leone

DCFW is a small community-based organisation operating out of Makeni. It is run by Aminata Conteh whom we have known for many years Indeed, we advised Aminata on setting up the group and we have been supporting her efforts ever since with the help of public donations. Aminata is particularly concerned about the number of girls dropping out of school and the incidence of forced early marriage — in Sierra Leone 18% of girls are married by the age of 15, and 44% by 18. Early marriage is both illegal and potentially life-threatening because girls are not fully developed.

Aminata also wants to raise awareness of the reality and consequences of gender-based violence (GBV). A major report published last year found that 56% of women in the country have been attacked and beaten at some point in their lives, and 27% during the 12 months preceding the survey. Many women in the region are poorly educated and don’t know their basic rights,** and this makes them highly vulnerable to abuse.

Aminata’s report describes her efforts to sensitise assemblies in some 17 mosques and churches in and around Makeni. She estimates that she reached well over 2,000 people. Her report also explains how she intervened in five cases of violence against women and girls, including two cases of rape and one of child abuse.

Taking the Message to Places of Worship

Aminata’s first presentation was to the Turntable Mosque in Makeni: she went in March after Friday prayers and was warmly welcome by the Chief Imam. After the formal introductions she explained her mission: to raise awareness of the misery and dangers that follow from early marriage and teenage pregnancy. With schools shortly due to reopen following Ebola,*** she explained just how important it was that girls are encouraged to return and continue their education. The Imam wholeheartedly supported Aminata and said that girls “should be taught about the law” and if any parent forces their children to marry, that matter should be reported to the Family Support Unit at the Police Station.

Mosque in Makeni

Aminata’s next talk was to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Makeni where she again delivered her message that it is a serious crime to force young girls into marriage. The priest in charge responded very positively: anybody who forces the child to marry against her wishes, he said, has “committed a sin against God”. It’s in the Bible.

At her next talk, a member of Station Road Mosque, Pa Alie, confessed that he had already given his 15 year old daughter into marriage “because the husband has money”. But following Aminata’s talk he had decided to “peacefully destroy that particular marriage and take his daughter back to school”. It wasn’t clear how he would do this… Aminata cites many such examples in her report, some but not all with a happy ending. Here are two that did finish well:

At the Makorombo Limba Church Abu admitted forcing his daughter into marriage, which he now “very much regretted”. When she became pregnant her husband was violent with her “at the least excuse” and so Abu “took her back and looked after her until she delivered”. The family later sent the girl back to school where she was able to pass her exams. She subsequently enrolled at University and now is an accountant at the Rokel Commercial Bank in Freetown.

Another father, Sheriff, said that his daughter was forcibly married by his estranged wife without his knowledge and for two years the young girl was severally maltreated because she didn’t conceive. One day the girl managed to contact him and explain that he had rescued her and enrolled her at a boarding school in Magburaka, where she passed her exams. She went on to university and is now the Principal of a school in Bumbuna.

Aminata Conteh+child

When Aminata visited the Mosque in her own village, Rokonta, she spoke as “a native daughter of the village”; she explained that with hard work and perseverance she was able to acquire education which had qualified her “to work in any organisation or position”. “No amount of poverty, hardship, affiliations or otherwise should permit parents to forcefully send their children to marriage… They can be future leaders; they need your whole hearted support”. The congregation was so happy with Aminata’s speech that they said that they would be encouraging their daughters to copy her example.

On Aminata’s next visit she plans to also talk about child labour, where children are made to work on farms in the early morning, which often makes them late for school and means that they arrive exhausted. A couple of years back, Aminata herself adopted a young orphan girl (shown behind Aminata in the picture) who was being maltreated by a neighbour after the girl’s mother died. The woman refused to send the girl to school with her own children and forced her to work.

Gender Based Violence

Through DCFW Aminata has personally intervened to help almost 40 women and girls who have been subject to threats or physical violence. Her latest report contains details of her five most recent cases. Here are three.

Map of Sierra Leone

The first victim was a 60 year old woman named Ya Marie, who was raped by her lodger, 25 year old Sorie. The incident took place one morning in April when Ya Marie was looking after her grandchildren. Sorie had pretended to be sick and after everyone had gone to work he went to Ya Marie’s room where she was dressing and raped her before running off. Ya Marie was too ashamed to report the attack, but she told her daughter, who told Aminata, and Aminata took Ya Marie to the police station to report the incident, and then to the Government Hospital for a check up.

Fatu is eleven. She lost her mother to Ebola, and this made her feel very isolated and alone. Fatu was staying with her step-mother Elena but in early June she was seriously beaten. Elena refused to buy Fatu school materials and instead forced her to sell cold water on the street to make money, which is where Aminata first saw her and asked her why she wasn’t at school. Once Fatu had explained Aminata took her to the Family Support Unit. The police arrested Elena and took her to court where she was given the option of paying a fine of SLL 200,000 (£30) for child neglect or six months in prison.

In early June 16 year old Isata was raped by a 65 years old man, Issa. Aminata took Isata to the police station to report the incident, and they issued her with a medical paper. They then went to the hospital to see a doctor. The case is now in the hands of the police.

* The full (3 page) report is available here.

** Three ‘Gender Acts’ were introduced in 2007 specifically to help and protect women’s rights. But much more needs to be done to ensure that the law is implemented — which is one of DCFW’s main objectives.

*** Schools reopened in mid-April after being closed for 9 months.

Fri 03 Jul 15


On Thursday Liberia confirmed a third case of Ebola, nearly two months after the country was declared Ebola-free, and officials said they were investigating whether the disease had been spread by eating animals. Dog is suspected. There is also growing concern about what has been called ‘Post Ebola Syndrome’ (PES): many survivors not only suffer from depression and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder, but are also experiencing a range of life-threatening conditions, including severe headaches, extreme fatigue and sight- or hearing-loss. As yet this is still not widely reported.

Ali Martin Sesay in Makeni

We spoke earlier in the week to our friend Ali Martin Sesay, the First Disability Commissioner for the Northern Region in Neighbouring Sierra Leone (pictured here in front of his Commission offices in Makeni). Ali Martin said he was aware of the problem — he said he knew of two small children who had lost their parents to Ebola, who had subsequently gone deaf; and he knew of others who had gone blind. But he said that there were no accurate statistics to indicate the real scale of the problem.

New Cases

The first new Liberian sufferer, 17-year-old Abraham Memaigar, died on Sunday in the village of Nedowein, some 50 km from the capital Monrovia. Two others in the village have since tested positive. It is reported that Memaigar had recently dug up and eaten a dead dog. It is not known whether dogs can carry the virus, but bats are thought to have been the source of the current Ebola outbreak, and eating monkey flesh, previous outbreaks in the Congo. Bush meat consumption is now banned.

Liberia's authorities quarantined the village after the teenager's death and report that the two new cases had been in physical contact with him. It appears also that a herbalist who had treated the boy had evaded the authorities and was on the run. So this might not be the end of the story.

An Ebola case being reported miles from anywhere is very worrying. Apart from a possible animal vector, other routes for the disease include its having survived undetected in humans — the symptoms are often confused with other tropical diseases, like malaria; or sexual transmission — the virus can persist in semen for up to three months after it is no longer detected in the blood.*

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said that her health team is on top of the problem and that there is no need to panic “it will be contained”. We hope she’s right.

Ebola Maps for end of June 2015

Neighbouring Sierra Leone and Guinea are also finding it difficult to eradicate Ebola. Sierra Leone got down to two cases in a week in May; but then reported that cases have since been oscillating between 8 and 15 a week. The virus is restricted to two districts, Port Loko and Kambia, but as of last week two new cases were reported in Freetown. [The colours on the bar chart indicate the number of cases in each district.]

Health services across the region (Guinea, Liberia & Sierra Leone) are stretched -- some 800 health workers have contracted Ebola and over 500 died, and many have not yet been replaced. (The Case Fatality Rate for Sierra Leone as a whole is around 41%, significantly lower than amongst medical personnel.)

Post-Ebola Syndrome

Reports of Ebola survivors suffering PES first began to emerge in late 2014 following a World Health Organization investigation, but the condition is still not well understood and the number of sufferers is not known.

It is thought that as many as 40% of survivors could be suffering from visual impairment, which could mean 7 or 8,000 across the region, which has seen more than 26,000 reported cases of Ebola and almost 11,000 fatalities. However, the actual number could be higher as many cases of Ebola will not have been detected or reported.

One WHO psychosocial support officer reported at the time seeing a lot of people with eye problems. Some were complaining of clouded vision, but for others the visual loss was progressive, and some had lost their sight altogether. A nurse reported that some of her patients couldn’t see “even the biggest ‘E’ on an eye chart, even when standing right in front of it.” Moreover, Ophthalmologists say that survivors need to be found and treated “urgently and as aggressively as possible” before they suffer irreversible damage and lose their sight altogether.

We have been trying to understand what this new development could mean for our Comic Relief project on inclusive education for blind children in Makeni. We estimate that 3-4,000 Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone may be affected with PES, and we might expect half of them to be children. And if this is correct it could mean that for somewhere like Makeni and its outlying villages, there could be an additional 40 or 50 children with some level of sight loss.

There is also a huge problem with community acceptance of survivors. Earlier this year we supported a small pilot exercise in Makeni to see what might be done to reduce stigmatization (see entry for 6 May). You can get a flavour of the problem from the fact that one of our partners has recently requested more benches for their women’s learning circles noting that following Ebola people try to avoid getting to close to each other! The same report noted that earlier in the year one of the learners, Baby Kanu from Makump Village, had contracted the virus and died.

Providing medical care and support to the thousands of Ebola survivors across West Africa is a daunting prospect, especially in a region where resources and trained personnel are scarce. Sierra Leone has a population of six million people but only two trained ophthalmologists and one practicing psychologist.

* The virus has also been found inside a survivor's eyeballs. A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine outlines the case of an American doctor who contracted Ebola while volunteering in Sierra Leone. While treating him for eye inflammation weeks after he was discharged from hospital, doctors were surprised to discover the virus was still present in his left eye.

Wed 03 Jun 15


This is a short report on the extension to our Livelihoods Programme for subsistence farmers in Sierra Leone — it’s SO NICE not to be writing about Ebola!*

Farmer Field School in Koinadugu

Last year we helped our partners in Bombali and Koinadugu (in the north of the country) set up the programme for all 15 of their women’s learning circles. We did this with a grant from the Guernsey Overseas Aid Commission. This provided seeds, fertilizer, agricultural tools and training so that the women could grow more food and reduce food insecurity. They focused on groundnuts (peanuts) and rice, but some groups also grew maize, peppers, garden eggs and sweet potato.

There was some money remaining in December, largely as a result of the Ebola crisis, and this has been used to extend the programme into the current farming season (which starts in Feb/Mar, with ground clearance). Some damaged or broken tools have also been repaired or replaced and protective equipment purchased for crop spraying. We advocate Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which minimises chemical input and is more sustainable.

Farmer Field School in Koinadugu

In April we negotiated new contracts with the Ministry of Agriculture Forestry & Food Security (MAFFS), and earlier today we received the first field report from MAFFS Kabala. This contained photos showing some of GEDeW’s (Grassroots Education & Development for Women) learning circles in Koinadugu; and in particular, the team of Extension Officers advising our learners on site selection for the new groundnut crop, and on planting. We are delighted Fatmata Koroma is in charge of Farmer Field Schools at MAFFS and that these Schools are being well-organised. There’s a real need for women role models in the villages.

The seed being planted was returned to the circles by GEDeW from last years’ harvest. (This was after the women had taken some of the seed for themselves.)

At the start of the 2014 season GEDeW gave each of its nine circles 4 bags of groundnuts and 4 bags of rice, provided fertilizer and mechanical sprayers, and organised for MAFFS to train the farmers in their use. It also provided traps and poison to reduce rodent and insect losses. The seed was planted in communal plots with a combined area of over 100 hectares (36 Ha of groundnuts & 72 Ha of rice).

Farmer Field School in Koinadugu

Nearly all of the seed that was harvested and returned to GEDeW 6 months or so ago has now been returned to the circles for the current growing season — ‘nearly all’ because GEDeW sold 5 bags of groundnuts to pay for community activities on International Women’s Day (8 March). The Board and Circle Chairladies felt it important that the organisation be properly represented at the public events in Kabala.

The total number of women taking part in the Livelihoods programme is 345 (225 in Koinadugu & 120 in Bombali) and the total number of beneficiaries, around 2,000 when you take into account the women’s immediate families. Indeed, a number of men also benefitted through a ‘food for work’ programme — men traditionally carry out the heavy work of clearing and preparing the land.

Last year’s yields were a little disappointing because of unfavourable weather and Ebola, which stopped some circles tending their crops at critical times. We also suspect that the inexperience of many of the women played a part — for some it was their first time growing rice and groundnuts. So this is why this year we have funded more Farmer Field Schools, like those shown.

Overall, the Livelihoods Programme has been a real godsend because it came at a time when the country was in lock-down and food prices went through the roof.

* Earlier this week the rate of new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone was down to just 3 a week. So we are hopeful that the outbreak will soon be declared at an end.

Thu 28 May 15


Powerful Information was established 25 years ago this year. One of the early influences on the direction of our work was Mike Flood being awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to investigate the ‘Information Needs of Non-Governmental Organisations in Eastern Europe’. This was in 1991, and it enabled Mike to travel to six countries in the region and meet with dozens of environmental organisations that at the time were just emerging from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Mike visited the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary in 1991, and Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic the following year.

Blenheim Palace Colonnade Poster

Under Communism, environmental groups were one of the few kinds of civil society organisations permitted and they were a platform from which many budding politicians emerged after independence.

The Churchill Fellowship helped Powerful Information initiate dozens of grassroots projects with local partners in the region. These were concerned with local capacity-building and tackling a wide variety of complex community problems. We also worked with dozens of schools, and supported no less than 80 student environmental projects in some very deprived towns and villages in Albania, Lithuania, Moldova and Romania — 12 student projects in Romania went on to win regional or national prizes. This work also led to some very close and enduring friendships with environmental activists across the region that remain to this day.

Blenheim Palace British Military Imperial Band

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust provides 100 or so Travel Fellowships each year. 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the great man’s death, and the Trust has been commemorating his passing with a wide variety of events. Mike was invited to one held yesterday at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace and home for many years. It was an extraordinary day: both Jill and Mike attended along with over five hundred Fellows and their guests.

There were talks from 25 Fellows and a number of distinguished speakers — we attended insightful and highly entertaining presentations on ‘Churchill the Man’ (by Sir David Cannadine) and on ‘Clementine Churchill & Eleanor Roosevelt: two First Ladies of war’ (by Sonia Purnell, who has a new book out on Clementine).

Mike was invited to present a poster on his Fellowship and this was displayed in the Colonnades with 40 others (top photo). It was a wonderful opportunity to explain how the Fellowship had played such a critical role in the early development of Powerful Information and for us to explain what we had achieved.

As the Churchill Trust's Medal says: 'With Opportunities Comes Responsibility'. We feel that we have over the years lived up to this motto by helping to inspire and encourage many hundreds of groups in Eastern Europe and West Africa, and many thousands of individuals.

Blenheim Palace spitfire flypast

At Blenheim we were able to meet with a wide variety of Fellows. The most interesting meetings came about by chance, sitting next to someone at a talk, standing in a queue or sharing a coffee. The range of Fellows' interests was extraordinary, as you can see from the topics covered by their talks -- subjects ranged from ‘Lobster Conservation’, ‘Infant Health Services in the US & UK’, and ‘Lifting Literacy Levels in North Belfast’, to ‘Straw Bale Housing’ and ‘Crime Scene Insects’!

This most remarkable and worthwhile day concluded with the British Memorial Imperial Band beating the retreat in the Great Court, and a Spitfire flypast by the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Wed 06 May 15


The number of Ebola cases in Sierra Leone is now down to a handful a week from a peak of over 700 in November. There were nine cases in the week up to 3 May, and from just two districts, Kambia and Western Area Urban (Freetown). The Ministry of Health & Sanitation puts out very helpful graphical representations of the Ebola situation, showing the number of confirmed cases by district recorded over the last 7, 14 and 21 days [pale grey = clear] and the total number of confirmed cases in the previous 6 weeks [shades of pink].


We trust that the nightmare of Ebola will soon be over. But the social consequences are likely to rumble on for some time.

In December we responded to a request from one of our partners, Education for Women, to run an Ebola Sensitization initiative in the six communities in Sourthern Bombali where it has learning circles, and we have just received EFW’s report. Whilst three communities had managed to keep Ebola at bay, the other three, Makump Doron, Makama Tawopaneh and Moyamba Amputee Camp, suffered badly — 38 people had died, with just eight survivors. This is a ‘case fatality rate’ of 83%, twice the national figure. This suggests delay in recognizing the condition and seeking treatment.

The photo is of Makump Doron, which suffered the highest number of deaths (23), and shows the Women's Learning Circle. It was taken in happier times. But we are pleased to report that this and the other circles in Bombali (and also Koinadugu) are now meeting again after a nine-month suspension.

Makump Doron Women's Learning Circle

The stigmatization of Ebola survivors is a serious problem, especially in rural areas where people are less well informed about the risks. Fears of contagion mean that survivors and the family members of Ebola-affected households are frequently shunned by their neighbors leading to serious hardship, especially amongst children.

In February, two of our partners, Daniel and Aminata, visited all six communities and held talks with the various stakeholders, chiefs, youth leaders, learning circle chair ladies and facilitators, and of course, the survivors themselves. They were very well received. For example in Makama Chief Momoh Conteh registered his genuine appreciation for EFW’s ‘laudable initiative’ and said that the group was one of very few to have thought of such an action, which he said was very relevant and opportune.

One of the survivors, Sorie, also expressed deep gratitude: he explained that since being discharged from the Treatment Centre in Kailahun in October,* he had faced some big challenges: he used to bake bread but since returning to his village, people had stopped buying his loaves and he was now really struggling. Another survivor, who chose to remain anonymous, also expressed his sincere thanks and said that he and others that he knew had lost friends, families and jobs as a result of Ebola and now find it difficult to live happily in the community. They had lost their pride and dignity and their means of livelihood.

At the beginning of March Daniel and Aminata took part in an hour-long radio discussion programme about their initiative. This went out live on Radio Mankneh and triggered many calls to the station.

The Hon. Mustapher Bai Attila, Deputy Minister, MSWGCA

The broadcast was punctuated by a music break which featured a song written and performed by Mustapha Bai Attila, Deputy Minister for Social Welfare, Gender & Children’s Affairs, with a powerful message centred on Ebola (the signs and symptoms, and advice on prevention and control measures). Mustapha, is a talented musician and quite a character: he has done much to improve social welfare, especially for the disabled. He is shown here addressing a major rally in the National Stadium in Freetown at the 2013 International Day for the Disabled. He is reading from his Brailed notes.

After the music, the discussion focused on the issue of stigmatization, and Daniel and Aminata implored listeners to treat Ebola survivors with respect and love as fellow citizens and above all, human beings.

At the final set of meetings (in March & April ) the survivors were able to talk publicly about their personal experiences and share them with their communities. They all thanked God and the Government, and in particular the health workers who had risked their lives to save them. After this Daniel tested people’s understanding of Ebola by posing questions and Aminata handed out cakes of soap to the first with the correct answer. This led to some highly interactive and successful sessions as everyone wanted to participate and win a prize!

* Survivors were issued with a certificate of discharge and given cooking utensils and other items for survival. They were also cautioned to refrain for sex for three months or else use a condom — whilst a man may be cured of Ebola he is still able to pass on the virus via his sperm.

Fri 27 Mar 15


Eighteen months ago we completed a 3 year project with NETRICE in the Volta Region of Ghana which involved empowering 480 subsistence farmers with knowledge of sustainable agriculture and how to protect themselves and the environment from pesticides. (We advocate IPM, Integrated Pest Management, which minimises the use of chemicals.) Our partner also organised a series of talks in 37 high schools and technical colleges across the region about the dangers associated with chemical spraying.

Chemical Store Hohoe

Earlier this month we learned that we are going to be able to repeat our programme and train another 500 subsistence farmers and also do more educational work in schools in the region — some 40% of the 7,700 students reached in our first programme admitted using pesticides on local farms to earn money for school fees, uniforms and books, but they did this without any training or protection.

We are currently setting up the programme and will report again in a couple of months when we return from our next visit to the Region. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of some of the problems we are addressing:

Despite legislation, there are no effective controls over the sale of pesticides in Ghana: subsistence farmers routinely use these highly potent chemicals on their crops and in food stores without training or protection, and with very little appreciation of the risks to themselves and the environment. Anybody can buy pesticides without questions being asked. Moreover, farmers use the wrong products (including banned substances like DDT -- we bought some on our last visit); or the wrong dosage; they spray at the wrong time, keep pesticide containers under their beds and in other inappropriate places, and re-use the empty containers to store food. They also routinely wash spraying equipment in local water courses. (Fish and crustaceans are extremely sensitive to these chemicals.)

Many of those who sell chemicals in street cabins/shops are untrained and cannot read or understand the instructions on labels. Indeed store owners often leave family members in charge — the image is of our colleague Ammish Owusu (NETRICE’s Coordinator) visiting a chemical store in Hohoe where teenagers have been left in charge of business.

There are no reliable statistics on the numbers who are incapacitated or killed as a result of pesticide exposure so the scale of the problem is not officially recognized. This is something else we are working on, not least by collecting information on incidents.

Sun 01 Mar 15


People who are blind or visually impaired (BVIP) have been having a pretty difficult time in West Africa with the Ebola epidemic. They are particularly vulnerable because they rely on human contact for guidance and day-to-day support, and messages over the radio like ‘No touch’ and ‘Avoid Body Contact’ have been deeply concerning. Indeed, many BVIP have died: the exact number is not known because the national statistics are not dis-aggregated to show persons with disability.

BVI Trainees in Makeni

In September Vision for the Blind asked if they could run a series of radio phone-ins specifically targeting BVI listeners using funds from a joint Comic Relief project, and after consultation with our Project Officer we agreed to a programme of 10 one hour programmes, and these ran for one month from 12 November. Five went out nationally over Universal Radio, and five over Radio Mankneh in Makeni, and they sparked considerable discussion and solicited over 500 calls, around 60% from BVIP (493 text messages & 123 phone calls).

Universal Radio was chosen because it broadcasts mainly in Krio and is widely listened to by the general public; and Radio Mankneh because it is in Makeni where there is a significant BVI community. Makeni is also where VfB’s has its main office and where we are running our Comic Relief-funded project on inclusive education for BVI children.

VfB assembled two panels of speakers which included two VfB staffers, the Head of the Milton Margai School for the Blind (in Freetown) and the Northern Commissioner for the National Commission for People with Disability (in Makeni), and two spokespersons from the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC).

Callers asked what to do if they suspected a family member was ill with Ebola, and where to find treatment centres — apparently the national hotline frequently gets jammed. The NERC people on the panels were able to give out the District Hotline numbers. And in relation to ‘don’t touch’, the advice was to avoid contact with your guide’s bare hands and wash as often as practicable.

Several callers expressed concern that many BVIP were very poor and unable to afford soap, and for those in quarantine, food. People were starving. VfB was awarded a grant of Euro 5,000 by Cordaid to repeat the soap-making project that we ran a couple of years ago to produce soap for a cluster of blind communities. [The photos are from this earlier work in which we trained over 50 BVIP in Makeni and provided them with start-up kits. The bars of soap are being laid out to dry.] The Cordaid grant is contingent on VfB finding matched funding, and this is a problem.

BVI Trainees in Makeni

In relation to BVI starving, VfB reported that during the worst of the epidemic its staff were getting frequent calls from people who were desperate. It was able to arrange for 25 kg of rice and SLL 50,000 to be delivered to 15 BVI households in Makeni (with the support from Future in our Hands).

Some callers enquired about how to avoid the virus when using the public latrines (always have someone you trust with you who can clean the toilet before you use it). On this last point VfB contacted the Sierra Leone Social Aid Volunteers (part of WASH-Net) to ask if it could help build more communal toilets in the Port Loko area where the Ebola outbreak has been particularly bad. Over a dozen BVIP are reported to have died there. Indeed, one blind caller from the district expressed grief for the toll Ebola had had on his family: two of his children had died of Ebola and he was himself beginning to feel sick. He said that he had tried to give his children some help when they fell ill before the ambulance picked them up, but had the programme been aired earlier, he would have known better how to handle them. In spite of the fact that VfB immediately contacted the authorities in Port Loko District, five days later the man was confirmed to have the virus. He was admitted to a treatment centre but passed away. He was one of 35 BVIP now known to have died from Ebola, figures generated for the first time as a result of the programmes.

* The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone is still not contained, although the overall trend is encouraging. As of this week the cumulative number of confirmed cases is 8,349 with 3,151 deaths. The main concerns are with the level of cases in Bombali (23), Kambia (7), Port Loko (12) and Western Area Urban (Freetown, 21) — the figures in brackets are confirmed cases from the last 7 days. The actual figures may be higher because the statistics do not include probable or suspected cases, and Ebola deaths that were not suspected or reported.

Tue 06 Jan 15


A few days ago the outgoing head of UN's Ebola Mission in West Africa, Anthony Banbury, spoke about the importance of “taking the message to rural areas”. One of the greatest challenges, he said, is “making sure treatment centres and burial teams are available throughout the region — even in the most remote areas.” This would enable early detection of and response to small Ebola outbreaks. "We can build treatment units but if people don't go to them it's not going to help. We can have safe burial teams but if people follow unsafe practices, they aren't going to help."

John Marah

This has been our thinking for some time with our work in Sierra Leone, which has always been focused on rural communities. Here's a brief overview of what we have been up to.

Changing Traditional Practices: We are currently developing a public information initiative with two of our partners in Koinadugu, Grassroots Education & Development for Women (GEDeW) and Men’s Agenda for National Development (MAND). We want to change the way villagers look after people who fall sick and stop them from touching or washing the bodies of the dead (with Ebola, bodies become highly infectious). We are targeting three Chiefdoms and 12 communities — Alikalia, Fasawaya, Gbawurai, Kamadugu Sukurala, Kondeya, Kumala, Madiya-wona, Malaforia, Nafayie, Yiffin & Yogomaia. We also want to encourage local leaders to develop their own local bye-laws to help prevent Ebola from spreading.* MAND’s Director, John Marah (seen here, centre), served as Secretary General of the District Ebola Task Force in Koinadugu for six months before volunteering with the Red Cross as a supervisor of the burial team in affected communities in Neini Chiefdom.

Tackling Stigmatisation: Our colleagues in Education for Women (EFW) in Makeni started another initiative in December that we are also supporting. This one is concerned with tackling the stigmatisation of Ebola survivors. This has become a really serious problem, especially in rural areas where herbal medicines are widely used and many people are poorly-informed about the risks.** Fears and misunderstandings about the virus have led to Ebola survivors and the family members of Ebola-affected households being shunned by their neighbours. This is understandable but it has led to many cases of real hardship, especially amongst children and old people. EFW’s initiative, in six villages in Bombali (Mabureh, Makama, Makama Tawopaneh, Makump Doron, Moyamba & Pate Bana Masimbo), is challenging such public attitudes and behaviour.

Aminata & Jill

Veronica Buckets: Six months ago we reported providing large buckets (with taps) plus soap to our local partners and 15 communities in Bombali and Koinadugu. In October we provided money for equipment for 9 more villages: Makaiba, Makeneh, Makump Bana, Manonkoh, Matheneh, Patifu Mamaso, Rokonta, Rogbonok & Rosent. It was delivered by Aminata Conteh from Domestic Concern for Women. (She is seen here in Makeni meeting with Jill on her last visit.) Aminata reported that the villagers were really appreciative of the help. (Relatively little practical assistance has so far been afforded by the Powers that Be to people living in rural areas.)

Radio Broadcasts: In October Jonathan Conteh, Director of Vision for the Blind, was interviewed on ‘In touch’ by Peter White (BBC Radio 4). He spoke about the plight of people who are blind. Amongst other things Jonathan reported that he knew of 13 blind or visually-impaired (BVI) people who had died from the infection, most in Port Loko. This followed a report about VFB’s work carried on Bloomberg News, which we helped set up. People who were blind have to rely on others for guidance, and this involves physical contact which puts them at direct risk from contagious diseases. We subsequently provided resources (from our Comic Relief project) for VFB to organise a series of 10 radio broadcasts specifically targeted at those who are blind. These went out over key stations in Freetown and Makeni in November and December. We have also provided funds to purchase portable radios for some of the BVI children that we have been working with in Makeni. This will enable them to access the educational broadcasts which are available while the schools remain closed.

The task of tackling Ebola is enormous and our contribution is small, but initiatives like these, which are aimed at changing understanding and behaviour are highly practical and really needed. And as one embattled British supermarket says, ‘every little helps’.

If you would like to help, please get in touch.

* Washing bodies before burial is traditional Muslim practice. It can involve quite elaborate rituals (http://www.al-islam.org/burial-rituals-muhammadhusein-kermali/after-death-rituals). The practice was made illegal in August when new Ebola Byelaws were introduced (formulated by the National Council of Paramount Chiefs and Ministry of Local Government & Rural Development). But many see this as disrespectful of the deceased and bringing shame on the family.

** John tells us that when a woman with a serious fever returned to her village from a trip away she was given traditional herbal medicines. But she had Ebola and she brought it into Koinadugu District for the first time and the villagers action led to over 70 people dying, mainly women and children. (Rural healthcare, where it is available, can be very basic, and drugs are expensive. So this is why herbs are so often used.)

Fri 24 Oct 14


Friday 24th October is World Development Information Day which draws the attention of the world to development problems and the need to strengthen international cooperation to solve them.

On this day we would normally focus on constructive things — people being empowered by information, education, skills-training or livelihood programmes — but the scale of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is such that we thought it appropriate to share with you the feedback that we have been receiving about some of the social consequences of this dreadful epidemic.

MAFFS Team meeting EFW Facilitators in Makama

We have focused on Sierra Leone where we have been working for many years on grassroots development — principally non-formal basic education for rural women, and education and skills-training for blind or visually-impaired men, women and children. The photo was taken in Makeni in March, when we brought together learning circle facilitators from our local partner Education for Women and government agricultural specialists* to discuss our livelihoods programme for women. (The harvest of rice and groundnuts is being gathered in as we write and we are delighted that it will be making an important contribution to reducing food insecurity.)

As a result of the rapid spread of Ebola this particular district (Bombali) is now in lock down and once bustling Makeni is more like a ghost town. No one shakes hands anymore, and there are washing stations with chlorine outside many buildings. There have been 545 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola in the district and 166 deaths (although we suspect the figures are much higher than this), and health care services have been severely disrupted. It is not just Ebola victims who are dying from lack of care or treatment.

But this is only a part of the story: the local economy is now in crisis; food prices are rising sharply, and people are living in fear. It is risky for people to trade on the street; there is very little fruit or vegetables available in the markets, and people are surviving on rice and tinned food; some are now starving. Makeni is in the heart of the iron-ore mining area and we are getting reports that the London Mining Company and African Minerals are in trouble. And these two companies are crucial to the local economy.

Progress is being made in the fight against Ebola but changing people’s behaviour is proving difficult. There are sensitization campaigns via radio and other media, but the lack of education means people continue to take unnecessary risks, and false rumours abound. Moreover, many believe that the illness is caused by witchcraft and they brand survivors ‘witches’, especially children. (There are a growing number of orphans, many dispossessed by frightened relatives.)

Burials are a big part of closure when a loved one dies and traditionally this involves the washing and touching of the body. This practice has proved most difficult to stop because of the belief that if you don’t attend the funeral and participate in these rituals people will be deeply offended.

Around 30% of victims survive Ebola but their fate can still be very cruel: they can return home to find that other family members have died or fled and that much of what they once owned has been destroyed to prevent the spread of infection. So Ebola is not only killing people, it is wreaking havoc on community infrastructure and there are growing calls for social counselling.

Earlier this week President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in neighbouring Liberia made an impassioned appeal to all countries to help fight the Ebola outbreak. “In just over six months,” she said “the outbreak had managed to bring Liberia to a standstill” and “killed more than 2,000 people”. We are in a ‘worst case’ scenario and much of the world is still asleep to the reality and the dangers.

We sincerely hope that World Development Information Day will help publicise the crisis that is unfolding and people will respond accordingly. We have just paid for washing kits to be sent to 10 more villages in Bombali and we are supporting radio broadcasts specifically for blind people (who are very vulnerable because they rely on others, and on people guiding them by touch). Increased hygiene and public information are two of the main ways out of this crisis.

* The specialists are from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Food Security -- Amadu (in the pink shirt) is in charge of the Pesticides Section and with him are Elizabeth and Augusta (in blue & red respectively) sitting on either side. We specifically asked if we could have women working on our programme, and Amadu was happy to oblige.

Wed 15 Oct 14


It is the International Day of Rural Women and we should like to remember and celebrate the ten years of practical grassroots support that Powerful Information has given to rural women in West Africa through our women’s education and skills-training programmes.

Feremusu (Sengbe Bendugu Learning Circle) washing hands

As a result of armed conflict, extreme poverty, early pregnancy and or parental discrimination, over 90% of rural women in Sierra Leone are illiterate. This makes daily life an enormous challenge, not least handling money when selling goods in the market and not knowing if you’ve made a profit!

Through our work well over 3,000 women farmers and petty traders have learned how to read, write and count and now understand basic hygiene and healthcare, and their rights under the law. We have also set up seed banks to help reduce food insecurity. And in Ghana we have trained 230 women farmers (and a similar number of men) in sustainable agriculture and the safe handling of pesticides.

Today we want to remember in particular the plight of people in Sierra Leone facing an Ebola epidemic which is spiralling out of control. Everyone is living in fear. Our learning circles in Bombali are currently suspended (the whole district is in lock down). Our programme in Koinadugu is continuing as no cases have so far been reported. However, life is far from normal. Indeed, across the nation prices have risen dramatically and we’ve started to receive calls from friends asking for help to buy food.*

We have been supporting village visits by health workers, because many rural people still don’t really understand the threat;** and we have been providing hand-washing stations, soap and chlorine disinfectant to our learning circles — the photo shows Feremusu, Chairlady of the Sengbe Bendugu Circle in Koinadugu, at a workshop demonstrating how people should wash carefully to avoid infection. It costs us £40 to purchase and deliver each of these stations.

If you would like to donate towards Powerful Information’s work, please visit the 'I would like to Donate Page' (main menu) and click the MAKE A DONATION button. Just a few pounds can make a real difference. Thank you.

* Official figures (14th Oct) show 3,296 cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, and 1,198 deaths, with Bombali, now the third worst affected district (388 cases & 152 deaths). UN's Ebola mission chief, Anthony Bambury, has just made a chilling prediction: thousands of new cases of Ebola by December. “The world is falling behind in the race to contain the virus,” he said. "It is running faster than us, and it is winning the race."

** There is a lot on the radio about Ebola, but it’s in English or Krio, and this is not well-understood by many villagers who have their own language — and, of course, not everyone can afford a radio...

Mon 22 Sep 14


Commissioner Ali Martin

Over the weekend Sierra Leone was in lockdown, with people confined to their homes for three days. The Emergency Operations Center in Freetown put out a statement earlier today to “inform the general public that after careful evaluation of the ‘Ose to Ose’ Ebola talk” it had concluded that “more than 75% of its intended target of reaching 1.5 million households across the country had been achieved.”*

We have just spoken with one of our colleagues, Ali Martin, and he reported that the national lock down had resulted in the authorities recovering 90 bodies of Ebola victims, including 8 in Makeni; and 150 people had voluntarily given themselves up and been taken into quarantine. Most, it appears, tested positive.

Martin is the Disability Commissioner for the Northern Region. The bottom photo, taken in March this year, shows him in front of the newly established Regional Office for the National Disability Commission in New London, Makeni.

Commissioner Ali Martin

We have been particularly concerned as Martin and many of our other blind colleagues live in New London which has become an Ebola ‘hot spot’. Martin confirmed that 20 bodies had been recovered recently from one compound, which was now empty and abandoned. A fourth doctor also died, a highly respected paediatrician and one of very few women doctors. The number of health workers who have now died is around 50. (In Sierra Leone there are just 3 doctors per 100,000 people; in Britain it is nearer 270.)

The number of cases of Ebola officially reported in Bombali District has shot up to 148 (it was 44 a couple of weeks ago), and we suspect this is a significant under-estimate. Most of our work in Bombali is currently on hold until the crisis is resolved. This affects three of our partners ‘Vision for the Blind’, ‘Education for Women’ and 'Domestic Concern for Women' and also six learning circles.

Martin explained what it was like being blind and living in an area affected by such a virulent disease. “We are particularly at risk”, he said, “because people have to take hold of your arm to guide you.” Today in Sierra Leone very few people shake hands when they greet one another for fear of catching Ebola...

* The Ministry is today reporting 1,876 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola, and 549 confirmed/suspected deaths. Koinadugu is Ebola-free — it remains the only District that is. (We have two CBO partners in Koinadugu, and nine women’s learning circles)

Fri 12 Sep 14


Vision for the Blind has closed its office in Makeni and advised Office Manager Daniel Thoronka to travel to Freetown immediately because of the threat posed by Ebola.

Ebola Poster

It appears that New London — the area of town where VFB’s office is located and where some of our other blind friends live — has been hardest hit by Ebola cases.

The photos show the location of the office and key members of the VFB Team meeting with another of our partners, Aminata (Education for Women). Daniel is in red.

Ebola is a frightening disease, and doubly so for people who are blind.

The latest Ebola figures from the Ministry of Health & Sanitation (11th Sept) indicate that, whilst no new cases of have been reported overnight in Bombali District, the number of confirmed cases has now risen to 73 with 6 fatalities. [Confirmed deaths nationally is now 445 with another 48 deaths 'probable' or 'suspected'.]

Ebola Poster

Today Joe (in blue), VFB’s Director, has also closed VFB’s Freetown office. It will remain closed for 10 days to “give us time to reflect and plan ourselves on the best approach to face the deadly Ebola crisis.”

Economic Study of Ebola: We learned last week that a new study had been commissioned by DFID into the economic impact of Ebola in Sierra Leone. (It is being carried out by the International Growth Centre and Innovations for Poverty Action.) Local researchers are assessing the extent to which travel disruption is impacting rural marketplaces. This will help the government, and its development partners, respond by bringing in supplies and/or modifying transport restrictions.

This will not be easy as some districts of the country have been quarantined;* ensuring that it reaches all rural communities is a major challenge.

Researchers are surveying traders in 185 rural markets and collecting information about the availability, quantity and price of basic food stuffs including imported and local rice, cassava, fish, and palm oil. “August is the peak of the lean season, when food stocks from the last harvest are running short and farmers are most vulnerable” they report. “Any disruption to transport routes and trade can lead to sharp spikes in the price of food and other necessities, putting them out of the reach of the poor.”

Provisional results from the study are expected to be presented to the Government next week.

* Koinadugu (where some of our other partners are located) remains the only district that has not registered confirmed cases of Ebola in the country. It is cordoned off by the military. People can travel if they have special reasons, but they must obtain a permit first.

Wed 10 Sep 14


We have just received a moving report from one of our partners in Sierra Leone, Fatmata Sesay, who is Director of Grassroot Education and Development for Women (GEDEW). We have edited the report and presented the main points in the attached file. As the report notes:

Ebola Poster

"Ebola has killed more than 300 people in Sierra Leone. Cases have been reported from all districts except Koinadugu in the north east, where GEDEW operates. The District shares a border with the Republic of Guinea were the outbreak of the disease was first reported.

There has been a lot of sensitization on the radio, television, and in chiefdom headquarter towns, but they are not reaching most rural communities.

Moreover, the messages are not well understood by the people as they are in English or Krio. GEDEW recently conducted a sensitization with the nine communities where it has women’s learning circles. This covered the modes of transmission and prevention of Ebola, and the importance of reporting early signs because treatment is then more successful. The work was funded by Powerful Information."

The main sensitization took place in Fasawaya Village and was attended by participants from all of GEDEW's learning circles and a number of local stakeholders. After the explanations and discussion, buckets and soap were distributed to the learning circle chairladies who were encouraged to make use of materials for the intended purpose.

The photo shows Bamba, Chairlady of Kamadugu Sokurela Learning Circle, demonstrating handwashing.

Here's Fatmata's (edited) report: Activity Report August 2014

Sun 03 Aug 14


We are consulting with our colleagues in Sierra Leone to see what if anything we can do to help in response to the Ebola crisis. But we are neither health nor emergency response specialists, and the resources at our disposal are very limited.

Ebola Poster

We are also very aware of the need to proceed very cautiously because we don’t want to do anything that might put people at risk or make a bad situation worse. There have already been panic reactions in two villages in Koinadugu (as we explained in our last note, below).

Koinadugu is reportedly the only district not to have had any cases of Ebola: I spoke yesterday to John Marah, one of our partners from Kabala. He was at a roadblock at Fadugu (at the district border) with police and the military. Vehicles are not being allowed through; and they are testing people’s temperature with disposable thermometers: if it is greater than 38.5C they are held and a sample sent for testing. A holding centre is being constructed a few miles out of Kabala. Apparently, two sick persons arrived from Freetown on Friday night and were immediatley put into quarantine.

People are very fearful. A report on the BBC has just reported that people in Freetown are keeping track of the numbers of Ebola cases across the country "in the way they keep track of football scores". [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28583051]

A health worker who has been knocking on doors in the worst affected district (Kailahun, in the South East), and explaining to people exactly how the virus spreads and how to avoid it. There are three simple rules, she tells them:

Rule one: If you've got a headache or a fever, go to the health centre for a test. You can recover from Ebola if the infection is spotted early enough.

Rule two: If someone dies, don't touch the body. It's highly infectious. Don't wipe the mouth, don't close the eyes.

Rule three: Don't eat bushmeat, the meat of wild animals.

Tomorrow (Monday 4 Aug) has been designated a National ‘Stay Home/Reflection’ Day, in part to mourn Dr Sheik Umar Khan -- the Chief Medical Officer who died from Ebola earlier in the week -- and also think about Ebola and make sure people have proper sanitation measures in place.

[The photo is taken from the BBC article.]

Fri 01 Aug 14


Yesterday, President Ernest Bai Koroma declared a State of Emergency in Sierra Leone over the Ebola outbreak. The situation in the east (where the outbreak started) has become very difficult with medical workers now requiring police or military protection from angry relatives who blame them for bringing death to their villages. The doctor in charge of the programme, Sheik Umar Khan, contracted the disease and died a couple of days ago. He was just 39. This too sends out a terrible message...

Ebola - training volunteers

Aid agencies are saying that they do not expect to get the outbreak under control before the end of the year, and the WHO has upgraded its Ebola response to a Grade 3, the highest level emergency response.

We are talking with our partners about how best we can help. This is really tricky given the complexities on the ground — caused in no small part by mistakes made by the people organising the Ebola information campaign and public ignorance and fear.

At the weekend one of our colleagues in Kabala, Fatmata Sesay (Director of GEDEW) reported panic reactions in two of villages in Koinadugu where we have learning circles after suspected cases of Ebola were identified — fortunately, they turned out to be negative and the people who had fled into town returned .

One thing we can do is to seek out the latest and best information and disseminate this quickly. We are also trying to find out what different local organisations are doing so that any response is well-consider and properly coordinated.

Here’s some information from the Government's ‘Ebola Situation Report’ for 29th July. It shows that there had been 167 confirmed deaths (206 if you include deaths categories as 'suspected' or 'possible').* So far there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Koinadugu. However, the figures for Bombali and Freetown (where we are also working) are more concerning — 5 confirmed cases of Ebola and 1 death in Bombali; and 65 people are being monitored because they may have come into contact with the virus. And for the Western Area Urban (Freetown), 6 confirmed cases and 2 deaths (plus 2 deaths suspected or probably due to Ebola), with 72 people considered possible contacts and 53 still being monitored. There are no specialist facilities in Freetown, a city of over 1.5 million people. Arrangements are being made to deal with casualties.

The Case Fatality Rate (proportion of people dying) is currently 33.4% — or 37% if you include suspected and possible deaths from Ebola.

* The UN has just (31 July) announced that the number of deaths is 233.

Thu 19 Jun 14


Remittances from foreign workers exceed by a large margin what poor countries receive in overseas aid — and banks and exchange offices are profiteering and charging excessively high fees on transfers. These were two of the main findings to emerge from a one day conference ‘Africa in Action’ organised yesterday by Comic Relief and held in the Methodist Central Hall Westminster. The conference was intended as a celebration of the Africa Diaspora’s contribution to development. And it did so brilliantly. Perhaps 80% of the 400 or so delegates were from diaspora organisations.*

Comic Relief Conference

Jill and I were very pleased that we made the effort to go. And we invited along one of our new volunteers, Franklin Ayensu (shown here with Jill). Franklin moved to the UK last year after working in the banking sector in Ghana for 10 years. He is keen to see how he can apply his skills in the development sector.

What soon became clear at the conference was the scale of the contribution that the diaspora is making to international development -- something that is not widely recognised. Indeed, the African Diaspora has been described as the 6th Region of Africa after North, South, East, West and Central. I was also struck by just how diverse the diaspora is, and the fact that nobody really knew very much about the make up or the aspirations of its members. It was also fascinating to learn about some of the dilemmas that African’s living in Britain face, especially when they are seen as ‘foreigners’ by the people back home. This can make the provision of aid far from straight-forward! People from the Diaspora also talked about how they tended to live a bit of a double life: as one speaker put it “we can be in two places at once.”

The Conference was addressed by Lord Boateng, the High Commissioner for Rwanda, Lenny Henry and Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development (to name but a few). And in addition to the contributions in the main hall there were eight breakout sessions, which looked in more detail at specific issues. (The photos below are of Kevin Cahill, Chief Executive of Comic Relief, in conversation with Lenny Henry; and Justine Greening giving the keynote address.)

And the message from all the speakers was very positive: Africa is a rich continent. It is growing fast and its governments are increasingly being held to account. As Lord Boateng put it “The future of Africa lies in Africa not in London or New York … Our role, the Diaspora’s role, is to be in solidarity with that. It is NOT about giving charity.” And he repeated a phrase that he has used before: “Only the best is good enough for Africa.”

The Rwandan Ambassador, His Excellency Williams Nkurunziza, pointed out that 80% of the world’s platinum and chrome are found in Africa, 60% of diamonds; 50% of cobalt; and 40% of gold and bauxite. And he contrasted this with the fact that “33 African states are on the UN’s list of underdeveloped countries”. Writer Noo Saro-Wiwa — whose father Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered by the Nigerian Dictator, Sani Abacha — pointed to one of the main reasons for this: before colonialisation, she said, Africa “had a political system that worked”, but the mixture of this traditional structure and capitalism was “toxic”. It had led to poor government and widespread corruption …

Comic Relief Conference

Lenny Henry talked about his harrowing experience in Kibera, the massive slum on the edge of Nairobi, where more than one million Kenyans are crammed into an area the size of Central Park, with no sanitation, power or running water. He described it as “a hellish place” where he spent a week going native — and where he was mugged and got sick for his troubles. But he was very up-beat about the Diaspora and said it was time to “take more control of the narrative”. It was no longer about hand-outs; more about giving Africa a leg up…

There was much talk at the conference about economic development, but as someone pointed out “social capital is more important than money” … “nobody eats GDP”. And this is an area where the Diaspora has so much to offer as it understands the culture here in the UK as well as the culture and practicies in Africa.

Many Questions

Many profound and thought-provoking questions were raised and addressed by the delegates:

• What is the role of British-based diaspora leaders in international development?

• To what extent have diaspora entrepreneurs created jobs in Africa?

• How are diaspora philanthropic organisations helping to engage the diaspora in development?

• What role are diaspora organisations playing to support civil society movements in Africa in their quest for greater equality, justice and freedom from oppression?

• How are African governments working with members of their diaspora and what structures do they have in place for this?

But after much debate, I’m not sure anyone came to any concrete conclusions — as one delegate put it “After all is said and done, more is said than done.” (Aesop) However, I think everybody learned a very great deal in the process and there were very real networking opportunities!

The Diaspora’s Contribution to Development

A report in April from the Overseas Development Institute argued that “remittances from foreign workers are expected to be $436bn this year, more than three times what poor countries receive in overseas aid.”** But the ODI also pointed out that banks and money transfer companies have for years been taking a good slice of this hard-earned money in fees. “Migrants sending $200 home can expect to pay 12% in charges, which is almost double the global average. There is no justification for the high charges incurred by African migrants." Overall, it calculates that Africa is “losing $1.8bn a year from excessive charges on money sent home by workers” and it calls on the Financial Conduct Authority to look into Western Union and Moneygram.***

Comic Relief Conference

The last speaker was Justine Greening: she too was very positive and seemed to recognise the contribution that individuals and small civil society organisations can make. She pointed out that 6 out of 10 of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Sub Sahara Africa. And one of the main challenges she identified was to see that “young people (in Africa) get the dignity of work”. Her Department, she said, was supporting the African Diaspora (through Comic Relief’s Common Ground Initiative) and she asked the audience for help in defining the way forward. She also emphasised that DFID was taking a critical stand on FGM (female genital mutilation) and on child/enforced marriage. It is investing £1 million (through the Diaspora) in support of initiatives to “change attitudes to FGM back home” and there would be a ‘Girls Summit’ next month.

Whether Diaspora remittance funds constitute a better alternative to Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) for the development of Africa is yet another interesting question. Some argue that remittance are less likely to be misspent (as compared to the misappropriations and legendary inefficiencies in the foreign aid industry) and their distribution is far more efficient than ODA funds (since the money goes directly to paying school fees, building houses and growing businesses) and that it is therefore better focused on building the family and hence the nation. Others argue that development aid is focused more specifically on local capacity-building and community development. Clearly, this dialogue still has some time to run…

This was an excellent event. So thank you Comic Relief. Great initiative!

* Up until the 1960 the term diaspora was associated almost exclusively with the plight of the Jews (it comes from the Greek meaning ‘scattering’). Today, the term is used to describe the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.

** We need to inject a note of caution here: statistics can be misleading. For example, the definition of Western ODA does not include all external aid. It excludes, for example, the Saudis financing mosques and the Chinese, semi-commercial deals in exchange for minerals concessions, like road-building projects. But ODA does represent most of what most people usually think of as ‘foreign aid’.

*** Moneygram and Western Union have refuted the figures although WU has conceded that its: “pricing varies between countries depending on a number of factors such as consumer protection costs, local remittance taxes, market distribution, regulatory structure, volume, currency volatility, and other market efficiencies” and that “These factors can impact the fees and foreign exchange rates offered."

Sun 01 Jun 14



Last week the Ministry of Health & Sanitation in Sierra Leone reported its first fatalities from an outbreak of Ebola Haemorrhagic Fever (EHF) in the Eastern Region.

The entire country has been on high alert for the last two months after an outbreak was reported in Guinea on 25 March. Cases were subsequently reported in Liberia, from where it has now spread across the border into the Kailahun District of Sierra Leone.

And then on Thursday (28th May) there was a disturbing report that six people suspected of having EHF had been aggressively taken away from a clinic in Koindu by their relatives, in defiance of medical staff. This has raised fears that this highly contagious virus could now spread. Apparently one of the patients has already died.

Some have speculated that the relatives took the law into their own hands because they thought their loved ones would die in the clinic or on transfer to hospital. We can understand their concerns. African families are very close. But they clearly had no idea what danger they were putting themselves and their communities in.

Dennis Conteh in Pate Bana Masimbo Village

There is no known cure for Ebola, which can kill up to 90% of those infected. It is passed on through contact with the fluids of infected people or animals, such as urine, sweat and blood. So far in this latest outbreak nearly 200 people have died, including four in Sierra Leone. This includes nearly 20 health care workers.

We were aware of the preparations for Ebola — Education for Women's Lead Facilitator, Dennis Conteh, was invited in April to take part on a training on Ebola organised by the Ministry of Health & Sanitation in Makeni.

They couldn’t have chosen a better guy. Dennis — seen here harvesting cassava — is a truly excellent communicator. He has since been preparing the children in his school in Pate Bana Masimbo, and the women in his learning circle, what are the symptoms of Ebola and what people should do if they suspect infection. Let’s hope that there are no more cases of patients being aggressively removed from hospital beds.

Note Added: We have just had a report from Fatmata Sesay in Kabala (Director of GEDEW): she tells us that she recently hired a nurse for six days to go around her learning circles to tell the women about the threat posed by the Ebola Virus. This is not the first time that our learning circles have fulfilled an important public health function. They did so last year when there was a cholera outbreak which affected at least two of our villages, Fasawaya and Kondaya.

Sun 01 Jun 14


Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June) is an annual celebration of volunteering, and the theme for this year is ‘time to say thank you!’ So here goes: a really big THANK YOU! to:

Volunteers' Week

• Debbie, Robin, Shona, Susan and Tom (our Board) for all the help and support they have provided over the year, checking what we’ve been up, advising on priorities, and crucially, scrutinizing our cash flows;

• Hannah, who has been working closely with Aminata (Domestic Concern for Women in Sierra Leone), advising her on how to build her group;

• Ben, who helped us develop the computer training programme for blind professionals in Sierra Leone that we have now successfully completed — Ben is shown here (right) working with another volunteer, Richard, who is blind;

• Kit, who helped us develop some tests to measure how our women's learning circles in Sierra Leone are progressing;

Volunteers' Week

• Franklin, who joined us recently after working in the financial services industry in Ghana for 10 years and wants to use his professional skills in international development; and

• Nick, for nursing our over-worked computers back to health in his 'clinic'.

We are also most grateful to Network Rail which allows staff five days’ leave a year to work with accredited local charities. This has so far included:

• Barnaby, who has been helping streamline and automate our database suite — we can now run our cash flow projections at the press of a button!;

• Andrew, who has reviewed security on our network and fine-tuned our computers (turning off things running in the background that we didn’t know existed); and

• Lesley and Jayne who are looking into possible local fundraising activities and helping us develop a new marketing strategy.

And finally, to anyone who has been considering volunteering but were too afraid to ask, go on, GIVE IT A GO, you never know how it might change your life! After volunteering for us in 2011, Tim decided to make a career in the non-profit sector. He got a job with a youth charity in London, and then went back to University to take an MSc in Conflict Resolution; and today he is in Bosnia putting theory into practice.

PS: Sincere apologies if we've forgotten anyone!

Mon 19 May 14


Jill and I have been rather busy over the last three months — which explains why we have not posted many blogs. Our apologies…

At the end of February we had to prepare narrative and financial reports on our Women’s Empowerment Programme in Sierra Leone (B146); at the end of March, on our Inclusive Education Project (B150); and at the end of April, on our Computing for the Blind Project (B148); and then in May, we had to complete our annual report and accounts. And in the middle of this, I spent three weeks in Sierra Leone…

Meeting with MAFFS Makeni in Makama

Jill has also been reorganising the volunteers programme and preparing for new interns. In February we were invited by Network Rail to set up a stall in the foyer of their new office complex in Central MK to recruit volunteers. We lined up alongside 15 other invited local charities. The company gives staff who volunteer for approved causes 5 days a year paid leave. We have already started benefitting from this arrangement: one of Network Rail’s computer staff spent a day with us last week working to improve our cash flow database. This was really productive and helpful.

In January we received a grant from the Guernsey Overseas Aid Commission to established seed banks for our women’s learning circles, and provide tools, fertilizer and training so that they can reduce food insecurity and become more self-sufficient (B152). And one of the main purposes of my visit to Sierra Leone was to meet up with officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests & Food Security and negotiate contracts for Agric Extension Officers to help run Farmer Field Schools for 15 of our learning circles.

Meeting with MAFFS Makeni in Makama

The top photo shows one of the planning meetings (in Makama Village in Bombali) where Amadu Sesay, the Head of MAFFS Farmer Field Programme in Makeni (left), came to meet with Daniel and Aminata from Education For Women and their team of facilitators; and he brought with him two of his extension officers, Elizabeth and Augusta. We were delighted that he could spare them because it is so important for our learners to have role models to look up to. The bottom photo is of an impromptu presentation that I made to Alfred Kamara (right) and his colleagues at MAFFS in Kabala, with our local partners from GEDEW, Fatmata, John and Lahai (head of GEDEW’s team of facilitators).

I also visited the first six blind / visually-impaired children that Vision for the Blind enrolled last year at the RC Primary School Panlap; met with 12 older BVI students that we will be helping this year; set up websites for VFB and the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind; and met up with Aminata Conteh, Director of Domestic Concern for Women in Makeni to find out about recent case studies of domestic violence — shortly after my visit Aminata gave birth to a baby boy (Andrew James) and mother and child are doing well!

So I hope you’ll understand why we have been a little remiss with our blogging… we’ll try to improve the service over the months ahead!

Tue 01 Apr 14


Sengbe Bendugu Learning Circle

John Marah explaining to members of our women’s learning circle in Sengbe Bendu (Koinadugu, Sierra Leone) about our new Food Security Programme.

This new project is funded by the Guernsey Overseas Aid Commission (B152) — see May 19th entry for more information. Also in the picture is Fatmata Sesay, GEDEW’s Director (seated at front in orange).

John is one of our consultants on the project. He's an interesting man who has worked for many years in the non-profit sector. John is Director of MAND, Men’s Agenda for National Development, a community based organization based in Kabala that is working to change men's attitude to women.

We will post more about John and MAND soon...

Sun 16 Mar 14


RC Panlap Primary School

RC Panlap Primary School Makeni, Sierra Leone.

This is Foday (right) one of the visually-impaired students that we are helping through our Inclusive Education Project (B150), with support of a grant from Comic Relief.

In January our colleagues at Vision for the Blind trained three teachers from the school (and four from other schools in Makeni) using a new Special Educational Needs (SEN) Training Programme that we developed last year, and we are now in the process of setting up a Visual Impairment Unit at the school.

Foday (not his real name) is much bigger than his class mates because he missed out on several years of schooling because he has only one eye. He and another 5 blind or visually-impaired children are now attending the school. They stay at the Bombali School for the Blind (which is a short walk away).

VFB Makeni

The second photo is of a training workshop for sighted support workers from our partners at Vision for the Blind and the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind, and also from three of schools for the blind (Makeni, Kabala and Bo). This work was one of the last activities that we ran as part of our Sightsavers’ Project (B148).

Can You Help?

We really need to get all six of the BVI children into uniforms (and pay for medical treatment), but we don’t currently have a budget for this. If you know anyone who might help, do please get in touch.

Sun 02 Feb 14


Uznova is a poor suburb of Berat in Central Albania. For the last three years we have been working there on an environmental education project at the Xemal Cekini School. Two weeks ago teachers and students at the School inaugurated a meteorological station. We think this is a first for a school in Albania!

Uznova Weather Station

The weather station — situated on the roof just above the main entrance — consists of a home-made Stevenson Screen (instrument shelter) and a stainless steel rain gauge, and above them, fixed to a scaffolding pole, a cup anemometer and brightly-coloured wind sock.

The photos, which we have just received, are by our colleague, Ines Cilka, from the EDEN Centre in Tirana and our main partner in the project. (The picture of the school was taken last year before the installation.)

Present at the launch was amateur meteorologist, Hysedin Hajdari, who we asked to supervise the installation and train the staff/students. After a ribbon had been cut, he and a student went onto the roof and took the first readings and then explained the function of each of the instruments. The screen contains a thermometer, barometer (atmospheric pressure), hygrometer (humidity), and a clock to record the time.

The story was covered by two television channels, TV Glob (local) and Ora News (national). They interviewed those who had been involved in the project, including the Head, Dhurata Gojka (seen here in the centre of the ‘scrum’), Abedin Kaja, Head of the Uznova Commune (who has been very supportive), and a number of students.

Dhurata at Met Station Launch

Dhurata then distributed certificates to the teachers who had taken part in the project, and Ines reported that they finished up with “a small cocktail in the chemistry lab”!

Monitoring the weather is an excellent way for children to learn about the local environment and develop their understanding of the scientific method and how to collect data. Activities can be designed for children of all ages. Moreover, the school will now be able to keep a record of the local weather and this will provide a valuable repository for the local community -- and a potential source of data for the MET Office in Tirana.

Sadly, this is the end of this fascinating project. We have provided training for the teachers, and with them developed eight projects for the students. We also fitted out one of the labs with sinks so that the school could do experiments, held classes in computing for the teachers, and organized outings and talks for the School Eco Club, and much more besides.*

We have seen big changes at the school -- and in the attitude of local government, who were present at the launch. Indeed, there has been a sea-change in thinking and in the understanding and awareness of environmental issues. The project has also helped raise the profile of the school in the local community. And this is what we set out to do.

We should like to say a big THANK YOU to all of our friends at EDEN, especially Ines, Albana and Ermi, and our consultant, Ariadna. And we'd like to offer our very best wishes to Dhurata and her team. It has been great working with you all!

Last but not least we should like to thank our sponsor, the Environ Foundation.

* In the last 12 months we have written three blogs on the project — see entries in April, July & Nov.

Mon 06 Jan 14


Rice Farmer in Sierra Leone

We have just started a project to increase food security for women subsistence farmers and their immediate families in villages in the north of Sierra Leone. The aim is to enable 500 women to grow more and better quality food. The project is supported by a grant from the Guernsey Overseas Aid Commission.

The grant is very timely as the United Nations has declared 2014 ‘International Year of Family Farming’. This is to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers to the local and national economy. The goal of the programme is ‘sustainable intensification’ — increasing food production from existing farmland while minimising pressure on the environment. We are focusing on women, like the farmer shown here laboriously harvesting rice by hand. Women do much of the work on smallholdings.

The grant is for primarily to buy agricultural tools and materials, set up seed banks, and provide a programme of workshops and Farmer Field Schools in sustainable agriculture and Integrated Pest Management (which is all about using indigenous knowledge and minimising the use of pesticides).* We will employ local agricultural extension officers to work with selected women’s learning circles in Bombali and Koinadugu.

Having new tools, proper training, and a stake in a communal seed bank, will significantly increase the women’s productivity and their economic independence. They can borrow rice or groundnuts (peanuts) -- instead of buying it at inflated prices from seed barons -- and then return it with interest after the harvest so that the bank grows. Surplus grain/seed can be sold by the circle to provide a regular and sustainable income, and perhaps help pay for their classes in basic healthcare and functional literacy.

Our local partners in the project are Education for Women (in Makeni) and Grassroots Education & Development for Women (in Kabala).

* We have just completed a successful sustainable agriculture project in the Volta Region of Ghana in which we trained nearly 500 subsistence farmers and helped organise talks to more than 8,000 students and teachers in local 37 schools (and lots more besides -- see entries for Sept 2013 and Nov 2012.

Sun 01 Dec 13


Please note: we are not currently able to hyperlink the articles listed below to the original copy. Simply use the Month Selector (above) to locate particular items.

NOV 2013
23 NovA nose that can see is worth two that sniff…Sierra Leone
6 NovValuable legacy from school environmental project in AlbaniaAlbania
5 NovComputer training for blind professionals starts to bear fruit ...Sierra Leone
SEP 2013
6 SeptReducing Injury & Environmental Damage from Misuse of Agro-Chemicals In GhanaGhana
JUL 2013
9 JulPersonal Reflections on Sierra LeoneSierra Leone
6 JulComputer Training for Teachers in AlbaniaAlbania
4 JulSorry I'm late ...Sierra Leone
JUN 2013
6 JunThe Challenge of CommunicationGeneral
MAY 2013
31 MayNew Computing Course for the BlindSierra Leone
APR 2013
21 AprEmpowering Schools in Albania to Tackle Local Environmental ProblemsAlbania
MAR 2013
31 MarCatching Up on Business!UK
FEB 2013
16 FebBombali School for the BlindSierra Leone
12 FebBig Day for Salone Sierra Leone
5 FebStarting the Computer Training for the Blind in Sierra LeoneSierra Leone
JAN 2013
4 JanWhat we achieved in 2012World
DEC 2012
14 DecEducation & Empowerment for Rural Women in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
12 DecInclusive Education for Blind Children in Bombali Sierra Leone
NOV 2012
24 NovSeminar on Local Capacity Building (Trailer) General
12 NovNews from the Field [4] Ghana
10 NovNews from the Field [3] Ghana
7 NovNews from the Field [2] Ghana
2 NovNews from the Field [1] Ghana
OCT 2012
13 OctImproving Environmental Decision-Making in Rural Moldova R. Moldova
11 OctInternational Day of the Girl Child World
SEPT 2012
20 SepPowerful Information Wins Sightsavers' Grant Despite Stiff Competition Sierra Leone
8 SepNotes from the Filed [2] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
1 SepNotes from the Filed [1] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
AUG 2012
21 AugCelebration of Life of the Late President of Ghana Ghana
JUL 2012
25 JulGender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
20 JulSocial Media Workshop Brings Together Small Development NGOs in Milton Keynes World
18 JulKit Neill Joins Powerful Information as an InternUK
JUN 2012
16 JunInternational Day of the African Child World
7 JunEye for Art Supports Vision For The Blind UK
1 JunSmall in BeautifulSierra Leone
MAY 2012
12 MayYeabu’s Story: an inspiration for allSierra Leone
9 MayAli Martin Sesay Appointed Disability CommissionerSierra Leone
1 MayPesticides: the dangers of bringing in the local expert… Albania
APR 2012
28 AprHelping Uznova Community Tackle Serious
Environmental Problems
21 AprDigital Divide: computing for the blindWorld
1 AprSupporting Women With Disabilities in MakeniSierra Leone

Sat 23 Nov 13


John Smelling Book

Many people love the touch and smell of books, but the young man pictured here has taken this to a whole new level… This is John and he is blind, and he smells books for a living... In the picture you can see John carefully smelling some school text books that I have just given him to determine how much they will cost to Braille. John uses his nose to work out roughly how much text there is on each page. His sense of smell is so acute that he can even tell when pages are blank and where there are pictures!

We are planning to set up Visual Impairment Units in six primary schools in Southern Bombali (in the north of Sierra Leone) as part of a Comic Relief-funded project to promote inclusive education and get 100 blind or visually-impaired children into mainstream education. It is a joint project with Vision for the Blind.

The first two VI Units should be operational early in the New Year, one at the United Methodist College in Makeni; the other, at the Roman Catholic Primary School at Panlap, a stone’s throw from the Bombali School for the Blind.*

To work out the cost of brailing a book you need to include the cost of getting someone to read the book, the cost of brailing, and the cost of the paper and the binding. (Braille is bulky: the book John is holding will produce two A4 comb-bound volumes.)

Producing such books is a highly skilled task, especially where there are lots of pictures with questions (as there are in school books for young children), and John has to find a way of making this understandable to a blind child.

As we don’t have a big budget for the VI Units we are having to make some difficult decisions — we have to decide which books to braille for each class (we can’t do them all) and how many of each to produce, and also which equipment, frames & mechanical Braillers, portable typewriters and other special equipment to buy, for example to enable visually-impaired children to do maths and make measurements. And then there are all the other assistive technologies, from simple ‘bumpons’ (small adhesive shapes which can be used to customise equipment / mark special places) and speaking watches, to talking calculators, digital voice recorders and Perkins Braillers -- and even more fancy equipment if your pocket is deep enough!**

Eugene Ionesco once said that “a nose that can see is worth two that sniff”. Well John clearly has one of those special noses, and we are looking forward to putting it to further use in the months ahead!

Mike Flood [in Makeni, Sierra Leone]

* The Bombali School for the Blind is one of only five specialist schools for the blind in Sierra Leone.

** You can pay over £500 for a Perkins Brailler (a Braille typewriter) and several times that for a Braille note taker!

Wed 06 Nov 13


For the last two years we have been working closely with a leading environmental NGO in Albania, the EDEN Center in Tirana, and a school in a poor suburb of Berat, to raise awareness of the potential risks to public health from an abandoned lead smelter and battery factory.* We are now coming to the end of the project and we are very pleased with what has been achieved.

Our team — Ermi, Albana & Ines from EDEN, and Mike, Jill & Ariadna from PI — have provided training for the teachers at Xhemal Chekini School; and we have worked with them to develop eight environmental projects for the students. We have also fitted out one of the labs with sinks, organized computer training for 16 teachers, held meetings with parents, organized two school exchange visits, and arranged for several specialist to speak to classes and the School Eco Club.

When we started our project there was virtually no information on the levels of lead contamination in the area, even within the local authority and the Regional Environmental Agency. And this was despite much heated discussion in the media about the threat posed by the smelter. Through the programme we were able to show that, contrary to public perceptions, the soil and water across the area was safe. However, we did find elevated blood lead levels in a fifth of the 25 volunteers that we tested, and we identified two areas that were highly contaminated — one sample measured 15,000 parts per million of lead!**

The last activity of the project involved children from the school painting and erecting brightly coloured warning signs around the worst-affected areas to alert people to potential dangers and discourage shepherds from grazing animals on the land. The top photo shows School Director, Dhurata Gojka, with a group of students and one of the signs — Dhurata had that morning been interviewed on local TV about the initiative.

A stream runs through Uznova but it has become an open sewer because local residents can’t be bothered to use the waste containers put out by the Council. So the children put sign boards here too to discourage anti-social fly-tipping (bottom photo). The Head of Uznova Commune and the Environmental Advisor to Berat City Hall have both been actively involved in this work.

We think that our project has helped change local people’s perceptions of their environment and we have also seen big changes at the school and a growing confidence and understanding of environmental issues amongst the teachers and students. Indeed, this work contributed to the school receiving a commendation from the Regional Director of Education and having its name in lights in 'The Teacher' Magazine, published by the Albanian Ministry of Education.

* We have described the work in several previous blogs, most recently in April & July, and we have sent a detailed report to the sponsor, the Environ Foundation. We would like to thank them for their support.

** To set this in context, US recommended level for soil in residential areas is 400 ppm of lead (450 ppm in UK), with some US authorities demanding soil cleaned up to 100-200 ppm; the figure for commercial/industrial land in the UK is 750 ppm.

Tue 05 Nov 13


We have started receiving emails from some of our blind colleagues in Sierra Leone. In the last 24 hours we have had seven and we expect that there will be more to come. 32 blind and visually-impaired professionals are currently taking the course that we developed. The trainees -- almost all of whom are completely blind -- are primarily teachers and people working for DPOs (Disabled persons organisations) in the capital and elsewhere.

The training is based around a device called a Braillekey (which is 'plug-and-play') and a novel approach to computing (see our blogs from May & February for background).

Our colleagues at the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind and Vision for the Blind have been responsible for organising the training, at centres in Freetown, Bo and Makeni. The photo shows one of the sessions held at VFB's office in Makeni over the summer.

The shower of emails we have just received has come from Patrick, Marie, Paul, Salieu, Malcolm, Sulaiman and Miatta. Here’s a copy of the note that Marie sent: "this is just to inform you that we have reached the stage of laearning how to use tthe internet and i have been able to create my own account successfully. regaards"

Sulaiman wrote: "hi, i am glad to inform yo~u that i have now been able to send email addresses and that i am now in posession of an email address. thanks to powerful information, vision for the blind, and the sierra leone association of the blind who together with my tuitor miss giftina helped me achieve this opportunity. regards"

And this is what Miatta said: "hi mike am pleased to tell you that with all the difficulties in learning how to use a computer, i have been able to go through the first stage, and i have finally learnt how to create an account, send email and how to check my incomming mails thank you very much for sponsoring this programme. \regards"

Ignore the typos and the lack of capitals: they don’t matter a jot! This is COMMUNICATION, and it is going to open up a whole new world for our colleagues. We are delighted for them.

We are most grateful to Sightsavers for supporting this initiative, and to our team of trainers: Giftina, Mohamed and Emerson. They are doing a great job!

Tue 01 Oct 13

Please note: we are not currently able to hyperlink the articles listed below to the original copy. Simply use the Month Selector (above) to locate particular items.

SEP 2013
6 SeptReducing Injury & Environmental Damage from Misuse of Agro-Chemicals In GhanaGhana
JUL 2013
9 JulPersonal Reflections on Sierra LeoneSierra Leone
6 JulComputer Training for Teachers in AlbaniaAlbania
4 JulSorry I'm late ...Sierra Leone
JUN 2013
6 JunThe Challenge of CommunicationGeneral
MAY 2013
31 MayNew Computing Course for the BlindSierra Leone
APR 2013
21 AprEmpowering Schools in Albania to Tackle Local Environmental ProblemsAlbania
MAR 2013
31 MarCatching Up on Business!UK
FEB 2013
16 FebBombali School for the BlindSierra Leone
12 FebBig Day for Salone Sierra Leone
5 FebStarting the Computer Training for the Blind in Sierra LeoneSierra Leone
JAN 2013
4 JanWhat we achieved in 2012World
DEC 2012
14 DecEducation & Empowerment for Rural Women in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
12 DecInclusive Education for Blind Children in Bombali Sierra Leone
NOV 2012
24 NovSeminar on Local Capacity Building (Trailer) General
12 NovNews from the Field [4] Ghana
10 NovNews from the Field [3] Ghana
7 NovNews from the Field [2] Ghana
2 NovNews from the Field [1] Ghana
OCT 2012
13 OctImproving Environmental Decision-Making in Rural Moldova R. Moldova
11 OctInternational Day of the Girl Child World
SEPT 2012
20 SepPowerful Information Wins Sightsavers' Grant Despite Stiff Competition Sierra Leone
8 SepNotes from the Filed [2] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
1 SepNotes from the Filed [1] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
AUG 2012
21 AugCelebration of Life of the Late President of Ghana Ghana
JUL 2012
25 JulGender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
20 JulSocial Media Workshop Brings Together Small Development NGOs in Milton Keynes World
18 JulKit Neill Joins Powerful Information as an InternUK
JUN 2012
16 JunInternational Day of the African Child World
7 JunEye for Art Supports Vision For The Blind UK
1 JunSmall in BeautifulSierra Leone
MAY 2012
12 MayYeabu’s Story: an inspiration for allSierra Leone
9 MayAli Martin Sesay Appointed Disability CommissionerSierra Leone
1 MayPesticides: the dangers of bringing in the local expert… Albania
APR 2012
28 AprHelping Uznova Community Tackle Serious
Environmental Problems
21 AprDigital Divide: computing for the blindWorld
1 AprSupporting Women With Disabilities in MakeniSierra Leone

Fri 06 Sep 13


We have just completed a two year project on reducing injury and environmental damage from the misuse of agro-chemicals in the Volta Region of Ghana (Project B142), and we are very pleased with the results.

This was a joint project with the Network of Rice Farming Associations (NETRICE) in Hohoe, funded by the Environ Foundation in the USA.

As a result of our work:

• almost 500 subsistence farmers in Volta now understand how to handle and use agro-chemicals safely and they have been introduced to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) -- many used to store pesticides under their bed, use the old pesticide containers to store oil and other foodstuffs, and after spraying wash their kit in local water sources. (Pesticides are extremely toxic to fish and crustacea.) The photo is of one of our Farmers’ Field Schools, held in a rice paddy in Nyangbo;

• more than 8,000 high school students and teachers are aware of the dangers associated with modern pesticides and understand the need to treat them with respect — we discovered that 40% of High School children in the 37 schools where we gave presentations were actually involved in spraying and none had had any training; and

• we have identified 70 pesticide incidents in the region that have led to serious injury or death.

Moreover, we now have a clear understanding of the way pesticides are sold (and mis-sold) by shops and used (and abused) by subsistence farmers, and this will help NETRICE and its network of 30 grassroots farming organisations lobby for proper implementation of existing legislation on pesticides and reduce the high incidence of pesticide poisoning and environmental damage in the country.

Our sincere thanks to Environ for their support, and to all those who took part. Thank you!

Thu 01 Aug 13


Please note: we are not currently able to hyperlink the articles listed below to the original copy. Simply use the Month Selector (above) to locate particular items.

JUL 2013
9 JulPersonal Reflections on Sierra LeoneSierra Leone
6 JulComputer Training for Teachers in AlbaniaAlbania
4 JulSorry I'm late ...Sierra Leone
JUN 2013
6 JunThe Challenge of CommunicationGeneral
MAY 2013
31 MayNew Computing Course for the BlindSierra Leone
APR 2013
21 AprEmpowering Schools in Albania to Tackle Local Environmental ProblemsAlbania
MAR 2013
31 MarCatching Up on Business!UK
FEB 2013
16 FebBombali School for the BlindSierra Leone
12 FebBig Day for Salone Sierra Leone
5 FebStarting the Computer Training for the Blind in Sierra LeoneSierra Leone
JAN 2013
4 JanWhat we achieved in 2012World
DEC 2012
14 DecEducation & Empowerment for Rural Women in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
12 DecInclusive Education for Blind Children in Bombali Sierra Leone
NOV 2012
24 NovSeminar on Local Capacity Building (Trailer) General
12 NovNews from the Field [4] Ghana
10 NovNews from the Field [3] Ghana
7 NovNews from the Field [2] Ghana
2 NovNews from the Field [1] Ghana
OCT 2012
13 OctImproving Environmental Decision-Making in Rural Moldova R. Moldova
11 OctInternational Day of the Girl Child World
SEPT 2012
20 SepPowerful Information Wins Sightsavers' Grant Despite Stiff Competition Sierra Leone
8 SepNotes from the Filed [2] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
1 SepNotes from the Filed [1] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
AUG 2012
21 AugCelebration of Life of the Late President of Ghana Ghana
JUL 2012
25 JulGender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
20 JulSocial Media Workshop Brings Together Small Development NGOs in Milton Keynes World
18 JulKit Neill Joins Powerful Information as an InternUK
JUN 2012
16 JunInternational Day of the African Child World
7 JunEye for Art Supports Vision For The Blind UK
1 JunSmall in BeautifulSierra Leone
MAY 2012
12 MayYeabu’s Story: an inspiration for allSierra Leone
9 MayAli Martin Sesay Appointed Disability CommissionerSierra Leone
1 MayPesticides: the dangers of bringing in the local expert… Albania
APR 2012
28 AprHelping Uznova Community Tackle Serious
Environmental Problems
21 AprDigital Divide: computing for the blindWorld
1 AprSupporting Women With Disabilities in MakeniSierra Leone

Tue 09 Jul 13

Personal Reflections on Sierra Leone

Jill in Kondeya

Hearing from Mike over the last couple of weeks about meetings in Sierra Leone with people I know and places I have visited has made me think of my first visit in February this year, which included a visit to the office in the photo below, where work on the 'Sightsavers' training on computing for the blind was taking place.

Before I went I had mixed feelings: I was quite apprehensive about how I would get on but I had met six of our partners on their visit to the UK nearly 2 years earlier so was looking forward to seeing some of them again. I knew that the weather was going to be hot so was concerned about access to sufficient drinking water. This was not a problem as everywhere ‘plastics’ (500ml bags of water) were available from street vendors; usually nicely chilled as well.

TOT Training in Freetown

My daughter was concerned for my safety, wondering whether I should have a bodyguard but I was more worried about mosquitoes as they generally go for me and I react quite badly. Communication on Skype from the UK is often quite difficult so I hoped that I would both be able to make myself understood and understand those I met. I also wondered about the conditions I would be expected to live in and whether all the innoculations would cause any problems.

My time in Sierra Leone can best be described as ‘amazing’ from the welcome I received everywhere to the generosity of the people in the village of Kondeya where I was ceremoniously carried in to the village and presented with gifts of food after my naming ceremony for my local name of ‘Finah’. This was a remarkable experience and a memory I will cherish. We were accompanied there by Fatmata from 'Grassroots Education and Development for Women'. It was lovely to see her again and to spend time with her in her office, where we did some work on her records, and in her home. She looked after me and made sure that for my first ever motorbike ride the driver didn’t go too fast!

Jonathan Conteh meets Minister Attilla

I renewed my acquaintance with Ali Martin and Jonathan from 'Vision for the Blind' and took part in meetings with Alice from the 'Bombali School for the Blind'. (Alice was taken ill recently and I do hope that she will be feeling better now.) It was a pleasure to finally meet Daniel and Aminata from 'Education for Women' and to be involved in several meetings with another Aminata to talk about the setting up of her new organisation, 'Domestic Concern for Women' and to meet her Board. I was also fortunate to meet the Deputy Minister for Social Welfare, Mustapha Bai Attilla, (seen on the right in the photo with Jonathan) and was invited on an evening tour of Freetown with him accompanied by his bodyguards, one of whom originated from Kondeya. We visited lots of places where he was warmly welcomed. It was an extraordinary evening but a wonderful end to my time in Freetown and Sierra Leone. A country of contrasts where I met a lot of lovely people and felt well looked after.

Jill Chinn in Milton Keynes

Sat 06 Jul 13


In April one of our consultants, Ariadna Benet Monico, and I visited an environmental education project that we have been running in Albania for the last two years. This one is funded by the Environ Foundation in the United States.

The project is with the Shkolla Xhemal Chekini in Uznova, a very poor suburb of Berat, in the central zone. The school has done some excellent work with the children encouraging them to explore their local environment, and also be aware of potential dangers from a neighbouring abandoned lead smelter, but we had been experiencing difficulties getting reports from the school and we discovered during our visit that the teachers really wanted some help with report writing, and lessons in how to use Microsoft Word and Excel.

With this in mind we developed a special training programme for them, and this week we had an email from our colleagues to let us know that the work has been going well.

The training is being organized by our partners at the EDEN Centre in Tirana and supervised by two consultants, Anila and Ines (bottom photo). It took place in the school’s computer lab at the end of June (after the end of term) and lasted for 5 days.

We had expected 10 teachers to take part, but the level of interest was such that we had 16, and the school managed to fix 7 computers that had not been working properly. The top photo shows the Head, Dhurata (in yellow) taking part with some of her staff; and below this, a view of the computer suite.

The best way to train someone to be a confident computer-user is to work one-to-one with them on an assignment that is relevant and interesting so that at the end of the training they have a useful product, a lesson plan, proposal, memorandum or report; and in the process they learn about the software. And this is exactly what we did. Our main focus was on word processing and spread sheets (for financial reporting), but we also included PowerPoint so that the teachers could include more visual material in their lessons.

We are organising for some external speakers to address the children, in September, about a range of local environmental issues, and we are very hopeful that we will get some sparkling reports back when the work is complete!

Thu 04 Jul 13


Aminata was late. She arrived just as I was leaving the Vision for the Blind Office in Makeni, Sierra Leone. She had been called to help sort out yet another domestic dispute. A man in Congo Town, where she lives, had accused his wife of stealing 500,000 Leones (£77). He had called the police and the woman had been arrested. Before being taken away the woman had managed to get word to Aminata via a friend and Aminata had gone to the Family Support Unit at the police station, where the woman was being held. After talking with the police Aminata went to the woman’s house where she discovered that the man’s sister, Mabinti, was also living. Mabinti was in a bad state: on talking with the girl she admitted that she had taken the money — she had wanted to go on holiday to Bo and she had already spent some of the money. On hearing this admission, the man beat her severely and then went to the police station where he had to pay 50,000 Leones to get his wife released. Hard to imagine how the conversation went between them after that…

For the last couple of years we have been helping Aminata carry out research into domestic violence and more recently, to set up a community based organisation to help women who are threatened, attacked or abused. Her group is called Domestic Concern for Women (DCFW). One of our volunteers, Hannah, has been closely involved in the work, helping Aminata write a constitution; and Jill and I met with the DCFW Board earlier this year.

Aminata spends a lot of her time visiting homes where there are domestic disputes, trying to mediate and advise. Some of her case studies are very distressing. One was a woman in Manonkoh who wanted to be reconciled with her brother. During the dreadful conflict in the 1990s rebels had come to her village and seized the woman and then forced her brother to have sex with her. As can be imagined, this had had a traumatic effect on all concerned. Following the incident, ashamed and distressed, her brother had fled the village and had not felt able to return. The woman had heard that he was living in Kono and she had been pleading with Aminata to help her get him back. She bore no grudge against him for what had happened so many years ago.

Another case involved a 27 year old woman in Rokonta who was another victim of the war: she had been raped by rebels and borne a child as a result. Today she has three children. But the fact that she had had sex during daylight hours meant that she had broken one of the basic rules of Poro, the Secret Society in her village, and the woman went blind (as the Secret Society said she would). Her eyes are clear, but she cannot see. She had been seen by specialists at the Lunsar Eye Hospital and for a time her sight had been restored, but soon after she went blind again. To get a pardon from a Secret Society can be expensive: in this case it would involve slaying a goat and buying palm oil and a bag of rice, and more besides, something the woman cannot afford. She is struggling to survive. Some years ago she had received 300,000 Leones from NaCSA in compensation for being a victim of the war, but she had long since spent the money. Today, she is so desperate with her situation that she has tried to kill herself: she had been caught preparing to drink caustic soda.

Another woman, from Petfu Mamanso, had been raped by four men again during the war and badly damaged and is now incontinent. She has been examined at one local hospital — she had paid 150,000 Leones for tests and now she has no money left to pay for an operation. We are exploring whether Aminata might take her to the special Fistula Clinic in Freetown, where patients are treated for free.

Aminata’s case studies are growing: she has already sent us around 30 and we are supporting her to do what she can to advise and help women deal with the police, the law and assist them to get medical treatment. This is not easy work but Aminata seems to thrive on it, and it is good to see the progress she is making.

Mike Flood, Makeni 4 July 2013

Mon 01 Jul 13


Please note: we are not currently able to hyperlink the articles listed below to the original copy. Simply use the Month Selector (above) to locate particular items.

JUN 2013
6 JunThe Challenge of CommunicationGeneral
MAY 2013
31 MayNew Computing Course for the BlindS. Leone
APR 2013
21 AprEmpowering Schools in Albania to Tackle Local Environmental ProblemsAlbania
MAR 2013
31 MarCatching Up on Business!UK
FEB 2013
16 FebBombali School for the BlindS. Leone
12 FebBig Day for SaloneS. Leone
5 FebStarting the Computer Training for the Blind in Sierra LeoneS. Leone
JAN 2013
4 JanWhat we achieved in 2012World
DEC 2012
14 DecEducation & Empowerment for Rural Women in Sierra Leone S. Leone
12 DecInclusive Education for Blind Children in Bombali S. Leone
NOV 2012
24 NovSeminar on Local Capacity Building (Trailer) General
12 NovNews from the Field [4] Ghana
10 NovNews from the Field [3] Ghana
7 NovNews from the Field [2] Ghana
2 NovNews from the Field [1] Ghana
OCT 2012
13 OctImproving Environmental Decision-Making in Rural Moldova R. Moldova
11 OctInternational Day of the Girl Child World
SEPT 2012
20 SepPowerful Information Wins Sightsavers' Grant Despite Stiff Competition S. Leone
8 SepNotes from the Filed [2] -- Sierra Leone S. Leone
1 SepNotes from the Filed [1] -- Sierra Leone S. Leone
AUG 2012
21 AugCelbration of Life of the Late President of Ghana Ghana
JUL 2012
25 JulGender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone S. Leone
20 JulSocial Media Workshop Brings Together Small Development NGOs in Milton Keynes World
18 JulKit Neill Joins Powerful Information as an InternUK
JUN 2012
16 JunInternational Day of the African Child World
7 JunEye for Art Supports Vision For The Blind UK
1 JunSmall in BeautifulS. Leone
MAY 2012
12 MayYeabu’s Story: an inspiration for allS. Leone
9 MayAli Martin Sesay Appointed Disability CommissionerS. Leone
1 MayPesticides: the dangers of bringing in the local expert… Albania
APR 2012
28 AprHelping Uznova Community Tackle Serious
Environmental Problems
21 AprDigital Divide: computing for the blindWorld
1 AprSupporting Women With Disabilities in MakeniS. Leone

Thu 06 Jun 13


Our latest volunteers’ seminar was entitled ‘The Challenge of Communication’ and explored some of our recent experiences working with local partners on grassroots development projects in West Africa. We focused in particular on half a dozen community-based initiatives in Sierra Leone, where we have been working for more than a decade.

One of our volunteers, Hannah, has been working with Jill to advise Aminata (in Makeni) on how to set up a CBO to help the victims of domestic violence — we have known Aminata for many years and have seen her develop. (She is the first woman from her village to graduate at college.) Ayah is helping another woman, Saffie, to empower disabled women with a better knowledge and understanding of their rights — Saffie is herself registered blind. The next step will be to provide training and practical help so that women, many of whom have been cheated or abused, can deal with the situation and where appropriate, seek redress through the courts. And Ben, has been working with Mike to develop a novel computer training programme for blind professionals — Mike will be testing this out later this month in Freetown, with our partners and a team of four trainers.

We try to run four or five seminars a year. Their purpose is to give volunteers and supporters an insight into the often complex issues that can arise when you try to bring about social change. There are the inevitably technical problems to deal with — partners' lack of access to communication networks or computers or the internet, or simply poor service. More computer training is also required. But the biggest difficulties arise from poor communication — people not being clear in what they write, or the way they use language, or what they consider significant or of low priority, or in the way they interpret conversations or events that have taken place. We are all guilty of this!

The way to tackle such difficulties is to keep in regular contact, and also to have a good working relationship with your partners so that mistakes or mix-ups can be quickly sorted out. We put a lot of effort into this work, and spend a fortune on Skype, but it’s worth every penny! At the end of the day the work is interesting and rewarding, and very worthwhile. Who could ask for more?

Sat 01 Jun 13


Please note: we are not currently able to hyperlink the articles listed below to the original copy. Simply use the Month Selector (above) to locate particular items.

MAY 2013
31 MayNew Computing Course for the BlindS. Leone
APR 2013
21 AprEmpowering Schools in Albania to Tackle Local Environmental ProblemsAlbania
MAR 2013
31 MarCatching Up on Business!UK
FEB 2013
16 FebBombali School for the BlindS. Leone
12 FebBig Day for SaloneS. Leone
5 FebStarting the Computer Training for the Blind in Sierra LeoneS. Leone
JAN 2013
4 JanWhat we achieved in 2012World
DEC 2012
14 DecEducation & Empowerment for Rural Women in Sierra Leone S. Leone
12 DecInclusive Education for Blind Children in Bombali S. Leone
NOV 2012
24 NovSeminar on Local Capacity Building (Trailer) General
12 NovNews from the Field [4] Ghana
10 NovNews from the Field [3] Ghana
7 NovNews from the Field [2] Ghana
2 NovNews from the Field [1] Ghana
OCT 2012
13 OctImproving Environmental Decision-Making in Rural Moldova R. Moldova
11 OctInternational Day of the Girl Child World
SEPT 2012
20 SepPowerful Information Wins Sightsavers' Grant Despite Stiff Competition S. Leone
8 SepNotes from the Filed [2] -- Sierra Leone S. Leone
1 SepNotes from the Filed [1] -- Sierra Leone S. Leone
AUG 2012
21 AugCelbration of Life of the Late President of Ghana Ghana
JUL 2012
25 JulGender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone S. Leone
20 JulSocial Media Workshop Brings Together Small Development NGOs in Milton Keynes World
18 JulKit Neill Joins Powerful Information as an InternUK
JUN 2012
16 JunInternational Day of the African Child World
7 JunEye for Art Supports Vision For The Blind UK
1 JunSmall in BeautifulS. Leone
MAY 2012
12 MayYeabu’s Story: an inspiration for allS. Leone
9 MayAli Martin Sesay Appointed Disability CommissionerS. Leone
1 MayPesticides: the dangers of bringing in the local expert… Albania
APR 2012
28 AprHelping Uznova Community Tackle Serious
Environmental Problems
21 AprDigital Divide: computing for the blindWorld
1 AprSupporting Women With Disabilities in MakeniS. Leone

Fri 31 May 13


We have just completed the units for our new computer training course for blind or visually-impaired professionals, and next month we will be presenting it to an international Sightsavers’ Conference in Chichester. The programme is part of a joint project with Vision for the Blind and the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind, the main indigenous group representing blind people in Sierra Leone.

The primary aim of the project is to empower 34 functionally-blind professionals with the knowledge, skills and means to use computers, email and the internet, and provide specialist equipment that they can use at internet cafés — very few blind people in Sierra Leone have their own computer.

Our approach to computing is radically different from the other systems that we are aware of -- and a great deal cheaper! It involves a piece of kit called a Braillekey (which is ‘plug & play’) and uses new laptops that have been stripped of all unnecessary software and icons.

We are training people to use Notepad (which comes with the Windows Operating System) and using open-source software — a screen reader called NVDA, and a browser designed specifically for blind users, called WebbIE. Our aim is to give people more independence. If we can achieve 80% (or even 50%) independence on the computer/internet we think this will be quite an achievement.

Those who master Notepad can move on to WordPad, and read Word files using Word Viewer (also free). Notepad and WordPad are much easier to master than Word and perfectly OK for writing notes, memos and letters.

In February we trained four facilitators in Freetown and then trialled our approach with four volunteers. As of today 22 blind professions have taken the first phase of the training (on word processing) with only one dropping out (because his Brailling skills were poor). Some of our trainees are shown here at SLAB HQ in Freetown. We will be tackling phase two of the training in June; this involves using Gmail and storing files on memory sticks or in the ‘cloud’.

We think our approach to computing is novel and has real potential, especially in resource-strapped countries like Sierra Leone as it avoids expensive software and equipment. The Grade 1 Braillekey costs £180, and the Grade 2, £260, a small fraction of what you will pay for specialist equipment and commercial software, and people say they feel 'at home' with the Braillekey. We will report later in the year on how the training is progressing.

Sat 20 Apr 13


One of our colleagues, Ariadna, is posing here for a photo. But this is not a conventional holiday snap: Ariadna is with me in Albania monitoring progress on a project concerned with lead contamination and public health. She is standing on the site of a battery factory in Uznova, Berat (Central Albania) where the land is poisoned with lead. We have measured lead levels in some parts of the site at 15,000 ppm, which is high by any standards. And shepherds bring their animals here to graze…

Better news is that lead levels in most of the other areas that we have tested — the areas where people live and grow food — do not appear to pose a direct threat to health. This finding came as something of a surprise because a lead smelter had been operating in Uznova for many years with little or no control over emissions and local people were anxious about the risks.

We have been working on the project with the EDEN Centre in Tirana and the Xhemal Chekini School in Uznova (top right) for the last 18 months. We wanted to understand the dangers and sensitize the public to the potential risks. The project has been funded by the Environ Foundation in the USA.

We have worked closely with the Director, teachers and pupils at the school to provide training and also to develop eight mini-projects — the last one involves preparing warning signs to go on the site described above. We plan to do this shortly in collaboration with the local authority. We have also helped the school install a work surface and two sinks in its laboratory; plant trees and bushes in the school yard, and fence it to stop the public using it as a thoroughfare. The children have also designed environmental posters and held a competition; and the school has collaborated with a local television company to produce a video, which was broadcast last year...

Working together we have seen big changes at the school, not least in the confidence and enthusiasm of teachers and students. Indeed, as a result of this work the School received a commendation from the Regional Director of Education and had its name in lights in 'The Teacher' Magazine, published by the Albanian Ministry of Education. In one of the photos, Dhurata, the School Director, is pointing out the entry to Ines our interpreter from EDEN.

On Friday we went with 35 children from the Eco Club to visit a school in neighbouring Poshnje village. The children wanted to share their experiences. The meeting was held on the first floor landing with well over one hundred children present. And I am pleased to say that the school acquitted itself well. The bottom photo shows two of the pupils from Xhemal Chekini addressing the assembly. The pupils at Poshnje now have lots of ideas for next term. And the enthusiasm was infectious!

Mike Flood in Tirana

Sun 31 Mar 13


Alice Koroma at the Bombali School for the Blind

March was a particularly busy month in the office — which is why we did not make any other posts on our News & Comment section.

Since Jill and I returned from Sierra Leone (on March 3) we have been busy catching up on events, not least:

• preparing a new Memorandum of Understanding with Vision for the Blind and drafting a contract for our new Comic Relief project on Inclusive Education for Blind Children;

• drawing up new contracts for two other partners in Sierra Leone;

• organising a visit to Albania (for April) to monitor progress on our work with Uznova School and the local community;

• sorting out a transfer to Ghana that was mistakenly returned by the intermediary bank (which has meant our local partner reorganising our subsistence farmer training programme);

• helping Disability Awareness Action Group in Sierra Leone design a survey of the educational attainment and job opportunities for people who are disabled;

• drawing up a job specification for an Administrator (a new post) and advertising this in the city;

• organising and holding one of our quarterly Board Meetings; and

• completing papers for our accountant for our latest annual accounts.

One very pleasurable task that we had in Sierra Leone was to help one of our partners, Aminata Conteh, set up a new CBO to tackle domestic violence in Southern Bombali. Her organisation is called Domestic Concern for Women. The photo shows Jill in Makeni meeting with Aminata (centre) and members of her new Board to discuss priorities for the coming months. It was thirsty work (strictly soft drinks!)

Sat 16 Feb 13


Alice Koroma at the Bombali School for the Blind

The first thing we noticed as we entered the new dormitory complex at the Bombali School for the Blind was the size of the children’s lunches -- beans and rice piled high on their plates! This came as quite a surprise because for years the school has been struggling to find money for food.

The Bombali School for the Blind is one of only five such schools in Sierra Leone. It was established 20 years ago by Alice Koroma (pictured) and housed in an abandoned abattoir at Panlap, just outside Makeni. However it was not until 2008 that the Government officially recognised Alice’s School, and whilst this meant that qualified staff would finally be paid, there was still no financial provision to feed, clothe and care for the children’s many needs. Indeed, to this day the school survives on hand-outs from local churches and NGOs like the Cotton Tree Foundation.

Children Eating at the Bombali School for the Blind

We know Alice well and brought her to the UK in 2011 as part of a Vision for the Blind delegation to meet with specialists in inclusive education (IE) and look at how UK experience might be applied in a low-income country like Sierra Leone.

Jill and I are in Makeni to meet with Alice and her team and see that our new Comic Relief project gets off to a good start: over the next four years we aim to get 100 blind and visually-impaired children into mainstream education where their special educational needs are properly understood and addressed — quite a challenge given the attitude of the general public towards disability. This was brought home to us when Alice told us about Isatu, the young girl in the bottom picture looking at the camera. (Isatu is not her real name.) The school sent Isatu home for the holidays with some clothes, but the parents took the clothes and gave them to their other ‘more deserving’ children. It is difficult to comprehend what that does for a young person’s self-esteem… Sad to say this is not an isolated incident.

Students at the Bombali School for the Blind

Our hope is that, with the launching last week of the National Commission for Persons with Disability (NCPWD) things will begin to change and inclusion will replace integration in Sierra Leonean schools.* The man standing behind Isatu in the bottom picture is our partner and good friend Ali Martin Sesay, who has just been appointed Commissioner for the Northern Region. We will be working closely with him and the NCPWD to sensitise the public to the right of disabled children to an education and to fair and sympathetic treatment.

I was reminded of an amusing incident when Alice came to the UK: we arranged for her to try a Guide Dog and she was so impressed that she vowed to train her dog when she got home so that it could to help her get around. So we asked what happened. Sadly, the dog died.

* With integration children with Special Educational Needs are simply expected to fit in with pre-existing structures and procedures, and there is no training or sensitisation of teachers and other children. With IE, teachers receive special training and there is a commitment by the school to removing all potential barriers to the proper education of children and their full participation in the life of the school.

Mike Flood (Panlap, Makeni, Sierra Leone)

Tue 12 Feb 13


Today was a BIG DAY for Sierra Leone, the launch of the country’s new National Commission for People with Disability. The event took place at the National Stadium and was attended by over 250 people, many ‘differently abled’ — the term now promoted by the UN for persons with disability (PWD). We can all expect to be differently abled at some point in our lives, either through accident, illness or old age.*

National Commission for People with Disability

President Ernest Bai Koroma hosted the meeting but on the day was not able to be there. But we heard some very impressive presentations, not least from the Chair of the new Commission, Frederick J M Kamara — himself blind — who spoke eloquently without notes and introduced the members of the Commission, including with our own Ali Martin Sesay from Vision for the Blind, who has been one of our partners for nearly 10 years. Ali Martin is one of four Regional Commissioners; another eight Members on the Commission represent Government Departments (Social Welfare, Education, Health, Transport, Youth etc.); and there are Commissioners representing the international and local Non-Governmental Organisations.

The Commission has been a long-time coming, but now it’s here it has a lot on its agenda: Chairman Kamara highlighted the many barriers PWD face on a daily basis — education, employment, infrastructure and access to health and legal services. Breaking down these services will take time but “I will knock on all doors, and find my way around all obstacles.” he said. And the meeting roared its approval!

SLAB Board Meeting

Powerful Information is doing its bit: last week we finished the first phase of the Training Of Trainers — our programme will help 34 blind and visually-impaired professionals to use computers and access email and the internet. And tomorrow we have an appointment with the Deputy Minister at Social Welfare, Mustapha Bai Attilla, to demonstrate our approach... Mr Attilla is also blind.

At the weekend I made a presentation to the newly elected Board of the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind. The meeting was held in SLAB HQ in one of the old wooden houses in Central Freetown, very close to the famous Cotton Tree and its colony of fruit bats. For several of the delegates it was their first experience of sitting on a Board and SLAB’s Acting Director, Kabbakeh Noah, asked me to talk about good governance and give them an overview of their new roles and responsibilities. (We are working with SLAB and VFB on the computer training programme, with a grant from Sightsavers.) The work is going well…

* Whilst the incidence of blindness from common illnesses like measles has been falling in Salone, there has been a big increase in traffic accidents in Freetown involving motorcyclists, who have poured onto the streets in an attempt to get round the grid-lock in parts of the city. Many wear helmets, but it is definitely not PC to do up the strap!

Mike Flood (Freetown)

Tue 05 Feb 13


TOT Training in Freetown

“It makes you feel at home”. This was Kabbakeh Noah’s comment on trying out a Braillekey for the first time -- and just what I wanted to hear. In January Kabbakeh took over as Acting Director of the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind, the oldest disability organisation in the country.

We are working with him and our friends at Vision for the Blind (VFB) to understand the needs and aspirations of blind and visually-impaired professionals in Sierra Leone and develop a specialist computer training programme for them.

As part of our research SLAB and VFB carried out a survey of 44 BVI professionals and everyone was keen to learn — familiarity with computers they said will enable them to access information and network more — and of course be more independent.

We have deliberately built the training around what BVI people know (ie how to Braille) rather than what they don’t (how to negotiate their way around a computer), and Kabbakeh’s comment shows that the strategy is working...

The top picture shows VFB’s Director, Jonathan Conteh, at our first training session earlier today using a Braillekey to make notes. The device plugs directly into a computer and allows people to type in Braille and listen to their words on the screen using a screen reader. The four people looking on are our trainers — Patrick, Giftina, Emerson and Mohammed. Later in the week, these four will train four blind colleagues, and this team of eight will then take the training programme out to Freetown and four other population centres (where there are schools for the blind), Makeni, Bo, Kabala & Koidu.

Jonathan Conteh meets Minister Attilla

Yesterday Jonathan and I had a short meeting with the new Deputy Minister for Social Welfare, Mustapha Bai Attilla, the first blind man to assume such high office in Sierra Leone. The meeting was very cordial and Mr Attilla thanked Powerful Information most warmly for the support we have been giving to the blind community over the years.

What’s more, the Minister offered his full support for our current initiatives* and said he would like to be present at any launch events that we organise. And he insisted that we return next week to show him how the Braillekey works and to do a training session with him!

Mike Flood (Freetown, Sierra Leone)

* The computer training is supported by Sightsavers. We also recently started a Comic Relief-funded project to get 100 blind children into mainstream education (see our entries on 20 Sept and 8 Dec 2012 ).

Fri 04 Jan 13


It has been another busy year at Powerful Information. We have prepared a short note on what we achieved -- see What We Achieved in 2012
(pdf 420K)

Over the period we worked closely with seven partners in four countries in West Africa and Eastern Europe on eight grassroots information, education and training projects. This involved working with a wide variety of women’s circles, farmers’ associations, community groups and local schools.

The photo shows an activity from one of these projects: a training workshop on sustainable agriculture and the safe use of pesticides for subsistence farmers in the Volta Region of Ghana.*

We also won two major new grants for grassroots projects in Sierra Leone -- one on inclusive education for blind & visual-impaired (BVI) children (Comic Relief); the other, to train BVI professions in two leading Disabled People’s Organizations and 5 special schools to use computers and access the internet (Sightsavers). There is more about these projects in earlier blogs.

Overall, staff and consultants spent more than 10 weeks on assignments abroad and on monitoring progress on projects — one trip to Sierra Leone, two trips to Ghana, and three to Albania.

* There is a short video on our Facebook Page (4 Jan 2013) which demonstrates the problem -- a woman is spraying her crops; she is in a long dress and flip flops and has no protection whatsoever. What's more, she has had no instruction in how to spray nor what chemicals to use. Thousands of farmers are injured each year, and some die, from misusing pesticides. Indeed, one farmer was reported to have died from pesticide poisoning in each of three villages where we had meetings in November.

Tue 01 Jan 13


Use the Selector (above) to locate particular items by their month.

14 DecEducation & Empowerment for Rural Women in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
12 DecInclusive Education for Blind Children in Bombali Sierra Leone
24 NovSeminar on Local Capacity Building (Trailer) General
12 NovNews from the Field [4] Ghana
10 NovNews from the Field [3] Ghana
7 NovNews from the Field [2] Ghana
2 NovNews from the Field [1] Ghana
13 OctImproving Environmental Decision-Making in Rural Moldova R. Moldova
11 OctInternational Day of the Girl Child World
20 SepPowerful Information Wins Sightsavers' Grant Despite Stiff Competition Sierra Leone
8 SepNotes from the Filed [2] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
1 SepNotes from the Filed [1] -- Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
21 AugCelbration of Life of the Late President of Ghana Ghana
25 JulGender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone Sierra Leone
20 JulSocial Media Workshop Brings Together Small Development NGOs in Milton Keynes World
18 JulKit Neill Joins Powerful Information as an InternUK
16 JunInternational Day of the African Child World
7 JunEye for Art Supports Vision For The Blind UK
1 JunSmall in BeautifulSierra Leone
12 MayYeabu’s Story: an inspiration for allSierra Leone
9 MayAli Martin Sesay Appointed Disability CommissionerSierra Leone
1 MayPesticides: the dangers of bringing in the local expert… Albania
28 AprHelping Uznova Community Tackle Serious
Environmental Problems
21 AprDigital Divide: computing for the blindWorld
1 AprSupporting Women With Disabilities in MakeniSierra Leone
7 MarMarch 8th is International Women’s DayWorld
1 MarComputing for Vision For The BlindSierra Leone
1 MarWorld Book DayWorld
12 FebThe Wrong Kind of Development Aid?World
7 FebWhat is Social Capital?World
20 JanNotes from the Field [2]Ghana
15 JanNotes from the Field [1]Ghana
1 JanWhat We Achieved in 2011 World

Fri 14 Dec 12


We have just produced our latest report on our longest-running project in Sierra Leone (started in 2003) which addresses two deep-seated problems: the low level of education and literacy amongst rural women — which condemns many to live in poverty and ignorance — and attitudes, customs and practices that deny women their rights and threaten their health and safety. Many women were not able to attend school because of conflict, poverty, sexual discrimination or early pregnancy, and this means that they often lack the means and wherewithal to support themselves and their children.

Our report covers the 12 month period up to July and our work with two local partners, Education for Women (in Makeni) and Grassroots Education & Development for Women (in Kabala). Here’s a summary of what we were able to achieve:

• we supported 21 learning circles and provided learning for over 640 women farmers and petty traders (and 150 men);

• we set up seed banks in three circles to improve food security and surpluses generated by these groups were then used to assisted six more;

• we ran a pilot leadership programme for 12 of the most active women learners — all of them were subsequently given temporary work with the National Election Commission as ‘local sensitizers’ in the run up to the National Election in November; and

• organised networking events and workshops to provide in-service training for local project officers and learning circle facilitators.

Our partners also took part in six radio programmes, which helped to promote the case for women’s education.

The picture is of the Madiya-wona learning circles which practices a system called Osusu — participants contribute a small amount each week (typically 1,000 Leones, £0.15). The money is then used for the benefit of the group. In Madiya-wona’s case, it pays the facilitator a small allowance and is also used to buy seed. Virtually all of the women in the group are widows or single parents; some survive by doing hard physical labour, such as breaking rock by hand. The group’s name means (‘love one another’).

Improving understanding and literacy levels gives women greater control over their lives and can help them contribute economically to the family unit and play a more prominent role in society. And this is the goal of our work.

During the coming year we aim to maintain the programme at its current level; continue to improve the quality of the facilitation, with more coaching and training workshops for our facilitators — we will be making several visits to Sierra Leone in 2013 because of new projects with Vision for the Blind and SLAB (see recent entries). And if we are successful in attracting additional funds, we will provide more support for learning circles like Madiya-wona, roll out the Women’s Leadership Programme to more women, and promote more community rice banks to improve food security.

Sat 08 Dec 12


Christmas came early this year: we heard on Wednesday that our four year project on Inclusive Education for blind and visually-impaired children in Sierra Leone had been approved by Comic Relief. This is a joint initiative with Vision for the Blind and the Bombali School for the Blind in Makeni and follows from an earlier grant that we received from Comic Relief to research into how inclusive education might be introduced in the region. Needless to say, we are all thrilled!

Our project will help establish an enabling environment for Inclusive Education in Southern Bombali and a more inclusive society. Very few children who are BVI currently get an education in Sierra Leone — there are only five specialist schools in the whole country, with fewer than 500 children enrolled (including these children at the school in Panlap, Makeni). Parents do not see the need to educate children with disabilities; schools do not have the facilities; teachers are not trained in Special Educational Needs; and few Disabled Persons Organisations are active in rural areas, where the problem is at its worst.

There is no set formula for introducing inclusive education in a country: the approach adopted must take account of many factors, not least attitudes, tradition and culture, and the infrastructure and resources available. As part of our new project we will be organising for 100 BVI children to be medically assessed and enrolled in the Bombali School for the Blind and then prepared for mainstream education. Schooling can help make a child’s disability less of a burden, dramatically improving his or her quality of life, self-esteem and employment prospects.

We will set up Visual Impairment units in six local schools, sponsor teachers to get SEN training at the University of Makeni, and organise a sustained series of activities and events in schools and the community designed to improve public understanding of the right of all children to an education. We will also be lobbying officials so that they understand their responsibilities under new disability legislation. And last but not least, the project will enable us to work with VFB's core team to build up its capacity, including providing computer and internet training and its own website.

Our intention is to provide a practical model for how current legislation can be used effectively to deliver Education for All in Sierra Leone.

Sat 24 Nov 12


Our next workshop will focus on local capacity building and the process of exchange and empowerment.

  • How does our approach work in practice with different stakeholders -- volunteers, partners & beneficiaries?
  • What changes can we see?
  • What lessons can we learn?
  • We will look in particular at four grassroots projects in West Africa -- ones in which some of our volunteers have been directly involved. Mike has recently returned from monitoring trips to Sierra Leone and Ghana and he will be providing an update.

    The projects include: ‘Reducing Injury & Environmental Damage from the Use of Pesticides by Subsistence Farmers in the Volta Region of Ghana’, our ‘Women’s Education & Empowerment Programme’ in Sierra Leone, and recent initiatives on developing ‘Computing for the Blind & Visually-Impaired’ and helping set up a new CBO to tackle Gender-Based Violence.

    We will also be discussing various initiatives on the home front concerned with development education, the use of social media, and collaboration with other NGOs.

    All welcome — see 'Activities in UK' section for more details.

    Mon 12 Nov 12

    NEWS FROM THE FIELD [4] — Ghana

    The farmers were all smiles as they emerged from the Frontline Internet Café in Hohoe (eastern Ghana). It was their first ever visit. We had told them about the potential of the internet at a workshop last week, and promised to train them. And today was the day. We started with a short introduction to the terminology of the internet and the world wide web, and browsers, search engines and hyperlinks. And whilst my colleague Ammish was doing this at the front (right) in ones and twos, I was inside setting up a simple on-line tutorial on how to use the mouse.

    The next step turned out to be remarkably easy — looking at carrots (and carrot fly) on Google Images, and then introducing the farmers to the delights of Wikipedia. After that we pointed them towards different sites concerned with the pests and diseases of plants. They soon got the hang of it and frowns were replaced by smiles as they found they could actually do it. This was real empowerment! One of the farmers wanted to check out peppers and he was soon finding all sorts of interesting facts on specialist plant websites; another investigated the diseases of rice on a free on-line knowledge bank.

    We followed a similar process with two Agric Extension Officers earlier in my visit, and they took to it really quickly. And tomorrow, we will train a third. I am convinced that this is the best way for people to get into computing: first, learn how to use a mouse, and then gain confidence surfing the web at a local internet cafe. (Very few subsistence farmers can afford to buy a computer.) And from there it’s not a big step to setting up an email account, and then learning Wordpad and Excel. And this is the next challenge for our Sustainable Agriculture Programme here in the Volta Region, which the Environ Foundation has been supporting. Farmers can store their data in the 'cloud' or put it on a memory stick; and with a knowledge of computers, farmer organisations -- like the 30 that now belong to NETRICE (which Ammish runs) -- will be able to find important information, communicate more effectively and keep better records. And that’s the goal.

    The one disappointment of the day was the absence of women farmers: we had insisted on gender balance, but the women pulled out. When the farmers go back and tell their wives what they've missed, I think the women will be along too -- especially when they learn that the Frontline Internet Café is actually run by a young women and the owners name is Elvis!

    Mike Flood, Hohoe, Volta Region of Ghana

    Sat 10 Nov 12


    Now that we’ve started our Pesticide Incident Database we keep hearing of more and more tragic cases. The latest this morning in Asato — a small village near Kadjebi in the Volta Region of Ghana.

    We ran our first training workshop in Asato (in January) and we wanted to find out how the farmers were applying their new knowledge. We had clearly succeeded in raising their awareness about the risks to health and the environment from the careless — sometimes reckless — use of pesticides, but the cost of protective clothing was causing them serious problems. A lively discussion ensued about what might be done about it. Perhaps the chemical companies could subsidise the equipment (and the training). It was during this discussion that I was reminded of Derek Bok’s famous retort about education: If you think it’s expensive, try ignorance.

    Just what value should one place on good health, and what price will you ultimately pay if you poison yourself and cannot work? Subsistence farmers are especially vulnerable. When I asked the farmers how many had suffered ill-effects from spraying two thirds raised their hands and they talked about some of their symptoms. And when I asked if they knew of any who had died, they told us about Olivia, a mother of four who collapsed last year after spraying in the fields — she was rushed to hospital but never recovered. It seems every village has a similar story to tell…

    When later in the day we went to the fields to see for ourselves the problems pest were causing farmers, we were again reminded of the widespread use being made of pesticides.

    Dotted across the rice fields were dozens of used pesticide containers on branches stuck into the ground — having killed the insects (including the pollinators and useful predators) the containers for the chemicals were now being used to scare away the birds! To my untutored eye the rice looked pretty healthy, but one farmer brought us some diseased seed heads and our Extension Officer, Mike Wullar, diagnosed rice blast (a serious fungal disease).

    I finished the workshop with a presentation on the potential value of the internet to farmers and demonstrated how easy it is to find information. They were particularly interested in pests and diseases and we checked out some good sites on line; and we talked about keeping an eye on the latest commodity prices, and companies offering special deals on equipment, and incentive schemes for farmers offered by the government...

    We looked too at alternative sources of income, such as collecting the seeds of Griffonia simplicifolia (a vine that grows wild across the region). The seeds are used by pharmaceutical companies to make drugs for treating insomnia, migraine, depression and obesity. I found a small cottage industry doing just this when I was last in Asato! This was all very well received and discussions only came to a close when the batteries on my laptop finally ran out…

    Mike Flood, Santrokofi, Ghana

    Wed 07 Nov 12

    NOTES FROM THE FIELD [2] — Ghana

    Last week a woman in Santrokofi Gbodome died. (That’s the next village to where I’m staying.) She collapsed whilst spraying her fields, and leaves six children without their mother. The woman hadn’t understood the dangers of using pesticide and like most subsistence farmers here in the Volta Region of Ghana, she wore no protection. Sadly, hers is not an isolated case. There was another case in the village we visited this morning, Have Etoe — a man was spraying his crops when he fainted, and by the time someone found him he was in a coma and died later in hospital.

    These are shocking cases, the result of easy access to pesticides and a lack of education and training in their use. Indeed, many subsistence farmers suffer ill-effects from spraying, including itching eyes, skin rashes, dizziness and headaches, and for those that persist, damage to their nervous system and vital organs. No one knows the actual numbers involved because post mortems are few and far between in rural areas and people are buried quickly. We are compiling a database of incidents to try to establish the nature and full extent of the problem.

    This is one part of a sustainable agriculture project we are running with and through our partners at NETRICE in Hohoe. The work is funded by the Environ Foundation and involves inter alia training 500 farmers in integrated pest management (IPM) — basically, how to deal with pests and diseases whilst minimising the use of synthetic chemicals. Pesticides should be seen as a last resort, not the first thing to buy when you spot damage to the crop!

    Yesterday we went with two Extension Officers, Mike Dzogbetsa and Emmanuel Agbodza, to the village of Nyangbo to work with local rice farmers (members of NETRICE). We focused the training on the worms, insects and fungi that are attacking their rice, but we plan to return to some of their other concerns on later visits — more specifically, bird and rodent pests, post harvest losses, and lack of storage facilities, marketing skills and access to credit.

    This morning we conducted our first Farmer Field School (FFS) in one of their rice fields — at this time of the year the rice is shoulder high and near to harvest. We collected insects and Mike and Emmanuel took turns in providing a commentary on whether each was ‘bad’ (i.e. eats the roots, stems, leaves or seed) or ‘good’ (i.e. eats the bad insects). After the field school we assembled in the church hall for a debriefing and a discussion of what action to take to protect the crop. Fortunately, this particular crop was pretty healthy.

    The IPM approach is tried and tested and designed to involve and empower farmers to tackle problems themselves not wait for others. The ones who took us to the fields clearly did not know what to look for and when and how to treat particular invaders. For example, they never thought that the harmless-looking ball of fluff that Mike found attached to one rice plant contained dozens of tiny white eggs which would soon hatch and start consuming their rice. It was a case of the farmers seeing things with new eyes. Indeed, we have been encouraging the farmers to set up ‘insect zoos’ where they can study the creatures they find in the field and understand more about their life cycle. Some of the insects — like the fearsome-looking beastie that Emmanuel has in his hand — are surprisingly tasty. So this one ended up in the pot!

    The bottom photo shows one of the preparatory exercises we undertook with the farmers: creating a map of Nyangbo showing the location of the various plots they are cultivating where future FFS will take place. And in the evening we met with a small group to talk about the internet: the electricity was off so we used our torches. Despite this we were able to go on line and look at some of the amazing resources available free, like the Plantwise Knowledge Bank. (We used my laptop and a telephone modem.) The group were so impressed that they are now thinking how they might set up a computer centre in their village. Their nearest internet café is in Hohoe 45 miles away — quite some distance to travel to check your email, especially given the state of the roads in this part of the country!

    Mike and Emmanuel have also been encouraging each village to set up a Task Force to confront farmers who they see going to spray their fields without protection and to warn them of the dangers. I was told of one farmer who, shortly after attending a NETRICE workshop, confronted a young man she saw in the street. He had a knapsack sprayer on his back and wore a short-sleeved shirt and didn't have gloves or goggles. “Did you know chemicals can make you impotent?” she told him bluntly. The embarrassed youth duly turned around and went home to change!

    Mike Flood, Santrokofi near Hohoe, Volta Region of Ghana.

    Fri 02 Nov 12


    We nearly missed it, Ghana’s National Farmers’ Day Celebrations, held to award farmers and fishermen for their contribution to the national economy. The Day is normally celebrated in December, but this year it was brought forward by a month because of the impending National Elections. And we nearly missed it as a result…

    I’m in the Volta Region in the east of Ghana, running workshops and monitoring progress on our sustainable agriculture project — training subsistence farmers in the proper use of pesticides so that they can increase their yields without spending a lot of money on chemicals and risking their health in the process (many farmers cannot read the labels on the bottles, and often use the wrong dose or even the wrong chemicals; and almost everybody sprays without protection). So far we have trained 250 farmers in integrated pest management (half of our target) and the farmers really appreciate the support we are giving.

    The local show we attended was in Akpafu Odomi, a small village 15 miles north of Hohoe. There were some wonderful specimens of fruit and veg on display: plantains, cassava, egg plants, avocado, tomatoes, cocao, coffee berries, rice, oranges, maize, coconuts, groundnuts (peanuts), chillies, and much more besides. What was a little strange was the nature of the prizes — commendable entries (like the palm oil, cocoa & coffee in the bottom picture) got large blocks of soap! The council was keen to support the farmers, but it had run out money, and the reason was soon explained to me.

    There had been serious disturbances in Hohoe over the summer after the Paramount Chief had ordered the exhumation of the recently deceased Chief Imam who, he maintained, had been buried in the wrong place. The local Hausa were outraged and burnt down the Chief’s palace, and local people reacted by torching dozens of shops owned by people who had moved into the area. The Muslims fled and they are only now beginning to return. But there has been a curfew, which is still in force. For several months anyone caught in Hohoe between six pm and six am was liable to spend the night at the police station!

    This was beginning to have an effect on our training programme because it meant that our partner NETRICE and their trainers were having to shut down workshops early in order to be able to reach home before the curfew. Anyway, the tensions are now much reduced. Many of the small stores have been rebuilt and peace is returning to this usually quiet part of the country, and we can get on with our work.

    Mike Flood (Santrokofi Benua, Ghana)

    Sat 13 Oct 12


    The Republic of Moldova faces major environmental problems, not least seriously polluted groundwater. In many parts of the country levels of nitrate, chloride, iron and faecal bacteria are well above levels recommended as safe by the World Health Organisation. The problems are particularly bad in the south, which is semi-arid and one of the poorest regions in the country.

    Four years ago we organised a series of high-level seminars with mayors, NGOs and opinion-formers from 15 communities in the Cahul Raion to provide specialist environmental advice and a grounding in the techniques of public consultation (in the light of new environmental legislation and the requirements of the Aarhus Convention). We undertook the project with two local partners, CONTACT in Cahul and Earth Friends in Galati (Romania) and a grant from the Environ Foundation in the United States. And earlier this year we commissioned Earth Friends’ Camelia Zamfir to translate our report on the project and also to carry out a follow-up study. We wanted to see what impact our project had had, and how successful the majors had been at getting grants for local infrastructure projects and at changing public attitudes and behaviour. Camelia made three trips over the summer to meet with mayors who had taken part in the project as well as civil servants, business people, community groups, teachers and school principals.

    Tatiana Galateanu (pictured) is the mayor of Giurgiulesti and the first woman to hold the post. Back in 2009 she was involved in the project as a Local Agenda 21 activist, and with our help she mobilised local councillors and inhabitants to clean up two unauthorised dumping sites, erect ‘keep off!’ signs, and plant trees. Since becoming mayor she has been successful in getting two infrastructure projects, including a 1 million MD Leu project (~ £52,000) for the new heating system for the Sadoveanu High School, which required her to organise public hearings and get public agreement for a local contribution of 15%. And Tatiana has more proposals in the pipeline concerning the collection of household waste.

    Mayor Tatiana has done a lot to raise public awareness of the importance of protecting the environment, including sending councillors to talk with residents living near environmental ‘hot spots’; putting up public notice boards in front of the City Hall and in the market; and opening up Local Council meetings to the public. She concedes that there is still much more to do but she has made an encouraging start. As she says "for too long local people have been discouraged from being active in public life". Tatiana is out to change this. She is particularly pleased with an initiative at the local school, which now has a team of young journalists who broadcast regularly on local environmental issues (www.radiogiurgiu.com).

    In respect of our project, Camelia reports that Tatiana was very impressed by Powerful Information’s involvement in the workshops, and our understanding of the local context, especially the tips and advice we provided and the way the workshops were focused around communicating environmental information to the public.

    Thu 11 Oct 12


    In December last year, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.

    For its first observance, this year’s Day focuses on child marriage, which is a fundamental human rights violation and impacts all aspects of a girl’s life. Child marriage denies a girl her childhood, disrupts her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk to be a victim of violence and abuse, jeopardizes her health and therefore constitutes an obstacle to the development of healthy communities.

    Globally, around one in three young women aged 20-24 years were first married before they reached age 18. One third of them entered into marriage before they turned 15. Child marriage results in early and unwanted pregnancies, posing life-threatening risks for girls. In developing countries, 90 per cent of births to adolescents aged 15-19 are to married girls, and pregnancy-related complications are the leading cause of death for girls in this age group.

    The photo is of two young girls who are attending one of the learning circles for women that we are supporting through Grassroots Education & Development for Women in the northeast of Sierra Leone. Mike took the photo last month in the village of Gbenekovo. The girls are there because they want to learn but their parents cannot afford to pay for them to go to school because of poverty.

    Thu 20 Sep 12


    Powerful Information is one of 13 successful applicants for an international innovation grant awarded today by Sightsavers to combat blindness in developing countries.* Over the next 18 months, PI will be providing computer training for blind and visually-impaired (BVI) professionals in Sierra Leone. None of the country’s civil society leaders or teachers who are visually-impaired can currently use computers without assistance.

    Our local partners include the Sierra Leone Association for the Blind, Vision for the Blind and all five schools for the blind — SLAB’s Director, Emma Parker, is pictured here in her office in Freetown during discussions earlier this month.

    34 BVI civil society leaders (like Emma), and teachers in schools for the blind in Freetown, Bo, Makeni, Kabala and Koidu, will benefit from training and equipment. We will also train 14 sighted support workers.

    The device we will be using, the Portset Braillekey (see note posted below on 8 Sept), has the same key arrangement as a Perkins Brailler but with Ctrl and Alt functions and arrow keys to provide cursor control. It enables people familiar with Braille to use a computer almost immediately using screen reader software to read out what is written. And for those without a personal computer the Braillekey can be used at local internet cafés, with files stored on a memory stick or in the ‘cloud’.

    After the training, participants should be able to manage information more easily, keep records, prepare lesson plans, use email and access the internet.

    Welcoming the award, Director Mike Flood commented: “There are formidable barriers to blind people using computers in Africa, not least access to the technology and appropriate training. We are delighted that Powerful Information has been awarded this grant: we can now make a serious start in Sierra Leone, a country we know well. Our hope is that one day all those who are blind will have routine access to computers and ICT because this will so enrich their lives and help change their prospects for employment. Right now very few blind children in Salone are able to access school let alone access the internet. There’s a great deal of work to do!”

    * Sightsavers received no less than 477 proposals from NGOs, academic institutions, the private sector and disabled people’s organisations. From these it has awarded 13 grants amounting to just over £933,000 to projects in Africa and Asia, part of a Programme Partnership Arrangement with the Department for International Development. For a list of winning projects click here.

    Sat 08 Sep 12

    NOTES FROM THE FIELD [2] — Sierra Leone

    The first thing I noticed was the smile. Ear to ear. This was Umero, a young polio victim who I had not seen for a couple of years. Umero was doing well. In 2010 Powerful Informtion worked with DAAG, the Disability Awareness Action Group, to provide training for Umero and other young disabled men so that they could learn to become cobblers and establish small street stalls in Makeni (in the North of Sierra Leone). I was visiting a new complex built by the Polio Persons Development Association, which is helping get polio victims away from begging in the street and into sheltered accommodation, where they can get a training in tailoring, producing soap, or making shoes and other marketable products. Earlier this year Umero was selected to go to Abuja in Nigeria and take part in a six nation competition for people with disability. Umero was smiling because he had taken first prize and won $2,000 for the group. And since this triumph his friends have taken to calling him Abuja!

    I’m in Sierra Leone to see how our women’s learning circles are getting on. Over the last two weeks I have visited 12 and been very pleased with the progress they are making. The majority of our learners are subsistence farmers and they have real problems with pests attacking their crops. Two of the worst offenders are grasshoppers and fruit flies. I have been to see Ministry of Agriculture specialists in Kabala, Makeni and Freetown to understand what kind of support might be available, and I have been most impressed by the people I’ve met, including the head of the pesticide programme here in Freetown, Dr Shamie. Unlike in Ghana (where we are helping train 500 rice farmers in sustainable agriculture) pesticides are not widely available here, and farmers need to get special permission from the Ministry to use them. The Ministry is keen to minimise chemical use through Integrated Pest Management (which is what we are using in Ghana) and provides chemicals at subsidised rate to discourage black marketing.

    The problem MAFF officers face is the lack of resources to get out to the villages and advise the farmers, so we are arranging for Extension Officers in Kabala and Makeni to visit selected learning circles. We will monitor how this goes and look for the resources to support more visits. This will be very much appreciated by our learners. Last year fruit in the Kabala area was seriously affect by fruit flies and much of the mango harvest was lost. MAFF has developed traps using pheromones (insect hormones) which attract and dispatch the male fruit flies. These are very effective and can draw in flies from up to 3 km. In the photo Dr Shamie is showing me the mixture they use, 4 parts pheromone and 1 part insecticide. This lethal cocktail is put into a simple trap (like the one on the wall). The amount in the tube costs less than £1.50. It can treat several acres and will last six weeks.

    On Wednesday I had a very constructive meeting with Aminata Conteh; she has just completed a study of gender based violence in Bombali (see July entry). Over the next 12 months we will be working with Aminata to extend this work and help her set up a small community-based organisation in Makeni to provide advice and practical help for victims of violence. There is clearly an enormous need to let women -- especially widows whose rights are so often ignored by their late husbands families -- know their rights (under Sierra Leone’s three Gender Acts) and to help those who are abused seek help, where necessary through the police and the courts.

    Another of our colleagues, Safie Sankoh (right), is also interested in the problem of domestic violence. Earlier this year we commissioned her organisation, Bombali Progressive Women with Disabilities, to find out about the plight of women with disabilities in three villages near Makeni where Safie has been working. Safie is herself nearly blind, and during one of our meetings we showed her a braillekey — a device that enables those who are blind and visually-impaired to type directly into a computer using braille strokes. Safie took to the braillekey immediately and was chuckling as she typed sentences into Wordpad and listened to what she had written using a screen reader.

    We learned yesterday that our bid to Sightsavers for an 18 month project to train blind professionals in computing had got through to the final stages, so we should soon be able to train 34 leading individuals in the Sierra Leone Association for the Blind, Vision for the Blind and the heads and teachers from all five schools for the blind in the country. In January we hope to train Safie and give her a Braillekey, which will enable her to work independently and make running her small CBO so much easier.

    Mike Flood in Freetown

    PS: I'm typing this from the tiny front room of a neighbour's house in one of the many crowded suburbs of Freetown. The generators is in the yard, there's loud music and six people are in animated discussion around me, with children playing on the floor. I've been staying one of our partners and we have had no mains electricity for more than two days, not uncommon here. Indeed Freetown is bursting at the seams and all basic services are under strain...

    Sat 01 Sep 12

    NOTES FROM THE FIELD — Sierra Leone

    I learned about the cholera epidemic on the plane to Freetown. I found myself sitting next to a senior US diplomat — a doctor dispatched by the UN to coordinate efforts to stem the outbreak. Since cholera arrived in January, over 13,000 Sierra Leoneans have been infected and 224 have died, and cases are expected to triple over the next month or so.

    We saw the effects first hand in Koinadugu, where cholera had reached two of the villages where we have learning circles. People were fearful. A woman at our meeting in Fasawaya reported that she had been sick, and there were cases in our next port of call, Kondeya. In both villages the circle facilitators spent some time talking about the importance of boiling water before drinking and taking care with personal hygiene. The next morning we told a medical team in Kabala and they dispatched a vehicle straightaway to investigate the outbreak. Cholera can kill in hours if you don’t get treatment and some villages are a long way from health centres or hospitals.

    I am in Sierra Leone to monitor the progress that Education for Women (EFW) and Grassroots Education & Development for Women (GEDEW) are making; and I’m visiting some of our learning circles to talk with the villagers — quite a humbling experience, especially when they give you gifts that you know they cannot afford. The top photo shows one of six unregistered circles that GEDEW is supporting alongside its nine registered ones. This one is in Gbenekovo: the women have so little but they are determined to persevere so that they can improve their lives. (We are helping the group with stationery and will do more when we can find the resources.)

    We ran a workshop for 12 circle facilitators in Kabala last Sunday, and today we ran another for six in Bombali (middle photo). We held this one in Pate Bana Masimbo, a few miles from Makeni with EFW and some of our colleagues from Vision for the Blind who are helping out; and we invited along the women circle leaders too. It was so heartening to feel their enthusiasm and hear their stories — one woman’s children were helping her with her learning; another proudly demonstrated what she had learned by reading aloud from a school book; and third said she wanted to become a facilitator and was determined to go to college. And then an elderly man from the village got up and with a shaking hand wrote his name on the blackboard.* You don’t forget these kind of moments!

    Lunch consisted of rice with snapper fish and a meat sauce — very palatable, but not quite as tasty as eating fresh bush meat in Kabala. Our colleague Fatmata bought a grasscutter in one of the villages and that night turned it into a delicious stew with groundnuts. Grasscutters (cane rats) are a real pest in these parts. We have done our bit to reduce their number.

    Money is a constant concern when you are travelling: either you carry it with you and take the risk of something unpleasant happening, or you rely on the banks. But the latter option is expensive. Here in Salone the banks set their ATM machines to dispatch a maximum of 200,000 Leones at a time (around £30) and you get a poor exchange rate and then may pay £3 each time for the privilege. And those banks that advertise VISA services but do not have ATM machines, charge you 50,000 Leones up front “to phone and check your details” and then also want to charge 4.5% commission. This isn’t what I call service!

    This morning I had a different kind of experience: it was at the only bank in Makeni with an ATM machine that takes VISA. After visiting the machine on Friday and finding it out of order I was at the bank’s door first thing this morning to try again. I didn’t have sufficient funds to pay for our workshop. Alas the ATM was still down. The man in charge, explained that someone was coming from Freetown to fix it, and he was sorry he couldn’t make payments over the counter. Had I tried another bank? So I told him about my experience. After a pause he asked me how much I wanted, and when I told him to my utter amazement he offered to help, taking only my phone number! All I could find to say was “Thank you! Thank you! I’ll return on Monday.”

    * We have welcomed men to our circles if they want to learn, but we restrict their number because this is a programme for women. The arrangement works well.

    Mike Flood in Makeni, Sierra Leone.

    Tue 21 Aug 12


    Late Prof Atta Mills of Ghana

    At the weekend Jill attended a memorial service at Queensway Methodist Church to celebrate the life of the late President of Ghana, His Excellency Prof. John Evans Fifii Atta Mills who died unexpectedly on the 24th July at the age of 68. It was a well attended and lively event where most of the participants were dressed in white and black.

    Jill sat next to Brian White, Deputy Mayor of MK, who told us recently that he intends to prioritise international issues when he becomes Mayor next year.

    Wed 25 Jul 12


    Last year we commissioned two of our colleagues in Sierra Leone, Aminata Conteh and Aminata Kargbo, to undertake a piece of research into Gender Based Violence (GBV) in two of the communities where we are supporting women’s learning circles. Violence against women is a particularly serious issue because it concerns the most fundamental human right of all, personal security. But, as in many countries, a culture of silence prevails over the issue and reliable information is hard to come by.

    Aminata Conteh & Aminata Kargbo

    For our pilot we wanted to see if we could find out more about the problem, what victim support mechanisms are available, and how (and if) they work. Our team interviewed 25 victims of domestic violence and recorded their stories. They held workshops to inform abused women of their rights (under Sierra Leone’s three Gender Acts), and they took part in a series of broadcasts on local radio.

    In the coming months we will be sharing our findings with the 600 or so women in the learning circles we support. We will also be explaining more about the study and publishing some the case studies. Here’s our first: it concerns a 14 year old schoolgirl, Fatmata Sankoh, from a village near Makeni.*

    Case Study 1: Fatmata Sankoh: John Conteh is the son of a village chief. He took a fancy to Fatmata and wanted to marry her, but Fatmata was not interested. So John went to Fatmata’s parent and put pressure on them. Coming from a privileged family, John would soon be the owner of land and Fatmata’s parents are poor subsistence farmers. It didn’t take much for John to convince them to hand over Fatmata. It meant that she would be off their hands and they would be able to grow more food. At this stage Fatmata was in Class 6 and very much wanting to continue her studies. She became very miserable at her fate. When it came to sitting the National Primary School Examination, Fatmata was already three months pregnant. She went to her parents to beg them to let her go back to school but they rejected the idea and sent her back to John. Sometime later, John agreed that Fatmata could go to school and she started at Junior Secondary School in Makeni. However he didn't pay her school fees and soon wanted to bring her back to the village. But Fatmata refused and ran off to stay with a classmate Isatu, and Isatu's parents agreed to look after her. When John found out, he went to Makeni to take her back, but Fatmata again refused. John then forcibly entered Fatmata’s room and took away her school uniform, shoes and books and sent her a message that she could collect her things from his family house. When Fatmata went to the house, John locked her in and flogged her with a whip made from electric cables. Despite her screams, and people at the door trying to get in, John continued until Fatmata collapsed unconscious. He then ran off. One of the neighbours called Aminata Conteh and she took Fatmata to the police station where she was given a form and sent to the Government Regional Hospital. Fatmata was in such a bad way that the doctor kept her in hospital for two weeks. When she was discharged she went, with Aminata’s help, to the Family Support Unit at the local Police Station to make a report. The police summoned John to the police station but he failed to show and a warrant was issued for his arrest. But John disappeared and no one knows where he is…

    You Can Help: We are very grateful to the Alice Ellen Cooper Dean Charitable Foundation for funding our study. The work is now finished but there is so much more to do. Will you help us with a donation today? A little money can go a long way in Sierra Leone and provide real help and support for girls like Fatmata, or older women who are trapped in abusive relationships. And it can help us inform other women about their legal rights and what they can do if threatened or attacked.

    * We have changed the names of the victims and perpetrators to protect people’s privacy.

    Fri 20 Jul 12


    Our thanks to all those who attended our workshop on Wednesday (18th) to exchange ideas and experiences about social media — web- and mobile-based technologies that facilitate dialogue between individuals, organizations and communities.

    Kit Neill in the Office

    Advantage Africa, Olney-Newton Link, Tools for Self Reliance, GEMK and Milton Keynes Community Action were all represented along with Powerful Information (who hosted the meeting) and colleagues from Sierra Leone.

    It was an opportunity to look in detail at ten of the most popular technologies and see what others were looking promising. The ten we focused on were Facebook & LinkedIn (social networking sites), Skype & Messenger (discussion sites), YouTube & Pinterest (sharing sites), Twitter & Tumblr. (for microblogging), Wordpress (for publishing) and TED (livecast).

    Theory suggests that using a multiplicity of media is best because it helps build relationships and enhance stakeholder engagement. But no one can 'do' everything! So which technologies should we choose, and how best should we use them, on their own and in combination? These were some of the questions we examined.

    I think all would agree that we still have some homework to do, but we've made a useful start!

    Wed 18 Jul 12


    We have a new Intern, Kit Neill, who is studying International Relations with Economics at the University of Birmingham. Kit will be working with us over the summer on a project concerned with women’s education in Sierra Leone.

    Kit Neill in the Office

    Powerful Information is currently supporting 16 learning circles for rural women through two local partners in the north of the country. These circles provide non-formal basic education of a range of local issues, empowering women to improve their lives and the lives of their community as a whole.

    The women also learn to read write and count. In the eight years the programme has been running it has proved very popular, and we have had regular calls to expand it to new communities.

    Kit’s project is to explore how the women who graduate can move on, allowing others to join the programme — at least those who are keen to continue to learn and advance themselves and their families. He will also be looking at how we test the women’s knowledge and set suitable and appropriate tests for them. This work will also build on the successes of the Leadership Programme for women that we supported earlier this year (see 1 Jun 2012 entry).

    Thu 05 Jul 12


    Here's a date for your diary: Wednesday 18th July -- our next workshop for volunteers and supporters. All welcome -- see 'Activities in UK' section for details.

    Social media — web- and mobile-based technologies which facilitate dialogue between individuals, organizations and communities — represent a major factor in community action and local politics.

    The question we want to debate at this workshop is: are small NGOs like PI making best use of social media to promote and support their work? We are using only a tiny fraction of the vast range of social media technologies — internet forums, weblogs, social blogs, micro-blogging, wikis, podcasts, video conferencing, social bookmarking, picture-sharing, wall-postings, instant messaging, crowdsourcing, etc.

    We hope to explore this issue in some depth and share other groups’ experiences, and also ask a more fundamental question: is social networking basically ‘good’ or basically ‘bad’ in relation to building or destroying social capital (the subject of our February workshop)?

    Sat 16 Jun 12


    June 16th is International Day of the African Child.* This year’s theme is ‘The Rights of Children with Disabilities: the duty to protect, respect, promote and fulfil’. It was chosen by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child because, according to their statement, "children with disabilities are generally hidden in Africa, and therefore their plight is often ignored and disregarded in national policies and legislation."

    Over the last year we have carried out surveys of children with disabilities in 300 villages in two districts of Sierra Leone (Kambia and Bombali). We have been trying to find out how many children are disabled (there are no statistics) and also to understand something of the quality of their lives and the barriers that prevent many of them from getting an education. (We reported on one of the studies, carried out with Children in Crisis in November — see the entry for 24 Nov.)

    The Bombali study was part of a research project on inclusive education for blind children, which was funded by Comic Relief. We are very much hoping to be able to put some of our findings into practice over the coming years, and to get blind and visually-impaired children into mainstream education in the four Chiefdoms where we carried out the research and also in Makeni (the regional capital).

    The photo shows Jonathan Conteh at Vision for the Blind’s Makeni Office with a small blind girl who was being used by her destitute parents to help them beg for food. VFB threatened to report the parents to the police, so they left the child alone to play and went off to beg. The parents are both blind and have had no education or training, and they hadn't eaten...

    There are no obvious or easy solutions to some of the problems that our partners encounter on a daily basis, but if we can get children like this little girl into a special school (like the one at Panlap, just outside Makeni) it will at least provide protection from abuse and enable them to make something of their lives because at the moment their prospects are bleak.

    * The International Day of the African Child honours those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in South Africa in 1976 and raises awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children. On 16 June 1976 an estimated ten thousand Soweto school children marched in a column more than half a mile long to protest at the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. In the mayhem that followed when the security forces stepped in to break up the protest hundreds of children were shot and many died.

    Thu 07 Jun 12


    Eye for Art is a club for partially sighted adults in Milton Keynes run by volunteers from BucksVision. Earlier this year it created a display of stunning original artworks, inspired by a visit last summer of four members of Vision for the Blind Sierra Leone. The group were guided in this endeavour by professional Northamptonshire Artist, Daxa Parmar, and had support from Milton Keynes Community Foundation. Daxa worked with the group to create acrylic paintings, mono prints, watercolours and collages.

    In March the Club exhibited 44 of the paintings at the main Art Gallery in Central MK and during the day sold no less than 36 to the public. They dedicated the money raised to helping the visually impaired in Sierra Leone, and today they presented Powerful Information with a cheque for the proceeds. Following consultations it was agreed that we should purchase a Braille keyboard for Vision for the Blind and use the balance to support the Blind Women’s Cooperative in Makeni, in the north of the country.

    PI helped establish the Cooperative two years ago with some 15 blind women, but the group has been struggling because of the high cost of transport and communication. The money from the exhibition will help the Cooperative develop a programme of activities for its members, and visit other disability groups in Sierra Leone.

    The BrailleKey is a marvellous invention which can be used by anyone proficient in Braille. Like the Perkins Brailler it has the standard set of six Braille keys, plus arrow keys (to provide cursor control) and Ctrl and Alt functions (as on a standard computer keyboard). It plugs into a computer and enables a blind or visually-impaired person to input text directly. As different key combinations are pressed letters, numbers and punctuation marks appear on the screen and can be ‘read’ (ie listened to) using a screen reader. (In our 1st March 2012 entry in News and Comment we've included a photo of a Braillekey being used in a workshop we ran in Makeni last year.)

    Powerful Information is developing a computer training programme based on using the Braillekey at internet cafés. (Very few blind people in Sierra Leone have a computer, but internet cafés are springing up all over the place.) We plan to pilot the course later this summer during our next visit. We are also doing what we can raise money to buy more Braillekeys. (So far we have three for Sierra Leone.) If you'd like to help, do please get in contact and we will keep you informed of progress with the work. (Braillekeys cost £260 each but anything you can contribute will help.)

    Fri 01 Jun 12


    It is nice to be able to report on progress with our women’s learning circles in Sierra Leone. During Mike’s last visit (in Sept 2011) he was able to approve a small additional grant to one of our partners, Grassroots Education & Development for Women, in Kabala in the North East of the country.

    Happy Recruits: The grant was to be used to provide seed banks for three of GEDEW’s learning circles and learning materials for five new circles set up by local women to help their communities; we also wanted to pilot a leadership programme for women who had already graduated from their learning circles. This work is now beginning to bear fruit: we heard recently that all 12 women who took part in the leadership training had been recruited by the National Electoral Commission as temporary staff for its National Sensitization Team which will help prepare voters for the General Election in November.

    Seed Banks: GEDEW is run by Fatmata Sesay — seen here in our office last summer in a live link up with her local radio station, Radio Bintumani. It was her first trip abroad. To avoid the risk that Fatmata might be accused of favoritism, Mike selected the circles, and each was loaned 25 bushels of rice so that they could improve food security. (The women and their families often go hungry between harvests and complain of living on yams.) The rice was given on the understanding that for every bushel loaned learners would return 1.5 bushels so that the bank would grow and more could benefit.* And we supplied some fertilizer to help things along. One of the learning circles, Kamadugu Sokurela (shown below) is the most remote village where we are working, a hard hour’s drive from Kabala by motorbike on perilous dirt tracks. The other two were Kondeya and Fasawaya.

    Learning Materials: The five unregistered circles were each given 25 sets of plastic files, exercise books, pencils and pencil-sharpeners, and two readers. GEDEW’s Chairlady made the presentations: the women were thrilled, they expressed their sincere appreciation and reiterated their determination to continue with the programme. It was the first support they had received from anyone, and that meant so much. We hope to do more in the future if we can find the resources.

    Leadership Training: At the end of February, and following consultations with GEDEW’s Board and PI, Fatmata organized a programme of three workshops for graduates from the learning circles. They were facilitated by Elisabeth Haja Korio, Coordinator of the 50:50 Group for Koinadugu.** Here’s a brief note on what the workshops covered: 1) ‘Women & Education’ — gender roles and stereotypes (which stereotypes are acceptable and which are not?); how adults learn differently from children; how to encourage children (especially girls) to attend school; and how education can change life-chances and improve self-esteem. 2) ‘Empowering Women’ — the meaning of empowerment; ways women can increase their personal effectiveness and strengthen their role in the community; standing for office/representing others; the work of the 50:50 Group; women and work; and gender equality. 3) ‘Women’s Rights’ and ‘Managing Money’ — how the judiciary works; the National Constitution and women’s rights; the three Gender Laws; CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women); developing negotiating skills; forming cooperatives; and an introduction to managing money and bank accounts. All three workshops were highly interactive and involved role playing different situations and scenarios, and afterwards the women took part in two radio panel discussions.

    Small scale? Yes. But highly cost-effective. If you really want to change the world, this is where you need to start, at the grassroots, where help, support and encouragement is so much appreciated and where it can make all the difference. Small really is beautiful.

    * Farmers would expect to get 6-9 bushels at harvest for each bushel of rice planted.

    ** The 50:50 Group was founded in 2000 to promote greater participation of women in politics. This is two years before the ceasefire was declared in the guerrilla war. The Group’s motto is ‘Side by Side’.

    Sat 12 May 12


    Here’s an inspirational story. It concerns a blind woman, Yeabu, who lives in a small village in the north of Sierra Leone. Yeabu has just successfully challenged attempts by her in-laws to have her evicted from her home in Mange Loko following the death of her husband.

    In March our colleagues at Vision for the Blind completed training 50 blind and visually impaired women on their rights under the law and how to respond to abuse and domestic violence. The work was supported by a small grant from the Global Fund for Women and the workshops were facilitated by legal practitioners experienced in women’s rights. It concluded with the women divided into ten groups with each taking part in a live panel discussion on local radio to help promulgate what they had learned to a wider audience.

    The value of this training was soon apparent. Shortly after completing the training, Yeabu’s husband died, and following his funeral her in-laws told her that she should go to live with her late husband’s younger brother. When she refused they summoned her to an emergency meeting and instructed her to vacate the house and hand over two plots of land and some plantations that they said belonged to her late husband’s estate.

    With her new understanding of the law and her rights Yeabu went straight to the Family Support Unit at the police station, and with their help she managed to put a stop to the harassment. Today Yeabu is living happily and peacefully with her two children in the marital home and no one is putting pressure on her to marry against her wishes because she understands her rights. Under Sierra Leone’s Devolution of Estates Act, wives and husbands now inherit property from each other equally, and male and female children also inherit equally when a parent dies without a will. Surviving spouses of either gender are entitled to remain in the family home until they die. Indeed, it is now a criminal offense to eject them from the marital home.*

    We first met Yeabu back in 2007 when she took part in one of the first skills-training programmes we ran with Vision for the Blind. She learned how to make soap, and when she graduated we gave her a start-up kit (which you can see in the photo). Yeabu was able to make soap once a week and made quite a reputation for herself because of the quality of her production. When Yeabu went blind she felt very isolated and spent her time crying, but the training gave her confidence and she once more felt she had something to offer her community. What’s more her husband was proud of her — he had virtually abandoned her when she went blind, but changed his attitude after she was able to bring an income into the household. But Yebu did much more: she went on to become secretary to the women’s group in the village.

    Yeabu is an example to others. We hope her case will encourage more women to come forward and confront abuse and violence. And we will continue to support the efforts of grassroots organisations in Sierra Leone to support education and training for women and people with disability so they can realise their rights.

    * Sierra Leone operates under four sets of laws: formal (‘English’) law, customary law, Muslim law and international law. This makes life more than a little complicated! In June 2007 Parliament passed three ‘Gender Acts’ to put into practice its obligations under CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) — the Devolution of Estates Act, the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, and the Domestic Violence Act. It was under the first of these Acts that Yeabu was able to proceed. Prior to the Gender Acts, the law governing intestate succession was pot luck: under formal law, wives received only 30% of their deceased husband’s property while a husband received 100% of a deceased wife’s; under Muslim law, women were not entitled to administer estates and there was no legal guidance as to how property should be distributed; and under customary law provision varied from one place to the next, but property generally reverted to the husband’s family. If a woman wished to remain in her home, she would often be required to marry her brother-in-law or face being thrown out on the street with her children. Domestic violence was also legal as long as it was ‘reasonable’ (meaning there was no physical wounding).

    Wed 09 May 12


    Ali Martin Sesay, Head of Vision for the Blind’s Office in Makeni, has just been appointed to the new National Disability Commission in Sierra Leone as Commissioner for the Northern Region. He is seen here with children at the Bombali School for the Blind in Makeni (one of only five schools for the blind in the whole country).*

    Ali’s appointment follows a meeting last Friday which brought together Disabled Persons Organisations (DPOs) from across the region. He was elected unopposed.

    Now VFB has two of its leaders in responsible positions close to government — last September Jonathon Conteh (VFB’s Executive Director) was appointed onto the President's ICT Advisory Council to represent the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI).

    Parliament passed The National Disability Act in March 2011: it was the country’s first legislation on disability and something VFB has lobbied for since it started. The Government is expected to have the Disability Commission operating within the next couple of months, with a Chair and Secretariat, and Commissioners nominated by Regional DPOs.

    For the last year we have been working with Ali Martin (and Jonathan) and others at VFB to see what we can do to get more blind and visually-impaired children into mainstream education. We organised for them both to come to the UK in the summer of 2011 to meet specialists in inclusive education (the work was funded by Comic Relief). They also took part in a number of other events which were part of a community-linking project (supported by the British Council).

    * Very few children who are blind or visually-impaired in Sierra Leone currently get an education: apart from the lack of special schools, parents do not see the need for it; schools do not have the facilities; teachers are not trained in Special Educational Needs (which is not taught in college), Statements of SEN (which describe a child's disability and educational and non-educational needs) are not used; and DPOs are not active in many rural areas, helping raise awareness of disability issues and providing advice and support.

    Tue 01 May 12


    You want to make sure that your grape vines are free from pests and diseases…What could be easier? Call in the local guy with his open barrel of pesticide and a pump mounted on the back of his tractor, and your problems are solved. Pass the hose through the fence and get your wife and family to help you with the spraying.

    The fact that nobody thinks about protection is just how it is here in rural Albania. Life is hard enough and no one has told you about the dangers of handling pesticides (not least reduced life expectancy, and for men, the risk of impotence).

    We captured this scene in Uznova in Berat on a recent visit to monitor our work there. The community of Uznova is facing very difficult problems with pollution and public health and the local environment is seriously under threat from a range of human activities and widespread ignorance of the dangers (see our entry for April).

    Sat 28 Apr 12


    I’m in Uznova, a very poor suburb of Berat in Central Albania, where we are working on an interesting community project concerned with environmental pollution and public health. For years a lead smelter operated here with little or no control over emissions, and this has led to widespread concern about the possible implications on public health — a study in 1998 found unacceptably high levels of blood lead in local children.

    To make matters worse, there is no information about the extent of local contamination nor disaggregated data on community health, and for the last year we have been trying to find out, with the help of colleagues at the EDEN Centre in Tirana and a grant from the Environ Foundation. One of our consultants, Ariadna Benet Monico, is managing the project for us.

    The school and kindergarten in Uznova report an unusually high incidence of epilepsy and learning difficulties in children; and the local health centre has told us that there was “a lot of cancer in the area” and that cancer cases have “doubled in 10 years”. But no one knows whether poor health is related to exposure to pollution, or to poverty, or to some other factor. This is a very deprived community with most of the residents only moving into the area since about 1990.

    What we did know when we started was that the lead smelter was abandoned in 2008 and the owner imprisoned for operating without authorisation. Locals have since told us that illegal ‘freelance’ smelting of lead acid batteries was still being carried out there after this date. We also know that the site is heavily contaminated. Indeed it has been referred to by environmental consultants as the ‘No 1 Environmental Hot Spot in Albania’. But the extent of contamination beyond the plant is not known, and the main aim of our project has been to clarify the situation and report back to the community.

    Over the last year we have taken 240 samples of soil and water, and also samples of blood, and we have researched into data on public health. And our findings have been very revealing: we have discovered that there are some places where lead levels are very high, but in general most of the land where people are living and farming is normal, and the drinking water is free of lead. But we also found that four of the 25 people whose blood we tested had lead levels above World Health Organisation recommendations (10 µg/Dl). We are now planning follow-up studies to clarify the situation so that we can make practical suggestions to the community and those in authority.

    I’ve just had a meeting with parents and teachers at the school to report our provisional findings and am delighted with the response. There are real signs that the community is beginning to get involved and take responsibility for the situation. In addition to potential problems with lead, there is a small wet-blue tannery in Uznova that discharges highly toxic chromium salts untreated into the river and emits foul-smelling odours, and a major problem with household and farm waste being dumped in the local stream — this includes animal dung and probably also dirty nappies (a 2008 study found that 39% of children’s faeces was being thrown in the garbage!) Look carefully at the top photo and you will see one of the many uncontrolled bank-side waste dumps.

    Most of our work is with and through Shkolla Xhemal Cekini, where we have a programme designed to improve the quality of environmental education and the level of community environmental awareness — including helping improve the chemistry laboratory (which has no sinks and cannot do experiments!) The bottom photo shows the meeting with parents: I’ve just donated 1,000 Leks (£6) to help fix the fence at the school and the Director Dhurata is recording the fact (with my colleague Albana from EDEN looking on). Shortly after this, and much to Dhurata’s obvious pleasure and surprise, two of the parents also made donations. This is highly significant in this community where 40-50% of adults are unemployed. This is all part of our local capacity-building work, and very satisfying it is too!

    Mike Flood

    Sat 21 Apr 12


    On Wednesday we ran one of our bi-monthly seminars for volunteers and supporters. This one dealt with the ‘Digital Divide’ and looked in particular at computing and internet access for people who are blind. We discussed the reasons for the digital divide, such as age, education, income, location and disability, and what practical things can be done to help, especially in poor countries in Africa. With internet cafes springing up everywhere in the developing world access to ICT is now possible for a growing number of people. Moreover, access to information and technology is now a fundamental right under international law (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).

    The main focus of our meeting was how people who have no sight whatsoever can exercise this right to information and the internet. We explored different technological and software options, and looked at practical ways in which barriers can be overcome. We concluded the evening with a demonstration of a special keyboard which enables those familiar with Braille to write directly onto a computer and also access the internet using open source software. (The keyboard is just visible in the photo.) Several people in the group knew basic Braile and were able to test out the equipment.

    We are now developing a practical training course that we hope to test later in the summer with our colleagues at Vision for the Blind in Sierra Leone. A number of those at the meeting expressed their interest in getting involved, so wach this space....

    Sun 01 Apr 12


    We have just commissioned a newly established community-based organisation in Makeni (Sierra Leone) to carry out a small piece of research into disability in three local villages, Mamoru, Moboleh & Makombo. The Bombali Progressive Women with Disabilities (BPWD) was set up last year by Safi and Mariatu, who are both themselves disabled — Safi (left) is registered blind, and Mariatu (right) has trouble walking. We have known Safi for more than four years -- we first met her when she was working as a teacher at the School for the Blind in Kabala.

    BPWD share offices with two other women’s groups -- the Women Centre for Good Governance & Human Rights and the Rural Women’s Network. Mike visited their offices last year with Jonathan Conteh (Director of Vision for the Blind; centre), who will be assisting the group with training, management and reporting on the project. Two weeks before we arrived thieves broke into their offices, beat up the watchman and stole six computers and 59 plastic chairs. Safi lost her computer and all her files, including her memory stick (where she kept her only backup).

    The purpose of our research is to identify people with disability in the villages, especially women and children, and to prepare an overview of their condition and the circumstances in which they live, including their access to education, training and employment, and the extent to which they are included in (or excluded from) community activities. We will also investigate the level of gender based violence amongst women with disabilities and whether those concerned are able to access justice, either through Customary Law or the courts. And we want to determine which socio-economic grouping the people we identify might be categorised under. We will be using the Government’s own categories — the ‘Po’ (‘poor’), ‘Po-pas-po’ (‘poorer’) and ‘Poplipo’ (‘poorest’) which it defined in it’s 2009 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper.*

    The work will also help build the capacity of Safi and Mariatu’s group to undertake and report on structured field research. We will report on the results in a few months time.

    * The Po can just about provide food, shelter, clothes & medical facilities for their families, and send their children to school although the food may not be very nutritious; they are gainfully employed & physically fit. The Po-pas-po have the ability to meet some basic needs, but not always; they are unable to invest for the future through education & savings & strive hard to survive on a daily basis; their credit is limited; they do not have a house of their own & have to share with others; and they cannot afford decent clothes. The Popolipo cannot meet immediate needs for food, shelter & clothing, & cannot invest for the future; they have exhausted the charity & goodwill of others; they are physically challenged & cannot meet medical expenses when they fall ill.

    Wed 07 Mar 12


    Thursday March 8th is International Women’s Day and the theme this year is ‘Empower Women -- End Hunger and Poverty’ -- the first of the 8 Millennium Development Goals.

    We have been doing our bit by supporting women’s learning circles in the north of Sierra Leone for 8 years. In September we provided resources for three of the 16 circles we support to establish seed banks, improving food security for 75 women and their families. These are circles run by one of our local partners, Grassroots Education and Development for Women (GEDEW) in Kabala.

    When we visit the circles the women always plead for help with seed and fertilizer, and in December we asked Fatmata Sesay (GEDEW’s Director) to run a small survey to find out more about the food situation in the villages where we have circles. The following comment is typical of the replies she received: “Last year there was a shortage of food. We only feed on yams.”

    Most of the circles can access land -- a few already have communal plots -- but the women lack training in sustainable agriculture and good farming practice and they can’t afford seed, fertilizer and tools.

    We are working hard to raise additional funds so that we can support more circles with seed banks and training on sustainable agriculture. This will help them become self-sufficient and increase food security for the women and their families.

    The photo shows a large basket of rice that the women in one village, Ismaia, produced from a small personal gift of £20. It shows what can be done with very little!

    Thu 01 Mar 12


    Today is World Book Day, a celebration of books and reading, marked in over 100 countries. Spare a thought for all those who cannot read and don’t have access to books.

    Powerful Information is working in villages in two districts of Sierra Leone, Bombali and Koinadugu, to help women learn to read, write and count. These are farmers and petty traders who missed out on schooling because of war, poverty and or sexual discrimination ("educating girls makes them bad wives").

    Since 2003, when we started our programme with local partners, we have helped change the lives of over 3,000 women and girls.


    Thu 01 Mar 12


    We have been interested for some time in how we can help our colleagues at Vision for the Blind (VFB) in Sierra Leone master computing. On his visit in September Mike took a new laptop and a special keyboard called a BrailleKeyG2. Mike also carried two Perkins Braillers, one donated by David Blunkett MP (see photo below).

    The BrailleKey is connected directly to the computer and enables someone proficient in using a Perkins Brailler (and Grade 1 & 2 Braille*) to input text directly into the computer. They can then listen to what they have written using a screen reader. We have been using NVDA and also WebbIE, a web browser specially designed for the blind (both are free).

    Everyone who tried the Braillekey was most impressed and couldn't wait to get their own. Sadly, the reality is that only a couple of our blind colleagues currently have access to computers and so far as we know there is only one Braillekey, in the country. The photo shows Ali Martin Sesay using it to take notes at a workshop on Inclusive Education that we held in Makeni in September. Ali Martin runs VFB's Makeni Office. We heard recently that he has been using the device to prepare assignments for his course at the University in Makeni.

    We are in the process of sending a second BrailleKey device to VFB, courtesy of the

    Amersham & Chesham Lions Club. The Club is also supporting a learning circle for blind women in Makeni. We are most grateful to the Lions for their help and support.

    One other development is worthy of note: VFB's Director, Jonathan Conteh, is now sitting on a 'National Advisory Council for ICT', which was set up last year by the President. Jonathon, who has been blind since birth, is there to represent the Sierra Leone Union on Disability Issues (SLUDI). He has been describing the BrailleKey to others on the Committee. He says they are sceptical so he is planning to demonstrate it to them just as soon as can use it proficiently.

    The President is planning an ICT pilot in five schools where all of the children will get a laptop -- and Jonathan is lobbying hard to see that blind students also benefit. And the Braillekey will be on the shopping list.

    * Grade Two Braille is an extension of the basic Latin alphabet Braille. It has 250 symbols for letters, punctuation marks, composition signs, numerals, contractions, single-cell words, and short-form words/abbreviations. The BrailleKeyG2 has the standard set of Braille keys, plus keys to provide cursor control, and Ctrl and Alt functions. The device is connected to the USB port and is self registered by the operating system.

    Sun 12 Feb 12


    Powerful Information has have been actively promoting alternative funding strategies for international development for many years. We are particularly concerned that the role played by small INGOs does not receive more recognition by the Powers That Be. Indeed, three years ago we responded to a request from the then Shadow Spokesman on International Development, Andrew Mitchell MP, for comments on his proposals for a new ‘Development Fund’.

    We were reminded of this recently when we heard a broadcast of a 15 minute talk given by Gordon Bridger to the RSA in London as part of BBC Radio 4 Four Thought Series. We strongly recommend that you listen. Mr Bridger's talk is highly thought-provoking and gives many examples of where official support systems have consistenly broken down..

    In his presentation Mr Bridger draws on a lifetime's experience as an economist in developing countries to argue that “we should spend overseas aid differently to stop it doing more harm than good. He urges an end to direct transfers of money to governments as he fears inadequate audit can too easily allow misuse of funds.”

    We are making available our 2009 paper to Andrew Mitchell (now Secretary of State for International Development) and would welcome your comments. Please note, in the original invitation NGOs were asked to restrict their contributions to just two pages, and this we did, but clearly, there’s a lot more we would have liked to have said.

    Tue 07 Feb 12


    There have been many attempts to define ‘Social €apital’. But it’s a bit like ‘beauty’ or ‘good design’, difficult to describe but you know it when you see it, or should I say ‘feel’ it. We will explore this important concept at our seminar on Wednesday 8th February. Everyone welcome!

    Fri 20 Jan 12


    I’ve just bought some DDT. I plan to get it analysed, but I think it’s genuine. DDT was banned for agricultural use many years ago although it is still permitted for vector control.* My ‘DDT’ was bought for me by a farmer in Brewaniase market (in northern Volta) and conveniently dispensed in a ‘New Life’ Cola drinks bottle. 250 mls cost 9 Ghana Cedi (£3.60). The seller doesn’t have a stall, but farmers know where to find him. I understand that the DDT comes from neighbouring Togo, less than a hour away by car. Some farmers use it when they plant yams as it deters or destroys the insects that attack the tuber.

    I am in Brewaniase with Ammish (NETRICE Coordinator) and three Agric Extension Officers, John, Mike & Emmanuel, to run a two day workshop for local famers on how to use agro-chemicals safely (see my Note 1 below). The work is funded by the Environ Foundation. We are particularly concerned about the misuse of pesticides in subsistence agriculture -- indeed, none of the 48 farmers attending our workshop had had any prior training in how to use these exceedingly potent chemicals. None wore any form of protection and a number reported serious health effects.

    Indeed, I was talking yesterday with a man in his 60s who told me that spraying pesticides had made him impotent and that he was no longer able to sit comfortably because the muscles in his legs had been damaged. This is not uncommon. Two years ago, in a similar village, Nsuta, I met with 15 farmers (mostly women) who had also suffered adverse health effects: they reported numbness, rashes, stomach pains and problems with their eyes. The chief’s son, Ernest (who organised the meeting for us) told me later that another man from the village was seriously ill in hospital with pesticide poisoning. He didn’t know if he would live.

    Baseline Data

    We began the workshop by asking the farmers 8 basic questions about their use of chemicals. It was at this point that we discovered that six were using DDT. We also found that none of the farmers properly understood the instructions on the labels (some can’t read), and almost half of those present kept their chemicals under their bed for safety**. But worse, after spraying, 25 washed their equipment in the local stream. Pesticides are exceedingly toxic to fish and freshwater crustaceans.

    After gathering the baseline data the extension officers fielded farmers’ detailed questions for a couple of hours before we went outside for a practical demonstration of how to use a sprayer (see photo). During these exchanges we were able to dispel many myths, for example, that you shouldn’t spray herbicides in the early morning if there is dew on the leaves. This is precisely the right time to spray because its cool and the plants’ stomata are open, which means that the active ingredients can gain entry and do their deadly work.

    Difficult Environment

    We held our first workshop in Asato on Tuesday & Wednesday, where we worked with some 40 farmers in the local Farmers’ Association. Asato is about 40 km to the south, and the road to Brewaniase was dreadful. The tarmac ended a full 20 km from town and this being the dry season, we crawled along trying to avoid the many potholes, and leaving a trail of orange dust in our wake. Dust is a massive problem for the villagers along the route. The Chief’s son Ernest told me that plans were in the pipeline to tarmac the road, but somehow they had got lost there. And the road through Brewaniase is one of the main trunk roads north, which means a never-ending stream of juggernauts and clouds of choking dust for residents to put up with. And that's not their only problem: Ernest said that in Brewanasie alone no fewer than five children had been killed in the last few years by vehicles driven too fast.

    Speaking of accidents, I was shocked to hear last night that the brother of one of our trainers was killed on Wednesday in a freak accident with a fire. Very mysterious. John attended the funeral and joined us today for the workshop. He already has five children, and is now contemplating taking on three more. This is the African way…

    Accessing the Internet

    When we went to our guest house in Asato on Tuesday, after our first day’s training, we met an engaging young man called Nana (centre of photo). Nana had rented one of the 4 rooms and was organising a team of boys to break open bulbous green seedpods and collect the beans. Nana told me the pods came from a vine called Griffonia and were collected from the wild. He dried the seeds and sold them on to a man who exported them to France. It was potentially lucrative business. That night I was able access the internet and find out that the chemical extracted from Griffonia (5-Hydroxytryptophan) is used for treating insomnia and migraine, and also in weight loss therapy (it suppress hunger). And the next morning this made the perfect story to demonstrate to the farmers one of the functions of the internet, finding out things.

    In fact, apart from helping with the planning of the workshops, and training the trainers, my main contribution has been to talk to the farmers about the opportunities that the internet can offer. There is so much potential: farmers can follow the weather forecasts; they can find out where to get different seed varieties or buy equipment; and they can check up on pests and different control measures. We’ve been pushing IPM (see my last note). Today the farmers were complaining about partridges: I was able to locate a photo of the 'enemy' and even play them the bird’s call! The farmers were amazed.

    The last photos show farmers’ response at the Asato (top) and Brewaniase workshops when I asked, after finishing my presentation, “who would like to learn how to use the internet?” We are now designing a programme to see what we can do.

    I have to say I was rather disappointed at the low turnout of woman at both of our meetings (around 20%). I think this is mainly a cultural issue, and something we hope to do something about in later workshops.

    * Vector control is where a substance like DDT is applied inside homes to kill or repel mosquitoes. This greatly reduces environmental damage and the development of DDT resistance. Despite the worldwide ban, the agricultural use of DDT is reported to continue in a number of countries, most notably India and North Korea.

    ** Of course, there are no labels on DDT, and no instructions. The chemical is decanted by the suppliers before they come to the market. And it is not the only pesticide that is sold 'loose'. I strongly suspect that some suppliers add fertilizer or other chemicals to bulk up the material.

    Mike Flood, Brewaniase, Northern Volta Region [Friday 20 Jan 2012] Project funded by the Environ Foundation.

    Sun 15 Jan 12


    I'm in Ghana taking part in the development of a training programme for some 500 subsistence farmers, 150 chemical sellers and 2,500 students (50 schools) in the Volta Region. We are working with the Network of Rice Farming Associations on an 18 month project to encourage more profitable and sustainable farming practice and reduce the incidence of injury and death from the misuse of agro-chemicals.

    On Friday & Saturday we ran a workshop for Agricultural Extension Officers (AEO) in Santrokofi, just north of Hohoe. It is the AEOs who will be doing the training in some 25 villages across the region, and we wanted to make sure that the sessions would be as interesting and as interactive as we could make them so that the farmers would be empowered to change their ways of working. This is not an easy task given that old practices die hard, but also because two thirds of the farmers cannot read and write.

    We have also been designing a pilot project for three of the villages that will introduce farmers to IMP (Integrated Pest Management). Farmers already use some of the techniques -- crop rotation, varying planting times, scaring off birds -- but they don't do this in a systematic way. IPM is the coordinated use of pest and environmental information with available pest control methods to prevent unacceptable levels of pest damage by the most economical means and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

    The AEOs tell me that the main problems that farmers ask them about are: weed control, how to scare birds and rodents (especially mice & 'grass cutters'), weevil attacks, and how to use different chemicals. We will be covering all of these issues in our programme of workshops.

    When I asked the AEOs if they had one wish to improve their job or their effectiveness what would it be, they all said without hesitation "more in-service training / education", and in particular they wanted to learn to use a computer and the internet.

    During my visit (and for the first time here in Santrokofi) I have been able to connect to the internet using a borrowed modem, so we looked on Google Images for pictures of bird scaring devices -- they were fascinated! Lots of ideas they hadn't heard about... Then we went into Wikipedia to find out about different kinds of pests that attack rice, maize and other crops; and we looked at satellite pictures of our village on Google Maps (we could see the actual house where we were working) -- we even went for a 'drive' around my own village, Loughton in Milton Keynes, using Streetview!

    The computer training programme that we are designing for the AEO and others will be carried out almost entirely from local internet cafes, with files stored safely in the 'cloud'. No need to own a computer or have electricity to run it!

    Incidentally, we identified 10 internet cafes in the region, and one (in Hohoe) is run entirely by young women. And this is where we hope to do most of the training because it will send out a strong message, and we hope it will also inspire the women farmers to get involved, for it is the women that do much of the work on the farm. Indeed, women currently account for around 80% of NETRICE's membership.

    Mike Flood, Santrokofi, Hohoe [Sunday 15 Jan 2012] Project funded by the Environ Foundation.

    Sun 01 Jan 12


    It has been another busy year. Here’s a short note on what we achieved:

    we worked on 10 community projects with partners in 5 countries, and through them, dozens of local associations, farmers’ federations, community groups, women’s circles, schools and local authorities; overall

    • staff and consultants spent 63 person-days overseas on assignment or monitoring progress: we made 2 trips to Africa (Sierra Leone & Ghana) and 4 visits to Eastern Europe (Albania).

    West Africa

    As a result of our collective work in Africa:

    • 700 women (and 175 men) in Bombali and Koinadugu (Sierra Leone) now understand the importance of education and have a basic understanding of hygiene and healthcare ― 80 to 90% can now recite the alphabet and count, and 60 to 70% can write their names and read simple sentences;

    • 15 blind men and women in Makeni have learned how to make soap, tie-dye gara cloth and make baskets, and they and 30 graduates from 2010 received start-up kits enabling them to support themselves and their families without having to beg; 12 learned basic Braille; and 6 were coached in advocacy and took part in 6 broadcasts over local radio to help raise awareness of the plight and rights of people with disabilities;

    • we did pioneering investigations into the quality of life for children with disabilities (CWD) in 200 villages in Kambia and 100 villages in Bombali, and the barriers that prevent many of them from going to school ― 60% of school age CWD in Kambia, and 48% in Bombali, are not currently attending school; 40% are left alone in the house during the day; we also looked at the capability and willingness of 20 primary schools in Makeni to accept blind children, and we drew up a Blueprint for creating educational opportunities for blind children in Makeni;

    • we conducted a pilot study of Gender Based Violence in and around Makeni with in-depth interviews with 20 women victims of abuse; we will be using the results in 2012 to help raise awareness of the problem and promote greater gender equality;

    • we equipped Vision for the Blind with 2 portable computers, a Braille keyboard, 2 Perkins Braillers, and a Braille embosser; and

    • we surveyed local chemical sellers in Hohoe in the Volta Region of Ghana (like the one shown, here staffed by untrained teenagers), and also internet cafés, and we drew up a training programme for farmers to reduce the high level of injury and environmental damage from the misuse of pesticides (we start the training this month); and we helped NETRICE revise its Constitution and restructure so that it is more accountable to its Member Associations (which represent around 1,000 subsistence farmers, 80% women).

    Eastern Europe

    Our main focus in Eastern Europe in 2011 was on Albania where:

    • we completed a study on the potential risk to public health and the environment posed by the lack of facilities for the safe disposal of used lead acid batteries and the likely impact of new legislation to implement the EU’s 2006 Batteries Directive. This work (with the Eden Centre in Tirana) involved carrying out 600 interviews with people in the business and members of the public, taking 90 samples of soil from scrap yards in Tirana and testing for heavy metals, and making some clear recommendations to government for the new legislation;

    • we took 200 soil and water samples in Uznova (Berat, pictured) from land thought to have been seriously contaminated by a lead smelter. We also tested samples of blood from 25 volunteers. We were surprised to find no heavy metal contamination in the water and very low levels in the soil, except for a couple of areas close to the plant. However, there were indications of higher than acceptable levels of lead in three of the blood samples and we will be following this up in 2012;

    • we ran two workshops for teachers and students at the school in Uznova to improve the level of environmental education and set up a number of student projects to increase awareness of the importance of looking after the environment. These will also come to fruition in 2012 and include tidying up the immediate environment of the school.

    We described these various projects in detail in eight project reports. The feedback has been very complementary.

    The United Kingdom

    In the UK we focused our efforts on promoting greater public understanding of the nature and causes of poverty in the developing world and the importance of carefully targetted aid. We did this with and through our growing team of volunteers. During 2011:

    • we held 4 public seminars on various aspects of development work, from the digital divide to working on disability;

    • we brought a 6-strong delegation from Sierra Leone for a series of meetings with UK specialists on Inclusive Education, and various public events including 3 World Cafés, and we captured a number of these events on a 15 minute film; four of our visitors were blind, and 3 had never left their country before; and

    • we arranged a meeting with David Blunkett MP and an interview with Peter White on ‘In Touch’ (BBC Radio 4).

    We also took on an intern for 6 months and hosted a student on work experience.

    Thank You

    A heartfelt THANK YOU to the trusts and foundation that have supported our work over the year, and to all of our friends and volunteers who gave so generously of their time, made helpful suggestions and proffered advice, or made donations. We could not have achieved so much without you all.

    We very much look forward to continuing with our unique brand of grassroots international development in 2012. It is not going to be easy given the difficult economic climate, which is putting small charities like ours under serious financial pressure. However, our struggle is as nothing compared with that of our local partners, who work in an even more demanding environment.

    There's a lot to be done and we are geared up for the challenge!

    Fri 09 Dec 11

    10th December is Human Rights Day -- please give it a thought

    The political freedoms that many of us enjoy today were won in a series of hard fought and bloody struggles which took place over more than 500 years. They are of immense importance and yet most of us take them for granted. Well please give them a thought on at least one day in the year, Saturday 10 December, which is United Nation's Human Rights Day.

    The Day commemorates the passage of possibly the single most important document of the 20th Century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the most translated document in the world, it's even available in Pipil, which is spoken by just 50 people in El Salvador and Honduras! The Declaration represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are entitled and provides the foundation for justice and peace, and good relations between nations. And much of the credit goes to Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt (widow of President Franklin Roosevelt) who chaired the Commission that drafted the document in the aftermath of World War II (which saw unprecendent levels of human rights violations).

    The Declaration lays out everyone's right to life, liberty and security; the right to the highest attainable standard of health, just and favourable working conditions, adequate food, housing and social security; and the right to education and participation in the democratic process. Powerful Information has been fighting for a number of these rights for people in low-income countries for over 20 years. Take a look at Just Imagine ... and think how lucky you are to be reading these words.

    Wed 07 Dec 11

    Ideas for National Braille Week Please!

    Last month we bought a Braille Embosser for our friends at Vision for the Blind (VFB) in Sierra Leone (see Dec 6 entry below). Our colleagues want to organise some events in Freetown in January to publicise their new acquisition and hopefully drum up some business. Do you have any novel suggestions for things they might do to generate publicity / make a splash? Braille embossers don’t come cheap: ours cost $3,500 (thank you Comic Relief).

    Loius Braille was born on January 4th 1809, and in his honour January 4 – 10th is National Braille Week. Braille was blinded in an accident when he was just three years old. But he had a highly creative mind and went on to develop this new form of communication that has transformed the lives of millions ever since.

    The embosser is an invaluable asset for VFB: it enables the group to produce Brailled material for other Disabled People’s Organisations, including all five blind schools in the country. It might be possible for them to get contracts with the Government -- earlier this year Parliament passed the country’s first disability legislation, which requires (at the very least) that Government Departments be more aware of the needs of people with disability. We understand that there is currently only one other Braille embosser in the country and that the quality of the Braille is not good. So get your think caps on: let's have your suggestions!

    Tue 06 Dec 11

    Inclusive Education for Blind Children in Sierra Leone

    We have just reported on a research project into Inclusive Education (IE) for blind children in Sierra Leone. The work was funded by Comic Relief. It involved, amongst other things:

    • carrying out a survey of children with disabilities (CWD) in poor villages in Southern Bombali ─ some 394 people were interviewed in 100 villages, including 68 disabled children;

    • bringing a 6 person delegation from Vision for the Blind (VFB) to the UK for two weeks in the summer to meet with British specialists in IE ─ we held a series of workshops in Milton Keynes, Cambridge and London; the trip concluded with a meeting with David Blunkett MP at Westminster, and an interview with Peter White on ‘In Touch’ (BBC Radio 4);

    • conducting a survey of 20 primary schools in Makeni to find out about teachers’ attitudes to teaching CWD and looking at facilities and resources;

    • organising an exchange programme between teachers and students from a primary school in Makeni and the Bombali School for the Blind -- the photo is of one of our colleagues, Ali Martin Sesay, visiting the School;

    • consultation with various teachers and educational specialists in Makeni on how best to adopt IE in Sierra Leone given the state of the educational system, not least large class sizes, teachers with no training in working with Special Education Needs, limited resources, and lack of public understanding for the plight of the disabled.

    We were also able to provide VFB with a laptop computer and specialist equipment, including two Perkins Braillers, a Braillekey device (a special computer keyboard designed like a Perkins Brailler) and a Braille Embosser (which produces Braille from a standard computer). We think it is only the second Braille Embosser in the country!

    Thu 01 Dec 11

    World AIDS Day

    December 1st is World AIDS Day, an opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV-AIDS and show their support and understanding for people living with this life-threatening condition. One of Powerful Information’s programmes in Sierra Leone is helping improve rural women’s understanding of basic healthcare, including how to protect themselves and their families from HIV-AIDS. The level of HIV-AIDS in Sierra Leone is small, but it is thought to be growing.

    World AIDS Day is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV. Do something to mark World AIDS Day, you can also find out the facts about HIV and bust the myths... World Aids Day

    Thu 24 Nov 11

    Survey of Children with Disabilities in Kambia, Sierra Leone

    We have just completed a joint project with Children in Crisis and Vision for the Blind in which we have been gathering data of the numbers of children with disabilities (CWD) in selected chiefdoms in the Kambia District of Sierra Leone. We also wanted to understand something of the quality of their lives and the barriers that prevent them from getting an education. There are currently no statistics and very little information about this.

    We focused on three Chiefdoms and looked in particular at children with serious physical disabilities ─ disfigurement, damaged or paralysed limbs, hearing-impairment, sight-impairment and blindness. During the survey, teams from Vision for the Blind carried out 553 interviews in 155 villages.

    Here’s a glimpse into our findings:

    • 1.5 – 2% of the children and young people in the chiefdoms we studied have some form of disability; 50% were physically-challenged, the rest were blind or visually-impaired or suffered from hearing-impairment; a small number had epilepsy or were mentally-challenged;

    • 60% of the CWD were born with their disability; the rest became disabled as a result of untreated illnesses or an accident; and 60% had not had any form of treatment for their disability (other than treatment with native herbs);

    • as a result of their disability 25% of the children were not able to move around the house; 45% could not bath or dress alone; some were very isolated;

    • 60% of the CWD who were of school age were not attending school; 40% were ‘left alone in the house’ during the day;

    • 60% of the children found the aspect of the their life that they found most difficult to deal with was ‘medication’; when asked what would help them most, 80% said ‘education’, and the rest, more ‘parental attention’ or ‘friends accepting me’;

    • the three main obstacles to CWD getting an education were 1) poor parental care; 2) negative public attitudes towards disability; and 3) lack of special schools or adequate skills in schools;

    • 35% of villages have customary laws or local bye laws designed to protect CWD, and chiefs said that they impose fines on people who abuse or provoke CWD.

    Sun 13 Nov 11

    Pub Quiz raises money for Africa

    On Friday 11 November our volunteers organised a very successful quiz night in Shenley Leisure Centre (Milton Keynes) to raise funds for our programmes in Africa. We can make the money raised go a very long way in Sierra Leone and Ghana.

    Many thanks everybody involved. Great job done!

    Mon 24 Oct 11

    Workshop for Teachers in Berat (Albania)

    In October (21st-23rd) one of our consultants, Ariadna Benet-Monico, ran a workshop for teachers and students in a primary school in Uznova, a poor part of Berat in central Albania, as part of a joint project with the school and our colleagues at the EDEN Center in Tirana. We are very grateful to Ariadna -- and to Albana Brigaj, EDEN's Education Officer -- for their efforts!

    This is the start of a new 18 month project concerned with improving understanding of environmental issues in the community and trying to reduce the risk to public health from living in an environment that has been contaminated by lead from an abandoned smelter, and possibly chromium and other emissions from a local tannery.

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