Survival Challenges for Orphans in Sierra Leone

The Republic of Sierra Leone, located in West Africa, has been inundated in the past five years by successive disasters, including an Ebola virus epidemic and severe flooding and landslides. Basic survival is a major issue for most residents of this poor country, but children who have lost their parents in these disasters are at the greatest risk. With scarcities in food, education, and medical care, it is uncertain if these youngsters will survive to adulthood.

On April 16, 2019, Tzu Chi and its partners in Sierra Leone delivered multigrain powder mix to Variety Children’s Home in Freetown. Most of the 40 children in this facility suffer from malnutrition.

Tzu Chi first provided aid to Sierra Leone in March 2015, when the country was enduring a staggering blow from a fatal Ebola virus epidemic. Though more than four years have passed since then, the foundation has remained just as committed to aiding the needy in the nation. After the Ebola epidemic subsided, another catastrophe hit the country in August 2017 in the form of crushing floods and mudslides that took more lives and left behind more hapless orphans. Tzu Chi was among the first humanitarian organizations to respond to the needs of victims.

Over the last five years, Tzu Chi has collaborated closely with three organizations—Caritas Freetown, the Healey International Relief Foundation, and the Lanyi Foundation—to provide aid in the country. Upholding the Tzu Chi ideal of “first to arrive and last to leave,” Tzu Chi and its partners in Sierra Leone have worked doggedly to help Ebola survivors across the country and to tend to the needs of orphanages, medical clinics, and welfare institutions.

In April this year, a Tzu Chi volunteer team from the United States travelled again to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to continue the foundation’s care to the poor and suffering. I was part of that team. Bringing love from donors across the world, we hoped our presence there would reassure the needy that they had not been forgotten.

In the past, Tzu Chi had distributed rice, blankets made from recycled plastic bottles, reusable tableware, and other supplies to the underserved in the country. During the April trip, we donated 4,520 bottles of multigrain powder mix to 12 organizations in Western Area, including medical facilities, orphanages, and schools. About 1,123 people benefited.

The importance of education

The flight from Malaysia, my home country, to Sierra Leone required three transits and 25 hours of travelling time. Other team members flew in from California and New York.

We landed at Lungi International Airport, located on the coast north of Freetown, and then had to take a 30-minute boat ride to reach the national capital. At the seaside where we boarded our boat, we saw many people, especially children, playing on the shore. We also saw women doing their laundry. The coast was covered in trash. There seemed to be a lack of awareness of hygiene as well as an environmental pollution issue.

When most people think of Africa, they envision a continent inseparable from poverty, filth, and underdevelopment. However, that isn’t the case all over the continent. South Africa, for example, boasts a relatively comprehensive infrastructure as well as comfortable standards of living.

I had assumed that Sierra Leone would be like South Africa, with modern cities teeming with life. However, my assumption was quickly dispelled, as we travelled from Lungi Airport to the hotel where we were staying. Barely half an hour from the airport, I witnessed the nation’s poverty and backwardness.

Freetown was a collage of shabby, crude buildings, underage people hawking goods in the streets, babies crawling on the dirty ground, and shabbily dressed kids eating food with their bare hands. I was stunned. If the capital of the nation could be so shabby, what would it be like in outlying and remote areas?

When we visited clinics and hospitals, we came face to face with more deprivation and backwardness. Almost every medical institution faced the same problems: a shortage of medical personnel, not enough equipment, a lack of knowledge of public hygiene, and insufficient health education. Several clinics did not even have doctors; it was left to nurses to simultaneously manage the clinics, care for patients, and even deliver babies.

In April 2019, Tzu Chi volunteers visited several medical facilities in Freetown. These institutions all suffer from a shortage of doctors and nurses, hospital beds, and medical equipment.

Due to poverty, many pregnant women, new-born babies, and patients could not receive enough nutrition. This hindered the recovery of patients and the proper growth of babies. The multigrain powder mix we brought along this time would greatly help to alleviate the malnourishment issue.

The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak and the devastating 2017 floods and mudslides took many lives in Sierra Leone. Many children became orphans and had to move into orphanages. Sadly, these institutions suffer from insufficient capital and manpower. Relying on donations to fund their operations, they struggle to get by.

Though their lives in the orphanages are far from ideal, the children we encountered looked cheerful. A simple life had helped their hearts remain simple and safeguarded their innocence.

From them, I also discovered the importance of education. Children living in orphanages with relatively more resources were generally able to attend school. As a result, they had no difficulty conversing with us in English (the official language of Sierra Leone). I believe their futures will be better. Children living in orphanages with fewer resources, however, offered a sharp contrast. Even those who were almost six years old could only communicate with us through gestures because they had never been able to receive an English education.

Impact of charity

During the trip, we reviewed the impact made by Tzu Chi’s aid over the past five years, especially our distribution of rice. We discovered that the rice we had provided not only compensated for the recipient institutions’ lack of food, but also increased people’s quality of life and safety.

Don Bosco Fambul is a non-profit organization in Freetown that provides short-term shelter for abused children, youth, and women. It became one of the social welfare organizations receiving long-term assistance from Tzu Chi after the 2017 flooding. Between 2017 and 2018, Tzu Chi donated nearly 7,000 sacks of rice to the organization, totalling 75,450 kilograms (166,338 pounds). During our visit this time, we witnessed the positive impact that this aid had on the recipients.

When we walked into the shelter, we saw sacks of unopened rice donated by Tzu Chi last year. This showed that they had used the food sparingly. Children and youth at Don Bosco had even converted some rice sacks into bags, which were very well crafted.

This year, we donated 950 700-gram bottles of multigrain powder to Don Bosco. Debra Boudreaux (曾慈慧), executive vice president of Tzu Chi USA, told people there that the powder mix could be stirred into water to make drinks, or even frozen to make popsicles. The youngest resident at the shelter was one year and three months old. Boudreaux taught the mother of the baby how to prepare the powder mix for her little one.

Don Bosco not only provides food and accommodation to the young people it takes in—it also gives them an opportunity to receive an education. When the community opposite the shelter was destroyed by fire, the shelter shared its rice with affected households and helped them rebuild their houses.

Fr. Jorge Crisafulli, director of Don Bosco Fambul, told us that because Tzu Chi had solved Don Bosco’s food shortage problem, he now had the resources to plan and set up more new shelters for battered children. In addition, he also helped people affected by the 2017 mudslides get back on their feet by building new homes for them. The Don Bosco Village, built for survivors of the disaster, covers an area of about 33 acres. Fr. Crisafulli also helped children orphaned by the disaster find foster families to restore a sense of stability to their lives.

The priest shared that two years ago, he had only one sack of rice left to feed 400 children. Not knowing what to do, he got down on his knees and prayed to God for help. Immediately afterwards, the telephone rang. It was Fr. Peter Konteh, director of Caritas Freetown, calling to tell him that Tzu Chi was going to donate rice to the shelter. Fr. Crisafulli said that he was immensely grateful for the help of Tzu Chi. He believed that God had sent Tzu Chi to help Don Bosco.

Twelve institutions, including medical clinics and orphanages, received multigrain powder mix from Tzu Chi in April 2019. Social workers and children thanked Tzu Chi volunteers for the foundation’s long-term support.

Their biggest hope

The Don Bosco Village is situated in a quiet area far from the disarray and chaos of the city center. The village looked well-equipped, but perhaps because residents there lacked an awareness of the importance of hygiene and sanitation, the environment was not very clean. Children living in the village did not attend school, and the food supply was unstable.

Fr. Crisafulli accompanied us on a tour of the village. Children ran cheerfully toward us and greeted us. Several youngsters, ranging in age from seven to nine, came to hug me and chat with me. They told me that they averaged only one meal a day. If the caretaker did not cook, they would go hungry the whole day. They said their parents had all died in the mudslides. Their biggest hope was that they would be able to return to school.

Though bereft of an education now, these children continued to embrace dreams for the future. Gathered around us, they excitedly shared their aspirations to be the president, a lawyer, doctor, teacher, etc. I said to them, “When you grow up, you will definitely be what you want to be. But first you must learn to be a kind person. Help others like we are helping you.” They nodded and smiled, “We will!”

Behind their childish voices, we could feel their determination to be kind to others and do good in life. May they always keep this promise in their hearts.

Residents of Variety Children’s Home sample multigrain powder donated by Tzu Chi.

Children who are loved

During this trip, we also visited Mahanaim Orphanage in Grafton, an institution for children with disabilities. The children we saw there were all very thin. The facilities were old and rudimentary, and there was a lack of staff to properly take care of the residents.

Melrose Kamara, the manager of the orphanage, told us that she had 29 children to take care of and many of them were malnourished. She was very grateful to Tzu Chi for delivering rice and multigrain powder to them. She said she was unable to go out to seek external help, and so she was most thankful that Tzu Chi could come to them. “As I grow older,” she declared, “my biggest hope is that there will be someone to take over in looking after these children, and that they will receive an education.” She was getting on in years, she said, and it wasn’t easy for her to get around. She hoped that Tzu Chi and other charity organizations could continue to provide help to the orphans.

St. Mary’s-Fatima Interim Care Center is an orphanage operated by Fr. Konteh of Caritas Freetown. Because of Tzu Chi’s long-term supply of rice to the center, the orphanage has been able to save up enough money to purchase a vehicle to ferry the children to and from school. The center can now also afford vegetables and protein-rich foods for the children. The youngsters there appeared very healthy during our visit.

Because the children in this orphanage have had the opportunity to receive an education, they can speak, read, and write English, do arithmetic, and are able to correctly identify animals and colors. Fr. Konteh has developed close bonds with the young people, and he works very hard to provide for them. He also constantly reminds them to be kind to others.

He has started a “One Good Word a Week” program at the center. Among the good words are modesty, gratitude, love, and sharing. The children are encouraged to practice these words. The priest has also raised funds to build a library, which is open to the children in the orphanage and to community residents as well. By opening the library to the community, he hopes to spread love beyond the center and light up the community with the power of knowledge. His efforts in making a difference in others’ lives garnered him the “Philanthropist of the Year” award for 2019.

After we visited the institutions that Tzu Chi has been supporting, our team came up with a plan to further support Sierra Leone, focusing on hygiene and health improvement, education for children, and food supply. We plan to return to the country at the end of this year to distribute more rice, clothes, and shoes, and to promote hygiene and health education.

Fr. Jorge Crisafulli, director of Don Bosco Fambul, tells children that volunteers from Tzu Chi, a charity foundation that has been supplying food to them, have come to visit them. Don Bosco mainly provides shelter for children and youth, including street children and youngsters who have been physically or sexually abused.


July 2019