Children grind millet in a village in Sierra Leone.
As the Alberta leader of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Sara Farid has lots of opportunities to travel. But her latest trip to Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso was different.
"It changed me in ways that I don't even understand," she says. "I wasn't ever keen on wasting food or taking our food for granted but now it has a different value."
Farid witnessed how people in these West African countries work so hard to buy a bag full of rice "and yet, even in the middle of their need, they exhibit nobility and generosity and hospitality" in a way that baffled her.
"What they are able to give is not comparable to what they actually have," she said in a recent interview. "Whereas here we have so much and we are unable to exhibit even a percentage of (these traits)."
Farid is the regional animator of the Alberta-Mackenzie region of Development and Peace. Her 18-day tour of Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso was sponsored by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 Canadian churches and Church-based agencies working together to end global hunger. Farid was one of 10 tour participants.
The main reason behind the tour of Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso is that both countries were among the hardest hit by the 2012 food crisis. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank organized a massive food intervention in both countries, supplying 70 per cent of the grain needed to alleviate the crisis.
Development and Peace also played an important role, being the only Church agency with partners on the ground able to distribute food and money.
The food study tour had three purposes – to learn about food, agriculture and food security and the causes of hunger.
"The second objective is solidarity – to be present with the partners so that the relationship is more than just monetary giving, but is one of true solidarity, of presence, of taking time out of our lives to learn about their situation."
The third purpose is to build solidarity between the member agencies.
In Sierra Leone, tour participants learned about the impact of the Sierra Leone civil war, 1991-2002, that left an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 dead and countless of maimed child combatants.
Apart from amputees, the group also saw people with eye problems. "It almost looks like they have a white film on their eyes," related Farid. "We learned that the rebels used to melt plastic cups and then funnel the plastic in the eyes of young boys who refused to fight with them."
People generally seem comfortable talking about the impact of the conflict. "So we learned that one man saw his wife tortured, raped and then killed in front of him."
Others spoke about how one village was burned to the ground because the people refused to join the rebels.
Tour participants learned that one of the causes of the conflict was the lack of accountability by government leaders.
Now, through education programs on democracy, the people learn how to hold leaders to account and to assert their rights.
"Our partners now work with the most marginalized populations to mobilize them, to raise awareness, to empower them to call their chiefs and their paramount chiefs to account," Farid said.
Development and Peace's main partner in Sierra Leone is the Network Movement for Justice and Development, a movement based on Catholic social teaching and motivated by the preferential option for the poor.
Apart from emphasizing accountability, this group has helped farmers in one community form a farmers' association and a local development council, organizations which lobby the respective authorities for what they need. They have asked the government to provide grain storage and Farid said they may soon ask for a school closer to where they live.
"We felt the poverty in Sierra Leone," lamented Farid. "We felt the destabilization of the country because of the conflict. There is something in the environment where you can feel the impact."
In a village in the Province of Bo, the group spent two days learning about agriculture and experiencing life in the countryside.
"They do a lot of mixed cropping, which is very good for the soil and it's fascinating because they have such an awareness of the land, such an awareness of food."
Farid was impressed that farmers plant their crops in the bush without cutting the trees. They had maize, rice and different types of beans. "They were picking at this and we still couldn't see it because we can't even recognize what the crops look like," Farid explained.
Poverty was pervasive in the villages they visited. Even though villagers had a generator for electricity, the generator almost never worked.
Most people in Sierra Leone work the land and about 70 per cent of the population earns $1.25 a day or less.
In Burkina Faso, 90 per cent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
The visit to Burkina Faso was also to learn about food security but the context was different. Whereas in Sierra Leone the main challenge is food security, food sovereignty, accountability and empowerment, in Burkina Faso the main challenge is the harshness of the climate and climate change.
"The increasing number of droughts particularly in the east of the country makes it very difficult for people to sustain themselves. There was a famine. So we were learning how people were adapting to this drought and how they respond to climate change."
Farmers use many innovative ways to make the land productive. For example, they create rock canals to trap the water in and use it to make the land productive.
Once these canals are established they replace the rocks with a particular type of shrub that still serves as a barrier to contain the water and reuse the rocks somewhere else.
Farmers plant mostly sorghum and millet but Development and Peace has supported a plan, initiated by the Mennonite Central Committee, which has seen farmers create garden pots with tomatoes, onions and vegetables.
During the food crisis Caritas Burkina Faso, with help from Canadian Foodgrains and Development and Peace, provided people with cash vouchers to buy food or agricultural tools. People were impoverished as they had sold their cattle and eaten the grains to cope with the famine.
Farid personally met with a widow, a mother of six, who benefited from the cash distribution program. "She was saying, 'Imagine the shame of not being able to provide for your children when you are their mother.'
"She said the cash not only restored her dignity but also helped her start a small peanut growing operation. This year she had five bags, 500 kilograms of peanuts that she was able to sell."
The main culprits for the poverty are the harsh climate and the lack of market access. People walk for miles to sell their crop in the market, Farid said.
Then there is a lack of literacy with only 20 per cent of the population knowing how to read and write.