Summer Volunteering in Sierra Leone: Watching and Learning about a New Kind of NGO

by Nate Sebree

Senior at University of Washington

Seattle, Washington

The work done by NGOs in developing countries has always fascinated and inspired me, and I have a keen interest in working in this field when I graduate. This summer I had the privilege of working alongside some of Sierra Leone’s hard-working and dedicated female journalists – the team which created and runs Media Matters for Women - Sierra Leone (MMW-SL). After discovering the organization last spring, I became very interested in their novel NGO model, which involves the development of podcasts by journalists in Sierra Leone, who are supported by a dedicated team of professional women in Sierra Leone as well as from around the world, the MMW-SL Board of Directors (MMW-SL Board) and the MMW International Advisory Board (MMW-IAB). Together, these three entities work to produce and distribute informative podcasts on important issues – such as female sexual health and rights – to women and girls who would not otherwise have access to this kind of essential information. Greatly intrigued by the MMW-SL concept and organizational structure, I decided to reach out and inquire about the possibility of visiting MMW-SL’s headquarters in Freetown to learn more about how it operates on the ground level, and, after some discussion, I was invited on-board as MMW-SL’s second-ever volunteer intern.

I started working with MMW-SL remotely from my home in Seattle where I spent my time writing, editing, and just generally getting to know how MMW-SL works, as well as reading about Sierra Leone and its troubled history in books like Ishmael Beah’s “The Long Way Gone” and Mariatu Kamara’s “The Bite of the Mango”. Finally, after a long period of planning and preparation, I flew to Sierra Leone in late August. Since then, I have been able to see how the organization works first-hand and how they distribute their informative podcasts to far-flung communities. It has been an eye-opening experience, to say the least. Working under Project Director Florence Sesay, and alongside the incredibly talented senior journalist Ndeamoh Mansaray and Community Liaison Officer Fatima Sesay, I have seen just how pertinent the work these women are doing to enhance female empowerment efforts underway in Sierra Leone. 

MMW-SL’s goal is to provide critical information on issues of importance to women and girls who live in “the last mile” – those communities living beyond the reach of roads and electricity. To accomplish this, MMW-SL’s professional team of female journalists create weekly podcasts that cover a wide-range of topics like sexual and reproductive health rights, gender-based violence, and family planning. The podcasts are produced on a bi-weekly basis and the journalists thoroughly research the topics they cover before making their recording which include experts, people on the street, and catchy jingles at the beginning and end. The journalists choose the topics for their podcasts based on their observations of what issues are most revalent in each of the communities they cover, as well as requests from their listeners who want to know more on specific topics.   

The radio-style podcasts produced by the journalists are informative, interesting, and engaging. One of their newest productions is a daily radio drama series, Mamie and Omo, which has become very popular among rural listeners. The two main characters have a conversation-style discussion that sounds as though you are over-hearing a friendly debate between two female friends. In fact, the podcast story-line feels so real that most listeners believe the characters, Mamie (a rural market woman) and Omo (an urban teacher in Freetown) are real people. Their fictional existence is a secret safely guarded by the team at MMW-SL. 

The podcasts are disseminated through several highly innovative and very effective channels that allow them to maximize their “broadcast” reach. Partnering with local organizations who provide them with meeting spaces free of charge, MMW-SL has set-up 15 Listening Centers in three of the five regions in Sierra Leone, with more on the horizon. These Listening Centers provide a place for women to listen, discuss, and ask questions about the podcasts in a friendly and welcoming environment. Each Listening Center is run by a Focal Point, a woman who facilitates the discussion and answers questions, and two Youth Advocates who are paid to assist in this process. The Youth Advocates travel door-to-door to play the podcasts for women and girls who are too busy working at home to go to the Listening Centers, ensuring that more and more communities receive this critical information. 

Perhaps MMW-SL’s most innovative method of distribution, however, is their harnessing of Bluetooth technology to expand their reach. Even though many MMW-SL listeners live in impoverished communities, mobile phones are still available among people in most villages. MMW-SL’s ingenious innovation is to repurpose Bluetooth technology – showing listeners how they can easily and freely share podcasts with family and friends. Bluetooth sharing allows MMW-SL to create a broad network of listeners that extends beyond the reach of regular network and Wi-Fi coverage. 

Finally, starting just this year, MMW-SL has partnered with Africell to broadcast Mamie and Omo on more than 40 local and regional radio stations nationwide. Believing in MMW-SL’s cause, these radio stations provide airtime free of charge, and their generosity has expanded the organization’s reach into new territory where they hope to set-up Listening Centers in the coming years.

MMW’s innovation is not solely limited to the work being done by the team of journalists and administrators in Sierra Leone, however; the two associated Board of Directors (MMW-SL Board and MMW-IAB) also provide critical support to the organization from Sierra Leone and from around the world. The Sierra Leone Board is led by Fatmata Dainkeh-Katta, an experienced journalist who has spent the last 15 years working in Sierra Leone as a reporter, presenter, drama writer, producer and actor, news and programme editor.  She is supported by seven other female professionals who are leaders in Sierra Leonean media.  The international Board, the MMW-IAB, is made-up of a team of highly educated professional women and men that includes lawyers, editors, and leaders in business who are based in many countries. They meet twice a year via Skype and look after fundraising and strategic planning as well as day-to-day support of project activities in Sierra Leone.  Demonstrating a new model of volunteerism in the NGO sector, the MMW-SL Board and the MMW-IAB provide strong, mutual-reinforcing external support on key issues which enables the journalists and administrative team in Sierra Leone to focus their efforts on creating and distributing new content.

One of the most important functions of the two Boards is to support the organization’s search for  financial assistance. While working on a US Embassy grant that the organization is currently preparing, I watched the team of international advisors stay in close contact with the team via email and WhatsApp to steer progress in contacting the embassy and writing the grant. The international advisors were also able to provide important oversight on financial matters including the creation of a budget for the US Embassy  application. 

In additional to assistance with grant writing, I was astounded at the level of work the Sierra Leonean and international volunteers do for the organization, completely free of charge. I was able to see how they help implement governance documents and initiatives – a crucial step in ensuring the organization continues to run as smoothly as possible as it grows – as well as maintain contact with key international donors – ensuring they are consistently updated and informed about the organization’s activities – and developing MMW’s social media presence such as updating the MMW website and SoundCloud account with all of the latest information and podcasts.

One area where the international board impressed me the most was their legal counsel. I had the opportunity to see first-hand how hard the advisors work on drawing-up contracts and ensuring compliance with government regulations – a difficult task in a country where legal requirements can  change on a regular basis. All of this required countless hours of work, yet members of the international advisory board appeared more than happy to help, being easily accessible at all times throughout the process. 

While in Sierra Leone, I had the opportunity to join some members of the MMW-SL team in meetings with other non-profit organizations operating in the country. During these meetings, I was amazed by the professionalism of MMW-SL’s operations. MMW-SL is able to reach communities that other organizations in Sierra Leone are trying to contact. For example, one of the organizations we met with is also trying to bring information to people in the “last mile”. However, their main approach involves using text messages on mobile phones. Although many of the people I met in these rural villages did have access to phones, most of them did not, and those that did often did not have access to a network connection in their village or were illiterate. This meeting allowed us to showcase how MMW-SL’s innovative distribution methods – such as the Listening Centers and the use of Bluetooth - are significantly more useful to rural communities than text messages.

The truly amazing aspect of these audio podcasts and the work MMW-SL is doing is that they are providing critical information to women that they are not receiving information any other way. In a country where most women and girls are illiterate, these podcasts are beyond highly appreciated.

The importance and impact of the work done by MMW-SL became clear to me when I had the opportunity to visit nearly all 15 of the Listening Centers that MMW-SL has in operation. These trips were truly some of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had. To see women as young as 16 who were forced to drop out of school and take care of the child after becoming pregnant as early as 14 was at once heart-breaking and motivating. Sitting in a comfy apartment in one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, it is easy for me to read about impoverished communities around the world and feel empathy for them or that more should be done to help them. It is quite a different experience to stand in the middle of a village, surrounded by small, decaying houses that have no working electricity or plumbing as children run around naked, playing with trash that has been accumulating on the out-skirts, and women going about their day scrubbing dishes, washing clothes, or preparing food. There, it is impossible to ignore the imperative to improve the living conditions of these people, and it was during these moments that I realized how crucial the work being done by MMW-SL really is.

One of the most striking events during my trip to the villages was learning about some of the myths surrounding female sexual health that were prevalent in the community before MMW-SL began its work there. One woman told me (as translated from Krio by one of our journalists) how women in her village used to tie ropes around there stomachs, believing this would prevent them from becoming pregnant. At another Listening Center, a woman told us that one of the well-respected older women in their community would advise women wishing to avoid another pregnancy to eat apricots, believing this was an effective form of birth control. These myths are just two of many examples of the crucial misunderstandings about pregnancy, female health, and women’s rights rampant throughout the country. The importance of MMW-SL’s work to dispel these harmful myths cannot be under-stated.

Listeners in these villages told me about how life-changing the information provided by MMW-SL has been for them. Several women told me that they had no idea that there were ways to space-out pregnancies or even that spacing could be beneficial for both their baby’s and their own health. At another center, women told me they had no idea that it was necessary to breast feed your child after they were born, or that it is necessary to clean your breast before allowing the child to suckle in order to avoid them contracting diseases. At yet another center, women told me that they had no idea that they had a government-protected right to free health care and free contraceptives. I heard countless stories of women being forced to pay for medical services that should have been free because they were not aware of their rights. All these women have now been empowered with the knowledge to take control of their future and the future of their children; thanks to MMW-SL, many of them have been able to weather economic difficulties, avoid unwanted pregnancies, and improve their own health and the health of their children.

Motivated and inspired, this trip has truly been an unparalleled empowering experience. Seeing the way this organization has had an incredibly powerful impact in the lives over 18,000 impoverished and information-starved women and girls has encouraged me to pursue work in the field of development in a way unlike any experience has done for me before. After the trip and the interactions I have had, I can honestly say that the work being done by MMW-SL is some of the most inspiring I have ever encountered. The team of brilliant journalists, activists, and volunteers supporting MMW-SL have cemented in my heart, and the hearts of many others, the imperative to help those who need it most, in whatever innovative ways possible.

Amplify Change Grant Strengthens Our Reach to Women and Girls in Sierra Leone

We are thrilled to announce that Amplify Change has awarded Media Matters for Women – Sierra Leone their € 89,000 Strengthening grant! Our project will begin March 11, 2019.   Florence Njai-Sesay will serve as our Project Coordinator and Abibatu Kamara as our Finance Officer. Our Senior Journalists are Alinah Kallon, Ndeamoh Mansaray, and Zainab Sheriff.  

The new project will allow us to expand beyond our core work of producing and distributing original podcasts using mobile phones. We will now be able to include leadership and advocacy training as well as communication and network building with local youth and women’s community associations. The aim of the training is centered on building local women’s capacities to advocate for their sexual and reproductive health rights and to use technologies such as Bluetooth to especially transfer this information to “last mile” women and girls.

We plan to train 15 community leaders and 45 Youth Advocates to deliver five local campaigns on issues prioritized by the women and girls in their communities – targeting local district health authorities, ward committees, and national ministries in Freetown. We anticipate reaching 15,000 women and girls with this rights-based information in one year. 

In addition, 250 local and national decision makers will increase their understanding of local rights-based issues affecting women/girls. We also anticipate training 40 female journalists from radio, newspapers, television, and new media to increase their understanding of how we at Media Matters for Women use ‘enabling technologies’ like Bluetooth to reach the most isolated women and girls in Sierra Leone.

We believe this project will significantly enhance our work in Sierra Leone of producing and delivering information on issues of importance to rural women and girls. It builds on our many successes in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of poor, vulnerable, and marginalized women and girls living in the most remote communities in Sierra Leone.

TED Audacious Prize 2019 - MMW advanced to the second round

Media Matters for Women applied for and was selected for the second round of competition of the TED Audacious Prize 2019! This is a relatively new global initiative for launching big, audacious ideas like ours.

Our first submission was a superb team effort, including a video created by our team in Sierra Leone. We were one of 1,500 submissions and were thrilled to be asked to make a second-round application.

Although we were not selected for the prize this year, it strengthened our teamwork and resolve to move our projects forward. We will certainly try again in 2020!

New Project Proposal for Sierra Leone

Media Matters for Women Sierra Leone is now ready to roll out our concept into additional regions of the country. Our plan is to expand beyond our core work of producing and distributing original podcasts using mobile phones, and to also include leadership and advocacy training as well as communication and network building with local youth and women’s community associations (CSOs).

The aim of the training we envision is to build local women’s capacity to advocate for their rights in targeted campaigns and to use enabling technologies such as free Bluetooth transfer of audio content on mobile phones to freely transfer rights-based information.

Our newest project would also build the capacity of local and national media to report more frequently on issues concerning women and girls, hold local and national government to account, and promote innovative new media approaches to extend their reach and influence.

We plan to operate in six priority districts, building on Media Matters for Women Sierra Leone’s existing team of 3 local journalists and15 Listening Centers (now located at health clinics, training centres, and support groups) and expanding operations into two new districts which have the most isolated communities in the country (Koinadugu and Kailahun).

We plan to train 45 community leaders and 75 youth/women’s advocates to deliver five local advocacy campaigns on issues prioritized by the women and girls in their communities – targeting local district health authorities, ward committees, and national ministries in Freetown.  We anticipate reaching 15,000 women and girls with this rights-based information.

In addition, 250 local and national decision makers will increase their understanding of local rights based issues affecting women/girls. We also anticipate training 40 female journalists from radio, newspapers, television, and new media to increase their understanding of how we at Media Matters for Women use ‘enabling technologies’ like Bluetooth to reach the most isolated women and girls in Sierra Leone.

We believe this project will significantly enhance our work in Sierra Leone of producing and delivering information on issues of importance to rural women and girls. It builds on our many successes in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of poor, vulnerable, and marginalised women and girls living in the most remote communities in Sierra Leone.

Insights From Our First Summer Intern in Sierra Leone

By Jane Thurow
Senior in Communications at Carthage College
Wisconsin, USA

This summer I was fortunate to be Media Matters for Women’s first volunteer intern. It gave me an extraordinary opportunity to learn first-hand about Media Matters for Women’s innovative concept for delivering information to underserved women and girls in Africa. The highlight was working with their excellent team. I stayed in three places: the capital city of Freetown and the regional towns of Kenema and Makeni.

The highlight of my summer experience was meeting and working with Senior Journalists Alinah Kallon and Ndeamoh Mansaray, as well as Interim Project Coordinator Sybil Bailor. These women provided me with exceptional insight into Sierra Leone’s culture and challenges as a nation, as well as the important ways Media Matters for Women’s projects are addressing many of Sierra Leone’s most pressing problems.

Two things made my visit to Africa unique and wonderful: the privilege of meeting and interviewing listeners from three different regions and being welcomed into Alinah’s and Sybil’s homes. I was able to talk directly with many female listeners about our audio programs, My eyes were opened to how few options and opportunities these women have -- and how few options their daughters are likely to have.  Media Matters for Women brings hope and empowerment by providing much needed public service broadcasting in places where women and girls easily congregate – and it’s free!

When I stayed with Alinah in Makeni she was producing a program about epilepsy that ultimately reached about 500 listeners that week. Her program countered the local myth that the disease is contagious. It was a fascinating ten-minute program (you can hear it on Media Matters for Women’s archives on SoundCloud). The women I met appreciated the topic, and there was a strong connection and a sense of community when they discussed what they heard and shared the ways they had seen people with epilepsy ostrascized. This conversation spurred the women to talk about other medical misconceptions they had, for example about how
birth control works. Specifically, it was news to many of these women that birth control is completely unrelated to epilepsy. With this new information the women asked other
questions that revealed further misconceptions about other health issues.

These conversations among listeners in response to Media Matters for Women’s
programs brought out interesting stories, and some perplexed me. Alinah and I
discussed these later, and she demonstrated her wisdom and deep understanding of
how women in Sierra Leone think and how they relate to, and assimilate, new
knowledge.  When I asked Alinah how she had come up with the idea to report on the
topic of epilepsy, she said that misunderstanding through lack of information is a big
problem, and she knew epilepsy was an important topic to cover through talking with
her listeners about their problems and also observing what went on in their
communities.

Like Alinah, Sybil was generous in sharing wise cultural insights and her understanding of what women know and don’t know.  Sybil also taught me a great deal about where Media Matters for Women fits into the sphere of development projects in Sierra Leone. She was a great role model as I watched her manage routine Media Matters for Women managerial tasks, something she does with her whole heart and her unique knowledge of the context of Media Matters for Women’s work.   Sybil, Alinah and Ndeamoh took extreme care to teach and show me as much as they could about the serious challenges faced by women and girls in Sierra Leone.

I feel so lucky to have met so many women during my stay. In my view, it is the listeners and staff that make the Media Matters for Women’s concept work.  Above all, I learned that Media Matters for Women is extremely important because learning is the first step for women and girls to improve their lives and communities, and high-quality and relevant public service programming is essential to that process.

By Jane Thurow
Senior in Communications at Carthage College
Wisconsin, USA