Sierra Leone

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 around the world who make-up the MMW International Advisory Board (MMWIAB). Together, these entities work to develop 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 this concept, I decided to reach out to the organization and inquire about the possibility of visiting its 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 remotely from my home in Seattle where I spent my time writing, editing, and just generally getting to know how MMW 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 spread their reach 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 MMWSL’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 Omoon 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 in Sierra Leone, however; the MMWIAB also provides critical support to the organization from around the world. Demonstrating a new model of volunteerism in the NGO sector, the MMWIAB – which 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 and who work long hours to support the work being done on the ground.  Their strong support enables MMW-SL to operate and expand, while allowing the journalists and administrative team in Sierra Leone to focus their efforts on creating and distributing new content with key external support on operational activities.

One of the most important functions of the MMWIAB is to support the organization’s search for  financial assistance. While in Sierra Leone, I was able to see how the international board is directly involved in finding and pursuing grant opportunities for the organization. While working on a US Embassy grant that the organization is currently preparing, I watched the team of international advisors stay in close Internat contact with the team on the ground and direct them on how to contact the embassy and write the grant. The international advisors were also able to provide important oversight on financial matters including the creation a budget for the US Embassy  application. 

In additional to assistance with grant writing, I was astounded at the level of work the 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. 

The combined efforts of both the MMWIAB and the MMW-SL teamm were apparent in many aspects of the efficiency of the organization. While in Sierra Leone, I had the opportunity to join some members of the administrative team supporting the MMW-SL journalists, including attending  meetings with other international 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’s innovative distribution methods – such as the Listening Centers and the use of Bluetooth which is 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, 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 inspiring women at 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