Features | There's more to Sierra Leone than diamonds

Jessica Ing talks about her summer working in Sierra Leone, urging other students to take the opportunity to travel and volunteer abroad.


After having almost been initiated into a secret society, being swept away by a waterfall and experiencing several near death experiences, I have returned back to the UK safe and sound with a wider knowledge of the developing world and a hunger for more adventure. To explain all of that, this summer I volunteered on the ICS programme, a 10- 12 week adventure and an unforgettable experience for those of you wanting to enhance your CV. Better yet, it’s funded by the Department for International Development, which will certainly look impressive to employers. The best part of it though is that it’s free of charge (unlike the other companies that try to rip you off), yes that’s right, free! The only requirement being, that you have to fundraise £800 for the charity. Don’t worry I also panicked but you can break this down easily into cake sales, events etc.

For those of you that don’t know, Sierra Leone is located in West Africa and was voted the most corrupt country in the world by the BBC. Its name originates from the Portuguese Serra Leoa, meaning lion mountains, as the peninsula was visited by Pedro de Sintra who supposedly thought one of the mountains was shaped like a lion. You may already know a little about the country’s destructive past through the film Blood Diamond but I assure you that the country is probably one of the most peaceful ones I have ever visited. Not only that but it’s an amazing country, which is mainly due to people.  They’re so poor yet they’re so joyful and have an enormous amount of faith. Everyone is very friendly and positive, which is why I encountered a minor culture shock when I came back to the UK.

So what did I actually do in Sierra Leone? Well apart from visiting some of the world’s most pristine beaches during the weekends, I was facilitating in schools and organising community events. Our programme was focused on Livelihoods, so I was working on career development, CV writing and interview skills (very exciting, I know). We facilitated up to 60 students at a time which was quite challenging but was made more manageable with my national volunteer partner. Other events we did included a community action day on drugs and violence, vocational courses and teenage pregnancy. We found out that almost 40% of young girls under 14 in their community were pregnant; many believing that attaching a necklace to your stomach would prevent pregnancy which meant that we definitely needed to educate them about contraception! In addition, I organised school career forums, teacher training days, school debates, one of which had the topic of ‘A woman’s career should be at home. Discuss’ that seemed to provoke some interesting discussions, but many concluded that we should not attempt to try and westernise African culture.

Undoubtedly by being in the country, you will learn about the local culture as I did, as I learnt of the secret societies. The two predominant ones are Poro and Bundu; the former for males and the latter for females. During their childhood, members are taken to a bush to learn how to ‘be a man or a woman’. This involves circumcision, or in a female’s cases the cutting of the clitoris, also known as female genital mutilation; the reason for the awful statistic of 4 out of 5 women dying during childbirth or pregnancy. The disturbing fact is that it’s seen as a completely normal ceremony – the equivalent of a 10-year-old going to Claire’s to get their ears pierced in our culture. One woman even said proudly that she would be sending her daughter to the Bundu society soon, as if it was a boarding school!

Something else that was somewhat disturbing is the lack of urgency for injured people. A woman involved in a car crash wasn’t given an ambulance (as they cost and nobody can afford them), instead she was put in the boot of a taxi which was already transporting nine other people. The driver dropped the individuals off before addressing the injured victim. At times like these, I am relieved that there are ambulances free of charge in the UK. It makes me appreciate what we have in our country.

There are many other things we should not take for granted such as electricity and water, which I had to live 10 weeks without, whenever it rained we all dashed outside to let our buckets collect water! Other things include street lights, roads etc. However this shouldn’t put you off volunteering abroad. It’s a great chance to make new friends, push yourself and help others.  So for those of you that have a quench for adventure, challenge and fun, definitely consider the ICS programme!


Jessica Ing

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