Kieran McConville discovers how strong commitment from village communities in Liberia is powering projects to improve their health, well-being and prosperity.
Visit the neighbouring villages of Dadazu and Dokoizia in Lofa County, Liberia, and you’ll certainly get the feeling something special is going on. Many of the houses have new zinc roofs or have been extended and whitewashed. The open spaces are strikingly well-kept and much of the surrounding undergrowth has been cleared. In an opening, there’s a well-maintained communal pump. Just down the road a group of men are building a concrete culvert to channel the stream which swells into a river during the rainy season. And nearby is what looks like a small, neat schoolhouse. So what IS going on?
“Concern has made a big difference to this community,” Kokula Zaza says, standing by the pump. He’s the Town Chief of Dokoizia and is intimately involved in pretty much everything that happens around here. On this occasion, however, he’s not quite hitting the mark.
Anthony Vandy of Concern begs to differ with Chief Zaza. Without sustained interest and effort on the part of the community, he says, Concern’s work would be ultimately fruitless: “While we can facilitate, encourage and secure resources and help to coordinate, without community commitment, it would all be wasted.”
“Everything that’s happened here has been as a result of the commitment and investment of the community.”
- Anthony Vandy, Concern
Harnessing the power of ‘C’
There’s a list of official acronyms to describe the work that has gone on here, and it’s no accident that many of them begin with the letter ‘C’. Community Led Total Sanitation is a tried and trusted way to encourage communities like Dokoizia to end open defecation and adopt safe hygiene practices.
“It’s not just about building toilets and hoping people use them,” according to Anthony. “Yes, there are well-constructed latrines, with soap and tippy-taps and a clean water source, but more importantly there has been a collective change of behaviour – because the community understands how it can make life better for everyone.”
And that change is a fundamental one which has drastically impacted the health of the community.
“For two years now, almost nobody here has had diarrhoea.”
- Kokula Zaza, Town Chief of Dokoizia
The reduction in incidence of diarrhoea is a big deal, in a context where simple ailments can kill people in a frighteningly short space of time. And it’s a message that’s echoed around the village. Mama Koveva, a mother of seven, tells us “Big changes here – no smell of faeces… no diarrhoea.”
Community savings and loans
If that ‘C’ is about survival, the next ‘C’ is about prosperity. The Community Savings and Loan Association (CSLA) is essentially a version of the hugely successful Credit Union movement. Members deposit small amounts of money and, when they have built up a good credit record, they can take out a loan to help with a specific purpose. It’s simple and it works.
Nearby, in the village of Dadazu, Varbah Jenneh shows us around her shop, which is attached to the family home. “Before we joined the CSLA we were just doing farming and would sometimes sell a little extra produce to get money,” she says. “Joining was good for me.”
Varbah and her husband used their loan to buy products like sugar, biscuits, batteries and palm oil and their little retail business has become a success. They built a new house and extension for the shop.
“I used some profits [from the CSLA] to pay for two of my children to go to school. Next I want to put a zinc roof on our cookhouse.”
- Varbah Jenneh, participant in the CSLA in Dadazu
Varbeh and her husband still farm and are members of the local Farmer Field School, which sadly for the purposes of this article doesn’t begin with a C, but which operates on the same principle as the other community initiatives. Farmers come together for training in new techniques and crops, hosted by Concern, and then raise collective plots from which they can learn, harvest crops, and get seeds for next season.
“Since our grandfathers time we would drink from the creek and be sick,” says Chief Zaza. “Now we have clean water, latrines, a feeder school for the younger kids, there is no garbage and no sickness. We have a lot to thank Concern for.”
That’s nice of you Chief, but we certainly didn’t do it alone…
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