Two things immediately strike you when you arrive in the village of Thigbonor in Lokomasama chiefdom: the place is extremely tidy, and the high street is almost deserted. After a four hour drive from Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, we park under a large banana plant, and follow people’s indications to the outskirts of the village. I’ve been caught out before in West Africa when villagers promise “a short walk” under a hot sun, but in this case within two minutes the trees have given way to large open grassland and we quickly find much of the village digging, weeding and planting the rich brown soil.
If it wasn’t already apparent that this is one organised village, a cardboard sign next to the road spells out what’s going on. With the help of the men, women and youths actively at work, this patch of land is being transformed into a village okra and pepper garden under the guidance of the ‘VDC’ or Village Development Committee.
“This sort of VDC thing wasn’t existing before,” the village headman and chair of the VDC, Aboubakar Kamara, tells me during a short break from hoeing. He says it was during the Ebola outbreak, which was declared over on 7 November 2015, that the community started to work together.
This village of around 700 people was a hotspot for Ebola infections, with at least 25 confirmed deaths. During the quarantine period imposed on the village, crops ripening in the fields went to waste because villagers weren’t allowed to leave their homes.
Now, through the VDC, they are getting back on their feet. The villagers work together on Thursdays and Sundays to implement the community action plan they have drawn up, which is proudly displayed on a notice board in the centre of the village. Their initial priorities are the agricultural project to re-launch food production, a toilet block, and also a scheme to encourage the continual practice of hand-washing as a safe-guard against Ebola and other deadly diseases. Each home has a hands-free ‘tippy tap’ hand-washing station made within the village from a jerry can, string and a wooden frame.
Community groups – like development committees, neighbourhood watch groups, and village taskforces – were a key part of the successful response to the Ebola outbreak. The government and agencies like UNICEF hope to build upon the achievements of the past 18 months. Chiefdom and village development groups have existed in Sierra Leone in various forms since colonial times, though many are no longer in operation. A mapping exercise commissioned by UNICEF in 2015 found that 31 per cent of over 1,200 VDCs were active (meeting at least once a month) across the country.
A UNICEF partner in Port Loko district, OXFAM, is working to revive the VDCs as a way for communities to gain more control and say over their development. Each VDC has around 11-13 members including the village headman, a chairwoman, religious and traditional leaders, school teachers, health workers, and youth representatives.
“People here felt they were not considered,” says OXFAM’s chiefdom coordinator Mohamed Bangura. “They would go to sleep and the next day someone had built a toilet in the community without asking or informing anyone.” Now, the idea is that when development actors come into a village they will take account of the community’s own development plan rather than imposing a project without consultation.
A short drive away in the village of Kambia 1, another VDC has made the village’s main road a priority to boost local industry. As we arrive, the entire community appear to be armed with shovels and pickaxes as they work to improve the road.
The male youth representative on the Kambia 1 VDC, Abdul Majid Kamara, tells me the Ebola outbreak taught them what they could achieve as a team. “We mobilized all the youth to organise the community and protect our village from sick strangers,” he told me. “If we’ve now defeated Ebola, it’s thanks to our working together.”
A nearby school project shows the power of community mobilization. The village members decided to construct their own school building without waiting for support. Once the foundations were laid and the structure was three bricks high, they received the support of the local MP, and the building is now almost complete. The abrupt change in brick colour from the initial local construction is testament to how the community started the project themselves before it received backing from the authorities.
Back in Thigbonor village, just as I’m leaving, I meet 19-year-old Yeanor Kamara, who lost her father and mother to Ebola, which she recovered from herself.
“As a survivor, I am optimistic and glad about the Village Development Committee,” she told me. “The whole village has come together. There are some things that we can do ourselves. We continue washing hands because we don’t want Ebola to return. It doesn’t cost us a thing and it stops illnesses. But we’re only subsistence farmers so we can’t do everything.”
She adds as we head off. “I miss my family, but these things give me courage.”
John James is a Communications Specialist with UNICEF Sierra Leone