I'm here in Sierra Leone conducting research with UCL on the development of urban risk traps in Moyiba, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capitol city of Freetown. Staring into that fire was one of many points in this journey where the challenges have felt insurmountable, and my presence here as a student felt inconsequential. I visited a primary school where two teachers taught packed classes side by side in one windowless, unlit room. I watched as women and children queued for hours to fill jugs of non-potable water at public taps. I stood at the bottom of piles of rubble that were once homes.
Yet as the weeks have gone on, it has become clear that these challenges are dwarfed by positive actions of the communities here. In my short time here, I’ve met community leaders who have taken in kidnapped and orphaned children and offered them an education and a home; law and business students taking time away from their own studies to work as primary school teachers for no compensation; women’s savings groups coming together each week to put money away to protect each other from rainy days and support female entrepreneurship; organizations of young men who have taken it upon themselves to protect their communities from crime in unpoliced areas; and communities who look out for one another and share the load: of peanuts, water, laundry, life.
This power of community mobilization became clear in the focus groups and interviews we held throughout our field work. Though there were numerous community groups addressing various challenges in Moyiba, few were working together or even aware of each other’s existence. By bringing them to the same table, we created a space for collaboration and the new opportunities it provides. Savings groups realized the possibilities of investing in community projects; homeowners were introduced to members of the disaster risk management committee and their process for reviewing homes for risk; youth groups were given the opportunity to voice their concerns alongside chiefs and community leaders. All we had to do was provide space for the conversation.
So though I have still felt inconsequential at times - a fly on the wall witnessing positive change, scribbling thoughts in my notebook - I now see a path to support the work being done here by lifting up and uniting the voices of community members. Creating that space to connect was, in fact, consequential. If I have learned one thing to take home with me from the people of Moyiba, its that when we lift each other up, anything is achievable.