Monday, August 2, 2010

The 2010 Global Minimum Distribution

I've had a few requests recently from various people hoping to see some pictures of this year's 2010 bed net distribution with GMin in Sierra Leone. I have well over 400 photos and therefore am unable to completely describe the whole experience in as much detail as I would like. Therefore, I will try my best to pick some of the most interesting pictures and put you into the body of an inhabitant of one of the poorest countries in the world. The streets are dirty, disease runs rampant throughout the country, unemployment is everywhere you look, and for the most part, the money that's available is kept within the hands of the corrupt government. Long story short: this country needs help; but we can improve it. Global Minimum (GMin) is only one of many NGOs actively engaged in the country as of now. I'll attempt to be as informative as possible, and give you a glimpse into (a) the culture of Sierra Leone and (b) the inner-workings of an NGO. Let's get started.

Welcome to Freetown. This is the country's capital on the coast of the Atlantic ocean. Mathias Esmann and I flew in to Lungi International Airport, and took a boat across to Freetown. The houses were dilapidated, the roads were dirty and unkept, and there were taxis everywhere.

The first couple of nights in the capital, prior to our departure to the rural villages south of Bo, Mathias and I slept in this guesthouse. The price was 80,000 leones per night, which equates to $20 USD. Hey -- at least there was a bed net and a bathroom. I'd take this over a Mariott anyday; THEY don't have bed nets!

At David Sengeh's house in Freetown, we met up with David and Sarah VanHorn, a student at the University of New Hampshire; she helped raise money for GMin as well, and helped with a bunch of the prep work the month before our big distribution. In the picture above I believe she's making kassava, one of the main food dishes in Sierra Leone.

And it's done! From the smile on her face and the camera in her hand it's evident she was proud of her cooking. If you were to come to Sierra Leone, you'd be seeing a lot of this dish. If your'e not a rice fan, you wouldn't survive in Africa.

Here's Ester (pronounced 'Est-ah'). She liked coke, and so we took a short walk from David's house in Freetown, and bought a couple. Here's a funny story though: When you buy bottles of soda from street vendors, make sure you either drink it on the spot, or return the bottles to the vendor when you're done with the soda. I figured this out the hard way: when Mathias and I were walking back to the house one night, two crazy ladies started yelling at me, mortified that they hadn't been given back their bottles. Why? It's a cultural thing; they take the bottles back and return them for money. You learn, you learn.

...For more pictures taken in Freetown, email me at I have videos from the beach, and many more pictures from the inner city...

After Freetown, the GMin group met in Bo, where David's mother lives. Bo is the second largest city in the country, located southeast of Freetown, within the inside of the country -- not on the coast, like Freetown is. Here's ye olde poda-poda -- aka the bus we took nearly every day to take ourselves AND the nets to the 40+ villages we distributed to.

Approximately 2.5-3 hours from Bo via poda-poda lied our final destination -- Sahn Malen. Sahn is the biggest village in the Malen Chiefdom, the chiefdom which was fully covered by the 2010 distribution. There we stayed for roughly two weeks.

From snakes to scorpions to giant spiders like this one, the villages in Sierra Leone were filled with the strangest of creatures. However they only make the distribution more interesting and exciting; it wouldn't be a West African experience without them.

The whole team consisted of two white guys (me and Mathias), David, a couple of his brothers, and the rest, who were local college students from Bo. They understood the local language, Mende, and were crucial in translation; without them, the language barrier would have been trouble, and the NGO would have been plagued with inefficiencies. Here, we're all sitting around the guest house in Sahn Malen, listening to David instruct us on what to do when we take nets to a village. This was training: Day One.

Before we did any distributing, we took the poda-poda and went and dropped off all of the nets we intended to distribute to a specific set of villages the day before. The next day, then, all we had to do was drive to the villages, and they'd be there, ready to go; we didn't have to do any extra transport. And it was really nice, all of the locals were really adept at carrying the bales of nets on their heads -- I wonder why we can't do that here in America. It's a lot more efficient than carrying things in your arms.

Now, to the good part: the actual distribution.

At each village we went to, we began the distribution with a town meeting. We called all the town locals together and explained to them exactly what we were gonna do. This is a crucial aspect that many NGOs overlook because without knowing how to use the nets properly, you don't know where they'll be when you come back to see if they're being used properly or not. They might be being used for fishing, or even worse, they may have been sold for a small amount of money. Being told exactly how to use them, and why it's important to cover yourself -- and your children (especially the under-fives and pregnant women) -- is very helpful.

Subsequent to the town meeting, the GMin team would generally break up into pairs and take five bundles of nets from the bale (one bale = 120 nets; one bundle = five nets), about thirty nets, to start. They'd then spread out and go to the individual households in the village and collect data...and finally distribute the nets. THIS, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where your donated money goes. I was there. I was at the distribution in Sierra Leone. The money goes directly to buying THESE nets for THESE villagers. And they're so appreciative.

We would then take crucial data. At each household we would record the following: the number of people living in the house, the number of pregnant women, the number of under fives, the number of old nets in the household, and the number of sleeping spaces. After 40+ villages, the data becomes more and more valuable. David was in charge of putting the data together and analyzing it. It's data that must be published and seen by the world. The numbers we took are statistics in their rawest form. Ever think of where articles from Time or Foreign Policy or Newsweek get their valuable statistics? They get them from small and large-scale research groups such as GMin.

In total, we distributed 10,500 LLINs (long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets), and achieved full coverage of EVERY sleeping space in the Malen Chiefdom. The Sierra Leonean government made a promise to its people that it would have full coverage of all of Sierra Leone by 2010. The 2010 GMin distribution only pressures the government to fulfill its promise. Why?
GMin did it. GMin took the data, and covered the people, completely with donations. The Sierra Leonean government has much money, definitely more money than GMin does. Therefore, it too can ensure full coverage. We did. The question? Whether it will go through with its promise or not. I guess we'll find out.

We were in Sahn Malen for approximately two weeks, talking and distributing to hundreds of people. There will be a distribution next year to finish the second chiefdom which we began. If the government covers its people, great. If, however, it doesn't, then GMin will have to continue to prove that it can, and absolutely should, be done.

There are many more stories I could tell and pictures I could show, but that was the distribution in a nutshell. If you have any questions, concerns, etc., don't hesitate to contact me at I'd be happy to talk with you and discuss the trip, or anything else, further. Here are a few more photos, for kicks:

Sunshine N' Suds: BGMI Car Wash

How many high school students do you know that would sacrifice a whole Sunday morning – in fact, a whole summer Sunday morning – to voyage to the local town center and run a car wash to raise money for mosquito nets? My guess: not too many. However, that’s exactly what happened yesterday afternoon between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm at Shaw’s supermarket, in downtown Manchester, Vermont.

The 2010-2011 school year hasn’t even started yet and the fundraising has already begun. Some BGMI members came straight from work, picked up a hose, and didn’t stop working until the supervisors at Shaw’s had to kick them out. Others made commutes of over an hour from home, committing their day to hard – but undoubtedly rewarding – work. Some weren’t even part of the service-learning initiative, and just came and helped because of the shining sun and friendly atmosphere. Parents, students, and even a generous amount of teachers from the local Manchester area came and supported our cause.

We set our price to $5 per car wash; one car wash would equate to approximately one mosquito net; one mosquito net (according to GMin data) covers approximately 2.3 people. We had a grand total of $260. Let’s do the math. That’s 52 cars washed (not quite, some donated more money than necessary, of course), 52 nets, and 120 villagers covered; that’s 120 less people who have to die from malaria each year. And how long did it take? Four hours at a food hub in Vermont. How much effort did it take? Not much – with so many BGMI members willing to partake in the work, the day was done before any of us knew it.

Africa’s already underdeveloped economy is further plagued by malaria. According to the June 21st issue of Time, malaria costs Africa nearly $12 billion a year – 1.3% of its economic growth (Alex Perry/APAC). I’d like to copy a small excerpt from that same Time article. It may appear a tad hyperbolic, but in my opinion, it works when you’re trying to convince an audience about the gravity of something like malaria:

“The history of malaria is a long one. Originating in West Africa, it spread to half of humankind by the mid-19th century and has killed tens of millions and infected hundreds of millions more, including eight American Presidents. Malaria played a role in stopping Alexander the Great in India. It contributed to the fall of Rome, the relocation of the Vatican and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. It still rages in the poverty-stricken world: it killed 863,000 people in 2008 – 89% of them African, and 88% of those people under 5.”

When an overwhelming majority of all malaria deaths come from sub-Saharan Africa (that’s Sierra Leone!), it’s evident that that’s the place to focus your attention when attempting to eradicate the beast we call malaria. And although $260 at a car wash won’t make up for Africa’s $12 billion annual loss due to malaria, it’s a start. It’s something. We’re generating future leaders, future humanitarians that may someday literally change the world as we know it. And it could have all started in high school in Vermont with a bunch of friends washing cars, with a goal in mind and a cause to pursue.

Photography: Courtesy of Amy Hammond, BBA '11