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Sierra Leone, a lush tropical country on the west coast of Africa, boasts beautiful beaches, picturesque mountains, and some of the richest natural resources and mineral deposits (including diamonds) in the world. Ironically, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with tremendous inequality in income distribution. It consistently ranks as one of the least developed countries on the United Nations Human Development Index—which measures countries' health, education, and income. It also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world (children dying before reaching age 5). Malaria is widespread and malnutrition is rampant, especially among the children.
Coupled with this overwhelming poverty, from 1991–2001 Sierra Leone was center stage to a devastating ten-year rebel war in which tens of thousands of people were killed and an estimated one million people were forced from their homes and villages—many raped, tortured, and/or conscripted into rebel forces. The war destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and has left its indelible scars, most notably on the children—leaving 320,000 children orphaned.
About 90 percent of Sierra Leone’s population is descended from the numerous ethnic groups native to Africa (the country contains sixteen recognized tribes each with its own language and costume), Mende being the largest, comprising 30 percent of the population. The remaining 10 percent are descendents of freed slaves called Krios from the West Indies and the US, who came to Sierra Leone in the late 1700s.
While English is the official language of Sierra Leone, only a small minority speak it. Krio, a derivative of English, was introduced to Sierra Leone by the Krios centuries ago and continues to be the common language throughout the country today.
Although approximately 99 percent of the Krio population are followers of Christianity, only 30 percent of the population of Sierra Leone are Christian. The majority (60 percent) are Muslim or followers of Islam. Ten percent hold to African indigenous religions.
The Way of Life
Most of the population lives in rural farming communities. A typical family dwelling in Sierra Leone is a mud-walled home with a dirt floor and a thatched roof. Cooking is done by outdoor fire. Laundry, washing, and bathing are done in the nearest river or with water hauled from the closest water source.
The majority of Sierra Leonean families rely on subsistence farming for survival, complemented occasionally by fish, chicken, or “bushmeat” (miscellaneous wild game ranging from mice or rats to monkey or larger game). A typical family’s diet consists of rice, cassava root, and leafy greens.
Running water and electricity are non-existent for the overwhelming majority of the population.
Polygamy, the practice of one man marrying multiple wives, is still common in Sierra Leone, resulting in some families having many children.
In family life it is not uncommon to share a home with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and/or in-laws. There is great respect in this culture for elders (and wisdom) in the family and community.
Since most families are barely able to grow enough food to feed themselves, let alone produce a surplus to sell and generate an income, malnutrition is rampant, especially among the children. Half of the population is chronically undernourished.
The high orphan population has created an undue burden on extended families who are barely able to provide for their own children, let alone children of their deceased relatives. Any child who has lost one parent is considered orphaned. If double-orphaned (a loss of both parents), generally the child will go to live with any relative willing to take them in. This can cause relatives to be overburdened. Widows and elderly grandparents are often left no choice but to take in children they cannot properly provide for, sometimes a dozen or more. Many orphans are taken advantage of, abandoned, rejected, and in some cases left to fend for themselves.
Sierra Leone has one of the lowest average household incomes in the world with more than half the population living on less than $1.25 per day, which leaves few resources to purchase basic necessities. As income is only one measure of poverty, the UN suggests that in fact three-quarters of all Sierra Leoneans live in multidimensional poverty.
Access to healthcare is severely limited, especially in rural areas, and completely non-existent in some communities. Every day, children and adults die from non-life-threatening diseases or treatable/preventable conditions that have turned fatal.
The advancement of education faces two major hurdles in most Sierra Leonean communities. First, it is not readily accessible, either due to distance or lack of financial means (for school fees, uniforms, etc.). And second, it is not necessarily valued by the culture, especially for girls. Many families prefer (or need) their children to work in the fields to contribute to the survival of their family.
Children of the Nations' Involvement: Raising children who transform nations
Children of the Nations has a unique approach to the problems facing the population of Sierra Leone. It is a vision that acts now to affect the future. Children of the Nations recognizes the future of any country is in the hands, minds, and souls of its children. Through Village Partnership Programs and Children’s Homes, Children of the Nations has established a daily presence in the communities we minister to, providing resources (including schools, medical clinics, feeding centers, health initiatives, etc.) that empower Sierra Leoneans to raise their own children. In partnership with the people of Sierra Leone, Children of the Nations’ vision is to develop a generation of future leaders and secure for Sierra Leone a future and a hope.