Walk this way: Helping orphans thrive in Sierra Leone

By Katherine Cassidy

Know how to make a group of mostly teenage girls giggle? Ask them to show off their best silly walks. After demonstrating my own best silly walks the other day, I suggested this to two dozen girls in Sierra Leone. They responded with spunk. They laughed more that morning than they had laughed in months.

They didn’t know that four decades before, when I was 14 myself, I was captivated by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. And at times since, when I need a reason to smile, I think of John Cleese and his silly walks. It left an impression on me and the world back in the 1970s. Clearly, it has meaning today, too.

The girls I have been meeting with daily in August are all orphans living in Kambia, a town of 60,000 on the border with Guinea. It’s a most unusual place where I find myself just now. I am three years out of serving in the 126th Maine Legislature, and five years into widowhood.

Our lives take meandering turns, sometimes unexpectedly, other times intentionally. Mine has taken me from Washington County, where I have lived since 2003, across the Atlantic to West Africa. I have relocated to Sierra Leone for the next year because in June, I happened across this one particular orphanage in Kambia. It has yet to open its doors; that is expected to happen in September, in time for the start of the new school year. Right now, they are building the beds to house as many as 30 girls, ages 8 to 17.

For the last two years, I have been fortunate to do six volunteer assignments with Catholic Relief Services and its USAID-supported Farmer-to-Farmer program. I have been teaching leadership skills and group dynamics to farmers’ cooperatives — twice in Kenya, three times in Uganda and most recently in Sierra Leone.

Initially, during my assignment last June, I considered Sierra Leone the most challenging place I had ever been, both physically and emotionally. The heat and humidity were a sweltering, unforgiving combination. There is no power to recharge laptop or mobile phone batteries, except by generator at night. There is no refrigeration, and food options are mostly white rice with fish sauce. Cold showers are the norm in a guesthouse, and toilets tend not to work. There are harsh limitations and few comforts.

But the harshest reality is seeing a landscape of nothing but poverty, day after day. Farmers walk miles along the road to reach their plots, hoes over their shoulders. Children carry firewood in bundles on their heads. Schools are the most basic of buildings, with benches and desks but no textbooks. Women sell groundnuts or okra in the marketplace to earn enough to provide the family’s next meal. If there is no money, there is no food that night.

Sierra Leone isn’t on Americans’ emotional radar. We have forgotten about the civil war between 1991 and 2002. Just a dozen years into the country’s rebuilding and recovery, the Ebola virus disease made for a devastating setback in 2014 and 2015. We Mainers learned about Ebola in Sierra Leone in October 2014, when an Ebola nurse returned to Fort Kent and Governor Paul LePage ordered her quarantined, weeks before his re-election. (She refused, and the Ebola caregivers were honored as Time magazine’s Persons of the Year weeks later).

For all its tragedies and sadness, Sierra Leone fascinated me from my first moment. I felt drawn here. During my work with the farmers in the rural village upcountry, I realized I was truly needed and appreciated.

Keeping in mind this soon-to-open orphanage in Kambia that I had visited in June, I made plans over the summer to return to Sierra Leone in August. I wanted to make a difference, to change the world. Impossible, of course. There is simply too much to care about, and no one can change everything. But I can choose one thing to care about, such as these orphan girls who are waiting for the orphanage to open in September. At the least, I can work to change the culture around me. Every day, I can do small things to make others feel better, to smile or to laugh.

And that’s why I’m telling these 30 orphan girls about silly walks. All of them are full orphans. Four are Ebola orphans. All are currently living with family members who, too often, see them as a burden on the households. They are asked to do excessive domestic tasks, while the family’s other children sit by. If they complain, their food is withheld. They have poor school results, because they are unable to study at night because they have no lights.

All of which is why this orphanage will change lives, and save lives. The girls will live in a protected place, a community of love and support. They will have two hours a day to study, and it’s lights out — by the generator — at 10 p.m. They will have breakfasts of bread and eggs, and suppers of rice in the evening.

The next step is getting the rooms ready, four girls to a room. The bed frames constructed by a local carpenter now need mattresses and bedding — sheets, pillows, blankets. We estimate that $50 will allow us to finish one girl’s bed so she can move in. The girls will become their own chosen family. They will start the school year living in a healthy, happier environment than where they live now.

The Touch the Sky Orphanage enables these girls to reach for their dreams. The orphanage is registered with the Kambia District (our state equivalent), and Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. But, our budget for opening is tight. If you can help us reach our goal of $1,500 for the bedding for our 30 girls, we would be most appreciative. Checks may be sent to Touch the Sky Orphanage, care of Katherine Cassidy, 5 Somersville Ave., Lubec, ME 04652.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep the girls laughing, on their way to thriving.

Former state Rep. Katherine Cassidy began her work in Maine as an Ellsworth American reporter in 2001 and 2002.

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