New business hope for Sierra Leone's war children

Farming in the remote bush of Sierra Leone is hard and punishing work.

Growing crops such as cassava, beans and sweet potatoes requires skill in the often dry and arid climate of West Africa.

Methods of farming in the region have traditionally been handed down from generation to generation.

But Sierra Leone's bitter civil war disrupted much of that transfer of knowledge.

War victims

Alpha Turay was barely five years old when the conflict began two decades ago.

The war forced his family to flee their village of Robaka, in northern Sierra Leone, and seek refuge in the bush.

It also robbed him - and his generation - of their childhood, and the chance to gain a livelihood.

However, a project being run by the charity War Child is aiming to change that.

Almost a decade after the war finally ended, the Dutch-based organisation is helping young Sierra Leoneans to re-learn traditional farming skills.

"The project is helping to educate us," says Alpha Turay. "We're learning agricultural activities - like how to plant crops.

"War Child also helped build a rice hauler for our community, so instead of pounding rice by hand now we have a machine. We're learning skills to earn a living."

Traditional skills

The village of Robaka is located deep in the interior of Sierra Leone.

A settlement of earthen brick buildings, it is surrounded entirely by palm forests and is at least a two-hour drive - over almost impassable roads - from the district capital.

Robaka's inhabitants are poor, but they've come a long way since the civil war, which ended in 2002 after claiming the lives of more than 50,000 Sierra Leoneans.

Image caption Alpha Kanu was just a few years old when Sierra Leone's civil war broke out

Life goes on as it always has done - with traditional methods of food production, and other skills, encouraged.

Profit motive

Overseeing War Child's work in the village is local Sierra Leonean Ibrahim Kamara.

He encourages Robaka's youths to see themselves as business-people and entrepreneurs in the making.

"We train them in how to do negotiating skills," says Mr Kamara. "Some of them are business people, but they still grumble about not having profit and the like."

"Whomsoever runs a business wants to maximise profit, and the maximisation of profit starts from negotiation," he adds.

'Helping us to forget'

The civil war left tens of thousands of youngsters across Sierra Leone without access to proper education.

Alpha Kanu, a 22-year-old from Robaka, was among them.

The conflict claimed the life of his father. Along with other youths in the village, he now attends school classes, but painful memories of the civil war remain.

"The rebels bombed our house, my uncle's arm was amputated, there was a lot of destruction within the family," he says. "I felt bad about my father's death. But now I've joined this programme and it's helping me to forget."

Alpha Kanu is also busy thinking about his future.

"I want to import goods, and if the chance permits, to buy and sell cars," he says.

Unlocking potential

As evening draws in at the end of another day, both in the fields and the classroom, Robaka's residents - young and old - gather to sing and dance.

Like original methods of farming, cultural traditions - all but forgotten during the war - are being re-learnt.

Sierra Leone's troubled past is being is confronted in places like Robaka.

Strife once brought about by war is being replaced with the hope that Sierra Leone's entrepreneurial potential - and future wealth - can be unlocked by the nation's youth.

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