We met a community group in Tombo, a seaside village outside of Freetown, assembled inside the local meeting hall. The group included the village chief, adult representatives, and many young people-the men were mostly ex-combatants, and young women who had been taken captive during the war. The meeting started with a group prayer, first for the Muslims, and then for the Christians. I bowed my head during the Muslim prayer, and then recited the Lord's prayer with the Christians. There was so much positive energy in the air that I knew we were in a special place-and, I was told, a place that had experienced a great change.
Local authorities originally asked for the USAID-sponsored Youth Reintegration Training and Education for Peace (YRTEP) intervention for the ex-combatants in their village because they said that after the war, they were "troublesome"--although they had disarmed, the young people had no cohesion as a group and often quarreled and picked fights, stole food from local residents during the night, and found themselves idle within the community with no constructive occupations or job skills. Many had lost their parents during the war and found themselves incharge of their younger siblings with no means to make ends meet.
A wise village leader, Robert Momoh Bendu, Vice-Chairman of the CMC, along with World Vision staff persuaded young people to take the USAID-sponsored "Education for Peace" training program. Through a series of training modules developed by Management Systems International and taught through a training of trainers' approach, young men and women, either ex-combatants and other war-affected youth chosen to participate were provided with non-formal education activities through training modules that emphasize self-discovery, healing, health and well-being, judicious use of the environment, democracy, good governance, and conflict management. Youth were given counseling and empowered with the self-knowledge necessary to allow them to reintegrate successfully back into their communities, develop appropriate job skills, and develop basic literacy and numeracy skills.
The meeting continued with testimony from both participants in the program, as well as community leaders. Says elder Komayi Koroma, Tombo Administrative Secretary, "In Tombo, we have trained 600 participants in the YRTEP training program. Out of the training, we were able to form a community group organization called "Youth of Urgent Thoughts Honor and Service" and have established an FM radio station called FM 96 Peninsula Station to advocate for community needs. Radio awareness messages on health care, HIV/AIDS, and sewage disposal have been going out to our community. The youth are also making people aware about issues affecting youth, about empowering women within the community, and talking about human rights, peace, and development."
Koroma was also proud of the fact that out of the 32 villages in the Tombo community, eight of the current "head men" or community leaders were participants in the YRTEP training. "The program is helping us make good leaders within our communities, people who are taking their place as decision-makers among the elite." Says Koroma. "We did this program voluntarily, and the trainers have worked voluntarily. This program has been so good for the community."
Then we heard testimony from Learning Facilitator Titi Kargbo who said, "The program has given me something more valuable than money. I can now do a lot of things on my own--I can live in any type of community, I can do any type of work at any time. Now I can manage my stress with ease. We have developed a committee out of the YRTEP to promote tailoring, and the dress I have on now is one I made myself." Kargbo has set herself up now as a tailor, and would like to help other women in her community learn tailoring skills and help them obtain sewing machines to get them started.
Excombattant Victor Parma then told us: "I'm happy to be here on a day like today. While we were in the bush we were always thinking of bad things. From the time I have come back into this community, the impact the program has made on me is tremendous. After the training, I helped other ex-combatants learn about reintegration, and the importance of coming back into the society. I have also opened an adult literacy school so that older people can learn to read and write. I have also opened a new primary school in my community for 150 children, and I'm the headmaster." Most of the children attending Parma's school are from ex-combatant parents in the community.
While some have referred to Sierra Leone's youth as a "lost generation," USAID believes that for peace to be long lasting, the energy of this segment of the country's population must become a productive and constructive force for peaceful change and development. Since March 2000, approximately 45,280 war-affected youth and ex-combatants in over 2000 sites throughout Sierra Leone participated in USAID's Education for Peace Program.
By the end of FY 2002, more than 60,000 program participants completed community awareness and basic literacy training in their communities. In FY 2002, over 8,000 people were provided reintegration skills training in USAID's target districts of Kono, Kailahun and Koinadugu, and 33 broad-based Community Management Committees/Community Development Communities were formed.
CMC Vice-Chairman Bendu has helped the young people form a cohesive community, including the ex-combatants, many of whom, he told us, had decided during the training to form a fishermen's group, a project that he himself initiated. Says Bendu, "They're using the boat, and making a lot of money."
Community leaders worked with the youth to help channel each person toward an economically viable profession within the community. "What we realized during the training was that not all of the ex-combatants would become fishermen, so we needed to look for other avenues where other people could be farmers, gardeners or tailors. We created an avenue for each person to do something."
During the training sessions, a group of learning facilitators also had the idea of setting up a local radio station. Because of the Penninsula Mountain range separating Tombo from the capital of Freetown, local residents were unable to capture FM news from the capital and felt cut off. In order to share what they had learned with other in the community, and to make it easier for everybody to get and receive information, the young ex-combatants set up a simple resistor and transistor hooked up to a circuit board and made their own radio station. Diverse topics that are of community benefit are discussed on the air such as peace, community development, women's empowerment, literacy, and conflict management.
If the town meeting sounds something like an old-time revival, the testimony of the Education for Peace participants reaffirms it. Says Sorie Turay, an ex-combatant of ten years who has now become a "headman" in his community of Bonga Wharf, "The modules taught me that life was not an issue of wining or losing-it's a matter of how to amicably work together and live peaceably. I've gone from the bad side to the good, and I'm really convinced that I am someone who now must help develop my community."