BLOGGING FROM THE FIELD
February 11, 2012
The Spring semester has started here in Boston, but I still find myself thinking of Yele often. In an exciting recent development, one of our team members, Laila, moved to Sierra Leone to manage the project and be our eyes and ears on the ground. I debriefed her the best I could before her departure, and hearing of her adventures in Yele remind me that the work and growth have just begun.
And yes, I have to keep remembering that this is just the beginning. Before going to Yele, we had many high hopes about what we would accomplish. We thought we would finish the construction of Phase 1 and have the first businesses ready for the eventual move. But that’s easy to say when you’re 6,800 kilometers away.
While in Yele this IAP, we learned to be flexible with our expectations. Yes, we didn’t complete Phase 1 as hoped, but we were able to complete the concrete foundation, site work, and have all 4 shipping containers placed. By the time Anna left, the roof trusses and roof sheeting were being installed on site. People in the village could see that e-Luma had a physical presence, which instilled a greater degree of trust with the community. The general attitude towards new developments is, “That sounds great, but I’ll believe it when I see it.” And now they could see it, which was really quite important. It showed that we meant what we said, and opened more doors for conversations.
These conversations took place around tables with cold drinks in hand, on the construction site, in the middle of the street, under the awning of a local shop. It was perhaps these discussions that became the most valuable part of our experience. Yes, interviews and conversations are considered ‘work,’ but they are essentially relationship building. During lulls in the construction process, Anna and I spent a few days walking around the village to speak with the local shop owners and other community members. We essentially walked from store to store, carrying a brochure with a visual showing what e-Luma would look like and some details about the services we were providing.
Mr. Magee (pictured above) was one of these merchants. He owns a shoe store, selling products that originate in China but travel through Freetown to Makeni (the nearest large ‘city’). Every few weeks, he travels himself to Makeni to replenish his stock and see what new footwear is out there. He received us with a smile and asked what we were doing, so we explained to him the project and asked him his thoughts. He, like many others, had a tempered enthusiasm. It seemed great, but what about his existing store? How would he benefit?
Mr. Conteh was perhaps one of our sharper critics. I had spoken with his son the day before about e-Luma, but came by the next day to see if his father – the proprietor – was around and to collect the shop application form. I introduced myself and started explaining the project, but then he just cut me off and asked, “Stop. What is the point of this? What are you people trying to show me? What is your intention?” I then backtracked and realized that I needed to be more clear that e-Luma wanted to encourage both new and existing business owners to grow, not just get people to move into a new shopping center. We eventually got along quite well, but it was this initial resistance that helped me both think through the potential pitfalls of the project and let him and others know that we heard what they were saying. After all, this is about collaboration and we hope it will continue that way! Mr. Conteh, Mr. Magee, Mr. Turey, Alex, Barrie, and others became familiar faces in the course of our trip.
And we can’t forget our adopted family. Cecilia and Musa own a small shop that doubles as their family home. They sell items like cigarettes, mobile phone top ups, and stationary. Last year, the e-Luma team worked with them to do a solar lighting pilot, and this trip we continued that pilot with a new type of solar light and a new business model of renting per day. We visited them everyday to monitor the pilot, but in this time became fast friends. They are a very smart family with some of the most beautiful kids in Yele! They also took it upon themselves to teach us Temne, feed us Salone food, and attempt to braid (“plant”) our hair. Who could ask for better treatment or more hospitality?
All in all, I wanted to express my gratitude to the PSC for giving me the opportunity to go to Yele. I went expecting to complete a project, but what I got in return was much more than that: lessons learned about flexibility, patience, and collaboration, along with a healthy dose of good humor. And to top it off, the experience came with an Salone family that I can’t wait to visit with and work alongside again. Until the next time!
Emily is working with a team of students from MIT and Carnegie Mellon to establish the eLuma Development Center, which will bring electricity, entrepreneurship training, and a new marketplace to the village of Yele in Sierra Leone. This IAP, she will be partnering with the local community and the Lion Heart Foundation to begin construction. She will be training and working alongside local architects and construction workers on the first stages of the project, transforming recycled shipping containers into shops for the center’s first merchants.