Discovery Innovation Advocacy
Special thanks to the following people and their respective units for helping to make this important trip possible.
Dr. Paul McNamara, Associate Professor College of ACES, UIUC
Dr. Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela, Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies, UIUC
Mike Doyle, Executive Director, University YMCA, Urbana-Champaign
Sam Smith, Director of Civic Engagement and Social Practice, Krannert Center
Dr. Stephanie Craft, Head, College of Media, UIUC
David Ivy, Business Admin, UIUC
Reaching, Partnering and Connecting with Communities
History of Njala and Illinois
In 1963, the government of Sierra Leone and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) assessed the needs of Sierra Leone in agriculture and education. On the basis of their recommendations, the government established Njala University College in the mold of an American Land Grant University. Technical assistance was provided by USAID, with the University of Illinois as the implementing partner. Faculty from the College of ACES taught at Njala during its formative years and several graduates of Njala came to Urbana-Champaign to pursue graduate degrees. Njala University was displaced from its rural location in 1994 when many of its facilities were destroyed during the Sierra Leonean civil war. As a result, faculty and students set up in Freetown, and Njala University was officially deemed an independent university in 2005. In recent years, the university has made great strides in rebuilding and expanding its main campus in the Moyamba District. The University of Illinois and Njala University currently host a number of joint activities through their academic partnership. These include workshops, seminars and training focused on nutrition, food security, food processing, agribusiness and sustainability. This partnership between the University of Illinois and Njala University creates many opportunities for students, faculty and staff to collaborate with one another through study abroad programs or research projects carried out in Sierra Leone.
On the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign - Urbana, there are special programs with special missions. One such program is the AgReach program and the Study Abroad program out of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, also known as ACES. On the final leg of my trip, I met up and worked with Dr. Paul McNamara, the director and founder of AgReach and his study abroad class. His course focuses on sustainability in Sierra Leone. After digging a little deeper into the soil of its beginnings, I found out that the program is as special as the mission and the people involved. Check out this video to learn more about the background of this program and interviews from key people on the campus of UIUC.
This trip was a lot of fun! A lot of Work! And filled with a lot of Information! There were times that I felt, unbeknownst to us, that we were on a reality show about surviving in the the beautiful brushes. While other times, I felt that I was on one of the best vacations I could imagine. With both, Dr. Paul McNamara, the director and founder of AgReach and Amber Martin, my present day Pippi Longstocking sheroe, there to help us navigate through this study abroad program, I knew I was good with either one of these scenarios and more. What surprised me most was that this opportunity is offered every year to students at UIUC! It has been like a hidden gem that more people need to know about. What a great opportunity for students! The AgReach program out of ACES is just impressive and I got to see what this special study abroad program is all about. Everywhere the class went, I went…Banana Island, Makeni, Bo, even a cool chimpanzee sanctuary, just to name a few! Now, through story, sound and sights, you will see what I saw and experienced, by taking your own tour of this amazing program offered to students at the University through my eyes.
One of the main purposes of this particular study abroad trip to Sierra Leone was to work with individuals from WorldFish. WorldFish is an international, nonprofit research organization that harnesses the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to strengthen livelihoods and improve food and nutrition security. Globally, more than 1 billion people obtain most of their animal protein from fish and 800 million depend on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. Drawing literature from their website, WorldFish has headquarters in Penang, Malaysia, and offices in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. WorldFish’s mission is to harness the potential of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce poverty and hunger in developing countries. WorldFish leads the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-food Systems (FISH), which focuses on improving the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture to reduce poverty and improve food and nutrition security. At the time of this publication, they are engaged in 149 Research projects and have 7 Country offices. WorldFish is a member of CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future. Founded in 1975, this organization conducts research in:
Developing sustainable fisheries and aquaculture that are vital to reducing hunger and poverty for millions
Developing sustainable, productive fisheries and aquaculture to improve food and nutrition security
To increase income and improve livelihoods
Promote economic growth
Protect our environment and natural resources
Working with WorldFish was an important part of this part of the AgReach program and called for a step by step process outlined and mapped by Dr. McNamara. So, first, there is the goal of bringing entrepreneurship and employment to villagers and their communities in remote areas. By creating fish farms and raising healthy fish, villagers can then take their fish to market to sell. This form of business can really be beneficial for not only families and communities, in general, but for women, specifically. In a way, this process can level the playing field between the sexes. We had a lot of land to travel and villages to visit that included undeveloped roads in many instances, no voicemail on the phones of most Sierra Leoneans and undiscovered or unplanned "happenings" for which we cannot always be prepared. On the other hand, what we did have was a navigational map of movement and engagement for every day and step of our entire trip. Does this sound like a ...yikes! ... oh no! .... really? now what?! type of trip to you? Sure it does, from the perspective of someone who has never been! But, I am happy to tell you that the planning execution by McNamara and Amber was beautiful to see and easy to follow. So, let's get on with the study abroad adventure.
I want you to have this experience in a special way. I am going to take you on, what they call "excursions of immersions" one step at a time through my eyes, but through, mostly, natural sound. This way you can see what was happening without a lot of narration about every little thing. Just watch, listen and enjoy! You will see that this course is about working hard, playing hard and immersing yourself into every aspect of the culture.
The whole idea that Dr. McNamara had in mind was for the students, along with Sierra Leoneans who were already doing work with World Fish, to deliver video tutorial presentations about the benefits of fish farming for economic development, sustainability and independence. The trick or challenge I should say was how to share this information in villages that had no electrical power. This is when I kind of came in. McNamara and Amber Martin had battery operated projectors and screens to project video tutorials located on laptops or thumb drives. Because of my background in broadcast journalism and documentary storytelling, I was able to help advise them on technical issues and solutions. OK, check that off. Now, onto the next foreseeable challenge, where to show the tutorials in remote villages where there are no advanced or even average venues to hold these presentations? So, here comes the idea of using walls or sheets or a screen of some kind. There was a plan, but already, we were learning that you have to be open to adjusting and adapting from village to village. The students were getting really good experience in this part of the critical thinking. They were also trained on how to use the equipment and how to present the training and educational videos in a cohesive and easy to follow way. The students were excited and part of the conversations throughout the processes. It was really nice to see.
In order to understand what the fish farms are all about, McNamara set up a meet and greet at an active fish farm so that students could see what really happens with the process from start to finish. From the ponds outdoors to smaller "ponds" indoors, the students learn how charting, timing, and scheduling are all important to creating healthy results.
Extensions into Makeni Villages
We met in Makeni to begin preparing for our trips to the remote villages of Makumbu, Mabayla, Mattel, Bumbuna, and Kamathor. The roads to the villages were really rough...but the warm welcome we received from each village was smooth and inviting. Every audience seemed to listen intensely and had a lot of questions. The languages used for the videos were in English and Temne. A translator was used when we visited a village that spoke only Limba. At times, some translated what the questions were as well as the answers so that the villagers would know and understand the process of fish farming showcased in the tutorials. There were full, intense, long days of working in the villages, but, none of the students complained. I believe it gave them great satisfaction knowing that they were a part of a process that could help other human beings. Traveling to these remote areas also allowed each student the opportunity to understand the importance of economic development and sustainability for these communities. The students were really hands-on in every village and actually set up the projectors, did any type of trouble-shooting that was needed to stay on schedule and helped with question and answer. Sometimes, it meant for us to change locations or buildings where the sun shining through a window offered the brightest light in the villages. Sometimes they had to help take Christmas decorations down or enter into a church to do the tutorials because that was the building that held the most seats. I mean, there was a lot going on...all the while, trying to stay on schedule, while the batteries lasted. Here's a snapshot of our visits followed by a natsound piece to take you there....vicariously, through our lens. You will hear conversations that are really important in this type of collaboration thanks to WorldFish field staff, Sheka Alieu Sesay and Jumatu Koroma and local villagers and translators. Both, the women and men, in the villages the students presented to were outspoken. Which is a good thing.
Kent Beach, Banana Islands & Dublin
Dublin Island Part 2
Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary
Tiwai Island is a wildlife sanctuary and tourist site in Sierra Leone. Run by the non-governmental organization, Environmental Foundation for Africa, Tiwai is 12 square kilometers in area and located on the Moa River in the Southern Province. It is also one of the largest inland islands in the country. According to its website, Tiwai is a community conservation program, managed by the Tiwai Island Administrative Committee (TIAC), which represents both communities, government, Universities & conservation organizations. All funds raised go towards running the project as well as supporting the Community Development Fund, to help finance community initiated programs. Tiwai in Mende language means big island and is Sierra Leone’s first community conservation program. It has one of the highest concentration and diversity of primates in the world with 11 species. We stayed on the island, underneath the stars, trees, and sounds of wildlife running from limb to limb over our heads. Our tour guides took us on real-life hikes early in the morning or at night to try and catch the wildlife in action. I mean we really roughed it ... sleeping in tents, walking through the thick woods and brushes searching for and hoping to see a glimpse of various species watching us, while we were watching them. We enjoyed a wonderful night of dancing with the good people of Makali and members of a women's group and a delicious dinner made by a special woman in the community named, Gladys. No one told me about the beautiful scenic views that would encase us daily. And no one told me that, after playing some Mende songs on my laptop, that I would find myself dancing with a group of very special Mende people ... my people! Truly Amazing!
According to their website, the winter break study abroad course out of ACES "provides students with first-hand exposure to issues of food security, public health and nutrition, and the practice of development. This program is an excellent opportunity to study international health and nutrition in English while experiencing and living in a rich West African culture. The program puts you in direct contact with the social and economic realities of actual students and communities and of people working within them to improve public health, nutrition, and water and sanitation in Sierra Leone. The program is part of a long-standing collaborative effort between the University of Illinois and the Njala University in Sierra Leone and some courses will include Njala University’s honors students." I got a chance to be a part of this course and a lot more! We presented workshops (I directed an on-hands workshop on digital/multimedia storytelling, publications and distribution, the importance of branding, and digital content creation for development and sustainability education and research and project collaboration and sharing), worked on multimedia projects together, had morning lectures discussing acclimation to our surroundings with respect to Salone and her people (an important and vital conversation), and cooked a meal from scratch with a warm and welcoming woman named, Mrs. Tijani who has a long connection with Njala and Dr. McNamara. Check it out!
Tacugama is an amazing chimpanzee sanctuary. I always say, everyone has a story and after seeing this place of protection and growth, I can, most definitely, include chimpanzees. According to their website, the primary objective of the sanctuary is to enforce the wildlife laws of Sierra Leone and provide a safe and natural haven for rescued chimpanzees. Their ultimate goal is to release these special friends back into the wild after receiving special rehabilitation. I loved the fact that we were ending our study abroad program with a visit to Tacugama because it felt natural, almost like the way the team treated and cared for the chimpanzees exemplified the way that we, humans, should care for one another. Building each other up so that we can live and survive as we are, naturally and authentically. The lodging and management were both pleasant and Amber Smith saw to it that we had plenty of water and delicious meals, made organically, of course. Just like when we visited Tiwai Island, I loved sleeping under the stars while hearing nature all around me. When you have a moment, you should plan to visit this sanctuary and learn of their beginnings and future sustainability projects and goals. In the meantime, you can visit their website and enjoy the sights and sounds of the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary through my lens....
Last & First Step: Heading Home
There are a number of other missions I conducted during my trip that I have not written about, extensively, in these blog articles. Women empowerment, sexual abuse, health and disease, youth empowerment, economic sustainability and outsourcing moving in, the influence of western influence, and how poverty continues to play a direct role in the health of Salone, Africa and its people. There is also a lack of educational opportunities that still need to be addressed. These issues are ongoing in every corner of the world, including Salone, and I know she will continue to persevere. Throughout my journey, I was reminded of what makes Salone and Africa so special: the feeling of community, courage, warmth, optimism and relentless effort to constantly strive to improve the future. I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
I wish Dr. McNamara and his cohort Amber Martin, as well as important staff, faculty, and administrators, here and abroad, who work so diligently to make a difference, continued clarity as to their purpose and mission. Under the leadership of Dr. McNamara, his team and the number of students who join in this effort by taking the study abroad course, I wish nothing but great success. As they continue to write their own stories of transformational change to sustain and develop structures that empower and support communities through collaboration, I will, fondly, remember my trip of discovery with AgReach. To Yorin Anggari, Josephy Bleyer, Christina Cannova, Kristin Iverson, Veronica Laird, Riley Maloney, Justin Mann, Abigail Mongan, Rachel Mullen and Gabriella Prado, I know that your view of the world has been enhanced through this unique, learning experience and I wish you nothing but continued expansion of knowledge and success in your endeavors. I enjoyed my time with you.
I am also grateful that, just by circumstance, most of the areas we traveled were of the Mende tribe, a tribe within my lineage via DNA. This happenstance allowed me to continue my exploration and research on Self, its location, knowledge and design. This journey also allowed me to see individuals, from all levels, working with others towards a common, global objective of thriving. It is a feeling that simply feels good. I hope you, the reader, enjoyed the digital journey that I have produced to share the experience with you and I hope one day, you too, will have an opportunity to not only see the world, but, change the world for good, in whatever capacity comes your way. Perhaps your next step will be found in a special location on the campus of the U of I called ACES.
Thank you for visiting.
Dr. Janice Marie Collins
Check out the wonderful pictures and videos captured by members of the AgReach excursions!
Dr. Paul McNamara
Ms. Yorin Anggari
Ms. Rachel Mullen
Ms. Abigail Mongan
A couple of students used their phones to record reflections of their trip...what they learned, what was challenging, and what was so unique and awesome about the Study Abroad Course...in their own words.
Journalist, Digital Content Creator, Documentarian, DEBI-P Instructional Specialist, Educator, Scholar, Researcher, Creative, Director, NIL Advisor, Motivational Speaker & Humanitarian for Social/Global/Professional & Personal Impact of Positive Inclusion & Empowerment.
Phone: 877-644-7844 757-751-0860