MUDSLIDE DISASTER RELIEF PROJECT
Freetown, Sierra Leone
On August 14, 2017 an enormous section of a mountainous residential neighborhood collapsed after heavy rains causing a massive mudslide and avalanche of rocks killing over 1,000 people in the night.
The Inti Raym Fund was inspired by the news we received from Aljazeera like the article attached. Instead of just helplessly reading this horrific natural disaster, the Inti Raymi Fund stepped into action and arranged a trip there as soon as we could get our visas.
What we saw upon our arrival at the mudslide site was horrific and beyond words. The enormity volume of mud, rocks and debris which swept down the mountainside taking everything in its path was unimaginable. We saw what once were SUV vehicles, shredded and twisted into an almost unrecognizable pretzel shaped piece of trash. Shoes stuck partly out of the mud, knowing the victims’ bodies were just below the surface leaving us sick to our stomachs. We saw a 500kg boulder stuck in the side of a three story home 10m above the ground (see photo), tossed violently through the air like a toy marble. Rebar twisted like spaghetti where once a home foundation stood. Our images barely capture the absolute magnitude of the size of the mountainside totally removed and slid down many many kilometers downhill taking 100% of everything in its path.
After taking our needed documentation photos and videos, we then new we had to step into action and find those victims who had lost a member or an entire family, homes or both. This proved to be a bit of a challenge; however, this is what we do at the IRF…Challenges!
We instinctively first went to the disaster shelters established by the previously arrived first responders such as the national government of Sierra Leone and other international NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations or non-profits). What we soon found out is that although everyone at the shelters were in fact in need of medical, food, shelter, clothing assistance, the vast majority of these extremely impoverished people had been trained from previous natural disasters to react to the arrival of the International NGO’s and jump in line for anything they can get. Please keep in mind that Sierra Leone has among the lowest income citizens in the world with an average annual income of roughly $500/year. This flies in the face of the fact that it is one of the worlds largest exporters of gold and diamonds and many other precious minerals. “How is all this wealth being distributed?” This makes the situation for the IRF very difficult in that as much as we wanted to help everyone and arguable these people at the shelters are distressed too, we did have a specific mission to focus our energies and funds on the Mudslide Victims.
Fortunately we were well connected in the community with my good friend Jimmy who came along with us to Sierra Leone from the USA. Jimmy grew up in Sierra Leone and knows the streets like the back of his hand. He knows the people there, he knows the scams and the bull shit! One thing we have learned with the Inti Raymi Fund over the years is that there is no substitute for local expertise and most importantly, you must trust who you are working with. A quote I often use is “If you start right, you will finish right”. This great quote is from my late brother in law Mick Ward who was from Ireland. Accordingly, we enlisted the local expertise of Jimmy’s uncle Mohammed who lives in the immediate neighborhood of the victims. If and when you enlist those you trust who have a vested interest in truly helping others less fortunate, then you have the best chance of success.
Just prior to our arrival, Mohammed walked what was left of the mudslide neighborhood and met with those disaster victims and gathered the correct list of “actual victims”, those who lost loved ones, homes or both. In most cases, these people escaped with only the clothes on their backs or they were the lucky ones who happened to be out of the neighborhood that night when the mountain came roaring down.
After visiting with Jimmy & Mohammed, we then gathered the community of 50 victims from the list. Please keep in mind roughly 1,000 people were buried often with entire family units buried alive. We proceeded to have our first meeting with the victims, explaining who we were and why we were here…asking only one thing: “What do you need?” and “How can we Help?”. The Inti Raymi Fund never asks for anything in return but their success after we’re gone. This group was from the neighborhood or community; however, the swath of destruction was several kilometers long and these particular people were not previously connected until now with disaster and catastrophic loss. After the first introductory meeting, the group disbanded knowing their only assignment was to contemplate how our $25,000 gift was to be utilized by them. The options were limited only by their creativity and cooperation among the group.
As expected in a survival situation like this, all of the victims unanimously decided to collect their share of the $25,000 or $500/person in a cash distribution. Remember, our IRF message to recipients is “Respect and Dignity” above all else and it was impossible to know what everyone’s needs were in advance and bring these items. I don’t care how smart you are, no one but the victim knows what they need or want in a variety of global situations and circumstances. Delivering Respect and Dignity through handing them cash in hand, allows them the dignity to go procure the items they need or want is the best way to help people in our opinion. First of all, the locals know what they need and want, secondly, they can certainly purchase the items cheaper than any international NGO or governmental agency on the ground and thirdly, NOTHING gets stolen through graft and corruption which runs rampant in every country of the world when it comes to NGO work and Emergency Disaster Relief work. When there is a disaster, every one of these governments’ agents and officials “sharpen their saws” and direct as much of the international aid through their governments conduits, then steal by most estimates on the ground, an estimated 90% of the total foreign aid before it gets to the people. Haven been on the ground doing this with my personal money for over 6 years, and hearing first hand the pitch from governmental agents or agencies who encourage me to re-direct our funds through them, then listening afterwards to the locals begging us “not to use them since they’ll keep all of it”, has wised us up quickly. The only true way to know if the money gets in the hands of the victims or in a community you are helping is to be on the ground and hand them the currency or go with them to purchase items for their community. The second option would be to work with an agency with little to no overhead and those of have “skin in the game”, a vested interest in its success, or those who are putting their personal money into the communities like the IRF.
The following day we returned to our prearranged meeting place and asked the community what they decided since it was their project not ours. As expected, they all opted to take the $500 in cash per victim ($25,000/50 people = $500/person). Our organization and for that matter all NGO’s mission should be truly to help their recipients in the best way possible personally specific to the recipient. We listened and responded by personally going through the list of 50 victims who all showed up. With a somber smile and a quite thank you, each recipient gratefully received their share of the Inti Raymi Fund Project monies. It should be noted that although to you as the reader, this $500 may not appear to be a lot of money, in Sierra Leone, the average monthly pay is roughly $50, so this $500 equates to almost a year’s pay. This security blanket in their pockets will not fix their homes completely, not will it bring back their dead family members, but it will give them some breathing room to contemplate their next step in life and rest easy for a moment in this unforgettable period of their lives.
In as much as Disaster Relief Projects are not the main focus of the Inti Raymi Fund, we nonetheless felt we really made a huge difference in the lives of these unfortunate victims. We encourage you next time you see a disaster unfold on television and ask yourself “what can I do?”, now you know you can make a difference, just get out there do your best and give it a try!
Notwithstanding the psychological difficulties of this project, our team had a emotionally rewarding experience by being able to help those most in need with a very Respectful and Effective form of assistance. We hope our narrative above inspires you to reach beyond your comfort zone when you receive the call to action.
A special thank you goes out to my good friend Jimmy Koroma and his uncle Mohammed for their friendship and truly selfless participation in the service of others within their community.
Start Date: September 2017
Completion Date: September 2017
Funded so far: $25,000 USD
Total Project: $25,000 USD
Lives Affected: 52
Chimu, Mohammed & Jimmy