By Allieu Christopher Moiwa (YES 2013-2014, Sierra Leone, placed with AFS-USA in Enterprise, OR)
My exchange year was the first time I left home for another country alone. But America has always been intriguing to me, so traveling to the U.S. was exciting. However, the initial feeling of excitement soon started to fade a little upon arriving to cold weather (it was “summer” in Oregon) and unfamiliar faces, food, and language. I was a bit intimidated to be the first African exchange student in my host school!
But as the days went by, with the help of my amazing host brother David Ribich, host sister Madison Ribich, host mom Geneva Reinheardt, and the wonderful people of Wallowa County, I started liking my new home, family, friends, and community. It started feeling much like home. I met very good people, from whom I learned as they did from me. I recall my first time seeing snow, hiking, going to basketball games, and running cross-country track and field. I realized many things during my stay — from better youth employment rates amongst my peers who had holiday jobs, to the entrepreneurial mindset of American youths, to community service as a way of giving back.
I was quick to relate these discrepancies with realities back home. When I returned home in 2014, in the height of the dreadful Ebola scourge, I looked forward to doing something to create a ripple of change in the young generation of my country by empowering youth through entrepreneurship and agriculture.
Sierra Leone grapples with staggering figures of youth unemployment, while vast spreads of arable farmland remain untilled. This led me to apply for a YES Alumni Grant with four other young people from the Methodist Association of Youth Fellowships Bo/Kenema District and a youth employee from the Ministry of Agriculture. From April to August, our project engaged 50 youths to cultivate 15 acres of land with groundnuts and corn. Read more about this phase of our project here.
After we harvested the crops in August, we used the proceeds from the crop sales to organize a social entrepreneurship training for 80 of our farming volunteers and persons with disabilities in October. Then we provided microloans to a handful of participants with viable business ideas. With the skills they acquired during training, all those who were granted loans were successful in launching their small businesses and were able to pay back the principal on the loan as agreed.
In December, after the repayment of the participant microloans and the sale from the second harvest, we had a series of engagements with people in the disability community in Bo and Kenema Districts. These events promoted advocacy on disability rights and celebrated the amazing skills and contributions people with disabilities can offer our society. Though COVID-19 prevented us from holding some of the fun activities, like sports, that we had earlier planned, we were nevertheless able to hold a holiday gift drive and a few gatherings following local social distancing guidelines.
The success of this project is easy to measure. Our initial harvest resulted in numerous community benefits, from the skills, mindset, and insight gained by our young participants to the social barriers broken through education on disability rights.
I would especially like to thank the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, American Councils for International Organization, my recruitment organization iEARN, and my placement organization AFS-USA for shaping my life and dreams. I’m thankful for my amazing team for all the sacrifices and passion put into the project, the people in the communities in which we worked, and everyone who supported us in making this project a reality. I am forever grateful for the privilege and opportunity I have had to bring about change.