FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (BP) — Dirt works its way into the pores of calloused hands, pulling weeds on a three-acre hillside under a hot tropical sun. The hillside is steep, even treacherous, tumbling down to a rushing, rain-swollen river.
The hillside is planted in peanuts; on the flood plain below, a small field of rice. It is the rainy season and the rains nourish both weeds and crops. Day after day, the women work up and down this hillside, struggling to keep the weeds from choking out their crop.
War widows work the hillside near their homes in Grafton, Sierra Leone. They are grubbing weeds from among the peanuts they planted, to improve the quality of their harvest.
It is backbreaking work, but soon there will be peanuts to eat, peanuts to sell — and peanuts to plant next year.
The women are neither young, nor healthy. All are widows, faces lined by hard lives. Many are sick. They live in hovels constructed of mud and sticks, roofed with tarp or plastic that leaks when it rains.
Some are weak from chronic malaria. Most live on one meal a day.
Suddenly one of the women straightens up from her work and begins to clap and sing. Another joins her. Then another. Soon all have joined an exuberant song of praise and dance.
It only lasts a moment. Once again they bend at the waist and continue grubbing weeds.
“They are happy because the work is going well,” says Margaret Tucker, who oversees the work. “We are getting a good harvest this year. That is why they are dancing and praising God.”
WAR WIDOWS FOR CHRIST
Exhausted War widows rest after working a hard day in the fields.
They call themselves War Widows for Christ. Each lost a husband in Sierra Leone’s bloody 11-year civil war that ended a decade ago. The widows have difficulty providing adequate food for their families.
A war widow herself, Tucker knows the pain of losing a husband. She knows the struggle to provide for children with no father. She knows what it is like to be hungry — and to hear the cries of hungry children.
Tucker decided to do something about it. She organized 85 other widows to help each other feed themselves and earn an income, to become self-sustaining.
She established some rules. If someone doesn’t work they don’t share in the harvest. If they “get de belly” — become pregnant — they are excluded from the association. In the past some women prostituted themselves or slept with a man in hopes of favors.
They also are expected to participate in Bible study.
Many of the women are Muslim, and several have decided to follow Jesus. Others have developed an appreciation for Scripture. Most of the songs they sing while working are praise songs.
The land they work was donated by a Catholic priest. He also asked Tucker if she would consider caring for a group of orphans living in an abandoned movie theatre. She agreed.
One of the war widows provides a glimpse inside a typical home in Grafton, Sierra Leone: mud and stick walls, bare dirt floor, tarp or plastic roof that leaks when it rains, turning the floor to mud.
Tucker now cares for 22 orphans who live in her little home. In the past, before their farming began to produce crops, she would support them by begging and finding things to sell in the markets.
Each of the other widows has six or more orphans who depend on them for sustenance.
FENDING FOR THEMSELVES
“Only the Lord has laid this on my heart to take care of these orphans and these widows,” says Tucker. “The Lord speaks to me and said I should take care of them. It’s not by myself. It’s not easy. It’s very difficult for me. He directs me. He encourages me.”
Margaret Tucker and some of the war widows and orphans take a break outside Tucker’s home in Grafton, Sierra Leone.
The widows live in Grafton, a village outside Freetown that was inundated with refugees after the war: the wounded and maimed, amputees, victims of rape and torture, widows and orphans — and ironically, those who victimized them.
A decade later, the widows still live in what were meant to be temporary shelters.
“In these camps, many of the injustices of war continued,” says Cindy Wiles, a member of First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. “What was intended to be a short-term solution turned into home for most of the displaced whose memories of vulnerability created such great fear. Even a tarp home near Freetown brought a greater sense of comfort and safety than a return to the village.”
Immediately after the war, humanitarian organizations of all types converged on Grafton to provide emergency assistance. But as is usually the case, early response organizations quickly pulled out — their mission completed — leaving the residents to fend for themselves without long-term solutions.
“Depleted of hope, Grafton’s population struggled to heal,” Wiles says.
Tucker found it tough to succeed — dealing with personal loss and the after-effects of war. Her association of widows struggled to move beyond basic subsistence gardening. They could barely produce enough to feed themselves.
It was then that Ron and Sharon Hill — retired IMB missionaries and members of First Baptist, Arlington — stepped into the picture. They had served in Sierra Leone from 1992 to 1997— and were evacuated when fighting moved into Freetown.
Farming and food production have allowed the war widows to explore other opportunities for generating income. They have begun making jewelry, weaving, quilting and sewing garments to sell.
They knew the devastating effects of the war.
After retirement they returned to Sierra Leone to see what they could do to help, and met Tucker.
“We were moved by the joyful singing of the widows as they worked,” says Ron Hill. “They were living in mud-stick homes covered by tattered 10-year-old tarps. Their homes were flooded each year during the rainy season. Then the temperature in their homes reached 120 degrees during the dry season. Yet they had an insatiable determination to better their living situation and not feel sorry for themselves.”
Many widows in Sierra Leone have little or no prospect for remarriage. They typically are social outcasts. In their culture, it is not unusual for the family of the deceased husband to come take the children and all their possessions, leaving the widow destitute.
“But these women were amazing,” says Wiles. “In stark contrast to the community they were submerged in, the war widows were very proactive in addressing community issues.”
The women trusted God and went to work clearing brush and planting their meager crops.
After meeting with Tucker, the Hills consulted with the Global Connection Partnership Network (GCPN) of First Baptist Arlington, Baptist Global Response (BGR), and Buckner International to create a sustainable agricultural development plan the widows would be able to carry out themselves.
Project Restore Hope was born.
A SIMPLE PLAN
One of the war widows cries as she recounts the death of her husband and all the difficulties she has experienced since then.
“We knew there would be overwhelming needs,” says Hill, “but we wanted to focus on empowering the Sierra Leoneans to minister to the needs of their own people.”
He asked Mark Hatfield, BGR area director for Sub-Saharan Africa, to assess Tucker’s situation. Hatfield helped design a seed project that would provide the widows with greater food security and a hopeful future. Resources for the project were provided by the World Hunger Fund.
“I felt it was a good way for Southern Baptists to get involved in orphan and widow ministries in a country that had been devastated by years of civil war,” says Hatfield. “The Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund was a perfect match for the needs I saw of those most affected by years of abuse and turmoil.
“The Grafton war widows are a good example of living with zero margin for any crisis that would lead to a poor harvest. These ladies don’t have wage-earning jobs or products to sell to make up for a bad harvest,” Hatfield added. “They have taught me a lot about living by faith and demonstrate clearly their deep walk with the Lord. I’m grateful we could help because Southern Baptists give generously to their World Hunger Fund.”
The plan was simple: raise enough rice and peanuts to feed the widows and their families, have enough seed to plant the next year, and sell the excess to earn an income for the basic necessities of life.
The widows also received a monthly food supplement while they waited for their fields to produce.
NOW THEY SING
What started on a three-acre hillside plot near Tucker’s home in Grafton now has expanded to include a 30-acre rice farm 24 miles from Grafton. Seven of them live there to care for the property. Others commute weekly.
So far, two other communities in Sierra Leone have joined the project.
Sierra Leone is at peace now. In April 2012, an international court found Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president, guilty of instigating crimes of murder, rape, slavery and the use of child soldiers against the people of Sierra Leone.
But a guilty verdict against Taylor doesn’t put food into the mouths of hungry people.
“I formed this group so we can engage ourselves in good things, something that was of God, so we can sustain our lives and our children,” Tucker says. “When we [first] came together, we used to sit down and think about what happened before, how they killed our husbands, how our children died.
“We forget about that now when we come together and sing and praise God together.”