The power of volunteering by Mario Mackay


I pledge my love and loyalty to my country Sierra Leone I vow to serve her faithfully at all times

These are the first two lines of our national pledge. They are a promise, a commitment to our great nation that successive generations have failed to keep.

In 2018, I was invited to give a talk at Sierra Leone’s first TedX talks. I suggested that, like South Africa and Rwanda, young people in Sierra Leone needed to cultivate a habit of volunteering our time, our energy and other personal resources, to our communities and by extension the nation. I argued that by so doing, many of our problems could be mitigated, if not solved completely.

This might sound like an oversimplification of the issues. The problems our communities face are complex, some might say they are too complex to be solved by merely cultivating the culture of volunteering. I think however, it is time for us look at our problems differently. We Sierra Leoneans have become experts at identifying all the flaws in our society, but we frequently fail to go beyond the analysis to meaningful contribution. When we accept that the attitudes that produce these problems are deeply ingrained in our collective psyches; when we accept the need to replace them with positive ones, we may be able to turn things around.

We have successful examples from other nations. Take South Africa, where the “UBUNTU“ philosophy means “I am because we are”, and reflects selfless contribution to the community. In Rwanda – Umuganda “means coming together in common purpose to achieve a common outcome”. It was started the period immediately after independence in 1962, and was considered an individual contribution to nation building. In 1974, it became an official government programme.

In Sierra Leone, what word do we have that translates across tribe and signifies the same spirit of giving for the betterment of the community? These concepts cut across ethnic and social divisions.

The majority of our population is like me, 35 and under. We grew up to stories of a Sierra Leone where the most essential sectors where effective and efficient. It is our now responsibility to mould a future for our country which reflects the promise of our past.

We are lucky we have the advantage of technology. By harnessing its efficiencies, we can significantly increase our reach to spread ideas and messages faster. An example of this is the late Kelvin Kamara aka “America Stress”. During the aftermath of the mudslide disaster, he singlehandedly saved 40 lives and was able to provide emergency relief for the affected while he communicated with Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad via his Facebook Livestream. He lost his life due to pneumonia, but his legacy remains.

Volunteering isn’t just beneficial for our country, there are substantial advantages for the individual as well. Approximately 70% of youth are underemployed or unemployed. Individuals can use volunteering as a route into employment, by gaining valuable experience and skills. Employers both in public and private sector, can easily identify employees passionate about community building and will target them for their initiative, team spirit and energy.

Volunteering provides opportunities for networking – creating connections with other citizens committed to nation building, who gain satisfaction from helping others. Of course, volunteers invariably have the opportunity to pick up new skills. As well as making you a more interesting person, this improves social, relationships, communication skills and builds confidence. All of this is useful to those seeking a foot on the employment ladder, or even career progression.

It provides the perfect outlet to pursue the things we are passionate about, without having to give up the safety of our academic and professional lives. I once had the opportunity of listening to Usifu Jalloh – the Cowfoot Prince – a transformative storyteller. He said: “Sierra Leone cannot afford to have just lawyers, engineers, doctors and accountants and the traditional white collar jobs; rather we need these professionals to be actively involved in art, music, entertainment, fashion and other non-traditional disciplines, which would impact active community building.”

Furthermore, we are more inspired by deeds than words. By promoting those who are willing to serve the nation as a new standard for role models in our communities – volunteering would give young people the chance to be looked to by their peers for inspiration.

Finding time can be deterrent, but just one day out of 365 annually should be comfortably achievable for every national volunteer. For students, a structured volunteering programme could contribute to their grades.

Convincing the public and private sector to collaborate for community development and institutionalise the concept of volunteering is the next step, with annual volunteer schemes drawn up to encourage more young people to volunteer.

What sectors are particularly in need of volunteers. I believe the health, education and environmental sectors stand out in this regard. Some roles will require specialist experience, but for many reliability and honesty, team working, a passion for working in the field, a willingness to learn and an open, non-judgemental manner will be what is needed.

Take the health sector, our life expectancy is 56.1 years. The infant mortality rate 68.4 deaths/ 1,000 live births and our maternal mortality rate is 1,360 deaths/100,000 live births. Poor waste disposal management causes malaria and diarrhoea, two of the most common, life-threatening diseases in Sierra Leone. Teaching and supporting better waste disposal and proper hygiene does not require specialist medical training and could improve the incidence of malaria and diarrhoea in our communities.

The education sector also presents several volunteering opportunities. We can extend a hand to the children in our communities by helping them with assignments and school exercises. We can be mentors for kids who aspire to be a part of our profession. Tradesmen can offer apprenticeships to youth who have not been formally educated. We can promote and encourage non-formal education to boost employment chances for youth.

Protecting our environment is a new phenomenon in our communities. We have a plastic disposal problem which adds to the garbage in our communities, coupled with poor drainage systems leading to flooding. This along with excessive burning of trees for coal mining and other economic activities degrades the environment.

Prevention is better than cure. We must find ways of avoiding disasters before they happen. Our communities would be safer if we effectively communicated the negative impacts of our treatment of the environment.

We have to recognise that volunteering activities can expose vulnerable people to harm, especially women and children, and so working with the law enforcement agencies and developing a child protection process is essential.

We are renowned and adored internationally for our warmth and hospitality. All we need to do is to extend that same care and concern we are known for, to the people we live among. We already have a culture of community service, even though it may be somewhat muted. SABANOH in Temne means - NA WE GET YA. TEGLOMA in Mende means PROGRESS and DEVELOPMENT. We should use these terms as a constant reminder of the importance of our commitment to giving back to the country.

Mario MacKay, is a lawyer, writer, public speaker and one third of the popular Sierra Leonean podcast Plasas and Poyo.

#MarioMackay #PlasasandPoyo #volunteering

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