21 Feb 2019

People - Community

Away from Comfort: Getting Down into the Fields of International Development

Anthea is currently a pursuing a year-long fellowship under the West African Rice Company (WARC for short) and has been in based in far-away Sierra Leone for over seven months now. Her role is to help the organisation find ways to measure the social impact of their work on the local rural community and to nurture future donors and stakeholders. We caught up with Anthea when she was back home for the holidays recently, to hear about her experience being the only Singaporean in Sierra Leone (at least to the best of her knowledge)!



So Anthea, what is WARC?


WARC was founded 7 years ago with a mission to increase the primary production of rice in Sierra Leone. Rice is a staple in the local diet, but the country currently imports 80% of it from all over the world — India, Guinea, Liberia, and Thailand. We have a 1,500-hectare farm in a rural part of Sierra Leone, where we employ over 100 farmers from nearby villages to be trainee-employees on the farm. There, we guide them through learning and applying modern farming techniques, and how to operate and maintain machinery. While we are trying to increase local rice production in Sierra Leone, we also want to transform the rural community by providing them with better skills, stable incomes, and increased food security.


Ideally, we would like to be able to say that our farmers lead better lives than those who are not in our programme. Maybe they’ll have more money to send their children to school, to eat better, to save more, and to have better housing.

Villagers learning how to use the harvester machine to process maize


Briefing with villagers


How did you get started?


I started working for WARC as part of a fellowship called Princeton in Africa. As application for the fellowship only required a degree and an interest in international development, it is a good way for me to get my first field experience and see if I like the work. I also wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the whole cycle of data processing, especially the work that goes into collecting data and engaging the people who will be affected by it.


On the personal front, you could say I was up for some adventure. Sierra Leone probably doesn’t make most people’s list of ‘top 100 countries to visit’. There’s not much to go by in terms of looking it up on the Internet, so everything is a fresh experience, whether good or bad.


I wanted to stress-test myself. I wanted to know my own limits and I wanted to do something interesting. I have always lived a very comfortable life in both Singapore and in the United States, and I felt that living in a developing country would help me figure out just how much or how little I needed to “survive”. For example, I imagined that I would really miss the convenience of online shopping or a good cup of latte, but I didn’t. Instead, I came to realise how non-negotiable having toilet paper is to me! I know there will come a day when it will be raining hard, and I’ll be on my way to the village when the car breaks down; it will be late at night, when all the mosquitoes are out, my phone would be dead, and I would have to find my way out of that situation. I’m equally dreading and looking forward to that day because I would get to know my resilience — or lack thereof!


Anthea hitching a ride in the company car to another city


So, you are the only Singaporean in Sierra Leone


Yes, there are no other Singaporeans in Sierra Leone — I’m the only one!


Once, when I came into the office, there was a group of travelling investors and two of them were Singaporeans. I told them that they have tripled the Singaporean population, just by being here!


I think I have been living away from home long enough that I’ve gotten used to being away. The only thing I’ve really given up is meeting fellow Singaporeans face to face. But everything is virtual now, including the way people stay in touch. So, it doesn’t really feel so far away or difficult.


What were some of the differences you’ve noticed between living in Singapore, and in Sierra Leone?


There are differences in every single conceivable way. Perhaps, it would be simpler to understand if I shared what someone told me before I left Singapore: “Everything that you think is hard here, and everything that you think is easy here — just flip it”. And it’s so true! For example, when you need to apply for a new visa in Sierra Leone, it only takes two quick days. But on the other hand, some normal, everyday things are difficult — such as frequent electricity outages, having to prepay utilities, running out of petrol for the generators, or the whole city running out of eggs. On some days, when you have to shower at night, the water is just a trickle. You would have to decide if you should wash your hair based on the water flow that night.


I have never given so much thought to such mundane things before in my life. So, living here has really made me appreciate how so many systems have to coordinate reliably every day just to bring us the things we Singaporeans often take for granted.


But at the same time, I think the way of life here in Sierra Leone is also different in a good way. People are not so encumbered by material things, and they have deeper interactions with one another. They are much more tolerant, don't get easily upset, and complain less about things outside of their control. Generally, people will smile at you on the streets and ask you how you are, even if you don't know them!





Sights of Sierra Leone



What about similarities?


In many ways, Sierra Leone sometimes feels like an earlier version of Singapore. There are a lot of similarities between the two countries since both share British colony pasts. The style of the buildings and schools here, as well as many of the road names, are similar to those in Singapore. I see a lot of brands here that I was familiar with growing up. What’s amusing to me is that there’s also a school here whose uniform is the same as that of CHIJ (Saint Nicholas Girls' School)!


I think, everyone just wants to lead happy lives and we all prioritise the same few essentials: a house that is safe, food on the table, being able to promise future generations a better life, etc. In Singapore, we may tack on more things to each of those ideals: a house with beautiful furniture, food at a famous restaurant with good service — but the basic desires are universal.


Both also believe very strongly in the power of education to guarantee a better life, and parents make the same kinds of sacrifices to give their children the best.  


How do you introduce Singapore to your friends in Sierra Leone?


Interestingly, people here already know of Singapore. They hear about us on the radio or see us on TV. Sierra Leone has a very positive view of Singapore, and they talk about us as a shining city in the sky. The first thing people will always say is how clean it is — how really, really, REALLY clean it is. 


How do you think Singapore fits as a cog in international development? And what can Singaporeans do back home?


After learning more about international development, I’ve come to understand that Singapore’s role is very reactionary. It is very relief-based, very disaster-triggered. I do wish that Singapore would take on a more proactive role, and encourage its people to think more about the world outside of Singapore.


The volunteer movement in Singapore is not very active and we can all be more involved on a consistent basis. There are lots of volunteering opportunities aside from the mandatory Community Involvement Programme (CIP) in school. I remember this one time in school when we all went to a children’s home. Thinking back, we were so patronising; we came in big buses, played with the children, then packed up and left.


Try looking for something that is longer than a month; that way you can get a good sense of the place, the people and the work. Most importantly, you’d have more time to leave a more positive and sustainable impact after you leave. The World Toilet Organisation, which is based in Singapore, plays an important role in improving sanitation conditions around the world, and it is a great place to start.


I think we are seeing local movements gain momentum, especially among the younger generation. They are starting to process and gain an understanding of social issues in Singapore. As I was growing up, there was little talk about migrant workers or domestic helpers and the issues that they face, even though we walked past them every day. But now, I see more campaigns being organised to raise awareness of social issues in Singapore. I think this is a good start to not gloss over the fact that there is inequality in Singapore. Simply put, this is what international development is about — addressing inequality.


~ ~ ~


Anthea with friends from France, India, Italy, Paraguay and the U.K.


With her fellowship ending in July 2019, Anthea is now considering her next step.


Both her parents are now retired and Anthea is open to the idea of returning home eventually. She wishes to spend more time with her family, particularly with her young niece and nephews.