Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What You Might Experience Running An Internship In Sierra Leone

Think Build Change Salone Internship Program
Review 2007

Introduction
The Think Build Change Salone (TBCS) Internship Program began in May 2007 with advertisements on local radio stations informing the public about the program. Students were asked to pick up their applications on Sanders St and to return them by the deadline.
The citizen media aspect of the program did not begin until October.

The demand for the participation in the internship program was incredible. With only 12 internship positions available over 500 students stormed the offices to pick applications. I thought that the application was self explanatory but I found myself having information sessions about the applications with students. Many students who came for the application did not understand the meaning of the word internship but they came nonetheless to apply. Though the demand for applications was high, less than 50% of the applications picked up were returned completed. When we sat down to read the applications there were only 114 applications. Of those who returned their applications completed the women candidates were less than a dozen.

The Selection Process
To select the interns I along with a Think Build Change Salone volunteer from Slovenia Dr. Natasa Hrastnik, my mother, and my aunt a local teacher read the applications. We rated the applications 1-5, five being excellent. The majority of the applicants earned between 1 and 2 stars. Though the structure of the application was such that you had to attach an essay many of the applicants did not complete that section of the application. Additionally, while the majority of the applicants were at University, very few of them could construct comprehensive sensible sentences. Reading some of the applications was tedious to say the least. Whereas my previous experience in the States was the students at my university were likely to already have an idea of they wanted to do as community service or social work the applicants for the internship seemed to lack ideas on the types of activities they wanted to be involved in. When asked to explain the type of social contribution they would like to make most students could not say more than “I want to sensitize the youth”. “Sensitization” was the most popular activity cited as community service. When asked during interviews to give synonyms of the word sensitize many could not. There are a lot of development catch phrases and ideas that get circulated around by either Non Governmental Organizations or the government and the young people whose applications I read seemed to pick them up quite easily and use them though they did not understand the full spectrum of the issues. Take for example one of the interns that I chose for the Internship; Daniella Wilson, in her essay she had written about child labour from those being put in the streets by adults to sell water or to help them in their petty trade, to young girls in prostitution. During her interview, I asked her what she would say to those families who say that they were so poor that every member of the family had to be economically active or they risked starvation. She seemed boggled by the idea that poverty and not always cruelty was attached to some people’s decision to make their children work. Though her thoughts were in the right place I wasn’t sure that she had critically thought about child labour, instead I felt that she was telling me what she may have been told.

The Interview
A part of the selection process was an interview conducted for the 25 or so students who were above the rest in grades and strength of their essay. We conducted the interviews over the period of one week with each students allotted 30mins to talk about themselves and their applications. Across the board, the students were very poor at expressing themselves orally and they even had difficulty elaborating on ideas they might have presented in their papers. Very few of them were comfortable being interviewed. While we were reading the applications, we noticed two versions of the same application with two different names but very similar answers. We invited both students in for interviews as the application was strong. We asked them in at the same time and explained to them that they had similar applications which included the same quotation at the start of their essay. They denied any knowledge of each other and so we interviewed them again separately. During the interview it was obvious that one of the students Edward Chaka owned every bit of his application, he was a student at the Medical School (COMAHS) and we ended up choosing him as an intern. The other student could not construct sentences in English and we figured he may have gotten the information on Edward’s application from a public café. Some students with strong applications were even better in person. For example Kadie Kandeh a 28year old student studying Nutrition (who was a year older than our 27 year cut off) talked about her experience giving nutrition advice in her community and in conversation with her we discussed the possibility of creating a nutrition guide for families using cheap local ingredients. She explained that with cases of malnutrition, many times mothers were as much victims as their children because of certain beliefs that the husband should get the best parts of the meal.
During the interview process we were supposed to narrow the interns down to 10-12 but after deliberation we could not reduce past 14. Two students that may not have been included otherwise were chosen because they seemed like they really needed an opportunity not just to work but also to earn money. I chose 14 students for the internship being well aware that our funds only budgeted for 12 students.

Finding Host Organisations

The initial effort to find host organizations for the interns started in New York while I was planning the Internship program. I went to the DACO-Sierra Leone Encyclopaedia online and searched their NGO directory to get a better idea of NGOs and their activities. On the Encyclopaedia the NGOs were listed by name, focus areas, district, etc. I discovered that the information on most of the NGOs was very much outdated and most did not have any information past 2005. I created my own database of all the NGOs and categorized them by their activities with the understanding that if someone wanted to do community service with a focus on the Enviroment or women’s rights that I could just print out a sheet with the list of those NGOs and contact them. While I was in NY I drafted an email to about 40 local NGOs with email addresses culled from the encyclopaedia and all but maybe 5 came back to me as incorrect. Of those 5 unreturned I got one response.

So long before I came to Sierra Leone, I had hypothised that finding host organizations would be the most difficult part of the project. After I chose the interns we had a group meeting at the conference room at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where I gave them forms to choose the types of community services wanted to engage in. A handful of the interns put down banks and I had to explain that this was a social development internship and so we were not going to place anyone with banks.

In addition to my web search for host organizations I thought it would be useful and maybe easier to go to the National Commission for Social Action (NACSA) to see if they could provide me with a list of NGOs implementing some of their development projects. The commissioner directed me to a department within NACSA called PADCO-Peace & Development Corps. In PADCO I spoke with David Lahai and Kate Press (a VSO volunteer from Canada). PADCO is a national volunteering program that placed college graduates with local councils all over the country in a volunteering capacity with stipends and trained them on the job for a period of two years. I explained to them about what I was looking for and I discovered that NACSA implementing partners were no longer NGOs, but mostly construction companies and contractors either building schools, clinics, WATSAN, or markets (a couple years earlier this was not the case).

In the end, my visit to NACSA was not helping with finding host organization but I was able to place an intern (Sahr Joseph) with PADCO to work in the office and also help them organize training workshops for their local council volunteers and do a documentary using a camcorder from our Global Voices Citizen Media Project.

Slowly and surely I started to become frustrated at my futile attempts at finding NGOs willing to take interns. My third and final strategy was to keep an eye out for NGOs that I had heard off and or seen their signs in town. I picked out a handful of NGOs including Finance Salone, Handicap International’s National Rehabilitation Center, The Center for Victim’s of Torture, The Talking Drum Studio, Campaign for Good Governance, Children’s Learning Services, Save Heritage & Rehabilitate (SHARE), United Rural Women’s Association, Women In Crisis Movement, Organisation for the Homeless & Disabled Mano River Women’s Peace Network, The Cotton Tree Foundation, NACSA’s Peace & Development Corps, and three others that I can not remember. I drafted a letter to the different NGOs on my list in which I explained the internship program, Sierra Visions, and Global Voices Online. I thought that it would be an incentive to host interns if I highlighted that organizations did not need to pay the interns because Sierra Visions was going to bear the responsibility of intern stipends. I personally went to deliver the letters to the different organizations with the hope that I would get an opportunity to speak with a representative at the organisation giving them a chance to ask me additional questions that may arise before they received the letter. I could not find the offices of some of the NGOs…they seemed to no longer be in existence. My attempt at getting host organizations was a bit disappointing. I was able to get a commitment from five (5) organizations (Talking Drum Studio, Mano River Women’s Peace Network, NACSA, The Cotton Tree Foundation, AccessPoint Africa (a telecom company willing to take an intern) though I had fourteen (14) interns. I tried to follow up with several organizations but either got full and final “no” to my request or I got the run around “ come back tomorrow” and gave up.

The Elections
Between the months of June and October business and institutional operations in Sierra Leone were almost at a standstill. Several NGOs were reluctant to make commitments because they were to close prior and after the elections until they were aware of the security status in the country. For those who had actually been given positions with host organizations they could not actually begin their internships until after the first and second round of the elections once we were aware that there would be a run off. Although the internships could not begin until after the elections the interns met biweekly for discussion sessions on the state of affairs and small workshops on internship expectations. Interns were as emerged in the election process as the rest of the country so we organized a debate between the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC) supporters. I explained the format of the debate to the interns and assigned different parts of the debate to them. It was a really interesting and educational experience as the debate enabled me to assess the various levels of the interns. Though the students on the SLPP team won the debate, the APC party won the first and second round of the elections. The elections were an obstacle to the projects timely implementation.

The Failed Partnership with Celtel
Before I came to Sierra Leone I was under the impression that Sierra Visions would take over the operations and implementation of Celtel’s “Come. Back Home” and “Build Our Nation” campaigns. When I arrived in Freetown I began working with one of the program coordinators at the Celtel Academy. It was a long tedious process with constant changes and meetings. I was willing to put in all the work necessary to come to an agreement with the Celtel Academy because I knew that once we reached the agreement the interns would then be able to receive computer training at the Celtel Academy. As part of the Global Voices Online Citizen Media Outreach Project that I had proposed the interns were supposed to (1) become computer literate (2) receive their Media Outreach Training (3) Blog about their experience (4) teach others how to blog by conducting workshops.

After three months of back and forth with the Program Coordinator from Celtel’s Academy we had come no closer to reaching an agreement though we had fulfilled our end of the bargain which were to write the proposal with budget, develop training content, and draft a Memorandum of Understanding. Every week I called Mr. Maada-Squire he would say next week, and next week never came. However, during the process he wrote me an email where he asked me to borrow him $400 for the funeral arrangements of his uncle who he said had just past away. I must admit that I did feel sorry for him and I would have loaned him the money. I didn’t loan him the money though and explained to him that I thought it was unethical for him to ask me for money because we were in the process of signing a contract. I told him that I did not want it to appear that I had paid him to close the contract. I also advised him to not get into the habit of writing emails to loan money as people could use it to blackmail him hence destroying his career. I told him that I would not discuss it with anyone. He wrote back apologising for having made the request and requested that I let the conversation end with us. He had told me that the hold up on the agreement was that his supervisor the director of Celtel’s Academy was on maternity leave and one day he gave me the date of her return. When she did return however, there was still no progress.

The interns were really disappointed as week after week I could not give them a concrete response as to when their computer training would start at Celtel. I finally gave up on our partnership with Celtel after the Presidential Election run off. When I realised that there would be no progress on the Celtel-Sierra Visions partnership I confessed to a colleague that Maada had written me an email asking me for a loan. And she in turn admitted that he had also sent her an email requesting a loan from her. We never continued the conversation with celtel and last I heard Celtel was prosecuting Maada Joe Squire for the theft of some 40 computers from the Academy. The lack of access to computers was probably the biggest obstacle to the projects implementation because it actually prevented the interns from becoming computer literate and participating in the Global Voices Rising Voices Citizen Media Project. We tried doing some work at internet cafes but it was not ideal for learning and most internet cafes did not like the idea of more than one person to a computer and we did not have access to a projector.

(Check Back soon for the complete Review & Plans for TBCS 2008)

11 comments:

Boutique Mix Fashion said...

great post!! It's so awesome to see such positive changes in Sa Lone now.

eduardo said...

Wow, it seems like there were a lot to deal with in order to get things up and running. Good luck with everything and hope that everything is back on track.

Greetings from Bolivia!

Eduardo

David Sasaki said...

Though it would have been naive to think that everything would go smoothly in a country that is just getting back on its feet like Salone, I had no idea that you'd be confronted by so many obstacles. I'm impressed with your determination Vickie ... and especially looking forward to hearing about your plans for 2008.

jogany said...

I want to let you know that you're not the only one experiencing problems with your project and wish we all have the sincerity to share this much . I know you're going to find other ways and will succeed in an unexpected way.
I'm sure you will find people like and your friends willing to make this project one of the greatest because of al the things you 've been through.We will be here to wait and support you !
joan
http://club.foko-madagascar.org/

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Lester King said...

That is supposed to be a good program. Well, it's normal to experience obstacles and problems especially if you're still new to programs like that. I know it will be alright.

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amberdixie17 said...

Just continue your good deeds. It will be alright soon. Just be patient and I know everything will fall into place. More power!

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dannymortimer said...

Well, maybe more students of this time is out of their focus in studies and most of them don't know yet what they want to be in the future. Anyway, before I end this comment I'd like to say that I am so interested in reading this article. Thanks! INSTYLER

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