Setting up a business from scratch is a challenge for most, but particularly so for 27 year-old Jennifer Kamara who was abducted from her village by rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone as a teenager, only to later lose her eyesight. In spite of her disability as well as the trauma she suffered during the war, Jennifer has rebuilt her life through the support of a volunteer based at VSO partner, Binkolo Growth Centre.
Trauma of civil war
Sierra Leone emerged out of civil war ten years ago, but the aftermath has brought little hope for future generations in a country that has seen brutal conflict in recent years.
Jennifer’s parents were told they would never see their daughter again when she was aggressively attacked and snatched by soldiers at the age of 18.
After trying to escape twice, she was stabbed, beaten and issued with a death threat if she attempted to escape again. Jennifer endured two years living a life of enforced servitude and was raped several times by her captors. It was only following the disarmament in 1999, that she made her way back home, now a single mother of two children.
Nevertheless she returned to school, juggling responsibilities of motherhood with her school subjects, until the next misfortune found its way into Jennifer’s life.
“I was selling at the junction when I felt something fall inside my left eye... I went to Freetown to get my eyes treated but they told me I had a cornea scar and could not operate... I have never been able to see again.”
Earning a living
It was at this desperate moment in Jennifer’s life that she discovered VSO partner organisation, Binkolo Growth Centre, an employment and skills centre nearby that was assisting people with disabilities to find work. Here she was provided with a small grant as start-up capital for a small business.
VSO volunteer Mabel Sengendo trained Jennifer in business management and marketing skills, giving her merchandising advice. Mabel spent a year at Binkolo Growth Centre helping to train staff, improve systems and develop a marketing strategy for the organisation. Recognising the additional challenges faced by disabled vulnerable young victims of war, she worked on a funding proposal for training and grants to benefit more disabled youths, like Jennifer.
Jennifer now sells commodities such as palm oil, cola nuts and rice.
“The business is helping me greatly – in the past I couldn’t afford money to buy soap but now I can buy soap, clothes, and shoes for my children as well as afford school fees – because I’m buying seasonal business.”
Jennifer now buys palm oil or rice when prices drop, preserves it, and sells it on when the cost of these products goes up. The business has presented Jennifer with previously unknown opportunities, but she is still fixed on recouping the education she never completed.
“My dream before 2013 is for my business to grow in such a way that enables me to return to school. There is a blind school close to Binkolo that I would love to attend.”
Though Jennifer faces the additional challenge of adapting to life with a disability, her personal journey is not unlike many other young people affected by the war in Sierra Leone. In addition to supporting small businesses, VSO partner Binkolo Growth Centre offers blacksmith and carpentry training to desperate youths unable to earn a living. With the expertise and input of volunteers like Mabel, it is creating previously unimaginable livelihood opportunities for a young and unemployed population in a land of lingering hope.