“If I change a life, my life is also changed” Q&A with volunteer turned Data Scientist Ernest Swarray

Q&A with Ernest Swaray (Restless Development Sierra Leone 2007)  conducted by Anna Tyor, Restless Development USA Philanthropy Manager.

Ernest Swaray volunteered with Restless Development Sierra Leone in 2007 in a small island town called Njala Komboya, Bo District.   He was high school graduate and also a radio presenter at the time, broadcasting shows about issues that were affecting students. He joined Restless Development because he wanted to continue to address important issues like teenage pregnancy and civic participation. Ernest is now working on a project with College of Medicines & Allied Health Sciences (Ebovac Saolone)

Ernest at his computer after finishing research for Restless Development for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on Youth Entrepreneurship.

Ernest, can you paint a larger picture of the context of the situation in Njala Komboya, Sierra Leone when you began volunteering with Restless Development in 2007?

To be honest, Anna, before Restless Development came we had a problem in Sierra Leone [with education]. If Restless Development can get Sierra Leone to educate 50% of the community, then they changed everything. And Restless Development got 50% of the people to teach the other people. We [local people] went to the communities and said education is the only thing. This was a generous idea.

Everybody in Sierra Leone, everybody, they know about Restless Development. When Restless Development came it changed the perception AND changed lives: more girls in school, so many things improved. They used us and sent us to our people. They used us, not just people that came from overseas. And things happened.

What Restless Development programs did you work with during your time volunteering?

Sexual and Reproductive Health – we were working in communities. We captured rural issues that had to do with sexual and reproductive health. It was in the clinics, in hospitals, in schools, with women. So we are dealing with every category, all the category of people and community people. We are dealing with sexual and reproductive health-not [only] the adults and not [only] the small children- but with everyone else.

After you were trained by Restless Development, how did you raise awareness about various issues in the community in Bo?

We would go to the radio station and we would take the students themselves to the radio stations. We could go to the schools and do dramatizations.

We would go to the schools – we would teach them about Sexual and Reproductive Health. We were giving session time in the school calendar. Every day we would go to the school.

In the communities after school, we would have these Community Resource Centers. There we would also discuss Sexual and Reproductive health. We would come there to play games, during the time we played games we would tell them our roles and responsibilities and why we were in the communities to help them. We would tell them how to improve on their responsibilities in the community.

Earnest with fellow volunteers from Restless Development after a training exercise in Kenema.

What was the most challenging about teaching these young people?

Yes, their way of life.

When you meet some adults who are over 20 years [old] and he or she grew up with that way of life, to change that perception was really difficult in my volunteer days… They believe in these secret societies and female genital mutilation (FGM). To tell them that FGM is very bad for kids, why should we not be a part of FGM, they take it as we want to change their way of life. So those were the challenges.

And how did you overcome these challenges?

We would involve them and their children in the dramatization. When you see your own children in a drama [about Sexual and Reproductive Rights], you go back and want to change your position. We were using their children and young people to change the position. We used the community to change themselves.

Can you think of a stand-out story about one of the young people you taught?

There was a particular lady who was good at sprinting, and encouraged her to do sprinting. She got a gold medal in the national event – 4.1 100 meters and 400 meters. National sprinting they organize it in Bo. She was taken from her village and driven to the national stage and she won. We did so many empowerment trainings with young girls and women like youth entrepreneurships, soap making and other creative activities.

How did you specifically engage community leaders while you were volunteering?

We targeted the chiefs, the stakeholders, and the village leaders, the community head officials, head of the students etc. We called them into meetings – we did focus discussions with them. They would tell us what they want and we get to our bosses with their concerns.

Was there pushback?

Within the community, when you get there, they are a little  curious, because they don’t know you and they want to get to know you. When you tell them about your projects, it’s the normal way, and they gave us everything we asked for. They were a part of us. Even when we left, they championed the community.

How did they champion your work?

I returned there [later] to visit friends and I still met people doing our activities. I still met the system in place.

Did you find that there was long term changed that was instilled from this teaching?

SO many things changed – yes government change. The age of consent changed. The government was backing us with policies and also on our own.

How do you feel like the volunteering specifically helped you?

Ernest earning his certificate on Data Management from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicines after the Ebovac Data training exercise in Freetown.

If I am here today working as an Assistant Data Manager on a big research program, it’s because I volunteered with Restless Development. Since I volunteered, everything changed. I learned a lot, they gave us everything. They build our CV, they build us, before we went to universities, we did not know how to write CV, letters. It was a job training. I was moving from one job to another ever since. I was also called to do some research with them, I did some research with couple of students from reputable institutions  from UK , Tony Blair Faith Foundation and Restless Development and other partners, with people and students – those experienced moved me from one job to another job to the other.

What is your hope for the future for young people in Sierra Leone?

My hope is that we are taught to change lives. We do it to other communities – we change lives. I want to be a volunteer for life. If you have that mindset, and doing things that would change. If I change a life my life is also changed.

 Check out what amazing work Restless Development Sierra Leone is currently doing  here.

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“If I change a life, my life is also changed” Q&A with volunteer turned Data Scientist Ernest Swarray

by Anna Tyor Reading time: 5 min