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Ta-Valema Learning Lab

SLFND grows nonviolent democracy via early childhood education, sustainable agriculture & rural economies of social enterprise cooperatives.

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

SLFND’s challenge is to shift rather than reproduce dynamics of domination and subordination. Its solutions include:

*Rooting Dovalema Early Childhood Center’s emerging curriculum in indigenous knowledge and values—centering healing, culture, and environmental stewardship.
*Using the early childhood center as a hub to train parents, teachers, and community members to advocate on behalf of children at interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels regarding nonviolent discipline and child labor as well as access to food security, sanitation, and healthcare.
*Prioritizing paid positions and credentialing for staff raised and currently residing in Sierra Leone: teachers and support staff for the school and farm as well as trainers and cooperative leaders for the social enterprises.
*Relying exclusively on individual donations and partnerships to ensure that villagers deliberatively make all decisions.
*Designing social enterprises not only to provide income for cooperative members but also to A) restore villagers’ connections with their history, each other, and the land and B) provide income and supplies to the early childhood center and farm.

Beyond feeding participating children’s bodies, minds, and spirits, Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab serves as a laboratory for all village children, adults, and elders to resurrect, learn, and cultivate new ways of sustaining themselves and the village as a whole through cooperatively-led social enterprises that manifest non-adversarial interaction with each other, with institutions, and with the environment. Ta-Valema means source of germination. Integrating early childhood programming with cooperatively-led social enterprises should build reflective, collaborative leaders and catalyze a sustainable village economy. These will provide viable opportunities for villagers to stay in—and advocate on behalf of—the village rather than fleeing to over-crowded cities, only to experience unemployment and poverty

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Approximately 500 individuals in the rural village of Mondema in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone will benefit to varying degrees from Ta-Valema Learning Lab within two years. Approximately 150 individuals intentionally representing a range of genders, religions, and ability statuses have already been recruited to serve as coop trainers, rotating leaders, and participants in 7 initial social enterprises. 9 teachers already benefit as SLFND finances their degrees.

More than 90% of rural Sierra Leoneans subsist by farming. Rural area residents and land are preyed upon by extractive industries. Few opportunities for income generation and education at any level exist. Residents of all ages work in toxic conditions on the mines and young adults flea to unsustainable situations in overcrowded cities. Additionally, Mondema was significantly affected by the Ebola virus. Villagers experience high levels of food scarcity; the chiefdom is among the most impoverished of the 16 in Kenema.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

SLFND’s early childhood center is the first—perhaps the only—village preschool in Sierra Leone. Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab are unique: They are not just resources/services available to the community but are intentionally designed to work together AND with the childhood center to end reliance on foreign aid and philanthropy, neither of which advances local communities’ long-term interests. While food, healthcare, education, and livelihoods are basic, in Sierra Leone—70% of whose budget comes from international aid—they are subject to conditionalities imposed by foreign governments whose economies prosper from the unsustainable exploitation and extraction of labor, timber, minerals, etc. SLFND starves that dynamic: It was originated and is led by a Sierra Leonean; local Sierra Leoneans are the only paid staff; villagers make all decisions deliberatively; and decision making and programming arise from African traditions of democracy, systems thinking, and critical praxis.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

SLFND dreams of connectedness among peoples and the earth, wounds healing, and creativity flowing; its purpose is to work in partnership with communities to build the foundation for citizens of all ages to deliberate and enact new, non-adversarial alternatives that nurture democratic relationships and decision making among and across individuals, families, institutions, and the environment.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Like most Sierra Leonean parents whose own educations were interrupted by war or more recent ravages of Ebola and mudslides, SLFND’s founder was unaware that small children can identify their feelings, write letters, count numbers, locate countries on a map, and discuss photosynthesis until his own child showed him. He increasingly realized the foundation for nonviolent democracy begins in childhood and manifests in public fora only if it has been modeled within families and communities.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Sierra Leone’s civil war was tied to the exploitative and extractive diamond industry; the Ebola virus and the recent mudslide are both linked to the deforestation associated with mining; decreased access to clean water and fertile land are also linked to the extraction of minerals used in cell phones and other products sold throughout the rest of the world. Most Sierra Leonean parents and teachers likely suffer the consequences of adverse childhood experiences. While they farm for subsistence, many villagers—and the burden is generally on mothers—are currently forced to leave their children unattended, or are left in the care of siblings as young as five years of age—who themselves need care, supervision, and schooling. These children are at risk from countless dangers, including fire, falling trees, and exposure to mosquitoes carrying malaria. Not surprisingly, Sierra Leone had the second highest under-5 mortality rate in the world in 2013 according to UNICEF.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

SLFND’s purpose is to work in partnership. Its commitment involves creating cooperative economies in and across villages that initiate partnership with SLFND, allowing them to sustain the work within 5 years. Partnership with villages as well as educators, health professionals, and permaculturists has allowed the early childhood center and farm to be built without philanthropic or government funding. Sierra Leone’s newly elected president prioritizes education and is now a potential partner. SLFND is also growing partnerships with advocacy organizations and businesses addressing child labor, food sovereignty, and access to clean water, air, and sanitation facilities. It seeks partnership with proponents of environmental health who can assist with the development of circular economies, including exploration of the viability and sustainability of various product lines and services; vocational training; and guiding coop members in local, national, and international market development.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

At initial convenings, villagers identified their children as the immediate priority. In response to the idea of piloting a program for 30 children in an existing building, participants drew from indigenous collectivist values. A woman explained how doing so would require excluding some families: “Using what criteria? We all have access or none of us has access. We will learn together.” 150 villagers built the school and surrounding farm. 215 children—nearly all villagers aged 2-5—were enrolled.

Geographic Focus

Mondema village, Kenema, Sierra Leone.
Communities surviving exploitation/extraction worldwide.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)


Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Proterra

Vidhya Shanker you have a very unique holistic project that reflects and addresses beautifully the necessities of the community. I have a small question, who leads the formation processes with the children and the activities at the lab.
Congratulations on a wonderful idea!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks for your comments and question. If I'm understanding correctly, you are wondering who leads and is involved in the early childhood education? We have recruited, selected, and begun training 9 young adults (slightly more than half men) who have a passion for children and who have completed secondary school but have no other educational or income generation opportunities within the village. They are the teachers. Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy is underwriting their post-secondary education in early childhood education. They are supported by staff and elders in each classroom, and supervised by a woman with the necessary background locally.

Two volunteers and two board members who have backgrounds in early childhood education--including with children who have experienced trauma and who have special needs--have contributed much to this effort. Still, our curriculum is emerging from the villagers themselves and involves much time interacting nonviolently with each other and the natural environment. While we have been reviewing literature and associating ourselves with international bodies like OMEP, we are relying on locals to help us make the relevant connections among--for example--the sustainable use of plant fibers through the cultural practice of basket weaving, which is bring lost thanks to the availability of (toxic) plastics. It is a single activity that involves botany, math, art (color/ pattern/ texture/ shape), fine motor skills, etc. In addition to being meditative and communal, basket weaving can generate containers that can be used and/ or that can be sold to generate income. Elders would lead the basket weaving instruction.

Let me know if this answers your question, if you have any others, and if you have any ideas./ resources/ etc.

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