On 24 March 2021, a devastating fire broke out in Susan’s Bay slum in Freetown, Sierra Leone, leaving 7,000 people homeless with no shelter, food, or medical supplies.
The fire devastates the community
On seeing horrifying reports of the fire on the news, Samuel Turay, 30, a national volunteer and Project Assistant for VSO, travelled to Susan’s Bay to assess the damage and see what could be done. It was clear that the scale of the disaster was far greater than he could have imagined.
“I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Children were being manhandled and pregnant women neglected and abandoned. It was truly shocking. There was ash everywhere and I was coughing from inhaling the smoke. The fire still raged in parts of the community,” said Samuel.
The hospital was refusing to treat children and pregnant women because they couldn’t afford the medicine.
“It was very hard to get medical supplies into the community. There is a very narrow access road, not even a motorbike can get in. You must then walk for 15 minutes and go down 30 steps to reach the slum. You have to pay men to get supplies down there.
"The hospital was refusing to treat children and pregnant women because they couldn’t afford the medicine. Some aid workers, including myself, paid for a child’s treatment. This was an emergency. We had to help people,” says Samuel.
Families were living in tents and this area is prone to heavy downfalls and flash floods. The little food items they had would soon spoil.
Finding calm in the chaos
Following a risk assessment, Samuel mobilised a team of volunteers to help distribute relief packages and supplies to the community including food, phone credit and transport. Food had to be carefully rationed and checked to ensure it was in good condition.
The volunteers helped establish a register to ensure supplies were distributed fairly. The most vulnerable members of the community were prioritised, and 400 women and people with disabilities received food parcels and sanitary supplies.
In the overcrowded slum, the work of volunteers like Samuel was vital in helping to identify individuals not on the register. They were also there to ensure social distancing was being maintained where possible, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
I felt absolute devastation for the families. To see children suffer, and the negative impact this will have on their future. They are innocent.
Everything burnt down in the fire, including school materials. VSO community volunteers helped identify which school supplies, like pens, pencils, books, geometry sets, school uniforms, should be sent to which schools.
“I felt absolute devastation for the families. To see children suffer, and the negative impact this will have on their future. They are innocent. They deserve an equal life just like me,” said Samuel.
"Volunteers provided psychosocial support to the families in the community who were experiencing deep trauma. Games and events were also organised to help parents and children recover. Many women were offered support to help rebuild their small businesses.”
Six months on – the situation remains very unstable
Children lose their lives to flash floods
“Some homes are starting to be rebuilt, but the situation in Susan’s Bay is getting worse. NGOs have left the community. Having become reliant on volunteers preparing meals for them, the families are unable to provide for themselves and use the little resources they have.
"We have had flash floods - the water has flooded tents, soaking their clothes and spoiling food. The community lost four children who were living in these conditions; they died from the cold,” says Samuel.
Aiding long-term recovery in Susan’s Bay
The devastating effects of the fire will mean recovery will take a long time. More homes and schools will need to be rebuilt, and the emotional trauma following the aftermath of the fire will be felt deeply.
There are many communities like Susan’s Bay in western Sierra Leone that are fragile and exposed. When people come to Freetown, they can’t afford a better future.
Volunteers like Samuel understand the needs of the community, and how best to reach them. However, many more lives will be saved if communities are better prepared for disaster.
VSO helps prepare communities for future emergencies through using risk assessments, disaster preparedness mapping and early warning systems, working alongside local community members and NGOs.
Samuel’s hope for the future
“There are many communities like Susan’s Bay in western Sierra Leone which are fragile and exposed. When people come to Freetown, they can’t afford a better future. We need to start relocating people, find safer places for them to live, and provide affordable housing through government intervention,” Samuel Turay, Freetown.
VSO was able to support 400 vulnerable people in Susan’s Bay, but many more people could have been helped.
Please donate to help ensure more vulnerable communities get the support they need to be as prepared as possible for when an emergency hits.
Until now, although good practices and methodologies have existed across the volunteering sector, there has been no globally agreed set of standards. Together with the International Forum for Volunteering in Development, VSO has launched the Global Standard for Volunteering.
Volunteering is too often badly misunderstood. Too often, it is seen as a “worthy” activity undertaken by people with time on their hands. However, it really is a fundamental part of any country’s development journey and when done properly, it can be a powerful tool.
In 2017 Mike Barnes, an ex-primary school headteacher, joined VSO’s Unlocking Talent project in Malawi, providing students with tablet computers loaded with local language courses in numeracy and literacy. Read how he helped improve learning outcomes for thousands of children.