From market beggar to shoe producer in Sierra Leone – “The most important thing is that now I have hope for the future”

30 Jan 2012

image “There are heroes among us” reads Umaru's T-shirt while he is telling his story with a smile in Makeni (UNDP/ T. Trenchard)

The story of Umaru Kargbo, in Sierra Leone’s Northern City of Makeni, 113 miles from the capital city of Freetown, is one of resilience and of sheer determination to lift oneself out of poverty. It is also the story of how a country riddled by suffering and stagnation caused by years of civil war and gun-toting youths rampaging through the countryside is emerging slowly into one where its hitherto marginalized youths are participating in national development and social transformation.

Youth unemployment is one of the major causes of war in Sierra Leone and a serious threat to the peace that is enjoyed in the country today. An estimated 800,000 youths between the ages of 15 and 35 are actively searching for employment. Some of these youths lack skills and education, but it is even more difficult for those with disabilities and only a basic education to compete for the limited jobs that are available.

Umaru, more popularly known as K-man, is one of those young people facing a bleak future, a future of begging on the street and in local markets to make a living. When he was 10 years old, Umaru was stricken polio, an acute viral infectious disease that is widespread among children in Sierra Leone and leads to infantile paralysis. Three years ago, Umaru, 29, moved from his small hometown to Makeni, the biggest city in northern Sierra Leone, where he survived by begging in the streets.

Umaru had only attended school for nine years. In Makeni, his fellow disabled peers advised him that begging was the only way for disabled people to make a living. Two weeks after the start of this life of danger and hunger, however, Umaru was selected for training through a UNDP-supported youth employment project in Makeni. He was placed as an apprentice in a workshop where he learned how to make shoes.

“The training was good. I had decided that I did not want to be a beggar, I want to do something more fruitful and dignified with my life,” a smiling Umaru explained. “I was supplied with basic materials like adhesives, leather, nails, a hammer, and I was also given a weekly allowance of about Le 15,000 (US$ 3.50) for my upkeep while in training.”

A recent independent study of 17 youth employment programmes administered by UNDP and the Government of Sierra Leone shows that the programme that trained Umaru has transformed the lives of 10,299 young people.
UNDP’s Chief Technical Adviser Keith Wright said a recent study on the project demonstrated an immense impact.

“The study showed that there was an average increase on the income of the youths by more than 197 percent. Communities also reported that there was improvement in their food security, and the likelihood that they could afford school fees,” Wright said.

In the past two years, Umaru said he has achieved a lot. He finished the apprenticeship and has started his own small business, which enables him to earn his living without begging.

“I have a family now, and a child. I am responsible for their food and his education. On average I earn about US$7 … On a good day, I earn even more. Now I am happy and proud,” he said. His mother, Isatu, used to cry endlessly after he was struck by polio.

“But now she knows I can do something for myself,” he said. 
“You see this shoe here,” he continued, holding up one of his customer’s shoes. “I charge $1.20 to repair it; and these sandals I made, I charged $8 for each. My life has changed, I run my own workshop and I am even training other disabled and polio victims. Hopefully, I will get more support to expand my workshop into a factory that will produce more and train more young disabled people.”

UNDP has been working with various local partners, including CAUSE Sierra Leone a youth serving agency in Makeni, to support the country and address the issue of youth employment and empowerment. The $2.1 million youth employment and empowerment programme is funded through the Peace Building Fund under the Peace Building Support Office PBSO, Government of Ireland and the Government of Norway. The programme is designed to strengthen national policy, strategy and coordination for youth employment as well as sustain the establishment of basic support services for youth, including mentoring for micro and small enterprises and the establishment of career advisory services in the country’s universities. As a result, 5,000 young people have started their own businesses. This is done through the Ministry of Youth Employment and Sports and the newly established National Youth Commission.

Back in Makeni, for Umaru, the impact of the project is not just that he now has a regular and significant income but that his social status as a dignified member of society is restored. “The most important thing is that now I have hope for the future,” he said.