Editor’s note: in the following months expect to read new dispatches from John Kanu about the projects at Sierra Leone Chesterton Center. Please prayerfully consider purchasing tools for SLCC or funding the Italian Chesterton Society’s container project via the latter’s merchandise arm, Pumpstreet.
Written by Rodolfo Casadei and originally published online in Italian by TEMPO. Translation by Laura Ahlquist.
In October of 2002, Sierra Leone was an extremely poor African country worn out by eleven years of civil war. The war left 50,000 dead, two and a half million homeless, and 10,000 missing a hand or an arm, mutilated by machete blows. John Kanu was a willful 30-year-old man from Sierra Leone who, after heroic efforts, was able to obtain admittance to Oxford and managed to earn a master of applied Social Science. The story of how he convinced his family to send him to school (the only child in his village to do this), and how he continued his studies after the death of his father, and how he managed to obtain a visa and a scholarship to study at an English university, could in itself have been the subject of a whole book.
Of the six Oxford graduate students at Oxford from Sierra Leone, five headed for the United States or Canada or stayed in the United Kingdom. Only one, despite a job offer on English soil, decided to return to his devastated homeland—the same John Kanu. Was it nostalgia for his home, regardless of its derelict condition? Political ties? Not at all. You will never guess. “I had discovered Gilbert Keith Chesterton,” says Kanu, “and I wanted to apply his ideas about man and economics to my country”.
Except for those who are passionate about this English Catholic writer, there are only a few who know that Chesterton, together with Hilaire Belloc and Vincent McNabb, is considered the main proponent of Distributism, the economic philosophy that is an interpretation of the social Christian doctrine contained in Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, and offered as a third way between Socialism and Capitalism.
Among the Oxford professors, Kanu found Stratford Caldecott, director of the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture. They became friends, and the Englishman introduced Kanu to Chesterton’s thought. “Three themes struck me in particular: the need for, as much as possible, the wider distribution of property among all members of society; the importance of the local economy and the artisans who live by the work of their hands; and the vision of the family as the main unit of society and consequently the base of a more extended multi-generational family. I told myself, ‘This is the best of the traditional African culture, reflected in the economic philosophy of a Catholic writer born at the end of the 19th century. And we are about to lose him.’ I started to think that, when I returned to my homeland, I would found a Chesterton Society in Sierra Leone”.
And that is exactly what happened. Kanu returned to Sierra Leone and began earning his living as a consultant to Non-Government Organizations (NGO’s) such as Catholic Relief Services, the International Rescue Committee, USAID, Management Systems International (MSI), etc. He assisted the hundreds of thousands of people who were returning to the rural areas after having fled to the city because of the war. He dedicated himself to dealing with the devastating effects on local economies and living conditions caused by the mining industry. And, in 2006, together with some friends, he founded the Sierra Leone Chesterton Center (SLCC), which is registered with the office of the Ministry of Rural Development and the Local Government, as a community organization. “We are not a NGO”, stresses Kanu, though he still works with such organizations to this day. “Those come and go, they have a forced and limited mandate, and they must spend all their money quickly and right away – something that favors the mentality of mere subsistence. Instead, we are there for the entire time that is needed, and we aim to build up the local capability. We concentrate a lot more on the strength of ideas and on changing people’s mentality, than on the amount of money coming from a grant.”
A Bridge Between Balance and Folly
As far as money goes, the difference between the SLCC and the NGO’s is “decisively abysmal”. From its inception, the largest donation that Kanu has received has been 600 pounds given by Aidan Mackey, the founder of the Chesterton Study Centre in England. Everything else is based on volunteers and contributions from the community that will benefit from the projects. These projects are things like the teaching of agricultural techniques through the Farmer-Field-School methodology, assistance with access to special seeds, organization of cooperatives among farmers, construction of two professional schools in the village—schools which will soon be functional.
“The village residents themselves have put all materials and labor at our disposal, except for the zinc needed for the roof construction and for the fence that we have procured”, John explains. “From these schools will come carpenters, masons, mechanics, and other technicians, who pledge not to migrate to the city, but to render their service in the rural community from which they came. Right now they need tools and machinery to equip the schools; and this is the reason why I am in Italy and why, for the first time, we are asking the help of outside donors”. Following an invitation by the Italian Chesterton Society, Kanu met with organizations and individuals in Siena and Ferrara willing to form a partnership. In public appearances he has spoken primarily about the philosophy of development and the style of the SLCC’s approach to their programs.
“The role of the family is central”, this father of four explains. “In Africa we don’t have welfare systems like in Europe: the family is our welfare system; it is our credit card, our bank, our safe. If anyone needs a loan, one does not go to the bank, where one will be exploited; one goes to his family circle. The family is where he feels at home, it is the key to his moral education—it is the bridge from folly to stability. When I was a child, I begged my father to send me to school. 20 members of my extended family got together and, after a long consultation, they decided to sign me up at a school in a local neighborhood. In Sierra Leone, 70% of the population is Muslim. We Catholics are only 15% and the others are Protestants. But we all share the same connection; the family is the primary fount of life.
This praise for the family, an institution that also presents many problems and sometimes hinders human development, is not to say that the SLCC is a proponent of an immovable and archaic vision of Africa, centered on the exaltation of the “good old times”. “The great challenge to growth consists in changing minds. Progress, I always say, is not a question of electricity, roads or infrastructure. All this helps, but progress is a question of people. Our work aims at changing people’s mentality, and this is achieved only through education. Education accomplishes, realizes and completes. But only if it is centered on the truth and that which is just. Then it becomes that spark inside of you that no one can put out. Education enriches you with treasures that no thief can ever steal from you.” Before launching into the project of professional schools in villages, SLCC started helping families from the rural district of Kono to increase their own income, because this enabled them to send their children to school. They also helped with the instruction of the farmers in better agricultural techniques.
We don’t tell them that the way they cultivate the land is wrong, we show them in concrete ways the advantages of the new seeds or of new techniques. When the government decided to make available Nerica high-yield hybrid rice in our country, we first provided intermediation so that the more marginalized rural communities would not be left out. After that, in order to convince the farmers of the advantages of the new seeds, we had them give us a piece of land next to the fields that were being cultivated by traditional means. We sewed it with Nerica rice. During the first harvest, everyone saw the difference, and they came to us to ask how they could obtain those seeds.
It Wasn’t All Wasted Time
SLCC does not shy away from broad political endeavors, which consist in defending the rights of the rural communities vs. the interests of the mining industry. Sierra Leone is rich in alluvial diamonds. This means that the rocks are sought in large areas by the river banks. The damage to the environment and agriculture is huge.
The law dictates that mining companies restore the land at the end of the search, but this law is often not followed. “In the Kono district as well as in many others, the mining industry and the agricultural industry are in competition. Water and lands are contested. We work with civil organizations, especially with those that specialize in the relationships between development and justice, to remind the government of its duties, and apply the laws that require the restoration of the territories damaged by diamond exploration.” 45 cooperatives have been established up to now, approximately 600 people have benefited from programs which range from the supplying of special seeds, to the instruction of new agricultural techniques, to the furnishing of tools and equipment. The SLCC cannot boast about huge numbers but about great quality because their accomplishments are the result of volunteer efforts rising from a local level, and not government assistance from the top down.
“As a child I fought like a lion to be able to go to school. I exhausted my father so he would send me. Then, when I arrived at Oxford University, while Sierra Leone burned, I thought that my learning was not going to serve anyone if I remained in Europe, that my country needed me most and it needed something new”, John Kanu concludes. “Fortunately, my English friends made me discover Chesterton and his three economic ideas: the widespread distribution of the means of production, the importance of rural economy, and the centrality of the family. Today I tell everyone: they are the only three important things that I learned while studying at Oxford. But don’t tell that to the rector of the university or to his professors.”