Breaking open the cash box: how water will bring health and wealth to this village in Sierra Leone

Thumbnail WaterAid/Joey Lawrence

Mayama Mustafa, grandmother, midwife and women’s leader is an important figure in the jungle village of Tombohuaun, in eastern Sierra Leone. She is a calm and regal woman, with the demeanour of someone who has seen it all. And she has; birth, death, civil war and the outbreak of Ebola, as well as a community that is making progress. 

But in her 45 years of living in Tombohuaun, there’s one thing she hadn't seen: clean water.  

Sitting on her porch, having shooed away her grandchildren, Mayama told us about life in the village.

“We got water from the same place as we do now, of course … In all this time, the water hasn’t changed. It’s still the same colour as it ever was.”

People in Tombohuaun only ever had one source of drinking water – a small waterhole just outside the village. It’s a natural spring, which sounds idyllic, but Mayama knows the reality of it. “The water is so dirty. Sometimes it is yellowish or even black. But we have to drink it. We don’t have any other water.” 

This means that children and adults face a constant battle with illness – vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and malaria. And illness is expensive. Parents in Tombohuaun can spend over 50% of their income on healthcare for their families. There’s also a greater cost, Mayama explains:

“Many children have died because of the water, too many. It’s so painful, sorrowful for me.” 

People in Tombohuaun are resourceful and pull together as a community, so together, they’ve found practical ways to deal with some of the challenges that come with dirty water.

“My advice to women always is … show concern and be interested in each other in the community.” As the women’s leader, Mayama (called Mama Mayama, out of respect) leads by example. “When a woman leads other women it becomes easy for them to fully participate, discuss and share with you, because you are part of them.”

She set up a women’s committee, called Agbomuma, which means ‘self-help’. Members work as a collective, farming and gardening together to increase their yield and earn extra money, which they contribute to a loan scheme. Mama Mayama is in charge of the cash box, and advises women on how to spend their loan, as well as how to pay it back. 

Mama Mayama chose to be photographed with the two girls she fosters and the women’s committee cash box. It’s a symbol of what they are working hard to grow: funds, prosperity – and a strong community of women. 

So the women of Tombohuaun start the year by putting aside their savings for things like school books and uniforms, setting up a side-business… or the next bout of serious illness. 

Without clean water, the money can’t go far. 

“Clean water will be a peaceful thing for us. It will bring us good health. The walk [to get water] will be shorter. Our lives will be longer.”

This year, Mama Mayama will finally see the change that she has been waiting for. WaterAid are working with the residents of Tombohuaun to design and build a well with a hand pump. And because good health is not underpinned by clean water alone, they are also digging toilets for their own households and educating the whole village about good hygiene.

They’re ready for it. The leadership structures that are already in place in Tombohuaun, like the women’s Agbomuma group, will no doubt help to make this change a lasting one.