What It Takes to Raise a Village
By Rhema Thompson
|From L to R: Khadarlis Executives Aisha Desince, Jim Carleton and Darlis Johnson stand outside their thrift store in Providence.|
Tucked between the bodegas and multifamily homes that line Academy Avenue in Providence stands a tiny thrift shop. The unassuming sign “Khadarlis Thrift Store” above its window hardly commands a passing glance from the outsiders that pass by each day. Little do they know that inside its modest walls, an international operation is under way: An effort bringing a hard-hit Providence community together to restore a war-torn community abroad.
The name of the effort is “Khadarlis for Sierra Leone,” a non-profit organization aimed at rebuilding villages devastated by the 11-year conflict known as the Blood Diamond war, and at its heart, are two Rhode Island transplants—Darlis Johnson of New Brunswick, NJ and Sierra Leone native Aisha Khadar Desince. In just five years, their determination has transformed a chat room discussion into a statewide campaign involving more than 200 volunteers and impacting four different Sierra Leonean villages. Next month they are planning their 12th trip to the region still ruinous a decade after the war.
“The civil war just abolished them down to nothing,” Johnson explained. “I mean the water wells, everything is just gone…So it’s basically just starting from scratch all over again.”
For Johsnon, 46 and most others involved, it’s been a chance to help out a world they’ve only seen speckled between silver-screen images of Leonardo DiCaprio. But for Desince, 43, it’s been a lifelong mission to raise up the village that raised her.
“The impact I felt in the villages is what I am trying to rekindle by what we do now,” Desince said one recent afternoon as she briskly grabbed a flyer from her makeshift office and made her way through an assortment of discounted jeans, shirts, shoes, and tie-dyed tunics at the front of the store.
“Come Do Your Homework Here We Have Free Internet Service for Students or to Look & Apply for Jobs. You are Welcome,” the flyer read.
“I feel you have to give back a little something to the community,” she told me as she hung it.
At barely five feet, Desince towers with an intensity and warmth that overshadows her lack of business know-how.
“I’ll be the first to tell you, I don’t know nothing about non-profits, but I know what [the villagers] need,” she gleamed.
And what they need, according to Desince, can be as simple as a donated book for school and shoes for a long walk home. The store, itself, holds a basement full of clothes and supplies donated from people and organizations all around the country. Eighty percent, she says, get sent directly to the Sierra Leonean villages of Bandajuma, Senehun, Kpawama and Jimmi, while the remaining items are sold in the store at discounted prices. The proceeds go towards rebuilding the crippled infrastructure of each village. In the back, as the flyer advertises, there are three donated desktops available to all who seek employment and knowledge in the low-income Elmhurst neighborhood, and posters hang with images of the village where Desince came of age.
“Everybody helped raised me,” she said as she reflected on her summers spent in Jimmi. “Little pep talks here and there. We used to have evening bonfires in the cooler season… I loved these people and I soaked it all in.”
That is, until 1982, when Desince left Sierra Leone and her beloved Jimmi to attend the University of Maryland in the U.S. It would be the last time she would ever see the town as she knew it. In the years that followed, Desince moved from the University of Maryland to the Community College of Rhode Island as her native country moved from peace to chaos through a Revolutionary United Front-led rebellion widely known as the Blood Diamond conflict. The war ravaged through her country from 1991 until 2002, leaving 50,000 dead and 500,000 disabled.
During the height of the conflict in 1997, Desince said her mother came to stay with her in Rhode Island. However, it was not until she returned with her mother in 2005 that she witnessed first-hand the havoc that had struck her homeland.
“When we got to the village, I couldn’t find nobody,” she recalled. “We stared [at the] destruction all around us.”
The scene would haunt Desince for the next year, propelling her to reach out to anyone who would listen—from former colleagues from her professional background in healthcare to the netizens of cyber chat rooms. It was among the latter that she encountered a like-minded spirit, a Jersey girl with a series of unfortunate events that had haphazardly led to a series of fortunes. Johnson, a tractor-trailer driver who’d suffered both an on-the-job injury and the loss of her father that year, was desperately searching for a new, more meaningful path in life.
“I didn’t want to sit at home and mope and be depressed, I wanted to sit at home and find ways to exercise my time in a positive way,” she said.
Johnson had acquired wealth from a lawsuit for her injury and inheritance from her father. In Desince, she found a meaningful way to use it.
“The way [Aisha] told her story was like reading a book,” Johnson recalled of the chat room conversation. “And I said ‘Oh, wow, I would like to go there and see what’s going on…I was just that excited that I decided to buy my ticket.”
In the summer of 2006, the two made their first trip together to Sierra Leone to assess the needs of the villages. Over the next five years, they would make 10 more to begin the rebuilding process funded primarily through Johnson. In the following years, Desince’s unceasing drive and Johnson’s business savvy materialized into a 501c nonprofit that has partnered with both federal and private institutions including Bryant University, Rhode Island College, Salve Regina and Colorado-based Zanbu Water Solutions Inc. among others.
“Aisha is a force unto herself,” joked Khadarlis Director of Development and Grant Writer Jim Carleton, who joined the group in 2009. “Once she gets a project going, she just never lets go.”
That dogged determination has already made several ripples overseas. In the Village of Bandajuma, they’ve built 6 mud houses that house 25 people. In the town of Jimmi, they’ve rebuilt two water wells and constructed a new one; they’ve installed solar powered lights in the town’s center; they’ve supplied the Jimmi Medical Clinic which serves ten surrounding villages with medical supplies, including: gloves, hand sanitizer, gynecological examination tools and first aid kits; and they have furnished Jimmi Secondary School with a library of over 5,000 books—the first library built in the town in 45 years. For the latter achievement, the organization will be honored in April as part of a Sierra Leone Independence Day celebration at the Salone Independence Ball held in Upper Marlboro, MD. Yet, in Desince's eyes, the road ahead is still long and unfinished.
“To be honest, I don’t think we’ve done anything yet,” she said.
In the coming year, the group hopes to build another library in the village of Senehun, set up programs that assist the thousands maimed by the conflict, provide villagers with the agricultural training and supplies to reap from their own resource-rich land, and renovate Jimmi’s entire drainage system where contaminated water still runs rampant.
The organization has not been without its own setbacks. In the summer of 2010, the group opened a fusion cuisine restaurant but was forced to close it only eight months later when a pipe burst, flooding the entire floor. Also like many nonprofits across Providence, an anemic economy and a city on the brink of bankruptcy have made donations and federal grants increasingly hard to come by. Added to that, is the hurdle that many African-based organizations face in overcoming public cynicism in a sea of “Nigerian Prince” scams.
“Nigeria has given the continent a bad name, so we’re dealing with that too,” Carleton said.
Yet, despite lagging funds, the group says support from the surrounding community continues to build as more neighbors, students and business owners offer up services, fundraising venues or simply a helping hand.
“We have regulars who come here everyday, you’d think some of them work here,” Desince said with a laugh.
And to the child raised by a small town of giving hearts, sometimes a little community spirit is all it takes.
“What does it take to raise a village? A lot of support and people who believe in the cause,” she said with a smile.