Wellesley Sophomore Helps Start Sierra Leone Aid Program

January 13, 2012

Charlotte Hulme ’14 spent last summer as a volunteer at Magbenteh Community Hospital in Makeni, a town in the northern province of Sierra Leone and now finds herself a philanthropist and scholar of the region.

A hometown connection brought Hulme to the West African country; her father, a professor at Alma College in Alma, Mich., had established a relationship with a doctor at Magbenteh who had visited Alma. Alma College has sent 13 of its own students to Sierra Leone in the past year or so, and Hulme traveled with four of these students in late May.

But the trip accomplished much more than fulfilling a longtime wish of Hulme’s to go to Africa. At Magbenteh, the political science major volunteered both at the hospital and at a UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding center, which treats severely malnourished children. While there, Hulme realized she had a unique opportunity to pursue on-the-ground research about the civil war that ravaged the country from 1991 to 2002. During her stay at Magbenteh, she interviewed 120 Sierra Leoneans about their war experiences, and especially about their knowledge and perceptions of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international criminal court that tried the war criminals bearing the greatest responsibility for the war.

Later in the summer, Hulme contacted Stacie Goddard, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Wellesley, to ask if she would supervise an independent study based on the interviews Hulme conducted. “She took a leap of faith when she agreed,” says Hulme, who presented her findings and her project at the Universal Human Rights Conference in Washington, D.C., in early December. 

Goddard, who didn't know Hulme before the summer, specializes in the politics of conflict and international security. She normally doesn't take on independent study students she doesn't know, but says, "Charlotte might call this a 'leap of faith,' but by the time I got done reading her prospectus, I certainly didn't see it that way. I saw it as an opportunity to work with a serious researcher, and I'm elated I had the opportunity to participate in the project."

In the course of her research, Hulme learned about much more than a war crimes tribunal. “The recollections that I heard from these 120 people were unlike anything I could have dreamed of,” she says. “I spoke with a child soldier, a woman who is now just 17, who at age 5 or 6 was given a gun and told to kill. Rebel soldiers burned an interviewee’s uncle alive inside his hut. A young woman’s sister was raped by a soldier who, after the war, came back to the sister, paid her money, and they now live together and have one son.” 

Hulme says most of her interviewees recalled the horrific, infamous amputations that took place. Rebel soldiers amputated arms, legs, lips, ears—all to make a political statement against the government in power, the rebels’ chief enemy. Amputees in Sierra Leone are living scars of that war. Despite all they suffered during the war, they are faced with extreme social stigmas against the disabled. They almost inevitably become beggars, because they cannot work. 

Many people are amputees not because of the war, however, but because of accidents and bad access to appropriate health care. Hulme recalls a particular case that spurred her to action: “During my visit, I met a boy, almost 16, named Abdulai Sesay. He broke his arm falling from a mango tree when he was harvesting the fruit, and his mother tried to treat the injury with traditional healing—scalding herbal remedies. By the time she brought him to Magbenteh Community Hospital, the arm was irreparably damaged and burned, and it had to be amputated.”

Prosthetics cost around $150, which is beyond the means of most Sierra Leoneans, 75 percent of whom live on less than $2 per day. Abdulai’s mother is a single mother and farmer, with no way to pay for a prosthetic. “It would have been a total luxury,” says Hulme. “To me, there is something inexcusable about a child’s life being stunted, for all intents and purposes, at age 16, simply because he doesn’t have the means to obtain a prosthetic arm.”

This was the start of Arms Around Sierra Leone, a nonprofit organization that provides prosthetics to amputees in Sierra Leone. Doctors and staff members at Magbenteh Community Hospital help locate the patients in need and set up their appointments in the capital city of Freetown at the National Rehabilitation Center (NRC), one of the only prosthetic manufacturers in the country. “Arms Around Sierra Leone pays for our patients to receive their limbs and to spend up to a week at the NRC getting what is almost like physical therapy, as they adjust to their new limbs. Every single dollar goes to this goal, which is one of the beautiful parts of this project—no overhead costs means that more patients can receive new arms and legs.” 

Since July, the organization has raised $4,200, enough to sponsor 28 limbs. “This is beyond my wildest expectations!” says Hulme. “The donations have come from my local Rotary Club, from local high schoolers who raised $640 from a penny drive, from individuals giving what they can—a local accountant gave me $300 and my dad’s barber gave me $12, the cost of a haircut. Everyone is pitching in what they can afford, even in the midst, in some cases, of their own economic struggles. And this collective effort has reaped magnificent results.”

Hulme has lofty goals for the organization. “I want to keep growing this project until every amputee in Sierra Leone has new limbs. This is my dream for AASL—simply to help to restore amputees’ dignity and ability to participate more fully in their own lives. We are not going to solve the crushing poverty that plagues the country, but, at the very least, we are going to make sure that amputees are not shut out from economic and social opportunities.”