Sheku M. Gassimu Jr. – OneVillage Partners

Movement Matters #11 – OneVillage Partners – Sheku M. Gassimu Jr.

Sheku M. Gassimu Jr. is inspired by the passion and energy that flow within communities. He has worked with OneVillage Partners (OVP) since 2014, and in this month’s Movement Matters column, he shares with MCLD insight into his career and the shifts that OVP has made to become more community-led.

Featured Photo: Grima Community members voting for their development priorities. Credit: OneVillage Partners.

Sera Bulbul: Can you give us some information about your background, how you got to where you are? 

Sheku: I am Sheku Mohamed Gassimu Jr. the Partnership and Program Director at OneVillage Partners, a non-profit organization that works on Community-Led development transforming the lives of people and communities in rural Sierra Leone. I plan the delivery of existing programs and all new program activity to the strategy, mission, and goals of OneVillage Partners. I hold a B.SC. (Hons) in Sociology from Njala University, Sierra Leone. My passion for community-led development work is directly related to my areas of study in my university days.

I joined OneVillage Partners just after graduating from university in 2014 as a frontline staff in piloting community-led programs in 3 rural communities. With my raw talent for facilitating dialogues with large groups of people from different cultural backgrounds and dialects and helping people identify needs and managing the implementation of community projects, I have had the opportunity to move from one level to another in the organization; promoted from a Community Facilitator, Program Officer, Supervisor, Manager and now the Partnership and Program Director. Throughout these years, I have had the opportunity to be part of the organization’s journey and have witnessed OneVillage Partners transition in ways revolutionary and continue to provide communities the opportunity to improve their lives and the communities they live in. In 2014, we started the Community Action Program. Since then we have shifted to intentional community-led development. Working with OneVillage Partners has allowed me to put into action some of the things I learned in my studies. 

Sera: What inspires you? 

Sheku: That passion and energy that flow within communities are what keep me alive and driving. 

In my university days, I was taught and wrongly believed that rural communities have to be told what to do, and they don’t have the knowledge and capacity to decide for themselves their aspirations. But having firsthand involvement with the Community Action Program has helped me to reflect on my inner biases and to question some of the opinions that I had coming here to work with OneVillage Partners. My knowledge about rural communities was that there was no available capacity. But as I interacted with more communities through my work, I have unlearned my opinions and candor-fixed perceptions about rural communities. I began to see people with a clear vision, people with aspirations, energy, and passion. All that is needed is guidance to translate that aspirations, passion, and energy into something actionable for collective well-being. 

This aligns with a story that we share with communities on the very first day of our engagement with them at OneVillage Partners, the ‘’Sharpening Stone Story’’. In Sierra Leone, we do a lot of manual farming using local technologies like a cutlass. Farmers use the sharpening stone on the farm to sharpen their dull cutlasses to be able to do effective and efficient work on their farms at a faster rate. OneVillage Partners is the sharpening stone here, which can be used by communities to sharpen their development skills and knowledge and use them for the collective benefit of everyone. Through the story, we try to create imagery in communities where we help them realize all that is needed is for them to use OneVillage Partners to sharpen their collective minds and guide them so that they can use their knowledge and resources to transform their lives and those of their love ones. This imagery helps us to connect the views/perceptions of communities about development in a much more sustainable way. It builds communities’ capacity to aspire for something much bigger.

Furthermore, I have seen how communities interact. It is very impressive to see how communities dynamically interact and how they can achieve so much more with little guidance. All that is needed is the opportunity for them to use their knowledge and resources within their communities for their benefit. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to witness these experiences and to be part of the transformation in my country. The opportunity to provide the platform for women, youths, leaders, and everyone to not only participate but to be heard and contribute to making decisions for the future development trajectory of their communities no matter their level of numeracy or education continues to inspire me about our community-led model.

A statement from Alex K. Mohamed, a Grima community member sums this up ‘’It is not common to see organizations operating like [OneVillage Partners]; learning and asking community members to identify their primary needs as well as guiding them in addressing it. Others [pretended] to know these problems and strived to address it without the inclusion of the larger community, which to a greater extent is not sustainable and cannot be [owned] by the Community.”   

Sera: Can you share a bit about the history of OneVillage Partners and when the organization shifted to intentional community-led development?

Sheku: The work of OneVillage Partners began in Sierra Leone in 2006 by helping displaced refugees return to their homes after the Sierra Leonean Civil War from 1990 to 2002. The founder, Jeff Hall, was a former Peace Corps volunteer who began helping his friends rebuild their homes through financial support after the Civil War destroyed the communities where Jeff had previously worked as a Peace Corps. Initially, the support to friends was based on the notion that people needed food, rebuilding of their houses, and WASH. Jeff mobilized support for these immediate needs from the United States of America. At that time and after the war, OneVillage Partners was about service delivery and humanitarian assistance to communities. 

Since 2010, OneVillage Partners formally began operating as a nonprofit organization. Today, OneVillage Partners works together with community partners to invest in people and communities to lead their development aspirations through 3 interconnected programs. Together, the Community Action Program, Nurturing Opportunities for Women Program, and Lead Program eliminate multi-dimensional poverty and build toward inclusive leadership, social cohesion, gender equity, and resilience and to improve collective well-being for all.

Our approach evolved in 2014 when there was a real need for a community-led approach to ensure that there was continuity and sustainability in the organization’s work. When I joined in 2014, we had just started the Community Action Program which works in communities through a cadre of volunteers (men and women) trained in community mobilization, leadership, proposal designing, project implementation, and monitoring. The underlying belief was that communities can be involved in doing something sustainable through their direct participation. 

With the deadly Ebola crisis in 2014, we scaled down our activities. The health sector in Sierra Leone was tested a lot. We rewired ourselves and restarted our activities in 2015. We realized that some of our previous programs like the ‘’Reflect program’’ did not work as we had anticipated, and replaced it with programs that are much more community driven, such as the Nurturing Opportunities for Women (NOW) program. For over a decade, OneVillage Partners has partnered with 30,000 community members and 40 communities to build thriving, connected, resilient, and healthy communities. 

Sera: I took a look at your 2022 annual report. There are some really exciting statistics there. What would you say were some of the main things that made 2022 a transformative year for OVP?

Sheku: In 2022, we continued to work with communities in a revolutionary and transformative way. We reached out to much more people in 2022 by expanding our programs, raising our public presence, increasing our revenue base and investing in organizational diversity, particularly in leadership positions, and capacity building in Sierra Leone, and developing a healthy leadership pipeline for effective operation.

We are impressed with some of the positive things that we saw from the communities in terms of how women were able to increase their collective savings, and men doing traditional tasks in the homes that were before seen as tasks for the women. 

Along with these successes, our partner communities work together to complete a lot of community-led projects to provide their communities with the opportunity to improve their well-being. For example, in 2022, 4 of our newest community partners identified access to clean water and improved sanitation facilities as their development needs to address the collective goal: to reduce diarrheal disease throughout their community and improve the health and well-being of their members.

Our programs work together to support communities in actually achieving their vision of a sustained life. In our leadership development program, we can train more people to write proposals for funding and work together to implement their projects. For example, in 2022, 48 volunteer leaders from 11 communities submitted project proposals to a selection committee that included OneVillage Partners staff, local government representatives, and community members for funding, and 4 of these proposals were funded.

When communities and local government build stronger connections access to resources and local expertise becomes easier. These connections build community resilience and the capacity to aspire for success and well-being. It also expands communities’ networks and knowledge to access funding opportunities and the ability to advocate with decision-makers. 

Our programs, the Community Action Program, Nurturing Opportunities for Women, and Lead Program are interconnected and work together, to eliminate multi-dimensional poverty and build toward inclusive leadership, social cohesion, gender equity, and resilience to improve collective well-being for all. I am proud to share that the following achievements in 2022 made a transformative year for OneVillage Partners; 

  • Inclusive leadership: 84% of community members stated that power is shared in community decisions, 221% of OVP volunteers gained a formal leadership position and 95% of community members attended community meetings. 
  • Resiliency: 80% of households were able to respond to economic shocks and 99% of projects are sustained 3 years after completion.
  • Social cohesion: 90% of community projects met their goals and 80% of program participants believe their community works together to solve challenges and meet their goals.
  • Gender equity: 98% of participants in the NOW program report they were involved in decision-making for household finances, 148% of men doing at least one traditional female task, and 124% of speakers at community meetings are women, which is an increase from 2021.
Gbeka Community members laying the foundation for their new clinic building

Sera: When you reflect on your life and work, what are you most proud of?

Sheku: I’m proud of so many things. I see every challenge as an opportunity for progress. Because of my “never die” attitude and ability to navigate through challenges, I have been able to provide leadership for the organization and programs when needed.  I’m very proud of the learning that I have been able to achieve through humility, dedication, consistency, and hard work. When you look at community-led development the first most important thing is the mindset. I’m proud of the progress we have been able to make, seeing communities working together and trusting each other more to achieve a shared vision using their social capital to improve the lives of one another. 

Seeing women finding their voices and men listening to them keeps me moving. I am also proud of finding communities capable of living by using their methodology and decisions and producing amazing results. Being part of this transformation keeps me more motivated in my job. I am proud of my passion to support and inspire others uniquely. 

I am proud of my passion for community-led development interventions which provides options to communities to decide on how they would want to work together and meet their aspirations. For example, in 2019, the Bandajuma community wanted to do a market project. To determine whether or not a market project was the highest need in the community, I engaged everyone to have a conversation about the projects and the benefits to everyone. With the community, we decided to construct a mock market. The community used it for about 2 to 4 months to see if it was a true need. After two months they came back and said they did not need it! Through community-led facilitation and leadership, the community realized for itself that the project is not a need but just a want. My passion to support and inspire people to do their best through soft and proactive leadership has been the collective driving force of my leadership.

Sera: How have OneVillage Partners been a part of the Movement? 

Sheku: In 2015, OneVillage Partners attended the UN General Assembly Meeting where MCLD was launched alongside the Sustainable Development Goals. Since then, we have been a part of the Movement by connecting with and collaborating with other members in our shared goals and interest. 

Recently, OneVillage Partners joined with other partners to launch a Sierra Leone chapter of the Movement. The chapter was officially launched in May 2022. OneVillage Partners provides leadership for MCLD’s Sierra Leone National Chapter by organizing and providing transportation to members for all monthly chapter meetings, staying active in strengthening the capacity of the group members, and sharing updates from national-level activities. 

Last year we provided support in increasing the capacity of members for online meetings. We also engage in leadership training in terms of understanding what community-led development is and how we can be consistent in communicating about it. We led the development of the national constitution of the group. 

Most recently, we developed and funded a proposal for each MCLD group member to engage in radio and community-wide education on peaceful elections in the build-up for the June 24, 2023, multitier national elections. 

Also, OneVillage Partners supports the sharing of knowledge and learning among group members, sharing of feedback, and facilitating group cohesion and solidarity through constructive leadership. 

Sera: What are some challenges Sierra Leone is facing and how do OneVillage Partners programs respond?

Sierra Leone, my native country, is one of the poorest countries in Africa, where a few wealthy people control the state’s political decisions and economic power with a lot of sustainable development impact challenges to resolve. In 2014, Sierra Leone was affected greatly by the Ebola epidemic from which it is still recovering.  People in my country have limited access to basic services such as food, water, sanitation, hygiene, education, healthcare, and social protection. Women and Youths who constitute the buck of the population are either unemployed or underemployed, as well as lack social mobility opportunities. Since independence from the British Empire, and despite decades of foreign aid intervention, Sierra Leone has had some of the worst maternal health outcomes in the world. The lack of quality and uninterrupted strategy for comprehensive life-saving services delivery still denies women and children their right to life and survival especially for rural communities in Sierra Leone, where people are impacted by the loss of life of their members. Yet rarely are those community members consulted on the maternal health crisis unfolding there. By training community organizers to unlock their potential and fostering new forms of partnership, we continue to engage and work with partner communities to build interventions in a sustainable manner that navigates systemic challenges and the colonial legacy of inequity and alienation.

OneVillage Partners’ Community-Led- approach continues to amplify the power of people and communities to overcome their poverty-related challenges through partnership in the following ways; 

  • We enhance leadership skills and train communities in project design, management, and proposal writing and support volunteer leaders to claim their decisions through education and training.
  • We train women and men volunteer leaders to design, implement and monitor projects that promote their self-defined vision for partner communities. 
  • Through our programs, communities build infrastructure, women enhance their voice and economic opportunities, and community members improve their collective well-being.
  • We empower women and families to address basic financial needs and provide them with tools to track and save their resources and learn the skills to communicate and achieve personal and financial goals.
  • OneVillage Partners engages with partner organizations, local and district government, as well as the parallel system of traditional leadership through our programs to eliminate multi-dimensional poverty and build toward inclusive leadership, social cohesion, gender equity, and resilience and to improve collective well-being for all.
  • OneVillage Partners specializes in community mobilization and education, leadership training, and financial literacy while partner organizations bring technical expertise relevant to specific projects to achieve their development aspirations. 
  • We also worked with other community-led organizations in Sierra Leone in the Movement for Community-led- Development of which we are an active global member to mainstream community-led-development.

For OneVillage Partners, Sierra Leone’s complex history and today’s challenges fall far short of defining the country and the individuals within. We strongly believe that Sierra Leone is a country filled with potential, hence we refused to define the country based on the unfortunate events of both past and recent history, but rather by the assets within and the opportunities that exist for its future prosperity.

Sera: Has the Movement changed your understanding of community-led development?

  • Yes, I have learned that in community-led development, as key actors, we must take actions that might be uncomfortable for us, this can be from ceding our power to communities to letting go of the idea that “we are experts” because of our education or knowledge.  The thing in my opinion we should do is focus on asking how we can help and trusting that the people in these communities know what they need and are allowed to determine how they will work together to overcome challenges. In order words, we should avoid seeing ourselves as the solution and saviors to the communities we work with. In the past, I wrongly believed that, as community development practitioners, we are experts and should be telling communities what to do and how they should. 
  • Also, I have learned to explicitly recognize the power and potential of every community and its members and to reflect on my inner biases while allowing communities to believe in their collective power and use that power together for collective benefit.
  • Working with the Movement of community-led has also reaffirmed my confidence and trust to believe that communities are capable to make decisions and they should be given the platform to lead using their knowledge to achieve their aspirations. 
  • In order words shifting the power to communities must be intentional and people should not only be asked to participate but their mindset and capacity should be set to understand why they are asked to participate and how they will benefit from participating. Women are finding their voices and men are listening. 

Sera: What advice would you give to someone who is new to community-led development?

My humble advice for community-led-development covers the following;

  • Approach communities with humility, respect, and values for their culture and traditions. 
  • Understand you will fail at some point, but don’t give up, get up and keep moving forward.
  • Trust communities. Community leaders must focus both on asking how we can help if help is needed and on trusting that communities should determine how to overcome their challenges.
  • Be intentional about seeking feedback from community members no matter how uncomfortable you may be. It will make a big difference
  • Develop interest to understand how to respond appropriately to the internal and external environments where your initiative/organization operates. Understanding the wider setting like the political dynamics, policies, future trends, key actors, organizational structures, and the dynamics of stakeholders will ensure that real operations are in line with the intended strategy. 
  • Provide opportunities for intentional learning and knowledge sharing at the organizational and community level 
  • Place communities at the center of every decision you make; be Community-Led by allowing communities to take the lead in planning, designing solutions, implementing, and tracking their progress. 

Sheku Mohamed Gassimu Jr. is the Partnership and Program Director at OneVillage Partners, a non-profit organization that works on community-led development projects aiming to transform communities and the lives of people in rural Sierra Leone. Sheku is a Male, a Sierra Leonean (Sierra Leone is found in West Africa), and from the Mende ethnic group (one of the largest-speaking tribes in the country). Sheku is adaptable, infectious and friendly, resilient, and celebrates diversity.  Sheku has 8years of experience in the Community-Led development sector and managing community programs that work with rural communities to plan, design, mobilize, implement, monitor, and evaluate self-targeted projects. Sheku holds a B.SC. (Hons) in Sociology from Njala University, Sierra Leone.