by Christine Ennulat, ChildFund International
Davidson Jonah is the ChildFund Alliance Field Operations Support Director and co-chair of the Humanitarian Assistance Communications Unit. His 29 years with ChildFund tell an inspiring story that’s still being written.
As a boy in rural Sierra Leone, Davidson Jonah was his grandmother’s right-hand man. His role in her small-trade business was to walk to the nearby towns each weekend and sell the goods — “different types of produce, cakes of soap, foodstuffs,” he says. He would carry it all on his head to the villages and then bring the day’s proceeds back to his grandmother. “I walked 30 to 40 kilometers on the weekends,” he remembers. “In the evenings during the week, I would sell bread, then return the next day to collect the money.”
But if an elder stopped him along the way, “Ohhh,” he says, “you stop what you’re doing, and you do what they ask. And you do it fully. Because you don’t know why that person needs that help, and if something goes wrong with them, you blame yourself for the rest of your life.”
Decades later, as ChildFund’s field operations support director, Davidson still works to serve people. “I grew up liking people,” he says. “I always wanted to do something good for somebody.” This impulse is what brought him to ChildFund. And it’s what has kept him here.
A year after leaving his village to complete his secondary education, Davidson realized he wanted to go to college and study agriculture. “I wanted something that would take me to the community, working with people,” he says. But then, armed with his degree, he found that a job as an agricultural officer would keep him in an office, not out in the community. So, he went back to university. “I wanted to be a teacher, to teach kids to farm.”
He began his teaching career in a peri-urban area, where most of his students’ parents made their livings as small farmers, which allowed Davidson to blend his skills to help them. “I visited them in their gardens, showed them how to improve what they were doing,” he says. “And I became interested in working with youth.”
Soon, Davidson was spending his Saturdays helping groups of boys earn their school fees by doing landscaping for local gas stations. By then married and a father, he continued teaching during the week.
One day, an American stopped by one of the landscaping sites and asked Davidson what he was doing. “I’m teaching them to do floriculture,” he answered, “and they’re earning their education.” About three weeks later, the man — who turned out to be a director with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) — tracked him down. “My friend, you shouldn’t be teaching,” he said. “You have skills for community work rather than teaching.”
As it happened, Christian Children’s Fund was gearing up to begin working in Sierra Leone and was sharing office space and a mailbox with CRS. A year later, in 1985, when CCF finally opened its Sierra Leone office, the organization recruited Davidson to work with families of children being enrolled for sponsorship. First, they sent him to Kenya to learn about goat and sheep management and about how Kenya’s many programs were set up. “When I came back to Sierra Leone, I was the authority on setting up programs,” he says, with a little laugh.
The newly minted program officer and his colleagues began gradually building out Sierra Leone’s initiatives. After a while, Davidson says, “I pushed my nose into sponsorship — there were a lot of issues with mail and sponsorship.” Then, after a stint as sponsorship manager, Davidson was appointed country program manager. He would become Sierra Leone’s national director.
That year, Sierra Leone’s civil war reached Freetown. “We were there, managing our programs, but then it became a situation we couldn’t contain,” says Davidson. “I organized the evacuation of staff and family members, 101 people in four buses, and we drove to Guinea”. Many Sierra Leoneans had fled to Guinea, where the police, Davidson says, were “outrageous,” ruling with an iron hand.
Senegal’s national director coordinated with Davidson to have the staff airlifted to Senegal, where they expected to stay a week, maybe two, expecting that things would get better in Freetown.
But they didn’t get better. Sierra Leone’s programs closed down, and sponsorship stopped.
While Sierra Leone’s staff languished in Senegal, they learned that international development agencies were becoming increasingly active in Guinea, working with refugees.
“I said, ‘I want to go back,'” says Davidson. “‘I want to go back to Conakry — we need to be part of that.’ So I walked out with some staff while others remained in Senegal, and some were taken to Gambia to assist with the enrollment process of new children to meet the increase in quota allocated to these two national offices as a result of Sierra Leone’s closing down of sponsorship.”
Davidson went to Guinea with a staff of six. “We got some resources from UNICEF because they had money to support Sierra Leone children in refugee camps and provide services to children who had been released by the rebels,” he says. The group set out to work with those groups as well as other children who had been arrested and jailed in Guinea. “We worked through the refugee camp and community structures. There were lots of teachers and nurses who were refugees, so we created a psychosocial trainers team — teachers and nurses and social workers.” These activities were the first seeds of what would become ChildFund’s signature intervention in emergencies, our Child-Centered Spaces.
After a year of this work, Davidson traveled for the first time to the United States for a national directors’ conference at CCF’s Richmond headquarters. “I visited the U.S. as a refugee in Guinea,” he remembers. “I was here when it was announced that a peace accord had been signed”.
“I said, ‘I’m going home.’ Everyone told me to wait and see. ‘I’m going home. Why did you save my life? This is the time for me to go back and help my people!'”
And so he did — straight to Freetown. When he arrived in CCF’s Sierra Leone office, he found a working telephone amid the cobwebs. He called Richmond. “I am here in the office!” he told them. “There’s a bullet hole in my office window!”
Davidson began pulling his colleagues back into Sierra Leone and putting things back together, approaching donors, re-launching programs. “And then the war started accelerating again,” he says. “They came on January 6, 1999, and totally disrupted everything.”
Phone lines were partly down — calls could come in but not go out. “You couldn’t even light a fire in your house, because the rebels would know you were cooking,” he remembers. People were driven from their homes; by the end of several devastating weeks, 60,000 displaced people had made camp in Freetown’s stadium.
As staff traveled around to places where people were displaced — churches, mosques, anywhere there was an open space — they discovered a dynamic that posed an enormous challenge, and a gap that CCF could fill: People didn’t know how to access the services available to them, or even that these services existed.
“People were suffering at the food center, because they didn’t know the process — they were not getting the food,” Davidson says. “No one in the cluster [of responding agencies] had thought about connecting people to the services. The U.K’s Department for International Development had a satellite clinic. People did not know they could use those places — they are not getting services because they didn’t know how to get them. What we could do was educate them.” They worked this way for about six months, until the situation began to normalize.
As the conflict slowly resolved and aid agencies began their response, CCF Sierra Leone looked to the particular needs of children. Working through other agencies, they provided clothing, blankets and mats for displaced children. They also provided play activities, just as they had in Guinea, this time asking older people to help children learn about their communities and keep them busy, telling them stories and teaching them drumming.
Then came the work to support the devastated country’s recovery. One initiative, launched in 2002, was a USAID-funded skills training and community rehabilitation program to help ex-combatants reintegrate into their communities. This supported community actions to rebuild community structures destroyed by the fighting — schools, mosques, churches, community halls and more. “We worked more with youths to help them start their lives again,” Davidson says. The initiative provided clients with loans and financial services to help them launch small businesses. The initial loans were to be given out six months prior to the end of the grant, and Davidson prevailed upon CCF to provide support for additional six months, giving the initiative’s participants enough time to find their footing and pay back their loans. The program eventually became Salone Microfinance Trust, which registered as an independent NGO in 2007 and continues today as an independent partner of ChildFund, with eight branch offices.
Meanwhile, CCF Sierra Leone grew as well. In 2003, in the middle of moving the office to a new building, CCF called on Davidson to go to Chad, where a refugee crisis was unfolding due to the political situation in Sudan. He led the team there for a year, during which, at a child protection meeting at the Richmond HQ, he was offered the position of child protection officer, field based — a change in position and title to reflect the broader geography of his evolving role with CCF.
When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in December 2004, all focus shifted to south Asia, and so did Davidson, deploying there for a year and some months.
A new role awaited him when he returned to Africa in 2005: field operations manager for Africa. “At that time, most of the national directors were new,” says Davidson, “and they needed someone to work with them — support them, orient them, alert them to issues.” In 2007, as the organization restructured into a regional model and CCF’s new executive vice president for programs, Isam Ghanim, began building the Africa team, Davidson became a field operations support director for Africa. When that role became global in 2010, Davidson applied and got the job, which he has held since. His work is 75 percent emergencies, 25 percent sponsorship.
He is now in his 30th year with ChildFund.
Asked why he has stayed with the organization for so long, Davidson rears back and says, “Ohhhhh. I get that question all the time. OK, good. I’ll say it again and again and again.
“It is the fact that I have the opportunity to be able to use my skills and talents to help people. I’m someone who loves people. I just like to be with people, work with people. ChildFund gives me that opportunity — to use my knowledge, to work with whatever resources I have to do it.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with UNICEF, but it’s a situation in which the order comes from above. ‘This grant is coming, it’s been decided, it’s going to this partner, and that’s the way.’ No. ChildFund affords me the opportunity to sit with people and say, ‘Hey, what is the situation here? How do you want to deal with it? We’ve got this money, it might not be big money, it might not be too much ….’ But at least you can give it to them and say use it the way you think it is best to deal with the issue. Remember the story about after the war — ChildFund helped us to get a grant from USAID, and today it’s a microfinance company. So, that is what has kept me, and I really value that.
“It’s not about the organization; it’s about what the people they’re working with value.”
Now those people — Davidson’s people — are in a very serious emergency. So, he’s going home again, albeit to Senegal because he can work most effectively there until the situation stabilizes. But, after all, helping people is his home. And, he says, “Ebola is calling.”