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Farming on Crutches with the Sierra Leone Amputee Sports Association

In 2023 Be The Earth supported the Sierra Leone Amputee Sports Association (SLASA) Farming on Crutches programme, an initiative to help amputees train others to farm with nature using regenerative techniques. We are committed to furthering regenerative agriculture and fairer food systems, and developing human connection to the land for health and healing.

It’s a balmy afternoon in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and two amputees lay down their crutches to sort through bags of soil in the shade of a resplendent tree. Another person makes his way towards them, aided by crutches and neatly balancing a large bag of compost atop his head. The group have been busy preparing raised beds and mulching them with dry grass before adding composted chicken manure mixed with Bokashi – an ingenious Japanese invention made by pickling food waste before transforming it into the most nutritious compost. 

Already one of the poorest countries in the world, Sierra Leone was devastated by civil war from 1991 to 2002 which killed at least 50,000 people across the country. The conflict robbed thousands more of their limbs; some lost them in brutal amputations, others when bullet wounds went untreated for lack of medical facilities.

Pastor Mambud Samai co-founded the Sierra Leone Amputee Sports Association (SLASA) in 2001 with the belief that sports activities can play an important role in their recovery. Dressed in a vibrant red and purple patterned shirt with a calm, thoughtful demeanour, he has dedicated his life to this calling – so much so that he was recently recognised as a ‘changemaker’ by CNN. Not content with running an internationally renowned football team for amputees, however, Samai also traveled to Japan in 2018 to study leadership in sustainable agriculture and community development. 

It was there that Samai learned about Bokashi, which adds essential nutrients and structure to soil to support improved crop growth and can be made from easily available local materials, without dependency on damaging commercial fertilizers.

Be The Earth is passionate about nurturing diverse and localised economic models that reduce dependency, monoculture and exploitation. When Semai came back to Freetown, the initiative Farming on Crutches sprang up, and we were excited to hear about the ways we could help his mission. 

Farming on crutches

In 2020 Farming on Crutches opened a 3-acre demonstration farm founded on permaculture practices. The grounds had been donated by the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2010, but had lain idle until donations allowed it to be developed as a farm and training centre – which now includes accommodation, a well, solar power and trickle irrigation. 

The project now teaches regenerative agriculture practices and techniques through this hands-on Permaculture Design Course, and enables participants to return to their communities to grow their own food or set up sustainable food growing enterprises. Food is at the heart of our relationship with ourselves, with our bodies, with our communities, and with the land. “This is my dream and this is my passion, to make sure that every life, irrespective of your disability and irrespective of your background, you are able to be happy, you are able to smile at the end of the day” says Samai.

Now, the farm is a hive of activity. Trainees use watering cans to provide water to the raised plant beds. The bright green plastic clashes brightly with their colourful shorts and T-shirts, while the group’s flurry of activity kicks up a plume of dust all around. Supported by the UK pastoral farming community and Be the Earth, the Farming on Crutches course was originally co-designed with 16 amputees to help their peers learn to farm in harmony with nature, but has benefited many more people since then. 

Fermenting ideas 

A key aim is to help farmers to reduce (and ideally eliminate) agricultural loans by adopting the environmentally friendly Bokashi method. SLASA has trained 45 farmers on crutches in 2022, most of whom have gone on to set up farms and enterprises in their communities. SLASA now wants to train the remaining 305 amputees at an indicative cost of £120,000. 

They also hope to establish a demonstration farm – each with a trainer/extension officer – in each of the four remaining provinces, and subsequently extend Farming on Crutches to the 6 other countries in West Africa to enable amputees to gain food security for themselves and their families. Eventually, the team would like to extend the scheme to the remaining 12 other countries across Africa and establish Farming on Crutches in Sierra Leone as a centre of excellence on the continent. 

On the ball

Also in Freetown, not far away from the farm, a red and white ball flies through the air before it is skilfully trapped on the rusty soil by a single football boot. Another player goes in for a tackle, fiercely approaching his opponent with the aid of two sturdy crutches. It’s the beautiful game, but not as you know it: just like Farming on Crutches, all seven outfielders are single-legged amputees, while the goalkeepers only have one arm.  

“Football is very important to the amputees because it brings them together in a kind of fellowship” says Samai. After he returned home from war, “I wanted to engage myself in doing something”, Samai explains. “I saw 270 amputees at the amputee camp… they actually needed support because at that time, there were no activities like trauma recovery for them. And so amputees believed that once they have lost their limbs and their legs, they have no future. As a pastor I thought that this was wrong. So I volunteered myself to give them confidence.” 

Sierra Leone is itself busy rebuilding itself as it comes to terms with its recent history. Heavily indebted and one of the least developed countries in the world, in 2014 it was also the epicentre of the deadly Ebola virus epidemic. “You can see a lot of amputees on the streets of Freetown, begging,” explains Samai. “They think: ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t have anyone to support me”. 

Ambassadors of peace

Growing in popularity since its early days, SLASA now has 350 members – both male and female – playing in six football teams. There are two in Western Urban and Rural district and one each in Makeni, Kenema, Bo and Kailahun.

The Association officers are elected from among the players so that 95% are amputees, supplemented by 5% able-bodied volunteers. SLASA has competed in international programmes including the African Amputee tournament and the War Amputee Football Tournament, a fact which makes its players glow with pride. “They are contributing something back to society. So they feel very good and very proud.”

Goalkeeper Ali Badara Kamara was reluctant to join SLASA at first. “My mother was afraid for me to play football because she sees me as an amputee. She thought that if I fell on the floor, I would have another problem”. But he’s glad he took the chance and didn’t listen too carefully to his mother. “SLASA took me to Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania… Football is a great job for me because I think football is the best game ever in the world.”

The scheme is well-loved amongst Sierra Leone’s general population. Samai likens the experience to “therapy” and explains that the footballers have become “ambassadors of peace”. Witnessing the joy and empowerment of SLASA games helps families experiencing stress or trauma to find hope. 

There are other wider benefits, too. SLASA works closely with the National Rehabilitation Center in Sierra Leone and partners with international organizations like SwissLimbs to provide prosthetics for amputees and train local technicians. The ultimate goal is to build a regulation pitch and rehabilitation centre of its own. 

With such a varied and inspiring output on the pitch and in the fields, we’re sure that SLASA's projects will go from strength to strength with the help of those who can support their work. Farmers like those involved with Farming on Crutches maintain a deep connection with the natural world, passing on the wisdom of regenerative practices to help humanity prioritise life on Earth.

To support Farming on Crutches and the groundbreaking work of SLASA, please click here


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