Wata Nabieu takes the chocolate bar and carefully unwraps the top. She giggles at us watching her and breaks off a piece, giving it a nervous nibble. Then she passes it to her three-year-old daughter, Yema. Wata pulls the gold wrapper back more and bites. She closes her eyes. “Milk… sugar… cocoa?” she murmurs. Her smile widens. She takes a bigger bite. It’s a privilege to watch someone eat chocolate for the first time: a Willy Wonka moment. All the more special because 40-year-old Wata Nabieu has laboured for most of her life in the cocoa plantations of Sierra Leoneso that other people can eat chocolate. What if she didn’t like it?
We are sitting under one of the cocoa trees planted 30 years ago by Wata’s father. Now she works the farm alone, except at harvest time when the neighbours help. Most days she’s out here, chasing monkeys and birds away from the ripening fruit, clearing undergrowth – “In it there can be hidden snakes. Or men”. On the back of Wata’s ragged T-shirt, inherited from an NGO, are the words “Love and development”. Wata finishes off the finger bar of milk chocolate. The gold foil falls to the ground, where it settles beside a many-horned orange-pink orchid, a flower straight from the rainforest in Avatar. The chocolate is made by the Divine Chocolate company which has, since last year, been using Fairtrade Sierra Leonean cocoa – including the beans from Wata’s trees.
What’s the verdict? We ask. “Deya,” says Wata. “It’s fine.” She grins. Yema, meanwhile, is busy licking her fingers having painted her bare tummy with melted chocolate. Not many people in Wata’s village of cocoa and coffee farmers have ever tasted the product of their work – but then there are very few luxuries here in the remote east of a country that consistently comes at the bottom of the United Nations lists of wealth and development. One in six women in Sierra Leone will die in childbirth, and one in four children will not reach the age of five. Wata, like more than half the women her age, cannot read and has never been to school.
Wata and her family have known a lot of death: she has lost her father, her brother and her first husband. They all died during Sierra Leone’s vicious 11-year civil war, which finally came to an end in 2002. All of the country suffered, as rebel militias twice seized control, with a cruel policy of savage retribution against civilians who did not support them. Rape and murder were common, children forced to become soldiers and turned against their own families, and a usual punishment for opposition the amputation of your hands or arms. “Short sleeve, or long sleeve?” asked the militia men as they raised their machetes. When I went to Sierra Leone as a reporter in 2000, the streets of the capital were full of children and adults with missing limbs.
Kenema, the district where Wata and her family live, was particularly dangerous then: it’s here that diamonds, Sierra Leone’s only major source of wealth, are found. Lust for the minerals fuelled the civil war, and the resulting turmoil made Wata and the rest of the village part-time refugees for nearly a decade. “When we ran away from the rebel soldiers, that’s when my husband was killed. Then we all lived by finding wood in the forest and selling it. Sometimes we would sneak back home to harvest the cocoa from our trees. But it was very dangerous.” One of the cocoa farmers, Ibrahim Moseray, told me he had cherished a dream during that terrible time. Before the war, in the early 1990s, Ibrahim worked sometimes for a Scots cocoa buyer who would visit Kenema regularly to negotiate for cocoa beans from the Lebanese traders who bought from the villages. Ibrahim had learnt a lot about the trade, about the profits and the tricks – how the buyers would visit the villages during the dry months, “the hunger season”, and lend the families rice.
When the cocoa crop was ready in January the buyers would reclaim the debt, asking payment of one sack of cocoa beans for one of rice: grotesquely unfair. But the villagers, without communications or education, unaware of the real price of cocoa, were in no position to argue. “And they had to feed their children,” says Ibrahim. Ibrahim’s dream, as the families lived on the run during the war, was simple: “Things were at their worst in 1998. We were all displaced because of the war, the cocoa price had collapsed and the buyers were giving farmers promissory notes, not even money. So we started thinking: after the war we’re going to have to export the cocoa ourselves. “We formed a cocoa group to go to the village with the government soldiers to harvest our trees, and so we started to work together. We called ourselves “Kpeya” which means “Give way” in Mende – we were calling on the world to give way and let us sell our cocoa for ourselves.”
When the war ended, Kpeya made a useful alliance with Africa’s most successful cocoa cooperative, Kuapa Kokoo (Good Cocoa Farmers’ Company) in Ghana. Set up in 1993 and now with 47,000 farmer members, Kuapa is the main source of Fairtrade chocolate, now supplying Cadbury (for Dairy Milk) and Mars (for KitKat). It owns nearly half of Britain’s Divine chocolate company, which had a £12.5m turnover last year – a share of which goes straight back to the farmers. The advice from Kuapa and the NGOs to the Sierra Leonean farmers was plain – they needed to produce better cocoa to attract higher prices. So training was set up for the cocoa farmers of Kpeya by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. They re-learned their trade in everything from pruning trees and pest control to better fermenting and drying of the cocoa beans. And they were also taught to farm without recourse to any chemicals. Fertilisers and pesticides are not easy to get hold of in rural Sierra Leone, but it means the Kpeya chocolate can be called organic, too.
By last year, Kpeya was ready to achieve the old dream of selling its cocoa direct for export. Its first container – some 12.5 tonnes – of high quality, Fairtrade-certified cocoa went to Europe, to become Divine Chocolate. The 300 farmers received an above the market price for their beans, and put some of the premium into building storage sheds and an office from which to run the cooperative. Divine bought them a pick-up truck. And the effects in villages such as Batiama were immediate: everyone, I was told with pride, now owns a pair of shoes. On the road into Kenema – newly rebuilt with Chinese aid money – there are neat piles of rocks: one source of income for landless rural people is to gather them by hand in the hope someone laying concrete or building a house may need the rubble. Many of the bigger buildings we pass, like the schools or Kenema’s college, are still roofless and derelict eight years after the war.
Kenema is a frontier town. In its shabby, busy streets there are diamond dealers’ shops, casinos and banks with armed guards outside them; in the one hotel large Lebanese men smoke hookahs as they do business with unfriendly white men with leathery skin. Ibrahim Moseray, Kpeya’s elected manager, looks out of place here in his tribal clothes – he is wearing the uniform of hereditary speaker for the chief. But he is full of confidence as we go to see his bank manager. This official, Mr Turay, is friendly and impressed when presented with some Divine chocolate, but firm: he’s not going to offer credit to a bunch of cocoa farmers from the sticks. He needs better assurances of Kpeya’s financial solidity. Ibrahim looks disappointed. He needs cash to complete the cocoa purchases as the harvest time comes to an end. It is hard trying to persuade the 300 farmer-members of Kpeya to resist the Lebanese dealers’ offers (and the hunger pangs) and hold out for the better prices he knows he can offer them, when the advance payment for this year’s harvest turns up.
Building the farmers’ faith in the new organisation is not easy: the old-time traders have every reason to hope Kpeya will fail. One Dutch cocoa-buyer told a meeting he didn’t want high quality cocoa from Sierra Leone – he could make more money out of the poor quality stuff. And it seems that sometimes everything from officialdom to the local thieves who stole the sink from the new office the other day are lining up against Kpeya. “Everyone’s trying to squeeze us, put us out of business,” says Ibrahim, grinning. “The buyers are against us because they know we’re pushing prices up, and educating the farmers. But our farmers our saying no to them: ‘We’re with Kpeya till we die’. We bought them all mobile phones, so they could tell us what was going on, and if they were being misinformed about the prices, we could tell them the truth.” Ibrahim delights in the battle – he says that Kpeya’s next move this harvest season will be to put up the price of a pound of dried beans by 50 leones (about 1p). This will force all the traders to pay more to all the farmers in the region. Already the price of cocoa to the farmers is, at 55p a pound, a third higher than it was last season.
Back in the village Momoh Sellu, the chairman of Kpeya Agricultural Enterprise, tells me about a man who came to the village when he was a child. “I think he was the district officer, one of the Englishmen. They were good men, they built schools and they built roads. He came here in 1933, to the village, and told my father that he ought to plant cocoa. He taught him how to do it and how to look after the plants. He said that we could eat the fruit now, but one day it would make us money. And it was good advice.” Since the Kpeya cooperative was formed the village has been working together much more, Sellu says. The 455 people of Batiama now help each other harvest and dry the beans. The Kpeya committee decided to pay for Wata Nabieu to take her blind son to Freetown, the capital, so he could have an operation that restored his sight. There was a village raffle: the winners getting cash to put shiny zinc sheets on their houses in place of the palm thatch roofs. And with some of the extra cash from the Fairtrade price they have hired a primary teacher. Before the children had to walk three miles to school. “It’s good to be a cocoa farmer – you are respected,” says Sellu happily. “Cocoa farmers usually are very notable in society – they have two or three wives.” Mrs Sellu, Mamie, who is listening, tells me he is useless and too old: but she agrees that the cooperative has been a good thing. “Before when the buyer came he would deduct money as interest on our loans. I’m not educated, and I could not even understand. Now the co-op gives us free loans, if we need them.”
Mamie Sellu is 80, she thinks. She has seen terrible times – two of her children were killed in the war, and she has seen many “hungry seasons” in the annual dry months. She says she isn’t worried now for herself, but for her eight surviving children and 15 grandchildren. Their food and their education depend on an assured price for cocoa. “I don’t want to die and leave my children poor – I’m sending them to school so they can take care of themselves. If they have no way of getting money, my soul will not rest in peace.” Before we leave we watch the effects of a lot of chocolate on children not used to it: the biggest mass sugar high I’ve ever been a party to. The games get wilder, and we end with a huge tournament of grandmother’s footsteps. The giggling, squealing children tumble over each other while the adults smile and gossip. War and famine seem far away. Could those times come again? I ask Ibrahim Moseray. “Everybody smelled the war, everyone felt it,” he says. “They know now what war means. They know we can’t go back.”
article via guardian.co.uk/