Q&A with Gaston Slanwa, Country Director for Tearfund in Liberia and Sierra Leone

Gaston Slanwa is based in Monrovia, capital of Liberia, and has worked for Tearfund for ten years. He explains why he is passionate about working for Tearfund, how a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project is changing lives at an Islamic Primary School in Sierra Leone, and shares practical tips for others working in international development.

Gaston Slanwa. Photo: Daniel Salamu
Gaston Slanwa. Photo: Daniel Salamu

How and why did you start working for Tearfund? 

I began working for Tearfund in 2009 as the Country Representative in Niger until I took my current role in 2017. 

  • I’ve always had a great passion for integral mission, wanting to see the church be an effective agent of community transformation, to be salt and light. The Tearfund vision and mission to end poverty and see the church be an agent of hope falls largely into the area I strongly feel God is calling me to serve him in. 
  • I have a special attachment to Tearfund values and practices, which I’ve had the chance to read about since my high school days, through Footsteps.  
  • I’ve come to know Tearfund as a caring and God-fearing organisation which has kept a Christian identity in a world where it is becoming more difficult to maintain. 
  • Tearfund is giving me an opportunity to influence the church, government and community leadership to transform the world positively by responding to poverty and disasters, issues that are ever-present in the fragile states in which I’m serving. 

What are the key challenges you are facing in your country? 

  • Liberia and Sierra Leone face huge issues of poverty – lack of safe water, poor health and education services, big issues of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM&C), vulnerability to disasters and fragile peace in an environment of poor governance 
  • Limited highly experienced partners to work with and address the challenges in these countries 
  • Donors’ humanitarian fundraising fatigue 
  • High risks of demonstrations and violence 
  • Flooding and mudslides as a result of global warming with excessive rains
Deforestation in Liberia. Photo: Andrew Philip
Deforestation in Liberia. Photo: Andrew Philip

‘Positive change is possible, but there is need for one to keep a balance and create space for God and family to be able to go far.’

Can you tell us about a recent project running in your country that has encouraged you? 

Our partner, EFSL, has been working on a WASH Activity Transforming Life project at Anzaru Islamic Primary school in Sierra Leone. The intervention is bringing better health to children and community members at the moment. We are happy to see change taking place and would like to see more of this happen. Below are statements from four community members:  

‘We have always been without water as far as I can remember. The Government has never provided pipe-borne water or electricity for us. Most homes in our community do not have a latrine so open defecation is very common.’ 

‘We had no clean source of water or toilet before [the WASH project]. Women and children had to walk miles through the bush to fetch water from a contaminated source for household use. Our children were always late for school and sick most of the time due to the contaminated source of water. Taking them to the nearest health facility was a challenge as it was about six miles away on foot. On some occasions, by the time we got there, children died.’ 

‘Tearfund, through EFSL, brought a water well and latrine to our school. Before this children would openly defecate in the nearby bushes and fetch water from the contaminated stream. This was a very serious problem for the school. Absenteeism was very high. A committee was set up to oversee the use of the well and we were trained on how to use the well and given basic tools to help on minor repairs. We were also given block toilets for both male and female children.’ 

‘We feel blessed. This is a Muslim school but that did not stop EFSL from helping us. We feel a sense of belonging due to the consideration given to the school children.’ 

What practical advice would you give to others who might be starting out in this type of work? 

The lesson we want to share is to always keep oneself motivated while trying our best and leaving the results to God. Positive change is possible, but there is a need for one to keep a balance and create space for God and family to be able to go far. 

Which areas are you focusing on in your work? 

  • Increased response to SGBV/FGM&C through greater education, support and advocacy 
  • Encouraging churches to work more and more with their communities to respond to basic poverty issues they are facing using both local resources and networking with allies 
  • Increased local food production creating more jobs and reducing the mass exodus to cities 

Are you introducing any new technology into your work? 

We are dreaming of improving energy in village homes by using solar power in collaboration with CCMP (the church and community mobilisation process) and Tearfund’s broader work on environmental and economic sustainability.