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Student Works in 'What Used to Be a War Zone' in Sierra Leone

September 18, 2013

Daniel Pinto co-op in Sierra Leone

Burning garbage, open sewers and mud huts constantly remind me that I am living in the third world. Bombed-out houses, young people with no hands and a noticeable military presence remind me that I am living in what used to be a war zone. What’s worse is that Kono District had the potential to be one of the most vibrant and profitable regions in all of West Africa. 

      -Daniel Pinto, on his co-op in Sierra Leone

Not many students can manage a factory for their co-op like Daniel Pinto did for three months, but then again not many students would jump at the opportunity to work in Kono District, the epicenter of Sierra Leone’s diamond-fueled 10-year-long civil war.

Pinto worked as an intern with Wellbody Alliance, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that provides life-saving healthcare to the people of Kono, serving nearly 20,000 patients a year. As an international business pre-junior, he focused on the business side of the nonprofit’s newest venture, a project called Palm 2 Palm.

Instead of giving a man a proverbial fish for a day, Palm 2 Palm engages rural farmers by teaching them how to earn a sustainable income for their family. Farmers sell their produce to Palm 2 Palm’s palm oil factory, which processes it into oil and soap. The products are then sold in the market of Koidu Town, Kono District’s capital city.

While Pinto was in Sierra Leone this summer, he managed 15 people in the factory while overseeing day-to-day operations, communicating with the farmers and creating financial projections for when each round of oil and soap production would be completed.

The civil war and “blood-diamond” industry have changed most aspects of daily life in Kono, including how citizens earn a living. Most of the diamonds that had brought conflict and international scrutiny to one of the poorest districts in one of the least livable countries in the world have already been found and taken, usually when the rebels needed to finance the war.

“Before the war, you could go to a local stream, pick up a handful of dirt and find diamonds,” Pinto said.

He still saw diamonds while in Sierra Leone, but now they are deeper, harder to find and often controlled by the international corporations that swooped in after the rebels who had originally seized the area’s rich diamond reserves signed a peace treaty ending the conflict.

“People there have relied on diamonds forever, but now that the diamonds are taken away, there’s no way to make a living,” Pinto said.

Pinto took every opportunity to immerse himself in the culture. He often rode a motorbike to rural farms for negotiations, and he took a five-hour ride to and from Mt. Bintumani, the tallest mountain in West Africa, which he climbed in 10 hours. The active student ran a half marathon in Makeni, the country’s fourth-largest city, and played soccer with locals in Koidu Town. He also helped kill, skin and clean a goat for a pepper soup feast with community members.

Pinto said he had wanted to go to Sierra Leone since he was 12. That’s when he first read “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier,” Ishmael Beah’s book about his experiences in Sierra Leone’s civil war.

“It had such an impact on me because I was the same age when he was a child soldier,” Pinto said. “I couldn't imagine going through what he did.”

Unwilling to sit in a cubicle for his co-op, Pinto reached out to Wellbody Alliance about the Sierra Leone position and was finally able to visit the country he had read about so many years ago.

“My parents were totally supportive,” he said. “They just asked ‘Are you sure?’ and once I said yes, they asked, ‘Are you really sure?’ Some friends thought this was an amazing opportunity. And some friends thought I was insane.”

Pinto is working with Neil Desnoyers, an assistant clinical professor in Drexel’s LeBow College of Business, to write a research paper using Pinto’s co-op experience as a case study.

The thrill-seeking student who doesn’t mind living out of a suitcase is now studying abroad in Birmingham, England, for the fall term.

What’s next for Pinto? He didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I want to go to Hong Kong to study abroad or co-op abroad. I have field experience and really enjoyed doing that, but I want to do something on the other end of the spectrum for sure,” he said.