Embracing Peace From Within in Sierra Leone

by | Jul 7, 2023 | Heartivist Of The Week

56.8% of the population in Sierra Leone lived in poverty in 2018, Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey (SLIHS) Report 2018.

“Peace is not something you have outside but it’s what you have to have inside to be able to change things in the world, even if it’s very small; when you work on yourself and you create peace in yourself then you can start radiating that out,” Minna Jarvenpaa, founder of Tools for Inner Peace

Peace is not a dream but the inalienable right of every human being. In order to live fully and thrive we all need peace,and often it is thought of as an environment free of conflict or war, a sum of factors outside ourselves; yet just as the light can always overcome darkness, peace is much more powerful than conflict or war. Peace is finding serenity in ourselves in the midst of chaos, because the source of it comes from within and as Minna Jarvenpaa discovered, tools are needed to find that inner peace. 

Peacebuilding had always been a dream for Minna; it was something she’d been immersed in seeing as her father was a Finnish diplomat. Born in the United States while her father was studying for his PhD, they went on to travel the world which allowed Minna to acquire a rich knowledge of many different cultures and ideologies.

“I had the idea that I wanted to work for peace from the start. I wanted to be a diplomat, like my father. I thought I would do diplomatic negotiations and mediations for peace,” recalls Minna. “At the end of the Bosnian war, I was 25 years old. I  was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and I wanted to bring peace to the world and when I was there I did a lot of negotiations trying to get people from ethnic minorities to return to their homes from which they had been ethnically cleansed. I was going from one village to another trying to work out deals and I loved that work. I was very fulfilled with being able to help to get people back to their homes after a brutal war.”

Finding Peace Through Yoga

Minna studied her bachelors degree in Russian Literature and Slavic languages and started to work for the United Nations in the 90´s in Bosnia. After the war, she obtained her master’s degree in International Relations, and went on to work in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In total, she spent over 10 years in post conflict zones where she experienced riots, suicide bombs and other traumatic events that led her to find another approach to inner peace and well-being.

“I started to practice yoga in  2004. I  was working in Kosovo and I was very stressed out, so a friend of mine took me to a yoga class and for the first time in months I felt like I could really relax and be at peace,” remembers Minna. “After that, I started practicing yoga regularly. But it was later, when I left my career, when I decided yoga had been such a big benefit to me that I wanted to share it with other people, especially those who can’t access it. Because yoga can be perceived as quite elitist, an activity for middle class, skinny, beautiful people. And I wanted to reach out to people who otherwise wouldn’t have money or the opportunity to get these tools which are so simple and so beneficial to everyone. I wasn’t interested in teaching people who could access a nice yoga studio but to really reach out to the people who most needed it, like refugees. So I have worked in refugee camps in Lebanon, with both Syrian and Palestinian refugees.”

How to Reach Out for Peace

Minna began to develop a deep interest in the changes provided by local grassroots peace initiatives. Then in 2017, she founded the Tools for Inner Peace initiative to provide the elements needed to improve the well-being of people living in precarious or traumatic situations through yoga instruction

My focus gradually moved from this kind of more high diplomacy idea that you make peace in boardrooms somewhere. I got more interested in the local approach, how people can make peace among themselves,” explains Minna. “I think that led to me to the idea that peace is not something you have outside but it’s what you have to have inside to be able to change things in the world, even if it’s very small; when you work on yourself and you create peace in yourself then you can start radiating that out.”

Yoga and Healing for Street Youth in Sierra Leone

Through a friend, Minna was invited to be a part of an intensive training program in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for a group of disadvantaged youth; many of them had been homeless, rough sleeping, and had addiction problems. As soon as she got there, they captured her heart.

“I just fell in love with this group and saw so much potential in them,” says Minna. “With four of them, we started an outreach program to reach other homeless street youth and they have been doing an amazing job there for the last year and a half. Sometimes I have 60 people turn out for a class. And this group that I work with are musicians and poets themselves and they bring in music and poetry. There is always a bit of a jam after the yoga class and we serve them a nutritious warm meal at the end of the session.”

Harsh Statistics of Sierra Leone

While working with street youth in Sierra Leone, Minna learned that many of the participants had health problems yet lacked access to health care so she started to have a mobile nurse visit the group once a month. They also decided to serve nutritious vegan meals at the end of the class to provide nourishment for the participants, some of which have very difficult realities such as being sex workers. 

This harsh reality is not far from many in Sierra Leone, a country where poverty had a rate of 56.8% in 2018 and unemployment increased 83.4% from 2011 to 2018, while 38.7% of its population had never attended school, according to the Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey (SLIHS) Report 2018. Furthermore, the Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey 2019 noted that 61% of women age 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and 83% of women in the same age group have been genitally mutilated; 68% of children from 6 to 59 months are anemic as well as women 15 to 49 years; 12% of children under 18 have lost one or both parents; only 58% of the country´s households have piped water and only 23% have electricity nationwide.

A Life Changing Project

Despite the hardships of their surroundings, the group that have engaged in the yoga classes have seen a positive shift in their lives. 

“One of the trainees of the yoga classes was a drug addict and he is no longer using,” says Minna, enthusiastically. “After engaging in the program they are much more focused, they have been able to manage their lives, to make better decisions and they feel healthier. We hope that this same effect is going to be shared and spread throughout the street youth communities and hopefully we can train more of them so that they can earn a bit of an income and impact other communities.”

The project started with crowdfunding and fundraising support, but when a friend from Lebanon told Minna about The Pollination Project, she knew she had to apply for a grant.

“I heard from a friend who got a grant from The Pollination Project, she works in Lebanon giving free clothing to refugees,” remembers Minna. “I applied and we were just so happy when we received the approval, really thrilled to have a grant for this work because we are trying to lay the foundations to make the project more sustainable. We were absolutely thrilled and very grateful.”

The grant will pay for the vegan food that is given to the 30 to 60 participants after their yoga session, and it will provide nutritious meals for 20 weeks.

“I am hoping that there will eventually be enough people who start making changes in themselves and who begin connecting with themselves and nature and finding ways to experience happiness from the small things”, says Minna, as she continues to teach how to embrace peace from within where it’s most needed.

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