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Jonathan Lewis

Jonathan Lewis

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Bill Maher (and I) to Learn Anti-Cynicism Cure

Posted: 05/17/11 01:29 PM ET

Bill Maher is a modern Mark Twain. From his hilariously wry commentary, I am guessing, just guessing, that we share a cynicism, or at least skepticism, about societal artifices. We both, I presume, look askance at sappy appeals for our money, shun institutional pomposity and push back against ideologues and dogma (hello, religionists and market fundamentalists).

Why Maher is attending a fundraising dinner on May 25 in Los Angeles for Shine on Sierra Leone is a mystery. I will be there too. I'll have to ask him.

Sierra Leone is a tough country: Life expectancy is a paltry 43 years (190th worst in the world!). Health expenditure per person is a nearly invisible $29. The literacy rate at 38 percent means 62 out of every 100 adults cannot read or write.

Wretchedly, if you are Sierra Leone mother who gave birth today, there is a higher chance that your child will be dead within five years than in any other country in the world.

Since independence in 1961, the ensuing years have been marred by endless civil wars, coups and battles to control Sierra Leone's diamond mines. In 2007, Sierra Leone conducted its first free, fair and peaceful election. Now with a stable government and a steadily rising GDP, there is some hope.

In 2006, Tiffany Persons of Los Angeles (pictured here in Sierra Leone; Photo credit: Selita Ebanks) was in Sierra Leone to film a documentary. By accident, she discovered the cure for cynicism.

Stumbling into a roofless, dilapidated village school, the Muddy Lotus School, she saw 416 pupils without enough schools seats, let alone books or supplies. Ignoring the torrential rains pouring into the classrooms, the teachers, who had not eaten in two days, stuck to their lessons. Describing the students, she says, "I had never in my life seen a thirst for knowledge like this."

Tiffany took it upon herself to raise a modest $6,000 to rehab the school. When the work was done, she reports, "the men, women and children of the village spilled into the streets laughing, singing, and dancing in gratitude. It was quite simply the best day of my life."

Since then, Shine on Sierra Leone has grown to build more schools, a healthy birthing clinic and a groundbreaking microcredit lending program which finances agricultural microloans (at $200 each) for the mothers of students enrolled in school. Today, 6000 people are supporting their families. With a loan repayment rate of 97 percent, this program is now entirely self-supporting, employing 23 full-time local staff.

As a result, two Opportunity Collaboration delegates, MicroCredit Enterprises and the Feed The Hunger Foundation are arranging financing to reach even more parent-farmers. MicroCredit Enterprises has already made a $250,000 loan, hopefully the first of many.

Tiffany talks about the "...many [who] may have a scarred impression of Sierra Leone, but I see the true Sierra Leone. I think of...an incredible generation of young people that believe in peace and a new bright future."

The cure for cynicism Tiffany takes, we can all take. Even Bill Maher. Even me. Even you.