Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.
There is more to Sierra Leone than Freetown and the peninsula beaches. My first journey ‘up country’ was to a small village near Port Loko – three hours drive each way. A group of ladies from the International Women’s Club (IWC) gathered early one morning, ready to pile into the project’s Landcruiser and set off. We had been invited by one of our members, Ann Beatty, who is a volunteer with Educaid and keen for us to see the work they are doing.
We have all made the journey down the hill to the centre of town many times, but for some of us this was the first time into the eastern side of the city, where the one road is choked with traffic, mingling with hand carts piled high with goods, being dodged by pedestrians and okadas. Despite our early departure, we were not quite early enough to avoid the jams. It took over an hour to negotiate the sprawl of Freetown. We were then released on to the open road and the joyful surprise that it is smooth and easy driving! Of course, not completely relaxing as there are lorries with varying acceleration, taxis which continue to stop without notice and vehicles of dubious roadworthiness, as well as long distances buses which hurtle along at break-neck speed.
We passed through the busy town of Waterloo (named after the famous battle by some settlers from a regiment which fought there) where the road is lined with stalls selling all manner of goods. The road branches off here to follow the eastern side of the hills which form the peninsula and gives access to the southern beaches – it completes the circuit of the road leaving the western side of the city.
After Freetown, the landscape opened out, with the wide vista over the river estuary to our left, while the hills rose to the right, then the scenery became flatter. We crossed a low line of hills and were then beyond sight of the peninsula. The road passes through numerous village settlements with different styles of buildings, many concrete, some using local materials. The specialty of one village was clear from the roadside stalls selling colourful baskets (it demanded a stop on our return: I couldn’t resist the chance to buy baskets for my fruit and vegetable shopping – to avoid the ubiquitous, flimsy plastic bags).
At one point the road is choked by a single lane bridge and locals on both sides have taken the opportunity to set up stalls selling fruit and vegetables. On our return journey we stocked up on fruit and nuts at cheaper prices than are available in Freetown.
We took a brief tour around Port Loko, where shiny solar-powered street lights had recently been installed, before taking to the more ‘normal’ (read ‘unsurfaced, bumpy’) local roads to the village of Maronka. The access road we used is only passable in the dry season as the wet weather washes away the small bridge crossing the stream (currently a trickle). The alternative route adds another 5 miles to the journey.
Educaid was founded by Miriam Mason-Sesay, who was awarded an MBE in the UK’s New Year’s honours and more recently here in Sierra Leone, the Order of Rokel, presented at State House by the President, in recognition of her efforts to provide quality education in Sierra Leone. As we drove along these rural roads with windows wide open, we heard the cry of ‘Miriam’ from everyone we passed – white women driving; must be Miriam! One okada rider began ‘Miriam!’ then ‘Not Miriam!’
In Maronka, Educaid have built a girl’s safe house and a primary school. Girls from abused and vulnerable backgrounds come to live here from a wide surrounding area. They live together in the safe house and attend the school. Although supervised by staff, the older children look after the younger ones, forming small ‘family’ groups, and help each other with tasks such as washing their own clothes. The boys are currently billeted around the small village beside the school, but a new house is being built to accommodate them together. There is now a need to extend the girl’s house as it is becoming overcrowded. The girls are also taught vocational skills like dressmaking and have started making skirts on sale via their own label ‘Mariama’ in UK at http://www.houseofbeth.com/collections/beths-shop.
School was in session, so we peered in through the open shutters. Those of us who have seen other West African schools, could immediately see the difference in the ethos here: the class sizes were much smaller, the desks were not in rows facing forwards, the atmosphere was calm, the children were (mostly) smiling and they were interacting with the teachers, not just chanting and repeating answers. The class clapped correct answers. And most importantly the teachers did not wield a stick! The other surprise was how young many of the teachers are, including the 20 year old Headteacher!
The Headteacher also doubled as director of a play the older pupils enacted for us on the subject of child trafficking; a man goes to a village offering to take two children to his home to educate and help them. However the children are treated as slaves and not sent to school. The intervention of the Family Support Unit who arrest the adults concerned ended the piece. This scenario is all too common throughout West Africa – poor parents are duped into letting their children go ‘to a better life’ by unscrupulous people who then treat those children badly, either in their own country or abroad. They have performed for local villages and won a drama competition in Port Loko.
All schooling is provided free of charge and a ‘no uniform’ policy ensures no one is excluded because of cost. Around 50% of the children live-in and these costs are met by Educaid as well. The largest part of the budget is spent on teacher salaries. Educaid have been training teachers to deliver more child-centred learning, encouraging children to be part of the process and to ask questions. The method is paying dividends. The two secondary schools which Educaid run came 1st and 2nd in last year’s leaving certificate exams. Hundreds of pupils have gone on to tertiary education in Sierra Leone and 6 have gone overseas on scholarships. Not only have Educaid trained teachers for their own schools, but teachers from local schools have also benefited from training and the local education minister is now squarely behind the efforts to improve local education using these methods. There are requests from teachers much further afield and Educaid would like to be able to extend their programme to include as many as possible.
Beyond the classrooms, we explored the village, meeting the chief, his wife, grandchild and elderly mother. He is chief of a number of surrounding villages and has been very keen to support the project. In between the buildings and compounds there were goats, chickens, dogs and ducks wandering at will. The trees were literally dripping with succulent mangoes! Cashews were there to be picked and not far away palms for oil grow, bananas and papaya too. There must be worse places to live!
After a delicious communal lunch, we presented the school with a large bag of rice and a bag of supplies for each pupil, before we took our leave for the return journey. We stopped briefly at the secondary school at Rolal, where we also received a warm welcome. We all felt enthused by such a positive project with proven outcomes. There is so much which needs to be improved in Sierra Leone, but much stems from education. This project does not rely on fancy buildings or expensive equipment, but on the fundamentals of changing teacher behaviour and changing the method of delivering education.
This entry has a postscript: I was walking on Lumley beach with some ladies, including Ann on Thursday morning when a young girl selling limes approached us. She asked if she could tell me her story. She told me her name was Susan and that her father and mother were both dead and she lived with her ‘aunty’ (this is a term used for any adult female – not necessarily a relative) who was supposed to take care of her, but refused to pay her school fees and made her go out to sell limes. She also said she was not fed properly. Her clothes were ragged. Ann suggested she take herself to the Educaid school in Lumley where she could go to school for free and gave her the address. We hope she will take up the offer
PS: I am away from Freetown for a few weeks, so will not be adding any posts for a while. Back soon!