Last week I travelled 25 hours to Sierra Leone. It took me five flights and what felt like endless hours in airports to get from East to West Africa. They call it the Africa hop, and I sure hopped! Freetown certainly does feel remote. You land on an island and have to take a 40 minute speedboat across the ocean to the main city. It’s actually a beautiful sight, as the Freetown appears in the distance, built up on hills, overlooking the scenic Atlantic.
The city itself was founded by freed slaves, who came to Freetown to be, well, free! Many came from the Caribbean area, and as such the whole town has a Caribbean feel to it. The buildings, the main language being Creole, and the general vibe.
It’s quite a happening place actually! However, the poverty is quite abject at times, and the buildings are historic, but poorly maintained. I could tell Sierra Leone is a country still emerging from a civil war which ended over 15 years ago, but unlike Rwanda, this country is slow on its feet.
I was only there a week, but I got the feeling that the country’s people have a long way to go in order to really inspire change. Speaking to locals, there is a general distrust of the current system, and probably for good reason, as the corruption is high! The Human Development Index, developed by Amartya Sen and Mahbub ul Haq (in case you’ve heard of them and wondered what they did), looks at statistics of a country’s life expectancy, education, and income, and ranks them. While Norway is number one (go Norway!), Sierra Leone is 177 out of 187.
Why is this important? Well, poverty is identified as the overwhelming reason why over 235,000 children cannot go to school. While fees are free, ‘extras’ are not - this includes fees to the school, books, uniforms, food, etc. Some families can’t even afford food, yet alone consider schooling, in particular for their girls, often needed at home for housework. This child was sitting in school, but not allowed to be a student as his parents hadn't paid fees, so he just sat at the back, not really learning anything at all.
Such disparities will not only hamper Sierra Leone’s plans to reduce poverty but could potentially destabilise the peace and state building process as the gaps between the haves and have-nots increase - causing tension and uprising. However, it’s not all doom and gloom! This is a country where big investments are being made in education, and you can really start to see change. Programmes are focussing on getting all children into school, providing them with a quality education, and providing training to government to manage the process.
We took a 3-day trip out of Freetown into the centre of the country, to Port Loko, and Makeni. Here, we went off the beaten track to visit some schools in the most remote places. And while some need big improvements, we were so impressed with some others! We found engaged children, and committed teachers who are not simply standing at the front of the class reciting text.
The way children often learn is by memorization. For example, when you’re learning to read, instead of using phonetics, to spell out the sounds, and thus the word, the children here are simply memorising that C-A-T means CAT. They actually have to say out loud “W-I-N-D - WIND!”, rather than spell the sounds of the W, the I, the N and the D. Think of how long it would take you to learn the English language if you had to do that every time! Look at this boy, standing at the front spelling as he goes. We were there for 10 minutes for him to read two sentences!
However, you can see where organisations are training teachers to improve their teaching. In this class, the children learned by sounds, and then read a short story aloud with the teacher. After, they practice writing their own stories in their books, and share them with the class. The children were so engaged, and you could feel the buzz in the room. It goes to show how it’s the impact of the teacher on the classroom more than anything else.
We also visited schools where children simply do not have enough to eat. A school-feeding programme looked to give children a meal each day of the school year, so that they will have energy to learn and participate in schooling, hopefully improving their learning outcomes. The idea was also that it would encourage parents to send their children, including their girls, to school. While the evidence globally shows that school-feeding doesn’t directly improve learning, it certainly provides nutrition to children who may otherwise have very little to eat in a day. This little girl was so impressive - she was skipping along eating her bowl of bulgar and lentils, which was literally just boiled, with no seasoning! I was really impressed and humbled, thinking back to when I was young and we’d complain if my mom made us toast on a day we wanted a Pillsbury toaster’s strudel.
I think the biggest lesson learned was from the parents and community, who were so grateful for support, and who admitted that they were skeptical about education, but are really starting to see the benefits. With so little to do in their communities (as many are unemployed), participating in the school life, on parent committees, and in the school-feeding programme really engaged them. In my opinion, community-led initiatives are the only ones that will really make a difference to individual’s lives (when paired with larger-scale initiatives run by government), and I’ll be looking forward to going back again and seeing the changes happening to the “Lion Mountains”.