At EducAid we have been devoted to improving the lives of Sierra Leoneans through the provision of top quality education for nearly two decades. We often speak of the value of education to these young people who so often don’t have access to anything, but it is a difficult thing to encapsulate in words. Those of our supporters who have visited our schools in Sierra Leone return with a profound respect and admiration for the work that Miriam and her colleagues do, and the true value it brings. Education can work to alleviate poverty and in many different ways. When you consider the alternative situations and occupations of our potential students, the value that the space and time we allow for academic thought is almost inconceivably high.
The economic situation in Sierra Leone is such that families often expect children and young adults in Sierra Leone to work in order to raise money. It is not a lack of compassion or goodwill that prevents children from attending school, more often it is the cost of access to schooling or the very immediacy of financial need that prevents it. Unlike the UK, Sierra Leone’s industries are mostly in the primary sector. Broadly speaking, service jobs or trades make up the majority of work, and for these an education is not always necessary. Often, it is the skills acquired through working that will stand an individual in the best stead to make a living and a life for themselves. Whilst there is a broad acknowledgement that school is the best place for children to learn, the market for skilled jobs is far lower than in the developed world, and those skilled jobs are so often re-cycled within families and upper societal echelons by way of nepotism and corruption that the opportunity to succeed professionally is seriously obstructed. Add to the reduced opportunity, the very real struggle for families to provide food and shelter leads income to take primacy over the long-term development through a distant, or perceivably impossible, opportunity.
Unfortunately, low life expectancies, high child mortality rates, high birth-rates and lack of educational provision coalesce with the other factors to de-sanctify the reverence that western societies place on the experience and development of youth. These contributory elements lead to a lower regard being paid to the educational experience, whilst the lack of access to affordable schooling prevents many of those who would like their children to attend to do so.
The impact of not having an education is difficult to conceive fully as it impacts all aspects of both an individual’s life, and the society at large. It may have been a long time since you have engaged in any formal education, but what is undeniable is that dedicating time and effort to purely academic development is a truly wonderful thing. The sciences, mathematics, and language are all very real skills that can be carried through in to working life. It can arm an individual with the skills and knowledge to start a business or to achieve in a professional environment. We all live in a world where time is money; we are logged and accounted in terms of productivity, output, and generated revenues. If we are inefficient, we have not generated enough, but education does not work on these narrow terms, it has a secondary and entirely different objective.
The space afforded to creative and critical thinking generates a conception of consciousness, self-awareness, and impact on one’s surroundings. Not only will the educated individual be primed to tackle workplace challenges with greater efficacy, they will be in a better position to rationalise emotions and resolve personal conflicts, as well as be in a position to reference the wisdom and learning of others to develop a moral compass. By providing space and time for personal development, the individual will in turn be able to help those around them in more than just financial or business-related terms. It is so very easy to take literacy for granted, but the access that it provides the individual to access others’ thoughts, emotions, and ideas is profoundly important. I’m sure that everyone reading this will have come across a book that has changed the way that they have thought about things, or put in to words an idea that they have not been able to fully realise. As Western citizens we are afforded this ability by default, and to revere the impact and importance that learning from others has, but access to the most basic education for an individual in Sierra Leone is often left to chance and fortuitous opportunity. Whilst so many charities focus on short-term programmes, EducAid has taken a completely different approach to education and instrumented real change for thousands of children in post-war Sierra Leone.
As well as providing schools that tackle deficiencies in education and allowing space for the children to develop a self-awareness through learning, our education grapples with the poverty of ideas and values. Whilst Sierra Leone has severely needed the support of the world in recent times, the constant NGO presence and culture of aid dependency has reduced the incentive for people to stand up and lead the country by example. The constant presence of aid undermines community cohesion as regions and towns squabble over development fund allocations which in turn further destabilises society. At EducAid we teach our students the values of independence and self-support. From the beginning of their school careers we insist that all students undertake community service in order to understand the benefits and work involved in contributing something to the greater good. We teach the students that the support that they are receiving is not coming for free, or because it is deserved, but from the compassion of other humans. We ask them to emulate our generous donors and to give back to their fellow citizens in any way that they can. Our staff lead from the front, setting an example. During the Ebola outbreak our staff spent their spare time preparing the buildings for the OICC, and those staff that are creating the podcasts do so in their spare time – both of these groups have not asked for, nor expect, any extra pay for these tasks. Those staff members who have been unable to join either of these initiatives have even contributed their own salaries and time in order to build new tables and benches in readiness for the new students that we are anticipating to join after Ebola. This is almost unique in Sierra Leone. There are a handful of charities that initiate domestic volunteer work, but domestic NGO workers will generally only work on a project-by-project basis with no expectation of putting in any extra effort without extra pay. Testament to the unique attitude of our students and staff are single actions from certain people, such as the visit from the UN Ebola health inspector who was so impressed that she donated $1000 USD to the OICC. Ours is an attitude that has garnered note and praise from everyone that visits EducAid, and is one of the reasons that we are so well respected within the country. It is also why international aid organisations are now looking to work with EducAid to invest in sustainable long-term impact, and to continue to provide the access so desperately needed.
Ebola, of course, has disrupted the access to even those lucky few. Less than 1/6th of our school population has been retained within the schools, and we hope every day that each and every one of our students that has not been in school will return, but we fear that many of those will have forgotten the importance that education brings to them. We also worry that families will have become normalised to having another income-generating person around the house and will prevent their child’s return to us. It is from these concerns that Miriam and her team began the Education by Podcast programme – her team have been distributing these podcasts by mp3 player, WhatsApp, and on USB sticks on a weekly basis to keep our students engaged with the syllabus, and to remind them of the very real impact that education can have on an individual.
We’ve made one of our podcasts available below in which you can hear Miriam leading a discursive class from the ‘Education on the move’ team. This week they are discussing the poem Drought by Denys Lefebvre which is transcribed underneath.
Heat, all-pervading, crinkles up the soil;
A deathly silence numbs the molten air;
On beds of rivers, islands scorched and bare,
Warm scavengers of wind heap up the spoil;
And wide eyed oxen, gaunt and spent with toil.
Huddled together near some shrunken pool…
Paint for the shade of trees and pastures cool,
Lashing their tails at flies they cannot foil.
Whilst overhead, the sun-god drives his way
Through halting hours of blinding, blazing light,
Until his shining steeds a moment stay
And disappear behind the gates of night.
And still, no rain. A cloudless, starlit sky
Watches the veld, and all things droop and die.
Education is in many cases the only time that our students have to focus on themselves. By accessing literature as illuminating as this poem from Denys Lefebvre, they are able to find focus and self-awareness in their own lives. So many of our students find such enjoyment and personal growth through these studies, and we hope to continue to support as many of them once this Ebola crisis is declared over.
If you think that you could help our students learn we looking for volunteers to come and support our schools in many different ways. You can see how by visiting this link.
We are always looking for book and school supplies, as well as financial support so that we can continue our programmes. As I hope we’ve illustrated, education is critical to personal and social development, and without nationwide and obligatory access to schooling Sierra Leone will struggle to improve itself.
Please continue to support our work in any way you can.
Remember our motto: Learning for life in Sierra Leone.
Education is hope.