Marie-Aimé tells her story……

On the way to Educaid…
I first heard of Educaid from the website stuffyourrucksack.com. I was still in London planning my move to Freetown and some friends were heading over so I was determined to make good use of their spare rucksack space…
Having bullied / guilt tripped / enticed / encouraged them into bringing various stationery items over, it was then left to me to bring over the cargo to the school… So having arranged for my new favourite taxi driver Farrah to come and pick me up, I set off on the 45 min drive down to Lumley in search of the elusive Educaid. On the way down, I explained to Farrah where I was going and what Educaid did, that it provided free education for secondary school students and literacy and numeracy catch up for women who needed it. He looked thoughtful for a while and then asked: would my daughter be able to go?
The fact that Farrah and his family live about an hour’s drive (on a good day) from the Educaid School gives an idea of how precious a place like Educaid is in Freetown and Sierra Leone. Even government’s primary schools are only free in principle and students have to pay for uniform, books, etc. School kids might look cute in their little dresses / dungarees but it does come at a price…
Back to Educaid though… After some meandering through the bumpy back streets of Lumley we eventually found the building and not being quite sure whether I was in the right place, I asked Farrah to wait for me. Turns out it was quite unnecessary as not only was I in the right place but once I stepped through the gates, I was hooked and never really left…
After I dropped off the bag of goodies I’d brought, I was given a tour of the school and witnessed for the first time the incredible atmosphere throughout the school. What struck me first is the amount of people running around the three floors of the building. Dozens of teachers, hundreds of students all lined up in open space classrooms, three different levels, all open to the elements. The second impression that hit me is how incredibly quiet and studious the whole place was!
Everybody knows where there are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. Even when it looks like the chaos has taken hold of the place between two lessons, within a few minutes all are sitting back down again and taking out their notebooks and pens. It might have to do with the fact that they know that if they’re not, they will encounter the wrath of founder and headmistress extraordinaire, Miriam… But then again, I did a presentation in front of over 100 people and had one of the most focused audience I’ve ever encountered, even when lecturing university students in the UK!
My Educaid
The Women’s Project
Needless to say, I was immediately keen to get involved and after a chat with Miriam, we decided that it would be best if I worked with girls and women at the school. Initially, I helped with the Women’s Group, an initiative within the school which is designed to help women and girls to achieve numeracy and literacy skills they did not get at school. The majority of the women involved are teenagers, from 12 to early 20s, and are eager to learn basic skills that will help them through every aspect of their daily lives.
Teaching reading skills to adults is hard enough, and the inadequacy of the material produced is one of the barriers that I’m sure exist all over the world. Another more specific barrier is the fact that the materials are not only designed for very young kids, but young western kids. It did take some effort to explain what a park was and why on earth would a kid use a bucket if it wasn’t to sell stuff or clean where he lived…
Although reading skills are predictably low, what immediately impressed me was the relatively high level in numeracy many of these girls had. While they were not at schools, most of them spent their time on the street, working and doing trade. The streets in Salone and Freetown especially are lined by little stalls selling anything and everything under the sun, from oxo cubes (a favourite) to little packets of detergents, via dried fish and mobile phone chargers. Most of those stalls are held by women and, too often, girls, trying to make a bit of money to buy food themselves…
So here I was, all convinced that my slightly dusty but once fairly good maths levels would see me through no problem, having to use the calculator on my phone to try catch up with them and make sure that I was not telling them anything wrong when doing the exercises…
It’s precisely because these girls are so promising and talented that the work done by Educaid and the Women’s Project in particular is so crucial…
Girl Power !!
The other aspect of my involvement in the school was also related to women and girls, but aimed at the whole school via the animation of a Girl Power Group. One morning a week, all students take part in special interest groups, doing activities revolving around religion, geography, current affairs or indeed, girl power!
Miriam had mentioned to me the girls’ reluctance to put themselves forward and their lack of self confidence, sapped by a particular culture and the effects of the civil war ten years ago but I was still taken aback when confronted by it… The object of the group was to promote positive self talk amongst the young teenage girls, to try and counteract the disastrous effects of the presumptions made about women and especially the poorest.
We talked about what it meant to be a girl, why it was so great and also what they thought was negative about it, only to realise that all the negative points came about because of other people’s reactions and not themselves… We watched a great film (Akeelah and the Bee, I really recommend it!) and talked about many things but what I will never forget is the morning we had to go round the group saying two things we were very good at.
In terms of the work I did at Educaid, this was one of the most eye opening things I have done. After struggling myself to come up with two things I was good at (try doing it in front of a group of 15 people, it’s a lot harder than you’d think!), we slowly went round the group, the girls squirming a little at the thought of what to say, some looking down, others laughing uncomfortably… It took a few rounds but eventually we had each found two positive things to say and we repeated them a couple of times, with the strict instruction to repeat it in front of the mirror or to someone else at least once a day for the next week! Seeing the awkwardness give way to smiles made me see they were indeed starting to believe their talent and worth…
I had to leave Freetown earlier than planned and had to say goodbye to the girls that day and explain to them why I was leaving. Their enthusiasm for the Girl Power Group and my affection for them made me feel very guilty for leaving them and I was dreading having to say I was going. Yet again they were amazing and for those last minutes there, the roles were reversed and they were the ones reassuring and encouraging me… That was the precise time I knew I would always be coming back.

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