I have been asked a lot since I have come back, “so, how was it?”. It’s easy enough to reply, ‘it was amazing, fun, awe inspiring, challenging, thought provoking, sad, energising, enlightening’ and here’s why..
Sierrra Leone is a country with a hugely troubled past. The civil war it endured for 10 long years was particularly brutal and violent. Folowiong this there was an intervening period of quiet as the country rebuilt itself steadily until it was hit hard by ebola epidemic. However, now the country has been pronounced free from ebola, the Sierra Leonians are once again pushing forward and hoping to rebuild and create a country of promise for themselves.
We arrived to the airport and were immediately struck by the intense heat. There was little escape from the beads of sweat trickling down your forehead. As one would expect in a third world country there were very few places with air conditioning to be found. Acclimatisation was the only option.
Our first couple of days were spent travelling around in minibuses visiting projects that Street Child have connections with. Getting to each project involved a 3+ hour drive though ever changing beautiful countryside. These journeys allowed us to get flavour of the country seeing remote homes and towns as we drove along. Catching fleeting glimpse of individuals going about their daily business, many carrying their goods on their heads along the road side or resting in the shade under thatched rooves.
Our arrival at each school was greeted with an innocent eagerness and a well rehearsed welcome song in English. We then immersed ourselves in the classrooms spending time teaching the children, playing games and then invariably there was a push to go outside and play football.
James Gallie and I had brought over 40 balls from the Great Football Give away to give out at each school. Needless to say they were a resounding success, ‘football’ being a world wide language. Despite not being able to communicate verbally with the children we could bond over football clubs the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea and talk football legends . Interestingly, the mothers never wanted to be left out of these visits and we wouldn’t have been there long before they emerged from their homes in the village and came and joined us at the school. Sitting on the steps watching their children playing, signing and shrieking with delight as we ran around and enjoyed each others company.
Street child’s (SL) involvements in these school is crucial and several fold. Firstly, they are determined to get girls into schools and once there, to encourage and enable them to stay there and continue their education to senior school and beyond. SL give grants to the girls to pay for their education, clothing and books, they are involved in educating the teachers and in some cases have built the schools themselves. SL are having to push hard and change public opinion. It is an ingrained belief held by many elders and families that the investment in girls education will not pay dividends in the long run. Many girls are expected to marry young and produce children, as such there would seem very little need for them to have an education. Change is happening slowly.
But Change of public opinion isnt the only thing working in against the girls and women in education system. I had a number of troubling conversations different people, teachers, aid workers, girls themselves and came to realise it is not only the problem of changing belief but also of attempting to eradicate the abuse and manipulation of women whilst in the system by the teachers themselves.
SL are providing support in another ways too. The charity provides grants and support to women with which they are able to set up small businesses. We were fortunate to also visit a wonderfully entrepreneurial woman who was running a very successful charcoal business from her home. She took the time to explain how she organised this and allowed us to look around her home. Hers was such a wonderful story of success and was giving her enough money to send her daughters to school and have some money spare. There were other such success stories. Women were in the market selling peppers and small vegetables. They too building a life for themselves and their children as a result of Street Childs assistance. I took so much from these visits and really enjoyed being able to experince first hand how grants were working to empower women to build a life for themselves and their children.
I also felt honoured also to sit in on a talk given by two women who gave their life stories. They had both become successful women, working for Street Child but their journeys to that point were very different. The role of secret societies is still extremely prevalent in the country.
The draw to Sierra Leone for many of us was to run the marathon. It was promising to be an amazing experience in such a wonderfully different location and in the process raise money for the Girls speak out campaign. The race was a great experience, the villagers turned out and cheered us all along the way, children running with you hand in hand. The route meandered its way around remote and pretty villages. It was humbling. I can’t help but wonder if they thought us completely barking mad and question why we would endeavour to run such a distance in such heat. Unlike the East Africans the Sierra Leonians’ aren’t a nation of runners. What ever they were thinking they were so warm and embracing, so full of joy and eagerness to support that we were none the wiser.
The day previously I was really fortunate to meet the SL female runners who were going to compete in the Marathon. There were only a handful of them, each keen to run and many against the wishes of their families. Most of them had come up from Freetown, 3 hours away. This was the only marathon in the country and as prize money was attached it was an eagerly anticipated event. I had collected running apparel from Paragon mums and it was another humbling moment when I was able to hand it over to these ladies. Their faces were so animated and surprised when I was able to tell them it was theirs. Thank you to all those of you who donated, it was enormously appreciated.
The week touched me profoundly and opened up a myriad of thoughts. I hope to use it as a spring board to more action. I want to effect change, in whatever small way that might be. Taking a quote I use as a coach its all about taking the first step…