I have been asked a lot since I have come back, “so, how was it?”. Well that’s easy enough to reply to, ‘it was amazing, fun, awe inspiring, challenging, thought provoking, sad, energising, enlightening’ and here’s a glimpse of why..
Sierra Leone is a country with a hugely troubled past. The civil war it endured for 10 long years was particularly brutal and violent. Following this there was an intervening period of quiet as the country rebuilt itself until it was hit hard by the ebola epidemic. Now that 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
For our first couple of days, Maya my eldest daughter and I, were taken around in minibuses to visit projects that Street Child have connections with. Getting to each of the school projects 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 glimpses 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 about 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 (SC) 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. SC give grants to families of girls to pay for their education, clothing and books. They are also involved in educating the teachers and in some cases have built the schools themselves. SC is 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. But change is happening. Sadly, change of public opinion about the values of schooling isn’t the only thing working in against the girls and women. I had a number of troubling conversations with different people; teachers, aid workers, and girls themselves which highlighted the need to address the abuse and manipulation of women whilst in the system by the teachers and those in authority.
SC are providing support in another ways too. The charity provides grants and support to women and mothers 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 premises. 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 many other such success stories. I took so much from these visits and really enjoyed being able to experience first hand how grants were working to empower women to build a life for themselves and their children.
I was asked to be a ambassador for Street Child Sierra Leone to encourage people to come out and run the marathon and in the process raise money for e Girls speak out campaign. The day before the run 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 of them great runners 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 School 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 marathon didn’t disappoint, 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. But whatever they were quietly thinking, they were so warm and embracing, so full of joy and eagerness to support.
The week touched me profoundly. I hope to use it as a spring board for 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…