In the Kailahun district of Sierra Leone, burned out buildings and bullet holes serve as a constant reminder of a turbulent and horrific past. This remote eastern border area was one of hardest hit by Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. It was just south of Kailahun, in the village of Bomaru, where rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) first crossed into the country from neighbouring Liberia, marking the start of the conflict. Education was one of the early casualties of war- schools were destroyed and teachers were among those who fled the area.
“It was terrible. There was no school in this area for 12 years during the war. Some children went to Guinea and Liberia and attended school there,” said Mr. Abel Ngafua, the principal of a primary school in Dawa village that borders Liberia. “Some of the children, their parents died in the war, they have just come here and are being looked after by people.”<
Reaching the most vulnerable
Almost a decade later, the country is still struggling to rebuild schools, train teachers and reach children who have yet to see the inside of a classroom. Responding to this need, UNICEF and its partners are working together to improve the education system and bring educational opportunities to all children in the country. The Cross Border Schools Project, which trains teachers and school managers, was developed to target the high numbers of out-of -school children in the border regions of the country.
David is 18 years old and will be among the second post-war class to graduate primary school in Dawa. When David returned home in 2003 he expressed his wish to attend school to his father.
“I asked my father if I could go to school and he said no, we don’t have any money,” he said.
Despite education being free in the country, there are still fees being charged that go towards paying for schools supplies and other additional costs. Not to be deterred, David went into the forest outside the village and began clearing himself a small patch of ground for cultivation. He grows chilli peppers and cassava, which he sells in a nearby market.
“When the plants survive I sell them and pay for my school fees,” he said.
Making teachers a priority
Despite the challenges facing education in this region, progress is slowly being made with a focus on quality and on giving teachers the opportunity to increase their skills. With funding from the Government of the Netherlands, efforts to better train teachers nationwide have been stepped-up in recent years with over 3,000 teachers participating in first-time or continuing courses, helping them to teach more effectively.
Francis Josiah is the first and second grade teacher at Dawa School. When he was 15 years old the rebels came to his village and killed his family, but he managed to escape. Having been robbed a part of his childhood, Francis finds that working as a teacher also gives him hope for the future. After completing the teacher training programme, Francis now plans his lessons and believes he is a much more effective teacher.
“The training was about managing children’s behavior, how to keep them safe in school, and then how to teach actively,” he said.
New beginnings for teachers and students
The healing of wounds from the war is far from over, but through a gradual improvement in education a new generation of children are growing up with hope for a better future. David’s dream would not take him far away from the classroom.
“When I grow up I want to be a teacher,” he says smiling.
“I want the children to become good people. Better people for tomorrow. That is why I am teaching them,” said Francis. “I teach them equally so when they become good people in the future and I am passing they can say ‘Oh that was my teacher.’ When I see children that I have taught and they are moving on to higher levels of education I really feel proud of that.”
In this challenging context, the development community and local partners are facing down the odds to bring education – and the chance for a better future – to some of the most marginalized and forgotten of Sierra Leone’s children.