Sierra Leone’s Recent Story
A country at war..
In Sierra Leone there are three distinct ethnic groups each with its own language. This population structure encouraged the Liberian inspired insurrection in the north east of the country when Charles Taylor’s rebels, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Small Boys Unit (SBU), or boy soldiers, tried to overthrow the government and gain control of the diamond mines, a major source of revenue for the country.
The SBU was a group of children, girls and boys who were forcibly recruited by the RUF which had its base in Liberia. In 1998, 25% of the soldiers fighting in the war were under 18, of those, 50% were abducted and 28% were under the age of 12. Sierra Leone was thrown into a 10 year long war of unrivalled brutality which devastated the country. The rebels made it their campaign to root out and kill or maim, particularly, the young adult males in a bid to devastate the rest of the population. A scorched earth campaign of destruction left both land and population terribly damaged and disabled. It was the SAS who, in 2002 with the blessing of Tony Blair’s government, finally put an end to the war by taking out the insurgent’s camp which was in the process of razing Freetown, the country’s capital, to the ground.
When Sierra Leone came to our attention, just three years after the end of the war, it was the second poorest country on earth on the United Nations development index. Liberia, where the RUF started, was the poorest.
In 2010, children in Sierra Leone were still barely existing in a precarious situation, with an estimated 250,000 refugees and 600,000 internally displaced people.
In 2014 when the economy and peoples optimism were beginning to slowly grow Ebola entered Sierra Leone from neighbouring Guinea. The government imposed quarantine restrictions to try to stem the spread of Ebola and, as part of the drive to prevent people gathering together, all schools were closed in June 2014. During quarantine periods no one was allowed to travel and people were reluctant to go to hospital especially with any form of fever. As a result, many people died from common illnesses and there was an increased rise in women dying in childbirth. By January 2015 over 10,000 cases had been reported with 3,029 deaths. Sadly, for the rest of the country, most of the Aid was concentrated on Freetown, near the only airport and the harbour.
In March 2016 the World Health Organisation said the Ebola outbreak had subsided however due to ‘virus persistence’ in Ebola survivors they would not declare it Ebola free until a mass vaccination programme had been carried out. To put this in perspective the WHO has also reported that although Nigeria had carried out a mass vaccination programme against Polio and had no cases for 30 years they would not declare it Polio free. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office relaxed its advice in March 2016 no longer advising against all but essential travel to Sierra Leone.
All the schools have now reopened and the population are working to sow seed and recover from the effects of quarantine when they were unable to harvest or tend their crops. Most families grow their own food and starvation has caused great hardship. The economy, which was already in difficult times before the epidemic, has been badly hit. Before Ebola employment was at 9%, recent records indicate it has fallen below that.
International observers, charities and the like, consider it will take Sierra Leone four to five years to recover from this latest devastating epidemic. That recovery will still leave an unacceptable number of dispossessed and helpless people living on the fringes without adequate basic living, nutrition or health provision.
Who are we?
The Sierra Leone Bo School Appeal’s main aim is to provide help for those children most in need who would otherwise not receive an education beyond primary school. Our aim is not to wholly fund the daily running of the school but to help the school provide an environment to continue the children’s secondary education to enable them to become independent adults able to take part in developing their own local economy and be part of the growth of Sierra Leone. We do this mainly by sponsoring individual children, fundraising for capital projects and other exceptional expenditure incurred at St Paul’s School.
In the UK we have a committee of 15 volunteers. This is a mixed group, of varying ages and backgrounds, each of whom brings a unique contribution to our work. We share the fund raising workload, administrative and other tasks. We have no paid staff and all administration is carried out and paid for by the volunteers. The committee receive no expenses and any visits to Sierra Leone or elsewhere are entirely self-funded by those undertaking the trips.
St Paul’s is rated in the top 5 schools in Bo District. Due to the political system in Sierra Leone the school has not received state recognition despite huge efforts by all of us over many years. Until this recognition is granted the school can only provide education for the first three of the six years of secondary education. This means St Paul’s students have to complete their secondary education at a “senior secondary” school. Their attendance and progress is closely monitored from St Paul’s.
It is our dream and ambition to secure the state recognition and allow St Paul’s School to offer both the junior and senior secondary education to prepare the children for adult life, whether in further education or elsewhere. Following the recent visit of the Bishop of Bo, Bishop Emmanuel Tucker to the UK (including a stay with us in West Wittering) and his whole hearted support to press for the school becoming licensed we are more hopeful of receiving recognition for St Paul’s School.
We are now seeing the first pupils move on into work or higher education, but many more sadly are still unemployed so that a major plank of our current strategy is to provide help to get children into further education, jobs or into business enterprises of one form or another. Sierra Leone has over 70% youth unemployment, the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We are looking to help one or two young students, who have been sponsored through secondary school, the opportunity to attend university. We are also looking to help a limited number of students through vocational training. Our funds are limited so we will not be making promises to someone who will need funding for several years, unless we are sure we have the finances available. We are also exploring working with a Worthing based charity called Aid for Trade, who run a number of training programmes to help people into jobs or set up in business on their own.
Our involvement with St Paul’s is both a pleasure and a privilege. If you would like to be involved in giving children a chance in life and making a difference please donate.
During the recent war the rebels used local schools as their headquarters as they moved through the country, leaving most of them in ruins. Education in Sierra Leone is generally faith based and, beyond primary stage, provision is very sporadic. In 2005 Bruce Holben attended a conference at Butlins in Bognor Regis which was looking at post war reconstruction of the education system. Bruce heard about the plight of children in the Bo District.
Bruce heard that the Anglican Church managed 51 primary schools in Bo District but had no secondary school. The vast majority of pupils were unable to complete their education as they were being denied this basic building block that would give them a better chance in adult life. Whilst primary education in Sierra Leone is free, secondary education is not and the fees are unaffordable for most families.
Bruce passed his findings onto the West Wittering Church and local people were determined to do something about the situation and in concert with the church in Bo made plans for a secondary school. In Bo, the church itself was starting to provide a secondary school in makeshift conditions, in underground, or crypt, rooms under the cathedral. They needed a purpose built facility to cope with the huge demand from the community for schooling.
The project took two years from starting to raise the funds to completion of the school buildings. The building had to be done in stages; as money was donated it was sent out to allow each phase of the construction work to be completed. The school buildings cost more than £30,000. The development comprises six classrooms and an administrative block. Four hundred children were admitted straight away, many of them well over school age having had their education halted by the war. A party of 12 from our local area attended the official opening in 2008 when the school was named St Paul’s.
It is now some ten years since St Paul’s opened and today the school provides a secondary education to more than 600 students. Of those, some 200 children who would otherwise not receive a secondary education are able to attend thanks to the support they receive from our sponsors here in the UK. Sponsorship is a major part of our efforts and is of growing importance. Each year, working with and taking advice from a small committee from the local community in Bo our aim is to increase, by 20 or so, the number of children we can help. This is dependent on us being able to find new sponsors each year and to replace existing sponsors who may, for one reason or another be unable to continue.
Capital and other projects
Building and similar projects are paid for by fundraising and donations to our general fund. We work with the school to assess their needs to develop the fabric and promote the longevity of the school. Since the initial school building development in 2008 we have funded the building of storm drains, toilets and the like. Our biggest item by far was an assembly hall in 2012 at a cost of nearly £30,000. We had seen on our visits to Bo that prior to the hall being built if the 600 children congregated (which they do several times a day) they had to stand either in the burning sun or torrential rain. The Assembly hall is now also used by other schools and has become a popular examination and community centre.
The Ebola epidemic was a terrible time for the community in Sierra Leone. With the school closed for over a year during the worst of the crisis the quarantine restrictions meant great hardship for children, staff and their families. The sponsored children’s families were the hardest hit. We were able to help alleviate some of the worst hardship by funding food aid and purchase of much needed sanitation equipment to try and keep the epidemic at bay. We were also able to finance radio broadcasts by the staff to their school families to educate the children on how to take the recommended precautions against Ebola. When the restrictions on movement were lifted we were able to supply agricultural equipment and seed, this helped to replace the food they were banned from harvesting and running water for hand washing. The school was also given a ‘deep clean’ and repainted. The community was told that cleanliness was vital so a fresh and clean look to the school was essential to attract the children back to their classes after the forced break from studies. We are pleased that none of the sponsored children were affected by Ebola. On a sadder note, however, we have accepted for sponsorship two children orphaned during the epidemic for sponsorship. The Bo Mother’s Union have taken responsibility for 7 younger children orphaned by Ebola who may be eligible for sponsorship in the coming years.