Before working in a village, it is important to greet the chief because he is the head of the village and needs to be informed of all events. Receiving his approval and support is important before proceeding with organizing any gathering that will be held in the village. I operate a girl’s Safe Center and Boys and Girls club in the Mathora village. Safe Centers provide girls with an after school support group that is focused on keeping girls in school and eliminating child marriage, female genital mutilation, and teenage pregnancies. We also discuss topics relating to health, hygiene, goal setting, and self-love. Our boys and girls club functions to empower young people to reach their full potential. My coworker, Assiatu, and I monitor these programs by creating weekly lesson plans, daily activities, and organizing outreach events. We hire community leaders to serve as mentors who meet with the students twice a week.
In Mathora, the attendance of our programs slowly began to decline. This was especially prevalent in our Safe Center. One of the main issues contributing to this decline was the attitudes from parents and caregivers in Mathora. Some of the parents were not supportive of their children attending the group sessions. This lack of support was linked to parental expectations for their children to provide family support and assistance in the afterschool hours. After classes, girls are typically involved in preparing dinner and caring for siblings. These are highly prioritized activities. Unable to help with sales during school hours, children make their way to the streets to sell goods that will produce income for their families. These tasks often consume most of available time after school. Convincing families in Mathora to allow their children to regularly attend our after-school programs has been challenging. The students selected to attend the safe centers and Boys and Girls club were chosen because of life circumstances that include poverty, Ebola-related loss of parents, and teen motherhood. The students are coming from poor families, some have lost parents during the Ebola epidemic. Due to these factors, many of the students are at risk of dropping out of school.
The sentiments within our Safe Centers and Boys and Girls clubs reflect the common opinion that our organization should offer to pay the school fees of students who are having difficulty affording their education. Complications with paying school fees is a prevailing issue that many Sierra Leonean families encounter. Failure to pay results in the student being suspended from school. Accordingly, suspension reduces the chances that children will continue and even deepen their education. I can understand a parent’s frustration with not being able to pay school fees and therefore desiring financial assistance. It is difficult to balance the need for children to gain an education with their families’ expectations for the children to earn money that helps sustain their families. While we are extremely grateful for the support of the parents in allowing their children to attend our programs, we try very hard to be attentive to their concerns and their growing belief that what we offer is not effective with respect to reducing the dropout rates of their children. These concerns lead to many of the parents to withhold the support and motivational influences that are necessary for their children to thrive in our programs.
To gain a better understanding of our situation in the Mathora village, Assiatu and I planned to discuss our concerns with Chief O’Bai and Shekudeen who is one of the Safe Center mentors. As a sign of hospitality, they greeted us with limes and coconuts grown in the village., Afterwards we shared a plate of potato leaves and rice. As we later discussed the purpose of our visit, Chief O’Bai shared his own concerns about the decline in overall attendance of girl’s in the local schools. He also spent much time describing the strengths the community members and ways we can use those strengths to promote attendance in schools and our weekly after-school programs. After an hour of conversing with Chief O’Bai, we called the community together for a meeting. Amazingly, Shekudeen began to clap two large lids together fast and loudly to alarm community members to come out of their homes. As Shekudeen continued loudly gathering the community members, he began to chant “sweet education, sweet.” Our group joined him, and as time continued about 30 students appeared and joined us in song. Many of the students began playing drums, dancing, and adding solos to the song. We continued singing “Sweet education, sweet. Sweet education, sweet. Mama, papa send ye pequin (child) to school na go learn. Education sweet”. Soon we gathered 50 community members who were drawn to the gathering from the loud music and the presence of Chief O’Bai, who is well respected. His presence resulted in community members to view this gathering as credible. In our meeting, we discussed the goals of the students and how education plays a large role in making these goals a reality.
Eventually, we talked in great length about school fees. This was a difficult topic for Assiatu and me to discuss as fee structures and possible financial support are out of our control. However, we felt it necessary to confront the issue.
Ultimately, we agreed to collaborate with local organizations in the Tonkolili district to help families afford these fees. During this gathering, we also spoke with school principals in Mathora in an effort to reach a solution. Finally, the issue of child marriage was discussed. It is universally understood that this is a significant problem which often effects poor children who are unable to gain financial support for education and other basic needs. Many of our Safe Center girls have shared their personal stories of child marriage or being pressured into having adult boyfriends to pay for their school fees. While the assistance is tempting, it is not permanent as most girls who marry young will not complete their education. Using extreme care, we ensured community members that we would work with them to address the concerns and to provide healthy and productive solutions for the girls through our Safe Centers. With the support of Chief O’Bai, we were hopeful that this gathering would contribute to their own efforts in creating a positive change in Mathora. We learned information about the community needs and what we can do to join their journey to helping girls remain in school.
Alas, Sierra Leone was still in the rainy season! A violent thunderstorm forced an early end to our gathering. With more issues remaining to be discussed, I was unsure if any of our efforts would lead to an increase in attendance for our upcoming Safe Center gathering. To my surprise, the following week, I was greeted with bright smiles and laughter from all of our Mathora Safe Center participants! The increased attendance continued from that moment, and as a result, today many of the girls are inviting their friends and sisters to join. Learning from Chief O’Bai shaped the way Assiatu and I work in other communities. We now regularly meet with different chiefs to discuss issues concerning children and the activities we are planning. Joyfully, we continue to join community’s efforts in developing positive and sustainable solutions for their concerns.
Nia Sullivan serves as a Global Mission Intern serving with Council of Churches, Sierra Leone, Girls Access to Education Program (GATE). Her appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Church’s Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.