The Hope Academy for Girls - Sierra Leone
15.04.2014 - 15.04.2014
Where there is a will there is a way
Tuesday morning we set out with Aliea and Natu to go visit the Hope Academy for Girls in York! I was so excited to be finally seeing the grounds and first stages of the school we have worked so hard to raise money for, it is a project that has worked its way deep under my skin. The school has taken on even more significance for me , and perhaps it is silly, but the dates of international fundraisers coinciding with the passing of my father and the fortieth day after Ismail's mother had passed, somehow these correlations made the cause all the more personal. My father missed out on completing his schooling when he escaped from Croatia yet he was one of the most intelligent people I knew. Because of his limited schooling, he instilled me the importance of education and made me believe that I truly could do anything I set my mind to regardless of our postcode or my gender. I did not even understand the disparity between men and women until I was an adult and, truth be told, I did not appreciate the implications until becoming a mother. Sierra Leone has become an integral part of my story, and my passion for education as an equalising force and foundation of opportunities, good health, long life and empowerment make my commitment to the girls school in rural Salone seem inevitable.
So off we went in our comfortable ride, travelling in a counter intuitive direction up past Regent and Waterloo, through Tombo and on to York which is actually closer to Freetown than the previous places but the road is better going the longer way. The trip itself was fascinating, Aliea and Natu are such strong and compassionate woman and gladly shared numerous stories about the region and their lives in Sierrra Leone. We drove past the hill station area which had been home to the colonial officials back in the day and I was struck by the similarities to the colonial hill stations of India. For a group of people that had the audacity up come take over nations around the world they lacked the tenacity to handle the climates they encountered. The British influence is still part of the peninsula with villages named Hastings, Kent etc. the roads on the other hand bear the mark of Chinese engineering and construction nouse. A different kind of colonisation? Apparently it is Chinese prisoners building the roads out here, some community service eh! Not sure how I feel about that! As always, a journey is so much more than the destination but it would be a whole other blog to include the details of the stories and villages we passed!
As we pulled up at the school building site I could feel the tears welling up. I saw the sign that I recognised from the photos, the building reaching roof height and the surrounding grounds and mountains in the background. Images I had seen hundreds of times while trying to get sponsors and donations but it was surreal being there in person. We took the obligatory photos by the sign ad then began a walk through as Aliea explained the different rooms an we tried to visualise them completed with staff and students. We walked through the offices, the staff room, store room, classrooms, toilets and change rooms and heard details about how many girls would begin and how it would grow. Next we walked out into the grounds and were shown where the gardens would be, one a botanical garden and another a market garden to provide food, knowledge and life skills for the girls teaching them about the local vegetation, how to grow and how to turn into nutritious and affordable meals.
The vision for the school is so much more than just education for at risk girls. The curriculum will be the national Sierra Leone curriculum rather than an international one with a focus on civics ad social studies to encourage a sense of pride of country in the girls and social justice. it will ensure they know their rights and their history. This seems to be important because the sieerra leoneams ive met who returned here have all said how much it has changed and that the thing that seems to be lacking is a sense of pride and wanting to support others. Of course such a huge gap between the haves and have nots is goings to breed an attitude of scarcity and to each their own but what might really make a difference is cooperation and pride in self, community and country. The girls will learn vocational skills including hospitality, tourism, needlework and traditional tie dying to make gara cloth. There will also be education for parents in healthy eating and living, reading and writing so they can support their families, outreach program's and adult learning program's. The idea being you really do educate and empower the whole village not just the students.
I hate to say it, because I have loved my time here and I've loved the people, but from purely a travellers point of view, there is something missing. Accommodation is expensive, in part due to high costs of running generators but also inflated prices due to foreign workers on high salaries. Basic customer service is lacking, I'm not talking incredible Balinese standards but simple things like asking what you want for breakfast without you having to go into the kitchen to ask. The beaches are incredible as are the natural, untouched beauty forests, national parks and lakes. But the travel is hard work over rough roads and expensive unless you use local transport (which we would gladly do for just us two but not so keen going long distances with Joseph in a Poda Poda). I'm just not sure people without a connection to Salone will make the effort and pay the price, particularly when they are competing with the big hitters Botswana, Kenya, Ghana etc. I keep thinking of some of the initiatives and travel options in Cambodia and how they might work well here. They do tourism really well there in spite of still developing and rebuilding post war. Things like a half day cooking school where someone takes you to the market, teaches you about the food, helps you haggle then shows you how to prepare local dishes before sharing a meal together a a group, historical walking tours around the city to hear stories of the freed slaves and other settlers, organised and environmentally sustainable treks through natural areas. Ok now I sound like an imperialist which is not what I want. There is just so much potential in this country everywhere you look, I want people to be able to come and love it the way I do! There are some sensational community groups around the country promoting eco tourism and using the funds to support members of the local community, river number two is one such organisation and they are expanding that around the peninsula. I hope it continues because i feel that the people who come here will be looking for something different to a beach resort and something that is respectful of the people, culture and environment. Talk about a tangent, I started with the girls school!!!
Back to the school. we walked around the grounds and I was lulled into a false sense of security thinking there were cleared paths the whole way round but no, we walked through thick scrub and I ended covered in dust and scratches, glad we posed for photos beforehand! It's a large area though and you can see the potential for building each stage and including gardens and recreation areas. Different officials from the area stopped by to say hello and tell us what an amazing job Aliea Kamara is doing, it was great to see the support she received and the hope that she has brought to the village. We joked that we were travelling with a rock star! She is indeed a star though, jokes aside! There is still work to be done to complete stage one of the school and it is essential the roof is completed before the rainy season comes. This is part of the reason everyone has worked so hard to raise funds at this time. At last count, the latest fundraiser efforts have combined to raise around $8000 so we are getting to our target but still more is needed. When we get back we will be having a sausage sizzle at masters and I plan on make it the biggest sizzle masters has ever seen Having met the family behind the school I am an even bigger supporter because their passion and dream is backed by well thought out plans and initiatives.
I wish we had more time in this country. It has been so rushed and I have only scratched the surface of a tiny little dot in the map. I wish we had time to explore the different shades of sand along the peninsula, to watch people going about their business in the small fishing villages, to go easy and see the mining industry at work, north to the rural provinces where Krio is spoken after tribal languages. So much to see and so little time.