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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

Project overseas: Sierra Leone

by Sandra Holmes

In July, I led a team of Canadian teachers on an overseas teaching project organized by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation with the support of BCTF, other Canadian provincial associations, and the Canadian International Development Agency. Our team of four Canadians joined eleven other teams travelling to various countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to assist with the training of teachers. On July 7, our team flew out of Montreal on our way to Freetown, Sierra Leone via Brussels.

At Lungi airport, we were met by Hawa Koroma and Leonard Komeh, officials with the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union (SLTU). Sheka Koroma, our driver, welcomed us and hurried us along to catch the ferry to Freetown. Immediately we felt welcomed and cared for.

As it turned out, it was fortunate for us that we missed the ferry. What a welcome to Sierra Leone we had as our team waited on the dock in the late afternoon for the next ferry to arrive to take us to Freetown. We marvelled at the sights of the nearby community and the fishing boats returning to shore as the sun set red amid the thunderheads on the horizon. For many days during our stay we heard the mountains roar with the thunder that preceded the tropical rainstorms and agreed the country was aptly named Sierra Leone--Lion Mountains.

We enjoyed the company of children showing off their math skills and sharing information about their country with us as we shared information about our country. Hawa and Sheka were with us to answer our many questions. A few hours earlier they were just names on paper ,and already their warm welcome and gentle concern for us set the scene for the deep and meaningful relationships to come. When the ferry arrived, we were privileged to watch the folks pour off, returning home after a work day in Freetown. The entire market walked gracefully past us, carried on the heads of the people.

This was the beginning of four weeks of learning and teaching in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Along the way we were gently guided in our learning about this jewel of a country and its very friendly people by the 80 participants who attended the in-service courses that SLTU had organized and invited us to assist with.

The first group of participants came from the Eastern and the Western regions of Sierra Leone. After two weeks of work, we said a reluctant good-bye to this group of eager learners and welcomed the second group from the Northern and the Southern regions of the country. All of the participants were practicing teachers. None of them had any teacher training and for many, this was their first experience of learning about the curriculum syllabus, the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union, and how to effectively teach children reading and other skills.

We worked, played, laughed, cried, and sweated our way through the next four weeks. Always it came back to the children. They were the reason we were in this challenging country. Their smiles, their handshakes, and their wonder and curiosity sustained us as we felt so much love and expectation from them. We hoped our efforts to train their teachers would indeed fulfill their expectations of us.

This small humid, country, with its amazingly beautiful and diverse landscape, its 16 different ethnic tribes, and complete religious acceptance between the Muslim and Christian faiths has much to teach the world about perseverance and love. We visited Grafton Resettlement camp. In an attempt to assist many people who were injured during the recent wars, the government has set up seven resettlement camps for those who for one reason or another cannot return to their homes. At Grafton, we heard the stories of homes destroyed, loved ones killed, disease and starvation facing those left behind. The community secretary, a former teacher displaced from his home in the north when he was transported to Freetown to recover from his leg amputation, spoke about the difficulty with just getting enough to eat. Now that the resettlement communities have been set up there is no further government assistance. A man with both arms amputated just below the elbow brought me a chair so I could be comfortable while I sat and listened to the stories. All around me the new generation, the four-year-olds and younger, who have not experienced war, laughed and played and touched my white arms in surprise to see such strange looking women sitting with their parents and aunts and uncle. These folks desperately want education for their children, for they, like others in Sierra Leone, see education as the way to a more secure, peaceful, and certain future.

As we travelled about we felt that the whole world has surrounded Sierra Leone in a loving embrace, just as a mother will surround her hurting child in order to speed her recovery.

NGOs, church groups, United Nations’ organizations such as UNICEF, and other agencies with education and health as their interests are supporting the determined folk of Sierra Leone in rebuilding a viable and sustainable country after the atrocities of war. Re-establishing Sierra Leone’s once prestigious education system is at the top of its list and we felt proud to represent Canadian teachers and to be part of this extensive and vital effort. The eager, beautiful children of Sierra Leone deserve every opportunity to grow to be the best people they can. With continued awareness of the power of peace and assistance with education and health issues from the world, I feel Sierra Leone will one day be able to teach the rest of us the importance of religious acceptance, perseverance, and love.

A huge vote of thanks goes to the CTF for its long-term commitment to improving education at home and around the world. And special thanks to the BCTF for supporting me in this life-changing project.

Sandra Holmes teaches at Blue River School, Kamloops.

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