Thursday, February 17, 2011

My heart soars and crashes here in Mapaki, at the start of my fifth visit in five years. On my arrival on Monday night, the chief had just returned from taking a young farmer and father to hospital. He’s home now and we're waiting to see if he’ll need surgery. And as always on my return, I’ve learned of all the children and wives and mothers and teachers I know who have passed on during my absence. Thankfully though, there are also some very positive developments in health care here and we look forward to better news in the coming days.

The Ministry of Education has sent its representatives here to see if they can figure out what’s going on. From being at the bottom of almost all social indices in the district to having the third highest scores in the junior high leaving exams in all of Bombali District this year, this chiefdom has made remarkable gains in education and people want to know why. For me, it seems obvious as I wander into the library at night and see all seats occupied by the older students of the village, intently studying their class notes while the young ones sit side by side on the floor, sharing and poring over boxes of beautiful picture books from Africa and elsewhere under the solar-powered lights in this country that is just starting to see electricity return to the towns and cities. Or after sitting and talking with the Chief and several community members who always place education first when talking about needs and plans for the chiefdom. Or chatting with the several well-educated Sierra Leonean young women who are here from the city to learn first-hand about life in a remote rural village and who serve as strong role models for the girls who soak up their every word. Or seeing how well the support that has come from local, national and international organizations and avenues is used and valued. Or chatting with the various volunteer or underpaid teachers who devote their hearts and souls to teaching, scrambling to further their own education through distance learning while struggling to also feed themselves and families. Or meeting the students, some lucky enough to continue to senior high school, but also needing to scramble to find food to sustain themselves from week beginning to end. Or simply counting the number of primary schools that have sprung up throughout the chiefdom over the past ten years without external support. I think it’s the interplay of these and other factors over time in an area that has come to see first-hand the value of education in improving lives overall, especially when community members like the Turays leave, do well, and then return to work for the community. That’s not to say that the struggle is over. Students still have no desks or benches in the newly build junior high school. Teachers are still unpaid and trying to further their own education. While more are passing junior high exams, literacy skills are still weak and there are now more who can’t continue to senior high because of fee requirements. However, the incredible community cohesion, commitment to education and collective efforts will, I’m sure, continue to drive progress long into the future.

Stopping by the school yesterday, I was delighted to also meet up with my little Class Three friend, Alusine. I’m told he decided to leave his grandma’s house (my neighbour) and moved in with his dad and twin brother in the village up the road some months ago. Alusine promised to stop by for a visit and I look forward to catching up on news with this little bright light I’ve come to know and love over the past few years. This morning he arrived in the village, solemnly presenting me with a gift of a pineapple and an invitation to join him for a stroll to the river beach close to his house. I think we’ll make a picnic of it and all go for an outing in a few days.

There is so much to write about after too long an absence. More later. It's so good to be back!