Sierra Leone: After the Eclipse

“Why does a rainbow appear in the sky?”
“What is an eclipse?”
“Why are there crop failures?”
“What are these called in Mende?”
“What do our elders think are the reasons?”
“How does science explain them?”

I am sitting in the back of a science class in a junior secondary school in a village hours outside of the nearest city Kenema, in the mining district of Sierra Leone, an area devastated by ten years of civil war in the 1990’s. To get here we have driven hours down red dirt roads filled with potholes where the rains have beaten the earth. The countryside is lush with palm trees, banana trees, rice paddies, grasses of all sorts, including large waving elephant grass.

The students—boys and girls in green and white uniforms—sit on wooden benches in front of wood desks and are taking notes in small notebooks. At the front of the classroom is a pot of water and a cup for students who are thirsty; this is not the case in many schools, and a luxury. What is also notable in this classroom is the skill of the teacher and the enthusiastic participation of the students when the teacher, a young man in slacks and short sleeve shirt, asks questions. One girl in particular waves her hand to answer each question.

The teacher solicits answers and discussion, asking students to consider the traditional beliefs for each of these phenomena, then he explores science’s explanation. He talks in English and Mende, the local language. An eclipse? The traditional belief in their villages is that the chief or someone important is about to die and that the spirit in space is swallowing men. He then asks a student what happens if a torch (flashlight) is shined in his face and someone puts a book between him and the flashlight. The teacher draws on the blackboard a picture of the sun, the moon and the earth and continues with an explanation of their orbits. There are no books in the classroom and few props.

“Is that not so?” he asks from time to time. At the end of the lesson, he asks the students which explanation they believe. They all agree with the scientific explanation.

The skill of this teacher is unusual, but what is not unusual is that this young man in his early twenties is a volunteer teacher, not yet credentialed and not paid. He is one of 11 male teachers–there are no female teachers–at the school. All are volunteers, yet to be credentialed, though six are taking a distance education course to become certified. Only the principal is a certified teacher. He gave up a more prestigious job when the village asked him to come head this school. The school sent its first group of students to take the national exams this past year and came away with strong results.

Schools in this eastern region of the country on the road to Liberia were particularly devastated during the civil war. This is a mining community, and the miners have also contributed their own funds to the chiefdom to help the school as has the International Rescue Committee, my host. In 2006 the government built this junior secondary school (equivalent of grades 7-9), but the school has still not been officially approved in part because of the shortage of qualified teachers.

During the war (1991-2000) over a thousand schools were destroyed in Sierra Leone; many were closed for ten years. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. But now villagers have come back to their villages, and the government has rebuilt and built anew schools all over the country. The government says there are now one million children in primary school, out of a population of 6.5 million people. But there is a large shortage of teachers, especially of trained teachers. At least 40% of the current teachers are said to be volunteer. These young men and fewer women teach for no salary, but with the hope of getting credentials and eventually pay. The government has committed 18% of its budget to education and set forth a new education policy which includes teacher training. But the pace is slow.

After the visit to the junior secondary school, we go to visit the primary schools which feed into this school. Both schools we visit were destroyed during the war. At the first, the education coordinator with us recognizes the principal, who worked with him in the schools in the refugee camps in Guinea during the war. A number of the senior educators in the region got their experience in these refugee camps.

As we cross a log bridge over a stream to visit the next school, our vehicle gets stuck on a broken log on the bridge. Beside the stream, women are washing their clothes. We climb out of the car and jump onto the land and continue the journey on foot through the bush, avoiding giant red ants marching along the ground beside us.

The second primary school was originally a missionary school built in 1924, but burned down during the war and now rebuilt as a government school.

All over this beautiful lush country which has the world’s third largest natural harbor, a stunning coastline that could rival Monaco or Cannes, a country with diamond, gold and mineral wealth, the devastation of war remains, side by side with the determination of citizens, including many from the diaspora who have returned, to build back their country, starting with the education of its children, for education of the next generation is what can bring Sierra Leone, currently ranked the third-lowest on the Human Development Index and eighth lowest on the Human Poverty Index, out of an eclipse that lasted over a decade and into its future.


  1. Susan on November 30, 2010 at 2:37 am

    Very compelling. Thank you for illuminating Sierra Leone’s ray of hope for the future! It reminds me of how important it is to do whatever we can, wherever we are, to support education in general and individual learners in particular.

  2. Julia Maloe on November 30, 2010 at 7:17 am

    What a vivid picture of the complex challenges for Sierra Leone and its children! Thanks for sharing this experience. (And I’m glad you were able to outrun the red ants.)
    Julia Malone

  3. Mary on November 30, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Great report on your trip.  There’s a sense of order, beauty, and human resilience despite deep poverty.  Aren’t these children lucky in many ways, especially to have the attention of such a good teacher? Decent teacher salaries, a few more books, and a well-stocked supply closet would fill out what sounds like an already rich educational experience. –Mary

  4. David A on November 30, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    I enjoyed reading your Sierra Leone blog. Thank you. Clearly Sierra Leoneans need all the help and encouragement they can get, and I’m glad you are apparently involved on the education side.
    There is a non-profit (“Fambul Tok International”), based in Portland, Maine, as well as in Freetown, SL, that works to bring reconciliation between those who committed atrocities during the civil war and their victims (and relatives) in the villages around the country. The founder is just back from 3 weeks in Sierra Leone, among other things observing a village ceremony set up by her organization in which one of the worst killers returned to his home village to ask forgiveness and was indeed forgiven. She and a colleague have produced an excellent documentary film about it.                          –David A

  5. Lucina Kathman on November 30, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    A wonderful experience, thank you. That is the age group I teach math to.  I love them.  I also have the girl with her hand raised, this year she is named Cornesha. When I was leaving for Mexico she clutched and started demanding more and more worksheets so I made one with 100 questions about operations with negative numbers, writing expressions using variables and solving very simple equations. 
    I met the editor of the Mexican edition of my math book at the FIL yesterday. He said he personally resolved all the exercises in my book and had I really written them myself? I said I have written at least 1000 times as many exercises as those that appear in that book within the past year. I never even understood this was considered a creative skill, although in some of my problems that involve my baby sister and a dog, I knew I was horsing around. But this is merely me horsing around. Some kid like Cornesha put me up to it. I would have loved the ones in Sierra Leone too. And the teacher sounds quite good.
    –Lucina Kathman

  6. Krishen Mehta on November 30, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    I was touched by your article about Sierra Leone. The dedication of the teacher volunteers, the government spending 18% of its budget on education, one-sixth of the population in primary schools…was all very encouraging. Hopefully there will be no more wars, and the country will see a period of peace when education can do its miracles. -Krishen Mehta

  7. Deena on December 3, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for sharing such an inspiring story. Eager children are a joy to teach, especially for volunteer teachers. It was encouraging to hear that the government is putting such effort into education.

  8. sally howell on December 14, 2010 at 3:39 am

    Your description of the classroom, students and teacher describes the effective teaching and learning outlined in today’s New York Times article “What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students”. The article presents results from a two year, $45 million dollar research project in the United States, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
    It’s important to identify the qualities and skills needed to educate effectively. It’s extremely encouraging to read about creating successful learning with little more than the “skill of the (volunteer) teacher and the enthusiastic participation of the students.” It really shows what is possible. Thank you!

  9. Charline Heyes on December 16, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Sometimes I just think that people write and dont really have much to say. Not so here. You definitely have something to say and you say it with style, my man! You sure do have an interesting way of drawing people in, what with your videos and your words. Youve got quite a one-two punch for a blog!

  10. Bernard Gregoire on February 11, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life… Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” – Viktor Frankl

  11. Trina on February 28, 2011 at 9:35 am

    Excellent site, thanks for the effort put into this post! Thanks! 😀

  12. Pete Kamph on February 28, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Having reading this blog i realize it was helpful in so many ways. Genius!

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