“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.