James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 March 2019:
Sierra Leone President – Julius Maada Bio’s declaration of free, quality education for primary and secondary school children, has been applauded by many at home and abroad as a major step forward in helping to transform the degenerating education system in the country.
This provision, which came into force in September last year, is however failing the most vulnerable children whom the system was supposed to liberate from hard labour, destitution and impoverishment.
These are children who work on the streets as hawkers, stone-breakers and beggars. They are the very children who are supposed to be at the heart of the programme.
Our community survey team has been working in the far west of the city of Freetown to record labouring children on stone-breaking sites.
Sierra Leone’s city streets are overcrowded with children as young as six years old selling items such as boiled eggs in small cardboard boxes. They are the economic auxiliaries for unscrupulous parents and guardians who sometimes use the children’s street income to play Mercury lottery.
They bet on anything competitive, especially European football including the British Premiere League, which they watch in makeshift sheds. Lottery has become a major contributing factor to extreme poverty, want, crime, adult idleness and family breakdowns in Sierra Leone.
It is an appalling sight to see lines of mainly men queuing up in dishevelled outfits to play Mercury lottery. These long queues are also intercepted by children still carrying their merchandise on their heads late into the night and waiting to buy Mercury lottery tickets.
Mercury’s 590 Lotto is so popular that it is played 4 times a day from Monday to Saturday. Children selling or working whole day, only to go and gamble their earnings off is despicable. But this is what happens when you unleash a viciously unconcerned gambling multinational on an unregulated market in an impoverished and unemployment-ridden post-war country.
Mercury International is now earning far more than most mineral mining companies in Sierra Leone. Their publicly drummed-up financial contributions to some government programmes have made them untouchable.
We deliver new cutting-edge textbooks to schools across Sierra Leone. We lean towards the sciences and English language, and sometimes combine the provision of science textbooks with science lab equipment. Children who are denied education through state neglect are not benefiting from such educational support services to schools.
Turning a blind eye to children working interminably on the streets to feed into these systems makes the free, quality education sound risible. It also undermines the campaign to uphold children’s rights in a country that has systemically overlooked the importance of policy shift that respects minors.
The recent statement on rape against children as a national emergency makes no sense whatsoever, if those very children are still being allowed to sell, beg on the streets, or used as labourers in stone-breaking quarries and building sites.
Policy declarations should not just be words that are spoken to solicit international sympathy and admiration. They must be implemented and acted upon to become relevant and far-reaching.
No state will ever be regarded as progressive within international circles, if it fails to uphold the very principles that underpin contemporary societies’ need to move into the 21st century.
In the age of social media, nothing is hidden anymore. The very children that are supposed to be at the heart of the free, quality education system and the recent declaration of rape of minors as a national emergency, are still working in stone-breaking quarries.
Many more are roaming on the streets without going to school or being protected by the police or legal system against systemic abuse.
Around Freetown and other cities in Sierra Leone, children spend whole day working in stone-breaking quarries without going to school.
Practical Tools Initiative is a key NGO supporting the free, quality education programme in Sierra Leone. It is the largest indigenous and independent educational support services provider. In October last year, we made a major commitment to support the free, quality education with $1.5 million worth of educational resources to schools in the country over a four-year period.
But it will be absolutely hypocritical and irresponsible on our part to remain silent and unconcerned about the state’s disregard for children’s protection and rights. This is why our pledge comes with the inclusion of the provision of mobility aids to disabled school-going children in the country.
The free, quality education programme initially never even incorporated disabled children as part of the general group that needed additional practical support in mobility and access. It didn’t even consider making sure that school structures are made appropriate and reachable for the disabled.
Without wheelchairs, leg-disabled children will not be able to go to school, and most parents of disabled children in Sierra Leone cannot afford to buy wheelchairs. These children are left to fend for themselves on the streets through begging. We combine the provision of educational support services with the delivery of mobility aids to disabled school children.
There is another big problem; frontline desk officers within certain ministries don’t even care that such a pledge has been made to support the government’s drive to improve education in Sierra Leone. Instead, they are working hard to undermine it.
Upon hearing that we have made a major pledge to support the programme, we became a target for racketeering by duty-waiver gate-keeping officers. In November last year we shipped a 40ft container of new educational resources weighing 19 tonnes to support schools across the country.
When we submitted our documents to the duty-waiver section, there was this audibly hushed expectation and demands for us to bribe them before our documents could be sent to the minister for signing. When we did not yield to these demands, our documents were held for nearly a month before they were released to the minister’s desk to sign.
This led to the accumulation of considerable demurrage and container rent charges that cost us over £5,000.00 in addition to the normal shipping and clearance costs.
As a result of this unacceptable behaviour, we wrote a very strong letter to the appropriate authority to say that we are suspending shipment to Sierra Leone, until we receive assurance from the government that this will not happen again.
We have followed this up by not sending any shipment to Sierra Leone this year. What was meant to be shipped to Freetown is now being sent to Liberia. It is doubly difficult for anyone, if you have elements ‘within’ – trying to undermine your work.
It is widely accepted that Sierra Leone’s education system was in total shambles before the free, quality education was introduced. It was in free fall from the 1970s under the influence of political manipulation, and got further pommelled by the 10-year civil war.
After some post-war rehabilitation, it was recklessly managed thereafter for ten years by a fumbling minister who shamelessly called himself Dr Bah. Under Dr Bah’s tenure, educational provision in Sierra Leone was so bad that even his then deputy education minister, Mahmoud Tarawally was arrested by the police in 2013 for raping a school girl in his office. Totally deplorable.
As things stand now, there is no excuse for the continuation of such pervasive and pernicious degradation of a system, particularly where a workable proposal – free, quality education, is being put forward.
For this free, quality education system to work, the government must ban child labour and child gambling; refrain from the pathetically obvious and repetitive rhetoric and roll-up its sleeves to start implementing the programme with ardour.
The success of the free, quality education programme will be judged by the unequivocal inclusion of these destitute and abused children.
It is also important to acknowledge that certain elements within the system are working hard to undermine the provision, by targeting those who are supporting it.
About the author
James Fallah-Williams is Programme Director for Practical Tools Initiative.