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Niamh Griffin in Sierra Leone – Blog Two

Learning in Sierra Leone

I met Ali and Muhammad on a Thursday afternoon at a roadside market in Sierra Leone. They should have been in school but instead were selling plastic bags to anyone who looked in need.

‘Hello, how are you,” Ali asked in very proper English. He chatted away about his bags, but soon figured out I wasn’t his target market.

Instead he dragged me over to his friend Monica’s stall – grilled monkey. Delicious served with cassava soup apparently. Strangely it’s just the hind-quarters you see for sale, never the shoulder or the head. Not too much meat up there maybe …

So why wasn’t Ali in school? He shrugged, looked at me like I’d asked the most stupid question he’d heard all day.

Instead of replying, he asked: “Do you have exercise books?” When I said no, he called Muhammad over so they could explain together you can only go to (secondary) school if you can pay fees and bring your own pencil and copybook.

A payment of €20 per term is far out of Ali’s reach with his bags selling for about 14c per bundle.

Most primary schools don’t charge fees but costs like uniforms and paper still adds up for younger kids. Anyone who can’t pay ends up at the market. Or working at the side of the road breaking granite slowly and painfully; with a handheld hammer.

In a report prepared for UNESCO last year, the Sierra Leone government said literacy stands at 56% nationally. And while female illiteracy is a focus of government campaigns, those figures show a staggering 69% of men are illiterate.

But it’s not just that families don’t have the money to send their kids to school. Eleven years after the civil war ended, teachers and school-buildings are still in short supply.

In the capital Freetown, the lack of buildings means most schools work two shifts – morning and afternoon classes. Classes can contain up to 70 students so by default teachers rely on rote-learning, a form of teaching discredited in countries with more funding for education.

So you see children everywhere in Sierra Leone during the day – one in four of the population are under-18. They work as hard as adults, they try to get by but without support how much can a child like Ali do?