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Teach me, teach them

A TV boomed into life in the dining-room, and all eyes drifted to the football-match … including two nuns who were discussing infant malnutrition before this. Some things are international, and a good goal is one of them.

We’re in a hotel in Kono, a diamond-mining town in western Sierra Leone. We’re sitting in a dome-shaped dining hall, with bizarrely high ceilings and dozens of mostly-empty tables, talking development.

Sr Veronica from Sierra Leone and Sr Rita from Ghana are two of the missionary nuns working here with the sisters of St Joseph of Cluny. Some of the older nuns worked around Kono before and during the Civil War, until it got too dangerous. They returned as soon as they could when hostilities ceased, and the Bishop granted them a plot of land outside the town.

In less than 20 years the nuns, locals and various aid agencies have made a village with two schools, a clinic and occasionally solar powered electricity. The road out of Kono town is paved, but as soon as you turn towards the schools, it’s red earth all the way. On a dry day, it’s bumpy and on a wet day, craters open up.

Sr Veronica is in her 20s, working with mothers to keep their babies alive. UNICEF says Sierra Leone’s child mortality rates are among the worst in the world. A trained nurse and teacher, she travels around on her scooter, talking about breast-feeding and paediatric medicine.

But her passion is football. She played for her school in the nearby city of Makeni and still loves to watch anytime she can. The internet is patchy to say the least, so she relies on her phone for results more than viewing. She laughed at the idea of coming to this hotel to watch a game, it wouldn’t be appropriate. Accidentally watching while she’s talking with development workers, that’s alright.

Sr Rita is with her at dinner, another young nun with big responsibilities. She’s the school’s manager, with over 700 children just in the primary section. Like Sr Veronica, her phone is her link to football. Her last visit home coincided with the World Cup and she says she watched every single match. She’s not joking. Also a former schools player, she says helping girls here to stay in school is enough of a challenge for now. So she won’t be starting a team just yet.

Their love of football is international, but the restricted access to internet is a regional issue linked to where they’ve chosen to live their lives. But the Sisters say they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Journalist Niamh Griffin was funded to travel to Sirerra Leone to report on how quality education is a central plank for sustainable development as it allows marginalised pupils to leave poverty behind. Her project will also look at how teachers in Sierra Leone are important role models for their students. Many of these teachers have been assisted in their training by Irish nuns who have been based in Sierra Leone for decades, and a non-profit Irish teacher training association. Niamh’s piece will be published later this month in the Irish Mail on Sunday.