After 16 hours and quite a long delay, I finally landed at Lungi airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Stepping out of the airplane into warm air filled with wonderful smells, I take a few deep breaths for the last, and probably most exciting, part of my journey from Amsterdam to Sierra Leone: crossing a lagoon on a speedboat to get to the city. Once I arrive at the beach from where the boat is leaving, I look up at the dark skies through some palm trees and see the bright moon and stars shining. Even though it’s almost pitch black, I can tell it’s absolutely beautiful.
The crossing is fun, as we go over the water at high speed. A driver is waiting for me on the other side, and he takes me to the hotel. I arrive way past midnight and crash directly into my bed.
The next morning feels great. The air is warm and welcoming. At breakfast I have some time to meet my fellow IWitnesses. We sit and chat, taking photos of the view over Freetown.
The rest of our group will arrive on Sunday, but today we meet John from UNICEF, who has offered to show us the city and one of the many bountiful beaches that Sierra Leone has to offer.
The drive through the city is intense—bouncy roads, little sheds and houses on both sides of the road, streets filled with busy people going to church or selling their products. It smells like fire because people are burning trash. It quickly gets to 35 degrees, but we keep the windows of the car down to take in the scenery and observe the busyness of everything happening around us.
It takes us almost one hour to leave the hectic roads of Freetown behind and continue driving further south to Bureh Beach. Once we arrive, we almost cannot believe the beauty of what we see…
After a swim, eating freshly caught fish and relaxing in the sun, we drive back to meet Anton from UNICEF Sweden, who is arriving just in time to join us for dinner.
The contrast could not have been more extreme, seeing the most beautiful beaches and the daily struggles people face every day. One does not get the impression that people suffer, but the facts cannot be overlooked. Sierra Leone is still recovering from a cruel, 10-year-long civil war, which ended in 2002. The maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world. About 50% of all children work instead of going to school. Girls get married from 11 years of age and drop out of school due to teenage pregnancy. UNICEF’s work in Sierra Leone is critical to improve education and child protection.
In Sierra Leone, UNICEF focuses on child survival and developing basic education and child protection. At the UNCEF office we get to understand the bigger picture of the challenges related to nutrition, early childhood education and empowering women. With our main interest being education, we soon learn that the country is on the move, experiencing a strong willingness to change and improve.
The enrolment rate for children of six years has gone up to 76%, but about 52% of the teaching staff is not qualified for their level and position. Funding from the Soft Toys for Education campaign is going to improve both issues. When teachers are trained in child-friendly teaching methods and corporal punishment is abandoned, the enrolment rates go up naturally.
At noon we leave for Port Loko, where we meet teachers and facilitators at a teacher training centre where teachers learn child-friendly teaching methods following a UNICEF scheme. The deputy principal and several teachers and facilitators tell us how the new programmes have changed their approach to education and the way they treat their students.
One focus is to abandon the use of the cane and all corporal punishment and to create a child-friendly learning environment, where children want to be, can learn and have fun. This has not been the case in Sierra Leone, where the war has affected a whole generation and physical punishment has been a common way of raising children.
The training centre reaches out to teachers from the whole country and creates a scaling effect, as they take what they learned back to their home communities and pass on the knowledge and methods to local teachers, families and community leaders. This way the programme has already reached many remote and very small villages. In 2013, 398 teachers were trained and certified. The training is followed up on and evaluated by visits from facilitators, who visit the schools and report on their improvement.
The training not only addresses child-friendly teaching methods but also tackles some of the main concerns of Sierra Leonean society, like child marriage, teenage pregnancy and education on sanitation and hygiene.
The first day has truly been an eye-opener in terms of realising where this country is coming from but also what progress is being made and the ambitions to improve life for the coming generations.