A Village Helping Itself
By Norma Jean MacPhee
Children run from one end of the road to the other. Infectious laughter erupts from their small faces. Clouds of dust churned from their thumping feet lingers like smoke in the dwindling sunlight. They tease, they laugh, they run, they eat, they cry, they sleep. Like children everywhere. These children just happen to live in Mapaki – a small village on the Western side of Sierra Leone. Listen here:
It’s Sports Day here. The annual event features track and field activities for students from Mapaki and nearby villages. The team colours of red, blue, yellow and green are scattered across a large field. Whoops and yells cut through the searing heat of the day as students cheer on their teammates. Players from the blue and yellow teams clutch opposite end of a thick piece of rope. They struggle in a game of Tug of Peace. The clever word change from Tug of War speaks to the commitment of these young athletes to peace in their village and Sierra Leone as a whole.
Less than a decade ago Mapaki was the scene of terror and destruction. Like many Sierra Leoneans, the people here were forced to flee to nearby forests. The eleven-year civil war left ten of thousands dead, and many more amputated, scarred and displaced. In 2002 the war finally ended and local and international efforts turned to peace.
Benjamin Bangora cheers his blue house team along. He is one of Mapaki’s half dozen young teachers who organized Sports Day. Benjamin isn’t your typical teacher. For three years he’s been teaching high school as a volunteer. “I teach because I want to develop myself, and also for the children,” reasons Bangora.
He says the main obstacle to Sierra Leone’s development is poverty, so he’s volunteering his teaching skills for the future of the community.
“In Sierra Leone the problem is poverty that makes most of us do volunteer work because you hope at the end of the day maybe you’ll get a scholarship or help from community.” After the civil war ended, The United Nations launched an arms for development program – encouraging Sierra Leonean villagers to turn in all remaining weapons. Mapaki turned over its guns and received funding in return. The people of Mapaki decided to build a community centre with that money. In front of the centre, a water well has been dug. Mabinti Kamara pumps water for cooking, while young children play nearby. Mabinti is also a volunteer teacher. Each school day she walks one and a half miles to the next village, where she teaches primary school.
“Because I thought it wise, sitting like this without doing anything is just a backward, not a forward program,” says Mabinti. “So I thought to be a teacher is better than sitting in my house and not doing anything.”
In the afternoon, she treks back home, works in the fields and helps cook the evening meal. During her four years as a community teacher, Mabinti hasn’t received a single pay cheque. Volunteer teachers like Mabinti and Benjamin are able to survive without pay because they do farm work and eat communally with their fellow villagers. They have no personal money of their own. Then can receive payment if they receive training, but training requires money.
A visitor to Mapaki arrived with a genuine heart and a commitment to education. Carolyn van Gurp is a teacher from Halifax, Nova Scotia. She visited Sierra Leone for the first time five years ago. At first, she only planned to stay for three weeks, but soon she fell in love with the country and its people. “What I saw was the embodiment of values that I hold very dear, values that I’ve always espoused and thought about, but haven’t been able to live on a daily basis,” explains Carolyn. “An incredible ability to share everything, living in a very egalitarian way, it’s a community where there aren’t noticeable haves and have-nots.”
Carolyn soon returned to Mapaki to live. She decided to start up a twinning project between schools in Mapaki and Canada. Carolyn’s friends and other teachers involved with the twinning project donated money to help train Mapaki’s volunteer teachers. Mabinti and Benjamin are among half a dozen teachers who’ve benefited from the training program.
Education grows like a snowball in this village where few have ever experienced the cold precipitation. Having first learned about computers from Carolyn, Mabinti now teaches woman how to type on lap tops in Mapaki’s new library. Like the community center and guest house, constructing the library was a community event.
People had been crowding into the guest house where Carolyn used to live, reading her books and getting on the computers. Then, Mapaki’s chief decided it was time to do something to serve the needs of everyone. “The youth were organized into work brigades,” says Carolyn. “The students and children everyday helped carry the water and mud, and blocks were made from local material, and they built a library.”
Mapaki’s library is open every night from 7:30-9:30. Wall to wall handmade wooden book shelves hold everything from Dr. Seuss to Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. Several computers and a lamp run on solar energy captured during the brilliantly sunny day. “Instead of buying kerosene using lamps in the houses, in night, there are lights in the library and students come here and do their homeworks,” says Mabinti. “So it means a lot in this community, brings light to this community.”
Not only can the villagers get on computers, but they can also access the internet. An anonymous Canadian donor provided money for internet services to be built, bringing the world to the village. For a place with no power – this was a major event.
“The whole community was out, the first page that came up was google,” says Carolyn. “When that came up there was lots of cheering, although not that many people really understand the impact or knew what this was, but those who did were pretty excited.”
Seven year old Saidatu practices her ABCs. Young people like Saidatu are more than eager to learn in schools and homes still riddled with bullets holes. The hunger for education overrides all else. Once considered the most unlivable village in a country at the bottom of the UN Human development index – Mapaki’s transformation is astonishing. “10-15 years ago this was one of the most backward chiefdoms in the district,” says Henry Karbo, Director of Agriculture for the area. “But today with the guest house, the internet facilities and the library, I’m highly impressed. I want to say I’ll rate the chiefdom to class A chiefdom.“
People work together for the improvement of their community. Mabiniti and Benjamin volunteer their days, months and years teaching because they want life to get better. The horror of the eleven-year civil war propels villagers in the opposite direction. During that time, few people attended school, many children were forced into combat, and schools and entire villages burned to the ground. After such destruction and devastation, rebuilding is the only option.
“I keep teaching because I want to improve my level of education and improve the community where I find myself,” says Mabinti Kamara. “To improve the kids that are coming up, because they are the future leaders of tomorrow.”