A rusty metal car bumper hung from a tree next to the primary school; each morning, I was woken up between 5:00 and 6:00 am by some diligent community time keeper who rang it repeatedly by hitting it with something. Instead of my regular routine before a teacher workshop, which includes lousy hotel coffee and a quick, often confusing drive across some unfamiliar city in a rental car, this day began with the ringing of the bumper. I ate fried Spam and eggs for breakfast and walked the short, dusty road to the school. It took us 15 minutes to figure out how to get the chalk boards to stand up straight, another 10 to reorganize the desks, which had been placed in rows, into a circle with plastic picnic chairs behind them. Children gathered in the windows and doorways, greeting me in Mende through the bars: “Boa Jenny-fah!” They giggled uncontrollably at my poorly pronounced replies.
I started the workshop with a driving question for the 16 teachers who were invited to attend from Bumpe High School and the three local elementary schools: How can we best prepare our students to be successful people and innovative leaders in our communities and beyond? Everyone politely copied down everything I wrote on the board.
I told them what I’d discovered through interviewing students in town all week, that the older the students, the less of an answer they had when I asked what they were curious about. The 1st graders had answers, and so did the 2nd graders; even the kindergarteners had answers once they understood what I was asking. But the high school kids all stared with confusion when asked what I thought was one of the best questions posed for them by Ashley Miller's kindergarten students at Town School for Boys in San Francisco. What had happened between 1st grade and 10th, I asked? They’d been educated in a system where students sat in rows and copied down what their teachers told them to know, just as every teacher in the room was doing now.
Context can’t be underestimated, given Sierra Leone’s painful history. As recently as the 1990s, rebels were destroying everything they touched in this region of the world, and “Bumpe Town” appears several times in public documents from the Special Court for Sierra Leone. According to the Special Court, many individuals in the region were captured, tortured, and had limbs amputated. Community members who resisted were beheaded, and their heads were displayed in the town center to discourage resistance. According to the stories I heard during my visit, community members were raped and killed; children were executed in front of their parents; entire families were burned alive inside their homes. I don’t know whether the culture of passive education pre-dates the rebel war, but it’s certainly not surprising that Sierra Leone’s post-conflict educational culture includes so much obedience and so little independent thought, given the consequences they faced when they thought for themselves during the 1990s.
If my experience running a workshop with students in Bumpe is any indicator, these emerging leaders will find ways to rebuild and protect the future of their communities and country in ways their teachers and I have yet to even imagine.
My trip was partially funded by World Leadership School, and the Town School for Boys provided funding for both teacher and student workshops. Materials for the workshop and school were donated by the Buck Institute for Education, TakingITGlobal, and the Marine Biological Center in Woods Hole, MA (donation coordinated by Bill Mebane). I am grateful to all, as well as to the community of Bumpe for their kindness and generosity during my stay. For more information about the rebuilding of Bumpe, go to http://bumpefund.org/.