Reflections From Sierra Leone
“Great social forces are the accumulation of individual actions. Let the future say of our generation that we sent forth mighty currents of hope, and that we worked together to heal the world.” —Jeffrey D. Sachs
Whatever your views on the Ebola scare as it’s manifesting itself inside of North America, there’s no question that this is a real, deadly epidemic in West Africa. Real people are dying at alarming rates. People I know and care about in Sierra Leone are in real trouble; the schools are closed, the quarantined are starving, the people are afraid to shake hands with their neighbors, and misinformation reigns.
I’ve written about Hindogbae Kposowa before, a young leader in Bumpe, Sierra Leone, who is leading incredible efforts to improve life in his community in partnership with TakingITGlobal and the World Leadership School. I’ve also written about teachers in Bumpe, and the experiences I’ve had working with them on project-based learning and global partnerships. Through Hindo, several schools in North America have been able to partner with schools in the Bumpe community, including The Berkeley Carroll School (Brooklyn, NY) and Town School for Boys (San Francisco, CA). To learn more about one school’s work with Sierra Leone, explore this recent blog from Kristen Goggin at Town School for Boys.
Today, Hindo and his community are all-consumed by efforts to keep the Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom safe from the Ebola virus. Please don’t wait to get your students and community involved.
Build a Project around the Ebola Crisis in West Africa. There is nothing more authentic for inquiry and action than a real crisis in progress, and your students can be more than mere spectators, empowered to understand and support grassroots efforts instead of watching helplessly from the sidelines. Young leaders in Bumpe want to communicate with your kids, and all schools will receive regular updates from local volunteers on the ground. Consider the following driving questions and project ideas, which could easily be adapted for different grade levels:
1. How can we understand the causes of Ebola? Have your kids explore the root causes of Ebola and how it is spread. They could investigate how different countries are trying to manage the spread, looking at why Ebola was well controlled in places like Nigeria, while it has not been well controlled in Liberia or Sierra Leone. For younger kids, this could be woven into lessons about personal health and hygiene. For older students, this could become a powerful project on anything from public health policy to health care systems, and comparisons could include case studies in North America and Europe.
2. How can we determine which solutions to the Ebola spread are most effective? Have your kids explore how different health organizations are trying to stop the epidemic, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Center for Disease Control. Compare their impact with the strategies and grassroots efforts being used in Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom. This is also an interesting opportunity to explore the best ways to educate communities–through community meetings, theatre, posters, billboards–and have kids create their own educational campaigns.
3. How can we use math to understand the Ebola epidemic? Have your kids do some real world math–on the exponential spread of the disease and the funding needed to stop it, on comparisons to other global epidemics, on the costs involved in the grassroots work being done in Bumpe, and/or the relative successes of bigger and smaller organizations, including their overhead expenses and how much is actually being spent to end the outbreak.
4. How can we help end the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone? Whatever the academic focus of your broader engagement, encourage your kids to plan and run a fundraiser or educational campaign about Ebola and how to get involved in stopping its spread. Student presentations could include skits like those being used to educate communities in Bumpe, as well as artistic expression, writing, film, or other creative products designed to educate and inspire others to get involved. Once a classroom or individual has gotten involved in Bumpe’s grassroots prevention work, you will receive regular updates from young leaders in Bumpe, which can be shared with your students and broader community.
5. What can we learn by connecting with young people in Sierra Leone that we can’t learn from the news? The Centre for Global Education plans to run a multi-point videoconference with young leaders in Bumpe soon; please contact me for more information (Jennifer@principledlearning.org). Young leaders are also willing to Skype into classrooms on an individual basis, to answer students’ questions and talk about their efforts. Please note that there are significant costs involved in having the electricity and internet necessary for such a connection on Bumpe’s end, so we do ask that your classroom make a donation to the project if you want a private Skype call.
Please reach out to me if I can help support your involvement in this important work (Jennifer@principledlearning.org). Your kids don’t want to be spectators to global disasters–they are emerging change makers who want to be part of the solution. Please don’t wait to get them involved.
–Adrienne RichA 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.
In the schools of Bumpe, I quickly discovered, Paolo Freire’s notion of “banking education” is the norm. Students obediently write down everything the teachers say. When asked what they think, only the most mature offer answers beyond those modeled first by the teachers. One of the participants in my workshop, a Peace Corps volunteer halfway through his second year teaching English Literature, told me that the students are either misbehaving or learning passively most of the time; it is rare to see them engaged and curious. The exams they face every year ask for no independent thought and require no skills beyond test taking and rote retention. It’s no wonder that Freire resonated for so many of the teachers in my workshop–very few had studied his work, but everyone saw parallels to Socrates immediately, whom it seemed all had studied at some point in an educational system originally conceived by British colonists. Socrates and Freire had similar ideas about educating independent thinkers, suggesting that the best philosophers and educators ask questions, have dialogue, and encourage risk taking in their students–they don’t offer answers but equip students instead to look for answers themselves.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.
I was welcomed to Bumpe with celebrations and smiles, but there was no way I could forget the past each of these educators had lived through; even if there hadn’t been chickens roosting in our workshop room and we’d been in a North American workshop space with plumbing and electricity, I’d have been constantly and keenly aware of the horrors these teachers had undergone, the experiences that every Sierra Leonean under 20 remembers well enough to be left with layers of pervasive trauma. Bumpe’s schools and homes were looted and burned to the ground. I knew that these teachers had fled with their families, that they had tried to keep Bumpe’s schools going even as they’d fled from village to village in search of safety from the rebels. They’d taught out of remaining schoolhouses in other communities during off hours, moving again and again as the conflict required. There were teachers in the room who had lost family members, who had been captured and tortured themselves. Each of the teachers in my workshop had chosen to return to their town, to continue the work of educating their community, in spite of the fact that it was the site of unspeakable horror for every one of them. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of this history on every teacher in the room; it clung to us like a dusty haze, though no one spoke about the past directly.
I spent the whole day overwhelmingly conscious of the dangers of acting out some dreadful imperialist or colonialist paradigm by suggesting I had anything to teach these educators, individuals who had borne–and survived–so much I couldn’t imagine myself enduring. They had come back to a ravaged village to rebuild their communities and schools, were doing the best they could with almost no resources. How could I possibly know what it means to be an educator during and since times of war and atrocity, to work with the children of a generation of deeply scarred and traumatized adults? How was I going to talk about global enrichment when most of their students would never see the world beyond their direct environment and didn’t have enough to eat? How could I encourage collaboration with students around the world when the local schools had no electricity or running water, much less computers or internet connectivity? Many of the teachers in my workshop hadn’t been paid in years, and all of them struggled to put food on the table; who was I to teach them anything? Who was I to think that a summer teaching poetry in the West Bank qualified me to walk alongside these educators?
But when we worked together to craft a sense of our ideal global graduate, the challenges and distances between us melted away. It was the same list I’ve seen generated by teachers in schools across North America, what every educator wants for their students–and their communities–no matter where in the world they might be: that our students feel loved and know how to love others, that they have a sense of purpose and feel the urge to be engaged in creating change, that they be collaborative and creative problem solvers who know how to communicate their vision to others. It reminded me of the first time I heard Sting’s “The Russians Love their Children Too,” just after I left Israel/Palestine in 1985; it reminded me that wherever we live and whatever we experience, our hopes for our children are the same–and that those hopes have everything to do with our youth thriving and becoming good people, and nothing to do with their succeeding on standardized exams.
So no, I didn’t have enough time to take my teachers on a deep journey into all of the nuances of Project-Based Learning, but I didn’t need to try–all I needed to do was open a few new ideas about what student-centered teaching looks like, and they got it. Each teacher explored how the Buck Institute for Education’s Eight Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning might be incorporated into their teaching strategies; each teacher chose at least three elements as goals for growth of practice. In the developing world, where so many traditional paradigms of rote learning and teacher-centered education prevail–perhaps in part because of poverty and conflict–it is enough to increase student choice, to develop students’ 21st Century Skills, to allow learning to be born from a deeper sense of passion and purpose. We did the same with global competency matrices from Asia Society and World Savvy, and they loved the idea of Asia Society’s matrix providing a design strategy for classroom experiences–several teachers even came up with interesting ways to focus units on investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and taking action.
My favorite moment came during Building Utopia, a critical-thinking and collaboration activity I developed for World Leadership School, which asks teachers to organize the targets of the Millenium Development Goals into an order of priority, whatever that means to them. We were walking around after the exercise, listening to each group present what they’d prioritized and why, when an argumentative high school social studies teacher asked if listeners were allowed to disagree with presenters. In the shouting which followed, one voice rang straight through: Mr. Samba, the oldest teacher in the room, insisted loudly that all answers were correct, and within seconds the rest were echoing his sentiment loudly, wagging index fingers at the one who wanted to argue politics and pushing him back from the table. I nearly wept, both from laughter and joy, as this incredible group of educators demonstrated that they’d understood and were embodying the heart of student-centered learning in just under four hours.
Bumpe isn’t a big place, and every teacher I saw after the workshop told me enthusiastically about the changes they were already making in their classrooms. They weren’t developing huge projects, but they were already working toward the goals they’d set at the workshop: they were finding small ways to offer more choice, to ask questions more than offer answers, to talk less and listen more, to move away from the “sage on the stage” and toward the “guide on the side” as educators. Many of them expressed concern over how unsafe their national exams make it for kids to “fail forward” and learn from trial and error, and they were eager to continue the dialogue about how to lower risk aversion inside the classroom and get kids to try new things without fear of connected grades destroying their academic futures. The teachers were excited to share what they’d learned with colleagues–so excited that they actually fought ferociously over my left-over materials at the end of the workshop.
It was no accident that I chose to start from Freire; young people in Sierra Leone need to develop their own conscientização–the personal conscience that leads to innovation, liberation and change–and that can only happen through student-centered learning. Bumpe Town will probably never do a total flip to inquiry-driven, student-centered learning, but a few inspired young leaders will emerge from this beautiful part of the world, as they do wherever young people are encouraged to think for themselves, to collaborate with others, and to find new solutions to their communities’ challenges. Just as my host Hindogbae Kposowa has been fostered as a community leader through his work with international organizations like TakingITGlobal and World Leadership School, so all young people deserve to have constructive support as they develop their talents and passions. I don’t do this work because I think I have the right answers, but because I believe that every community in the world contains young people who might, particularly if their answers are fostered in classrooms which honor their voices and capacity for innovation.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.
It’s interesting how long I’ve held strong opinions about global women’s rights without ever really confronting the realities of practices I’ve criticized. Perhaps this is innately human, to assume we know without knowing, to assume we have a read on other people’s realities. It’s disconcerting to be reminded of how little I know–not just because I like to think I know a lot, but because the complexities and nuances of life around the globe are so intense that they render me speechless sometimes.
For years, I taught about women’s rights in Africa through Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, a brilliant novela which explores the experiences of women in a changing society in Senegal. My students did deep explorations and debates on polygamy and female genital mutilation, among other topics. While I always suggested that students take on the challenge of arguing the pro side, providing well-researched opposition myself to increase the authenticity and depth of argument on both sides, I have to admit that I always did have a right answer in my head (which I’m guessing my students realized the whole time). Clearly polygamy was an atrocious practice which disempowered women. Clearly no little girl should ever have her sexual organs cut, sewn up or removed. As a student-centered teacher, I wanted my kids to explore the issues for themselves… but I’ve realized recently that I actually wanted them to come to my own conclusions the whole time.
Walking through the rural southern village of Bumpe in Sierra Leone, an old man told me proudly that he has three wives. “Do they do that in America?” he asked me. I nodded and told him of small pockets of polygamous communities in the U.S. I said nothing critical, smiled a lot and asked if he was taking good care of all of his wives, as the Koran orders. His answer astonished me slightly: “They take care of me and I couldn’t exist without all three of them,” he told me. He pointed to the cook fire. “I am that pot over on the fire, held up by three stones. If you remove one of them, I will fall.”
My host has uncles and aunts spread all over the village—and the world. The explanation? His grandfather had 30 wives, and multiple children with each. It’s extreme enough to bring back memories of old testament classes and my confusion over Solomon’s harem of wives. But who am I to question thousands of years of communal traditions in a culture so much older than my own? I think of my ex-husband in Costa Rica, whose grandmother bore 20 children with an alcoholic husband–can I really say it would have been worse to have multiple mothers raising those children so they might have been better nurtured? Certainly questions of population and economics apply, and small families are easier to maintain, but how different is the polygamous family from the socialist communities of Israel or other parts of the world, where it is believed that it takes a village to raise a child? The single father is the only difference, I’m coming to realize–beyond that, the issue is more a moral one. And if a puritan moral mindset claims that marriage must be between one man and one woman, then yes, it deserves to be questioned not just for LGBTQ couples, but for anyone else who defines marriage differently.
Female cutting (also known as female genital mutilation or female circumcision) is a tougher issue for me to wrap my head around still, and I haven’t been able to get anyone to talk about it. What I know is this: Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of female excision (removal of the clitoris and labia) in Africa, and the practice is tied to the poros, secret societies which use excision as part of initiation. When I asked my host about it, he said that most Sierra Leoneans belong to poros; he was initiated into one in his teens and he speaks of it with nothing but pride. He warned me against asking any of the women in his village or family about their own initiation experiences. But the question lingers–if most members of this community belong to poros, then that means most of the girls and women have undergone cutting.
The guide book in my pack tells me that initiation generally takes place during a young person’s teens, that men as much as women bear some sort of scar from their initiation process. There are questions raised about how safe and hygenic these practices generally are, but the book suggests that most Sierra Leoneans won’t talk about excision with foreigners because they know the west sees it as bad and they don’t want to get embroiled in arguments about a practice they are proud of.
I didn’t realize how much this underlying question was bothering me until I started interviewing teenage students at the high school. I found myself wondering briefly about the initiation scars the boys might carry, but each time I found myself talking to girls, I was gripped by the realization that most of them have probably had their sexual organs excised. Sitting with my host’s mother, who I have come to adore, I am deeply pained to think that she has gone through such a practice. The two young nieces who run around the house and dance for me will undergo it one day.
My own Jewish culture has circumcised baby boys for thousands of years, but female cutting feels different still, and that confuses me. I’ve seen documentaries on indigenous initiations rites for teenagers which usually include incredibly painful rituals. Things like this happen all over the world, a sort of pain-based transformation from teen to adult. Some of those young people have the choice to walk away; others don’t. Who am I to judge female cutting as apart from these rituals, as something inherently wrong, given the pride with which my host speaks of his own initiation?
I am left with more questions than answers. Does being a constructive and engaged global citizen mean I work to end practices I think are wrong around the world? I know my first goal should always be to understand why the practices exist and where they come from. Should my next goal be to accept them or to change them? I used to ask my students to come up with their own answers about where the line was for them: When is a cultural practice something we should try to end, and when should we accept it for its cultural importance to others? But the more I explore the world, the less sure I am that I have the right to judge anyone else’s choices.