Thursday, March 04, 2010

Childhood in Sierra Leone; peaceful, yet difficult

UK newspaper The Telegraph has a continuing series that profiles children that are sponsored through World Vision. For the latest installment, writer Chris Harvey traveled to Sierra Leone to profile Hannah Brewah and her friend Musu Mbaimba.

World Vision is the only NGO that operates in the section of Sierra Leone where Hannah and Musu live. Both of the girls were born a year before the country's civil war ended. Although they have experienced peace through most of their lives, they are also living in a country that is still trying to restore normalcy.

It’s another beautifully sunny day in Kanga village, Sierra Leone. January is the middle of the dry season in tropical west Africa, and everywhere the fruit is ripe.

The children of the local school, in two lines of striking blue uniforms, are singing, ‘We’re marching for our school, hooray.’ Afterwards, they carry out their benches and place them under the shade of a mango tree for the afternoon’s lessons.

Eight-year-olds Hannah Brewah and her friend Musu Mbaimba are sitting close to the blackboard, which rests against the trunk. Musu says she wants to be a nurse when she grows up; Hannah thinks she would like to be a teacher.

Hannah is already something of an evangelist for the joys of school. Every weekday, in her home village of Gola, she gets up at 5.30 to sweep and, if there’s food, to help prepare the morning meal before setting off on the walk to Kanga.

This morning she brought a six-year-old boy from Gola to school for the first time. She talked to his parents, asked their permission and walked with him along the three miles of dusty road that links the two villages.

Hannah’s dream of being a teacher, though, is a long way off. As few as nine per cent of girls in rural areas of Sierra Leone go on to secondary school. Primary education is free, but tuition fees are charged for secondary school pupils, who must also have passed the national examination. School fees of up to £12.50 a term are not affordable for most families. More than half the population in Sierra Leone live on less than £1 a day.

Education is often interrupted by lack of money, pressure to contribute to family income, pregnancy or child marriage, which generally involves a ‘bride price’ paid by the groom.

Musu was seriously ill with malaria last year, but recovered. Another of her school friends wasn’t so lucky. ‘About 40 per cent of those who get malaria die,’ Gertrude Satta Coker, the nurse who runs the health clinic, says.

The clinic offers free mosquito nets, supplied by World Vision, for pregnant women and children under five, but still has a way to go to convince the locals to use its services. Most treatments are not free, and people are used to getting medicines from drug pedlars, who sell cheap, often fake, pills.

At 2.1 per cent, Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Musu lost her mother four years ago, when she died during labour, and is now looked after by her father, his new wife, Ami Nalloh, 50, and Ami’s mother Hannah, 67. Musu says she misses the way her mother used to plait her hair.

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