PONDER MY THOUGHTS BY Andrew Keili I couldn’t help but be impressed by schoolchildren in my village on the day school reopened. Many of them had woken up early, dressed and were eagerly trooping happily to school. These included those who, because of fees had kept away from school but were now darkening the walls of a school for the first time. Such was the enthusiasm that some parents chose to accompany them right into the primary school. The enthusiasm for the government’s free education programme has been effusive.
It was therefore a surprise to me when I got to Kenema on the same day and found out on visiting a sick Aunt that I discovered that a little boy about seven years had abandoned school on the very first day and had hidden under the bed when he saw my vehicle. “Comot under da bed, norto policeman!”, my Aunt shouted to him as I alighted from the vehicle. I soon found out that the Police had been rounding up errant children that had chosen not to join the free education programme. I later learnt this was not just a Kenema situation but all over the country. Children selling various wares were rounded up by police in Makeni, Kabala and various other places and forcibly taken to school.
What good support from the police for the free education programme! Some community police had also caught on to the act. The situation rather reminds me of how reluctant boys were caught and sent to a famous school in Bo meant for sons of chiefs, that now has a President. The story goes that many chiefs, not valuing education sent their wards instead and the reluctant ones must have been rounded up in the same way, although the Native Administration police did not have vehicles in those days. I have no doubt that my uncle Dr Sama Banya aka Puawui has his own yarn on how Bo school boys were caught in those days!
There are now many more education prisoners in Sierra Leone that ought to be arrested. These include not only the victims that should be forcibly taken to school but those not valuing education and helping to mess up our educational system who ought to be sent to a correctional center, I will suggest a few:
Children who work in mines: Thousands of children work in the artisanal mining industry playing some role in gold or diamond mining. They do arduous and dangerous work and are exploited by adults.
Children who are made to sell wares during school hours: There are thousands of children who are made to sell various types of goods to bring bread to the table for their parents. Whereas some who sell after school hours could be said to be arguably be justified in doing so, there are those who do not go to school and sell for the whole day.
Children who are stone miners: There have been recent embarrassing stories about Sierra Leonean kids as young as three years old making a living from mining stones. One vivid story on YouTube shows children breaking stones to earn enough money for their school fees, studying on candlelight in a squalid room. Thousands of children in Sierra Leone are working as rock-breakers for the country’s construction industry. Many of these children do not attend school.
Children who help the disabled: There are countless children who are used as guides for their disabled parents that go begging. The parents may be blind or crippled and one could see them begging in lorry parks and other public places.
Children who just roam the streets: A 2015 report from the Needy Child International indicates that about fifty thousand Sierra Leonean children work and live on the streets.
Spare a thought for young girls who get pregnant whilst at school or their colleagues who do not even go to school and get pregnant in their teenage years. A recent phenomenon in the country is the rape of women and young girls and even children by depraved people.
There are also those who are not children but mess up our educational system. There is the recent case of some students, teachers and examiners caught illegally sitting to public examinations at a night syndicate. This is currently being investigated by the ACC. In numerous educational institutions sex or money for grades has been become much too commonplace. The net result is that we churn out ill qualified students and our qualifications are frowned upon by employers.
Beauty Queen pageants and other socially oriented competitions have shown the parlous state of our educational system. Many of us now show empathy for our young girls who assassinate the Queen’s language in public fora-this seems to be much too commonplace.
The truth is that if one were to round up all the defaulting children to be taken to school there will not be enough space for them. If you were to extend this to parents and guardians who prevent them from going to school or those who collectively together mess up our educational system including parents, guardians and teachers, we will most probably have to build more new correctional centres than schools.
The government must be commended for the free educational programme. However well begun is half done! Many children suffer from severe educational deprivation. Severe Educational Deprivation applies to children aged between 7 and 18 who had never been to school and were not currently attending school (no professional education of any kind). To improve the quality of education and to ensure every Sierra Leonean child has equal access, education policies must focus on expanding access, especially at the basic education level. However, eliminating educational deprivation alone is likely to have only a small impact on the incidence of child poverty when compared to eliminating other deprivations, especially housing deprivation.
Free education is a good start but this goes only part of the way to address Sierra Leone’s child poverty situation. A child is considered poor if he or she is deprived of at least one of the following rights which constitute poverty: housing, education, information, water, sanitation, health and nutrition. The following scenario representing a moderate child poverty situation is much too commonplace in Sierra Leone: A child going hungry on occasions, having no access to water in his/her dwelling and water more than 15 minute away, having sanitation facilities outside the house, inadequate medical facilities, few facilities in dwelling, having more than 3 people in his/her room.
A recent analysis finds that 77.4 per cent of Sierra Leonean children are poor as they suffer a violation of at least one of their basic rights. That means that, on average, 8 out of every 10 children can be considered poor. Breaking results down by dimension, the highest incidence of severe deprivation is found in housing, where 62 per cent of children either live in dwellings with mud or sand floors or in dwellings with more than five occupants per room. Severe deprivation is the lowest in education, with just over 17 per cent of children aged 7–17 found to have never attended school. More than 50 per cent of children suffer from at least two severe deprivations. 28.1 per cent of children are deprived in three or more dimensions.
It should not be forgotten however, that reducing children’s vulnerabilities, improving their quality of life and cutting child poverty are important targets in themselves, and should be part of the Government’s strategy for improving the welfare of all its citizens. The situation is indeed grim with children. A save the Children report states that 38% of girls 15 and older are literate, 29% of school-age children are out of school, 114 out of 1000 children die before their 5th birthday and 37% of children are engaged in child labor. Grim figures indeed!
Whatever the case one has to start somewhere and it is good the government is taking the issue of education seriously. It is important to acknowledge that for many children, even those in schools, the quality of their education remains poor and they are learning very little. Government needs to ensure that schools have adequately trained teachers, sufficient and well-resourced classrooms and necessary facilities like water, sanitation and appropriate text books, to create the enabling environment necessary for quality learning.
Whilst improving education the government should not lose sight of the child poverty situation. Child poverty gained prominence in the new Sustainable Development Goals agreed in 2015. Countries must now consider child poverty in their development plans as it has implications for their overall achievements of the other goals. Sierra Leone has taken the bold step of including child poverty, both monetary and multi-dimensional aspects in its SDGs, to track over time. This is commendable. With an absolute child poverty estimate of about 77 per cent and a severity of about 30 per cent, policy measures that ensure equity are appropriate to turn around the deprivation of children in Sierra Leone.
In a recent study to determine which countries were the best to raise kids in, researchers looked at the following eight attributes: care for human rights, family-friendly, gender equality, happiness, income equality, level of safety, well-developed public education system and well-developed health care system. Yes, we know we are ranked at the bottom of such a study but we must start from somewhere. The government must not lose sight of the fact that the commendable educational programme is just a start and should be part of a holistic programme to address child poverty.
We must not neglect our children and should give them every opportunity we can as a nation. A famous man who lived on this earth some two thousand years ago reaffirmed this when he said:
“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”- Luke 18:16 I also rather like the hymn that this episode inspired:
When mothers of Salem Their children brought to Jesus, The stern disciples drove them back And bade them to depart: But Jesus saw them ere they fled And sweetly smiled and kindly said, Suffer little children to come unto Me. For I will receive them And fold them to My bosom: I’ll be a shepherd to these lambs, O drive them not away; For if their hearts to Me they give, They shall with Me in glory live: Suffer little children to come unto Me. Indeed, the government must receive these children, fold them to her bosom, shepherd them and say “Suffer little children to come unto us”.
Ponder my thoughts.