Walking by the local village, angelic children’s voices singing “ABCDEFG” enticed me to a dilapidated hut.
||Through the broken doors I saw a room with about 30 children – who immediately stood and chanted in perfect unison, “Good afternoon sir“. I don’t know who had the biggest grin, the children or me!
||I’d passed the small hut many times and never knew it was a school. It is voluntary, and Bailor and assistant-teacher Mustapha, unpaid. Classes are conducted six days a week from 3-6pm and on Saturdays they ask a 1,000 Leones (20 cents) “fee” from those who can afford it. few attend on Saturday.
In an impromptu geography quiz (“Where do you think I come from”), I noticed they had no map so my wife Jenny and I bought books, pencils etc and a large wall atlas – the children recognized Africa, and pointed to Sierra Leone – but couldn’t quite fathom New Zealand’s distance. And couldn’t believe NZ had fewer people than their country.
The school, originally built by a UN peacekeeping contingent from Mongolia in 2008, was in a poor state and on one of my visits Bailor gently asked could we help fund the repair of the leaking school. I suggested he obtain a quote and Momoh Sesay the village Chairperson, upon hearing this, took the lead. Momoh is an engineer, (unemployed since Ebola – as were most in the village) and next day he had a detailed written quote for me – $900! Low, because he would use the unemployed builders, painter and artist in the village.
I mentioned the project to WHO colleagues and without exception, all donated and raised the $900. After giving Momoh Sesay and the teachers the go-ahead, the village was soon abuzz. Leaving the following Wednesday, I was sad not to be able see the project finished . No problem they said “We’ll start tomorrow and finish it before you go“.
They started that Friday 8am and worked 5 days straight including Sunday, (“God will forgive us for not attending church”). At one stage I counted 15 men, women and paint-covered children lending a hand – the village was proudly rebuilding their own school.
I suggested we preserve the Mongolian’s original painted animals (a panda, two lions and Pooh Bear) so I borrowed a hacksaw blade from my hotel and showed some helpers how to cut out the animals from the original plywood walls – by day’s end they had all four neatly cut out and edges sanded. The village artist bought paints and restored each animal to its former glory and attached them to the new walls – big smiles abounded! And he skillfully painted a sign acknowledging the WHO Ebola response team’s donation.
The finished school was fitted with mosquito netting all round and we had a grand opening Tuesday evening!
Momoh Sesay’s wife, Aisha, cooked all day and WHO staff and villagers reveled in the grand opening party. Aisha is Head of the nearby Dance Academy (they’ve performed nationally and internationally but had only had 2 engagements since Ebola) and she brought her dancers and drummers and “Rubberman”, the troupe’s contortionist – and the dusty street was transformed into a festive stage.
What a profound, humbling, once-in-a-lifetime experience.