Freetown is located on the tip of a stocky peninsula that points NW from mainland Sierra Leone. Since our return from Kambia, we’ve been visiting Makrapodis Secondary School located on the Eastern edge of the peninsula. The school is located in a small village called Kissi Town, just south of the town of Tombo, overlooking the ocean below. The school doubles as a shelter home called Fountain of Mercy for middle and high school students, most of them orphaned, parents either dead or having given them up due to lack of finances.
Revered Spencer serves as school principal, head of the shelter home, and pastor of the Baptist church a few hundred meters down the road. He receives no payment for any of these jobs and stretches his personal funds to supply a meager one meal per day for children. The Reverend also acts as security, sleeping in the church with the boys of the shelter home. There are two withered mattresses for a few of the other boys, while the rest sleep on the floor or on the church benches. Meanwhile, the 8 girls of the shelter room sleep in a 10X6 room with Teresa, the Reverend’s wife. There is one double bed in this room for the 9 women; the girls unable to fit on the bed sleep on the rat-infested floor. Appalling conditions surely, but comparably luxurious to the short-lived, painful lives of children stuck on the street. Many of the children have faced the degradation of street labor, some prostitution, to make money enough to survive. The teachers at Makrapodis, meanwhile, have worked on a voluntary basis for two years, many using their spare time searching endlessly for work. Why do they do this? “The children need help,” one teacher said simply, stalwartly, and necessarily.
Kissi Town is predominately a fishing village. Recently the government passed a law against catching fish below a certain size. Environmentally-friendly, surely, but due to the quick implementation of the law – and no options for other employment – many local fisherman have now lost their one area of reliable income. Enormous, long-tail boats now sit stranded on the beaches; fishermen stitch their nets with sad eyes, hoping their next haul will meet government standards. Rev. Spencer informed us that some fisherman, in order to thwart certain starvation, fish under the cloak of night to avoid being caught by authorities, often-times lying on the bottom of boats for hours at time. Many of the shelter children’s parents were/are fisherman and are no longer able to provide.
The Rev. Spencer, several teachers, Ashley, and I walked around school/shelter property. He pointed out with humility – and gratitude for – the substandard structural facilities: leaky roofs, chalkboards like reptile skin with scabs, cracks in the concrete walls, elevated holes in the ground with four claustrophobic walls that serve as toilets. Blessings, all of them, considering the vacancy of adequate funding, and nowhere else for the children to go.
I asked the Reverend about the reasons for his dedication to these projects, to these children, and the communities where they struggle, to which he answered, “If I don’t, who will? Someone needs to take that step.” His ‘step’ is an ultra-marathon with no windbreaks along the way.
As we walked around the school, shelter, and church property, teens approached and introduced themselves with kind, cautious smiles, said “Nice to meet you” and “Thank you for your help,” while thumbing through yellowing pages of books, holding and swinging their peaceful hands. To see a child who you can tell wants to smile widely, but holds back, only doing so with a tentative flicker of the lips, fearful that moment of joy will be swept away by an avalanche of despair as it has so many times before – it is a crushing gravity.
128 students are currently enrolled at Makrapodis Secondary School, 20 of them full-time shelter live-ins. Being that the school is private, government funds are non-existent despite being required to be registered with the government and having to meet numerous standards. Money is said to always “Be coming soon.” Teachers have to do with what materials they can find in the nearby village of Tombo, or, if they are lucky, get a ride to Waterloo for better choices (Freetown is a non-option because of the high cost to get there, about 2USD). These ‘materials’ consist of such items as one copy of a paperback entitled “Basic English Grammar” for use with all students. I spoke with the literature teacher who uses this personal copy as the basis for his grammar instruction. In addition, he teaches literature – somehow – with no copies for any of the students. Teachers spending endless hours copying lessons by kerosene lamps for students. Their fingers scraping the chalkboard along with the nubs of chalk.
Still, four block classes are taught per day, the following subjects alternating every other: Mathematics, French, Integrated Science, Business Studies, Agriculture, Social Studies, Literature, Government, RME (Religious Moral Education), History, Health Science, Financial Accounting, Cost Accounting, Economics, Business Management, and Physical Health Education.
This year students of Makrapodis Secondary School boasted the highest scores on the BECE (acronym pronounced Be’ Kay, Basic Education Certification Exam) of all schools in the rural district on the Eastern Peninsula of Freetown that includes Waterloo, Tombo, and Kissy Town. The BECE is a make or break test for youths in Sierra Leone and many are, accordingly, enormously anxious about the exam (Although the school is private, its students must take the BECE exam; the government still, therefore, regulates indirectly but gives no funding) First, they have to be able to pay to ‘sit’ in the exam. In most cases, parents cannot afford to pay the $6 required to take the exam: children discontinue their education, the cycle of uneducated youths continues. If students can afford to take the exam, they must choose an area of focus, whether it be science or art (literature, social studies) or math. They are thus funneled into a specific area of interest, eliminating the opportunity to take classes prior to the BECE outside of their field. From this point until the completion of their secondary education, they must take classes in one area of focus; it is incredibly difficult, time consuming, and expensive to retake exams if a different focus is chosen at a later date. A backward, antiquated, disheartening system that pigeonholes already-marginalized youths with little idea if they will get to eat that day or not, let alone their area of ‘specialty’ for the rest of their lives. The exams are terrifically outdated, Soviet-like in their standardization, a certain benchmark for failure, not success for many struggling youths in Sierra Leone.
Still, there are many who make it work. The students of Makrapodis make it work: orphaned, malnourished, and damaged. They receive high academic marks, the school receives glowing reviews by the Sierra Leonean government who wonders how this is being accomplished. The staff and students of Makrapodis have learned that education and hard work is the only way out. They have learned the most important of concepts. No student has been placed on an individualized learning plan. No student is able to cite his or her ADD as the reason for not completing last night’s homework. Incomplete is not an option. No student can place some obscure blame on someone else for a lack of proper test preparation. There usually isn’t a ‘someone else’ in their life. No student has the help of the limitless knowledge within computers. No student has the chance to say, “I couldn’t find it,” after a few seconds on Google. What these students could absorb in those brief moments with such a fantastic tool of technology, what they would give to be able to do so. No student can study by the comfort of electricity. No student is guaranteed of anything other than love, support, and care. The teachers at Makrapodis also make it work: with no materials, no pay, by most peoples’ standards, no anything. The teachers don’t attend workshops, are not learned on recent pedagogies, are not part of a union, are not versed on what is politically correct and what isn’t, are not skilled in matters of project implementation and ‘best practices,’ do not have an office (or permanent home for that matter), are not tethered to what periods when they are free and when they must actually work…because is all work. All the time.
It is obvious that – no matter the country or demographic – the parents, mentors, role-models, adolescents and children who embrace fact that nothing replaces hard work are only then to be the juggernaut of progress, support, and growth they are meant to be. Such is diligence. Acceptance of a situation and the ability to overcome. Hope. Being steadfast. In light of, and in spite of, the certain ‘arrows of misfortune’ that have occurred and are bound to strike at some inevitable point in the future.