‘One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.’ Malala Yousafzai
As I ran down the homestretch and onward to the finish line, I held on to the hands of a group of local boys and found myself simultaneously choking back tears. Emotions rose for all that I’d witnessed that morning, and the prevalence of all that we had learnt in the week prior. In many respects this trip acted like two matchsticks forcing my eyes wide open. It put faces to numbers within a route of progress; introducing me first hand to the cause at hand. With eyes open further now, I understand that for change to be dealt with impact, it undoubtedly pays to remove ourselves from the constant of our own reality to experience another.
In between the West African lands of Guinea and Liberia the soil of Sierra Leone sits. A plush, wild landscape, peppered with the warmth, resilience, and courage of its people. Whilst with wide smiles and a welcoming nature, the individuals of the area do well to hide the weight of a history that bears heavy. They symbolise what it is to move ahead. To move away from times of injustice, war, and adversity. Away from the harrowing slave trade born out of the Colonial 15th century, the incessant bloodshed of the Civil War, and the recent Ebola epidemic that orphaned children, shattered families, and spread subsequent stigma for those who survived the virus. Yet, out of these wounds, a future still stands. One that maintains perseverance, unity and a sense of hope. Together with this hope, NGO’s such as Street Child and their work are enabling countries like Sierra Leone to build a future for the people of the present and generations to follow. And thankfully, we were there to witness it.
After arriving into the town of Makeni we drove straight to visit the rural and urban projects implemented by Street Child. After the creation of the charity in 2008, the organisation’s work to educate and enable has gone from strength to strength. They aim to give every child a fair right to education, placing a fundamental focus on the future of both the child and the family. As they implement stable school structures, fund teachers, build walls and lay roofs, they breath stability into areas where the government are yet to consider. In addition to these educational structures, systems like the Family Business Scheme have been introduced. Such schemes offer parents, and most predominantly mothers, the opportunity to earn their own living with a small business grant and a business mentor as their child remains in education. The impact of this sort of work has helped over 50000 beneficiaries so far. Yet, even within this positive change, there’s still a great deal to be done for the country and its people.
Each project visit in the lead up to the marathon ensured that our minds were fuelled with the reality of how and where our motion could continue to move something else. How it could fund a teacher, bring reality to light, acknowledge the lives being lived by those in Sierra Leone. On the morning of the race darkness covered the athletics field in which we waited to start. Speeches were spoken, people were ushered and the starting gun sounded, before we propelled our feet into the first village and onward along the paths of Makeni for the next 26 miles. As the sky lightened, clouds blanketed the sky overhead, sheltering us for the next few hours. Humidity hung heavily in the air around us as we ran into the mist ahead, yet it wasn’t before long until the rays of the African sun broke through to a toasty 35 degrees. It was undoubtedly hot, yet I was determined to enjoy this race and not endure it. There are times and places to get my head down and zone out to what’s around me and I didn’t want this to be one of them. The route took us through villages lined with ecstatic children, along undulating main roads, and through beautiful areas with local houses and farm land.
The course was essentially an out and back, yet it held not a drop of monotony. I got to high five those running both behind and in front of me and beam as I spotted 18 year old Isatu from Freetown, who lead the way for the ladies in first position. This smile reverberated into a sense of gratitude at witnessing a woman in a country where an equal gendered footing isn’t set, yet she’s undeterred. Susie and I had the pleasure of meeting Isatu the day before, learning how she and her teammates often can’t eat after training for a lack of food, and some of them are sadly without parents. This doesn’t stop them, though. It drives them. Honing that strength to train twice a day, winning marathons as a result. This power pushed me on as I continued up and down the hills and further into the heat. More water was gulped, dowsed and appreciated, and ‘thank you’s’ from the locals gratefully noted.
After sharing the home straight with local children and crossing the finish line to third female with my new friend Papayoa I let some tears flow. These people may not have the world in their hands, yet they open their arms and they face life with integrity. Girls such as Isatu are an example of sheer determination for both men and women, to rise up and push against the factors that may hinder them. Gender inequality within Sierra Leone is still greatly uneven. FGM occurs more often than not, the educational imbalance still stands, underage girls may be married off, grades may be traded for sex, and more. Yet the persistence of the people and the structure that Street Child brings are tackling these factors. Helping to give girls and women equal opportunities in life and to education is an incredible start. Harsher realities may be so now, yet they don’t have to be the stories set for the future.
One book, one pen, and one teacher, can indeed change the world, for the better. Work must continue to ensure that education reaches out equally to all. To girls, to boys, to children of the distant future. We are each born in an area purely by circumstance, not choice and every person deserves an equal opportunity in life.
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