bi hi milo

By Sean Maddox

March 26, 2010
Sierra Leone is a unique country with many experiences and challenges that most could not imagine. The week has witnessed a great deal of learning; mainly by me. I spent so much time listening to professionals tell me about their work, the state of education in the country, challenges and opportunities to move the country ahead. I listened mostly, sharing opinions or experiences seemed hard for the first few days. After all, I had to answer the question bi hi milo? all week. Which in Krio means “Where are you from?” To offer too much while still saying Canada seemed out of line.

All week I learned about the shortage of teachers, the percent that are UU (untrained and unqualified), the use of bribes to pass, the inability of children to read the questions on the primary school leaving examination and at the same time, all the efforts being taken by government and civil society to try and assist. By Thursday night, I was feeling that the situation was hopeless without the world rallying together and putting together a Marshal Plan for Sierra Leone.

Friday changed my feelings. We held a meeting of experts and professionals from the education and book sector to discuss our approach to teaching reading and writing to Sierra Leone children. The meeting was scheduled to start at 9:00, we started by 9:30 when we had good attendance. Transportation in the city is costly and it takes a lot of time to move through the traffic. Note to self.

I had finalized plans the night before – at about 11:00 pm. We had a hall booked, paid for fuel to run the generator, tea and coffee arranged, supplies purchased, a PowerPoint projector rented, transport secured and an agenda approved. What could go wrong with everything in order?

The PowerPoint projector bulb was so weak you could not see the presentations. This resulted in me speaking from the top of my mind, which wasn’t too hard, just not as structured as I had planned. The visuals of high quality teaching and learning materials including new books coming from our program in Liberia were supposed to win over the crowd. I resorted to walking among the crowd with laptop in hand to make sure everyone could see examples of the resources I was talking about. In the end all worked out with many questions and recommendations.

Following my presentation, we had a wonderful reading performed by Dr. Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, from Fourah Bay College, of Mohammed Sheriff’s book Maryama Must Go! A lovely book of courage and love written for children. She captured the tone of the story and the characters throughout, winning over the audience. It was a great illustration of how a teacher can use good books to excite children.

Dr. David Klooster took over the session after a short break. As a teacher trainer he was able to make the group relax and participate actively. Everyone was engaged, laughing and sharing. At one point in his demonstration of child-centred learning strategies, he used a poem written by one of the authors in CODE’s Reading Liberia program, Ms. Watchen Johnson Babalola. The poem:

Plantain, fish and eddoe leaves

Fry ‘am, roast ‘am, boil ‘am;

Now roll up your pretty sleeves

Make red oil no spoil ;am

had the crowd so pleased. This was a lovely poem that related to their language and culture (Liberia and Sierra Leone are neighbours). The smiles and body language spoke a million words. The man to my left kept smiling and repeating “Make red oil no spoil ‘am.”

This moment in the meeting told me that we can make Reading Sierra Leone work for teachers and children in the country. No doubt it will be a challenge, but we have never let that stand in our way before.

I can’t wait to see what surprises next week has in store for me.