Monday – a change of hotels

Breakfast: a bread roll, a hard-boiled egg, a pool of cold baked beans and some mayonnaise, all artfully arranged on a plate – you should have seen Jon’s face.

While we wait for Andrew to pick us up and take us to work, two young guys who we briefly chatted to in a bar two days before, turn up and want to talk to us.

And guess what they want to tell us… “We talk on Saturday, sah, remember? I want to show you picture, sah. Look…” he pulls out a very faded snap of a few blokes standing in a muddy pit, “my father, sah, he has a diamond mine but we cannot make any money sah, because we need the machines…”

How did they find us? We haven’t told anyone where we’re staying, but around Aberdeen we clearly stick out like three very white, sore thumbs. Time for a new hotel, so later that day we move on.

The new place is nice, it’s clean, tidy, does good food (very slowly), it’s part of a Catholic complex, owned by the church, and has a lovely housekeeper called Good News.
The only real drawback is that the electricity generator only works from 10am to 4pm and from 7pm to midnight. There’s no national grid here at all.

Night-time without a fan is almost unbearable – it’s hotter in Sierra Leone at night than it is in the day.
But the hotel’s cheaper, cleaner, friendlier and at least we’re safe here… surely…

First couple of days at work

Sitting in the taxi on the way to iEARN we watch kids making their way to school. They’re all in uniform, perfect crisp white shirts, grey skirts or shorts, some with straw boaters, some in blazers, others with maroon or sky-blue shirts. They look fantastic, pristine against the squalor. How they manage to keep their clothes so perfect in the conditions here is a triumph.

iEARN isn’t a school, it’s basically an educational drop-in that kids visit voluntarily in addition to school. They have one large room in the National Stadium Hostel (which is everything you might imagine a hostel and conference facility built in 1960s Africa to be like – concrete, modernist gone shabby, empty but with people sitting around doing nothing, Big NGO vehicles outside, but not a lot of business happening).

On the first floor there are around 60 teenagers packed into a room no bigger than any standard classroom in England.
Jon and Murray begin setting up gear – projector, laptops. We have to buy them fuel for the generator, buy paper, flipchart pad and snacks for all the kids.
While Jon and Murray do their doings, I chat to the kids, try to break the ice and explain what we’ll be doing and how it’ll work.

Both days we start with a point-of-view writing exercise – on day one everyone imagines they are visiting Hull for the first time (with mixed results and a few communication problems) but day two goes much better – we all imagine we’re white and it’s our first time in Freetown (easy for me). I write too and then we read stuff back.

Here’s a few extracts:

“I was very much happy to visit such a town for the very first time, but what I saw there filled my whole soul with grief…”
Jonathan Thompson-Pelham

“People are accommodative and friendly, though there are some people who are aggressive. In some congested areas there are pick-pockets and in the street you also find a lot of beggars and little children begging…”
Lansara Mensaray (Barmmy Boy)

“I found it hard to move about without the help of someone else. And the next thing I realise is that the streets are filthy and moreover it iis rainy season where the drainages are filled with lot of rubbish and it overflows all over the streets…”
Aiah Samuel Lebbie

“The vegetation of Freetown is so nice and fantastic and environment was easy to live and I will love to visit Freetown once more.”
Joseph Habib Kamara

“One day I decided to take a walk to the iEARN centre and I saw a lot of student interacting, sharing ideas, so I feel happy…”

Jon shows some films from kids in Hull to show what can be done, Murray gives some basic instruction in production planning and the language of film and then the students share their ideas about the things they want to write, photograph and film.

After some whittling down and negotiation we manage to break everything down into smaller groups focussing on a handful of ideas:

Street kids
History and culture
Education (a dramatic exploration)
The role of girls in Sierra Leone and the work of the iEARN girls club

Managing the work
Blimey, it’s knackering. Day one with 57 kids, by day two word’s got out and there are 73. It’s hot, we’re tired, communication requires a great deal of concentration, it’s a small room packed with people and everyone is so enthusiastic about learning that all of us are constantly and unremittingly inundated with questions. It’s quite exhausting.
But the kids are fantastic – so earnest about the value of education. They want everything they can get out of it – juice, pips, flesh and skin.

And after a couple of days we’re starting to get the hang of the fact that there a few tricks which can save you time.
For a start, there are hierarchies and you can use them to your benefit. Deal with the older or more intelligent kids, or those who have been attending iEARN the longest and they’ll explain to the others and police themselves on your behalf.
And you have to speak clearly (shout sometimes) and be firm.

By the end of day two, we’ve got plenty of written work, we’ve got organised(ish) groups with 10-20 in each group, they’ve done storyboards, written personal introductions, taken disposable and digital cameras out onto the street to prepare for their films and make personal stories about their lives.

Note about the blog
There’s so much happening and so fast that it’s proving almost impossible to deal with everything chronologically. I’ll try to get everything important in, but the timeline of events might skip about a little. I hadn’t planned the next bit I’m going to write, there’s other stuff I was going to tell you, but I think I need to get this down quickly while it’s still immediate

Right now I’m sitting in my room. It’s noon and Jon and Murray have gone off with some of the kids and our excellent friend and helper Franklin (more about him later) to get some footage of the market at King Jimmy.

Before they left, Franklin brought a young man, Mohamed Sidibay, to see me. He’s 14 years old, a handsome kid, clearly intelligent and quietly eloquent. I’m holding back some useless tears as I write.

Sidibay’s story

When he was three years old, the RUF came the town in the south of Sierra Leone where Sidibay lived with his father – an accountant at a bank – his mother and his older brother and sister.
The family were trying to flee when they were captured by a group led by a rebel nicknamed Rambo.

The group told Sidibay’s father that he should have sex with his daughter. When his father refused saying “Are you mad? Why are you asking me to do this?” they shot him dead.
Sidibay’s brother was then ordered to have sex with his mother. He refused and tried to rush the rebels.
They chopped off his arms and set his shirt on fire before shooting him.
Then, with Sidibay their prisoner, 25 men raped his 15 year-old sister until she was dead.

Sidibay spent the following six years until the end of the war forced into the service of the RUF. With his family all dead he had no place to go. He’d have been killed if he had tried to escape.

At the age of five, fending for himself, fetching and carrying for the RUF, living off what scraps of food he could find, he decided that he would avenge the death of his family.

Armed with a gun, fuelled by his anger and sadness, with the logic of a child brought up in a culture of violence, Sidibay became a child soldier.

I don’t ask what atrocities he committed. I’m not here to poke into people’s wounds. He can tell me what he wants to tell me.

Now – at the age of 14 – Sidibay sleeps on the floor of his friend Joe’s house. The friend’s parents would prefer it if he wasn’t there, but they indulge their son.
He wakes up in the morning and walks miles (maybe 6 miles?) from Lumley to get to school at 8:30 in Freetown. He has an empty stomach and might not eat all until much later in the day.

When school finishes at 1:45, Sidibay walks back and washes his dirty uniform.
He then goes from compound to compound asking people if he can do any jobs for them – carry their rubbish, sweep their yard. He’s not a beggar, he wants to earn his money.
Sometimes he does the work and the people swindle him and don’t pay him.
There is no single, regular, reliable place where he is guaranteed money. He has to try different places every day.
At night he studies from 9pm to 2am, There is no electricity here. He has to read and write by candlelight. If he has money enough for candles.

Sometimes he wakes up screaming.

Because he was a child soldier he’s a social outcast. Parents won’t let their children speak to him. He tells me that only 20% of the population understand his situation and can forgive him.
He’s stopped trying to explain himself to people in Sierra Leone because people only laugh at him and tell him to leave.

Andrew Benson Greene at IEARN Sierra Leone, helps Sidibay with his school fees. Sidibay works as hard as he can to earn some money and then takes it to Andrew.

Sidibay’s dream is to better himself, to work hard and learn, get out of the country, study abroad and tell the world that war is no place for children.