Our new friend David Turner has arranged for us to visit a primary school in the East Side of Freetown, through the notorious Kissy to a place called Calaba Town, a semi-rural suburb.
It’s a long journey, maybe only six miles away, but it takes us nearly two hours of sweat in a taxi, limping through the traffic jams as street traders offer their wares. Again, we fend off the itinerant steering wheel salesmen, towel sellers, spanner hawkers, soft-drink boys and, of course, the beggars – the blind old people, the polio victims with legs bent almost double, walking around like crabs, and the kids with stumps instead of arms and legs.
In dusty, ramshackle Calaba we park under a shady tree and wonder nto the small but very tidy office where the Conforti School and community project are based.
Such a warm welcome. The whole thing was established by two brothers, Francis and Christian Mason, two very tall Krio guys with a wonderfully calm, capable and intelligent quality.
We pack into the office and the Mason brothers tell us their story…
In 1998, during the war, when Francis was spending some time in Calaba, he saw that there were so many children with nothing to do “wandering here and there like lost sheep”. So he decided to begin some informal tutoring, meeting kids daily beneath the tall tree where we’d parked, passing on some basic skills and learning.
Over time, more and more parents brought their kids to Francis’ lessons until a whole year group had formed. Christian got involved too and the brothers began to bring some structure into their work.
The next step was to get a classroom, so the brothers involved the community in building a classroom out of bush sticks and tarpaulin.
Year by year – and on the thinnest of shoestring budgets – they have added new year groups, employed more teachers and developed more buildings. And the whole community has galvanised around the school.
They opted out of government assisted status (it’s too unreliable and restrictive) and they’re still teaching in tarpaulin and bush-stick shelters, but this year Conforti Primary School’s exam results were the highest in the whole country.
As we walk the children, no longer lost sheep, literally flock to us, desperate to hold our hands and hug us, clinging to us. Christian and Francis smile proudly, there’s none of the shouting and barking you get elsewhere, there’s genuine kindness here.
The whole school gathers to sings for us while Jon films them.
And I’m choking back the tears again.
If you’re religious you might say that there’s something miraculous going on at Conforti. But I prefer to believe that this inspiring place shows how a very down-to-earth and practical belief in patience, humanity and kindness will be our salvation.
David, thanks for taking us to Conforti.