Back to School, but Not Back to Normal

Back to School, but Not Back to Normal

How do you reopen Sierra Leone schools closed for seven months by a country-wide health epidemic? What do you do when the Ebola epidemic is still not completely over, and you’re afraid to send your children back to school?

Sierra Leone schools reopen in April. But it won’t be like just turning a faucet back on. Teachers and students scattered when Ebola suspended school last year to be with family in home towns and villages. Getting students back will be a process.

ebola hug

Rotifunk teachers returning to school demonstrate an Ebola hug.

Ebola is not yet gone.  It continues to ebb and flow in the capital and three northern districts. Another three day countrywide shutdown starts today, Friday, March 27 to try to stamp out remaining Ebola cases. Everyone is ordered to stay home Friday through Sunday. They continue to observe the strict “no touch” policy of the last eight months and no public gatherings.

Then, Monday, March 30 last year’s ninth graders are the first to come back to school to take their senior high entrance exam. The exam was canceled last July when Ebola escalated.

What are parents to do?  Keep your child at home where you believe it’s safe, or safeguard their future and let them test their way into senior high?  Skip Monday’s test and they’ll be waiting months again for another chance.


Community Empowerment & Transformation project leader and local teacher, Abdul Phoday

I texted Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation volunteer and local teacher Abdul Phoday to hear what’s going on. “Everyone is still scared of one another,” he said. “People do gather, but with some distance because of the virus. Some of the girls who are supposed to be present for [this week’s exam review] are absent because of teenage pregnancy. They have been idling so long, they were confused by some bad boys, and are now pregnant.”

“The few who are present are not enthusiastic as usual, for they were a long time out of school. But we are doing our best to bring them on board, even though it’s not easy.”

Phoday and other teachers only have one week to prepare their students for the senior high entrance exam. They normally spend a whole month in a concentrated study camp.  His school has been the exam’s district champion for the last two years. “So, we want to keep the title,“ Phoday said. “Really, it’s out of love [we do this] as we are still getting fluctuational Ebola results so everyone is still scared.”

Principal Rosaline Kaimbay attended a workshop last month to prepare principals to reopen schools. She said she’s satisfied the Ministry of Education has considered the risks and made provisions for these.  Still, getting everything needed in place and implemented locally will be a big effort.

Safety first  The first order of business is making the physical environment safe after Ebola.  Fortunately, none of Bumpeh Chiefdom schools were used as temporary Ebola holding centers needing decontamination.

IMG_1908Maintaining the Ebola “no touch” policy is still needed. This means enough classroom space to keep students separated by three feet. Primary schools often pack young children in classrooms with 2 or 3 kids to a desk. They are to get additional desks to spread students out.

Sanitation at rural schools is a real dilemma. Students need to regularly wash their hands. But most schools have no water sources on-site. There’s usually no clean water nearby; not even a well. Schools are lucky to have latrines, let alone toilets. Hand washing provisions were never made. “Policy makers in Freetown don’t come upcountry and don’t know sanitation conditions here,” lamented Paramount Chief Charles Caulker.

Bumpeh Chiefdom schools will have to resort to the public handwashing stations used during the Ebola epidemic  –  buckets fitted with a faucet and chlorinated or disinfectant treated water that will need to be carried there. Supervising 200+ children washing their hands each time they come on-site will be a time consuming chore for teachers.

taking temps at school Conakry

Liberian teacher takes daily student temperatures.

Likewise, teachers will need to take each student’s temperature every day with no-contact thermometers they’ll be supplied with. Will morning assembly songs and announcements be replaced with the hand washing – temperature taking regimen to keep on schedule?

Stress management  Teachers are getting training on stress counseling for students. Those who are Ebola survivors, or who lost one or both parents or other family members are still traumatized.  Being stigmatized as an Ebola family further adds to their stress. They may not yet be fully accepted by the community. These children need extra support, and their peers need more education that they pose no risk to the community.

The epidemic has put everyone under great hardship and economic stress. Then, there’s chronic stress from constant fear of the invisible enemy called Ebola.

Making up for lost time  Everyone may need stress management with the school regimen they’re being asked to follow. To make up lost time, school will be held six days a week, including Saturdays, for 25 weeks. School will push through July and August, the heavy rain months when many students are normally back home helping plant rice on family farms.

I remember as a Peace Corps Volunteer trying to teach during the rainy months. We’d have to stop during an especially heavy downpour when it sounded like horses galloping over the metal roofs and you could hear nothing else.  Walking miles to school on muddy roads in downpours is miserable.

Back to school campaign  Our Rotifunk partner organization, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) plans a back-to-school and public health campaign. Made up primarily of local teachers, CCET will be going door to door in Rotifunk and village to village in the chiefdom, encouraging parents to send their children back to school.

IMG-20150105-WA0001The way to answer parents’ questions on Ebola and the remaining risk is to reach out to them in their villages.  CCET will continue public health messages on recognizing Ebola and other common disease symptoms, and what to do if you believe someone is sick.  Local nurses will join in and assure people of the safety of community health clinics.

Pregnant girls and new mothers especially need counseling on seeking medical care. They’re still afraid of getting Ebola if they go to hospitals and health clinics to deliver and for pre and postnatal care. They’ve been delivering at home. More lives across the country are being lost in childbirth and from complications after birth than from Ebola.

Young mothers and their parents need to be encouraged on the girls returning to school.  Becoming a mother does not need to end their education. Rather, they and their babies need the benefits education brings more than ever. But village girls face the dilemma of leaving their new baby with parents in order to go to Rotifunk for secondary school.

The Ebola epidemic has been incredibly hard. Getting life back to some semblance of normal is far from easy.

Arlene Golembiewski
Executive Director

She is why we do what we do

She is why we do what we do

School is slated to reopen in April across Sierra Leone. It won’t come any too soon for both teachers and students weary of the seven month limbo they’ve been in since the Ebola crisis closed schools last September.

Zainab Bangura 2 - PGHS scholarship awardeeZainab is one of the girls I’ll be watching for. She’s gone to one of Rotifunk’s secondary schools with scholarships from Sherbro Foundation.

Last year, I talked with Zainab and found she has a big dream.  It’s a dream we want to help her achieve.

Zainab has had a difficult time completing secondary school.  I worried she might be one of those not returning.  At 19, she’s a young woman, and it’s hard to find the means to stay in school. The longer teenagers stay out of school in Sierra Leone the less likely they are to return, especially the girls.  Ebola has only made that worse.

Village on road heading to Freetown

Zainab comes from a small village like this one on the road leading to Freetown.

Zainab comes from a small village about seven miles outside Rotifunk.  It’s ten mud houses, she told me, with an emphasis on “mud” houses. Her mother is a very poor farmer and old. When she told me her mother’s age, I laughed and said, “Well, that makes me old, too.”  “But you are strong,” was her reply.  Strong in Sierra Leone means healthy.  It also means I’m privileged to have the means to be this strong at my age.

Zainab attended junior high in a nearby town.  Four years ago when she was ready for senior high, her aging mother could no longer afford $30 to send her to school.  So, she sat home for a year.

An older man then persuaded her mother to let Zainab move in with him in Rotifunk.  He promised to help her finish school and then marry her. Zainab’s mother thought this was the only way to ensure her future. But he didn’t pay her school fees and didn’t marry her.  He was already married. He forced her to work for him by selling goods in the market. I’ll let you fill in the rest.

IMG-20150103-WA0011 - CopyPrincipal Rosaline Kaimbay seeks out village girls like Zainab and encourages their parents or guardians to send the girls to high school.  Zainab started senior high with Sherbro Foundation scholarships two years ago. A teacher heard of her living situation and convinced her to leave the man and move to a friend’s home.

Zainab has now completed 10th and 11th grades, a real accomplishment.  Only one in six Sierra Leone girls is able to complete high school.  Zainab’s school will be starting its first twelve grade class this year. Zainab should be one of the first seniors in that class.

10356312_349283451885472_4392104421503392972_n[1]I want to become a doctor.

I spoke with Zainab last July before Ebola suspended  school.  Principal Kaimbay had told me she’s interested in studying science. When I asked Zainab why she likes science, she said with no hesitation, “I want to go to college and become a doctor.”

Not a nurse or a teacher, the usual responses. But a doctor. When I asked why, she immediately replied, “I want to save lives.”  She’s no doubt seen lives lost in her short life because there’s so little health care available.

With school now reopening, my thoughts returned to Zainab. I asked Principal Kaimbay if she’s been in contact with her, and will she be returning to school. Zainab has been living with her mother now. Mrs. Kaimbay regularly stopped by to see them since their village was near one of the Ebola check points on the way to Freetown. They’ve been scraping by, growing a few vegetables to sell.

IMG-20141120-WA0000Mrs. Kaimbay is more than a dynamic principal and a gifted teacher. She’s an advocate for girls like Zainab, and a champion for girls and women everywhere in Bumpeh Chiefdom. During this long Ebola crisis, she’s made a point to connect with girls and their families whenever she could. She resorted to the back of a motorcycle to monitor and support the chiefdom Ebola control program — and visit village girls. She encourages and motivates the girls to stay focused on their education. School will reopen; we want you to come back. We’ll help you wherever we can.

Now she told me, yes, Zainab is ready to return to school.

Last July, I asked Zainab if she had any questions for me. She immediately asked: will I be helping with university scholarships? With girls like Zainab finishing high school in Rotifunk and determined to go to college, that’s something to be planning for.

God knows Sierra Leone needs more doctors and nurses. Now, they need to replace those who sacrificed their lives in the Ebola crisis caring for others.

Zainab gave me a message last July to bring back here:

“Thank you for helping us. We come from poor homes, but we are ready to learn. Without scholarships, we should drop out.”

Girls like Zainab are the reason I started the girls scholarship program. I think how many other bright, determined girls like Zainab won’t achieve their dreams without getting through that first formidable hurdle in their lives — secondary school. And the hurdle amounts to just $30 a year.

Zainab is the reason Sherbro Foundation does what we do.

You can help Zainab and other girls come back to school now.

Today Everyone in Sierra Leone is an Ebola Victim

Today Everyone in Sierra Leone is an Ebola Victim

People now ask me if the Ebola crisis is over. It’s certainly dropped out of the media here in the US.

But the answer is, no. The outbreak stubbornly hangs on in Freetown and three northern districts.  Getting to zero is proving to be more difficult than imagined. This is about changing human behavior on deeply seated traditions like burial practices.  Consistent behavior change across the country remains an elusive goal.

Today, March 18, the daily new Ebola case report had only one new case. That’s the lowest ever since the epidemic began. But yesterday was 14 new cases, and the last seven day total is 50. Ebola is not gone.

But much of the country is hanging on to their zeros. Bumpeh Chiefdom has now gone nearly 90 days without a new Ebola case. Their district, Moyamba District, is now 22 days Ebola free.

DSCN0453Today, however, everyone in Sierra Leone should be considered an Ebola victim.

The tragedy won’t end with eliminating the infectious outbreak. The economic and social impact on the country has been nothing less than disastrous. The majority of families’ livelihood is subsistence agriculture, and they are devastated. They depend on today’s market sale for tomorrow’s food.

The entire country’s economic growth has fallen by two-thirds. Mining and tourism are the two largest industries that brought foreign investment and cash into the country. Tourism is of course at a standstill. Little mining goes on.

IMG_0413For Bumpeh Chiefdom, incomes of farmers and small traders were cut in half when they couldn’t get crops to city markets. The three month chiefdom isolation order caused some people to just abandon farms and businesses. Others lost some of their harvest when seasonal laborers fled the chiefdom.

Prices for food, fuel and staples at the same time increased 30%. Feeding their families is now the priority. Things like sending kids to school is a luxury for many.

Bumpeh chiefdom has enough food to avoid starvation.  But the poorest families rely on cheap starchy foods like rice and yams. Not a balanced diet. This can cause developmental problems over time in small children like stunting.

Sierra Leone had the highest maternity and under-five mortality rates in the world even before Ebola hit.  In 2012, free health care for pregnant and nursing mothers and children under five started to change this. But with health care overwhelmed by Ebola, families avoided clinics and hospitals.

IMG_0097Many more people have likely become ill or died of common untreated illnesses like malaria, dysentery and typhoid than from Ebola, especially small children. Women and babies died because pregnant women did not seek health care, or they were turned away by health care workers fearful of the Ebola risk. The UN Population Fund estimated the Ebola epidemic may have caused 120,000 maternal deaths in the 3 countries affected by Ebola by late October when Ebola had not yet peaked. Children are not being vaccinated against dangerous diseases like small pox. HIV goes undiagnosed or untreated.

Schools have been closed for seven months and more than 60% of the population is school age children. Keeping kids out of school will have a long term effect on the country’s development.  The longer teenagers stay out of school, the less likely they will return.

Teenaged girls are especially affected. Pregnancy rates climbed during the Ebola crisis with over 30% of schoolgirls estimated pregnant nationwide. Sierra Leone President Koroma is calling for pregnant girls and new mothers to come back to school and complete their education.

IMG-20150108-WA0001So is all lost in Sierra Leone? No! The people are resilient. The world development community learned hard lessons from Ebola on the importance of targeting local solutions and local leadership.  And Sierra Leone mobilized thousands of young people eager to help their country who stay connected with social media.

IMG_2005Sherbro Foundation goes back to our mission of supporting practical grassroots projects that quickly benefit the poorest people. Bumpeh Chiefdom’s Paramount Chief Caulker said his top two priorities now  are restoring income for hungry people and sending girls back to school. So we are helping them with two urgent programs for these.

The first is a vegetable growing program, so farmers can raise fast growing cash crops like peppers and quickly earn income again.

Our second urgent program is helping girls get back in secondary school.  School is slated to reopen April 14. The Sierra Leone government has a grant that will cover school fees this year for all secondary school children. But the $30 school uniform and school supplies will still be barriers for most poor families.

Sherbro Foundation’s goal this year is to buy school uniforms for 300 girls.

More on both these programs in future posts.

You don’t have to wait to help Bumpeh Chiefdom. You can donate now at Your money helps restore livelihoods and build self sufficiency.

Arlene Golembiewski
Executive Director