Archive | April, 2013

Koy Thomson – Sierra Leone – Who is not here?

4 Apr

Koy Thomson, CEO of Children in Crisis, recently travelled to Kambia, Sierra Leone. He was there to attend the launch of Children in Crisis’ report  hilighting the reality faced by children with disabilities in Sierra Leone. Below is one of the blogs written by Koy during his visit, published now that he has access to an internet connection. 

‘Who is not in this school is not a question that comes naturally to mind when you see a severely overcrowded classroom’

For some a school packed full of grinning, shrieking kids is enough: job done, move on. Sure, it is an achievement to have a school where none stood before, but two questions always nag us at Children in Crisis: who is not in this school, and; is any learning taking place?

Everywhere in Sierra Leone you see community schools, built and entirely supported by people who by world standards are amongst the poorest. I am more used to reading about ‘free schools’ in the London Evening Standard set up by the chattering classes, with generous support from central government. This is a world away from newspaper stories read on my daily commute.

In Sierra Leone schools are hand-made by locals, and after one or two rainy seasons it clearly shows – or rather, light surely shows through the roof and walls. After building a school, maintaining it seems an effort too far. Sometimes villages are lucky enough to encounter an aid or church organisation who will build their school. This can make children feel that they are really valued and worth something.

Joseph, a friend, said that community schools did not exist before Sierra Leone’s civil war. “Community schools were a response to the total destruction of all school infrastructure, the fleeing of teachers, and the chaos of government. Communities came up with it themselves”. It seems now that communities have stopped investing in their schools, seeing it as a government responsibility, which surely it is. Sadly, they will be waiting for Godot for some time yet.

A typical community school in Sierra Leone.

A typical community school in Sierra Leone.

It is also a huge challenge for community schools to find teachers. It usually means finding the most educated person who is still in the village, or someone you can persuade to come and live in the middle of nowhere for a roof over their heads and next to nothing to live on. These people are often school drops outs who could not find a better option. Community schools were an emergency response by local people. A decade later an emergency response has become normal. Now education itself is the emergency. Some community teachers can barely read and write themselves, and the worst of them would struggle to pass national exams for twelve year olds. Children are way behind the literacy standards expected of them. It is deeply shameful after the struggle and sacrifice to get children through the school door, to have them sitting learning little.

The schools of course are packed. ‘Who is not in this school is not a question that comes naturally to mind when you see a severely overcrowded classroom’. It does come to mind when mid-morning you see young boys working as porters or cleaners in the market, girls hard at domestic chores or caring for babies, and disabled kids crawling in the dirt begging for money by petrol stations and highways.

Sahid, whose Grandmother came to WESOFOD, Children in Crisis' partner organisation in Sierra Leone, asking for help.

Sahid, whose Grandmother came to WESOFOD, Children in Crisis’ partner organisation in Sierra Leone, asking for help.

Poor parents, schooling unfriendly to disability and a belief that children with disabilities are worthless are the reasons behind these out of school kids. To survive as a child with disabilities is an achievement, since many suspect that these children are left to starve after birth. Traditional birth attendants are typically nervous when you ask what happens if a disabled child is born? The belief in witchcraft is strong. I heard one appalling story of a mother who started to have fits after a child was born. The child was blamed for cursing the mother, and slowly in the first few years of life was left to die of malnutrition.

Even if you manage to get children with disabilities into school, and this can mean some poor old granny physically carrying them to and fro between home and school, are they going to be disadvantaged through discrimination? If a disabled child gains nothing from schooling they have no options, save begging, to fall back on. Other children can work on the farm, or work as labourers in the town.

It is the plight of these children  that has led to our report on disability. We had to know more about how many children with disabilities there were in Kambia, what disabilities, what attitudes towards them and what challenges they faced.

Read about the launch of Children in Crisis’ disability report.

Visit Children in Crisis’ website for a full PDF of the report.

Donate to Children in Crisis.

Koy Thomson – Sierra Leone – “We are here”

4 Apr

Koy Thomson, CEO of Children in Crisis, recently travelled to Sierra Leone. He was there to attend the launch of Children in Crisis’ report hilighting the reality faced by disabled children in the country. Below is one of the blogs written by Koy during his visit, published now that he has access to an internet connection. 

“We are here” The report launch.

People see the blindness or wasted legs and not the child. “Who then is really blind? Who then is really crippled” is the famous cry of disability activists.

The Government District Office overlooks the Great Scarcies river. Between the river and the District meeting hall where we were shortly to launch a new study of disability in the villages of Kambia, was an older meeting place: a beautiful Banyan tree, with thick branches that embraced a thatched shelter beneath it. I have been to so many village meetings in Africa, but until recently I had rarely talked of disability.

Disabled people are easy to ignore. In fact many of us are adept at making disabled street beggars completely invisible.

But for those whose job is to aid the most vulnerable they still seem easy to ignore. Disabled children especially take a little extra effort to find. Parents hide them away. They don’t bring them to village meetings, nor take them to school.  Disabled children don’t play with other children.  For most aid agencies they are seen as the concern of specialised services so they are passed over. People see the blindness or wasted legs and not the child. “Who then is really blind? Who then is really crippled” is the famous cry of disability activists.

Most don’t bother to look. “There are none” is a frequent response to the question “how many disabled children do you work with”. Some responses appal. A chief of a global children’s charity told me “It is not cost effective nor value for money to focus on disabled children”. ‘Wow, thanks’ I thought, ‘and they claim to help the most disadvantaged?’

Disability launch

An enthusiastic audience arrives for the launch of the Disability Report.

At Children in Crisis we are determined not to be wilfully ignorant. We had to know more about how many disabled children there were in Kambia, what disabilities, what attitudes towards them and what challenges they faced. We needed help, which brought us to the ‘Village of Hope’ in Kambia and Vision for the Blind in Freetown.

Joseph who runs the organisation the Welfare Society for the Disabled (Wesofod) based at the Village of Hope has travelled widely across Kambia offering support to the parents of disabled children. Loading his crutches and motorbike in narrow dugouts to travel to distant places does not worry him. What he finds there does: children isolated, denied school, discriminated against within the family, and often starved and feared – because they are disabled. Joseph’s dream is to be able to reach out to all disabled people in Kambia and to tell them they are worth something and help them to live with dignity.

Joseph, Founder of WESOFOD.

Joseph, Founder of WESOFOD.

We asked for Joseph’s help in carrying out a survey of people living with disabilities in Kambia. We teamed him up with Vision for the Blind, an organisation run by an inspirational blind leader Jo and his blind colleagues. Two hundred villages – about a fifth of all of Kambia were visited, and families, parents, children, schools, health centres, and government offices were interviewed. Prejudices that disabled children were worthless were immediately challenged by seeing people living with disability as authoritative researchers.

Our goal was to shine a light on a hidden problem and prompt authorities and others to action. The research was funded by a friend of Children in Crisis Stefan Cassar.

On the morning of the Report launch, I was thinking about all of the obstacles that we had overcome to complete the study, including the theft of a computer and a large chunk of the data. I had imagined a small launch event of dignitaries, experts and NGOs. An hour after the scheduled start, no-one had arrived. Joseph grinned “don’t worry Koy, in Africa we say, white men have the watches, we have the time”.

The time arrived and I soon saw that this was going to be an event for people living with disability. It was their issue, it was to be their event. I saw Binti who I had last seen preparing food behind her house, her body propped on a log and shoes on her hands. John and Edward the shoe makers were sitting at the front (and losing a morning of business by attending). I saw Gabriel and Thokola who must have been bunking off from school, and Isa who had taken me to his village the previous evening. Jo, Ali Martin and Sam of Vision for the Blind arrived from Freetown, Jo in his trademark black suit, and Ali Martin in an iridescent brown silken shirt and tie. They looked very cool – a Mowtown Mafia, immediately demanding directions to the canteen. And then all heads turned as a chanting, roaring minibus full of young women from the Village of Hope drove up. A banner announcing the Study Launch was pulled taut across the front. Mariatu, Mafera, Menuatu and others tumbled out “Mr. Koy we are here, we here “.

Binti at report launch - disability - Sierra Leone

Binti

The enthusiastic audience then endured four hours of statements from the stage. But they didn’t seem to mind. This was their event. This the first time they had brought their issue loudly to local government. The first time they heard pledges by the Education Department to compel all newly built schools to be disability friendly. The first time to hear those who made decisions agree with them, that people living with disability were not the problem, but that society turned impairments into disability by putting up barriers to schooling, government services, transport and so on. I was impressed by the progressive understanding of the authorities – they must have read the study.

Ali Martin had amazing authoritative presence and received rapturous applause. “The new Disability Act” he declared “makes health care free for all people living with disability. Buildings must be accessible, and it should start with this Council building. When I come next year, it better had be, or I am returning with a court order!”

Jo, Ali Martin, Council Representatives

Jo, Ali Martin, Council Representatives

I impressed on the audience the need to keep up the pressure “how much gets done depends on the follow up. It is a long road but you have come far. To have a strong membership organisation Wesofod to make your voice louder and provide support to one another is a victory. To have the study which shines a light on discrimination against people living with disability is a victory. To have decision makers listening to you in this hall is a victory. Your struggle is for quality schools and quality services that provide for every individual’s needs no matter what their ability. This is what everyone wants, and you are leading that struggle”.

In my few days working with the growing disability movement in Kambia I learned once again the strength and power of coming together, the hope and energy it creates. I saw the passionate desire of disability leaders not to see others face the suffering that they did. I was humbled by the spirit of mutual support and voluntarism that sent Edward out offering quiet help to child beggars, and Sarah’s mother Binta who had hardly an moment to spare, helping other mothers of disabled children. To them this was not just the launch of a study but an affirmation of their movement and a hope for a bright future.

Follow-up

After everyone had returned home, the organised committee met up and shaped a follow up plan. We agreed that:

  • We need a full official census of disability in Kambia. This must then be used to influence the design of national 2014 census.
  • We need to strengthen Wesofod so that they can continue to build mutual support and the movement for all those living with disability in Kambia, and continue to break barriers to equal services.
  • We need to make the local authorities aware of their duties under the new Disability Act, particularly local politicians and health professionals.
  • We need a media campaign in Kambia to overthrow prejudices and superstitions about disability, and to inform people where they can get help.
  • We need to include the organised voice of the disability movement in the review of the District Development Plan.

You can view a full PDF of the disability report on Children in Crisis’ website

Joseph’s Story “I know what you are saying – I too believe it, but what choice do I have?”

4 Apr

Koy Thomson, CEO of Children in Crisis, recently travelled to Kambia, Sierra Leone. He was there to attend the launch of Children in Crisis’ report  hilighting the reality faced by disabled children in the country. Below is one of the blogs written by Koy during his visit, published now that he has access to an internet connection. 

 “I know it is always best to be loved in your family and community. One day we will have this when people don’t think disability is a curse or witchcraft, and community schools can help every child to learn”

The idea of homes for disabled kids bothers me. I must have reflected it in my hesitance and probing, for Joseph seemed at times to be on the verge of passionate tears. It was only later on a dawn run through the bush, when I reflected on Joseph’s amazing history that things slotted into place.

Joseph has had good and bad fortune but also help in his life. Clearly however, without his ceaseless drive and self-motivation, he would have got nowhere.

Joseph, WESOFOD

Joseph

Joseph’s father travelled halfway across Sierra Leone to leave a five year old Joseph at a Catholic Sister’s Mission in Kambia. He told no-one in the family where he was going, and died a year later. Joseph was brought up with other disabled children, many of whom are now adult members of Wesofod. The Mission founded Joseph’s sense of care, love, education and belonging. He carries it to the present day as he reaches out to help neglected children living with disabilities. Not wanting him to become institutionalised, the Sisters found someone to adopt Joseph. This man was MF Kamara who would later give him his first job in the NGO ABC for Development, and Chair his organisation the Welfare Society for the Disabled. When MF moved, Joseph went back to the Sisters. On January 25th  1995, at the height of the war, rebels attacked and destroyed much of Kambia, killing and abducting  many. Amongst those abducted were 100 secondary and primary school children, and the seven Catholic Sisters. Many of the children were forcibly recruited, brutalised, and raped. After a number of months, sick and emaciated, the sisters were eventually released. The wreck of their home still contains echoes of a serene and beautiful place, which is how Joseph remembers it. Joseph had fled into a village in the bush. When the fighting stopped, ever resourceful, Joseph built up some savings by repairing the shoes of UN soldiers. He used the savings to put himself through teacher training college, taught for one year and then was offered a job by his old friend MF Kamara. But never forgetting his own struggles and how help when he needed it had changed his life, he founded the Welfare Society for the Disabled (Wesofod).

The Catholic Sister's house

The Catholic Sister’s house

In 2008, 25 years after his abandonment, and with a 5 year old’s memory of his parents and his home, he set off to find his family. A greater need drove him on. He had fallen in love and the parents of the girl said that without a father and a mother he could not marry their daughter. “They did not like me and were putting obstacles in my path” said Joseph. After the war thousands were in the position of desperately searching out living relatives. Many would too easily say “yes you are my son” to be linked with someone who was doing well. You had to search and ask without giving too much away. It is a long and touching story of how he found his family, and in the end, it was his memory of a large stone outside his home which as a baby he crawled on that convinced him he had found the right place. His mother was still alive and remembered how he was taken away. Sadly too many further obstacles were placed in the way of his marriage. Was I imagining Joseph’s eyes welling up as he told the story of a family found but a love lost? I certainly saw a deep sadness and yearning. “Even finding love is harder for people living with disability” he murmured.

Reflecting on his remarkable history, I can see that the idea of a ‘home’ for children living with disabilities holds no fears or negative connotations for Joseph. “I know it is always better for a child to be cared for and to grow-up in their own family. But what if there is no school or just a bad school? If a disabled child does not learn anything in school they have nothing to fall back on. Other children can farm or labour for others. A disabled child can only beg. I must help vulnerable disabled children into good schools only. Sometimes the nearest community school is many miles away, across rivers and hills. No-one will carry them there”.

The Village of Hope

The Village of Hope

Joseph’s Village of Hope and his dream of a better place for disabled children to live (where there are no other choices according to him), has no parallels to the horrible institutions encountered in Eastern Europe by Children in Crisis in the mid 90s. These were places of terror and abandonment, run by resentful staff with no sympathy for disabled people nor children without parental care.

In Joseph’s place, disabled people look after one another. But they are not isolated from society. The children are integrated into local schools and given extra support if they need it. Young people and adults are given vocational training and they go out and earn a living. The workshop is requiring such a reputation that people are starting to come to them.

Joseph has long discussions with teachers and head teachers about the needs of disabled children. The Head Teacher of the SLIF secondary school in Kambia (which Abdullah attends) told me “Joseph has been so helpful to me. I make sure that all children with a disability have friends to help them. I talk to the whole school about not bullying one another. Joseph helped us to build access ramps and to make toilets accessible. We know how to give extra help to all children that need it, not just disabled children. I would have no hesitation taking any child into my school, no matter what their disability.  I have even made one of the girls living with disability the class representative to the principal, not because she is disabled, but because she is so good at bringing all the children to order and organising them”.

Children supported by WESOFOD

Children supported by WESOFOD

Sitting outside a house that Joseph had rented from the community and which acted as home for maybe a dozen children, I still wanted to know what children thought about being away from their families. I knew if Joseph was translating, and if children thought I might bring money to improve their home, that I was not going to get a straight answer, but I asked anyway “do you miss your families”. Actually I got no answers from these children who has been variously abandoned, locked up inside all day, kept from school and always fed last. We can make assumptions, we can draw inferences, but this is an issue we need to understand much better.

Joseph saw my doubts and anxieties “I know it is always best to be loved in your family and community. One day we will have this when people don’t think disability is a curse or witchcraft, and community schools can help every child to learn. I talk through all options when I can find the parents, but in this country there is so little choice”.

“You are making a big commitment Joseph” I said “the home that you want to build is only structure. You are making a commitment to care for and educate the children throughout their school days, You are going to need more than hope”.

WESOFOD are one of Children in Crisis’ local partner organisations in Sierra Leone. Read more about our work.

Koy – Sierra Leone – John the Shoe Maker

3 Apr

Koy Thomson, CEO of Children in Crisis, recently travelled to Kambia, Sierra Leone. He was there to attend the launch of Children in Crisis’ report  hilighting the reality faced by disabled children in the country. Below is one of the blogs written by Koy during his visit, published now that he has access to an internet connection. 

“I believe in unity and helping people with disability to come off the street. You have to come together, you cannot do things alone. You need help”

I am sitting in John’s shoe workshop, a small shack hanging with shoe soles like bats hanging from the rafters. A billboard promoting condom use with a grinning ‘Mr. Condom’ towers over his shack, and I can’t decide when asking to photograph him whether this is vital local context, or an undignified distraction.  I decide on the former and don’t censor it out.

John the Shoe Maker and his sons

John the Shoe Maker and his sons

John has an embracing smile. His face has a seriousness which reflects a life of hardship and struggle, but he has clearly come out the other end determined to think well about himself and about life. He is proud of his sons who he supports through school by fixing shoes. Every time I try and talk to him a queue of customers backs up. He is obviously highly regarded.

John was abandoned by his father. He had no option but to street beg. That he was wearing flip flops on his hands to drag his body and legs behind him, did not stop him fighting and becoming the leader of a street gang.

When he was older a charity found him and gave him an operation to straighten his limbs. At the centre where they made disability appliances he saw disabled people working for the first time. The charity trained him in shoe making and gave him some basic tools to set up. When the war came he lost everything and fled to Guinea. Luckily he was later reunited with his wife.

Slowly he rebuilt his business. I asked him what he felt when he saw other disabled people street begging “I did not feel fine. I tried to help them and persuade them to come off the street”.

Joseph the head of Wesofod [Wesofod are one of Children in Crisis’ partner organisations in Sierra Leone] met him at his workshop. John immediately wanted to help. In Wesofod John saw a much better way to help other disabled people: “I believe in unity and helping people with disability to come off the street. You have to come together, you cannot do things alone. You need help”. This passion to help others in his situation deeply impressed me.

John the Shoe Maker

John the Shoe Maker

I told John that he seemed very strong inside, was it this that helped him to keep pushing for a better future “do you think others on the street have this determination?” John admitted that some “simply wanted fast money and it would be a big job to change them. I too will have to continue struggling. I earn enough to put my children through primary school but not secondary school. To improve my business I will need to improve my equipment. If I can get a machine for making lasts, I can make my own Sierra Leonean shoes, not just mend foreign ones”.

John regularly volunteers time to support Wesofod. Judging from the queue of customers and his desperate desire to give his children Pero and Umaro a decent education, this was no small sacrifice.

Shoe-making

Shoe-making

WESOFOD are one of Children in Crisis’ local partner organisations in Sierra Leone. Read more about our work.