While growing up in the US, parents always talked about moving back “home” to Sierra Leone. With this in mind, each time I visited Sierra Leone, I was carefully connecting the dots my existence and discovering who I am. It is the one place in the world where I felt connected and had a strong sense of belonging to. And at the end of each visit, I returned to the US feeling incomplete – more like little pieces of me were missing. I realized that being in Sierra Leone felt like home. It was then that the burning desire to return to Sierra Leone was planted in my heart.
On one of our visits during the Christmas holidays, I remember bringing up the subject whilst with my mother and grandfather. I announced “Mom I think it would be a great idea for me to move to Sierra Leone and go to school. You have always talked about moving home and I could live here with Grandma and Grandpa and go to school with my cousins. It would be so much fun!” My Mom looked at me with a puzzled look on her face and then gave me the side eye. “You are too young” she said. My Grandfather looked up from reading his newspaper and said “Yes Yeniva I am sure it would be very fun and I am sure you would have just as much fun getting into a reputable university as well. The value of education is not just about fun. You can’t compare the education in America to that in Africa. As a woman you have to fight twice as hard, here you won’t even have a head start.” His statement took me by surprise and it lingered in my head long after he made his declaration.
I first went back to Sierra Leone again in 2002 right after the war. I couldn’t fathom what had become of the beautiful country that I loved so much. I had so many unanswered questions; Why? What as the reason behind the war? and most importantly, how could we make sure it never happened again. I knew I had to do something anything to make a difference. So I started collecting things to send, clothes, toiletries, school supplies, books anything that could help. I began by setting up my own NGO and joined different Sierra Leonean organizations – all to try and contribute to the rebuilding process and make a difference. I made a trip to Sierra Leone at least once every year and while things were changing, many things stayed the same and while these were valuable experiences, I still did not feel like my efforts were making the necessary impact. This was extremely frustrating.
This was around the time of the emergence of blogs – a time where humanitarian workers from all around the world were in Sierra Leone working in different agencies. I would read about people’s experiences, perspectives, and perceptions of Sierra Leone. While I was excited to read about their tales of growth and potential, I knew it was just that; their stories. It was very important that Sierra Leoneans tell their own stories as well and that we shape the future of our nation by ourselves.
In 2007 I finally decided to move back to Sierra Leone. I felt like it was important to stop talking about change but it was time to actually be a part of it. With my passion for education, I saw the similarities between young people in my classrooms in America and the youth I worked with in Sierra Leone.
One of the many things I learned throughout my educational path is that education gives options and the power to make choices. The ultimate benefit of education to me is the ability to share thoughts with others, challenge and develop ideas, and blend them into contributions and solutions that can transform. These realizations lead me to my calling of being an educator. I am an educator because it is my passion to assist others in their journey of uncovering the power of education. With that motif, I began teaching at underperforming schools in the American school system where each day, I battled to capture student’s attention as issues of poverty and gang violence surrounded their home life. Also, very few expected them to complete high school and if they made it to college, they would be the first ones in their family to do so. I was pleased to have been able to help them overcome these challenges and enter some of the top universities and colleges around the country.
With that experience, I returned with the belief that the future of Sierra Leone lies in the hands of the youth who are our future leaders. It was not long before I thought constantly about what it would take to get our “at risk” youth in Sierra Leone into colleges and universities of their choice not only in Sierra Leone but around the world. I moved home to embark on a mission to change the way education is presented in Sierra Leone. This gave birth to the EXCEL Education Program. With dedication, perseverance and endurance The EXCEL Team has worked diligently to turn “Vision into Action”.
On July 21, 2008, the EXCEL Education Center opened its doors at 9 Dillet Street to our inaugural class. The program served students throughout secondary school preparing them to enter institutions of higher education and or gainful employment or business. Its successes include; Delivering the first ever “Money Maters for Kids Workshop” with United Bank For Africa, UBA; and being Selected as the recruitment representative in Sierra Leone for the “African Leadership Academy” in South Africa. Through the programme, seven students from Sierra Leone have successfully graduated from the academy, providing enrichment and WASSCE support resulting in five of our participant’s receiving the top scores in the country and district ( 1st and 2nd places in 2008- 2009), and the “EXCEL Scholars Internship” Program where students were given on- the-job training and employment opportunities, etc. Our biggest success by far is that 31 EXCEL Scholars have gone on to enter four year colleges and universities in Sierra Leone; IPAM Fourah Bay College, College of Medicine, United States, England, Russia, Ukraine including-, University of Rochester, Colby College, Morehouse College and The United World College, Singapore. In 2013 we celebrated our first EXCEL Scholar’s graduation from IPAM.
While these achievements mean that more students have access to greater educational and life opportunities, I realize that even these efforts are not sufficient enough to fully address the critical needs left by gaps in the Sierra Leonean educational system.
My quest for success was not met without trials. In the beginning it was difficult to get cooperation from the Ministry of Education. A supplementary education program for secondary school students did not belong to any specific category; it didn’t tick any of the boxes outlined by donor partners. “We need more technical training institutes” I would hear from officials. But I pushed on. Even when I applied for funding, most NGO’s focused on education were interested in funding primary education or building rural schools. I went from office to office, meeting to meeting with no luck. It was a harsh reality to find out I could not get funding for the programme. My daydreams about the creation of the program were nothing like this. There were many days I was so frustrated! Fortunately for me, I reached out to my friends and family for support. Their constant encouragement was a source of inspiration for me.
Today one of Sierra Leone’s biggest challenges is youth unemployment. Unemployment amongst urban youth is extremely high. The employment challenges of youth in Sierra Leone are closely linked to the effects of the 11-year civil war. More than half of the youth population – who constitute approximately 80 per cent of the total population – are illiterate. Finding jobs in the formal economy is difficult. Access to jobs for young women has been especially challenging. While there has been a keen focus on job creation for youth, we need to be thinking well past the short term solutions and engage in long term planning. In order to compete at a global standard and meet the demands of a growing and developing Sierra Leone, we need to nurture a culture of high achievement and quality education.
Once the deemed the “Athens of Africa”, education in Sierra Leone is simply not the same. The influx in the demand of education has caused overpopulation of schools, overcrowded classrooms, high student- teacher ratio, and an overwhelming amount of outdated, untrained, unskilled and unqualified teachers. Education in Sierra Leone has declined to a point where even some of the students ranking at the top of their classes pale in comparison to their peers in other African countries not to mention peers all over the world.
Many educated young people do not see the worth of staying in Sierra Leone. Their hope is to find solace in another country, most popularly being America or Europe, resulting in significant brain drain. Many of these young people end up in poorly ranked universities or low income jobs because their education in Sierra Leone was not well rounded enough.
Brain drain in Africa has financial, institutional, and societal costs. African countries get little return from their investment in higher education, since too many graduates leave or fail to return home at the end of their studies.
While I can say that some schools are working tirelessly to meet the demands of students and parents, they cannot do it alone. Education should be our countries most coveted asset. There is a dire need for modern and innovative programming that addresses Sierra Leones educational inequities, while promoting high academic achievement.
With the necessary skills and experience in short supply in Sierra Leone especially for key positions, companies and organizations look to neighbouring countries such as Gambia, Ghana, and Nigeria to fill these labour gaps. Although the percentage of expatriates working within industries is minimal, they occupy most of the skilled positions.
Consider for instance that over 20 per cent of Africa’s population is aged between 15 and 24 years, and over 40 per cent is under 15 years of age. This means that the challenge to develop and retain emerging leaders with the potential to meet the demands of a globalized environment is set to escalate even further.
High-quality education in Sierra Leone is the foundation for success and growth. There is a need for empowered teachers, strong school leaders, better curricula, and the ability for students to connect with one another and the rest of the world.
I therefore set out to contribute in my own little way together with the help of many other fine people whose tireless contribution brought about the successes outlined above. The programme had been shut down and we are planning to re-launch it in the spring of 2014. EXCEL is dedicated to promoting academic excellence by providing evidence-based test, preparatory tutorials, skills training, academic development, activities, and support services. It is our goal to develop a culture of academic excellence and empowering the next generation of leaders, creative minds, innovators, thinkers, and change-makers who are not only inspired but compelled to re-define Sierra Leone, and the rest of the world. We shall remain committed to doing just that.