By Abdul Kamara
Adbul Kamara can be contacted at email@example.com.
My work in Rokel, outside the capital of Freetown, emerged from the 10-year conflict that ravaged Sierra Leone. During the 1990s, each day was a constant battle for survival. It was during this time that the thought of leaving Sierra Leone to set up a college first came to me. When I finally left in 1997, the journey took me through Liberia to the Ivorian capital (Abidjan), dubbed Petit Paris because of its beauty, and then on to Ghana. When I arrived at the Ghanaian border, I told immigration officers that I was a refugee with no money left to pay the entry fee they demanded. Very fortunately, a Ghanaian gentleman came by uninvited and offered to pay for me to enter the country.
The kind gesture that this man showed me was a clear indication that I had elected to live in a peaceful country. He took me out to lunch, gave me extra money and directions to the Buduburam Refugee Camp. This camp was set up in 1990 by the Ghanaian government and was supervised by the mobilisation unit of the Ghanaian Immigration Authority to shelter people fleeing political strife in Liberia. Three years into my stay, with the help of Anne Holding and John Meadley, I was fortunate enough to gain a scholarship to study in the UK .
Anne was working for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and John for the Department for International Development (DfID). In due course, I received the necessary offer letter and paperwork from Woodbrooke in Birmingham, UK – to attend a course on Alternatives to Violence. A week later I submitted my VISA application and having adequately prepared for the interview, my request was granted. I collected my passport with the visa seal pasted in it. Upon arrival in Birmingham on my first visit to the UK, I endeavoured to visit those who had supported me and that made me determined to survive the war.
From Woodbrooke I moved to Bradford to commence my Master of Arts degree programme in peace studies at the University of Bradford. The course, and the university’s teaching structures and faculty members (particularly Professor David J Francis), were very reassuring and from day one I believed that I would graduate fully equipped to contribute meaningfully to the reconstruction of my war-torn and failed state of Sierra Leone. I counted myself extremely fortunate to be sponsored by Anne, supported by Dr John Meadley, and mentored by Michael Flowers and Professor David J Francis among many others. I progressed through my studies successfully thanks also to friends who continued to offer me financial and moral support.
Painswick Quaker Meeting House – and subsequently the wider Gloucestershire Quaker Area Meeting – agreed to support me through my research degree. Above all, developing a platform through which to contribute to the development of Sierra Leone was always at the back of my mind. The thoughts of helping Sierra Leone, and Africa in general, never left me. Upon completing my postgraduate work at the University of Bradford, I gained the exceptional support of Dorothy Crowther (a retired GP) and of Keswick Meeting as well as of Britain (Quaker) Yearly Meeting. As a result, I progressed to register for a postgraduate diploma in research, to position me for a Master of Philosophy. With an extensive track record of regional integration activities in West Africa, John arranged for me to conduct research work on the DfID Community Reintegration Programme in Sierra Leone. Whilst studying at the University of Bradford, this field research work provided the experiential insights I needed to expand my knowledgebase for my future work in the country.
My quest for peace-building in Sierra Leone then took an advanced dimension as I had the opportunity to be actively involved in helping to shape policies that resulted in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants. I returned to the UK to complete my postgraduate diploma study and subsequently the MPhil programme at the University of Bradford. I focused my research work on the impact of reconciliation and reintegration in a post-conflict situation on communities, the lessons that could be learned and how to provide mechanisms to understand the extent to which such rebuilding processes could potentially address the causes of the conflict.
In 2010 I set up Quaker Peace Network West Africa (QPNWA) as part of the wider Quaker Peace Network Africa. Within Sierra Leone I focused on an area called Rokel, on the outskirts of Freetown and badly damaged during the war. As you can see from the map, Rokel is strategically important on the road to Freetown (the capital – marked with the arrow at the north-western corner of the peninsula, which had quadrupled in size with a massive influx of refugees). There was regular and heavy fighting on the roads into Freetown. The effects of that fighting are still being felt by the local population and there continues to be much need.
The first step was to establish a small Quaker presence and a meeting house which, over time, evolved into a Quaker study centre – a mini Woodbrooke. Conscious of the need for healthcare in the community, the next step was to establish a clinic; and it was at this point that I was particularly supported by Dorothy Crowther, who helped me greatly through this process. When we came to establish a charity that could “hold” these emerging initiatives, we called it The Dorothy Peace Centre in recognition of her support.
The clinic was put under extreme pressure during the dreadful Ebola epidemic and was temporarily closed as part of the government’s strategic plan to focus on a limited number of medical facilities that had specialised facilities and staff. The clinic has since been refurbished and re-opened. In 2014, Ebola severely affected the community in Rokel, with the loss of 70 adults – leaving many orphans. We responded by establishing an orphanage which now cares for 40 orphans. In the box below is what I wrote at the time.
Ebola came to Rokel around November 2014. Many people died in the John Thorpe Community. Whole families were lost. Many children were left unsupported and wandering around unfed. The workers from our centre took them food and eventually started an orphanage. This was unplanned and unfunded but very much needed. It was a very difficult and stressful time. The orphanage grew as more children were found. Objectives for the children included the provision of education, which has to be paid for in Sierra Leone.
The setting up of the orphanage necessitated creating a primary school for them. So that we could attract better teachers, we expanded the school to service the wider community. Now with 6 classes and 175 pupils, it is called Sidcot School and is formally linked with its namesake in the UK.
Rokel is an economically depressed area and we found that when parents from the wider community brought their children to the school they had no employment and tended to hang around until they collected the children at the end of the school day. It was to address their needs that we set up a centre to offer them the opportunity to learn vocational skills. It soon became clear that many of them had significant potential and so the centre evolved in a college of higher education called The Dura Institute of Development and Management Studies (DIDAMS) – focusing on Vocational Training; Employment and skills development; Agriculture: Horticulture and Poultry; and Personal Development.
The college now has 250 students with the first ones recently matriculating or graduating. This video introduces the college.
The range of activities at Rokel now includes the primary school, the orphanage, the clinic and the college. Funding remains a constant problem. Because of the high levels of poverty within the area, everything has to be heavily subsidised; for example, the annual fee for a course at the college is only £50, which is a lot for the students to pay but does not cover the real costs. Staff are not well paid. For example, there are 12 trained staff employed at the clinic but the monthly salary bill for all of them is only £900 or an average of £75 per month each. In an ideal world, these costs would be borne by the relevant government department but with Sierra Leone being one of the world’s poorest countries (per capita GDP being 174th out of 181 countries [World Bank]) this is not going to happen any time soon. This Quaker-inspired initiative is almost entirely dependent upon the goodwill of those who share a concern for the people of Rokel. I hope that you will be one of them.
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