Since the recognition of the serious threat that the Ebola epidemic poses on the Sierra Leonean society by the government of Sierra Leone in June 2014, all schools and colleges have been closed indefinitely and all other learning and teaching institutions have been shot down as well. There is a total ban on the operations of all academic institutions until further notice by the government.
At this time of the year when schools should be noisy with teachers giving their lessons, school children busy with either reciting their notes in their various corners or taking part in other school activities, the school grounds are totally empty with tall grasses and lizards and other lower animals occupying the class rooms. The class rooms are quiet, the streets are quiet, the football fields are quiet and so too are the mining pits. The only sounds we await are those of the ambulances from the hospitals.
The crop of school going children who should have been in the Senior Secondary School at this time of the year are hoping for the end of the crisis so that they can take their exams one day, but even the Junior Secondary School Education Examination the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) was indefinitely suspended. In the meantime, most of the children are in the markets assisting their parents with petty trading or other activities.
The indefinite closing of schools and educational institutions has left school-age children and youth and their families in uncertainty. This may have long-term future impacts, as one possible effect is the increase in school drop outs, which could in turn lead to an increase in social problems like drug addiction, increased criminality, gambling, prostitution, and teenage pregnancy. It may also force more youths into mining and digging due to their reduced employment prospects and opportunities.
The influence of the diamond economy on education has always been a burning issue in Sierra Leone and has been a key reason for the level of drop outs from educational institutions in the district. Historically, the issue of access to education for youth was also linked with Sierra Leone’s civil war.
Sierra Leone had once been called ‘The Athens of Africa’ due to the country’s export of western education to different parts of Africa, but has since fallen behind these countries in West Africa and sub-Saharan Africa in terms of educational indicators. Drastic depreciation of the country’s educational sector started in the 1970s when the political landscape was unstable and turbulent. These were the days when a President publically pronounced that “Dem Say Bailor Barie You Say Davidson Nicole”. Bailor Barie was an illiterate business man and one of the wealthiest men in the country, while Davidson Nicole was a renowned academic, well-known nationally and internationally for his academic work, but not affluent in terms of money.
During the 1970s and 1980s, factors like political instability, the shift of government priorities from supporting quality education to supporting less academic oriented institutions like para-military groups and political thugs to intimidate opponents and top business people led to the total collapse of the academic system in the country. Most of youths in this time graduated either as diggers, miners (Kabudu Gang) or rubbers in the mining communities in the Eastern or southern provinces, especially in Kono. Another alternative for disenfranchised youth was joining the unpopular Internal Security Unit (ISU) that later became the Special Security Division (SSD), or becoming ‘praise singers’ behind top government officials.
The further collapse of the national economy especially after the hosting of the meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1980 and the economic hardship that ensued, in combination with the intimidation of political opponents by the government, led to the radicalization of student groups, youth groups and other members of society, especially among school dropouts. This gave birth to the Revolutionary United Front rebels and other warring groups during the ten years of armed conflict in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002.
The war took even further heavy toll on the academic system by destroying most of the academic infrastructure, killing or driving away good teachers, completely stopping schooling and creating a ten years gap in the academic process of the country. It is therefore not surprising that Sierra Leone’s educational standard today is low compared to the sub-region and maybe Africa as a whole.
Now, exactly twelve years after the end of the war, our younger generation in Sierra Leone again stands the chance of losing a lot in their academic pursuit and adding to an already alarming figure of over 70% illiteracy level in the country. What will this mean for Sierra Leone as a nation after ebola?
It is precisely the improvement of education for the Sierra Leonean population and thereby reducing the illiteracy level that may have helped to produce more medical personnel and better professionals and institutions for the overall development of the country. However, as things currently stand, the negative long-term effects of the closing down of educational institutions will be a recipe for more chaos and underdevelopment.
However, there have also been rays of hope and innovative approaches to deal with this educational crisis. The national radio teaching and learning programme organized by the Ministry of Education Science and Technology and supported by development organizations has become the national classroom for all school going children in Sierra Leone today. Lessons are aired on the radio for certain levels or classes at specific times of the day, while children are expected to listen and make comments through text messages. This could be good use of modern technology especially during a crisis period, if only the targeted audience had the means to make use of it. With the ebola crisis taking its economic and social toll on families, making the fending for one daily meal a daunting task for a majority of the Sierra Leonean population, it is almost impossible for most children in the rural areas, especially in Kono, to make use of this programme. If a choice is to be made between fending for daily meals and that of listening to teaching and learning programmes on the radio, the later will be less considered.