Empowering through literacy in Sierra Leone

The Finnish Refugee Council facilitated adult literary and vocational training in Sierra Leone for 14 years. As a result, more Sierra Leoneans have the possibility to live hopeful and independent life. Its time to round up the successes of these years.

Adult literacy was studied through every-day topics. Here they talk about motherhood.

Sierra Leone in West Africa is one of the poorest countries in the world. The civil war fought in its neighbouring country Liberia effected Sierra Leone as well since the 1980s, and as a consequence of this, over 40 000 refugees from Liberia moved to the country. In turn the civil war in Sierra Leone, fought between 1991-2002, caused the death of around 50 000 to 100 000 people, and over half of the population had to flee from their homes to neighbouring countries or to safer areas within the country’s borders.

When the Refugee Council began its activity in Sierra Leone in 2003, there were still 16 000 peacekeepers inside the country and the United Nations had declared only some of the regions as safe areas. Country manager Outi Perähuhta, who started the project, remembers how Sierra Leoneans reacted to the long-awaited peace.

” Peace was seen to have arrived when children were seen running freely alongside the road. During the civil war children were not allowed to be alone outside because it was feared that they would be kidnapped and used child soldiers.”

Outi Perähuhta monitors literary circles’ activities.

Literacy training changes the world

80 per cent of Sierra Leonean adults were illiterate and could not write, therefore it was logical that Finnish Refugee Council would provide literacy training for adults. It was sad that illiteracy was one of the reasons behind the country drifting to civil war, as illiteracy is considered to increase corruption and therefore decreasing trust towards the surrounding society. Literacy was deemed extremely important also during the reconstruction period as growing the country’s economy required citizens who were literate and able to write.

Literacy training for adults was conducted with local partner organisations so that it was possible to adapt training to the work of these partners which focused on micro credit or agricultural activities. Simultaneously, there was training on farming and business. The literacy circles were given goats, cows and seeds as development assistance?

“Some of the literacy circles used the development fund to build a road, a school or a room for giving birth. However, giving the development assistance was a temporary measure. The training of facilitators or group leaders and providing educational books were measures to support literacy circles from the very beginning. The participants were responsible for the activities of the group, which thought them organisational and business skills “, says Perähuhta.

Literacy training was given as part of partner organisation’s other activities until 2005 when peace was brought back to neighbouring country Liberia and many organisations moved there from Sierra Leone. The activities organised by the partner organisations ended and FRC’s literacy training became the main function of the project.

The literacy training utilised the REFLECT- method (Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques). The purpose of the method is to both teach participants how to read and to become active citizens in their society. Literary circles brought people to discuss about issues in the society and encouraged them to participate in community work. An impartial space was formed where both parties of the previous conflicts were welcome.

“The facilitators and members of the groups decided about the issues addressed in the literary circles. Later FRC produced material based on those contents and ways of acting which the group members had found proficient. Based on this material, the circles discussed about problems within the societies and sought common solutions. This way adult literacy training was about much more than just literacy.”

Literacy was thought for adults based on the topics related to their everyday life and pedagogic methods were kept simple. The idea was that all letters and numbers could be formed from two shapes, from a vertical line and a semi-circle. The vertical line was called a ‘matapencil’. The semi-circle was made from calabash, also known as bottle grout. Learning how to write started from training motoric skills as most participants had not used a pen before.

The facilitator of a literary circle is leading a group.

Literacy is much more than just literacy

“Adult literacy training changed the lives of the participants of the literacy circles in numerous ways. Writing once own name, calling without assistance, recognising once own name in the refugee camp lists and opening a bank account are the tip of the ice berg in the skills that being literate enables one to have”, tells Perähuhta.

Being literate encouraged more and more participants to start up small business as someone who can read and count can keep book of once income and expenses, and is less likely to be tricked when selling once crops. Those who already had some business of their own told that their profit increased because of the learnt skills.

“Before I only did farming work. Now I can read, write and do simple calculations. These skills benefit me a lot. Because I am excited to learn more, other students chose me as the chairman of the literary circle. I was encouraged to take a loan for a motorbike. Due to the motorbike, I have been able to drive a taxi and take care of my family. Thanks to FRC I am now independent of other people’s help.”  Tom Sandy, 25, Bongieya, Sierra Leone

Literacy circle activities also included going through the farming calendar and going through different cultivating practices which benefited the agriculture. According to a local saying “an empty bag doesn’t stand”, in other words, and a hungry person has no strength to work. As the participants learned more efficient farming practices, they could plant seeds at the right time making the crops more fruitful. Earlier, food had run out before the next crop had ripened. When participants of adult literacy training could keep book of their crops, the food lasted until the beginning of the next growing season.

“Training has had remarkable effects on the self-esteem of the participants. Those who had not participated in community meetings before had the courage to say their opinion out loud, and often the community chose a shy woman to leadership positions. Also, knowledge about once own rights grew and women knew to tell about domestic violence to officials”, says Perähuhta.

More often mothers saw education more important for their daughters than marriage, and when someone was sick people would resort to doctoral services more often instead of a herbalist. Conflict resolution skills were also taught in literacy training. Especially men mentioned such skills to be of use in solving quarrels within the family.

Literacy training is considered to be successful because during the evaluation trip in 2016 it was noticed that even though FRC had not been active in the area for five years, literacy circles had continued independently and new circles had been formed in the villages as well. “The effects of being literate are remarkable. There are only few things I know that effect so much“, Perähuhta describes.

From a child soldier to having a profession

After the civil war, there was a serious shortage of educated work force in Sierra Leone. In the beginning, none of the local staff of FRC knew how to use a computer.

The civil war had ripped off their chances of getting an education therefore their chances of providing for oneself and having a family were limited. The non-profit sector noticed how many young people in danger of being marginalised and FRC decided to initiate a vocational training project.

“Before I was an illiterate housewife and I could not contribute to the development of my community. After participating in adult literacy training I can make soap. When I sell them, I keep a book of my income and expenses. I know about women’s rights organisations and I do not let my husband breach my rights. Before I was shy but now I speak straightforwardly. I am also my community’s chairwoman.”  Kadie Jigba, 38, Tikonko, Sierra Leone.

“The first students were marginalised because of the war and some of them were former child soldiers. For all of them the vocational training provided by FRC was the only way of getting an education, especially to the disabled ones chosen for the project. During the one and a half year vocational training participants studied to become carpenters, sewers, hairdressers and masons”, Perähuhta says.

The local country director emphasised that there are no women’s and men’s professions and there were several women who graduated as auto mechanics. Alongside learning a trade students studied reading and other necessary skills such as health education, human rights, family planning and violent free communication. There was an emphasis on entrepreneurship and a trainee period as most of the students would be self-employed.

Vocational training was a new start for the students. The young adults told that due to the education their self-confidence grew and especially women and disabled people felt themselves more independent. They also received more respect in their community and decision-making power in their families. The stipends given by FRC enabled their independence from their families and their spouses protecting them from abuse.

“Before those who were in danger of being marginalised now had tools to build a self-sufficient life for themselves.”

FRC also broadcasted radio shows in Sierra Leone. The radio was the main news medium because it did not require being literate nor having electricity. The program addressed topics such as disability, elections, democracy, cholera, women’s rights and child labour. Radio programs were so liked that when they were stopped airing, the radio channels replayed the old programs.

Auto mechanic students in a group shot

Work ended but the effects last

The war that ruptured in 2014 and the Ebola virus which spread into a wide epidemy in 2015 interrupted the ongoing project. In the end the cuts done by the Foreign Ministry of Finland in 2015 to the development cooperation funds leaded to the FRC having to cancel its operation in Sierra Leone. Still those funds that were spared during the period of Ebola epidemy could be used between 2015-2016 to more literacy and vocational training.

Ben Malinen, who had worked as the country director in Sierra Leone was called back to Finland due to safety reasons. It was still possible to support Sierra Leone during that time. The country director for Liberia, Markku Vesikko, developed a popular way to communicate about Ebola, and this material was used in collaboration with the partner organisations in Sierra Leone.

“Later it was noticed that in the villages where FCR had worked, there had been less Ebola that in other regions. Due to the training Ebola was not seen as something mystical and uncontrollable, and people knew to protect themselves and get treatment in time”, says Malinen.

After the effects of Ebola had waned FRC wanted to do its share to repair the damage done by the epidemy by educating nurses as a large number of nurses had lost their lives due to Ebola virus contraction. Training included hundred nurse students. The last ones will graduate during 2017.

“The local partners were very grateful for the 14-year-long work of FRC in Sierra Leone but understood well that there is much work to be done elsewhere as well. It was sad to leave the country. Although FRC has left Sierra Leone, its country office has been closed and its employees are in other positions, the effects of the work are to be seen far to the future”, Malinen emphasises.

Ben Malinen and some of the employees of Finnish Refugee Council in Sierra Leone

Some of the last nurse students educated by the Finnish Refugee Council

Text: Virve Louekari, translation: Melisa Yasav, pictures: Finnish Refugee Council , Mirjami Rustanius, Markku Pykäläinen, Mikko Takkunen and Ben Malinen