By Theodora Clarke, Conservative Future Liaison for CWO
This summer I was lucky enough to take part in Project Umubano, the Conservative Party’s social action project in Africa. Set up back in 2007 by the Rt Hon David Cameron MP and Andrew Mitchell MP the initiative has highlighted the party’s commitment to international development. For the last few years volunteers have visited Rwanda to provide valuable expertise in the fields of education, justice, health, community and business. More recently a sister project was launched in Sierra Leone, led by David Mundell MP, as a mark of the close ties between the West African country and our own.
This was an exciting year to take part in Umubano as we were launching a new education project. Our team consisted of teachers, students and professionals who were based in Makeni, several hours drive inland from the capital. Makeni is a quiet, tree-filled town which was the headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Sierra Leonean rebel forces, during the civil war. The region is now dominated by the mining industry which has concessions for diamonds, gold, bauxite and granite.
We were partnered with a local organisation called Street Child of Sierra Leone which is working to take children of the streets, provide them with a good education and where possible to re-integrate them back into their families and homes. It was quite an experience turning up at the centre on the Monday morning to be welcomed by 120 students and the local headmaster. The pupils were thrilled that we were there and performed a welcome song when we arrived.
The first day was not at all what I expected. Instead of merely assisting a Sierra Leonean teacher, a fellow volunteer and I were introduced to a class of nearly fifty boys and girls and left to get on with teaching them English grammar, maths and science armed with just a blackboard and chalk. Teaching is little more tricky without any textbooks or the ability to quickly google an exercise or answer! However, we embraced the challenge and ended up having a great two weeks with our students.
Every morning after a breakfast of cassava or rice, we taught three hours of core subjects and in the afternoon we played sports, sang songs or did arts and crafts. I was responsible for the latter every day which was enormous fun. The children were so excited to have so many different materials to play with ranging from coloured pens and paper to stickers and tracing paper. They all made beautiful pictures but it was sad to see how memories of the war still haunted them; a large number of children started drawing UN helicopters and stickmen armed with guns. We wanted Project Umubano to leave a lasting reminder of our stay so towards the end we painted a white wall on the side of one of the central buildings and got each child enrolled our classes to plant their handprints on the wall.
During the first week we had a special visit from Stephen O’Brien MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who came to the school to see all the work the Umubano volunteers were doing. The children in my class were very excited to meet a Minister and asked him many questions about the differences between the UK and Sierra Leonean Parliaments. My class became so interested that we later taught a special lesson on Government and Politics to explain about the role of MPs and Peers and the differences between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Sierra Leone is a beautiful country which was ravaged by civil war up until 2002 and it still ranks the highest in terms of poverty in the world. July is the rainy season and the weather was extremely hot and humid. It was heart-breaking at the end of each day to see my students who had been so eager to learn and worked so hard to have nowhere to go to after class. All of them slept outside at night in the pouring rain in the streets wherever they could. It is clear that Street Child of Sierra Leone is doing invaluable work in the country helping the most needy children to get an education and showing them love and care. One of the highlights of the project was when, on the penultimate day, we organised an inaugural sports day for the school. The children loved competing in traditional races such as the 100metres, relay and even more so when we introduced them to English games such as stone and spoon races and rounders!
Two weeks is a short time but the difference in our students by the end was noticeable in their increased confidence and their ability to read and write and do basic arithmetic. On our last day one of my youngest pupils, a ten year old girl, came up to me and gave me a hug saying that she could not believe that we had come all the way from England just to teach her. It was a moving day when we had to finally say goodbye.
Next year we hope to expand the project to Maburaka, a nearby school, and to have several satellite education projects based near Makeni. I hope that many CWO members will take the opportunity next year to come on Project Umubano and to do something a bit different with their summer. It has been a life-changing opportunity for many of the volunteers and I for one hope to be back.
For more information and to register your interest in joining Project Umubano 2011, please contact Abigail Green at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit http://www.conservatives.com/Get_involved/Project_Umubano.aspx
Details on Street Child of Sierra Leone can be found here http://www.street-child.co.uk/