The first breath of thick, West African night air from a long flight is an invigorating introduction. A purposeful walk through playful accosting and onto a bus bound for the boat to Freetown doesn’t allow for much in the way of views, and it is apparent that our real impression of the city must wait for the morning. I travelled to Sierra Leone, as a self-confessed Africaphile, with my long-time friend and fellow traveller, Oli, to get off the tourist path and to delve into an oft neglected corner of the continent. We had been fortunate enough to get in touch with Sylvia Costantini who had asked if we wanted to visit the We Are the Future Centre, a school in Aberdeen, Freetown. Our planned route up country was bookended by stays in Freetown and so, less than twelve hours in Sierra Leone, we decided to visit the school on our first morning.

Children stand in assembly in front of their head teacher at the We Are the Future School in Freetown, Sierra Leone

I can think of no better initiation to the country than the morning which lay ahead. We were greeted by John Donald Sandy, the Founder and Director of the school, and his openness and earnest pride in the work shines brightly. Teachers, students and local community members with no affiliation to the school were keen to tell us on our walk down the road about John’s determination and respect in the area. It is rare to meet someone who commands authority with such humility. The school is a humble place. There is clear outdoor space with three or four buildings. Some things are indisputable; the surrounding area is run down on a level that is beyond the comprehension of most Europeans. It is only honest to acknowledge that in all the triumphant sense of haven within these school walls, it is still operating with the barest of essentials. This however, is not stifling progress.

It was natural that our arrival garnered some surprise, especially given I was yet to see another redhead such as myself. The school’s entrance is sheltered by a cluster of trees providing welcome shade to what would later be the playground cum lunch area, but with everybody in lessons, John was keen to get us straight into the classrooms. In the first building, we were met by a class of perhaps thirty children, jumping to their feet. Visiting supervisors from Freetown who were training the teachers, as well as the two resident teachers sharing the classroom, greeted us and encouraged us to meet the girls and boys straight away. A straw poll would, in hindsight, have been more effective, but after having asked almost every child what their name and favourite lesson was, the resounding answer here was Mathematics; something upon which I felt embarrassed I was unable to agree. Despite Maths not being a shared favourite, there were plenty of advocates for Creative Practical Arts which sounded much more up my street. Unsurprisingly some of the children were shy, but they were always keen to show their workbooks with a smile even when words failed them. The children pointed out positive marks where they appeared, and where they didn’t, it was a faster flick through the book. I would have done the same… in fact, I know I did.

The following building was much larger, containing roughly five class groups of diverse ages yet clearly distinguished with makeshift curtains between each. We approached the first class as a young girl was at the board, reciting the written sentences as part of her English lesson. This had offered us a moment of invisibility where we saw her act as she would with no audience, if only fleetingly, before discovering the two six foot Brits at the back of her class. As far as I could see, there was a healthy split of girls and boys, as well as male and female teachers; something which in the UK has been lacking. Oli and I moved from row to row, meeting more of the children as we made our way slowly to the other side of the building. There were a lot of people between these walls although this did not seem to pose any issue for disrupting other lessons as the children spoke softly and respectfully to limit any spill-over beyond the curtain. It is undeniably too many children for one long room, but given the structures that were available, it was an effective use of the space and was apparently at no detriment to the children’s learning, as we saw first-hand. At the end of the room was the youngest class; almost a nursery. The children there were getting to grips with the alphabet on the blackboard and in lieu of names and introductions, cheerful grins from all helped establish our welcome.

John Sandy introduced us to some young adults who were responsible for the agricultural aspect of the project. All of them were from the local community and some were even alumnae of We Are the Future. They shared with us their ambitions of pursuing studies in agriculture and related sciences at higher education and for the time being they were helping to run the plot. We had arrived after the last harvest of the wet season and our arrival coincided with recently planted seeds and bulbs at the start of the drier months. There was clear evidence of a concerted effort to be self-sufficient. John explained that the aubergines, beans, sweet potato and many more were all foods that not only served as staples within the school lunches, but also functioned as local produce, sold to restaurants and hotels. The plot even had iceberg lettuce growing which, although unpopular among locals, is relatively easy to grow and is a valuable commodity in some restaurants in Aberdeen. They had organically treated the soil in an effort to make more fertile compost too, and this had been achieved by pulverised coconut shell. There was palpable pride at these endeavours and rightly so. An irrigation system had been carefully planned and the plants were protected from birds and other scavengers in a large covering which also simulated a greenhouse. John repeated that he thought it a shame for the two of us to not see it in its full glory, but I nevertheless found it to be affecting, with the promise of flourishing greenery around the corner as the rains return.

There was clear evidence of a concerted effort to be self-sufficient. [...] There was palpable pride at these endeavours and rightly so.

By the time we had toured around the plot, having taken great care not to be clumsy with our feet, the lunchtime break had begun. We headed over to the kitchen area where we met the lively ladies responsible for feeding hundreds of hungry mouths. A good system was in order to allow for class by class dining, each taking their turn to come up to the tables as the rest of the school played under the trees. It was comforting to know that with the allotment on site and these avuncular trees leaning over to provide shade, the children had a green place to learn and play, away from traffic and industrial noise.

The young master gardeners prepare seedlings at the We Are the Future school garden, Aberdeen, Freetown

John and Julius, another senior member of the community, were keen to show us more of the town. We walked through the streets, meeting more friendly faces along the way, further cementing the high esteem in which John is held. As we returned, we pop our heads into the school parallel to We Are the Future, which was also in the middle of their afternoon break. John clearly nurtured a good relationship with this other school, as we were able to meet more lovely teachers, including the outgoing Headmistress, Frances, who was clearly as loved by the children as she was feared. The school did however lack a certain brightness and optimism that was so apparent in We Are the Future, although exactly how I could not say. I watched one boy remain at his desk to knit whilst other children played outside and I cannot fully articulate the dichotomy of feelings this stirred. I left not knowing how I felt about that school, but only that We Are the Future was different; perhaps special.

David and Oli chat with the children during their lunch at the Kids Kitchen in their We Are the Future school in Freetown, Sierra Leone

As the lunchtime break was winding down back at We Are the Future, the temptation of posing for my camera was too great for many of the children and as more and more rallied, John had to step in as crowd control. As the bell rang for lessons to resume, we spoke more with John about his time here and the work he has put in. He explained the points system for getting into schools and colleges and how his school maintains a high success rate. John was however aware that the children here are but a fraction of the many, and even a portion of these children travel some considerable distance from neighbouring communities just to be here.

John and the team have cultivated a place not only for education and agriculture, but for play and freedom; crucial things we do not comprehend or fully appreciate until adulthood. It was a privilege to see the hard work and happiness at We Are the Future and I can only hope to see more projects similar to this, where the process and outcome is, with support, held and protected firmly in the hands of a local community. How apt, I thought as we drove away from Freetown into the country, that I came to visit with a friend whom I had met at school.

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David RANDALL is a traveller, writer and Africaphile who visited the We Are the Future programme in Freetown on behalf of Bread and Water for Africa UK in November 2018.