A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a boy who was reaching down, picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean. As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing?” The boy looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean”. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the man. “The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, “It made a difference for that one.” — Loren Eiseley
Making a difference really is that easy. In fact, there are places in this world and in this country where just showing up is enough. It is a simplicity that is often forgotten, especially when we consider places where the needs are so vast. We all want to help, but many of us never make it past the myriad logistical questions or we get bogged down in choosing which action will have the greatest impact. Then of course, there’s the problem of work, family and simply finding enough hours in the day. These obstacles have proven insurmountable for me in the past, so when I decided to spend two weeks in Sierra Leone, I actually surprised myself.
I made this decision, mostly on a whim, to visit my brother-in-law who is working on a construction project on the coast of Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. He was collaborating with an organization that helps orphaned teens learn construction trades and helps them find jobs. I had relatively few details beyond that and yet I booked the ticket anyway. My only certainty was that I would gain a new perspective from this experience and perhaps I could share that with the children and teachers at my Montessori school. I had no idea how or even if I could provide anything measurable in return to the children of Sierra Leone.
With so many other details on my mind, it was almost an afterthought that I decided to research Montessori in Sierra Leone. I was pleasantly surprised to find the American Montessori Leadership Academy -which had just started its first school year in September 2016. Through the first of many serendipitous moments, I was able to meet with its founder, Joyce Brown, who happened to be traveling to where I live in Virginia one week before my departure.
Joyce is a native of Sierra Leone and has been in Montessori for more than twenty years. Her entire career in Montessori, both in the US and elsewhere, has been devoted to helping those who need it most. In fact, in 2011, AMS recognized her efforts by awarding her a grant from the Ursula Thrush Peace Seed Fund. This fund supports individuals that promote Dr. Montessori’s legacy of peace and social justice. Unfortunately, the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa forced Joyce to suspend her plans. Never the less, she pressed on through the adversity and picked up where she left off as soon as the outbreak subsided.
Learning about her school, hearing her story of perseverance and long history of service to others was inspiring and provided a new direction for my trip. In my office, during an unseasonably warm day in February, we agreed that I would visit her school at some point in the trip, but didn’t plan much specifically beyond that. I was really just happy to be involved. A week later, I was on a plane.
On the second leg of my flight, the woman seated next to me was from Sierra Leone and lived in Freetown. Her name was Fatmata and unlike me, she managed to sleep for about 6 of the 7 hour flight. It was only as we began our descent that we got to talking. I had previously learned that there are two Montessori schools in Freetown. I shared that I was visiting one of them and it turns out that her children attend the other school -known as the British International Montessori school -located up in the hills near the US embassy. We agreed that meeting each other was no coincidence. Another example of the undeniable providence that seemed to follow me through this entire trip. So we exchanged our contact information and agreed to keep in touch during my visit. By the end of my trip, I had visited both Montessori schools and Fatmata had graciously driven me to and from them. She also facilitated a meeting with the director as well as an impromptu teacher workshop I led. She, and parents like her, are a big part of why Montessori continues to grow around the world.
Meeting Fatmata a mere hour before touching down in Sierra Leone provided some much needed confidence that I might actually have something to offer there. Knowing very little about where I would stay, how I would get around and only a basic understanding of Sierra Leonean culture and geography, I stepped off the plane into the hot, humid night at Lungi Airport looking for the familiar face of my brother-in-law.
I’ve done a bit of traveling and this was not my first trip to a developing country, but something struck me about Sierra Leone almost immediately. There is an unmistakable friendliness; Fatmata’s generosity to someone she has never met, the smiles and extended handshakes of perfect strangers and the genuine, engaging conversations with the people who quickly became my friends. I always felt welcomed. Though a city of over one million people, Freetown has a small-town feel to it. As if somehow everyone seems to know each other. But the city is just now emerging from dark times. Its people certainly have their struggles. Some of their obstacles remain as mountainous as the country’s terrain. However, their strength and resolve are evident and if you look just beneath the surface, there is a shared sense that things are moving in a positive direction.
While in Freetown, I lived in a shipyard on a small cape beneath a broken-down light house in container housing that had been salvaged from an old platinum mine. Probably not the usual accommodations one might choose, but they were air-conditioned. I didn’t really recognize it form the start, but staying there instead of opting for the comforts of a hotel gave me a much more immersive experience and allowed me to have a very personal level of contact with the local people.
Moments after arriving at the shipyard, I met a friendly, well-mannered 16-year-old boy named John Turay. Both of his parents died during the recent Ebola outbreak and he lives with his ailing grandfather, just outside the shipyard gate. The foreman at the shipyard and the South African workers there have taken him in, paying for his school, providing food, teaching him some trade skills and paying him to do odd jobs. He even has his own “apartment” in one of the renovated shipping containers. One of the workers in the shipyard drives him to and from school every day. This kind of generosity, though absolutely life-changing for John, is almost commonplace in Freetown. It always seems that those who have the least often share the most.
John is not a typical 16 year old, at least from my ethnocentric viewpoint. In many ways he has gained wisdom well beyond his years. The circumstances of his life have forced him to grow up quickly. He can jump start a vehicle from a boat battery, tie off a 40 foot fishing boat, filet a 50lb. Baraccuda and navigate the complicated socio-economic labyrinth of his local neighborhood as if he’s the local town delegate. Of course, he’s also still a kid. Like many in his country, he loves soccer. Liverpool, specifically. He even manages a local team of younger children called F.C. Barefoot. The name is apropos as most of the players don’t own cleats and instead play in flip flops, sandals or mismatched shoes. They practice during the week on a “pitch” of red dirt, loose gravel and jagged rocks -and love every second of it.
John is doing well -all things considered. One of his few luxuries is a cell-phone, which allows us to keep in touch. He was a constant companion when I returned to the shipyard each day from my various adventures. He often shared his homework with me and I helped if I was able. The experience of reading through his copious class notes and the worksheets he brought home gave me some valuable insight into the state of education in Freetown -which became my focus.
A couple of days after I arrived, I was ready to visit the American Montessori Leadership Academy. There was no way for me to contact the school from where I was. Like many places in Freetown, they do not have internet access. Not having a local cell phone, I wasn’t able to place a call either. In retrospect, I could have done a lot more planning in this area, but serendipity had gotten me this far. I found the school on Google Maps and showed up at the door unannounced. I knocked on the gate half expecting the school to be closed and yet still holding onto the certainty that it would all work out somehow. It did, and what I found behind that gate made the entire trip worthwhile.
Back home at my own school today, just a few weeks after my trip, the daffodils are beginning to peek through the thawed earth. The tiny spot of green in a sea of brown reminds me of that moment I passed through the gate at the American Montessori Leadership Academy. The red dust blowing in from the Sahara and thousands of rusted tin roofs paint all of Freetown in a constant shade of burnt sienna -the crayon that always seemed a mystery until now. Yet the world inside that gate offered such a stark visual comparison. In a country that is known for its diamonds, this school is a diamond in the rough.
The facility is quite spacious with ample room to grow. There are three buildings arranged around a large courtyard filled with trees and flowering bushes. The entire campus is surrounded by a tall grey brick wall, which hides the busy, crowded city streets beyond. This being the dry season, the large vegetable garden was mainly dormant, but the care and effort behind it was obvious. A small chicken coop and run had just been completed that day with help from parents. Funds and manpower are still needed to complete the grounds and play area, which shares space with the circular dirt driveway and parking lot. But that didn’t temper the children’s enthusiasm during recess at all.
The temperature hovered in the mid 90’s most of the days I was there, but open windows on both sides of the classroom created a nice breeze. There is one classroom in operation. It is well-equipped with Montessori materials -thanks in part to the generosity of a Montessori school in the US and to the Ursula Thrush grant funds. There was enough natural light so that lamps were not even used during the day. As sometimes happens in Freetown, during my visit the school was without water. The Government pumps water only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which means on Tuesday and Thursday, the students may use only the water stored on site. In the dry season, that water goes fast. Never the less, the students and teachers were so obviously comfortable with the situation, it seemed like just another day to them.
Anyone who has been involved with opening a new Montessori school knows the wonderful feeling of hope that goes along with it. To find this in a place where living conditions often make education a luxury rather than a priority, is even more meaningful. In fact, the juxtaposition of the cluttered, dirty streets outside and the carefully arranged, beautifully prepared Montessori environment was almost too drastic to reconcile.
Then there were the children. Some of the more subtle aspects of the philosophy and use of the materials were still being learned by the faculty. However, the expectation and internal motivation of work was very obviously shared by each and every child. Patience, concentration, leadership and a wellformed sense of community were all on display. There was an obvious spark in these children, who worked so intently. They seemed to understand and appreciate the differences of their Montessori experience. For having known each other only a short period of time, they had developed a wonderful bond and a strong sense of responsibility for themselves and each other. A successful Montessori classroom by anyone’s definition.
That same spark was evident in the teachers and on-site administrator, all of whom, in spite of having very little formal Montessori training, seem to be acutely aware of the opportunity that stands before each of them. They are clearly committed to their work as well as the students. I admired them for their positions as pioneers in a movement that could serve to change the lives of hundreds of children. There is no doubt in my mind. This place will make a difference.
As one might imagine, starting a school in a place where even simple tasks can become impossible, is no small feat. Having grown up in Sierra Leone, Joyce is keenly aware of this, and is doing it right. For example, there is a wealthy population living high in the mountains above Freetown, who would certainly pay a higher tuition. However, taking a page from Dr. Montessori’s book, Joyce she has built her school in the center of the city to be accessed by the poorer children.
Joyce explained that there are more than 5,000 orphans in Sierra Leone. But they aren’t all just numbers to her. She has looked into their eyes, knows their names and has heard their stories. “After the civil war ended, I visited several amputee camps and orphanages; I noticed that most of the early childhood programs were simply warehousing children… We decided that the American Montessori Leadership Academy would be the starting point to break the cycle of poverty.” Having met just a tiny fraction of these orphans myself, I can attest that the experience instills an immediate desire to help. They remain a constant source of motivation for Joyce’s tireless effort.
Joyce added that she was all too familiar with the “invisible wall of education.” She is using Montessori to break through that wall, just as Dr. Montessori did more than 100 years ago in the slums of Rome. Of Joyce’s 13 students, nine are currently attending on scholarship. This is the model she intends to continue. Even though her annual tuition rate is inexpensive by Western world standards, the families she is trying to help still cannot afford it on their own. She relies heavily on donations to support these families. Joyce also engages in a wide range of outreach endeavors in the local community and is expanding her education efforts to support the students’ parents, many of whom speak only Krio, as their children learn English.
I had no doubts about the benefits of a Montessori education in Sierra Leone, but I was really curious about how the idea of Montessori might be received there. Conversations on the subject of education with everyone from the workers in the shipyard to teachers, Freetown locals and even villagers on remote Banana Island, revealed an all too familiar theme: The traditional education system produces graduates who know how to follow rules, but lack creativity, initiative, adaptability, problem solving and basic executive functioning. Knowing how this plays out in the US, it has to be a crippling situation in Sierra Leone. It is also very telling that the education system in the wealthiest country in the world shares the same failings as that of one of the world’s poorest.
I admit I was surprised to hear such a familiar complaint in such an unfamiliar place. In my ignorance, I had assumed that when education is hard to come by, parent’s expectations would be much more basic. Literacy and math skills would surely take precedence over less quantifiable skills. The Sierra Leone Government education certainly pushes academics first, but local opinions are different. Learning to speak English remains a top priority, but life skills are almost immediately next in line. Just like in the US, the people of Sierra Leone are looking for Montessori, they just don’t know it yet.
Even with this latent desire for a more holistic education, parents still have their doubts about Montessori. In order to be considered for college, all students will sit for the national exam. It is a very broad exam with topics ranging from auto-mechanics to math. Just as in the US, parents have a difficult time understanding how such a drastically different method of education can possibly prepare a child for this standardized test. Joyce certainly has her work cut out for her in explaining the answer to that question. However, the AMLA supports its local community well beyond the education of its children. That goes a long way to helping parents buy-in to what their children are learning. When she needs it, she will receive their support in return.
“How can I make a difference?” This was the question that ran on a constant loop in my mind, growing louder with each child I met there. I was able to provide one tangible answer through the Northern Virginia Montessori Institute by offering a full scholarship to one of the teachers I met there. Heather Vrieswyk will be joining this Summer’s cohort as a new adult learner. As a trained teacher, head of school and teacher trainer myself, this was an easy answer. Sharing Montessori, writing about it, practicing it, has been my only other response so far. But even as I write, I can’t help feeling this is an abstract reaction to a concrete problem.
The needs of the children of Sierra Leone, however, are no longer abstract to me. The images of this place and its people are more vivid in my mind than any of the hundreds of pictures I took. Some of their stories are too harsh and personal to share in this article. Many, unfortunately, will never receive the assistance they need. No matter what I, or anyone else can do. This makes it simultaneously impossible to forget and easy to ignore. It is a discouraging paradox.
The reality of this trip began to fade within just a few weeks of my return. With each passing day, I wondered more if my minimal efforts would prove useful to anyone in the end. Researching the overwhelming statistics and harsh realities that endanger the lives of so many children in Sierra Leone only served to further muddy the waters. Then, early one Saturday morning, I received a video call from John. In that brief moment as I waited for the connection, my doubts seemed to amplify. Then the image focused and John’s smile lit up the whole screen. It is an image that I will never forget. Whatever else comes from this trip, it made a difference to him.