Yonibana

Back online! This morning we finished our four-day workshop for teachers in Yonibana. It was a blast. We left the Hotel 5-10 on Tuesday morning. The driver we anticipated was getting his car fixed, so we went to Yonibana with Victor, which we were very happy about. We made brief stops so he could pack his bag and so we could eat some beef and onion skewers we bought from the hospital canteen.

As we got further from Freetown, the towns gave way to a landscape of dense trees and tall grass, hills on the horizon, and occasional villages. We went through an Ebola checkpoint where they took our temperatures from a distance with a gun-shaped thermometer.

Village life out here is fascinating to see. Women pound rice with long sticks in metal buckets, and then toss the grains in a pan to filter out the dry husks. People sell gas for motorcycles in plastic soda bottles on makeshift tables by the side of the road, and in the bigger towns there are cell phone charging stations. Some buildings are low rectangles of homemade concrete blocks with metal roofs, and others are thatched roof huts. And the people here do not stop staring at us – we’re a real oddity.

We pulled up to Yonibana UMC Primary School and were immediately confronted by a crowd of children chanting “oputu” (white man) as we got out of the car. I later learned that many of these children will only see one white person a year. We met our hosts, Rosalind, the headmistress, and John, a head teacher, and went to the unexpectedly named Minnesota Hall (called that because of the home of the missionaries who built it) to set up.

The workshop lasted from Tuesday afternoon to Friday morning. In the beginning I felt as out of my element as I ever have – sitting in front of a group of thirty schoolteachers from rural villages, wondering how I could be of any use, me with no training in education of any kind. But as the days went on and we got to know each other, I felt as welcomed and appreciated as I could be. And I realized I had useful skills to use and teach that I take for granted, just because I was lucky enough to have access to the basic educational resources that are ubiquitous in the United States and nonexistent in Sierra Leone. It’s hard to convey in writing just how different it is here. Our goal was to provide some new skills and knowledge in leadership, classroom management, and other elements of teaching and running a school.

The leaders of the workshop included Marilyn, my dad, Hannah, and me as the American contingent. On the local side, we had Leonard Gbloh, the Director of Primary Education, Jemima, a head teacher at Ginger Hall, another teacher named Brima, and Rosalind and John. And on Thursday another visitor from the UMC Conference office named Elizabeth who spoke about financial management.

The work, as you might expect, was tiring, challenging, full of small miscommunications and veerings off course. But what I came away with was deep satisfaction, joy, and camaraderie, and the feeling that the teachers here truly appreciated us and the topics we covered. Following Marilyn’s lead, we went through discussions and group work about what makes a great teacher, what makes a great school, how to run a preschool, keeping schools safe, library skills, planning programs like sports and school gardens, and many others. I got to lead a session about using poetry in the classroom. And taught everyone the Hokey Pokey with Hannah.

The poetry session was a lot of fun. I showed them a limerick and a haiku and explained a few things about each. Then we all wrote our own poems, although I found it hard to convey that it should be an original poem, not “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “I see the moon, and the moon sees me. God bless the moon, and God bless me.” But when I was able to get them to write their own poetry, it was amazing to hear. One poem was something like “In a classroom, there are seven black men, two black woman, and one white man, and he is teaching me poetry.”

Our accents and our fluency with English made us hard for the teachers to understand. Leonard, as the local with probably the strongest English and familiarity with American culture, saved us several times and helped bridge the gap between us and the teachers. He’s a big guy with a voice like a thunderclap, a very dynamic speaker who was great at engaging the room.

During the breaks, I had a lot of fun being treated like a cross between Santa Claus, a rock star, and a live electric fence by the schoolchildren, who came near enough to me to wave and mutter “oputu” but were rarely bold enough to give me a high five. They love having their pictures taken, and I got a lot of great shots. On the second day a boy asked me my name, and when I told him I was Luke Bradford he said “You have a good name.” By today they were more courageous, touching me and even joining in a round of the Hokey Pokey. Reverend Elizabeth, the district superintendent, told me they’ll go home to their families and say “I touched a white man today, and his hands were so soft.”

We stayed at a nearby “guest house” (a hotel) at Mile 91. Our host, Sharka Deen, made us feel welcome and well taken care of. Like the Hotel 5-10, the place was luxurious for Sierra Leone, with power from a diesel generator from 7 pm to 7 am, AC, TVs, and fridges in the rooms. The one thing I missed was hot water in the shower. In the evenings, we went for a couple of sunset strolls down the highway outside. The setting sun looks incredibly different here: a bright, clear red circle, like the sun of an alien planet. We walked off the highway to see a small school and were trailed by an entourage of curious kids. Back at the guest house we played Oh Hell but were usually too tired to last very long.

On Thursday night, Dorcas, Julie, and Jeremy joined us from Freetown. The guest house has a wine bar/nightclub/conference hall, empty now except for plastic lawn chairs and card tables, but with fully functional disco lights and enormous speaker stacks. Our hosts were kind enough to blast some tunes (including the Party Rock Anthem) and we had fun dancing until we were too hot to continue. We were joined by two very small boys who declined to dance but stared at us with wide eyes.

This morning we concluded the workshop with another session of rotating stations with small groups: Hannah on God in the classroom, Leonard on teacher evaluations and promotions, my dad teaching how to make a histogram and scatter plot, and Dorcas presenting Days for Girls. As we worked, Don, John, and Harry arrived from Freetown. We gave the teachers certificates for their completion of the course, along with all the school supplies we had brought to donate, and said our goodbyes.

On the way to Bo we stopped briefly at schools in Mile 91 and Taiama that Don and Marilyn have worked at in the past. We’ve just arrived at our hotel in Bo, which is a very luxurious spot – beautiful rooms with balconies, WiFi, and a pool (which I’m jumping into as soon as I post this.) Blog photos are still not happening but I’ll post some Instagrams soon. Bye for now!

– Luke

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