Saturday, April 07, 2007

Our life in the village of Kent, Sierra Leone: a special report

DESPITE its great natural beauty and breathtaking beaches, life in the village of Kent, in Sierra Leone, is tough. Here, Sierra Leonean journalist MICHAEL DAVIES-VENN gives a special insight into village life for www.kentnews.co.uk. His account provides a clear illustration of how our campaign to send a tonne of schoolbooks to Kent can help their children enjoy a brighter future...


THE residents of Kent, a small village in Sierra Leone, are different in many ways, yet they all seem to have something in common: most of them have left Kent several times but have returned; everyone knows each other. And they all unreservedly demonstrate a sense of pride for their poor, quaint and quiet village tucked in the woods, about an hour from the capital Freetown.
“It’s my village and I’m very proud of it. Yes, it’s a very poor and difficult place to live, but I have a satisfied mind. Life is normal, we only live by fishing, and the fishing currently is very bad, so we’re a poor people. Let us don’t hide it. But it’s a beautiful place to be”, said Balogun Williams, 76.
The retired police officer, now community volunteer, who returned to Kent from Freetown, said there is no other place he could have gone. Parents are likely to hear from him if a child is consistently late for school. He would also be the one knocking on doors asking why a child has not been to school. He lives a few feet from the Rural Education Committee (REC) School, which has a disturbing past.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Kent was a base for slaves that were captured from surrounding villages. And it was during this period that the two churches in the village were built, along with a slave quarter. That building is now the only primary school in the village. Its foundation once a holding place for human cargo, awaiting a sea journey bound for England and the US.
“The dungeon is being preserved, but not in an extraordinary way. We feel it’s important for the history of Kent”, said Mr Williams. The wooden floor of the red brick building that was once a slave quarter has been replaced and its open floor-plan partitioned to create classrooms for the 100 children now attending school here. Generations have gone through the doors, once closely guarded by slave owners, to complete primary education before having to trek out of the village daily to continue schooling elsewhere.
“I spend a lot of money in transportation to make that possible each week. This is why it’s necessary for us to get a secondary school,” said Phebean Henry, 49. And the need for one had been there when she attended REC school, while her two children studied there and during the time her husband was its headmaster. But the need is still unfulfilled.

It was 200 years ago that Britain outlawed slavery, but here in Kent the schoolyard is still called “slave yard” and it is here Mrs Henry says another building could be built alongside the Portuguese-built colonial building that’s now the primary school. However, the cash-strapped government has no such plans.
Sierra Leone has known peace only four years and its economy is depressed, leaving areas like Kent starving for very basic needs. Schoolteacher Denis Moore, 50, spoke of the realities of life at the school. “One of the most daily painful experiences I get at school is seeing children sit in class and not doing classwork. And when I ask them why aren’t they working, they say I don’t have a pen or book. That makes me really sad. I don’t like seeing that happening,” said Mr Moore.
The situation might be better since Mr Moore has a wall to use as a blackboard, though he says he’s in dire need for books and other teaching materials, such as charts.
The 40 children attending the nearby pre-school are using empty food cans to play educational games with.
Christiana Sesay, 25, is also a teacher and says she likes playing games with her students but that they don’t have any educational games. “The kids I teach like numbers, so it would be useful for me to be able to get games that are based on numbers”, she said.
Despite the pervasive poverty here residents, simply out of pride for Kent, continue to pull together to keep life going.
But what the villagers in Kent are most pleased about hangs several feet above their heads – coconuts.
“I’m very proud to say I’m from Kent and this is Kent coconut”, Mrs Henry says.  The fourth oldest person in Kent, she has been fielding requests for her homemade coconut oil for over two decades. “I do not make enough money from it, but I do love doing it very much”, says Eleanor Palmer, 69. And when she’s not up until 3am grating coconut, she’s taking care of children at the pre-school.  
They also take pride in their beach. Sierra Leone has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world but tourists who’ve been to Kent described this beach as a natural wonder. Unlike many of the other beaches in the country, cared for by underpaid government staff, the beach in Kent is cleaned daily by the youths in the village who spend the rest of their time fishing in the ocean, which saved Kent from the destruction the rest of Sierra Leone saw during 11 years of war.
At 84, Abioseh George Harding is the oldest Kent resident, but when rebels terrorised Kent he was one of the few people who did not flee to neighbouring Banana Island. He was the village headman. “Every evening I will go into the bush and hide. And come out in the early hours of the morning,” Mr Harding said. He believes the rebels did not enter Kent, because if they did they would have been trapped as the only other exit out of the village was the sea.

But Kent has not been spared by the dire consequences of the effects of more than a decade of war that could be seen across the country. The situation is made much worse here because Kent is far removed from the capital Freetown, which has the attention of the government.
There are no shops in Kent and the local economy is very much informal. But Mr Williams says that is changing slowly because “our brother George Labor is now taking Kent to higher heights”. Mr Labor is not from Kent, nor has he spent much of his life in Sierra Leone. But he is a force for change in the village.
“When I retired from the UN, I went to Manchester University and started a doctorate on post-conflict development. Added to that I was also looking at poverty alleviation in rural areas. My objective was to come back home and to see how I can best help in my own small way at addressing the issue of poverty in Sierra Leone. I’ve decided to contribute by developing this outfit,” Mr Labor said.
The “outfit”, Sengbeh Pieh Holiday Resort, named after a former slave taken from Sierra Leone to the US, has been changing Kent and the lives of the people here. Its traditional en-suite round chalets with thatched bamboo rooftops were built with local hands and Mr Labor says he has “about 50 people on the payroll now which for a small village like Kent is quite substantial”. 
Mr Labor says he’s trying to activate the dormant economy of the village and would soon begin sea excursions to the neighbouring islands of Turtle, Bonthe, Banana, Maroon and Bunce, and a bus tour once he has found tour operators from Europe ready to invest. Meanwhile, Sengbeh Pieh Holiday Resort is a regular spot for the contingent of expatriates and the few tourists trickling into Sierra Leone. 
Mrs Henry said development like Sengbeh Pieh Holiday Resort is paving the way to restoring their village to its former glory. She hopes that one day the village will get “a nice community centre, a secondary school and an improved health-centre. All these are the things that I would be praying to see in my lifetime, by the grace of God”. 
The kentnews website and Kent on Sunday newspaper have collected nearly one tonne of books and educational materials, donated by our readers. Transportation is being arranged.

Michael Davies-Venn lives and works in the US and is currently in Sierra Leone working as a media consultant with the United Nations Development Programme.

Link to Our life in the village of Kent, Sierra Leone: a special report