Thursday, August 16, 2007

Life on the road with the Milton Margai School for the Blind - Part 1

Special report by Vandy Immurrana

The very first time that it was announced that I was going to fly out of Sierra Leone, my mother, who has spent her life farming and has never been to school, could not believe it. My mother had been badly affected by eleven years of civil war and lost her joy during her years of captivity with the rebels. But to think that her son would now come out of the country and contribute meaningfully as an ambassador representing her and the rest of the family abroad! After the initial disbelief, this idea brought happiness back to her life.

The year was 2003 and I was among the 30 members of the choir of the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown, Sierra Leone, aged between 9 and 25, chosen to spend three weeks touring the United Kingdom, singing in venues across the country, culminating in a performance at Westminster Abbey. The choir had become very well known at home through performing widely and even winning several music contests but the idea of taking the choir overseas came from Peter Penfold, British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone from 1997 to 1999.

During his term of office, Peter came to know the Milton Margai choir through their frequent singing and performances and soon became a friend of the school. He then took on the challenge of co-ordinating a tour of these children to the UK, in order to expand their knowledge in all aspects of life and to sensitise a wider public who had never had the opportunity to meet, see or hear blind people perform.

After months of preparations: of rehearsals, costume fittings, obtaining passports for 30 children who did not know their dates of birth and moving around informing our friends of our departure, we were ready to go. I felt so afraid – what if our plane was involved in an accident? Who would sit with my mother and encourage her?

Nothing was as I expected when we boarded the plane: there were strange seatbelts, and I found I could sit and be well entertained with films. I never imagined that people could move aboard the plane: I thought it would be like a motor car where you sit down and stay down but I was free to walk around. It was really amazing for me to then learn that there was a toilet on the plane and that they would serve me food while travelling. When the hostess asked what I would take, I asked for rice and cassava leaves, thinking I would be served the same food as I eat at home. But to the contrary I was given something I’d never had before – vegetables in little boxes - and I found it very difficult to eat.

Now, four years later, I find my self stepping onto an aeroplane again, this time more relaxed, heading through the skies back to the United Kingdom: it seems that the children who were part of the 2003 tour represented the country so well that there was the need for another tour!

As I write this article, we are again experiencing vast differences in the way that nations live. Almost every moment for us here is a moment of change.

The current tour started in a very historical venue, Canterbury Cathedral, and this was a historical event in the lives of the children. People come from all parts of the world to visit to the cathedral and it was a joy that children from Sierra Leone could join them. This kind of cathedral is never found in Africa, especially not in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone our biggest cathedral holds about three hundred people: compared to this, Canterbury is quite huge. And it was only through reading that we had learnt about personalities like King Henry II, who was murdered in the cathedral; having the opportunity to visit the site itself and to see his statue was something very different. (...)

(to be continued tomorrow 17th of August)