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Saturday, September 29, 2007

SIERRA LEONE: Slowly Coming Back.

Most schools and school districts that Americans are familiar with are comfortable in their buildings, awash in books and loaded with state-of-the-art electronics, including computers and printers.

One of Saffa Koroma’s greatest dreams for the 300 schools he runs is an old-fashioned mimeograph machine.

Koroma, 59, is education secretary and associate director of Operation Classroom, a school system run by the United Methodist Church in the western African country of Sierra Leone.

The nation is only beginning to recover from a decade-long - 1991 to 2002 - war that some call a civil war and others call a war caused by rebels. In any case, tens of thousands died and about a third of the nation’s 6 million citizens were displaced.

Elementary and secondary schools in Sierra Leone, in which nearly seven out of 10 people live in poverty, are not run by the government, but by nongovernmental organizations and religious groups - most of them Christian of varying brands, but some Muslim, too.

Koroma indicates that there are few if any boundaries separating the educational efforts of the churches: “Everyone cooperates and gets along, and there isn’t any real competition. The young people need education and the various religious groups always have lived in friendship and harmony in Sierra Leone - even working ecumenically often.”

He noted that in addition to the UMC-run schools, other Christians sponsoring schools include Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and Wesleyans. A member of that latter evangelical denomination, Ernest Bai Koroma (no relation), this month was elected president of the country.

Said school-administrator Koroma: “We are society-based, caring for each other cooperatively.

“We have six government colleges that are available for teachers, and tuition is $250 to $300 a year, well out of the affordability range of almost any potential student,” Koroma said.

Yet it’s among his duties to recruit teachers who, when their education is complete, will earn only $30 a month to start. Even an experienced principal of a high-school-level institution will earn only between $150 to $200.

And so, for a school district that covets a mimeograph machine to reproduce and proliferate reading materials, outside help in terms of cash and donations of supplies is imperative.

Among the U.S. Operation Classroom project members are Puebloans John and Elaine Blinn and Les and Hope Law from Golden. Like all members of the team, the Blinns and Laws have secured the most basic of supplies for the school rooms - computers, books donated by schools, paper, pencils and pens. And they have raised funds, too, to buy materials or pay the shipping costs from gathering points in the United States to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.

The American UMC-Sierra Leone link has been in place since 1987, even though the war disturbed the process.


Saffa Koroma

The couples have traveled, at their own expense, to that African country to offer whatever help they can, including workshops and additional training for teachers.

Blinn, a retired Methodist minister and former district superintendent of the denomination in Southern Colorado, said that, “during the war, the schools, along with most other economic and social systems in the country, ground to a halt and it’s only since 2002 that we’ve been able to start making a comeback.”

Koroma added: "During the war, education was at best an ad hoc thing, taught wherever we could spirit the students away to a safe place for a few days.”

His role now, in addition to being an administrator, is to be a liaison between the schools and the government.

“I wind up explaining what the government needs to the schools, and what the schools need to the government,” he said.

In a school system in which classroom size is often 80 to 100 students, and supplies are limited, the participation of the Rocky Mountain District of the UMC in Operation Classroom is crucial.

Hope Law seems pleased when she reports that “we visited with teachers and students from Littleton’s Heritage High School and came away with $14,000 in funds and 2,000 books. Jefferson County schools also have been generous with supplies and books and a Littleton charter school donated 32 used computers that will begin to make a difference in the Makeni UMC schools.”

Makeni is a city about the size of Pueblo, located about 100 miles northeast of Freetown.

Les Law smiled broadly when he told about the response that was made by the elementary school in tiny Haxtun.

“There are only 1,000 people there, but after one of the Methodists in town told fellow teachers about the need, the students and teachers both responded with amazing generosity with books and many children’s books for our libraries.”

English is the official language in Sierra Leone, but is not all that much used in day-to-day life. Yet it is the language in which classes are taught and business is conducted, so the books in English are important, Law said.

Hope Law said that, while the youngsters are only beginning to be exposed to computers and the Internet, “they are excited to see what’s out there in the rest of the world and what’s possible for them and their country.”

Koroma and his wife, Agnes, a UMC minister, have five children of their own, “but I have taken in 10 others whom I regard as my children,” he said.

Koroma explained the purpose of his two-month trip throughout a wide variety of American cities: “I’ve come to thank Americans for their 20 years of support and, of course, to ask them to do even more.”

Koroma does not seem intimidated by the presence of American prosperity, but he pointedly asks whether, for the education of children, “we can allow a trickle of this wealth to fall to these people whose ancestors were once your slaves.”

The educator-administrator talked at two UMC congregations last weekend, and will continue his transcontinental trek on behalf of kids. And there are a lot of them: According to the Central Intelligence Agency, 45 percent of the population is younger than 14.

For anyone wanting more information or wanting to help, the Blinns may be contacted at 253-0400.

***THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN

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