Mr Kargbo couldn’t believe what he was hearing. After all they’d been through – after all the horrors that they’d seen – were they going to lose the school again?
Mr Kargbo is the Head Teacher at the community school in Ronietta. For him, it’s not just a job – it’s a mission. He’s on a mission to educate the children of his community, to equip them with knowledge to go out and reach their full potential. And he’d just been told the Government of Sierra Leone was planning to shut down the school – his school.
He’d lost his school once before. It was during the Civil War in Sierra Leone. Rebel soldiers tore through his home town of Ronietta in rural Sierra Leone, burning down houses and destroying the only school in the community.
Mr Kargbo knows what was lost during the war – it wasn’t just lives and buildings – it was hope.
He saw first hand the long-lasting effects that destroying the schools had. He saw a generation of children denied an education. And he knew that inflicted more damage than anything bullets and tanks ever could.
A few years ago when Mr Kargbo took us around the Ronietta community, he showed us the places where houses once stood.
The grass was long and wild in these parts, but you can still imagine the row of houses standing there. When the fighting stopped the community members didn’t rebuild the houses, but Mr Kargbo showed what they did choose to rebuild – the school.
It was the community’s pride and joy – this humble little mudbrick structure. As a community they stood together and fought back, but it wasn’t through violence. Their weapons weren’t guns or weapons – they were bricks and mortar. They weren’t physical things, but ideas – the pursuit of knowledge, and the hope of education.
They built the school themselves using whatever they could find. The structure wasn’t much, but it was a place for their children to learn. For the next generation to start again.
And for a number of years it did just that. Mr Kargbo was helping create something in his community, and after the horrors of war – it felt like the beginnings of a better future for his students, his community, and maybe even his country.
But after several rainy seasons damage began to set in. Water leaked into the mudbricks and created large cracks in the walls and ceiling. Large pieces of the wall crumbled, some even falling onto students as they played outside.
The building was deemed unsafe by the government, and they were told that without a new structure, the school would be closed.
Mr Kargbo and the Ronietta community were faced with losing their school for a second time.
Ronietta is more than 2 hours drive from any neighbouring community, so without their only school hundreds of students would be left without a place to learn.
They had fought for it before. They had built the school, literally with their own hands, because they knew that every brick was laying the foundation for a better future for their children.
Mr Kargbo wouldn’t give up on the school – he simply couldn’t accept that a faulty building would stand in the way of him teaching his students. That was not the kind of man he was.
So the community came together, trying to find a solution. Perhaps they could build another school – the same way they had done ten years earlier? But they knew the building couldn’t last through the rainy seasons – it would simply be another short-term solution.
And Mr Kargbo wasn’t interested in the short-term. He was thinking forward, to the generations of children who would be educated in the school. It needed to be strong and made of materials that the community themselves couldn’t afford.
So they made the decision to seek outside help – and Mr Kargbo came to us. They made their case for the school, for what it would mean for Ronietta’s children, and for what it meant for their community’s future.
We heard the passion in Mr Kargbo’s voice – and we saw the determination in his eyes. This was a man on a mission – he would stop at nothing to make sure his community had a school that would stand for years to come.
At the time, we’d never built a school in Sierra Leone before. We’d built a toilet block in another community, Magbafth, but never an entire school. It was unchartered waters. We’d have to find a local partner to carry out construction, and of course – raise the funds.
It wouldn’t be easy – but we knew we had to do it. Hearing Mr Kargbo’s impassioned case for the school, seeing the dilapidated school that was (literally) falling apart, and hearing stories of the students in the community turning up to school every single day despite the Government’s warnings that it was unsafe – we knew we had a role to play in this story.
So we got to work. We created a new brand new campaign around the Ronietta school – called I Don’t Want A Present – asking people to give up their Christmas presents and instead help Ronietta build a school. We had our wonderful friends at TOM Organic pledge to help build a toilet at the school. Then we auctioned off sets of tables and chairs at our Gala last year to help cover the costs of fitting out the school. And lastly called on our amazing community to once again wear a school dress and raise money through Do It In A Dress.
After almost a year of fundraising, we had raised enough to build the school. We’d found an established local partner – CORD Sierra Leone – to lead the construction. We drew up the plans. We assembled the teams. It was all set to go – Mr Kargbo would at last be getting the school he had long dreamed of.
And then, Ebola happened.
Like the Civil War years before, it threw Sierra Leone into a country-wide catastrophe. But this time the threat didn’t come in the form of bullets, and rebels and tanks – it was a deadly virus. Thousands of people died, and continue to fall ill. It wreaked havoc on the healthcare and education systems. It halted the economy. Life, as Sierra Leoneans knew it, was unrecognisable.
For those who weren’t directly touched by the Ebola virus – either by being infected themselves, or having loved ones fall ill – their lives were impacted by the skyrocketing food prices. Or the strict quarantines on movement across towns and districts in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Schools were shut down. Markets were left empty. Streets desolate.
The Ronietta community was spared from being directly affected by Ebola, but progress on the school building was delayed. The quarantines put in place prevented the transportation of materials into the community, and significantly limited the mobilisation of the construction team itself. Mr Kargbo and his students had no idea how long it would take for the construction to begin.
There were also bigger questions about how long the Ebola outbreak would take to be contained. The war had robbed Sierra Leone of over 10 years of productive, peaceful life – how long would it take to stamp out Ebola?
But as always, the resilience of Mr. Kargbo and the Ronietta community prevailed.
Just two weeks ago, we’ve received some amazing news. We’re excited to report that construction on the school has finally begun! We got our very first report from our local construction partner, CORD in last week – and we’re thrilled to be able to share it with you today.
As you can see the foundation has been laid, and we have the beginnings of some walls! Yes, the photos are grainy – but we couldn’t wait to share them with you (that’s how excited we are).
As Mr Kargbo finally sees the school he imagined in his mind for so long being constructed, we’re reminded of the power of education to make a lasting impact. This is a school that will stand for generations – and in all likelihood Mr Kargbo won’t even be around to see all of the impact his time teaching at the school in Ronietta will have.
There is a brilliant Proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Mr Kargbo is one of those men. His determination and passion to see education flourish in his community will leave a legacy that lasts well beyond his own.
We know that education changes lives. We know that education transforms communities. And Mr Kargbo knows it better than most – he’s seen it first hand. He knows how powerful it is.
While on the surface it may seem like we’re simply replacing a run-down building, Mr Kargbo knows we’re really planting a seed and nurturing an idea that will live for generations. The education that the girls and boys of Ronietta will receive in the four walls of the school will change the way they live their lives as soon as they step outside the classroom, and it’ll impact their families, their children, and their entire community for years after they’ve graduated.
What we’re really building here is much more than a school. Along with Mr Kargbo, the amazing Ronietta community, and our awesome tribe of changemakers (that’s you) – we’re helping to build a new future.