Stepping off the plane at 4 AM in Lungi, Sierra Leone, two things hit me immediately. First was the heat – the air is so heavy that it feels like you’re breathing through a warm, wet towel. The second thing was the emptiness – while Freetown is surrounded by large mountains, Lungi is very flat and I could see far, far into the distance without the glow of electricity to obscure the view.
Travelling to Sierra Leone and Uganda for a Monitoring and Evaluation trip, I knew I was going to be busy – really busy. Our Programs Manager, Anita, and myself were meeting with new partners, checking on the progress of all our programs, and doing 2017 planning with our team on the ground in Sierra Leone. It was a lot to race through in just just over two weeks.
And it did not have an ideal start.
Firstly, getting to Freetown is no small feat. We began by flying from Melbourne to Perth, Perth to Doha, Doha to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Casablanca, and finally to Lungi, a small town a ferry ride away from Freetown. That’s two days just to get there.
As always happens when you’re about to embark on a big, important trip – the airline lost my luggage. I’m not just talking a few books and changes of clothes – they lost EVERYTHING. My medications for the trip like malaria tablets, any clothing not already on my body, even my travel diary!
Armed with a $50 reimbursement in the Casablanca international terminal, I purchased the only spare clothing on offer: Victoria Secret underwear with phrases written across the butt like “only an angel sometimes” and “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir”.
A few hours later I arrived in Freetown carrying my laptop, a book and some really fancy underwear.
Despite the unexpected start to the trip, Anita and I had no time to waste. We spent the next week in meetings with our in-country team and visiting the schools and community groups we work in. Programs trips are hard to plan and harder to describe. One second you’re waist deep in budgets, and the next you’re watching some students perform a play on the correct way to use a pad…
One of the highlights was meeting with Zainab, Emmanuel and Christiana – our dynamic and hardworking Sierra Leone staff team!
Part of my job while we were travelling from school to school was to squeeze in interviews with some of our scholarship girls. By nature, I can be a pretty awkward person under pressure. I have a tendency to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind and I can’t hold a camera straight to save my life, but these interviews were one of the highlights of my trip. Every story was different, and yet speaking to each girl I found a consistent thread of resilience and hope for the future.
At one of the schools we visited I met Saffie.
Saffie is one of our newest school-based LaunchPad Champions, which means she’s been given training in menstrual health and hygiene management and equipped to spread the word about it amongst her peers. While I spoke to her about her life and the LaunchPad program she glowed with pride telling me what she’d learned. She was so articulate and earnest, and I couldn’t help but compliment her on how confidently she spoke.
“What would you like to do when you finish school?”
“I’d like to be a journalist. I want to share with others the things I am learning and what we can do to make our communities better.”
I had to turn away for a moment to gather myself. Saffie’s words felt so familiar – her desire to speak out.
I felt like I was talking to my 15 year-old self.
Saffie’s life is not easy. She has faced challenge after challenge to be where she is today. But she is so determined to go further, and do more. Not just for herself – but for her family and community. Saffie imagines a better world for the people around her.
Meeting the girls and hearing stories like Saffie’s were so important throughout my trip. Her optimism was an antidote to a whole host of other emotions I was feeling.
It’s probably not something I’m supposed to say, but there are moments when I lose my hope.
Travelling across Sierra Leone it’s impossible to ignore the scale of the problem. Every school we visited was in need of basic facilities. Every community we travelled to had families unable to support their children. For every girl I met who was back in school, there were another ten hoping desperately for the same opportunity.
That need was like a dead weight on my chest every night when I went to bed.
This is the reality of the work that we do. It’s the reality of the countries we work in, and of the lives of the girls who live there. This reality includes Saffie, and yet in a moment where that was terrifying and overwhelming me, here she was smiling and telling me how she was going to change it.
It was her words that I needed to open my eyes a little wider and see a different reality. I saw the thousands of girls who were given opportunities through our programs last year. I saw the 28 girls who graduated from school last year through our support. I saw the thriving businesses started by women who participated in our Business Brains program. I saw hundreds of students in the Ronietta community and surrounding area that finally had a safe building they could learn in because of the construction we funded. I saw the real and tangible change that education had on every single one of the women and girls we reached in 2016.
But it doesn’t end there.
I also saw our vision for 2017 – all of the things we’d been planning with our team and partners on the ground. We are doubling the number of Girls’ Clubs through our Business Brains program which means a huge opportunity for literally hundreds of girls unable to go to school. We are investing in more LaunchPad Champions in schools to reach further with our menstrual health and hygiene management training for young women. And we are developing our Alumni program that celebrates the fact that each year more and more of our scholarship girls are graduating from high school. We’ve also signed with a new partner in Uganda, Bulogo Womens’ Group, and we’re piloting a program that we hope will reach thousands of girls and women in rural Uganda.
Anita and I with some of the incredible Bulogo team
I haven’t let go of that vision – I can see 2017 so clearly and I’m bloody stoked. That might seem like a bit of a ridiculous emotion given it’s only February, but I mean it. More than anything what I take away from my trip is that creating change requires a whole lot of planning and hard work, but it has to start with hope. I am filled with hope, for 2017 and beyond.
This is only the start, we have so much world changing left to do.
Let’s get to work.