The school that took 3 years to build

It all sounded so simple.

“This school is falling down. The students need a new one. Let’s help the community build it.”

We first heard about the Ronietta School’s challenges back in 2013. When the passionate Head Teacher, Mr Kargbo (below, with some of our Scholarship Girls in Ronietta), asked our in-country team to see if they could do something about the school building.

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It was in disrepair, with cracks appearing across the roof, walls falling down – posing danger to the students who went there. The Ronietta community had already gone to the Sierra Leone government. And appealed to other organisations. But no one would listen to their campaign for a new school.

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It wasn’t the first time that the Ronietta community had needed a new school.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone destroyed many of the country’s buildings and infrastructure. Rebel soldiers would often target government buildings like hospitals and schools, burning them to the ground. During the war most school buildings and facilities were severely destroyed or vandalised- including school furniture being looted or damaged. Ronietta’s school one was of the ones damaged during the conflict.

When we visited Ronietta a few years ago, Mr Kargbo told about us about how the community banded together after the war. And one of the first things they rebuilt was the school. They knew how important education would be to start the healing process after the conflict had ceased.

With no government funding and little resources, the Ronietta community built the school themselves using whatever they could find. The structure wasn’t much, but it was at least a place for their children to learn. For the future generations to start again. For the healing to begin after the war.

But the simple mudbrick structure wasn’t strong enough to stand up to the annual monsoon rains. Cracks appeared in the walls, the ceiling began to cave in, and the school was deemed unsafe to be open. With no other schools for miles around, the Ronietta community knew that a new school building was the only way forward.

So we decided to do something to help.

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A new school, a new future

We built a mini-campaign around it just in time for Christmas, asking people to give up their presents and help give the children of Ronietta the best present ever – a new school.

Our amazing friends at TOM Organic jumped on board and pledged to fund the building of a toilet. School Awesomisation isn’t just about classroom building, in fact the first thing we built as part of this project was adding a toilet to an existing school in a nearby community.

Not having a proper classroom to learn in is a barrier to education, but even something as simple as not having toilet facilities can stop students, especially girls, from attending school. In the nearby community of Magbafth we heard stories of students getting bitten by snakes because they had to wander into bushes to go to the bathroom. So in building this new school at Ronietta, we knew we needed to provide toilets too.

We partnered with CORD-Sierra Leone, an established local implementing partner.

Before starting on their construction projects, CORD organises community consultation meetings so they can listen and understand the community’s needs, ensuring the project has their full support. After all, in the end – it won’t be CORD’s school, or One Girl’s school – it will always be Ronietta’s school.

Going through this process also ensures that the community take care of the school and they have ownership over it – it helps combat things like stealing and misuse of the materials purchased to build the school. CORD also makes sure to establish community support to ensure the ongoing maintenance of the buildings. No use having a new school building if it isn’t maintained over time!

School Management Committees (SMCs) are also set up and trained on policies of standards and maintenance. And CORD facilitates the creation of Mothers’ Clubs, which are responsible for the monitoring of girls’ school attendance and help to ensure that girls in the community are supported by their families to complete their education at the primary school, and continue onto secondary school. Which is seriously awesome.

Basically, everything looked like it was going according to plan.

Implementing partner, check.
Community consultation and support, check.
Funding, check.

And then, Ebola happened.

After the government declared a state of emergency, restrictions on movement across the country meant building materials were hard to transport into the community, causing a major halt in the construction process.

Getting the equipment and materials for the construction into Ronietta (which is in a rural area of Sierra Leone) meant an increase in cost to hire vehicles and to obtain passes for them to enter. Another challenge was finding skilled workers from outside Ronietta that were able to relocate to the community to actually build the school itself.

CORD worked closely with the Chief and community leaders to grant special permission for these workers to be accepted into the community, otherwise the work couldn’t happen. Then CORD also started educating the workers about Ebola-prevention so they could prevent further cases of the virus in Ronietta. All these things were tasks that fell outside the original scope of the project, but needed to be added to respond to the changing situation.

And so over the span of over a year the long construction process began, was delayed, and then began again. Pause. Continue. Pause. Continue. And for a while we just weren’t sure when the construction would be completed.

Then a few months ago we got the email saying that the Ronietta School had in fact been completed. And in even better news, it was just in time for our planned Monitoring and Evaluation trip to Sierra Leone. We were thrilled we’d be able to go there and see the school open and the students enjoying it! Sounds great, right?

But when we got there, we saw a beautiful brand new school building and toilet…. Empty. In another plot twist, when we got there, the school was closed.

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It seems that the school building and toilets hadn’t been opened due to uncompleted furniture. CORD was waiting on a final payment from us. And we were waiting on a financial report from them. And the Ronietta community were waiting on the furniture in order to have the Education Ministry officially open the school. And the school itself couldn’t be used until it had been officially opened!

That’s a whole lot of waiting.

Once we figured all this out we were able to sort out all miscommunication, and during a short in-person meeting between CORD and our team we were able to uncross all the wires.

It’s super common for misunderstandings to occur between organisations and implementing partners when you’re communicating via email, across many timezones, and navigating cultural differences. Plus with them being literally on the other side of the world you can’t just pop over to their office for a chat.

It can definitely get a little messy. And it happens all the time in International Development… even if it’s not widely spoken about. After all, people want to fast forward to the end result with a pretty picture and neat summary of how the project was implemented on time and under budget. And to be honest, if that was the case we’d LOVE to share that story – but it’s not the reality of our work.

But now (FINALLY) we’re excited to announce that this saga has a happy ending.

Soon after chatting with CORD, reports were finalised, payment was approved, and a timeline of one month confirmed for the opening.

(During our visit Emmanuel and Mr Kargbo modelled the plaques we had made to get us even more excited for when the school would officially be opened)

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And just last week we received an email letting us know that the school has been opened! The community had an opening ceremony, with the whole Ronietta village and surrounding communities coming out to see this historic event. And Emmanuel, our amazing Project Co-ordinator, was there to cut the ribbon. Here are some (blurry, but awesome!) photos taken from the grand Opening Ceremony!

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A school built by many hands

It was truly a collaborative effort. So many people made it possible.

From Ronietta’s Head Teacher, Mr Kargbo, who had relentlessly petitioned for the school to be rebuilt. Who wouldn’t give up till he saw it opened. We can only imagine the relief, joy, and satisfaction he would have felt, walking into the classroom that day knowing it had all been worth it.

To the parents, teachers, and village leaders who oversaw the construction, attended all the consultations and meetings, and took ownership of the project from the very beginning.

To our partners CORD-SL who persevered through the unexpected and dramatic challenges of the Ebola outbreak, and saw the construction through till the end.

And of course – to our incredible One Girl community who rallied around this cause.

To our Do It In A Dress’ers, One Girl Ambassadors, and our fundraisers who gave up Christmas presents to build a school. YOU made this possible – this school exists because you took action.

But most of all, the success and school belongs to the Ronietta community as a whole. The school they had fought so long and so hard for is finally here. Their children now have somewhere safe to learn, and grow, and be educated.

Seriously, this is a pretty incredible “before and after” moment.

From this….

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To this….

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And we can’t forget the toilet…

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The Ronietta school story tells us a lot about the nature of International Development. About the fact that it is messy. That progress can often be slow, and frustrating. That plans need to change and be flexible. And also that seemingly ‘simple’ solutions prove to be complex in reality.

One of the lines of our Manifesto says,

“We’re committed. We’re in for the long-haul. Change takes time. We don’t expect overnight solutions”

And the reality is that three years to build a school IS a long time. But the impact that the school will have goes beyond 3 years, it’s something that will last for generations. Now that it’s finally open, it’s time to celebrate.

And that’s the kind of work we’re committed to. We’re so glad you’re here for the ride!

2 Comments

  • Clare Crunden says:

    Absolutely inspirational……….congratulations to all concerned. I truly hope many young persons have the opportunity to make a difference in their communities and across the world with the education they will receive. Good Luck

    • Larissa Ocampo says:

      Thanks Clare! We think the Ronietta community are pretty inspiring too – to have fought so long and hard for a new school for their children, and we’re so humbled to have been able to play a part in making it a reality! Looking forward to sharing more stories of how this school is benefiting the community in the years to come! 🙂

      – Larissa

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