Building a future for children out of the ashes of war
Salakunda Primary School is a simple building in a quiet clearing of palm and mango trees in northern Sierra Leone. But its survival in Tambakha, an area ravaged by the horrors of civil war, is remarkable.
Back in 2009, with a population of some 9,000 primary-aged children, Tambakha had only three schools and two qualified teachers. One of the schools, Salakunda primary, had a thatched roof and space for 25 children. Built and staffed by untrained locals, it failed to reach the government's minimum standards for incorporation into the national schools system. Teachers were, therefore, unpaid and those who could afford to left to train and work in schools elsewhere.
But in the years since then a transformation has taken place. The UK charity Street Child, which aims to provide educational opportunities for children in West Africa, stepped in to help set up a number of temporary tarpaulin structures across Tambakha and attracted locals to teach by offering them wages.
One by one, the charity is replacing these shelters with permanent buildings and funding the volunteers' training so they can achieve a government-recognised teacher certificate qualification. Today, the area has 51 schools, 200 teachers and 4,800 children in education.
It was the charity's work with street children across the country that brought Salakunda to its attention. The decade-long civil war that swept across Sierra Leone until 2002 left about 50,000 children displaced, orphaned and living on the streets.
But young people who end up homeless today do so for a different reason. Some families in rural areas are so desperate to educate their children that, if there is no local school, they send them to live with relatives. It is an expensive solution that often ends in tragedy, as urban poverty and household disagreements can prompt children to run away.
One Tambakha town chief, Pa Adikalie Sorie Bangura, sent his 25 children to school in the nearby town of Kamakwie. It lies 20 miles away, across a wide river that swells and becomes impassable during the six-month rainy season.
"They lived with family and every month I provided a sack of rice," Mr Bangura said. "Unfortunately the risk if you send away girls is that they fall pregnant. That happened to three daughters who dropped out of school."
Salakunda was among the first villages to receive its interim shelter, which was converted to a permanent school in late 2013. It has three teachers, two of whom now hold government-approved minimum qualifications.
Volunteer teachers train for three years in the summer holidays at a college the charity opened in Kamakwie. Its location is a vast improvement on the only previous training option - a college in the city of Makeni, four hours away via a bumpy dirt track over the river.
John Momodu Kargbo, Street Child's regional coordinator and head of operations for rural education, said the organisation had to convince training providers to lower their entry requirements before local trainee teachers could be enlisted.
"Recruiting teachers in Tambakha is tough because education levels are so poor," he said. "But we need to hire locals as they are more likely to stay. We're aware the teaching they provide while training is sub-standard, but it's better than nothing."
The challenges facing the 186 children now attending Salakunda are similar to those facing young people across Sierra Leone. One teacher suggested that four out of 12 teenage girls in his class already had a husband lined up.
The sustainability of Salakunda primary depends on its residents. Having invested pound;12,000 to build the school and pound;1,000 a year to support its teachers, Street Child is trying out a seed bank investment scheme to enable parents to fund teachers' wages. This initiative lends rice and peanut seeds to families, who farm the produce and reinvest the profits in the school.
But the charity's primary aim is to convince the government to accept its schools as part of the mainstream system and pay the teachers' wages. Street Child offers a stipend of 120,000Leones (pound;16) a month - six times less than a government salary.
About a third of schools across Sierra Leone are not currently government-approved. But there is no formal application process for school approval and government finances are tight.
The charity's founder Tom Dannatt insisted that its schools already met national standards. "The government has a duty to fund the education of its children," he said. "It can't afford to build and train so we've done that. Now we're asking them to pay the wages."
Donations to Street Child will be matched by the UK government until 17 June. For more information, visit www.street-child.co.uk