The day my life changed - They held a knife to his throat. That's when I knew our stay in Africa was over

4th February 2011 at 00:00

I suppose I was naive. My husband Nigel and I were just married when we went to Sierra Leone to work with VSO. It was 1977 and the country had not yet erupted into violence, but poverty was everywhere.

The extreme heat was sapping and our work often frustrating. Nigel was trying to teach woodwork and metalwork with virtually no wood and even less metal.

I had just finished my BEd in primary education in the UK and when I arrived in Sierra Leone, I started work at a Catholic girls' secondary school teaching English and drama. The girls were in classes of at least 40, but discipline problems were virtually non-existent. The nuns were fantastic, dedicated and fun, while the girls were hard-working, polite and determined to get a good education.

When we had been there for about four months, we were invited to the home of American missionaries in the capital, Freetown. It was 200 miles from Kenema, where we worked, and we travelled on the only proper road in the entire country.

The poverty in Freetown was even more shocking than in rural areas. Beggars crowded around the entrance to the supermarket, many with fingers missing due to the ravages of leprosy. Burglary was on the rise and a few people had reported being robbed on the beach. But, generally, it was still considered a safe environment.

We were with a big group of volunteers from the UK and the US for a beach barbecue, but had to leave early to join our hosts. We left the beach along a narrow path through some dense foliage.

Suddenly, the path became crowded. Two bare-chested men stepped out from the trees with rocks in their hands.

I still didn't cotton on and stepped aside so they could pass. But then I heard Nigel shout and turned to see him, ashen-faced, being confronted by a third man who was holding a knife against his throat.

They took everything - crash helmets, money, rucksacks, camera. Then they noticed my wedding rings. I made a valiant but futile effort to resist. One man roughly uncurled my fingers to take them, then ripped the band on my watch and took that too. We were not physically harmed, but the threat of violence was shocking. We later heard tales of others who were not so lucky.

The robbery changed everything. I never really recovered, though I tried to carry on teaching. I felt there was potential disaster around every corner. Before that, Nigel had caught a mild form of malaria and we also had a serious motorcycle accident. I felt stressed and ill and we became worried for our health, so we decided to come home.

Soon after, I was offered a job working in a language centre in Sheffield teaching immigrant children English. I had been on a couple of VSO courses for teaching English as a foreign language and I had been really inspired by them.

Even after all these years, my experience in Sierra Leone has made me appreciate life in the UK, especially the fact that every child has the opportunity to go to school.

I suppose I was young and wasn't ready for the experience overseas, but I think everyone should visit a country like Sierra Leone. Most people there were happy and generous, despite the extreme conditions and poverty.

While we were there, a local boy worked for us. He was 19 at the time, and hadn't been to school. We sent him money from the UK to support his education. It turned his life around and he became a teacher. We lost contact and I am horrified by the thought that he might have been killed in the civil war. He would be about 50 now. I hope he's still teaching.

Stella Baker was talking to Meabh Ritchie. If you have an experience to share, email

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