Letters from the front line

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Visually impaired pupils in Sevenoaks and war-torn Sierra Leone are tackling conflict resolution and disability rights together and keep in contact using Braille machines. Martin Bentham reports

The class is told to imagine they are in Sierra Leone when the civil war has ended. The vicious fighting in which innocent people have been killed or brutally maimed has stirred up hatred, but many of the fighters were children forced into battle.

The teacher asks:"How would you ensure the child soldiers from rival factions can return home in peace to their villages and regain their childhood?"

The teenagers raise their hands enthusiastically to answer. "You would need patience," says Kyle Jones, a 15-year-old boy sitting, like all his classmates, behind a Braille machine. "You could get them to help rebuild the village together, but you would need to stick with it to get them properly back into society."

Katie Healey, another member of the class at Dorton House school near Sevenoaks, in Kent, suggests that counselling might help, but agrees that a collaborative project would also be beneficial: "I would get the boys to work with other people and dig a well so that they would be working as a team and do something that would get them welcomed back into the village."

Ricky Blair, 16, advocates a similar, although more male approach. "I would organise a football match so that the village all had to pull together as a team," he says, beaming as the other children signal their support for his idea.

It might be an imaginative lesson at most schools except that for the boys and girls of Dorton House, a special school for children who are blind or partially sighted, their discussion is based on what they have learnt first-hand from their peers at Milton Margai school, in Freetown, the capital of the West African state of Sierra Leone, that until recently was blighted by a vicious 11-year conflict.

Links between the two schools were first set up in 1998, when the Sierra Leone war was still raging, and began with penfriend letter exchanges and reciprocal visits by staff.

Earlier this year, the twinning scheme reached a new level when five children from Milton Margai, accompanied by two staff, came for a fortnight's visit that the Dorton House pupils and staff still recall vividly and with excitement. "The moment when our pupils first met their penfriends was moving," recalls head Jude Thompson. "It was a thoroughly enriching experience for everybody involved. Both groups have learnt so much from each other."

During their visit, the children from Sierra Leone, who also suffer from visual impairment, joined in concerts, went strawberry picking and visited Thorpe Park with their counterparts from Dorton House. At other times they chatted about mutual teenage interests - music, fashion and relationships, to learn about their respective cultures.

Time was also spent talking about the experiences of the Freetown pupils, one of whom was deliberately blinded with molten plastic during the war because her persecutors thought she was crying too much after her father had been shot, to learn more about how conflicts arise and how they can be resolved.

"It would be wrong to say that there were great shining lights that descended," says Sally Howell, Dorton's humanities co-ordinator, on the visit. "But it was an incredibly fulfilling fortnight for everyone, totally memorable, and something that the children will never forget."

So successful has Dorton House been in using the first-hand accounts given during the visit and in letters that pupils regularly exchange, that the school has recently won a TESHSBC Make the Link Special School Award for its work on conflict resolution and disability rights.

The school's lessons have focused not just on Sierra Leone, but also on how to resolve domestic disputes, such as those between neighbours (over the height of hedges, noise and parking spaces), and inter-generational, racial and religious conflicts in urban areas, such as the recent clashes in Birmingham, as well as international clashes, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The pupils at Dorton, aged five to 16, have found their links with Sierra Leone inspiring as they seek to draw lessons on how to defuse disputes and what can happen when things go wrong. "We hear about conflict in the news every day, but it becomes surreal and it is hard to relate to," says Ben Stingmore, 15. "So getting to meet someone who has lived through it really brought it home to me. It makes you realise how small conflicts can escalate."

Kyle, adds: "We are learning from people who we have met talking about eyewitness accounts of what happened. At first, out of respect, I didn't ask one of the boys about what it was like because I thought it would be too sensitive, but he said that I could and he was very willing to talk about it. When he told me, what he said made me realise how real it all was."

The point is emphasised by Ms Howell, who is convinced that direct contact is invaluable. "For most people, 80 per cent of what you learn is through your eyes, but if you have impaired vision your knowledge of the world around you is much more fragmented, so our job is to give the children as many real experiences as we can," she says. "It shows them that these things happen to real people and shows them what the consequences are of not resolving conflicts."

Another bonus from the links forged between Milton Margai and Dorton House has been to stimulate the British children to learn and write about disability rights and discrimination. This was prompted by a locally produced book used by the Freetown children which tells the story of how one blind and one deaf child overcome discrimination and bullying to excel at school.

In turn, Year 11 children at Dorton House have produced their own story of how a blind pupil is at first looked down upon by his classmates but then becomes their saviour as the only person able to cope when an underground train breaks down and the route is plunged into darkness - because, as a Braille reader, he is able to read and perform songs without the light which others find essential. The school is looking for ways to have the story published so it can be used more widely.

In February, there will be a 10-day return visit and the opportunity to learn even more when a handful of pupils from the Sevenoaks school, funded by a grant from the Department for International Development, will travel to visit their penfriends in Freetown.

Both schools continue to face problems as they attempt to strengthen their links. Pen letters, because they are in Braille, cannot be emailed and are instead sent via the British Council, while email and telephone connections for the staff, who can use them, are either erratic, or expensive, or both.

Similarly, the expense of taking children is high, about pound;1,000 per child, because their lack of sight and, in some cases, other disabilities can result in higher care, transport and accommodation costs.

Mary Berg, the school's key stages 3 and 4 co-ordinator, who has already visited Milton Margai, agrees that the benefits have been immense. "What we are trying to get over with this project is that the boys and girls from Sierra Leone are young people with the same hopes and dreams as children the world over - it's just that conflict has helped to make their lives very different," she says.

"We can't take everyone to Sierra Leone, but what this link is doing is broadening all the children's horizons, and that is so valuable."

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