And so as not to disappoint the ancient philosopher, naturalist and most of all Fleet Commander of the Imperial Roman Navy, Gaius Plinius, popularly known as Pliny the Elder, here comes something the world has never heard of, out of Africa, of course, and specifically out of Sierra Leone – FRREE EDUCATION. Why didn’t Davidson Nicol, the man who knew everything in my time growing up in God’s Favorite Country (SL) think of this? Why didn’t Abdul Karim Bangura, the prolific Sierra Leonean author, Islamic and Judeo-Christian scholar, mathematician and professor extra-ordinary, the only man I know of with five earned PhD’s, whose former students at American University include the current president of Sierra Leone, His Excellency Julius Maada Bio, think of this? Or perhaps Drs. Nicol and Bangura did think of this and it was left to Bangura’s protégé, President Bio to actually make this his flagship national policy.
It has been said by one of my own mentors, industrialist and automotive magnate, Henry Ford, that no one gets famous for what they plan to do. After all, President Bio’s immediate predecessor, President Ernest Bai Koroma, will probably never get famous for his brand new international airport at Mamama which he christened two weeks before he left office. Unless the gods are completely crazy, no one will ever actually make good on Koroma’s white elephant project. And President Koroma’s predecessor, His Excellency Ahmad Tejan Kabah, will certainly not get famous for his much debated ten-mile bridge across the Sierra Leone River from Tagrin Terminal at Lungi International Airport to Kissy Terminal in Freetown. All because neither President Koroma’s new airport nor President Kabah’s bridge are either economically justifiable or technically feasible, or both.
Back to President Bio’s free education program. This is not meant to discourage the President in any way. Growing up in the 1950s we were told even by some scientists that it was impossible for humans to go to the moon. But nobody told that to the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In a speech in Houston, Texas in September 1962 Kennedy announced “We propose that before this decade is out to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely.” And in July 1969 the month I graduated from high school – before the decade was over – American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. They also used to say that Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, was simply impossible to climb. But again no one told that to Sir Edmund Hillary when he did it in 1953. So who is to say that President Bio will not be able to come up with the ways and means to provide sustainable free primary and secondary education to 2.4 million school-aged children in Sierra Leone? The key word here is SUSTAINABLE. Begging the International Monetary Fund or the African Development Bank for loans for free education is not a sustainable program. There is certainly a grave need for a war on illiteracy in the country. According to a recent international survey, Sierra Leone ranks 47 out of 54 African countries in adult literacy. Only 35 percent of persons 18 years and older can read or write in English, the official language of the country.
But the question one must ask before we embark on a proverbial bridge to nowhere is, what exactly is free education? The American public education system is paid for by all the taxpayers in each school district. What is free is that the parents of individual students do not pay school fees. If you own property or earn a living in a particular school district, part of your taxes goes to pay, among other things, the public school system in your district. These taxes are supplemented especially for poorer school districts by state and federal governments so that all children, rich or poor, urban or rural, get comparable primary and secondary education. Education in the United States is also compulsory for persons six to eighteen years of age enforceable by a special law enforcement unit called truancy officers. The situation in Sierra Leone is quite different. First of all, no child is compelled to go to school at any age. Compulsory primary education may be on the books but no one enforces it. So if government pays for their education, who is going to ensure that these children actually go to school and not the farm or on the streets selling merchandise? Also in the United States most primary and secondary schools are public schools, what we call in Sierra Leone government schools. The majority of schools in Sierra Leone are government-assisted schools. Meaning, government pays teachers’ salaries and benefits; government does not own the buildings or the land on which the schools stand. So if the United States no doubt the richest nation on earth with a gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly $20 trillion has no free public education, how does Sierra Leone with a GDP- the value of all goods and services produced in the country – of only $4.6 billion dollars pay for free primary and secondary education?
If you are not into numbers, you may just want to take my word for this. The number of school-aged children – persons 6 to 18 years of age – is estimated at 2.4 million according to data from Statistics Sierra Leone. According to President Bio in a BBC interview before the elections, it costs about $9 dollars per child per year to attend a government or government-assisted school. That translates into $22 million for all school aged children in the country. President Bio has reportedly earmarked 20 percent of the national budget or about US$14 million dollars for his free education program. Unless my Applied Mathematics degree from the University of Illinois some forty years ago is completely null and void, the President seems to be $8 million in the red for his free education budget. And probably the last thing the Green Party (SLPP) president wants to do is to be in the red for any reason. But this is not meant by any means to dissuade the President from his New Direction education goal. Sir Edmond Hillary did climb Mt. Everest after all, and John Kennedy did actually get his man on the moon albeit six years after Kennedy was assassinated in the same state of Texas he had announced his hitherto impossible dream. So go ahead, Mr. President, you have my blessing and that of 2.4 million school children and their parents who have prayed to see this day and voted for you largely for that reason.
THE FIRST THING WE MUS DO IS MOLEST THE MAYOR. Sierra Leone has a long history of educating girls. The oldest secondary school exclusively for girls in Africa south of the Sahara, the 170 year old Annie Walsh Memorial School is in Sierra Leone. Backed up by such notables as the Haford School for Girls founded by the United Methodist Church and the Queen of the Rosary School founded by the Roman Catholic Church. Sierra Leone also took the lead in electing the first female mayor in Africa when forty-eight year old Constance Cummings-John was elected mayor of Freetown in 1966. Notwithstanding, Sierra Leone has a woman problem or more correctly respect for women or female leadership. And our young men on whom the future of this country depends are the major offenders in this area. Recently, it pleased His Excellency the President Julius Maada Bio to announce the appointment of eleven major officers in his new government, which he has termed the New Direction. Regrettably, not a single one of those appointed from National Security Co-coordinator to Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service was a woman. How is it that a country which has been educating girls and young women since the middle of the 19th Century cannot find a single woman to appoint in major leadership position?
On May 24, Mayor Yvone Aki-Sawyer, the first female mayor of Freetown in over forty years reported that she had been “verbally and physically assaulted by a few people who do not understand that I am the Mayor of all Freetonians and not some Freetonians”. Although the mayor did not point any fingers at her attackers, it was later revealed that the attack took place outside the National Headquarters of the Ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party. Whoever the hoodlums were obviously have never listened to American pop star, Helen Reddy’s song, “Aint No Way to Treat a Lady”. People also seem oblivious of the fact that as news such as this spreads through cyber-world primarily through social media investors and other international development partners tend to wonder if Sierra Leone is the place to do business. United States President Donald Trump castigated by many Africans as the Devil incarnate who hated Blacks and women had no problem sending a Hispanic woman, Maria Brewer of Indiana, as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Sierra Leone. Ironically, during former President Ernest Korma’s final address to the Sierra Leone Parliament, Ambassador Brewer’s cell phone was, shall we say, temporarily misplaced and later found and returned to her. Indeed, out of Africa, always something new. Stealing Donald Trump’s cell phone by proxy is certainly not the best way to spread international goodwill.
Meanwhile, it must be noted that during the long and tedious presidential and general elections in the country, primarily due to frequent violent clashes between the two ancient political parties in the country, the All Peoples Congress and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, the United States Department of State elevated security threats in Sierra Leone from Level 1 to Level 2. Thankfully, no further negative impacts have been noted for American nationals living in Sierra Leone. Level 2, by the way means take great caution. Level 3 means voluntary departure, while Level 4 means mandatory evacuation of Americans. This is why the Mayor noted “We have so much to do….Let us continue work with peace in our hearts and in our actions”.
And if I may add to Mayor Aki-Sawyer’s admonishment, let us continue to pick up the garbage and the filth that is so harmful to us and let us not wait for the last Saturday of the month and a presidential decree to clean up our environment. Flies and rats have so many babies in thirty days and the impact on our health and wellbeing is beyond calculation. And the disruption of trade and commerce as travelers from one end of the country to the other wait for the mandatory end of cleaning day is choking the business environment. This is why Europe and the United States have no NATIONAL IDLENESS DAY dedicated to cleaning trash people deliberately throw in their own neighborhoods all month long waiting for a government decree to clean it up. But as Pliny the Elder accurately observed, “Out of Africa, always something new”.
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