Isatu Turay is getting baptized on Sunday. She's in her first year of high school in the village of Falaba high in the leafy mountains of northeastern Sierra Leone.
Isatu has been diligently studying the catechism. She's a bright girl who came in first for the national primary school exam in the whole chiefdom, one of a number of administrative units that make up districts in the country. She's also the eldest of four siblings, so has many chores to do at home. But her favorite thing is studying, and even after the sun goes down on the family house, which has no electricity, Isatu pores over her books by torchlight.
"Isatu's a wonderful girl," says Daniel Koroma, the principal of St. Bernard's Secondary School. "That's not flattery. I mean it from the bottom of my heart."
"She's brave too," he adds. "Her parents are Muslim, like the majority of people in this area, but she knew I was a Christian and wanted to know more about my faith and philosophy. Now, she's one of our catechists."
For most girls in Isatu's class, marriage and kids are top of the list of expectations for them, and so they become the stuff of these young girls' dreams. Not so for Isatu. She wants to be a nurse and to travel, and admits with quiet assurance that finding a husband is not her aim in life—not that the pressures aren't there.
"My father wants me to get married quite soon," she says. "I would cost the family less then. The school fees are expensive for us: 25,000 leones [less than $6] a term. But my mother doesn't agree. She's been doing extra work in the fields to get more money."
Isatu will need to hold on tight to her ambitions. She lives in Koinadugu, one of the poorest and most remote districts in Sierra Leone. There, only 10% of students reach tertiary level education. As many as 80% of the teachers are volunteers, and so are not fully trained or paid.
'All Pikin for Learn'
"This is why Catholic Relief Services is here," explains Edmond Momoh, education officer with CRS Sierra Leone, "and those figures are improving. Access is a real issue, though. Large parts of the district can only be reached by motorbike, and there's one place where CRS staff have to leave their bikes and trek for 7 hours to reach the village."
But that's not the only barrier to educating the region's children.
"Education is not valued, especially for girls," says Momoh. "They're often taken out of school to work at home or elsewhere, or they're given into early marriage. So CRS is working with communities to encourage them to send girls to school. We show them how important it is. A girl's place is no longer in the kitchen. Educating a girl means educating the nation."
Funded through the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Department for Agriculture's Food for Education program, the CRS project "All Pikin for Learn" is in its second phase and targets 192 schools in five of the chiefdoms in the district. Its name means "All Kids Should Go to School" in the local Krio language, which is based on English.
Practical needs are taken care of, from building classrooms, water pumps or latrines to providing exercise books, textbooks and pens. A school nutrition program means that students and teachers can start the day on full stomachs and be sure of a hot meal at lunchtime.
That breakfast and lunch program has proved a good way to keep children coming back to the classroom. So have take-home rations that girls with more than 85% attendance receive and share with their families.
The project also encourages parents to form school management committees, savings groups and mothers' groups that fundraise for children most in need.
High Hopes for Brighter Futures
In addition to working to boost the number of students, CRS is investing in the quality of education. With the International Reading Association, CRS is holding training courses for teachers three times a year during school holidays.
"We teach the teachers a new, inclusive style of teaching," explains Abdulai Kamara, lecturer at the Northern Polytechnic university in Makeni, a city in central Sierra Leone. "Before, it was one-way traffic, with the teacher talking all the time. Now, the children are encouraged to make their own contribution. They use their initiative and are involved in the learning process."
This approach has benefits for both teachers and students.
"I've seen teachers really grow in confidence," says Kamara. "They now speak well and hold themselves well. We also help them gain their teaching certificates so they can go on the government payroll."
And, "the children are no longer sitting silently in rows," he adds. "They're in groups, talking, contributing."
It is hoped that, if the children's minds can be engaged, their future paths will be brighter. That's certainly the hope Principal Koroma is holding out for Isatu.
"She's outstanding. I've seen it in her. I have high hopes for her—if she could just have the opportunities she deserves."
Helen Blakesley is the CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.