Ali sits in front of a hand-dyed gara cloth that hangs on a neighbor’s clothesline. His friends stand off-camera and encourage him to laugh. Neighbors soon join in and the group succeeds in coaxing a smile from Ali. Everybody laughs and some cheer. Ali looks through the photos and picks his favorite one. He makes his way back to his friend’s home, sits on the veranda, and begins his story.
I’m told that my father died after my third birthday. My mother cared for me and my sister afterwards, and she paid all of my school fees for both primary and junior secondary schools. I thank her for that. She passed away before I could take the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). After that, nobody could care for me or my younger sister together so we had no choice but to separate.
I went to a village to live with our uncle. My sister went to live with our mother’s sister. My uncle is a farmer and has around eleven children. I always had conflicts with them during my stay. I did all the house work while they went to school, and my uncle couldn’t pay for my school fees. When it came to the farm, my elder cousin gave me the majority of the work. One day I complained and he wasn’t happy. He reported me to his father and my uncle drove me away from his house. He told me to try living by myself.
I went to stay with my friend in the same village. I learned that his brother, Saidu, worked in masonry and I asked to become his apprentice. He agreed and took me along to observe the work. Saidu gave me small tasks at first like measuring sand, mixing cement, and making mortar. Then I helped to make cement blocks using a mold. I enjoyed the work and didn’t attend school at all during this time. All of my friends finished senior secondary school and took the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). I wanted the same for myself, so I asked Saidu to help me with school fees. We came to an arrangement—he’d pay my fees if I promised to work after my classes.
Even though I finished junior secondary school three (JSS3) before, the school asked me to repeat it since I left school for a long time. I attended classes in the morning and worked in the afternoons and evenings. I passed all the subjects on the Basic Examination Certificate Exam (BECE) and felt so happy. Saidu was impressed. Senior secondary (SS) classes were more difficult and the material challenged me. I couldn’t study because the masonry work kept me busy until late evening and made me too tired. I had to repeat SS1 and felt ashamed because I promised myself to succeed in school.
Around this time, Saidu left the village with our boss to work in a nearby town. I felt sad because we were close and he was the only person that really cared about me. I moved homes to stay with my friend’s family, but they couldn’t help with the school fees. One day I visited the principal to ask for advice. He couldn’t help either since he only made enough money to support his own family. I felt like giving up on school but he encouraged me to continue somehow. He knew of Saidu’s whereabouts and I was prepared to go find him. I dropped out of school to do so.
I finally reunited with Saidu and learned that he got married. I became very happy for him! The work and his new family kept him from returning to the village. After we reconnected, he took me to a Muslim school in town. We met with the principal and Saidu told him about my situation. The bursar joined us and agreed to reduce the fees so I could enter school right away. I continued to work as a mason after classes, but this time Saidu would buy notebooks and pens for me to keep me encouraged. The principal of my new school even let me have textbooks.
I took my materials to school every morning in a plastic bag and continued this way for the rest of my SS1 year. Today I’m an SS2 student and I live with Saidu and his wife in their rented home. Free education is here so my school fee struggles are finally over. The government pays for me and I want to tell President Bio thank you for that.
I still have one more issue—my sister. I haven’t seen her since we separated eight years ago. I was eleven years old then and never thought to ask where our auntie would take her. They could be anywhere, in any district. My sister would be in primary class six today if she entered school at the correct time. Her name is Mabinti. I don’t even know if she’s alive or dead, but this is my message to her: Mabinti, if you’re alive, I want to tell you that I’m in Moyamba. I’m healthy and doing well in school. If you’re still with auntie and she treats you well, then I’d be very happy. Respect her like you would our mother. I want you to know that I miss you and love you very much. You’re my only sister and I think about you every day.