Florence sits on her veranda as she listens to a student recite poetry. She’s hosting a meeting of the Children’s Forum Network, a youth group that she mentors. Today’s agenda—rehearsal for tomorrow’s performance at the District Council. Many stakeholders will attend so the performance must be spot on.
Florence offers constructive criticism to help one of her students speak with authority and confidence during her poetry recitation. Afterwards a mix of boys and girls practice a drama highlighting the importance of free quality education. Some play the part of callous parents who want to marry their 14 year old daughter to a 40 year old NGO worker. The daughter cries “I don’t want to get married I want to go to school!” Florence enthusiastically offers stage direction—“Entrances and exits are very important!“
In the play, female students act as social workers and community officials to stop the wedding at the last minute. They gather around the NGO worker character to shame him—“You want to destroy the future of this girl! Don’t you know you’re spoiling her career, do you have a conscience? Let us all try to promote free quality education.”
After rehearsals have finished, Florence offers to share her story. She moves next door to the veranda of her organization’s headquarters, Ladies in Development, and begins.
I was born and raised by a single parent after my father disowned me at the age of four. My mother got sick during my sixth year in primary school so she couldn’t pay my school fees anymore. I was picked up by Plan International, an NGO that deals with the protection of children. They paid for my studies through secondary school because of my good school performance. I graduated and passed my West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) on my first attempt.
Plan International doesn’t help with college so I couldn’t attend. Instead I became a primary school teacher at a village outside of my town. I taught for three years as a trained and qualified teacher while saving money for college. I had very good grades during my first year at Njala University in Bo, so the administration decided to give me a scholarship for tuition and fees.
After receiving my first degree, I returned home to work at the town radio station. I had a bad experience because I was the only college graduate there. They treated me like a stranger, never giving me a warm welcome or even a smile. I had to quit.
Afterwards I worked as the Communications Director at the District Council. Soon I was promoted to Gender Officer and began to notice other children suffering like I did. This gave me the passion to work in child protection and start my own organization. The process was very long and required a lot of paperwork, but I successfully opened Ladies in Development (LID) in 2009 with the motto “Building Sierra Leone through young ladies and women.”
I volunteered to be a psychosocial officer in my community to help students orphaned by the Ebola outbreak. The students needed hope because they faced stigma in the community. Luckily, Ebola is now in the past. I also looked into sexual harassment at schools and child neglect. I began writing project proposals focused on community level advocacy programs with the help of my university friends. I started two projects in the same year: the Girl Power Project and the Livelihood Project.
The Girl Power Project (GPP) helped to educate vulnerable girls. We taught them public speaking and discussed issues that affected them. GPP also encouraged focused group discussion in schools. I thank God because we have children now who can talk about their issues and advocate for themselves. The Livelihood Project also empowered parents of vulnerable youth with the skills and finances needed to care for their children. After finishing my projects, I went back to university for a Master’s degree in rural development.
I’m currently supporting children with disabilities—hearing, visual, speech, and physical. I’ve registered 600 children with disabilities in twenty community schools inside the district. By next month I will provide small grants to their parents to support their children in school. We will also provide medical services to the students.
The Paramount Chief and the District Council are supportive and they are the true decision makers. But one or two out of ten community members have a negative perception of girls’ education or women political leaders. I will keep dialoguing with them to change their mindset because I know information is power.
I also write poetry for the benefit of my girls. I call one of my poems “Heat in the Snow”. The title means that our community seems perfect on the outside, but when you go inside the system is rotten. I also wrote “Paradise Lost” to talk about the good things we used to have in my district. Our first female parliamentarian died. The glory of education is being lost. Women leadership used to be at the top. Sex seems to be the top priority among youth now.
I will never give up on my people because I see a positive future. I know my community is going to revive once more. We will regain what has been lost. We are teaching young girls to be responsible decision makers. They will have to take over one day.