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Illiteracy is a disease: The fight for education in Sierra Leone

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Posted on 9/2/2021
Two girls walk to school in Sierra Leone.
Abibatu (left) and her sister walk to school.


In the crisp light of morning in Bombali District, Sierra Leone, Abibatu and her older sister, Sento, are getting ready. The girls smooth the wrinkles from their green uniforms, savor a few bites of boiled cassava for breakfast and splash their faces with water. Then they head down the long road that leads to school.

Even though Abibatu has been doing it for years, the morning routine – and the classes that follow it – still feel like something of a luxury, a privilege she knows many in her community simply can’t afford. Her own parents never finished their education.

“Sometimes I sit and watch how my mother carries heavy loads on her head and how she works very hard on the farm,” she says. “I want to be educated so I do not end up like my parents. I want to be able to take care of them.”

Without a doubt, there will be obstacles to that dream. At 12, Abibatu is at the age now where she will soon begin receiving suitors. They will offer her family money in exchange for her hand, as is the custom in their rural community. The expectation is that Abibatu will drop out of school once she has a husband to look after her.

Fortunately, her mom, Yeanoh, has something to say about that.

"No suitor will have the guts to approach or talk me into giving my daughter’s hand in marriage!” Yeanoh says. “I know what I have been through. I invest in my two girls because I want them to be strong in society.’’

Living with the disadvantages of illiteracy

A mother and daughter sit in front of their house in Sierra Leone, looking at the camera.
Abibatu and Yeanoh.

Yeanoh recalls how her own childhood came to an end abruptly when a brutal civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

“When the rebels attacked our village, we all ran for our lives,” she remembers. “I could not see my parents. The sound of guns was all over the place.

“An elderly man found me crying and picked me up. He took care of me and helped me locate my parents’ village shortly after the war was declared over. He handed me over to my people. But going to school was not an option for me then. My kinsmen quickly gave my hand in marriage to Abibatu’s father.”

Yeanoh was just a young teenager then. Today, she still cannot read or write. She works by herself on the family farm while her husband, Amadu, takes odd jobs in construction. Sometimes he gets small contracts to build houses, but sometimes he doesn’t. Financial strain is a fact of life for the family, especially now.

They are not alone. Sierra Leone has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. According to the 2015 national census, 48.4 percent of Sierra Leoneans are illiterate. 

Lacking basic reading and writing skills can be an enormous disadvantage in life. Literacy goes beyond enjoying the ability to read books, newspapers and other important texts that convey knowledge; it also creates opportunities for people to develop the skills that better help them provide for themselves and their families. Those who can’t read or write are excluded from a vast array of jobs, and their opportunities in life are profoundly limited. For these reasons and more, illiteracy can trap families in extreme poverty for generations.

“I see the difference between me and my peers who are educated,” Yeanoh says wistfully. “I look much older because of the hard labor on the farm each day. But one of my childhood friends, Sia, is educated. She has a house she built herself in Freetown and has moved her entire family to the city. That is the life I want for Abibatu and her siblings.

"Sometimes I think illiteracy is a disease,” she continues. “If I could turn back the hands of time, I would go to school again. But since that is not going to happen, I have made up my mind that my daughters should be educated no matter what the condition is at home.”

Overcoming illiteracy in Sierra Leone

The good news is that public school is now free of charge in Sierra Leone. “At least now we have no excuse to not send our children to school,” Yeanoh says. “We do not pay school fees. We only get them ready for school by buying school materials such as bags, books, pens, pencils and giving them lunch each day.” Whenever it’s time to pay for school expenses, Yeanoh carries firewood into town to sell for a little extra money.

Of course, at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, when the entire country went into lockdown, this wasn’t an option. An emergency cash transfer from ChildFund was a lifesaver then.

“When my mother told me of the money from ChildFund, I danced,” Abibatu laughs. “She used part of the money to buy us school materials and food items for the home.” ChildFund also works within their community to educate people – parents and children alike – about the dangers of early marriage and the importance of education, including for girls. “People from [ChildFund’s local partner organization] Munafa M'patie Federation come to talk to us and our parents from time to time, to see the need to send us to school instead of giving our hands in marriage.”

Abibatu takes the advice seriously and, to date, has never failed or repeated a class. When she was younger, she even skipped two grades – a “double promotion,” as it’s referred to in Sierra Leone – jumping from the first grade to third. “Of all my children, she is the smartest and most promising,” Yeanoh gushes.

Abibatu’s plan is to become a nurse once she finishes school. But her education is about more than just her own career goals. For better or worse, Abibatu feels the weight of her entire family’s future on her shoulders.

“I am putting a lot of effort into my schoolwork just to make my [mother] proud,” she says, eyes shining with resolve. “I will not disappoint her.”


Schoolgirl in green uniform stands smiling in front of her school in Sierra Leone.

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