In Sierra Leone, a Uniform and a Second Chance

Twins in School Uniforms

Twins in School Uniforms

Heather Cumming is the Director of Simwatachela Sustainable Arts and Agriculture Program (SSAAP). Heather’s organization has programs in both Sierra Leone and Zambia. Heather was most recently in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. In this interview, she reflects on the education system, why SSAAP provides girls school uniforms, and how Ebola has set the recovering nation back many years.

Molly: Heather, one of your programs in Sierra Leone is providing school uniforms for girls. How did you become aware that this was a serious issue?

Heather: In Sierra Leone, it differs slightly from some of the other of the African nations in the sense that many of the African nations, they don’t have any provision in any of the ministries in the government to provide school fees or uniforms or even school shoes for the children. A few years ago, I want to say about the year 2000 to 2005, the war ended in 2001, the government passed some legislation in Sierra Leone that all of the children’s school fees were paid for by the government and that all the parent or custodian, guardian, sponsor had to do was provide the uniform and the school shoes and probably socks. So, the average uniform is pretty inexpensive. It helps more children go to school because they don’t have to pay the fees on top of it.

Molly: What other obstacles might girls, especially teenage girls, face with continuing in their schooling through their high school years or secondary years?

Heather: In every poverty situation, you always are going to have higher levels of prostitution, higher levels of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV. Now, we found out too, that Ebola’s actually a sexually transmitted disease, so we’ll have to add that to the list. But a lot of times, and I know UNICEF has worked really hard in Sierra Leone with this because it’s especially bad there and because of the destitution of the civil war and now with the Ebola crisis, a lot of parents actually sending their girls out to go bring in the money for the food for that day and usually it’s the parents or the family that the child’s staying with.

So, you find lots and lots of girls, the deeper you get away from the city, where people are more educated and more into the rural pockets in the provinces and the villages of the country, you find tons and tons of teenage pregnancies. Girls 15, 16, 17 years old, so they stopped, say in grade 7, grade 8, and had their baby. Now there’s a real push, a real movement to get these girls after they’ve had their children to get them to go back to school because Sierra Leone, they’re pretty aware of the rights that other people have in other parts of the world and what they’re being starved of. So they don’t want this anymore and the Sierra Leoneans themselves, it’s not just the international aid and the western thought processes of empowering women, but it’s also the women in Sierra Leone themselves that are really proactive about getting their girls back to school.

Then I think their education means so much more to them because they almost didn’t get it and they’re very, very, very aware that without education they can’t really do anything in their country and they can’t make proactive changes.

Molly: How might a girl’s future be different from dropping out at 7th, 8th grade, versus completing and graduating from secondary school?

Heather: Sure. So, we do have the highest unemployment rate in all of West Africa, in Sierra Leone. I’ve read some statistics that say it’s about 80%. Most of the local people tell me that it’s far higher. It’s almost like nobody has a job. So, people aren’t looking at it like, “Well, it’s pointless to get an education because there’s no employment opportunities.” They don’t look at it like that at all. They look at it like, “The way forward is to treat the women, treat the children like we care about them enough to have this education so that our country does not fall back into the same wrongful patterns that caused us to have: slavery in the 17 and 1800’s, massive, grotesque civil war in 1990-2000, Ebola in 2014, 2015.”

So, they know that they’re country is “behind” the world. In the sense that other parts of the world don’t battle with these things and they know that a large part of it is because their citizens aren’t educated or that the corruption is so high that — you’ll find this a lot, like a young student just sleeps with her teacher to get certain marks, passes the grade 12 and then has less knowledge or information or understanding of anything than like a 6th grader.

So, there are many other parts of Africa that they’re doing a lot of serious anti-corruption stuff because they know that it’s an old part of the African system. It’s not going to go away quickly, but that awareness needs to be turned on and I just don’t know in Sierra Leone, they seem very slow to want to change that.

Molly: So, tell me what kind of job could a girl who graduated from grade 12, what kind of job would she be qualified to do? I mean, obviously, it’s just a shortage of jobs to go around, but is there something that younger girls can look forward to saying, “If I graduate, I know I could maybe work as a teacher or nurse or something.”

Heather: Right and thank you because both of those things you brought up are very likely professions. In Sierra Leone, it’s still very much like the early days of America where there were those very specific jobs that women did. They were, in the professional world, they were nurses, teachers and — what was the third — secretaries. Basically, right?

Molly: Administrative.

Heather: Right. But, they were never like the boss and we’re seeing a change but the change is really slow. I would say in Sierra Leone it’s still pretty much the same way. You wouldn’t see a woman doctor, you would see a woman nurse. You would never see a woman be the deputy head or the head of the whatever school. The women are the teachers and then the male is the principal or the head of the school. But that’s still a step in the right direction, is getting women out in the workforce or having their eyes open to being suppressed and how it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. That doesn’t change what’s already been but things can change; they don’t have to stay this way.

I think that the Africans are going to have to be the ones to sort out their gender issues, ultimately. I don’t think the West, it’s not really … it’s their issue. We can show them by example. We can show them strong women, good leaders, women that want to do well, want to promote change and the betterment of society without being on a power trip, but we can’t force them into that. They have to come to whatever is democracy in Africa is very, very different than what is democracy in America or any of the Western, very young countries.

Molly: So secondary education is frowned upon for girls who’ve already experienced motherhood or teenage pregnancy. How does Sierra Leone differ in this from other African nations?

Heather:Yeah. They’re finished. In Sierra Leone, the girls get a second chance. SSAAP, Simwatachela Sustainable Agricultural and Arts Program, which is the small non-profit organization that I run, we are very, very happy and proud and so, so thankful to be able to help these girls because they are stigmatized, but at least they’re given a second chance. In Zambia, once the girl is pregnant, she is done. The whole thing’s over.

Molly: Why is it important to provide uniforms? Why does it come down to the uniforms being a big step where you can help them stay in school?

Heather:Yeah, so the uniform, I’ve seen the kids get up in the morning, they get up really early and they do some chores and stuff, wash with cold water, unless there’s a fire to warm the bath water, otherwise they just use cold water and they put on their uniform. Something happens that you can almost see the change in them from when they’re playing around in

Kroobay Slums, Freetown

Kroobay Slums, Freetown

their little play clothes, until when they put the uniform on. Then it’s like they have somewhere they have to be. They have something that they have to do. They have responsibility to take and because school is such a privilege and not every kid gets to go to school even though the government basically has it subsidized, said that they would pay for all of the children’s school fees.

The uniform still is the 10,000 Leones, which is $2.38 current exchange rate, that very small amount of money to us is enough of a deterrent to many parents especially ones that have like 10 kids. They still can’t afford it. So, school is still a huge privilege and lots of kids … kids don’t go to school without their uniform. So, if you don’t have money for a uniform, you can’t go to school, even that the school itself is free.

When these kids put on their uniform, they proudly walk to school and they all love it and it’s very refreshing because they’ve had to work so hard to go to school and they know that they’re very lucky. The kids at school really want to make the most of what they’ve been given.

Molly: Remember the whole thing that prompted this was that article, which was written by a young girl in school, talking about how the schools that opened back up since the Ebola virus and how it was important for them to just be able to go back to school, resume that sense of normalcy. How do you see having that national crisis affecting the education system?

Heather: Yeah. It’s set them back years. So, during the war, I would say that they lost a couple of years’ worth of school, when the war got really bad and that’s why I brought up the war. Now, when you look at it, there are kids who are 25 years old finishing their grade 12. They should be 17 or 18, just like in our system. Even a couple of years away from school, which Ebola, it’s still … I get text messages every day from my friend that sends quotes from the local newspaper. They’re trying to get 42 days with no new Ebola cases and no hospital or health center clinics that have any Ebola patients still in the beds. A couple of days ago, they got nine new cases. The World Health Organization requires 42 consecutive days no new cases, no Ebola patients in any beds.

I don’t think parents are allowing their kids to go back to school. The lack of education, the lack of knowledge, the lack of medical care and science in Sierra Leone causes people to not understand, like where did the disease come from? Nobody still knows that, even our scientists. But, how do they prevent it and what’s to prevent it from happening all over again? So, I read something that was like only 60% of the kids are even back in school. It’s still a very low number. I wouldn’t send my kid to school, there’s Ebola still around and school is great place to catch it because there’s germs everywhere.

It will be like half of a decade of a setback, just my prediction. In Africa, the effects of things are really, they’re pretty profound, like here we could probably snap things back together, get kids back to school. They just don’t have the resources for that and as long as that disease is still there, parents aren’t going to send their kids to school the way that they used to.

Molly: Thank you, Heather.

Heather Cumming with SSAAP in Sierra Leone

Heather Cumming with SSAAP in Sierra Leone

The Mission of Simwatachela Sustainable Arts and Agriculture Program is: to alleviate starvation by securing a sustainable water source; helping to promote sustainable agriculture and nutrition, as well as promoting empowerment through income-generating activities rooted in selling surplus products of indigenous artisans and community groups. Read more here:

Editor’s Note –  Small clarification: Heather calculated the uniform cost incorrectly. It should have been about 24,000 Le or about $5.94 for a primary school girl child’s uniform. The uniform cost is approximately 10,000 KWACHA in Zambia, and as Heather works as well with school sponsorship programs in Zambia she confused the Kwacha (Zambian currency) with the Leone (Sierra Leone currency).

Connecting the Dots

This is worth a listen on NPR. The story comes from Washington, D.C. A non-profit organization reaches out to people with medical issues and connects them with various organizations to help with food, housing, and transportation needs – all problems that exacerbate their health issues. In every city, there are many non-profits organized around specific niches. In Tucson, I know of three different organizations that specialize in driving seniors or the disabled to doctors appointments! But, we need more ways to assist people in finding those services that can help them get healthy and back on their feet. Increasingly, we see technology that connects people to niche services – an app that will deliver free range meat to your house or a site that allows you to farm out mundane tasks for $5. These kinds of technologies should not exist only for the urban 20-something. For those that don’t live life connected to an iphone, there must be a way to connect people who need assistance to a one-stop shop where they can be matched to organizations or volunteers that can help with their needs. There are more organizations than ever dedicated to providing social services for those who have fallen through the cracks of the government system. The supply side is plentiful – now it’s time to work on the demand.

After Ebola

This is an interview with a friend about her organization Simwatachela Sustainable Agricultural and Arts Program. She was on the ground in Sierra Leone during the ebola outbreak. Her organization is collecting donations to help families rebuild their lives in the aftermath. Watch her interview and consider a donation to her program. SSAAP is truly remarkable in creating huge impacts with small amounts of money.
The website is:

We look forward to partnering with SSAAP and creating a short documentary about the aftermath of the ebola tragedy. You can make a donation to help make that happen. For more information, please contact

‘Tis Better to Give than Receive

This phrase, thrown around quite a lot during the holidays, takes on a new dimension when you read the growing research showing that the poorest in America are also the most generous. It’s true. The least well-off actually give more of their incomes to charity than the wealthiest.

Wesley Cate has an interesting post over at Philanthropy Daily on this phenomenon. Cate even notes that the poor ramped up their giving during the Great Recession.

The organizations that Try Freedom Stories works with usually have a humble, unassuming founder. The founders see people around them struggling with an economic hardship or a social problem. And then they come up with an idea to make the situation better. The ideas come from the people who are living the same way as those they want to help. They also often have novel ways of getting things done in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

So, this season, investigate a local charity in your community – whether it be a program that offers holiday meals to the homeless or puts gifts for children under a tree. You will probably find that the person who started the charity has an inspiring story to tell. You might also find that the desire to get involved and do something for others around you can be infectious.

Ebola and the Role of Missionary Doctors

Slate recently published a waffling missive questioning the role of missionary doctors in the developing world. The writer himself says that he understands the important role they play, especially when there is a major public health crisis. But something just leaves him feeling… yucky about the whole thing.

Try Freedom has been working on a project the last few months interviewing doctors, nurses, and physical therapists that practice global medicine, often in very remote and underdeveloped areas. Some of these doctors are driven by an equity agenda, or a love of global health, or even their christian faith. Does it really matter? Groups like Samaritan’s Purse are on the front lines, often as the first responders during a crisis. Back in April, the group was warning public health officials of a coming Ebola outbreak. They are so effective because their doctors live in the communities where they practice. If something is happening, they will be first to hear about it.

Not every doctor will choose to dedicate their lives to global medicine. But, the ones that do fill a tragic, gaping hole in the health care system in developing areas. With a rate of doctors per capita in Sierra Leone at 0.0 per 1,000, should we really be questioning their motives?

What Can We Learn from Holland… Michigan

A small town of 35,000 on the shores of Lake Michigan was named one of the happiest towns in America. In this 2010 article on the ABC News site, the author tries to find out exactly what makes Holland, Michigan so great. Not surprisingly, the residents talked about the sense of community in their town. An unemployed man also mentioned the strong social safety net in place because of local churches and charities.

“Residents here know that solutions to problems are not found in the maze of ideas that come out of Washington, but from the rewards that come from caring about their neighbors.”

While the town of Holland is small and relatively homogenous, there is much to admire about a city that prides itself on philanthropy and community spirit.

Try Freedom Stories Presented an Owlie Award

Peter Norback, of One Can a Week, presented Try Freedom Stories with an “Owlie” award. Peter created the awardmolly owlie as a thank you a commemoration of the One Can a Week video, produced by Try Freedom Stories and Molly Thrasher, for reaching 1,000 views on YouTube. Let’s get another 1,000 views and see what award Peter can come up with for that occasion!


Watch the One Can a Week Video.

Community-mindedness leads to Income Mobility

From Harvard and UC-Berkley economists, comes a fascinating study about income inequality and mobility. This particular study looks at the factor of geography and maps out which cities have high and low mobility. One factor they could tie to more mobility was those cities with more “community-mindedness.”

“Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.”

Read the whole thing here.

One Answer to the Detroit “Problem”

Detroit is getting a lot of bad press. Recently, the city filed for bankruptcy. While dozens of cities across the country are facing the same bleak road ahead, to see a once great metropolis fall, is troubling. There are two culprits: a ballooning deficit caused by a public sector pension program, which can no longer pay for itself, and an exodus from the city, the “brain drain”. Almost twenty percent of properties within the city sit empty. With an unaffordable pension system eating away at basic services and a flight to the suburbs, both problems compounding each other, Detroit must find a way to lift itself up.

There is not a lot that the citizens can do to help the economic woes of the city, but they can still do one thing: cultivate a community.

“Any neighborhood can become a wasteland,” said William Barlage, head of East English Village Homeowner’s Association on Detroit’s east side. “It takes a community to stop it.”

The Huffington Post reports on one neighborhood taking responsibility for the abandoned homes and in the process, ensuring that nearby homes don’t succumb to the domino effect facing so many neighborhoods across Detroit.

What is the difference between a city and a community? A city should be able to pick up the trash, keep public areas clean, and ensure that the citizens feel safe. Beyond that, there is much more that defines a city. That sense of place, the thing that drives people to make their homes there, and to take pride in what they own, that comes not from the city, but from the community. A city is the government, a community is the people.

Lessons Learned in the Wake of Disaster: Private Charities Have a Central Role to Play

The wind dies down, the dust settles, and the rest of the country quickly forgets the magnitude of the tragedy in Oklahoma. But, that doesn’t mean that the work has stopped. Right now, there are hundreds of volunteers on the ground who are embraced by the community. No surprise there. The surprise is that the disaster relief we are seeing on the ground now is different than what we have seen play out during Katrina, Sandy, and other natural disasters through the years.

In the chaotic days following Katrina, volunteers swarmed the region with supplies from all over the country. FEMA, with the best intentions, was late to the game and in an attempt to centralize the relief efforts, closed off access to the region. Unfortunately, this resulted in semis full of supplies and water being turned away and warehouses of food left to rot.

I would like to think the days of trucks full of water turned away by FEMA workers after Katrina are over. And now, there is reason to hope we have made progress. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, “When disaster strikes America, a more skilled response”, the writer reports that FEMA has embraced the local knowledge and resources that community groups like the Southern Baptist Convention already manage. Within hours after the first of the Oklahoma toranadoes, most of the search and rescue had been completed and there was already a center to reunite owners and their lost pets.

Groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have legions of volunteers and all manner of dry goods, water, and toiletries ready to be deployed to any disaster zone. Mike Ebert, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “We noticed right away an increase in communication and a real desire on FEMA’s side to say, ‘Hey, we have all these resources here from Southern Baptist, let’s take advantage of it and let them know we’re really counting on them,’ ” Mr. Ebert says.

With a budget of 13.6 Billion, FEMA should be well-equipped to handle most disasters. However, their bureaucratic ineffectiveness has been well-documented. Economist Christopher Coyne spotlights the inherent issues of large scale relief agencies such as FEMA in his recent book “Doing Bad by Doing Good.” He writes, “… as bureaucracies become every more hierarchical, information transmission problems, both up and down the hierarchy arise. Further, while centralization may reduce inter-agency administration costs, it does not necessarily reduce intra-agency compliance costs, because larger bureaucracies tend to have more protocols to ensure compliance…” So, a centralized government agency, like FEMA, while having vastly more resources to deploy during a disaster, still cannot mobilize as fast as a private, charitable group. The reason is not that the employees of FEMA don’t care or don’t want to help, it is that such a large organization comes with substansial protocols, chains of commands, and compliance that can not respond as quickly as needed in a natural disaster.

There must be coordination and division of labor, but with significant freedom for those involved in a relief effort to take initiative without worrying about complying with regulations. FEMA has recognized that private charities and their legions of volunteers are a valuable, even indispesible part of the recovery. Instead of turning them away after the storms in Oklahoma, they became an integral part of the effort to ensure victims get both the immediate and long term help they need. Bureaucracies have short memories. If tomorrow, the head of FEMA is ousted and a new one installed, this lesson may have to be learned over. Let’s hope we continue to see private charities as an indispensable part of any disaster relief effort.