This June, on behalf of RunTheWorld, I joined the Sierra Leone Marathon – an annual event hosted by the NGO, Street Child, with the aim to bring supporters together for a life-changing adventure in Sierra Leone.
The event is a mammoth fundraising feat for the NGO, as community members set their goals to fundraise a minimum of £1,000 each to support the development work of Street Child.
This year, our collective group raised over £120,000. Those funds will go on to provide education to vulnerable children, business grants for marginalised families and fund salaries for local staff members including teachers, social workers and management.
Over 100 runners from all around the world joined the 6-day immersive experience in West Africa’s Sierra Leone. We arrived from our respective destinations on June 1st and, depending on our flight times, either spent the evening in a local hotel near Freetown or took the 3-hour drive to the town of Makeni where the race is held each year. Makeni is Sierra Leone’s third-largest city. In 2008, Street Child set up its operations there to make an impact on the prevalence of street children that had been forced from their urban homes or had migrated to the city from the surrounding rural areas. Since then, they have facilitated sustainable development within Makeni and in surrounding rural communities
In this blog, I will share my recap from one week in Sierra Leone and some insight into why Street Child’s development work is paramount in this part of the world.
It has been an emotional ride. From spending time in a country so foreign to me, to achieving my first ever half-marathon and running the longest I’ve ever run despite the intense humidity and equatorial heat. I’m filled with gratitude for the support on the ground and from afar. I’m filled with compassion for the people of Sierra Leone, and I’m filled with hope for a positive future for many.
Understanding the situation in Sierra Leone
The current social and economic situation in Sierra Leone has been largely influenced by a series of challenging events throughout the country’s history. From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was ravaged by a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 casualties and left 2.6 million people displaced. Atrocious war crimes were committed, such as rape, brutal limb amputation, murder and the recruitment of child soldiers. It left the country in ruins, stunting any economic growth.
From 2002 to 2014, the country began to rebuild infrastructure, including schools, roads and medical clinics. However, construction was slow due to ongoing sanctions and post-war rehabilitation. In 2014, the region hit another hurdle when the Ebola outbreak occurred. Sierra Leone declared a state of emergency to tackle the deadly outbreak which was spreading across West Africa.
While the resilient people of Sierra Leone have overcome these challenges, it has ultimately placed a large percentage of the population in extreme poverty. According to the UNDP, more than 56.8% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day and unemployment and illiteracy levels remain high, particularly among youth.
If you are interested to learn more about the history of Sierra Leone, I can recommend the below resources:
Day 1 – A Privilege Check
The drive to Makeni exposed me to my first landscapes of West Africa. I stared attentively out the window with the focus of a child in her favourite class. It was a feeling of excitement I had not felt in a while, but it reminded me of the last time I came to Africa. It reminded me I was not in the West anymore. The only time I took my eyes off the passing scenery was to write notes in the notes app on my phone. Some read,
“Families sit on the front porches of their thatched-roof homes.” I wonder what they’re thinking…
“Women carry many objects on their heads” How do they balance like that?
“Half completed buildings” That could have been a nice home for someone…
“Clothes hung out on the lines in front of the house” How do they get them so clean?
The scenery changed quickly as we zoomed along the relatively well-paved, cemented road. Even if I did want to sleep, the perpetual honking of the bus horn wouldn’t allow it. The driver honked at lone bicycle riders, a motorcycle carrying a family of four and their belongings, cows that mistook the road for a grazing field, and the occasional truck with a nonchalant hitchhiker standing on the back ledge and holding on for not-so-dear life. We passed areas both urban and rural, but mostly rural. I was surprised by the amount of greenery, although it was the rainy season. Palm trees and cotton trees made up the backdrop of my video reel.
On the first day, we were driven to our hotel of choice. I had opted for the basic option, thinking I’d join a family in a homestay just like I did in Nepal or Vietnam, but instead our group were allocated rooms at a local hotel.
Our bus pulled up to the Amzas Hotel. It was a run-down, four-story building painted with lemon and maroon colours. A large iron gate out the front read the words “Amzas Hotel,” painted in the colours of the American flag. Perhaps there was an association with the United States back in the hotel’s prime. It looked as though there was a time when Amzas was beautiful. But it was not now. Cracks sprouted like the wrinkles of old age, a building unmanaged and unmaintained for who knows how long. It stood strong though, overlooking a football pitch and, conveniently, the starting location for our race on Sunday.
We were given the keys to our rooms. We looked at each other, our eyes full of anticipation but not the good kind. I could tell by the backpacks and arbitrary tattoos many of us had slept in uncomfortable places. I thought back to the time I slept under a tarpaulin somewhere deep within the Sumatran jungle. It couldn’t be worse than that.
I opened my doorknob-less door to a room with furniture that looked to have been there from the seventies. There was a bed covered by a mosquito net, sheer, holed curtains that hung by a barred window, and pillowcases that covered pillows that were so flat they looked to have comforted the heads of a thousand people before me. I prayed they were washed.
The bathroom was fitted with a modern shower system that complemented a cracked, tiled floor, and a western toilet. Pity there was no running water to power them both. I turned the tap to the sink. A feeble stream of water came out and then trickled out the bottom of the basin. It seemed somebody forgot to connect the pipes.
At that point, I was feeling mildly uncomfortable. The pandemic travel hiatus had put me out of shape. The site of a few dead bugs on the floor and the dried blood from splattered mosquitos on the walls made me want to call my mum but it was too late in Australia, she would’ve been asleep.
I sat on the bed. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, and it was more than most had in this region. I took a moment to check my privilege and shifted to gratitude. I had a bucket of water to wash, I had a mosquito net to protect me from malaria. I had a place to charge my phone. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t there for perfect. I was there to learn, experience and help the people of a country who, quite frankly, could do with the help.
That evening, we gathered at the Clubhouse, a meeting venue that would become a place of both socialising and celebration over the coming days. Situated about 5-minutes drive from each of the hotels, the Clubhouse was a vibrant base where our evening meals were prepared and where our marathon after-party would be held. The venue was enclosed by walls painted with the achievements of 10 years of the Street Child marathon. Participants took turns in snapping a picture by the sign that read “I am in Makeni running the Sierra Leone marathon”, while others ordered snacks from the bar with all profits going to support the work of the NGO. We already felt our impact and it was only day 1.
Amzas was my home for the next five days. I’d eventually become used to it. The crackling thunder and downpour of a midnight storm soothed my inner child and I slept soundly that night, blanketed by a shawl I’d named Suzie.
Day 2 – Development Lessons & Family Business Grants
Breakfast was served at The Compound that morning, the headquarters for the ground staff. We gathered there, minibus by minibus, for a briefing that would prepare us for the coming days in Sierra Leone and teach us more about the support Street Child provides to vulnerable members of the community.
Our briefing started with a lesson on the challenges faced when it came to accessing education. We learned that, first and foremost, poverty remains one of the most significant barriers to education in Sierra Leone. Secondly, the poor quality of education and poor learning environments available means families are less interested in prioritising education for their children.
Many of these challenges can only be overcome by looking at access to education in a holistic manner. Owen Doel, the country representative for Street Child Sierra Leone, shared with us four quadrants in which the organisation improves access to quality education.
- Providing ongoing in-classroom training, mentoring, and supervision for more teachers across Sierra Leone.
- Employing social workers to provide psychosocial counselling and support to children facing challenging circumstances.
- Working in partnership with willing rural communities to build or renovate schools and identify members of the community to undertake long-distance teacher training.
- Providing business training, planning, grants, loans, and incentivized savings schemes to vulnerable members of the community.
Our next briefing was focused on safeguarding the community. Safeguarding means protecting the health, well-being and human rights of individuals. It was an important topic to raise, especially given the nature of our visit to Sierra Leone.
Some of the key points touched upon in the briefing were:
- Protecting the locals from harm or harassment
- Protecting ourselves from harm or harassment
- Cultural appropriation
- Understanding the power dynamic of aid
- Consensual photography and the ethics of photography
- Ethical language for communications
I appreciated the briefing on these topics. In more recent years, there has been a rightful focus on the topic of ‘saviourism’ and the West’s role in the development of poorer nations.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, I have included the below resources for reference:
- Inclusive Aid: Changing Power and Relationships in International Development
- The ‘No White Saviours’ Campaign
That afternoon, we broke off into groups and visited some of the beneficiaries of the award-winning Family Business for Education approach – a unique Street Child model that started in Sierra Leone combining social work, business training and mentoring, cash grants and an incentivised savings scheme, reaching over 33,000 families to date.
We were driven to a small village on the outskirts of the Makeni town centre. Each village was a series of homes amongst scattered palm trees connected by the red earth pathways that are so prominent in these parts of Africa. Children played together beneath lines of hanging clothes. Their toys were simple – a frisbee, a rolling tyre and two sticks, the occasional youth bicycle. In some ways, it reminded me of my childhood. Those were the years before electronics stole our attention, when the children of each family home would gather in the outdoor common space and play handball or hide and seek on the grounds of the public housing properties.
I could hear the children’s laughter above all other noise, unless the crowing of a rooster or the engine of a motorbike muzzled their elevating sounds.
We walked nearby one of the lesser-developed buildings to meet Ye Yeabu, a respected grandmother amongst the community who was tasked with the care of over ten children in this village. Some were her own grandchildren and others were relatives. Ye Yeabu was a beneficiary of the Business Scheme Grant. We learned how the grant empowered her to set up a business selling firewood and palm oil to customers. This income alone was able to assist her to step into the role of breadwinner for a number of other inadvertent beneficiaries.
Women were often entrusted to manage the business duties for their families here in Sierra Leone. There was a resilience and a fierce determination in the women here. I saw it in the faces of the women I met.
Ye Yeabu sat at the front of her family home and shared her story with us as Daniel, the Street Child representative, translated her words to English so we could understand. She was dressed in decorative bright pastel yellow and blue colours, with a matching head scarf that complemented her dress. She had the face and demeanour of a strong woman. I could sense she was a leader.
That family grant was a mere £80, money that went to provide a sustainable business solution to care for many members of the community. I reflected on how what is seemingly so little to us, a relatively fancy pub meal for two at best, was so significant to a family here in Sierra Leone. It began to shift my perspective.
That afternoon we met a few more beneficiaries of the business grant. Isatu Kamara and her daughter had used their grant to set up a store in the front of their home selling everyday goods such as toothpaste, cigarettes and soap bars. Similar to Ye Yeabu, Isatu Kamara flaunted modish attire. She wore a crimson-patterned wrap skirt and an earthy-toned blue and green t-shirt with patterns of leaves and spirals. Her soft face bore the markings of scarification, a declining practice whereby tribes will intentionally scar the body in ritual. I asked our guide about the distinct crow’s feet that Isatu Kamara’s face exhibited, but they advised it was too personal to pry.
We left the village and drove to the Bombali District to meet Umaru, a survivor of polio and an advocate for persons with disabilities. Umaru became paralysed at the age of 10. At 26, he moved to the city of Makeni and spent three years begging on the streets after being advised by his peers that begging was the only way for people with disabilities to earn a living. After years on the streets, Umaru was selected as a part of the UNDP’s youth employment project and was placed in an apprenticeship training program where he learned to make shoes. He now runs his own workshop where he trains other polio victims and persons with disabilities.
“My dream is to expand my workshop into a factory and support more young people with disabilities,” he tells us.
The experience that day was wholesome. It offered a chance for our group to see the fruits of our fundraising efforts and to learn more about why we are here and what we are advocating for. There is a connection to a cause that can only be ignited through deep storytelling, and this day allowed for that to happen.
Day 3 & 4 – Rural Visits & Race Preparation
On day 3, we took a drive outside of Makeni to visit some of Street Child’s more rural beneficiaries. It didn’t take too long for the scenery to change from urban to rural and I soon marvelled at a vast horizon of verdant fields and foothills in the nearby distance. Homes became sparser and were situated deeper amongst the trees. I thought to myself, if I were to ever live here, I’d prefer to live beneath the trees, away from the chaos of the urban centre.
Today we were visiting one of the farthest schools in Street Child’s reach. We learned how geographic location poses a barrier to education. Firstly, because it is harder for the children to reach the school. And secondly, rural areas tend to have a stronger connection to the land and therefore children find themselves tending to the agricultural responsibilities of their families, as opposed to attending school. There is also the factor of a lesser tendency for progression in sociocultural structures.
During our drive to the school, I ask Street Child’s rural coordinator, JMK, about their work in rural communities.
He tells me, “Oftentimes, development agencies focus on areas that are easier to reach, and rural areas can miss out on access to support. We look for local capacity in the areas we visit and focus on training ground staff there to lead in their respective rural communities. That makes our work easier in the long run and we are able to reach the people who need our support.”
The tarmac road soon turned to earth and we encountered potholes, worsened by the monsoon rains. Our driver maneuvered around them in our 4X4 and we continued along the road, passing by more dispersed homes and a makeshift police check which was simply two men on either side of the road holding a piece of string with plastic bags tied to it (those are the distinct characteristics I love to observe). The driver honks his horn at cows trotting along the roadside, goats too. I could feel Africa in those moments.
The school was quite isolated. There was one main building that housed four or five classrooms. A group of children sat outside beneath the shade of a mango tree. I asked our guide what they were doing there. They explained to me the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), initiative – an educational approach based on teaching students at their actual learning levels, rather than the level recommended by the curriculum. JMK explained how this helps students who are falling behind to catch up with their classmates and ultimately prohibits educational inequality.
I could hear the children’s voices from the hallway. They were reciting the words written in chalk on the blackboard. Our group respectfully stayed outside while they learned. We spoke with one of the teachers who shared his gratitude for the support of Street Child, specifically because he was able to earn a teaching wage far superior to anything offered in his previous teaching history. I had the utmost respect for those teachers. I have the utmost respect for all teachers, really. Education is such a catalyst for social change and so, that day, I connected deeper to the reason I was in Sierra Leone.
At recess, our group played some football with the children in the open field beneath the midday heat. The goalposts were simply three tree branches forged together, but they were goalposts nonetheless.
Football was the theme of the week, it seemed. The following afternoon, after learning about African dance and the various tribes of Sierra Leone, we were invited to watch a professional football game on the field behind Amzas, Wusum Stadium. It was a home game for the Wusum team who graced us with their presence and determination. However, this was no ordinary football match, we were there to cheer and support football players with an amputation.
The commentator introduced them all, over the sounds of African music blaring through the speakers. If I had learned one thing about Sierra Leoneans, it was that they loved music!
The commentator continued. He was so enthusiastic he would have given Martin Tyler a run for his money. The bell sounded and the players were in action. I watched them use the strength in their arms to catapult themselves across the field on their crutches, kicking the ball and tackling as if they had no inhibitions. I watched them with immense admiration. The human body is capable of so much, the human spirit even more so.
Watching them geared us up for our own endurance challenge. That night was ‘carbs’ night at the Compound and so we loaded up in preparation for the race day, which started at an early 5 a.m the next morning.
Day 5 – Race Day
Four weeks before the race day, I started my preparations. I told myself I would aim for 10 kilometres (~6 miles) and if I felt like pushing on to do 21 kilometres (~13 miles), I would. One week after I started my training, I experienced what any athlete dreads, I injured my lower left leg and could no longer train.
My inability to run had me believing I wasn’t capable of doing the 21 kilometres and so I dropped down to the 10. It wasn’t until one long car journey through rural Sierra Leone, a few days prior to the race, that I thought to myself, “You’ve come all this way. You can do this, Bianca.” There’s nothing like a long overland journey to ignite the thoughts you need to hear.
I’d never run a half-marathon before, or any marathon for that matter, and I soon realised there was a certain energy to a race day that invigorated you. Even during the prior evening, I felt all the feels. Anxiety, excitement, fear, determination. There was more powering me than just magnesium, carbohydrates and isotonic gels.
We gathered at the Wusum field at 5 a.m for a warm-up. The start time was strategically set to 6 a.m. in order to beat the scorching Sierra Leone heat, which could reach 30°C (86°F) by mid-morning.
Dressed in my Street Child tank top, hand-me-down sneakers and a belt bag containing a few packs of Haribo, a protein bar, some electrolytes and my phone to capture the day ahead, I was ready to go.
The sky turned from black to the purple hues of dawn. As the sun rose over the horizon, I stood at the start line amongst hundreds of other runners, a mix of local and international. This was as much a day for the people of Makeni and Sierra Leone as it was for the runners who had ventured from afar.
The bell sounded. We were off. I followed the crowds, swiftly jogging but not too fast as to exert myself. I started running alongside my German friend, Stefan, who had been so kind enough to fill my water with a concoction of runner’s antidotes. We stopped to greet a few children that ran up to us, their smiling faces distracting us from the long run ahead.
He soon sped up and as more and more people dispersed, I found myself alone. A red earth road lay before me, leading me to one of the greatest physical accomplishments of my life to date. I passed by homes. Colourfully-dressed ladies sat on their porches cheering me on. “Thank you!” one said. Children waved as I jogged past them.
I could see another runner up ahead. It was my friend, Bea.
“Right behind you, B,” I said, acknowledging my presence.
We started running alongside one another, exchanging our feelings about this ecstatic day. Occasionally, or when a hill was ahead, we would slow down to a brisk walk to conserve energy. Bea was running the full 42 kilometres (~26 miles), not an unchallenging feat.
Water stations were prevalent along the track. Street Child and Red Cross staff occupied the stalls, encouraging us as we continued along our journey and ensuring we were all hydrated.
The morning sun reflected off the villages. Locals went about their day, stopping to wave or watch as we ran past their homes. Some of the children ran to the roadside to high-five us as we jogged past them. Those were the moments I cherished most.
We soon approached the crossroads where Bea would continue on to her full marathon and I would turn off to finish my half. For a brief moment I imagined going with her, our friendship had kindled and she made my run more bearable. But my cautious alter-ego warned me I hadn’t trained and reminded me that there would be other times to run a full marathon. As the host told us before the race day, “No need to be a hero. You’ve already won.”
“Good luck,” I said. “I’ll be cheering you on at the finish line!”
We hugged each other and continued on. I started jogging down a road that led to a beautiful rural landscape, surrounded by palm trees and tall grass, and the silence of dawn. Before too long, I saw another group approaching me. It was the Spanish girls from RunTheWorld.
“Bianca!,” they signalled with excitement. “Let’s run together.”
There were 5 of us now. We continued along the last 8 kilometres, either running, jogging or walking, but ensuring we all stayed close to one another. More families cheered us on, children ran with us. We passed one of the local runners, surrounded by a convoy of tooting motorbikes. He was athletic and composed. I assumed he would be one of the first, is not the first, finishers for the full marathon.
The landscape turned from rural back to urban and I knew we were at the finishing kilometres. I could see Amzas in the distance and at that moment something came over me. I lost sight of anything around me but the finishing line ahead. Sounds dwindled and I looked forward with sheer determination. In that last kilometre, I tapped into a kind of energy that could only be described as the raw human spirit. Although my legs and feet were in pain, nothing could stop me. I wondered if this was that intoxicating energy that gets athletes to break records, the type of endurance that powers players in grand finals. It was exhilarating.
All I could think about in those moments were the words of Alusine Kanu, the race coordinator. “Run for the children of Sierra Leone,” he said. “Run as if you want to change the world.”
My pain was insignificant in comparison to the pain this country has felt. The pain of being raised as a child soldier, of seeing bloodshed, of being stripped of your rights as a human being. There was nothing I could have felt that would come minutely close to what the people of Sierra Leone had gone through.
And so I ran with all my might. I did what I came here to do, with the people of Sierra Leone in my heart.
I ran through that finish line in pure ecstasy. As soon as I crossed it, I burst into tears as fellow runners and Street Child staff welcomed me with hugs and high-fives. My tears were an expression of love, pride, hope and relief. They were the emotions of a life-changing week, of a moment I will never forget.
Sometimes in life, we think we can’t do the things we want to do. We let fear and uncertainty hold us back. But life exists far beyond the limits of our comfort zone.
We are capable of anything, of everything. We are capable of running marathons. We are capable of forgiving others for their wrongdoings. We are capable of peace. We just need to believe it’s possible.
I’d like to thank my community of friends, family and supporters who helped me reach my fundraising goal. Thank you for showing up for me and for the people of Sierra Leone. Thank you for listening to our stories and for offering your financial support to allow Street Child to continue its work here.
Thank you to people from all over the world who followed this journey, and to the people who reached out to congratulate me. Thank you to the person reading or listening to this right now. Thank you to the friends who ran that week and thought of me. Thank you to all the Street Child staff and representatives for taking care of us while abroad. Thank you to the other runners and participants who made this experience so enriching. And thank you to the community of Makeni and Sierra Leone for making us feel so welcome in your country.
I hope to return one day.