Just five years ago, when the Street Child charity was founded, Sierra Leone was literally the poorest country in the world according to the UN. Since enjoying a period of political stability and foreign investment, the country has thankfully moved up the rankings. Not that those who live in Tambakha would notice. This large but sparsely populated corner of Northern Sierra Leone remains forgotten by those with power and money based in the capital Freetown.
Last week, I joined Tom Dannatt, the founder of Street Child, and a small group from London on a two day trip to Tambakha. Having helped to raise £300,000 from the first Sierra Leone Marathon in 2012, I went to see first-hand the impact of our fund-raising in the rural communities where so many children with no hope begin their journey to the city streets.
The remoteness of the region we were headed was immediately obvious. After being tossed around for five hours in our 4x4s on dirt tracks, completely impassable in the rainy season, we made it to the Tamparay ferry; a raft pulled by hand across the Mongo River marking the border of the Tambakha Chiefdom. From there the roads became even narrower; climbing through the forest, meandering around large boulders and across treacherous log-built bridges.
Eventually arriving exhausted and sweaty, our spirits were lifted by the incredible welcome from the children in the villages. With few agencies venturing this far, Street Child and its in-country partner HANCi are well known locally. During a long afternoon we visited four primary schools. In the last year, with its new funds the charity has opened a further twenty-five. More impressively over 100 teachers are now enrolled on part time training courses and that number is set to double over the next twelve months. It is hard to imagine that before the Marathon last year, there were just three teachers in the whole of Tambakha; an area where 10,000 untaught children of primary school age live.
At sunset, we sat talking with the Chief and Elders of Tambakha, all of whom spoke with huge pride about their recently opened school, in the shadow of which we enjoyed our goat and rice supper. Their passion for education was clear. They pray that their youth will go on to secondary school, college and become lawyers, doctors, business people in Makeni and Freetown. By teaching the young, their community will find a voice. They hope the rest of the country will eventually become aware of the hardship in Tambakha and investment will start to lift the chiefdom out of its cycle of subsistence poverty.
The poorest region in one of the poorest countries is a place where financial support can make a huge difference. It can cost as little as £1,000 to build a basic school and £40 to teach a child for a year. Street Child channels over 90% of its funds direct into projects; employs only local skilled staff; partners with tested delivery agencies and focuses solely on fully sustainable schemes. Their success will only be measured in the longer term but on the evidence of what I saw in Tambakha there is good reason to be optimistic about what they might achieve with our continued support.