Take our children off the streets and enroll them in schools
The title of this editorial surely strikes a chord in every adult Sierra Leonean. Far too many of our children are on the streets and living wild. We have for many years had a problem of streetism because of a combination of circumstances. We have produced cohorts of children who lack the wherewithal to effectively fit within the society that we, the more fortunate ones have designed. The children have become misfits and we are paying a collective price.
According to ‘The National Head Count of Street Children in Sierra Leone’ report in 2012 supported by Street Child Sierra Leone, the total number of children found living and working on the streets of Sierra Leone was 49,698. The report reads that “24,615 of these children live and work on the streets of Freetown compared with a combined total of 25,083 in all other towns across the country.”
Yes! throughout Freetown and our other district capitals we see children who ought to be at home or in school, out on the streets and fashioning out a living all by themselves. The extent of streetism in Sierra Leone is a reflection of our collective failure as a modern society. We ought to ask ourselves several questions. What went wrong and when? When did we take our eyes off the ball and so badly neglect our responsibilities as parents and society? Where are our much-touted cultural and social safety nets? Why have we so woefully failed to prepare our children for the modern society we have created? Do we stand a chance in recovering and making amends?
Streetism is the phenomenon where children live and work on the streets due to the lack of family ties and social safety nets. The definition is stretched to include children who are forced into manipulative relationships and associations. The phenomenon is global and almost invariably underpinned by poverty, marginalization and the attendant lack of opportunities.
We have traditionally been an agrarian society and rural agriculture has been the mainstay of livelihood for our uneducated (formally, I mean) parents. Many of the current generation of privileged adults (including myself) had our parents work the land to yield food to feed the family and sell for sustenance. Farming was a sure means by which less privileged rural youths in Sierra Leone and most of sub-Saharan Africa found decent engagement. Now however most of rural agriculture is in moribund state and poverty has so gripped hundreds to thousands of our countrymen that migration to cities has become the only thinkable option. So, to the cities many have migrated in search of opportunities for which they are completely ill-prepared. It is this search for survival that leads to the development of poorly organised slum communities in the cities. And it is from these marginalised communities that street children emerge! As a country that is still steeped in agrarianism, we cannot address the problem of streetism without a commitment to the restoration of rural agriculture. Such restoration of rural agriculture should be founded on bold (not necessarily palatable) policies that are deliberately fashioned to force the consumption of locally produced foods and farm-derived products.
Were we the society that prided itself in being so religious? Oh yes, we will claim that with unrestrained passion. Turn every street corner and you will see our religiosity in bold display. Today the number of churches and other places of worship outnumber schools and institutions for youth training. As a Christian, I feel a personal sense of shame and embarrassment to acknowledge that our so-called religiosity has not manifested in efforts at supporting ventures that take children off our streets. The missionaries of old who introduced religion matched that primary desire with opportunities for developing our intellects (schools!!). Many of today’s ‘big men and women’ benefitted from education that was made possible by early missionaries. So why have we allowed so many churches and other religious sects to situate without pinning them to some social welfare commitments? The time has come for our religious groupings to walk the talk on religiosity by turning attention to the problem of streetism. For every church or mosque, may we see a school or similar training facility? Will our religious groups agree to commit a percentage of offerings to an inclusively managed national social welfare fund that will be dedicated to addressing streetism and its related challenges? My Bible in James 2:14 tells me that “Faith Without Works is Dead".
As we brainstorm measures that we can implement to take children off our streets, we need to also pay attention to the strategies we have already put in place to prevent succeeding generations of children from taking to streetism. In this consideration, we appreciate the pivotal role of education. Education is a clearest route out of acute poverty and His Excellency The President Dr. Julius Maada Bio recognises this and has launched the free quality education programme. Through this program, hundreds of thousands of children from very poor backgrounds are having access to primary and secondary education and are preparing themselves to fulfil their aspirations and realise their potential. Such fulfilment will surely see them very far away from ever taking up streetism. In applauding this visionary and far-reaching intervention, I wish to draw attention to a word within our Education Act whose meaning, and essence appears to be escaping us. That word is COMPULSORY!! Our Education Act of 2004 states that basic education in Sierra Leone shall be free and compulsory. Compulsory means compulsory! It is not a decorative combination of letters. Compulsory education is supposed to last 9 years, from age 6 to age 14. Any parent who fails to send a child who is aged between 6 to 14 years to school is in breach of the law of the land. Such a parent is grooming a future street child who will be a burden on society at large. The time has come for the COMPULSORY component of our Education Act to be given true meaning! Let us arrest and reprimand parents who wilfully fail to send their children to school. It is unacceptable in modern Sierra Leone!
Lonta ka da Bai! For love of Mama Salone
Yeama Sarah Thompson