Less than two and a half years have passed since I jumped on the Street Child bus and I signed up for the first ever Sierra Leone Marathon and started my fundraising endeavours. I received my first donations on 27 February 2012. In 2012, I travelled with a 12 strong Gibraltar team and we raised £21,110. I returned in 2013 and raised £3,568 and so far this year I have raised £3,673 and all of you have made a contribution to this. So that’s £28,351 in not much more than 2 years. Just think what you could do with £28,351 in Sierra Leone.
Well I want to tell you what Street Child has done with that money. Your money. I can tell you because I have seen it, touched it, felt it and met thousands of its beneficiaries. I am only the storyteller though because the real heroes of this story are you, the readers, because you have made a donation which, trust me, made a difference and continues to make a difference every day to the lives of so many children in Sierra Leone.
Some of you will have made a donation because we are friends or family, some because you have been touched by the plight of street children in Sierra Leone and by the amazing work Street Child is doing there. Some may have made a donation in the vain hope that I might stop banging on about it and some of you donated because you found the idea of this lily skinned, unfit, baldy old git going long distance running in West Africa hilarious. That’s fine too. If I’m honest I quite like the reaction I get when people say ‘you’re doing what?, where?, at your age?, are you nuts?.’ Some people say ‘I really admire you for putting yourself through all that in such a dangerous, alien country.’ The truth is that Sierra Leone isn’t a dangerous country, its people are lovely, warm and welcoming and every year I have a great time. They could teach us a thing or two about religious tolerance too. So there we have it. I’ve burnt my ‘hardship’ card and I can’t use that one again to attract donations.
Anyway Phil, what happened to that money I donated? I’m going to throw a few stats at you now because they are quite staggering. Street Child was registered as a charity as recently as late 2008 at a time when Sierra Leone was at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. The poorest country in the world. Many aid organisations had moved into Sierra Leone after the war and focused their efforts in the capital Freetown. Street Child launched its first project in the northern city of Makeni. Just over five years later Street Child is supporting more than 20,000 children in West Africa in 16 urban and 19 rural locations in Sierra Leone and has now extended its reach into neighbouring Liberia. Street Child has reunited more than 2,500 children with their families, helped more than 2,000 families establish a business so that they can afford the cost of keeping their children in school, helped more than 17,000 rural children to go to school for the first time. Street Child now employs 650 Sierra Leoneans. They are teachers, social workers and the street teams who find and befriend the street children. As well as supporting the children these workers can now better support their own families, they pay tax and thus promote economic growth. Street Child Commercial runs shops and bars and ploughs the profits back into the projects, they operate a seed bank so that farmers can access seed at a low interest rate on the condition that their children attend school. Innovative, effective.
Children in Sierra Leone have tough lives. Almost one in five children born in Sierra Leone does not live to see their fifth birthday. Their possessions rarely amount to more than the ragged clothes they are wearing. Perhaps they have shoes, perhaps they don’t. Put them into a safe & nurturing environment though and watch them fly. These are really happy, smiley, affectionate, engaging children. They have really advanced social skills as they have no material distractions and so they play together. They live outdoor lives so they are fit. They really want to go to school and they know it is a privilege others don’t have and they are hungry to learn.
This year I visited 2 fantastic rural schools projects. The first in Bumbuna where Street Child is now training 50 teachers to achieve the government recognised Teaching Certificate. It also runs a resource centre with literacy classes for out of school children in the area and a community library. I took some footballs and a whistle to all the schools I visited as they always go down a storm. A group of girls asked me to referee their game and I disallowed a perfectly good goal. The ‘keeper made what I thought was a good save but the attacking team politely pointed out the the goalkeeper was stood 5 metres behind the goal line. Massively embarrassing. The next day I went on a very long and bumpy journey to Sanda Magbolontor. What a welcome we got there! This is a new Street Child project and the whole village turned out to welcome their first ever groups of western visitors. They sang, they danced and they played their home made musical instruments. Street Child is supporting four schools there, building one school and renovating three others and training ten teachers. The villagers are making the mud bricks themselves.
Now for just a bit about the run. Firstly I think some people are getting the false impression that I’m a good runner. I’m not, I’m crap. My running style is that of a bloke who has mistakenly left the house in oversize carpet slippers to run to the corner shop for a bottle of milk. I don’t really enjoy training, Sierra Leone is ridiculously hot and humid and there is always a point where I get a bit grumpy because I’m tired and suddenly a bloody big hill appears in front of me. Even though I’ve done it three times now, I’m always shocked at how hard it is so I must be able to block this from my memory over time. The 2014 race was only 3 weeks ago and already the painful bits are fading. That said I would hate the idea of a Sierra Leone Marathon taking place without me. Before fatigue sets in it is a great experience, running through the villages and countryside, high fiveing the kids. The scenery is stunning and the welcome of the locals more so. Writing this is making me feel a bit nostalgic so I may rummage around in my ears to find a little Sierra Leonean earth later, I bet there’s still a bit in there somewhere.
Street Child is on the march & Sierra Leone is on the rise. There is political stability and a rapidly growing economy. The 2012 UN HDI still ranks Sierra Leone below the likes of Afghanistan and Sudan but Sierra Leone is a good news story. For sure I’ll be back in 2015 and would love it if you came with me. If not I hope you will stay with me on the journey on the Street Child bus.
Because of your actions there are children in safe, caring environments who were previously living precarious lives on the streets. There are young girls who are now back in schools or in work who previously saw no alternative to a life of prostitution. There are villages that have a school and have trained teachers that previously did not. These schools are transforming the life prospects of their pupils. You are transforming the life prospects of these children.
I hope that thought puts a smile on your face today. Thank you.