“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela
When people say, the best things in life are free, they are probably talking about things like oxygen and rain; For as far as Land, and anything on or beneath it that involves labor and production is concerned, it costs money. Our mentality is very crucial to our lived reality. Growing up in Sierra Leone was tough from the days of our fathers; kids work, domestic and industrial, from house help to hawking goods to cutting and selling wood at the expense of schooling sometimes.
Some of us who had it better than many, were still inculcated with responsibility by selling butterscotch, doing rag parade, bob-a-job or car wash for pocket money. Our parents who had it worse were able to grab onto opportunities offered by missionary schools, merit-based scholarships, to climb the ladder north in society. A cocktail of the war years, the donor-driven economy it wrought and persistent, prevalent, poverty, sadly, and now the default is we want free stuff, especially from our government. Since independence there has been progressive takeover of schools by the government.
The result has been an evident deterioration in the quality of education in the country. Standards have fallen as successive governments have weaponized education as an election tool, with its share of pervasive corruption and moral decay. Even as a tool for development, it must be clear that education is not cheap. Even in the developed world where they serve them in schools, it is understood there are no free lunches.
According to the World Bank, Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora have increased their foreign remittances every year, from $23 million in 2008 to $59 million in 2021, accounting for 1.4% of our GDP. This is significant when you consider that most of the money goes directly into welfare for many families in the homeland, unlike other countries where avenues have been created for direct investment into the private sector.
Maybe President Kabbah of blessed memory set the trend, but especially in the decade preceding the 2018 elections- when the presidential aspirant Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella was considered a bonafide diaspora candidate- diasporans have agitated for and gotten representation or participation in governance variably. They were precluded by exclusive dual citizenship law from contesting for parliamentary seats; but consideration and review to accommodate them has since ensued. Today, diasporans cannot complain about exclusionary practices and just being bled cash for elections, they have official blocs in political parties and have been offered slots in governance.
And the characters cast run the gamut for the sleaziest, like Alpha Saidu Bangura, to the snazziest like Dr. Austin Demby who was actually a success story in his profession in the United States.The jury may be out on whether the diaspora has provided quality representation in governance. What is not in question is that we are yet to see one public sector revolutionized because of the injection of diaspora blood into the system. It’s not just transfer of resources that Sierra Leone needs its diaspora for; it needs them for transfer of knowledge and skills they have acquired abroad. And no, I am not talking about everyone and their dog and cat setting up a talkshop on social media platforms; something that affects the citizens sustainably, educates and elevates them.
When the Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary School Education, Dr. David Sengeh remarked the alumni should give back to their alma maters in infrastructure, books, supplies to help the current students excel, it quickly became politicized (as everything these days). What many did not know then,was that that facelift which the St. Edwards Secondary School campus had for the centenary celebrations was masterminded by one alumnus; and no, it was not Samura Kamara. After so much ado, reader, meet Professor Alusine Jalloh, a paragon of what it means to give back to the homeland when one is blessed and/or succeeds in the diaspora. Prof. Jalloh is currently the Acting Head of Department, History and African Studies at Fourah Bay College (FBC), after picking up an early retirement at 56 from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) as history professor. Since the end of the war, for 20 years, Dr. Jalloh has been back and forth between home and the US. First he was a visiting professor at FBC in 2005 and served as Founding Director The Africa Program of Texas partnering with Global Connection Networkship Partnership which undertook development work worth millions of dollars in Sierra Leone. He was able to donate books to primary, secondary, polytechnic institutions worth half a million dollars collaborating with the Sierra Leone Library Board. He was also a Fulbright Scholar (2012-13) for a year at FBC, where he had a dream of a Social Work department to grapple with the psychosocial and related issues that bedevil any post-war country and culture. “It took six to seven years to set it up,” he noted, adding that he had the support of Dr. Gbla, the then Dean of Social Sciences and Law and Dr. Ashley the Head of Sociology Department- which was later fused with Social Work- as he networked with people back at UTA to gather books, get technical and other support. Dr. Jalloh shipped a consignment of books to set up a library for the department, still at the Kennedy Building. He recruited faculty also: Dr. Jarrett, Dr. Abdul Kamara and a Mr. Smart that has since returned to the U.S. Today, Sociology and Social Work is the largest department in the Social Sciences hosting over 2000 students; they are filling the gaps for psychosocial counseling in the citizenry and expanding their curriculum to cover other areas.
To get a transcript, passport or birth certificate in Salone could be a real hassle, much less talk of setting up a whole department or discipline at its premier academic institution. Dr. Jalloh said the administration was much forthcoming and that the real headache, he pointed out, was the way the university is run. The current method is if you want to appoint a lecturer, the Ministry of Finance has to approve first. One could say that the President may have fulfilled a campaign promise when he gave the chancellorship of public universities and appointed eminent citizens to those positions. Lingering still is the question: How much autonomy do they really have? I have schooled at arguably the largest and best public university system, The University of California, at Davis and Berkeley for undergraduate and graduate studies, respectively.
The President of the University, chancellors and the Board of Trustees (where the State Governor has a ceremonial seat) together form the supreme authority, with lots of autonomy. University is not just cheap! On both campuses, every time, there is construction or maintenance work going on. I have to take out a loan always on top of a liberal Federal Financial Aid grant package given by a federal government that has no hands in the day to day running of those institutions, save for minor compliance matters. Precisely the point Dr. Jalloh was trying to make when he intoned; “The current fees are about 300 dollars for a year of university education, which is paltry at best.”
Another problem is the politics of awarding grants. It is often self-serving posturing when the government says they have awarded, say, 2000 grant-in-aid scholarships. More than often, he notes, it is the case that they pay about only about 10% of that in the first tranche and the university has to serve a full load of students, while they jockey with the government for the rest. And when the university tries to set its own fees, that gets a big fat “NO” from the government. “How do you serve students who have not paid their fees,” he quizzed, adding that the government is always apprehensive about people setting up private universities that would set their own fees like the private schools and offer quality.
There is not a lot to talk about with regard to quality in the universities. There are hardly any funds, public or private, for primary research, which affects the quality of knowledge produced, the recruitment, maintenance and growth of faculty and the overall usefulness of the university to the public. As current Acting Head of Department of History and African Studies, Jalloh laments the fact that there is no first rate library at any university in the country. There, for example, no JSTOR (The online Journal Storage for important scholarly journals) anywhere, something available to even community college students in the United States. “It would interest you to know that graduate degrees are being offered by universities in this country, yet there is nowhere one can find plagiarism software to check dissertations.” So much for the quality of those degrees!! So as an alumnus and departmental head what is he doing to alleviate the condition of students? There were no private scholarships when he came in, so he made that top priority. Jalloh secured scholarships for 21 students that covered tuition and stipend. It targeted students from impoverished backgrounds and required them to teach at a primary or secondary school of choice as a way of giving back (you would think the government would put a teaching or community service requirement to its grant-in-aid, or the private sector would sponsor some scholarship that would give them the first employment choice). There are four professors in the department, lecturers pursuing a PhD and Masters degrees, two bereavements and a resignation.
And oh, about that talk by the Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary School Education ,Dr. David Sengeh of alumni giving back to their alma maters, Dr Jalloh aces in that department. A bonafide professor emeritus, I wondered if he would let me call him, Alusine the grade “A” Alumnus, in a country where people do even the dubious to be called doctor this or that.He walked into the compound of Trinity Primary School and was touched by the dilapidation of the infrastructure from what he used to know in his days there. He went into gear. He was able to start a school feeding program with the help from the Baptist Church of Arlington Texas and shipped them barrels of school supplies, also started a staff supplementary support program to boost morale.
Additionally, he is collaborating with Francis Amara from Canada who works on science curriculum development and runs a global partnership center in Kenema. For secondary education he has fun memories of his days at Maypark- St Edwards Secondary School and how missionaries used to take good care of it. Unfortunately, he recounted, when Father Jeremiah O’Sullivan left in 1979, 20 years after the current structures were built in 1959, they were left dilapidated. “Last February was the Centenary celebration and I had been involved in a program to set up an endowment for a private scholarship fund. So I contacted the alumni association in Texas which I had helped found in the 1990s and they undertook the renovation scheme ahead of the celebrations, he intimated.
Whew! This is too much for one man to do and certainly the standard for diaspora contribution to the homeland. Forgive me for assuming you would want to know, with all that work, is he looking to serve if, say, the Bio government were to appoint him to a big position where he could affect more lives? Well, he said the former Minister of Technical and Higher Education, Prof Gbakima, contacted him once about taking the job of Vice Chancellor Njala University, but the offer caught him at the wrong time: he was traveling to the US and he had to renew his passport. Then COVID happened; and Prof. Osman Sankoh was given the job. I wonder who in their right mind names a governance policy Free Quality Education knowing fully well the decrepit nature of the infrastructure.and the challenges with resources. In the US, what used to be called Food Stamps from the federal government is now Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and when assistance programs come to Africa, we hear “Poverty Alleviation” not “Eradication.”
A program called Free Access to Education would have made the government sit pretty with all the investment they have made in the sector so far. But are we really serious about quality at all? That is Dr Jalloh’s worry, that, “We do not have a system where someone can come from Dove Court and go straight to the State House.”
The recent fake degree issue is putting the Bio administration in a bad light with senior government officials implicated not being asked to step down from their offices pending a probe. Jalloh didn’t have to say anything on that, the one-man-wrecking-ball Dr. John Idriss Lahai is doing just fine, solo. He acknowledged that it was an opportunity lost by the government to show that it was serious about quality in education.
On another note, there are moves made by the government that are seemingly wrong-headed: “How can you build a science and technology university in Kono that cannot even produce good WASSCE results, is it just the building or what?,” he quizzed. In the end, he notes, we should all care about the legacy we are trying to leave behind for future generations.
“The ultimate measure of our lives is not how much greed and material possession we amass. I think most of it boils down to greed, that’s why our society is faced with so many problems,” he said. I agree. Mightily!