Yesterday afternoon, Emma suddenly started talking about something that has bothered us both on and off for a while now. I’m not sure what triggered it, but, out of the blue, she said, “It’s weird how all these kids at my school were so excited about making a connection to the Hope School, and then they just dropped it.” She was referring to the sister school relationship her old school in Encinitas had had with the Hope Preparatory School, a school in the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
I had started the sister school relationship through a colleague of mine who runs an NGO (the Community Hope Project) that supports the Hope School. I thought it would be a way for kids in Encinitas to learn more deeply about what life was like in a poor community in Sierra Leone, and for the kids in Sierra Leone to be able to learn from their friends in Encinitas. It was also a way to shift resources to the Hill Cut community, a very poor community that has been frequently hit by floods, the fallout from Ebola outbreaks, and other crises. In the end, though, the relationship died after a few years because of lack of interest. Perhaps the gap between the two schools was too great. Ultimately, Sierra Leone was too much of an abstraction for K-8 kids in Encinitas, California.
Emma went on, “I still don’t get how you can just end a sister school relationship like that. Just drop it like it was never there. You can’t just drop a sibling for no reason.” After a while I realized that she was still processing something that happened at her old school, last year, when she was trying to organize a fundraiser for the Hope School and had a hard time selling it to her classmates. (She often brings up earlier events and conversations now; she has my tendency to rehash the past in the back of her mind. Plus, being in quarantine leaves us with a lot of time in our own minds; just the other day, Emma had cause to learn the term “non sequitur” from one of our conversations.) Referring to her California classmates, “They had other things that they were ‘passionate’ about, I guess. It’s such a privilege to be able to move on to other ‘passions,’ when the kids at the Hope School can’t. They’re there. It’s their lives.” We talked about this for a while. A privileged private school in southern California has its pick of causes and people to care about, but the people of Hill Cut can’t easily move on to another sister school in the US. Making contact with a community in another country is a lot more difficult when your access to communication technology is severely limited. You need the kindness of strangers. This is the part that’s often so hard to explain to people. The sister school relationship really mattered to the kids in Sierra Leone in a way that it didn’t to the kids in the USA. It was not replaceable.
“Robert always said how excited the kids were about Village Gate. They were so excited about us.” Robert Kamara is the program coordinator for the Community Hope Project in Freetown and runs the Hope School; he is an extraordinary person. And they were, the kids at the Hope School. They were so very excited. I would pass on photos and videos that Robert sent me to the teachers at Village Gate. We had a pen pal program going for two years, which turned out to be a coordination nightmare; the kids exchanged two letters one year, and one the next, from what I remember. But then the Hope School suddenly doubled in size to 200 kids, and it was overwhelming for the much smaller school in Encinitas to keep up the correspondence. I gave the teachers instructions to pass on to any kids who wanted to keep writing to a pen pal on their own (especially how to pay for their postage), so at least they could do that.
We did run some very successful fundraisers for the Hope School during the few years of the sister school arrangement. The first year, we raised around $3000 to put a roof on the school building to protect it from the rains, which can fall viciously during the rainy season and often destroyed school materials and furniture. The kids had bake sales and sold other items to raise the money. The kids also raised money for the annual Christmas party; this is the only real party the Hope School kids have all year, and it’s a very big deal for them. Village Gate families also helped pay the Hope School teachers’ salaries for a month (around $600) when they hadn’t been paid. And we raised part of the money for a roof for the second school building that had to go up when 100 kids were added to the school from the surrounding community. Because of that, two hundred kids could get an education without worrying about the rain destroying their classrooms.
I spent one summer trying to find other sources of funds for the Hope School, as well, so that the sister school relationship could be one more of connection than just fundraising; I thought maybe that was the problem. But even that wasn’t easy. I joined a website for grant sources for NGOs, and initially identified about a dozen potential funding sources. But each one had its own requirements that knocked the Community Hope Project out of the running. The project director had to be in Germany for one (she’s in the United States); it had to be an explicitly Christian school for another (half of the kids at Hope are Muslim). And so on. We applied to the Friends of Sierra Leone, an organization made of former Peace Corps volunteers, but were rejected. I still hope to find that magical pot of money that might keep the school going and the teachers paid for at least a couple of years, but I have precious little time to search. In the meanwhile, the community is supported by a few individuals like me, who give our own money to the school and a new community development project Robert started in a rural area called Waterloo, which involves building a school and purchasing land for a community farm.
What made the Hope School important to me was its story, the story of Hill Cut, a very poor community that originally had no school. The kids would have to travel for hours just to get an elementary education if they didn’t have the Hope School. Most of them wouldn’t be able to. There are millions of communities like this around the world, but I had a personal connection to this one through my friend and colleague Leslie, who started the project because of a pen pal relationship her daughter had with one of the kids in Hill Cut. In some ways, Hill Cut’s story is now one of the power of interpersonal relationships to change people’s lives. Hill Cut has a very successful school now (100% of the 6th grade class passed their middle school entrance exams last year). It definitely isn’t easy, but somehow it keeps going. The original idea was that the school would become self-sustaining by renting out the building for private events, but an Ebola crisis followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a new Ebola outbreak brewing in nearby Guinea, have severely affected the local economy, so I am not sure how much they are able to raise themselves.
On the other hand, this is a cautionary tale that sometimes starting a project without a sustained source of funding is not the best idea. When I was doing my PhD research in Ethiopia, the joke was that if you wanted to get rich, you just started your own NGO. This can work sometimes (my landlord was quite wealthy and tapped into USAID community development funds), but it also spreads funding rather thin, and more and more NGOs crop up to compete for what seem to be shrinking pots of money. Everyone wants to do their own thing, have their own brand, sell their own solutions. I don’t think the Community Hope Project is quite like this; it started from a genuine drive to help a specific group of people. But it feels crisis-driven to me, even though it isn’t supposed to be. It feels like there’s just one thing after another after another. Perhaps this is what the folks at Emma’s old school sensed, and it sent them packing. Too much need repels, in relationships and in philanthropy.
But we live in a world where there is always need. Tremendous need, coming at us from all sides. I sure feel it (at the end of 2020, I panic-donated money I didn’t really have to environmental organizations I support because I worry about the climate crisis a lot; I also gave to the Community Hope Project and Give Directly, a fantastic organization that just gives people cash, and it works). It can be hard to pick one thing and stick with it. But this is what the Hope School and thousands of other projects like it need; people who will stay with them, and not flit off to the next thing that attracts their interest.
That’s the other part of the story. In the US, we live in a society that is driven by “passion.” People, including children, are encouraged to pursue careers, hobbies, causes that they feel “passionate” about. The idea, I guess, is then you’ll stick with it and not get lured away by other endeavors. The problem is, passion seldom lasts, and what happens when the passion fades? Passion is not a solid foundation for any sort of lasting relationship. It might be enough to pique interest, but you need to have a good, solid think about why you’re getting involved in something and how to sustain it.
I think I didn’t do enough of this when I was trying to get the sister school relationship between the Hope School and Village Gate going. I gave presentations to the kids and parents about the Community Hope Project and what they’d accomplished. I also talked with the kids about the history of Sierra Leone, its connection to the US, and its current status. I think the kids at Village Gate learned something, but it made Emma angry to hear what some of them later said about Sierra Leone and Africa generally. It’s hard for affluent people to talk about poverty without over-generalizing, and Americans tend to see “Africa” exclusively in terms of poverty and disaster; those are the media images we are given. I tried to offer a more nuanced view, showing the modern and affluent parts of Freetown along with the obviously struggling Hill Cut community. But in the end, many people here lack the context for understanding poverty even in their own society, much less on the other side of the world. Certainly school children who don’t experience it themselves would have a hard time imagining it.
The first time I was in graduate school, in anthropology at the University of Florida in the early 1990s, a friend of mine and I fantasized about adding a mandatory exchange program to high schools in the US that would bring kids to a completely different part of the world for a couple of months. Not just to western Europe, but to small communities in other countries that had completely different ways of life. It was totally pie in the sky, but we thought of it as one way of building empathy and global connections. Giving people a chance to meet each other and get to know each other. To get beyond the sometimes xenophobic reactions we sometimes have to people who are completely different from ourselves. It’s a tall order, certainly, and a bit much for elementary and middle school kids, but I was hoping that forging a connection between these two schools on two different continents would be a small model of that. I guess that’s why it was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, that it didn’t last.
It’s interesting to me, though, that Emma still thinks about it and talks about it. A seed was planted, at least for her. But then again, she lives with me. I’m not sure what seeds we planted among the kids at Village Gate, but I hope they still remember this small community in a faraway place that they were connected to for a short time. Maybe someday it will form the basis for some other actions that they take in the world. And maybe that has to be enough. In the meanwhile, the families in Hill Cut and now Waterloo have more hope for the future, and somehow those of us who continue to stand with them will keep them going until they can do it themselves.