Quick thinking by head teacher Abdul Kamara saved Kroo Bay Community Primary School’s children from disaster. Moments before the deluge, 150 students and the school’s eight teachers were inside, busy with the day’s lessons.
“I was inside and I could see the rain coming down heavy,” said Abdul. “I went out to see how the water was rising. When I saw how close the water was to the school, I instructed the teachers to remove the kids. A few minutes later, I saw the water enter the school.”
Within a few hours the flood waters rose to within five inches of the school roof.
Kroo Bay Community Primary School is located in one of the coastal slum areas of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, vulnerable to regular floods in the rainy season. But the torrential downpours in Freetown on 16 September 2015 were unprecedented.
“This kind of flooding has never happened before,” said Abdul. “Normally flooding comes in, but it doesn’t come in to destroy like that. The floods even broke down the railing of the bridge that we use to get here.”
The Government of Sierra Leone responded to the floods emergency by opening up the National Siaka Stevens and Atouga stadiums as temporary shelter for those who had lost their homes in Freetown. UNICEF joined the humanitarian response and has been providing emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), shelter, health, nutrition and protection interventions. UNICEF is also supporting the government respond to the education needs of children affected by the floods across the country, including children from the Kroo Bay community.
“We went to Kroo Bay which is probably the most severely affected community in Freetown, and we saw the community school almost totally damaged,” said Lang Ma, UNICEF Education Specialist. “We saw mud and debris everywhere – on the floor, on campus, in the classroom. It is frustrating for us adults, and it’s even more frustrating for children who are not able to go back to the school after this.”
UNICEF education teams are working to help the community transition back to a normal life.
“We are going to provide educational opportunities and psycho-social support to take care of their learning needs and also their social-emotional needs, so that when the schools are rebuilt or refurbished, they are ready to go back to school, ready to continue their learning,” said Lang Ma.
The Freetown floods occurred at a particularly critical time for sixth grade students who were preparing to sit for their National Primary School Examination (NPSE). As a temporary measure, Abdul Kamara arranged for sixth graders who remained in the community with their families, to study for their exams at the Kroo Bay Community Centre, which was not as badly affected by the floods. For children who had moved to the stadiums from Kroo Bay, arrangements were made for sixth graders to receive tutoring in the Child Friendly Spaces that were set up by NGOs with the support of UNICEF.
On the day of the national exam, UNICEF, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and NGO partners made arrangements to ensure the 106 sixth graders at both stadiums were able to access to examination centres and sit for their exams.
The educational needs of children in lower grades are also being looked after as part of the emergency response to the floods. More than 500 children have been registered at the Child Friendly Space that is operated by Save the Children with support from UNICEF at the national stadium. There they are receiving lessons, psycho-social counselling and meals. UNICEF has also provided the space with three early childhood education (ECD) kits for pre-school age children.
Eight-year-old first grader Saidu Mansaray is busy drawing using the coloured pencils from the ECD kits. “I was in school when the water came and my mother came and took me from there to our house, but the water spoiled our house,” said Saidu. “I am here at the stadium with my mother, father, brother and sister. I am drawing a house because I need a place to sleep. When I am a big man I want to be a carpenter because I want to build my house. I am enjoying this place.”
“Children must be allowed to be children, even in emergency situations,” said Lang Ma, UNICEF Education Specialist in Early Childhood Development. “The ECD kit is basically a big metal box containing teaching-learning materials and toys that can cater for fifty children ages zero to six. In emergency situations, children’s regular education opportunities are lost – they cannot go to school and they cannot go to kindergarten and they are in a shelter – and sometimes even homeless. It is therefore crucial to bring education to children in an emergency situation. The box is like a mobile kindergarten or pre-school that we can take to an emergency situation. When children are playing with the kit, they are engaging in fun, educational activities, and they feel normal. They feel safe. They feel like they can go on with their lives.”
While these temporary measures are catering to the educational needs of affected children, assessments are on-going to provide long-term solutions.
“The only thing I need to do now is to advocate for the school to be demolished and build a new one,” said Abdul. “Our school is no longer safe, not only for the kids, but for the teachers as well. Meanwhile, I will ask the community to give me the community centre from which to run the school.”
Indrias G. Kassaye is a Communications Specialist working with UNICEF Sierra Leone