“I can offer you tea or coffee but no biscuits,”
I am in the home of an Irish Missionary Nun, almost unnervingly short and, after many years of living in Sierra Leone, still with a strong Irish accent. She has invited me into her home after I was instructed by a colleague in Freetown to bring her some money, the “outstanding bill for the school fees for a couple of children here” – my Freetown colleague has been paying for some children to attend the Deaf school run by the nun.
The school itself is like no other in Sierra Leone – it is peaceful and quiet (partly because the kids can't speak – I am sure the sign language is loud!) It is organised, tidy and clean. The children not only attend school and are taught in sign but those who show no academic spark are given the opportunity to train as welders, metal-workers, caterers – anything that will ensure they can stand on their own two feet as their disability means Sierra Leonean culture will do little for them.
As soon as the Sister hears about my project and the fact that we are starting to introduce yoga at the psychiatric hospital in Freetown as a form of relaxation she says that we must teach her kids how to be Yoga instructors as that could be another line of work for them.
She rushes off down what appears at first to be an empty corridor, however as she passes people pop their heads out of doorways asking her to sign various letters, invoices or any of the admin that goes with running the only deaf school in Sierra Leone, she blithly brushes them off and keeps mumbling about Yoga.
I am left alone in her office for a moment and look up to see a black and white photograph from 1972 where the sister is much younger, surrounded by Sierra Leonean women dressed smartly in uniforms, standing in what appears to be an empty field.
“I had only been here two years when that was taken,” she explains when she returns, “and that was the hospital where I first started to work. It was a field then but now it is almost the centre of Makeni. The town has grown so much.”
42 years she has been here.
Sierra Leone is more a home to her than anywhere else. Eager to know more we sit with a coffee and I ask questions – I am lucky to have found her at a time when she is happy to talk. I have heard she is an efficient and formidable woman when working, a woman with very specific ideas and a way of getting things done. Right now she seems more like a grandmother and I just want to soak up all her knowledge.
I asked if she had stayed during the war. “The week before the rebels came to Makeni the Bishop called a meeting with all of the missionaries, we discussed whether to stay or go.” She said that they knew the rebels were getting close- by then, in fact, her school had already turned into a refugee camp for civilians who had had limbs amputated and had fled their villages for Makeni. She said that her children and teachers had naturally started to care for these people, re-teaching them how to wash, supporting them to work out how to carry things with only one arm or one leg and generally helping them come to terms with the horror of what had happened.
The bishop and the missionaries decided they should take the chance to stay a bit longer as they felt they were needed. That was on a Friday.
Over the weekend the rebels arrived. Initially, she explained, everyone thought they were government soldiers as they were wearing the clothes of soldiers and as a result people were welcoming and would run up to them in the street as they rolled in offering them food and water.
Within hours it was clear they were rebels.
The school sits on a major road in Makeni and would have been a easy target for them to take.
On Monday morning she said she received a telephone call from the Bishop who gave her an hour to pack her things and get out of the town. At this point she paused, leaned in closer and said “ I know this might sound silly but I had to do something – a ritual, something – I couldn't just leave” She went round to every room in the place and blessed it with Holy water. “I knew it wouldn't do anything as I could see the devastation coming but I had to do something – my staff and children had to see me do something.”
I look again at this small formidable lady and now see her as an inspiration. She said that she was terrified of leaving. She was scared of what would happen to her children, to her colleagues, to the ladies who taught in her school – by that point she had been in the country for 20 years. She said in that hour her conscience was battling itself deciding to stay or go until one member of her staff said, “Sister, you have to go now because we will need you to come back strong for us when this is over”
The hair on the back of neck stood up at this – and even now, as I write this, I get goosebumps when I try and imagine how difficult and brave that was of both women.
Sister told me that lady was still there in the school when she returned to Makeni at the end of the war. They remained very close friends until the lady died two years ago.
This incredible, inspiring, formidable, woman only left Sierra Leone for two months during the war – and during that time she got only as far as Guinea before returning to Freetown and for the remaining years of the war she cared for the sick and injured in Freetown until she could come back home to Makeni.
When she got back the rebels had looted everything. She described just one small nursery sized desk remaining in the whole compound. The roof had gone, anything metallic had gone, the rooms were burnt out and graffitied.
Nothing compared to the pain of seeing that the kids had gone and she did not know what happened to all of them.
She did as her friend asked: she came back strong and restarted that school – now she fights for those kids to be recognised as human beings in Sierra Leonean society- she constantly looks out for new opportunities for the kids and battles tireless with the ministry of education to recognise her school as a such and pay her teachers a salary- and the rest of the time she fundraises to do so.
I left her school, came back to the office and recounted her tale to Ian. We stood speechless for a while looking out over the balcony, at the Makeni we know. I remain speechless.