Food, Education, and Peacebuilding: Children's Learning Services in Sierra Leone
Emma Kamara and Keith Neal
After more than a decade of civil war, Sierra Leone is attempting to put back the pieces of a shattered society. Perhaps nothing is more crucial to those efforts than to invest in the nation's children, who suffered so terribly during the war. Moreover that is precisely what is happening with Children's Learning Services, an initiative of a former university lecturer and the mother of five children, who was herself driven from her home during the war. After addressing the children's basic needs, talking about peace is on the menu.
Children's Learning Services (CLS) has been involved in equipping schoolchildren, young adults, and teachers with conflict resolution skills. A basic premise of CLS is that while peacebuilding skills may not be inherent, they can be learned. An equally important premise of CLS is that both the body and the mind must be nurtured to secure the future of Sierra Leone's children. As Emma Kamara, the founder and coordinator of CLS, says: "First we address some basic needs. When the child has had something to eat and has been able to learn something, then he or she knows that you are concerned about him or her. Only then can you begin to talk about peace. So first we look for ways to feed the children by trying to link community food production and schools."
Virtually all of Sierra Leone's citizens-and particularly its children-were subjected to violence during the civil war that officially ended in January 2002, and many encountered unspeakably traumatic experiences. In 1999, after rebels attacked and killed many residents of the capital, Freetown, Kamara decided that positive action had to be taken to bring hope and restore dignity to children. Drawing on her own spiritual faith, she started out with one hundred children between the ages of four and ten who attended her church. She taught them academic skills, introduced faith-building songs, and encouraged them to become peacebuilders.
Encouraged by the response of the children, the church, and the local community to this program, Emma's vision began to grow. Her professional experience in education was invaluable. She was already thinking about how to restore the huge losses in educational opportunity caused by the war. So she committed herself to working to involve all the children of Sierra Leone in peacebuilding.
It was a huge challenge to develop this vision with almost no resources. However, in 2001, with the support and encouragement of a few friends and churches in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom, Kamara founded Children's Learning Services as a Christian community-based organization focusing on child development. The aim was to give support in three key areas: quality basic education, peacebuilding, and nutrition security. CLS started a pilot peace education project at the Freetown Modern Preparatory School. Video and computer classes were organized to enrich children's learning experiences. CLS also conducted in-service teacher-training sessions in peace education. Numeracy and literacy were promoted using basic learning materials donated by the community. Parents and teachers were included in this endeavor. From this early experience, CLS showed that peace education can be integrated into the curriculum and provide life skills necessary for resolving day-to-day conflicts at home and in school.
As program coordinator, Kamara soon found that the work demanded a full-time commitment, so she resigned her university post. The sheer magnitude of the task ahead became apparent once it was possible to travel more freely and evaluate the needs of children outside Freetown.
CLS identifies with several other organizations in recognizing the fact that many children were forced to participate in the armed conflict and many more were helpless victims. After the war it became commonplace to find many ex-combatants among the nation's students. Once they had gone through the processes of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration, it was official policy to return them to school or some other training institution. Administrators are now facing the huge challenge of insuring that schools attended by ex-soldiers remain peaceful. Not only must they maintain the desired discipline of coexistence and tolerance, but also they need to learn conflict resolution skills to resolve day-to-day conflicts.
"The worst problem is that the children are deeply traumatized," says Kamara. "In a way they have lost their hope for a better future. And most of them have lost their positive self-image. If someone threatens to kill you, it feels as if you are worth nothing. And then there are children who have killed."Accordingly, the program begins not by directly addressing peacebuilding, but with stress management and trauma healing. "Before being able to talk about peace, we give them skills to be able to handle their emotions, their fears and doubts."
Significantly, nearly all the trauma-healing and peace-building programs set up at the end of the war were targeted at adults, and most operated at the community level. Schools did not consider peacebuilding to be a responsibility they should assume. However, the CLS perspective is that, since young people, particularly schoolchildren, form a crucial part of every community, it is essential that they be given the means to help equip their local communities with conflict resolution skills and to bring their peacebuilding initiatives to fruition.
Since 2001 CLS has mobilized a number of volunteers and practitioners in peacebuilding, quality basic education, and nutrition security in and out of school. The work is done through the implementation of a variety of projects in collaboration with local communities, government ministries, and other community-based organizations (CBOs) and NGOs. Among the organizations with which CLS is working is the National Collaborative Network for Peace Building in Sierra Leone (NCP-SL), the local affiliate of the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). WANEP has been involved in implementing active nonviolence and peace education programs in various West African countries, and has supported this program to complement the efforts of various peace education initiatives by national governments and civil-society groups. CLS was invited through NCP-SL to introduce a newly developed curriculum on active nonviolence and peace education in schools. Both WANEP and CLS initiatives were particularly timely, as they complemented the peacebuilding initiatives and projects of the government of Sierra Leone for teacher training, funded by the World Bank, to develop peace education materials.