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Show God's love to Sierra Leone

“Without the Spirit, Jesus remains a personage from the past; with the Spirit, He is a person alive in our own time. Without the Spirit; Scripture is a dead letter; with the Spirit it is the word of life. A Christianity without the Spirit is joyless moralism; with the Spirit, it is life.” Pope Francis

THE Holy Spirit is the gift given to us to inspire us to preach the Gospel and to show God’s love in our words and our actions, just as Jesus did while He was on earth. It was the Holy Spirit that inspired Fr Eugenio Montesi, a Xaverian Missionary Priest—currently based in St Bartholomew’s, Castlemilk, but originally from Corinaldo in Italy—to live and work in Sierra Leone for 29 years serving the people there.

In turn it was his example, and that of his fellow Xaverians, which inspired Hilton Santigue Kamara to become a teacher (above with pupils) and to get involved in one of their major education projects. This project, the Love of God schools complex in Calabatown—in the eastern part of the capital city Freetown—began some ten years ago.

“Fr Montesi was my mentor for more than ten years before he came to Scotland,” Hilton said. “It was he who had the vision for the Love of God schools complex. He is a very passionate man who is dedicated to improving people’s lives.”

A passion for education

And the Eastern part of the city is where people’s lives are in need of most improvement. It is extremely densely populated, with around 60 per cent of the city’s population living there. There is a high number of unemployed young people, street children and orphans. It is woefully underdeveloped. There is no modern water supply, the medical facilities are poor and there is a distinct lack of schools.

The lack of schools and access to a good education, in particular, is in desperate need of improvement, not only in the eastern part of Freetown, but in Sierra Leone as a whole. The devastating civil war in the country from 1991-2002 wiped out 1270 primary schools and forced 67 per cent of children out of education in 2001. Many of the children were left orphaned.

The West African nation continues to struggle with its school system and has to deal with a number of issues. More than 40 per cent of primary school teachers are untrained, there is a massive shortage of textbooks—it is not uncommon for four or five students to share a single book—and the literacy rate among 15-24 year olds is below 60 per cent.

One particularly serious problem that continues to afflict the school system in Sierra Leone is the challenge of girls’ education. While girls’ educational access is improving, class completion remains scarce with high dropout rates and consistently low enrolment in secondary school. Early pregnancy, gender-based violence, child marriage and cultural biases propagate this cycle of gender inequality. Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest adolescent pregnancy rates—a phenomenon that is largely responsible for the high dropout rate among girls. More than 60 per cent of girls throughout the country are married before the age of 18. Early marriage further hinders these girls’ abilities to pursue an education and gain independence. Shortages of facilities, supplies, and quality instructors have made it virtually impossible for all children to enrol in school and a preference for boys’ education remains dominant. Girls are often instructed to stay home and assume domestic responsibilities while their brothers head to the classroom.

Into this environment stepped Fr Montesi, his fellow Xaverians and Hilton. They set up the Love of God schools complex in 2009 to provide education at primary, junior secondary and senior secondary level. Fr Montesi’s passion had ignited in Hilton a passion of his own for education. He has been a teacher for some 16 years and during this time was made Love of God’s first headteacher.

“I am passionate about my faith,” Hilton exclaimed. “I want people to feel the same way and to feel the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. In particular, I want to do this through education. I became more passionate about teaching through my encounters with many of the orphans who hadn’t had the chance to go to school. I wanted to change that.”

Looking on with pride

While, Fr Montesi played down his own part in Hilton’s mission, he nonetheless expressed pride at everything he has gone on to achieve.

“Hilton stayed nearby to Fr Joseph Berton, who was previously in charge of the seminary in Coatbridge,” Fr Montesi explained. “He provided Hilton with an example of how we must love and care for each other.

“As a result of the war, there were many war widows and orphans. Fr Berton then built schools primary and secondary schools with the help of Communion and Liberation Milano (CL Milano). He also secured plots of land for war widows—allowing us to build 30 houses for them— as well as land for vocational centres and a hostel for poor students. During all this, Hilton worked alongside Fr Berton.

“When Fr Berton left Sierra Leone, Hilton worked with me along the same lines. Then he decided to start on his own a school for poor children who could not attend classes due to lack of funds for things like school fees, uniforms and books. He asked local people to make use of unfinished buildings and shelters, and managed to get some teachers to volunteer with him. I used to make visits to the classrooms. Every month, the Xaverians in Scotland sent him £300 to help to provide a small salary for those teachers too. They started achieving some really good results from the students!.

“Hilton is very dedicated to caring for the poor. He is a committed local missionary and I am very proud of him.”

Rising to meet challenges

Thanks to Hilton and many of his fellow passionate teachers in Freetown and further afield, there have been marked improvements to education in Sierra Leone. In the wake of conflict, it was noted that a mere 55 per cent of children were finishing primary school. That number has since jumped to 76 per cent of students finishing primary school and 77 per cent of those children advancing to the junior secondary level. The youth literacy rate jumped a full percentage point from 2009 to 2010. The government of Sierra Leone now also spends 14 per cent of its national budget on education with half of that figure devoted to primary education.

While the Ebola outbreak of 2013/14 sadly created more orphans, Hilton has been true to his word with regards his devotion to education. Despite having to use old houses for the school buildings at present, the desire to be educated is there. At its inception, there were a mere 11 pupils in attendance, but by the end of its first academic year there were 40. Now, there are some 350 pupils currently attending the Love of God schools.

This year, too, has been a testing time for the staff and pupils at the school and indeed the city of Freetown as a whole. In July, a number of people died after flash flooding hit Sierra Leone’s capital. Serious damage was reported in the West African port city of more than one million people as homes and vehicles were swamped. Flooding and mudslides in Freetown in 2017 killed nearly 500 people, with even more reported missing.

“Freetown has the highest amount of rainfall in West Africa,” Hilton explained. “July and August saw heavy amounts of rainfall in Sierra Leone, which led to the flooding and, subsequently, the deaths of some people and extensive damage to property. According to reports, more than 5000 people have been affected, with more than 300 houses being destroyed.

“Some 48 of our pupils were affected. They lost not only their homes—meaning that they were displaced—but also their learning materials, clothing, food and so on. We had to do our best to help them, and are continuing to do so, but they need more than just our support. In cases like this we really need external intervention too.

“Mercifully the school buildings were largely unaffected, but in the long term, the drainage will need to be fixed in them. The site where the new school will be built wasn’t affected and I very much doubt it will be in future either because the land is flat and big.

“These challenges are something that we really can’t control, but something that we have to deal with.”

However, in spite of everything, the school community continues to grow, even in the midst of a host of other challenges such as: a lack of food, shelter, clothing and medical support for the orphans living there. As well as endeavouring to tackle all these challenges head on by helping to establish family homes for orphans and improving their overall standard of living, the Church is dedicated to forging ahead with improvements to the Love of God schools complex.

Taking the next step

The next step, which has partly been taken, is to build proper classrooms and school buildings to accommodate the many children in the area who are keen to obtain an education and help lift themselves out of poverty. This is where Missio Scotland, and the support that you can give to us, comes in.

“The Love of God schools are in need of assistance,” Hilton (above) said. “Support from Missio Scotland and those in Scotland who donate to it, would be a great blessing for us and would allow us to carry out our vision for education here.”

Just as the Holy Spirit moved in Fr Montesi, his fellow Xaverians and in Hilton too, why not let it move in you and help us to help children receive an education in Sierra Leone. By showing God’s love you can support the Love of God schools.

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To donate to Missio Scotland, visit: call us on: 01236 449774 or send donations to: Missio Scotland, St. Andrews, 4 Laird Street, Coatbridge ML5 3LJ

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