Little ripples make big waves

When Tenneh put her oar in the river and rowed to school
for the first time, she set off a ripple of possibility.

Welcome to Tenneh's world

Tenneh lives in a small fishing village, tucked into a riverbank in Pujehun district, Sierra Leone. It’s separated from the mainland by lakes and you can only get there by boat.

The water is a way of life for families here - their transport and their livelihood. Homes dot the riverbank; some made from concrete, some from earth. Chickens roam freely. Palm trees with coconuts are scattered between the homes, where people gather, talk, and relax. 

Tenneh stands outside her family home wearing a blue and grey marbled skirt that mirrors the water. Her expression is one of deep thought. Until she breaks out into a grin.

But it hasn’t always been so peaceful. Sierra Leone is still overcoming a brutal conflict that ended just two decades ago.

In fact, around 70% of young people are unemployed because they can’t read or write, or haven’t been given a formal education. Pujehun remains one of the poorest districts in the country.

Like so many children here, school wasn’t a possibility for Tenneh a few years ago. Books and uniform were prohibitively expensive for many fishing and farming families. Attendance at the nearest school was low.

Even if they did go, 23% of children dropped out before finishing. And only half passed their national exams.

Then 4 things changed…

Save the Children has been working alongside families in Pujehun for many years – supporting children to keep exploring a world of possibility, no matter their setbacks. And in 2017 we began a project that would transform learning in Pujehun.

First, we refurbished every school along the river; fixing roofs, repairing walls, creating and stocking libraries, building new toilets and clean-water sources. Then we kitted them out with chalkboards and furniture.

Second, we made sure children who couldn’t afford it had school uniforms, shoes, school bags, exercise books, stationery, and sports equipment. We also made sure girls had sanitary products – a lack of which can stop girls from attending classes.

Third, we trained teachers. At Tenneh’s school, we supported eight teachers with lesson planning, learning styles, and inclusive education. Mr Kemoh was one of them. And that sparked a crucial moment…

Good morning, Mr Kemoh

Gassimu Kemoh is Tenneh’s headteacher.

“I used to travel around the villages to meet children who could not come to school. I found Tenneh sitting down and asked her, ‘why are you not in school?!’ Her mother told me she doesn’t have any means to pay for school. She said, ‘what about shoes, what about books, how will she get all those things?!’

I talked things over with her father and mother, then they decided to send her to school. Save the Children has given them books, uniforms, shoes, a lot of things that inspire them to learn more.

I want to see Tenneh achieve her education. That will be one of my legacies.”

Tenneh's journey

Now, each morning, Tenneh climbs into her canoe, drops her oar in the river, and rows to school. Her boat belongs to her grandma – it’s made from smooth wood carved from a tree trunk. She never rows in her school uniform because she doesn’t want it to get wet.

“The school is beautiful, and the teacher likes me. Whatever we need they will provide for us.

I love social studies. Sometimes the teacher will set work that is difficult for me. He would help me get it right. When the teacher gives us homework and we submit it, he corrects us nicely. In the morning, he walks around just to make sure that we are all in school. He takes good care of us.

I want to be educated and help my parents. Now I want to be a nurse.”

Results day

Who knows where the ripples started by Tenneh could end? And she’s just one girl. Hundreds of children here are thriving - staying in school, improving their grades, and keeping their dreams alive.

“Last year and this year, our pupils are performing very well. Because of this people are sending their children here,” says Mr Kemoh.

In fact, the number of students has doubled since we started supporting the school, up to 183 children a year from local villages. In that same time, drop-out rates plummeted from 23% to 4%.

A staggering 91% of pupils passed their national exams last year, up from 54%. The national average is 79.2%, meaning children like Tenneh - from some of Sierra Leone’s poorest communities - are getting the chance to explore a world of possibility at some of the highest-achieving schools in the country.

That could be the beginning of a wave for this district, and for Sierra Leone.

Thank you

That’s what we can achieve together. That’s what's made possible by your support.

Words by Gemma Munday and Mike Butcher
Photos by Tom Maguire