Can arts and culture change young lives in Sierra Leone?

Joe Hallgarten is co-founder of Global Arts Learning Action, and senior associate with the Innovation Unit and has recently joined the World Class team. His experience and contribution as an educator is second to none; here is a fascinating glimpse into his latest work in arts education and culture in Sierra Leone…

I got used to the noise, but never quite adjusted to the heat. Whilst, by the end of my too-short first-ever week in Freetown, I could happily navigate the madness of Lumley Junction, I was still sweating as much on day seven as on day one.

What was I doing hre? I’m the co-founder of Global Arts Learning Action. Our mission is to encourage and enable lower income countries to place arts learning at the heart of their education systems, and to mobilise the world’s educators and artists to support these endeavours. We believe that more, better learning through dance, film, literature, music and theatre can help to transform children’s life chances and give them the skills and qualities that will help them thrive. Art-rich learning can also nurture vibrant civil societies, where creativity and freedom of expression are valued. Unfortunately, arts education remains a very low priority in every education system in the world. Whilst the Sustainable Development Goals are galvanising education reforms in low-income countries, reforms are tending not to prioritise the arts in national curricula, assessments or in depictions of effective pedagogy. Whilst, given the extraordinary and immediate challenges that countries like Sierra Leone face in terms of pupil enrolment, teacher quality and, above all, literacy levels, this may not be surprising; but it may also be a missed opportunity. There is evidence from around the world that high quality arts learning can help address these very challenges.

I was invited to Sierra Leone by two school groups — Educaid and Rising Academies — to explore how our idea might work in a particular context. As well as meeting with teachers and pupils, I discussed our emerging plans with government officials and artists, entrepreneurs and politicians. It was clear from day one that education is an issue which Sierra Leone’s citizens care deeply about. On one day, newspapers led with stories of unpaid teachers. On another, headlines revealed accusations of exam board corruption. I had read about Sierra Leone’s low school completion rates, especially amongst girls, its high levels of illiteracy, and its chronic lack of education funding. But as I saw schools who creatively converted classrooms by day into dormitories by night for the most vulnerable children, or who only had ancient books and blackboards to work with, I far better understood the daily challenges that students and teachers face across Sierra Leone.

As well as encountering the generosity of so many people in Freetown, I was also heartened by the way people engaged with and offered critical insights to what is still a very half-formed idea. It’s so difficult to summarise all my thoughts, but here are three insights:

First, in terms of the arts and culture, Sierra Leone has a rich, impressive history to draw on, and a growing artistic talent base which could be harnessed to support schools. A strong tradition of making great theatre has been undermined by the civil war and Ebola. Visionaries such as Charlie Hafner are doing their best to sustain and grow these traditions, in difficult circumstances. Similarly, Ballanta Academy is keeping both traditional and modern music making alive amongst young people in Freetown. Many people I spoke to, including younger artists and filmmakers, were passionate about Sierra Leone reviving stronger expressions of its own cultural outputs, rather than accepting the increasing domination of Nigerian culture in particular. Global university Limkokwing has recently opened a new campus in Freetown, working with the government to provide scholarships for over a thousand students to study creative and IT-related degrees and diplomas. Everyone from the Minister of Culture to Esther, the young gospel singer I met outside the Ministry, saw the arts as fundamental to the regeneration of Sierra Leone, and to the ongoing quest to promote the civic values that provide the best insulation against any return to civil conflict. As renowned theatre academic and former Minister of Information Professor Cecil Blake asserted, ‘arts can be a powerful force for social change in Sierra Leone’.

Second, whilst resources and capacity are of course an issue in almost all schools in Sierra Leone, the biggest barrier may still be the curriculum and assessment systems. Although the arts is included in primary schools, assessed through the ‘creative and practical arts’ track at BECE/lower secondary, and an optional strand for the WAACE, the curriculum is in urgent need of an update. It favours knowledge and understanding — for instance, of types of animal hides — over the nurturing of any creative responses or expressions. Young people in Sierra Leone don’t lack curiosity — far from it. But at school, they tend to lack the space and encouragement to pursue this curiosity and express their ideas and emotions.

Third, both pupils and teachers are very keen to experience more arts learning opportunities in and out of school. Many teachers I met told me of the teachers whose arts teaching inspired them as pupils. They were also keen to tell me about their own artistic interests and talents — from rapping to poetry, drawing to dance. They were desperate to bring these interests into their teaching, so they could inspire pupils in similar ways. Teachers in Sierra Leone are widely criticised for old-fashioned methods and a lack of commitment, but the teachers I met were motivated and ready to learn and teach in different ways.

So I returned to the relative cool of London much more optimistic about the chances of success and impact in Sierra Leone. It seems that there is an appetite amongst both educators and artists for a new programme that builds on existing initiatives, is locally owned and encompasses curriculum innovation, teacher training, and new school-artist partnerships. Over the next few months, We’ll be talking to more people in and outside the country. We hope to return in December, having secured support from global foundations and companies, and work with local partners to co-design a programme that can start from 2018.

So imagine if, over the next generation, arts became central to all young Sierra Leonean’s lives, in and out of school. What might be the impact and benefits, for young people themselves and for Sierra Leone’s society? How might we get there? And how could you, as citizens, parents and educators, contribute? As one of Sierra Leone’s most successful musicians Emmerson said to me: ‘we artists are here, we are ready to help.’

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