There was a smile planted on my face when I woke up this morning. I woke up with a sense of pride and accomplishment, joy and astonishment. I took in a deep breath of faith, struggle, determination and courage and swallowed wonder, chance, bliss, and uncertainty.
Breakfast was served on the veranda of my brand new apartment that overlooks the hills and vast terrain of Freetown. A view that reminds you what the Portuguese saw when they named Mama Salone “ Serra Leoa” -Lion Mountain. I looked over the table into the eyes of my husband- to- be and thought: how full my life is. Can it get any better than this? I am truly blessed. Last year, I came to Sierra Leone with my hands in the air, feet on a cloud, and now I am standing tall, firmly planted “on the ground.”
The questions never end. What is it like? What do you think of living in Africa? How is Sierra Leone progressing!!!!? If I were to even begin to explore all of the questions fully, I would be publishing a book. What I can do is say a few things (I know for sure). Being in Sierra Leone has its highs and lows, ups and downs, disappointments and triumphs, just like any other place on God’s green earth. I am here for a reason. I am in constant conversations with people about the lack of resources and the attitudes of some of our people, but I refuse to let any of these things bring me down.
Sierra Leone is still in the early stages of national development and we have a ways to go. Great strides have been made for example, the supply of electricity, although inconsistent, is much better. Gasoline has gone down from Le 16,500 Leones to Le 14,000. Efforts toward developing electricity through hydro- power (Bumbuna) are well underway. Through the efforts of Freetown City Council, the streets are the cleanest I have ever seen. I can truly say that people make a conscious effort not to throw trash on the streets. It could be the inferred fine of Le 150,000, but it has established some order which is great to see. The emergence of banks from all across Africa is also giving Freetown a much needed face lift. The collective effort towards CHANGE is on course and felt throughout the community.
Sierra Leone offers you chances to see life through different lenses: as community member, contributor, victim, employer, employee, woman, young person, educated person, and the list goes on. You are forced to open your eyes and see what’s going on because life is happening all around you, all of the time. One is not inundated with the constant monotony of the West: work, TV, designer bags, bills, and alarm clocks. Here your life is intimately intertwined with others so much so that you matter and you are not just a number.
As I look back and reflect on a year, it’s hard to believe how time has power over one’s life. I have lived and learned. I have fallen but I am still standing, and, most of all, I have had a dream come true.
Having a dream come true is like having a piece of the clouds in your pocket. You are ecstatic because you have been reaching and stretching to get it at all costs and so the accomplishment is liberation in itself. I am holding a piece of the clouds in the palm of my hand. Anytime things get rough or I am unsure of my path or my choices, I have a year of Sierra Leone to look back on, and I witness a dream in action.
The opening of The EXCEL Education Program has allowed me to breathe deeply. It makes me want to scream off the rooftops, “I DID IT” and so I will: (my flag flying in the air). I am celebrating my life and the fact that possibility is everything. This time last year, EXCEL was just a concept and now it is an established institution.
On Monday July 21, 2008, 18 students arrived for the EXCEL Summer Institute. The Summer Institute was created to introduce students to the EXCEL Education Center and its programs. It was about enrichment in a variety of areas such as reading, writing, critical thinking and leadership development.
The first day, I had no idea what to feel. I was excited and unsure of how far to take them. Before all of this EXCEL was just on paper. It was all of my ideas taken from my journals, notebooks, yellow sticky notes and crumpled up pieces of paper formed into a plan. Now EXCEL is coming to life.
So I just dove in, and the students and staff ate it up. The first day we created the norms for the center and began with the first word of the week which was EMPOWERMENT.
Students came from all backgrounds, some from middle class families, some from single family homes, and some from very impoverished backgrounds. The tie that binds them all is their brilliance. When you have students who really want to learn, students who have something to say but have never been given the opportunity, students who understand how knowledge can give you a better life, each class is AMAZING! We explored current events, Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech, Socratic seminars, Cornell Notes, politics and Hip- Hop (you should hear their philosophy on Tupac). Obama vs. Mc Cain. (we are ELATED at the outcome.) Most of all, we explored learning in a way these students never thought possible.
One of the highlight of the summer for students was our “Guest Speakers Series”. This is something I had always wanted to do, to expose students to a range of Sierra Leonean professionals. When you ask our youth “what do you want to be when you grow up?” you get the choral response: doctor, lawyer, and accountant. Not that these are bad professions, it is what they are used to seeing or hearing about. It is just that there are so many others occupations out there. Guests were invited to talk to students abut their education, experiences and their motivation. We had guests from a range of fields like marketing, entertainment, engineering, journalism, fashion, and medicine. Thank you Dr. Sophie –Cole-Foster , Gaivia Lavaly, Abubakkar Jalloh, Adama Kai Kargbo, Aminatta Dumbuya and Shadrock and Ragga Spice for gracing our presence. Students were inspired beyond belief!! We also can not forget the great contribution of Mr. Adrian Labor who spent time helping implement the Digital Village Project. Now this is what I call GIVING BACK!
It feels great to be Ms. Sisay again. In the interim, while building the dream, I got to experience life in a different way. I have been the MC at several events, produced a monthly poetry show called “Play on Words”, worked as a consultant for the International Rescue Committee, and now have my life has expanded to include the roles of wife, mother and Aschobi Designs. For someone who came to Sierra Leone with only EXCEL in the mind, my plate is full. But I love it. I have a great life. I am truly blessed, and it feels amazing to be in command of my own destiny.
The students are amazing. Each one of my classroom combinations has always been an interesting blend of brilliance.
EXCEL is more than just a dream come true: it is setting a standard for excellence in Africa. We are preparing the next leaders of Africa in Sierra Leone. I moved back home because I believe in the potential of Sweet Salone. I have seen so much while being here.
Each day I walk into the center I think to myself, this is where dreams happen. I thank God for the formation of creative expression and writing-- it has been my cradle in this journey. Things have been happening and so blogging has been neglected. You don’t know how bad I have wanted to write, however; I needed something to say and the time to write it.
I know there are a series of breakthroughs around the corner for The EXCEL Education Program. We still have not received full funding but we are very thankful for donations that have kept us pushing forward. I feel much more confident now that we have proven results and we are not just another briefcase organization.
Please stay tuned as the journey continues. www.excelscholars.org