It’s a three-hour journey by speed boat from the capital city of Freetown, heading south along the coast of Sierra Leone. First passing Banana Island, with its rich history and recent tourist destinations, followed by the poor, densely populated fishing communities of Plantain Island. Eventually from the horizon emerges a very small, low-lying island followed by another to the West and we know we’ve reached our destination – the Turtle Islands.
Largely isolated from the rest of the country, the Turtle Islands are an archipelago of seven small, low-lying islands, six of which are inhabited by fishing villages. Named for the sea turtles that come to breed on its shores, the Turtle Islands are incredibly rich in tradition and natural beauty but also severely impoverished. The Solon Foundation first started working with the Turtle Island communities in 2012 after its survey found that less than 1% of the female population could read, and the estimated under 5 mortality rate was more than double the national average.
As the islands come in to view, it’s hard to imagine that 62 of our scholarship students call these islands home. The Solon Foundation’s scholarship initiative for the Turtle Islands was first launched in September 2016 and supported 18 students on full tuition scholarships to attend secondary school in Freetown. The promise of continued education encouraged more families to send their children to school. Across the islands, primary school enrolment has grown and with no secondary school in the chiefdom, the need for support to attend secondary school has also grown. The list of potential scholarship recipients from the Turtle Islands for the upcoming 2019-2020 academic year is already nearing 100 students.
Our boat slowly navigates the shallow waters approaching the island of Mutti. The community is waiting to greet us and among the gathered crowd are students from the neighbouring islands. Lined up on the beach in their school uniforms, these children are future scholarship hopefuls. Many are attending school for the first time, but along with their older siblings, friends and neighbours who already on scholarship, these children represent the future of the islands.
The community meeting on Mutti is well-attended, with elders, village chiefs and the paramount chief in attendance. With each person who comes forward to speak, the importance of education is reinforced. The survey from 2012 is referenced more than once as a reminder of the change the communities are seeking for their children. Appeals for more scholarship support are made, particularly for extending support to secondary schools outside Freetown. As the meeting winds up, the Solon Foundation’s programme coordinator comments on the change underway in his communities and the hope he feels for the future.
As the day draws to a close and our boat pulls way from shore, it is clear that access to quality education is a priority that is shared by all. Although the challenges are many, the potential opportunities provided by education inspire hope and a sense of optimism for the future. The Turtle Islands may seem like a world unto themselves, isolated and frozen in time, but increasingly they are a world that needs the new generation of educated children as their leaders of tomorrow.