We are now on spring holiday for two weeks. A national cultural festival is being held this weekend in Goderich, the Tangains ("Old Things" in Krio) Festival. Since I am reliant on public transport that frequently breaks down on the disastrous road to Goderich and most of the events are taking place well after dark when I do not want to be on that road, I have missed all but one small dance performance by the local Bondu society and the crafts markets. This Bondu society is a secret society for women that recruits local women to carry on local traditions, including dance, song and female circumcision. Girls join at very young ages if their mothers or other female relatives are members. Several of our students are members, and one of the girls in Class 6 has missed nearly two months of school in order to prepare for a special ceremony. I am not certain, but it has been hinted to me that she is likely to be circumcised during the ceremony. These are not the sorts of things about which people talk openly.
There are several international and national groups campaigning in Sierra Leone against this practice, also called female genital mutilation because it is usually performed out of doors with non-sterile knives and no anesthetic, so that it is both painful and dangerous, not to mention what it means for these girls when they become sexually active - basically a reduced experience of sexual pleasure. These groups also argue that the societies offer very little to the girls, since traditional methods of cooking, making and dyeing cloth, caring for children, and healing are no longer passed on as they once were in these societies. In many instances it seems to mean that prepubescent girls are pulled out of school to stay at home for months doing not much more than everyday household chores in preparation for the difficult ceremony. Many of them never return to school or have their schooling so disrupted that they find it difficult when they do return and soon drop out.
I do not know anyone who belongs to one of these societies, none of the teachers do, and recent radio reports say that many of these groups have staged counter-protests arguing that they are preserving Sierra Leone's culture. I am finding that particular argument difficult to accept because I have such strong feelings against what strikes me as a tradition that preserves the diminished role of women by educating them not to function in a modern economy but to stay at home to serve at the pleasure of their fathers, uncles and husbands, something that is so obviously untenable in a country where most men are unemployed and uneducated themselves and the income earned by women is desperately needed by most families.
Ummu, the girl I mentioned above, should be preparing to sit the NPSE, an examination that will determine her eligibility to enter junior secondary school. I am not sure whether she will be ready, and neither is her teacher sure when she will return to school. Ummu's father wants her to return, but his wife is insisting that Ummu stay at home.
Ummu is one of the twenty-six children at the Goderich Waldorf School who is preparing to sit this exam in May, but even if they pass, there is no guarantee that they will continue in school since most of them come from families either unable or unwilling (especially in the case of girls) to pay school fees.
The other dark cloud hanging over the school has a gleaming silver lining, but is ominous nevertheless: Shannoh Kandoh, the school's director and founder, has managed to secure seven acres of land for a permanent school site, and with the support of Freunde der Erziehungskunst Rudolf Steiner and at least one major individual donor, construction costs should also be covered. This means the school will move to the other side of Freetown where the land is located for the 2008-2009 school year. None of the current students aside from the handful of faculty children will be able to attend the school next year since it is over an hour away. If I include the twenty-six children who are applying to secondary school, that makes about one hundred ninety children in Goderich who have no certain place in a school next year. The future of Waldorf education in Sierra Leone is seeming increasingly sure, but that is no consolation for these children.