Trócaire’s Marjorie Laville-Pain travelled to Sierra Leone to find out how Kumba is doing after featuring on the Trócaire box in 2018.
I arrived in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, on a ferry in the dark after a journey that took over 24 hours of travel. It was a long journey but worth it. I was travelling to Sierra Leone to visit Trócaire’s projects on the ground, and in particular to meet a young girl named Kumba, the girl who featured on the 2018 Trócaire box.
The morning after arriving, the group I was travelling with got our first proper sight of the capital. Bright coloured cars and motorbike taxis wormed their way around streets and roundabouts in Freetown. Taking centrepiece in our admiration, however, were the beautiful dresses that the ladies wore with prints in different unique colour combinations.
Driving through Freetown gave us a clear idea of the poverty levels in Sierra Leone. As a team, we were shocked as we saw shacks lined up the road and many unfinished buildings. Somehow the housing crisis in Ireland seems to be replicated a million times in this little corner of West Africa.
Sierra Leone has had many shocks in recent decades, such as the civil war, the Ebola outbreak and a devastating mudslide in 2017. As a result, essential services, such as water, secondary level education, and public transport are all lacking. Sierra Leone remains the world’s third poorest country.
The next day we travelled by jeep along hills and valleys to the village where Kumba lives. We passed by the area where the devastating landslide killed hundreds of people two years ago. The silence in the car was palpable. Not only with the excitement of finally meeting Kumba and her family, but also with the realisation of what happened here that devastated so many families.
We arrived at the school where Kumba, her father Sahr and little sister Fatu are waiting for us. All shy and full of smiles, Kumba tells us that she is now nine years old. Fatu also tells us with a mischievous smile that she is seven.
Standing in front of the school built with Trócaire funds, Sahr tells us proudly that 'Kumba always wants to go to school, she likes school, and Fatu likes school as well'. Asking Fatu about the subjects that she is doing in class, she paused and thought before confidently telling us that she is doing Maths.
Inviting us to their home, Kumba’s mother Finda turned around and said, 'You have come healthy, we hope you leave healthy'. A Sierra Leonean phrase that touched us all!
Asked how things have changed since last year – both Finda and Sahr said that they have lost plenty in the previous few years but that with Trócaire's assistance, things are now better. Finda tells us that she has a little plot where she is farming and planting peanuts that she sells for an income. She tells us that the hairdressing salon, for which she also received tools from Tròcaire, is also doing very well.
'Please tell everyone that I say thank you and that I am very grateful. Thank you for the tools for the salon. I have now gained respect in my community. Thank you for everything and especially thank you for the school'.
Asking the children if there was anything that they wanted to say, Kumba went inside the house and came out with a bunch of letters that she had written to respond to Irish children who wrote to her.
Giving the letters to us to bring back to Ireland, Kumba tells us that she now wants to be a bank manager and Fatu wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
I had arrived with sadness, but now left full up with hope. The words I kept hearing throughout the day kept ringing in my head - ‘boku boku tenki’. These words translate as ‘thank you very very much’ and is a phrase that was repeated continuously.
As we bring back Kumba’s letters to Ireland, those words still bring a smile to my face.
Marjorie Laville-Pain works in Trócaire’s Dublin Centre on Cathedral Street.