Early childhood education, permaculture, and rural development

I’m writing today to let you know about an exciting initiative that has given my life new meaning, and that I hope you’ll find as exciting and meaningful as I do. As some of you know, my life has been shaped by both the experience of violence as well as a deep appreciation for numerous alternative responses to conflict and human rights abuses. This appreciation came alive for me while seeing my daughter grow and develop over the past four and a half years. Until recently, I was unaware that a child so small could write her letters, count well into the double digits, and locate Sierra Leone, India, and the United States on a map. Perhaps more importantly, I was unaware that someone who had yet to enter class one could identify feelings of frustration, sadness, anger, and of course happiness.

As special as I consider my daughter, it wasn’t long before I realized with some poignancy that her development is largely a result of plentiful food and sleep, attention from and interaction with caring adults, as well as safe opportunities to stimulate her thinking and senses with nature, toys, and books. She has been exposed to all of these things largely through the accident of her place of birth in the United States to parents who had the luxury of time, sufficient resources, access to early childhood education, and awareness of its importance. Most parents in Sierra Leone, like me, have survived ten years of civil war that interrupted their own educations. More recently, they have withstood the ravages of Ebola. Particularly in the rural areas, they are not currently positioned to feel the kind of joy that I do seeing my child blossom before my very eyes. According to UNICEF, Sierra Leone had the second highest under-5 mortality rate in the world in 2013.

This recognition led me to re-invest myself in the Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy, a small NGO that I started a few years ago. Though the organization met with early success in its original purpose to promote non-adversarial approaches to civic engagement, it was my experience with my daughter that led me to re-conceptualize what democracy really means and how it could be achieved. As a result, SLFND’s revised mission is to build the foundation for citizens of all ages to deliberate and enact new, non-adversarial alternatives that nurture democratic relationships and decision-making among and across individuals, families, institutions, and the environment. That foundation, I’m increasingly realizing, begins in early childhood. And democratic relationships and decision-making can only take place in public institutions if they have been cultivated and modeled within families and communities.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I would like to share our efforts to build the first early childhood education center in rural Sierra Leone. Dovalema (“where children grow” in the Mende language of Sierra Leone) will be integrated with a 20-acre permaculture farm secured in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm (meaning “the source of germination”) will serve as a laboratory for children and adults to cultivate non-adversarial ways of interacting with each other, with institutions, and with the environment.

Having the childhood center on the farm will allow village children to interact with the land and nature in an environment that is built to foster their physical, emotional, and cognitive growth. It will also allow village adults to meet their families’ nutritional needs without compromising their children’s safety and development. SLFND will continue promoting non-adversarial approaches to civic engagement, but we will connect our work on governance more intentionally with our work on the land and in education.

In the nine months since we revised our mission, we have:

  • assembled local and international boards;

  • enlisted the help of villagers and subject matter experts;

  • surveyed the land and community;

  • started planting 45 different fruit trees and vegetable gardens to address the nutritional needs of participating children;

  • identified 500 children whose parents are potentially interested in enrolling them in early childhood education;

  • procured land and a facility to begin our early childhood education work;

  • sent our first donation of clothes, books, and other child-related materials to Sierra Leone;

  • raised more than $5,000 through our website and inaugural fundraiser;

  • and identified eight individuals from the U.S. who are raising their own funds to volunteer in Sierra Leone this December.

But our work has just begun. Our next major steps are to:

  • develop a trauma-informed, environmental curriculum and corresponding lesson plans based on academic research and indigenous wisdom contributed from villagers;

  • identify, recruit, and train teachers in early childhood pedagogy and classroom management;

  • train community members to advocate for families and policies to ensure children’s welfare through nutrition, immunizations, nonviolent discipline, literacy, and protection from child labor and other forms of exploitation;

  • provide villagers with access to books through a community library;

  • create opportunities to exchange information about early childhood development with and among parents.

Nelson Mandela also said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” But “There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” SLFND can only achieve these next steps with your support.

Thank you.

Jen Hancock