Peace Corps teachers return to Sierra Leone

After a 16-year absence Peace Corps teachers like Arteeca Eccles are again helping children learn math, science, and English to in a country where only 35 percent of adults can read and write.

Robert Peelen Glimpse/Newscom/File
In the Gola Forest Reserve of southeastern Sierra Leone, children retrieve fresh water for cooking and cleaning. Foreign aid workers introduced water pumps to this subsistence community to improve sanitation. Recently the US Peace Corps has been able to return to teaching schoolchildren in the country, after being forced to leave during a brutal civil war.

Arteeca Eccles isn’t your typical 20-something American. The North Carolina native cooks her breakfast over an open fire, checks her email about once every two months, and has to take care not to trip over the chickens running around her front yard.

It’s all part of a normal day for Ms. Eccles, who teaches high school biology as a Peace Corps volunteer here in the small West African nation of Sierra Leone. Eccles arrived just over a year ago as part of the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers to come to the country since the end of its decade-long civil war.

So far, she says, the teaching is going well – and she’s learned to cook a mean groundnut stew.

Fifteen years ago, Eccles’s quiet little corner of southeastern Sierra Leone was at the heart of rebel territory. Villages were burned, women were raped, and men were mutilated as the Revolutionary United Front – a ragtag group of diamond-funded rebels – ravaged the countryside in a vain attempt to take over the country.

Things got so bad that in 1994 the Peace Corps, which had been operating in Sierra Leone for more than 30 years, shuttered its offices and pulled out all of its volunteers. The situation had simply grown too dangerous.

Today, that violence is a distant memory. Sierra Leone has been at peace for nearly a decade. But the scars of the conflict run deep and the country still has a long way to go to get back on its feet.

Eccles and the three dozen other volunteers who arrived with her last year are playing a part in that recovery. Each of them has been assigned to a small village in a rural part of the country, where they are teaching math, science, or English to middle school and high school students.

Their work is sorely needed. Just 35 percent of Sierra Leoneans over the age 15 are able to read and write; among women, that figure falls to 25 percent. Less than a quarter of high-school aged children regularly attend school, according to UNICEF.

“There is a real shortage of teachers here,” explains Edward Mungu, a Sierra Leonean who works for the US nongovernmental organization World Vision in southern Sierra Leone. “Sometimes there are just two or three teachers for a whole school,” he says, adding that it’s especially difficult to find female teachers because illiteracy is so high among women.

Mr. Mungu himself was taught math and language arts by two Peace Corps volunteers back in the late 1980s, and he remembers the teachers fondly. Today, he works alongside the volunteers to train local teachers in southern Sierra Leone.

He says the Peace Corps is already making a big difference in the schools in the region.

“You get an enormous bang for your buck with Peace Corps,” says Michael Owen, the United States ambassador to Sierra Leone. It takes relatively little money to support a teacher like Eccles, he says, but the impact she has on her students can last for decades.

The volunteers “play a very big role in shaping the image of America, especially in rural areas,” he says. “I think they play a very, very positive role.”

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