Agnes Pessima

The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted eleven years and left the country one of the poorest, with one of the highest rates of illiteracy. Education was of minor concern to people who were fighting for survival. The war destroyed an education system that was still being built up after the colonial era, and efforts by the Government to establish a new education system after the war have proved unsuccessful. Many NGOs are working in the education field, to reduce the high rate of illiteracy. They include DVV International, which has been training adult educators in the country for 25 years. This report on the current situation in Sierra Leone is by Agnes Pessima. In 1985, she was appointed Organizer and Administrative Officer at the Institute for Adult Education, Division of Extra Mural Studies, where she is now a lecturer in adult education. Over the years she has organized numerous adult education programmes, conferences, seminars and workshops.

Post-War Illiteracy: A Crisis Situation for Adult Education in Sierra Leone

Education existed in Sierra Leone before the advent of the Western variety. This education was both formal and informal. Informal education took place in the home and community as children learnt from their parents, relatives, community members and peers. Formal education took place mainly in secluded venues, primarily in secret society bushes.

This type of education was relevant to its beneficiaries as it equipped them with the skills and knowledge to fend for themselves, defend their communities and learn societal values and codes of conduct (Bown and Tomori, 1979). With traditional education there was no problem of illiteracy since the system relied heavily on oral transmission, and education was location-specific.

Colonial Era

With the colonial era came Western education, which was initially for a selected few and later embraced all who wanted to learn. However, this was the grammar school type and not every one could cope with it. Those who survived the system became clerks, administrators, ministers of religion, teachers, etc. So that Western education could be promoted in Sierra Leone, African young people were trained in the African Institution in Britain as schoolteachers for Sierra Leone. The missionaries too were interested in educating the people. One of their aims was to separate the children from the

"vicious customs and practices of their parents and countrymen. Teaching softens the manner of the pupils and helps them to adopt foreign customs". (Summer, 1963)



After independence, Western education continued but as the decades rolled by, educationists in the country observed the inadequacy of this type of education in our society.

It produced a relatively high level of education but the graduates were unequipped for the world of work. This resulted in a crisis of relevance as there was a disequilibrium between the productive capacity of the education system and the absorptive capacity of the labour market, mostly because job opportunities were scarce and prospective employees were unequipped with occupational skills. As education became more and more expensive in a low-income country where 88 % of the population lived in poverty (UNDP, 1995), a UNICEF assessment of basic education in Sierra Leone (1998) revealed that 45 out of every 100 school-aged children entered primary school, 9 out of those 45 entered secondary school, and one out of the 9 entered a tertiary institution. This shows the high wastage that was characteristic of the system and explains why the Education Master Plan put the literacy rate, at 15 years of age and above, at 20 % in 1996 (MEST, 1996).

Discontent with the system led to the desire for change. Ghana and Nigeria were already ahead of Sierra Leone in adopting a new system of education to address their needs. An initial attempt at adapting the curriculum to local needs in Sierra Leone was the Harmonized Higher Teachers Certificate (HTC) syllabus for Rural Community Development (1976). It was piloted first at the Bunumbu Teachers College and later disseminated to other Teacher Training Colleges. The 6-3-3-4 system of education was then introduced in 1993. This system provides nine years of basic education for all who enter the education system. That is, six years of primary education and three years of junior secondary school education. To implement the 6-3-3-4 system of education, the following structures were put in place: pre-primary education for 3-6 year old children, primary education for 6-12 years, secondary education for 12 years and above, consisting of 3 years of Junior Secondary School (JSS) and 3 years of Senior Secondary School (SSS), technical/vocational education, and tertiary/higher education, which is now provided by two universities (University of Sierra Leone and Njala University) and the polytechnics. Then the National Commission for Basic Education was established in 1994 to address the problem of illiteracy and lack of basic education among the majority of the people of Sierra Leone.

The War Period

During the war many school-aged children were abducted and trained as child combatants, and many lost their lives. The rights of children were greatly violated, especially the right "to better education and a better standard of living" . The war disrupted the educational careers of many children and removed them from their familiar environment into internal displacement camps and refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Apart from the children, the war greatly devastated the education system. It destroyed 80 % of the educational infrastructure across the country. Teaching and learning materials too were vandalized (MEST, 2001).

The mass movement of the population affected by war into safer areas put much pressure on the education system. Most schools began to run double shifts, while makeshift structures were set up in camps to provide education for displaced children. In spite of these provisions, many children stopped attending school as they were overtaken by the "bread and butter" issue of daily survival. For hungry children, schooling was not a solace. Consequently, hundreds took to the streets begging in order to assist their parents in providing their daily meals. Moreover, in certain parts of the country, especially in the East, it became impossible for the education system to operate. Consequently, in the ten-year period of war, illiteracy increased in Sierra Leone.

After the War

Government took the following positive steps to address the educational crisis after the war:

  • Free primary education was introduced in the 1999/2000 academic year (a year before the end of the war) in classes 1-3, and this opportunity was extended to classes 4-6 in the 2001/2002 academic year.
  • The Rapid Response Education Programme (RREP) was initiated to facilitate the re-entry into the formal school system of schoolaged children between 10 and 13 years of age who had missed formal schooling. The programme lasted for five months, after which the children re-entered the formal school system.
  • The Complementary Rapid Education for Primary School (CREPS) scheme was designed to return over-aged children to primary school. The six-year primary school syllabus was compressed into three years.
  • Non-formal Primary Education (NFPE) was introduced, aimed at children without access to formal primary schools. This programme concentrates on literacy, numeracy and vocational skills training, but some bright children are integrated into primary schools.
  • Adult literacy classes for older young people and adults were set up.
  • The Government embarked on the massive rehabilitation and reconstruction of schools (MEST, 2001).

Market in Freetown
Source: Agnes Pessima

Despite Government efforts, 35 % of school-aged children were still out of school in 2005 (Education Sector Report, 2005). Many who drop out of school relapse into illiteracy. Some have never had the opportunity to enrol in formal education because they were born during the war period. All of these have swelled the number of illiterates in the country. Many of them are in urban towns engaged in income generation. The fact is that many of them have realised that they can earn an income of their own without formal education and are unwilling to return to the drudgery of formal schooling for future use (benefit). In addition, many parents in poor homes have come to rely on the contributions of their children to the family income. To improve on the educational status of these children and young people, and to equip them with relevant skills, adult education has become the most suitable delivery system.

Many of the internally displaced and those who were apprehensive of the war sought refuge in the capital city, Freetown. As a result, the number of people living in the city since the outbreak of the war has increased by about 40 percent (Statistics Sierra Leone, 2004). Irrespective of the fact that the war has ended, more young people and adults keep migrating to the capital city. Since many of these are illiterate and unskilled, they can only get involved in informal sector activities where they need neither education nor occupational skills to generate income.

These young people and children can be seen in various commercial settlements within the city. The most concentrated areas are Eastern Police, Shell Lorry Park, Bombay Street and Dan Street Lorry Park, all in the eastern part of the city; Lumley Market, George Brook and Aberdeen Market in the west; and Model Junction, Ecowas Street and Congo Market in central Freetown. These are highly commercialized areas and densely populated with traders during the day.

A survey was undertaken to ascertain the literacy status of young people found in these areas. Sixty structured interview schedules with 16 questions each were used to interview 59 respondents. One interview schedule went missing. The demographic data are given in tables, and the rest of the findings are given in narrative form.

Sex of Respondents

Table 1: Percentage distribution of respondents by sex 

Male 24 40.7
Female 35 59.3

Source: Compiled from interview schedules

As it is usually the case, more girls were out of school than boys. In all the ten locations from which respondents were drawn, there were more females than males. This is reflected in the sex of respondents.

Age of Respondents

Table 2: Percentage distribution of respondents by age

10 - 15 12 7 19 32.2
16 - 20 7 17 24 40.7
21 - 25 5 11 16 27.1

Source: Compiled from interview schedules

The largest group of respondents were of secondary-school age, followed by children of primary-school age. Parents rely on the labour of these children to add to family income. In most cases, the young people control their finances.

Because they were not in school, questions were asked about their marital status. This aspect was included because there is the tendency for both boys and girls to marry at an early age as long as they are not in school. Their marital status will determine their availability for participation in adult education programmes designed to improve their current status. Table 3 shows that the majority of respondents were single. Some of the 10-15 year age group were classified as single. One was too young to marry.

Marital Status

Table 3: Percentage distribution of respondents by marital status

Married 4 8 12 20.3
Single 17 20 37 62.7
Divorced - 2 2 3.4
Seperated - 2 2 3.4
Widowed - 1 1 1.7
No response 3 1 1 6.8
Not applicable  1 1 1.7

Source: Compiled from interview schedules

Table 4 shows that the most respondents had come from the North. It is comparatively easy to travel to the city of Freetown, in the Western Region, from the Northern Region; it is also cheaper than coming from the other two regions, the South and the East. In the table, the West also includes western rural areas.

Region of Origin

Table 4: Percentage distribution of respondents by region of origin

North 10 11 21 35.6
South 3 9 12 20.3
East 4 5 9 15.3
West 7 10 17 28.8

Source: Compiled from interview schedules

The respondents had generally arrived at various periods between 1990 and 2007, either during the war (14 or 23.7 %) or after the war (32 or 52 %). However, three of the respondents (5 %) were born in the city of Freetown.

Since the majority of respondents were of school age, they were asked whether they had been to school; 41 of them (69.5 %) had been to school up to a certain level, and 18 had never been to school

(30.5 %). Those who had not been to school stated either that their parents did not have the money to pay for them, or that their parents had died and there was no one to pay their fees. In either case, lack of fees was the reason for their non-attendance at school. Those who had attended school in the past stopped at various levels ranging from class 3 to 6 at primary level, and JSS 1 to 3 at secondary level. One respondent had attained SSS 3, which is the equivalent of the upper secondary "sixth form" . In addition to the problem of fees, a few were abducted during the war. Additional reasons for the girls were pregnancy and forced marriage.

Being out of school, they were engaged in diverse activities for income generation. These were generally unskilled jobs such as washing cars, carrying people's luggage, selling fruit or cold water, or working as houseboys. The rest were traders selling assorted items: kitchen utensils, confectionery etc. In spite of the number earning an income, 7 (11.9 %) said they were not engaged in any income-generating activity. There were also a few among them with occupational skills, for example, cobbler (1), driver (1), gara tie dyer (1). The cost of items sold ranged from Le100.00 to Le5,000.00, and profits varied from Le500,00 to Le20,000.00. The older ones used the profits to maintain themselves (4 or 6.8 %) or to care for siblings (6 or 10 %). Fourteen

(23.7 %) others admitted that they were merely keeping themselves busy and managing to take care of their needs without asking relatives. Some of the 10-15 years age bracket handed over the profit to their parents, while a few retained their earnings.

They were then asked whether they would like to go back to school; 45 (76.3 %) answered in the affirmative while 14 (23.7 %) answered in the negative. Those who gave negative answers explained that they were either too big to go back to school or were now married. Interestingly, 54 respondents (91.5 %) were quite willing to learn a skill while 5 respondents (8.5 %) were satisfied with what they were doing. Among skills respondents would like to learn were the following: carpentry, hairdressing, gara tie and dye, tailoring/sewing, motor mechanics, catering, nursing, soap-making, etc. When asked whether they would prefer full-time training, 46 (78 %) answered in the affirmative and 13 (22 %) answered in the negative. Those who answered in the negative said they would not like to abandon their income generation because they would have no means of sustaining themselves. Others said they would need to care for their children. One female respondent said her husband would not permit her.

The Crisis

Adult education could be the answer to the above circumstances. The shortest definition of adult education is given by Bown and Tomori (1979:14): "any education given to adult persons" . Rogers (1992:20) also states simply that it is the provision of educational opportunities for adults: it covers all forms of planned and systematic learning which adults experience in the process of living their lives. It is flexible and allows participants to choose what they want to learn.

It also equips individuals to be either employed or self-employed. With UNESCO's emphasis on functional literacy, many skills training programmes in Sierra Leone are now adding literacy and numeracy in order to enable beneficiaries to be adequately equipped and hence to perform better in their jobs.

The sixth paragraph of the Dakar Framework for Action (2000) states that

"the basic learning needs of all can and must be met as a matter of urgency."

Street vendor in Freetown
Source: Agnes Pessima

"All" in the Sierra Leone context refers to the 35 % of school-aged children who are not in school (MEST, 2005), the 75.6 % of women who are illiterate, and the 53.1 %% of men (UNDP, 2006).

Adult education can meet this challenge because programmes are of short duration and are learner-centred. On completion of learning, the beneficiary immediately puts into practice the new knowledge or skills that he/she has learnt by being either employed or self-employed.

Several factors then come into play, among which are the provision of opportunities for learning, the availability of trained facilitators and payment of their salaries, and the availability of learners to attend programmes.

Adult education provision in Sierra Leone is mainly carried out by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a few of which are sponsored by Government. Yet the need for full Government commitment remains. The Government financial allocation to adult education up to the time of writing has been less than one percent of the national education budget. International organizations have been sponsoring adult education programmes in Sierra Leone. For example, the Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association (DVV International) has sponsored adult education in Sierra Leone for twenty-five years at both governmental and non-governmental levels. Other international institutions include OXFAM (United Kingdom), ActionAid, FORUT, GOAL (Ireland), and CAUSE (Canada). The local organizations include the Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA), the Peoples Educational Association, Sierra Leone (PEA-SL), the Forum of African Women Educationalists, and a host of other local NGOs throughout the entire country. Several local adult education organizations were established after the war to cater for ex-combatants, war victims and out-of-school young people. Yet the problem of out-of-school youth has not been solved because of the continued migration of young people to the capital city and the district headquarter towns.

The Government needs to boost the efforts of NGOs by establishing more adult education institutions as a first step, and mounting sensitization programmes to create awareness among potential beneficiaries so that they can make good use of such opportunities. They need to know that they can improve on their present condition by learning vocational skills through adult education. This implies increased Government financial commitment as well. There is also the problem of trained facilitators. Crash programmes could be organized for some of the many school-leavers who are unemployed, to train them as adult education facilitators. This training could be boosted by occasional in-service and refresher training.

During the twenty-five years of DVV International cooperation with adult education providers in Sierra Leone, more than one thousand adult educators have been trained in the Division of Adult Education at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone. Others have been trained in crash courses sponsored by DVV International through other Sierra Leone partners in adult education. Yet untrained facilitators continue to manage adult education programmes because there are not enough trained adult education personnel in the country. In addition to training, there is the problem of paying adult education facilitators' salaries. They receive honoraria instead of salaries. The Government has been found greatly wanting in this area. Some facilitators work for up to 6 or 8 months without receiving their honorarium. This is why trained facilitators sell their services to international NGOs, who pay them salaries and fringe benefits. There is no fixed scale of payment for facilitators - this is why trained personnel look for greener pastures while untrained personnel in full-time jobs work as part-timers in adult education programmes.

Market in Freetown
Source: Agnes Pessima 

The next problem is bringing the beneficiaries from the streets and the market places into centres to learn. As indicated earlier, some find it difficult to abandon their trading to attend full-time training even though training will enable them either to perform better in their present occupation or to find better income-earning activities. The problem lies in giving part of their time to learning activities while being engaged in income generation. They need the little money from the day's endeavours to sustain themselves and their dependants. Adult education provision should take into consideration this time factor and schedule programmes to start in late afternoon or at night. This will ensure that the time factor embraces the needs of all potential beneficiaries.


That illiteracy is a problem in Sierra Leone is uncontestable. This is a crisis situation not only for adult education but for the entire education system. The National Education Master Plan (1996-2006) caters for all aspects of the education system, both formal and non-formal, which also includes adult literacy programmes. Two of the goals of the Plan are to increase the literacy rate to 50 % by 2015 in line with Goal 4 of the Dakar Education for All (EFA) initiative, and to use education as an instrument for eradicating poverty (Alghali et al, 2005). These are worthwhile aims, but are the material, financial and human resources available to achieve them? With the high rate of illiteracy still persisting, Government needs to re-position the 50 % literacy goal beyond 2015. Awareness of the need to reduce illiteracy has been created, but the hurdles to be surmounted are numerous. Radical transformatory strategies are required at national level to combat this growing menace. This is a crisis situation.


Alghali, A.M., Kandeh J.B.A., Thompson, E.J.D. & Turay, E.D.A. (2005) Environmental scan on education in Sierra Leone, Report of a consultancy on behalf of the Commonwealth of Learning (unpublished).

Bown, L. and Tomori, S.H.O. (1979) (eds.). A Handbook of Adult Education for West Africa. Hutchinson University Library for Africa. Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) (1996). Education Master Plan, Freetown: Government of Sierra Leone.

Ministry of Education Science and Technology (MEST) (2001). "Gender Issues in Education, Training and Employment" , in Women and Men in Partnership for Post-Conflict Reconstruction. London: Commonwealth Secretariat.

Rogers, A. (1992). Adult Learning for Development. London: Cassell Educational Ltd Statistics Sierra Leone (2004). National Census. Summer, D.L. (1963). Education in Sierra Leone. London: Government of Sierra

Leone. UNDP (1995). Human Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press. UNDP (2006). Human Development Report. Beyond Scarcity: Power and the global water crisis. New York: UNDP. UNICEF (1998). Non-Formal Primary Education (NFPE) in Sierra Leone. Freetown: Basic Education Section.

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