It’s incredible a place so hot could produce so many cool chills.
My trip to the West African country of Sierra Leone was an unforgettable, eye-opening experience punctuated by uplifting moments thanks to people who believe you can always sing in the face of dire circumstance.
I guess the fact it took me four months to find the words for this piece proves I made the right decision when I left journalism 16 years ago to join Newport Sports Management.
The purpose of the African trip was to be present at the dedication of a new school in Sierra Leone that was sponsored by Newport at the direction of our president, Don Meehan.
Most of my work-related travel involves flying somewhere in North America for a game or a meeting and coming back home the next day. And chances are, I interact with more millionaires in a month than the average hockey fan will meet in their entire life.
So you can imagine my surprise when Donnie asked me last December how I would feel about going to Sierra Leone. Turns out Don had an idea for our firm to sponsor a school in the impoverished nation and he asked if I would be interested in representing our company at the opening of the school.
Having never traveled to a developing country before, my emotions ranged from apprehension to excitement. After a logistical delay set the trip back a couple months, my wife, Laurel (an elementary school principal), and I boarded a flight for Freetown.
After nearly 20 hours of travel we were met at the airport by Dr. Thomas Mark Turay (known by most of the locals as simply TMT), a remarkable native of Sierra Leone who rose from the depths of poverty to improve the world through his organization CD Peace.
We were joined on the trip by Sherry Prenevost, the CEO of Green Solutions Charitable Trust (and such a veteran of Sierra Leone that she was made an honorary chief) and Dawn Hatch, a Northern California-based journalist. In Sierra Leone we were often in the company of Carolyn Van Gurp, a Canadian who has moved to that country as part of her work with Peaceful Schools International. Her blog describing life in Sierra Leone was an invaluable part of our preparation for the trip.
We spent five days there, dividing our time among four small villages in the heart of the country: Myagba, Mokonchorie, Mothombo and Mapaki.
The highlight of the trip was the dedication for the new school opening in Mothombo. The ceremony was attended by dignitaries and politicians from throughout the country and lasted for several hours. Prior to the start of the ceremony we were greeted by signing children with signs thanking Newport and Green Solutions for their new school. As we walked towards the procession of children, their songs sent chills down all of our spines.
Some children held up small Canadian flags to welcome us. We noticed one boy of about five years old who held his Canadian flag above his head for a good 30 minutes in the oppressive heat without letting his arm drop. I still get emotional when I think of him standing there and picture where he is in life compared to my own five-year-old son.
Speaking of emotional, the day before the new school dedication there was a ceremony to remember the dead who had perished in the old school several years earlier during the country’s civil war. Rebels had destroyed the small school by burning it to the ground, but not before locking the doors and preventing anyone from escaping. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears shed.
Calling Sierra Leone “poor” is like calling Alex Ovechkin a good hockey player. The villages are void of electricity, running water and, for parts of the year, there is scarcely enough food to feed the people there. It truly is the land time forgot.
And, yet, you will rarely hear any complaints from the villagers. The children are full of life and joy and hope. If the children aren’t laughing that’s only because they are either singing or cheering. The loudest cheers were when we would show them the digital image of a picture we had just taken.
Mostly, the children just want to be around us aportos (white people). They swarmed us every morning when we emerged from the guest houses and a walk through the village involved several children hanging on to our hands and arms, literally fighting each other for the opportunity to walk close to us.
And while I guess I should not have been surprised, it was quite alarming when on my first day there a child of about 10 asked me if my parents were still alive. While that’s not a question I have ever been asked by a child in Canada, it makes sense when you consider the average life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 40.6 years according to the CIA World Factbook, ranking it 215th out of 221 countries. (The United Nations ranks Sierra Leone 192nd out of 195 countries with an average life expectancy of 42.6). No matter which number you use, it’s a shocking thought to realize you have already reached the age where most people die in this country. Some of the children had no idea how old they were since they did not have parents around to tell them when they were born. Close to 20 percent of the people in the villages are under the age of six.
Speaking of the United Nations, there happened to be a UN delegation visiting Sierra Leone when we were there. I had the honor of meeting Canada’s Permanent Representative to the UN, John McNee, at a lunch in Mapaki that was attended by dozens of UN representatives. While the personal highlight of the lunch was getting a cold drink for the first time on the trip, it was disappointing the UN delegation didn’t spend any time in the village once lunch ended as the group was whisked away to its next appointment. If they had, they would have witnessed how incredibly primitive the living conditions were. Instead, they saw only the relatively modern community center and there were literally no children around as they all got scared and ran away when the local police arrived half an hour or so before the UN group came to Mapaki.
In Sierra Leone’s villages, it is common for at least a dozen people to live in one, 500-square foot house that has nothing more than a hard, mud floor. All cooking and cleaning is done in the “yard” outside. The home is only a place to sleep and take shelter during the rainy season.
Dealing with the heat was the most difficult part of the experience. With no electricity (meaning no fans) and constant temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, we woke up sweating and we went to bed the same way. We drank room temperature water out of small, plastic bags and tried to stay under the shade of various fruit trees.
That the villagers of Sierra Leone were able to build a beautiful new school almost entirely by hand in those conditions is remarkable.
The villages might be like the land time forgot, but we must never forget what they are going through. It just isn’t right that we have so much here in the western world while those people have so little. Hopefully through the efforts of Don Meehan and Newport Sports – and the other organizations I touched on earlier – thousands of children will now get the education and life they deserve.
This article first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hockey News magazine.
Rand Simon is an NHLPA certified agent. He has spent the past 15 years with Newport Sports Management Inc. You can read his other THN.com Insider Blogs HERE.