MAKENI, Sierra Leone — Any exasperated parent might be forgiven for wanting a daughter like Alimatu Sesay, a highly motivated 16-year-old who can’t afford schoolbooks but borrows them from wealthier classmates and studies the texts outside every night with a flashlight because her tiny home is crowded and has no electricity.
Alimatu is one of seven children, her dad died years ago, her mom is illiterate and she herself sometimes must go without eating all day when money is tight. But she is a brilliant student on a path to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer because of an education revolution underway here in Sierra Leone. (And when she becomes a lawyer, she says, she’s going to buy her mom a house.)
In 2018, the government here banned school fees, which had kept Alimatu’s parents and millions of others from attending any school at all. The authorities have also outlawed corporal punishment in schools and ramped up investment in education, with more than 20 percent of the national budget allocated to teacher pay, school renovation and other education expenses. The result has been a 50 percent increase in enrollment and also an apparent improvement in the quality of education, with impoverished children benefiting the most.
Sierra Leone may offer a model for how even a very poor country, still recovering from an Ebola outbreak in 2014-16 that followed a particularly brutal 11-year civil war, can by sheer determination and leadership make schooling more equal. The United States and other countries could learn a thing or two in the ramshackle schools of Sierra Leone.
Yet Sierra Leone’s grand experiment in promising “free quality school” is also maddeningly incomplete.
Alongside a rural road in northern Sierra Leone, I spotted several children doing farm work on a school day. I chatted with them, and it appeared that one reason they skip school is that they are regularly caned on the behind in front of the class for failing to pay the fees.
Caned? For failing to pay school fees in the public school system? Isn’t that all illegal?
Issa, 16, shrugged. “I’m afraid to tell the teacher it’s illegal,” he said. “I’d be thrown out of school.”
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, on which I take a student — this year it’s Maddie Bender, a recent graduate of Yale — to look at global problems and fixes. Education has been a focus this time, for some 60 million children worldwide should be in primary school but aren’t, and even more miss high school.
Sierra Leone is tackling educational problems in ways that are bold and promising, but the pronouncements in the capital haven’t reached Issa’s village. A school official will come to the classroom, he said, call the children who are behind on fees to come forward and whip each of them in front of the entire class with six strokes of a stick.
Of the 52 students in his class, 24 or 25 are beaten each week for being behind, he said, girls and boys alike. “Some kids cry,” he said, adding, “The beating is to make them persuade their parents to pay the school fees.”
Issa’s younger brother, a primary school student, said he too was beaten regularly for not having money for school fees. Of the 35 students in his class, about 15 are routinely whipped for being late in paying, he said.
Next I visited that boy’s primary school, where officials denied they charged school fees or beat pupils. The denials were unconvincing, partly because each teacher had a cane on the desk. (Stay tuned for a Times Opinion video about Sierra Leone’s education revolution, which will include footage of these officials trying to explain away the unexplainable.)
At Issa’s high school, I ran into the same implausible denials undermined by more canes in plain sight. I talked my way into the administrative office and was allowed to examine a register that the children had told me was used to determine who would be flogged. Sure enough: The book listed each child and whether he or she had paid fees of a bit more than $3 a term.
In my conversations with perhaps a dozen teachers, a couple did admit in a roundabout way to charging students, presenting it as the only way to pay staff when government funding is grossly inadequate.
Over several days of interviews in a half-dozen randomly chosen villages, almost all the children and parents I spoke to said that they were subjected to some kind of fee: school fees, book fees, lunch fees or admission fees. At nearly every rural school, students said they were flogged for falling short on fees.
My heart broke for a girl, Adamasay, 13, whose mother died this school year. As a result, she can’t pay the fees — so she is flogged in front of the class, five strokes each time on the behind.
I sat down with Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio, the architect of the education program, to ask about what I had seen. He looked pained — but didn’t deny it. “Flogged for being poor,” he lamented. He emphasized that change takes time and that the government is committed to ending these abuses.
A pivotal figure in Sierra Leone’s revolution in the schools is Moinina David Sengeh, 36, the dynamic minister of education, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate and then earned a Ph.D from the M.I.T. Media Lab while working in biomechatronics, the field where human bodies integrate with machines. Sengeh holds several patents in data science and in prosthetics; in his spare time, he helps designs sockets for prosthetic limbs.
Sengeh was working for IBM Research when President Bio summoned him home in 2018 to become the country’s chief innovation officer and then minister of education. Sengeh has just published a book, “Radical Inclusion,” that has been lavishly praised by Bill Gates as a “must-read,” and he brings star power and attention to Sierra Leone’s efforts.
Yet history is full of failed attempts to improve access to education in poor countries; it’s easy to ban fees, but harder for the government to find new ways to pay for the public school system. Some African countries moved earlier to end fees, beginning with Ghana in 1961, and the result was an expansion in enrollment — and often a decline in quality, as schools lost revenue but had more students to teach.
Quality of education remains a huge problem worldwide. The World Bank estimates that 70 percent of 10-year-olds in poor and middle-income countries can’t read a simple text. In Nigeria, three-quarters of children age 7 to 14 can’t read a simple sentence.
Sierra Leone is trying to break out of that trap with investments in more and better teachers who earn more, along with careful research and improved methods and accountability. To me, one of the most important initiatives in Sierra Leone is a series of randomized controlled trials that test different approaches to schooling. We may learn something here that can help improve education around the world.
Meanwhile, Alimatu is thriving in school but has just one school uniform, two years old, that must last one more year until she graduates. Her only pair of socks is the one that came with her uniform, and she has never lost a sock — because that would mean an incomplete uniform and exclusion from school.
We should all have children like Alimatu who never lose a sock — and who have a path forward to achieve their dreams. I hope the education revolution here in Sierra Leone will live up to its promise and prove contagious abroad, giving children like Alimatu in all countries the opportunity to get an education to transform their lives and their nations.
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Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. His latest book is “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook
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