Poverty and crime. Fractured families, dysfunctional schools. Homelessness and unemployment. Gangs and prostitution. And everywhere, children. Aimless, bored, hungry—children and teens loitered in his neighborhood of Aberdeen, a peninsula extending from Freetown proper.
He wondered—why are so many kids around? “I thought they were on school vacation or something,” said Mami, who had returned to secure a work visa for a job in the United States. “I talked to them, and they said they weren’t going to school right now.”
Education, it turns out, had become secondary to the street hustle of day-to-day survival.
The children’s plight had a profound effect on Mami. Before he left Sierra Leone, he offered neighborhood kids a deal. If they were willing to work hard, he would raise money to get them back in school and help them succeed. “Even though I didn’t have a source of funding,” Mami said, “I told them I would do all I can.”
In the time since, the government major and religious studies minor has helped 32 at-risk students return to school, including six former high school dropouts, through a foundation he established in the United States. With a volunteer staff of six, the foundation has raised $8,000 in its first year through crowdsourcing and individual donations—a sum that has significant impact in a country where the average worker makes $280 a month.
“In Sierra Leone, when you are educated you can go further. I want to be a role model for those younger than me. Pandit especially has been a role model to me. … He gives us the courage to pursue our goals.”—Jeffery Abdulai Conteh, 20, of Freetown, Sierra Leone
In a country where almost half of the 1.6 million school-aged children have not completed primary education, according to the Education Policy and Data Center (EPDC), Sierra Leone needs visionaries like Mami. “Education is one of the biggest investments we can make to our nation,” Mami said recently from Michigan, where he advocates for social justice while applying to graduate school. “I believe so much in the power of education to eradicate poverty in communities.”
Once a traditional fishing village, Aberdeen has become a tourist destination, a place where rich and poor coexist. Four-star hotels, glimmering casinos, and high-end restaurants stand in sharp contrast to the painted mud houses roofed with sheet metal that crowd Aberdeen’s impoverished areas.
This is where Aberdeen’s poor scramble to make ends meet, where children are expected to contribute to household incomes. Some work in the tourist industry, but many hawk food or handmade crafts to tourists on Aberdeen’s white sand beaches. Young kids run errands for neighbors in hopes of a free meal or snack to supplement the single daily meal they typically get at home. Girls, some as young as 15, turn to prostitution, Mami said.
All of this troubled him—and felt too familiar. “I realized that I understood where these kids are coming from,” he said, recalling a powerful story of his own difficult and tenuous childhood.
Mami grew up during the Sierra Leone Civil War—portrayed in the 2006 film Blood Diamonds—and moved often with his family, from rural areas to cities, back and forth many times. They often went hungry and sometimes foraged fruit in the forest when food supplies were cut off. He lived in fear, he said, not knowing if he would be killed like so many of his friends.
A defining childhood moment came when Mami was 8 and his father suffered a stroke that left him unable to work. During periods of intense warfare, the noise and stress from the explosions aggravated his father’s condition. Without access to medication, his health declined until he was unable to walk and lost his speech. For two years, young Mami was left alone to take care of his father.
The family depleted its savings on medications and hospital bills hoping their father would recover. He never did, and he died in 2004. They were forced to move to the slums where they lived without electricity or indoor plumbing, he said. With very little money left for tuition or basic needs, many of his 11 siblings dropped out of school.
Mami, the youngest, was able to stay in school with money and moral support from his oldest brother and a friend of his father. After having to walk miles to school, often on an empty stomach, and enduring corporal punishment if he was late, he began sleeping in a church compound near his school, doing homework by candlelight. Eventually, a seventh-grade teacher took him home to live with his family. Mami flourished and finished school in Sierra Leone, earned a scholarship to the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore, and came to Colby in 2010 as a Davis Scholar.
“You have to explain to them that in the long run this kid is going to be more helpful to you if they’re in school than they are selling food in the streets of Freetown.”—Pandit Mami ’14
Mami says his story exemplifies ngoyeaa (en-go-yay), a word from the Mende dialect in Sierra Leone that implies strength in the collective and can be translated: I am who I am because of who we all are. Ngoyeaa encourages community building by helping individuals, a philosophy he adopted as he implemented his plan.
Back in the United States after that visit in 2016, Mami poured his energy into fulfilling his part of the deal. He immediately cast a wide net on social media to find people interested in starting a foundation for Aberdeen’s youth. Mami recruited a team of six—including friends from UWC and Colby, and family—committed to improving lives through education. Together, they launched the Ngoyeaa Back to School Foundation, which offers financial aid and mentorship to inspiring Aberdeen youth. Members of the team include Colbians Lauren Kerr ’12 and Osman Bah ’16.
Kerr became passionate about educational access after having financially challenging times at Colby. Originally from Farmington, Maine, Kerr saw firsthand how financial uncertainty can detract from the academic experience, she said. “It left a pretty indelible mark on me,” which made joining the foundation “very, very easy.” She brings her experience in project management from her day job at Boston Children’s Hospital to the foundation, helping the team create marketing and fundraising strategies.
In the streets of Aberdeen, team member Mary Davies, Mami’s sister, identifies children for the foundation to support. Davies is a magnet for children. “When I open my door in the morning, I have so many children coming in,” she said. People approach her all day, saying, “Help me. Please help my child.” With limited funds, Davies must decide whom to help first. “There are many problems, and many needs, but when we see children when there is no way out, we try to help.”
The educational path in Sierra Leone involves taking a national exam in sixth, ninth, and 12th grades. Students who pass advance to the next grade; those with high scores are placed in the best schools. Students who fail the test must repeat a grade and try again. The exam and tuition cost the equivalent of $300, and the government subsidizes the first exam. Those who don’t pass must pay for another year of school and the exam fee, a cost often out of reach. Many drop out at this point.
The foundation helps students in fifth, eighth, and 11th grades prepare for these exams by defraying the cost of books, uniforms, and tuition, which are often barriers to good schools. Sometimes the foundation pays the $300 fee for students to return to school and retake an exam.
Davies helps select the best school for each student, then monitors them in and out of the classroom. “I go to the schools to check out what they are doing, talk to their teachers, how they are progressing,” she said. “And I watch them around my neighborhood, and if I see them in activities that are not beneficial for them, I try to talk to them.” Sometimes she has to convince families of the long-term benefits an education provides—a tough sell.
“It’s a poor community. For most families, they just need to make ends meet,” Mami said. “You have to explain to them that in the long run this kid is going to be more helpful to you if they’re in school than they are selling food in the streets of Freetown.”
Teenage girls are especially vulnerable to unexpected pregnancies or the temptation of relatively high-paying prostitution. Keeping them in school is crucial if they are to have options in life. “We tell them, ‘Your beauty should not be your source of income,’” Mami said.
The foundation also offers these girls, as well as boys, mentors who provide emotional support and encouragement. That is an important piece of Ngoyeaa’s mission, something Kerr strongly believes in after having had positive mentors at Colby. Kerr is now matched with 12-year-old Mohammed, “a quiet, hardworking kid who’s had a lot of family turmoil connected to the Ebola crises,” she said. His mother’s whereabouts are unknown, so Mohammed lives with his grandmother. Kerr talks to him via video conference a few times each month to hear how he’s doing in the private school the foundation moved him into. “It’s been really exciting to watch his progress.”
“Education is one of the biggest investments we can make to our nation. I believe so much in the power of education to eradicate poverty in communities.”—Pandit Mami ’14
Local mentors help too, serving as tutors teaching night classes in subjects like math, physics, accounting, and economics in a church lit no longer by candlelight but with solar-powered lights the foundation purchased. These mentors give their time and expertise while doubling as role models for college-bound students or those looking for jobs.
In a community where learning to read and write is a big accomplishment and, according to the EPDC, just 3 percent of students finish high school, success stories already are emerging. Jeffery Abdulai Conteh, 20, recently passed his 12th-grade exam and was accepted to Freetown’s Fourah Bay College, the oldest in West Africa, where he’ll study mass communications and political science. The emotional and financial support from Mami and Davies motivated him and reinforced the importance of education, he said.
“In Sierra Leone, when you are educated you can go further,” Conteh said with audible pride despite an intermittent phone connection from Aberdeen. “I want to be a role model for those younger than me. Pandit especially has been a role model to me,” he continued. “He gives us the courage to pursue our goals.”
Mami has big plans for the foundation. He’s pushing for a school meal-plan program, free school buses, and a computer lab for the community. Ultimately, Mami wants Sierra Leone to adopt education principles he witnesses in the United States, where public education is a basic right and not a privilege. He said he envisions himself a future politician in Sierra Leone, moving his country in that forward direction.
His ultimate dream is to help Sierra Leone educate its children and develop leaders who share his vision, all with the spirit of ngoyeaa. “When one person is successful,” Mami said, “we all become successful.”
For more information visit ngoyeaa.org.