LETTER : Education in Sierra Leone

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From Professor Paul Richards

Sir: Why, I wonder, does David Orr ("Hopes grow for hostages held by Sierra Leone rebels", 18 April) describe the Revolutionary United Front leader Corporal (not Colonel) Foday Sankoh as "mysterious"? His origins and military service are well-known facts. Early in the present hostage crisis (in December) he identified himself satisfactorily by reference to the details of his military training in Britain.

He is well-known to many citizens of Bo and Segbwema from the days he ran photographic businesses in those two towns. Thrown back on his own resources for many years he seems to be something of an autodidact. I fear the mystery may stem more from the attitude of mind that as an "uneducated" corporal he is considered to have no business leading a full-scale insurgency. But this may be the very bone of contention that spurs on the rebel movement. Sierra Leone, its capital once styled "the Athens of West Africa", has been famous for its commitment to modern education for nigh on 200 years.

But education also divides the country. For every child educated in a British public school there are many others who are products of collapsed and rotting local establishments where teachers' salaries, pittances at best, have barely been paid on time in decades. The young insurgents of the RUF display every sign of being, shall we say, the autodidact tendency in Sierra Leonean educational politics, determined to prove that they, too, know a trick or two.

But it may not be too late. From the outset (in March 1991) Sankoh has wanted to talk about his movement and its sense of grievance. Perhaps because of the long-established educational links between the two countries, he seems particularly keen to involve the British in this process. An offer from the UK aid programme to help address the issue of educational disadvantage in Sierra Leone might be a very helpful contribution to peace negotiations.

Yours faithfully,

PAUL RICHARDS

Professor of Anthropology

University College London

London, WC1

18 April

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