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Day of the African Child in Sierra Leone: a misplaced agenda

Day of the African Child in Sierra Leone: a misplaced agenda

Today marks another day in the life of our children – June 16. I guess many Sierra Leoneans are now knowledgeable about the tragic event that took place in South Africa in 1976 in the township of Soweto that came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Scores of school children were gunned down by trigger happy South African police simply because black school children had taken onto the streets in protest over the segregation that existed in the education system during the apartheid era. (Photo: Soweto school children protesting who were gunned down in 1976)

It was a sad moment for black South Africans and there was no better way to remember the tragedy that befell that troubled nation than to set aside a special day to commemorate the calamitous event.

In Sierra Leone, the celebration of the day leaves much to be desired. If one should recall, the day was very much popularized during the reign of the youthful junta period of the National Provisionary Ruling Council (NPRC) when school going children, as young as five, dressed in military fatigue, mounted checkpoints, harassing and extorting passer-bys, a behaviour that was typical of the conduct of soldiers during the war years.

At that time, the Day of the African Child was seen as a novelty and parents did not only take part in the celebration but even looked forward to the event with much anticipation. Some of the children that manned checkpoints during that day would return home with their own share of the loot, while those who were privileged to symbolically sit in offices as cabinet ministers, parliamentarians or top business executives would also take home with them some gifts.

Gradually, some parents began to see the DAC as not just a social event, commemorating the tragedy of a nation that suffered under the bondage of apartheid but a profitable venture they could cleverly exploit. Some parents used to dressed their children in police uniforms or military attire and post them at the nearest checkpoint where they were taught to take bribes from motorists. No wonder the bribe culture has become a dominant way of life in Sierra Leone, the creation of the anti-corruption commission notwithstanding.

But as time passed by, it dawned on parents that the trick no longer works in a modern democracy. The reverse became evident as the new beneficiaries became the school teachers while the parents now bore the brunt of this solemn occasion.

Times were when teachers would demand quantities of food items including crates of soft drinks and or with cash from their pupils to mark the Day of the African Child. 

It will not stop at that. Parents were obliged to do special shopping for their kids, dressed them in African costumes, accompany them to their schools with additional dishes to complete the celebration.

In Sierra Leone, what started as a commemoration of a sad and memorable event in faraway South Africa became party time coupled with an exhibition of a Sierra Leonean style of ‘Sowetan Culture’, which I see as cosmetic representation of the true African culture. But all this is being done at the expense of poor parents who have no option but to tow the line in order to evade the stigma of being left out.

As a matter of fact, many parents remain very passionate about June 16. On the eve of the celebration, I was so amazed when I witnessed a scene at the Victory Park, Sewa Ground in Freetown. These were mostly women, jostling among themselves, competing for prices for the best designed African attire for their kids.  It was like no mother wanted to be left out, as money changed hands with the designers.

At the Guard Street market, women waded through piles of rubbish, defied the stench to reach the nearest trader in order to buy any available food stuff that the mother would prepare for her child on that day. It was amazing!

But upon reflection, I wondered if this was how the Soweto Massacre was to be remembered – with food and drinks, brand new clothes, brand new shoes complete with hectic school carnivals.

I could venture further to ask if the Government of Sierra Leone has a national programme for the Day of the African Child. Or has the celebration of this historic occasion been left entirely in the hands of school authorities and the parents?

I am told Africell, one of the leading mobile phone companies in Sierra Leone, would be feting school kids at the National Stadium today. What would the programme look like? Would it be beneficial to the kids in terms of their intellectual development? Or is it going to be day long carnival as usual?

My concern is whether the government monitors these activities, not just at the National Stadium, but all other places where our children would be called upon to participate? If there is any national agenda for DAC, it could be a misplaced one, as everything taking place on this day would not be coordinated neither monitored. I can bet my life on that.

This is for the Ministry of Social Welfare and Children’s Affairs. We need a national programme for DAC, not just NGOs or child friendly organizations taking the lead in observance of this day.

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