Learning a Trade at the Skills Center in Sierra Leone

11/20/09

Janet Kamara cuddled her newborn baby. At the same time, she did her part to make soap, a trade she had just about conquered. Janet, who was fifteen years old at the time, attended classes at Children of the Nations’ (COTN) Vocational Skills Center in Banta Mokelleh for about a year and a half. Designed as an alternate for students who don’t pass their entrance exams to get into high school, the Vocational Skills Center also attracts many single, teen mothers who want to learn a trade to provide for themselves and their babies. “I want to have my own group to teach so that I can impact knowledge on them with what I’ve learned here,” Janet said of her future plans. During her training, she studied how to make soap and gara (a fabric that is tie-dyed to use for clothing, bedding or curtains). Currently, the Vocational Skills Center offers other programs including tailoring, weaving and carpentry. As part of the curriculum, each student also takes adult literacy classes.

“They are excited,” said Mr. Joseph George Wulleh, the head teacher of COTN’s center. “They enjoy it. Especially in their final year. We send them into the community to be exposed to their [future] customers. Those students studying tailoring go to a tailor’s shop for one or two months and experience how the tailors meet the customers in the community. It’s an internship. We want to send them out.”

According to Mr. Wulleh, there’s no stigma that comes with having to settle for a trade instead of attending high school. In counseling with the students and their parents, Mr. Wulleh tells them that learning a skill is just as important as any other job such as a doctor or lawyer. “By this, we motivate them to come to class,” he said. In the first three months at the center, each student gets to experience the different trades. Through this process and career counseling with teachers, they decide which specialty they’ll study.

The profit from selling the products that the students make throughout the year allows the COTN Vocational Skills Center to have very few costs. However, Mr. Wulleh hopes to provide a meal a few days a week to his students in the future. “Some students don’t have good attendance because they are spending the day searching for food for themselves and their families,” he said. When they are able to come, some students walk from villages that are three or four miles away.

Each year, a new class of students begins at the Vocational Skills Center. Mr. Wulleh hopes to expand the areas available for study in the near future. Last year, the number of students enrolled was almost 100. Though that sounds like a huge undertaking with only one teacher per trade, Mr. Wulleh remains excited about each new class of students. “Mostly, I work with people who are marginalized and disadvantaged so helping them to be trained and then later on, self-reliant. I enjoy that,” he says. “They didn’t have the hope before of earning their living.”

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