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On the front line of an education revolution in Sierra Leone

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 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. Authorities have also outlawed corporal punishment in schools and ramped up investment in education, with more than 20% of the national budget allocated to teacher pay, school renovation and other education expenses. The result has been a 50% 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.”

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.

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. He emphasized that change takes time and that the government is committed to ending these abuses.

Meanwhile, Alimatu is thriving in school but has just one school uniform, 2 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.

Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times columnist.

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