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Sharing Life Skills in the Face of a Pandemic: Sierra Leone’s Teens in Action

By Nki Nafisa Jones

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 3 September 2020 - “When schools and colleges closed down because of the pandemic, I didn’t feel that good. I keep reminding myself that it’s for our safety, which helps.” Hajaratu Bangura is a 17-year-old university student living in Freetown and is a presenter on “I Am Somebody”, the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education’s Life Skills radio programme for adolescents.

As with most countries around the globe, schools and universities in Sierra Leone were closed for several months from March 2020 in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. Among the myriad consequences of the school closures was the postponement of the long-awaited integration of Comprehensive Sexuality Education into the Basic Education curriculum. A chief concern of the Sierra Leone government has been the risk of a repeat occurrence of one of the legacies of the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic, in which the country’s already high rate of teenage pregnancy was further elevated during school closures. UNFPA quickly worked with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education to adapt lessons from “I Am Somebody”, the National Life Skills Manual, for the radio to be broadcast as part of the Ministry’s Radio Teaching Programme.

Hajaratu is one of three adolescent presenters animating the Life Skills episodes with a warm and relatable presence for their young audience around the country.

“I’m a first year student at Fourah Bay College studying Diploma in Mass Communication. I want to graduate from college with good results and to be able to bring my dream of becoming a journalist and lawyer to reality.”

In addition to her career ambitions, Hajaratu’s motivation for participating in the Life Skills radio programme stems from her sense of civic duty and desire to positively influence other young people: “I want to give back to my country and improve it in any way I can. I tell [my friends] what I have learnt and what they too could learn if they listen to the programme. I believe it’ll motivate them to live a safer lifestyle and help them to think carefully before doing anything they’re not that sure of.”

She continued: “Growing up our parents don’t really tell us all we need to know about the world and our surroundings, they keep certain things from us which they think is for our own good, but some of these things are better off said than being kept aside for later. When teenagers listen to our programmes they’ll get to know things that they were supposed to know from the start. They’ll ask important questions about how to deal with certain things which can help them in their day to day life and in making the right choices for their futures.”

Low internet access is a significant barrier to continuing school education during the pandemic, an issue recognised by Hajaratu: “I often think about others who have difficulty with their internet connectivity because of the poor connection in their area or insufficient money to buy data that could last for days.” She further noted other difficulties that have affected learning outcomes during the school closures, “To be honest, I prefer sitting in the classroom while the professor is teaching rather than being behind a camera screen and listening to him/her teach. I’m still learning but it’s just not the same as before.”

She and her co-presenters have recorded over 80 life skills lessons for each of the age categories; 9-13 and 14-19. The lessons are adapted from the national Life skills manuals with technical support from UNFPA and aim to engage the listeners’ critical thinking through storytelling, interactive exercises, and songs. The life skills content is designed to achieve knowledge, attitudinal and skills-based learning outcomes. The topics covered in the episodes are wide-reaching and contextualised for the local issues affecting Sierra Leonean adolescents, such as sexual and reproductive health, gender inequality, risk taking behaviour, and mental health.

 

When asked to name her favourite topic from the programme, Hajaratu’s response is in line with her passionate promotion of children’s rights: “All of [the lessons are] important but my favourite one is Teenage Advocacy. We teenagers should not be quiet when we know something is not being done in the right way. When we see an unjust act, we should have the voice to speak up and not just stay mute.”

Hajaratu’s experience as a presenter on “I Am Somebody” has been overwhelmingly positive. She enthusiastically praised the opportunity she has had to build her skills and to expand her child rights advocacy to a national scale:

“It has been a wonderful experience since I joined. I have learnt so much and educated not only myself but also others who listen to the programme. Hopefully it carries on like that and we don’t lose our flow but overall the experience has been amazing and educative.”

The ‘I am Somebody’ life skills radio programme airs Monday-Friday from 7:30-8:00pm on 95.3FM Education Radio and can be accessed at any time on anchor.com/iamsomebody9-13 or anchor.com/iamsomebody14-19 or most popular podcast platforms.