Education vs. diamond mining in Sierra Leone

December 03, 2020
Abdul Conteh (left) and Foday Kamara work for an artisanal diamond miner in Kono, Sierra Leone. Moving large piles of dirt from one location to the next is backbreaking work that pays $2 a day. Artisanal miners are independent and not associated with the large mining companies in the area. Photo by Kathy L. Gilbert, UM News.

It’s been said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend … unless you’re a teenage girl in Sierra Leone, that is.  The universal symbol for steadfast love often robs girls (and boys) of an education. These 13- to 17-years-olds often pass up an opportunity to attend school in order to make $2 a day carrying out back-breaking work in muddy fields under the hot sun. There is nothing glamorous about it. And too often, unscrupulous men use the promise of potential diamonds to lure school-age girls into relationships.

Diamonds were behind the civil unrest that tore apart both Liberia and Sierra Leone and led to civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thankfully, strides have been made since the era of “blood” diamonds, which captured headlines and led to a highly successful movie featuring Leonard DiCaprio in 2006. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme—a commitment to remove conflict diamonds from the global supply chain—changed things somewhat for the better, but unfortunately, the problem of child labor for diamond mining still exists.

The problem is not exclusive to diamond mining areas. Thankfully, the Sierra Leone Conference of the UMC realizes this and is confronting the overall problem by placing education at the forefront of its ministry. There are 300 United Methodist primary schools and 30 United Methodist Secondary Schools in the country. Many of Sierra Leone’s regional and national leaders (including two presidents) have graduated from these schools, which are considered among the best in the country.

The Lyndon Zabel Auditorium in The Rev. Richard Ormsby Secondary School.

The Minnesota Annual Conference has a long history of supporting the efforts of the Sierra Leone Conference through OC Ministries (formerly Operation Classroom), which has partnered to build or renovate nine schools over the years. As directed by the local bishops, the schools have been situated in diverse geographic locations all over the country, from the cities of Kabala, Makeni, and Moyamba to the larger towns of Rotifunk and Lunsar, to the small villages of Mile 91 and Baiwalla. Thousands of children have been able to attend school because of their efforts, thus avoiding “the muddy fields.” OC Ministries has also sponsored more than 500 students with scholarships in addition to providing teacher subsidies and funds for school supplies and daily hot lunch programs. (Watch brief video showing impact of OC Ministries.)

Baiwalla, located five miles from the Liberian border, has the distinction of being where rebels looking for diamonds in Sierra Leone entered the country, as well as where Ebola first landed in 2014. These two disasters not only devastated the village and communities around it, but kept children out of school for years. Consequently, already low literacy rates fell even further and a generation of teenagers and 20-somethings received little or no schooling.

The Rev. Richard Ormsby Secondary School (named after retired Minnesota pastor, Rev. Rick Ormsby, an early inspiration and mentor for Minnesota’s Rev. Judith Banya, who founded the school) teaches students not only reading, writing, math, and science, but computer technology, agriculture, and small business development. The latter two subjects provide hands-on training for a farm and local store, whose proceeds help the school be self-sustaining.

During this holiday season, you can contribute to OC Ministries’ efforts in Baiwalla (the website’s donate page provides several options, including sponsoring a student). What could be better than helping a young girl or boy receive the gift of an education?! Who knows—they might become president someday!    

Lyndy Zabel is director of community engagement and missional impact for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  

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