On Saturday, April 24, 2010, sitting on a straight back chair in my verandah on Fort Street in black tight-fitting fashionable jeans with black equally trendy tight-fitting shirt, Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, with his ‘new angel’ (the light complexioned plump daughter of celebrated lawyer/politician Osho-Williams, dressed in maxi shirt brown flowery cotton dress, with Caucasian-type hair that drape her well-fed shoulders) said that when he first came to Freetown (from Kailahun District) and started attending Bathurst Street Infant School he had to "wash people’s clothes; wash their dishes" in order to get food to eat to enable him to go to school.
Saffa pointed out to another young man his age (called Mahmoud) to confirm that for "five years" he walked barefooted to school. Mahmoud confirmed it.
Saffa said that his uniform worn to school would be most often tattered, with the pockets hanging out, as the one uniform given him would be used for at least two years.
There was one unmovable objective in Saffa’s mind: "Whether I was hungry or not, I will go to school…..Since most times I would be hungry at school, I started helping a woman selling cassava and soup at school, as a way of ensuring that I would get food to eat…"
Saffa, with paradoxical strength and pain in his voice, told the verandah packed with teenagers and young adults (mainly school-going youth, and one tertiary student; plus two professional tailors) said: "I had no place to sleep all the time. I would sleep in people’s verandah…There were shoe repairers around our area, and I would join them. I am very good cobbler…."
"We didn’t have access to watch in those days. We learned how to tell the time from the direction of the sun and the shadows it will make from the houses….", Saffa said. Saffa said he passed the ‘Common Entrance Examinations’ (to move from primary to secondary school), but, he couldn’t afford the fees and uniforms for the Albert Academy where he was to go.
For two months after school re-opened, Saffa said he was not going to secondary school. Then, one day, a man saw him, and asked why he was not going to school. He explained his predicament; and the man took him to Model Secondary School on Berry Street, and enrolled him there.
During the five years he was in Model Secondary School, he had to continue the lifestyle that had got him to survive: doing menial work for his neighbours.
"It didn’t mean I didn’t play. I played a lot of football with my peers….I even smoke ‘diamba’ (marijuana)", He chuckled.
Then, he cautioned that he smoked diamba only about four times during his early youth. He couldn’t sustain this diamba habit for one practical reason. The diamba would stimulate his appetite, and get him very hungry – with the problem he had getting food to eat daily, he certainly couldn’t afford anything that would set afire his appetite.
He had to take his ‘O’ Levels school leaving public exams twice. This was mainly because of the educational system. Teachers were not teaching in schools; coercing students to go to the private lessons they would organize in their homes, or, a few school rooms. He couldn’t find the money to pay for these private lessons. Like with his food, he depended on sponging on his schoolmates who would be attending these lessons.
It was the same thing when he started his sixth form in the St. Edward’s Secondary School in Kingtom. He specifically mentioned a neighbour, Mr. Alhassan Kamara at No 5 Fort Street, who gave him Le30,000 in 1997 to pay his fees to start sixth form in St. Edward’s.
With no one guaranteed to pay his school fees in sixth form, no place to really study, Saffa said that he used ever corner of the huge 3 storey 1950s-built SAMBA family house (which would have over a hundred people residing there, mainly from Kailahun District) to study in. "I would buy a pint of kerosene, but some self-made wick into it…and use it as light to study…", Saffa said, enjoying regaling us at his ingenuity to survive.
"They use to call me Booker T. Washington…..", Saffa said, his voice rising slightly, as he recalled that part of his past: "I would never pass by anything in print without reading it….Any small piece of paper on the ground…Every magazine that I would rarely come across…".
It could have been a faux pas, but, giving a speech just about one house away from where he used to reside on Fort Street, and naming names of his peers who he grew up with on the Street (who are still residing in the same place where he grew up in at No 8 Fort Street), Saffa asked for the difference to be drawn between him and his peers – "Y... Sahr M....h" – who had mothers, fathers, homes, food. The names mentioned have failed to complete school; or have failed to pass their O Level exams; and they are just idling around the neighbourhood…..
Saffa said one of his strength is enormous self confidence, which borders on arrogance. "I always believed in myself. I always believe that I will escape my poverty through study and hard work. I never would allow anyone to press me down…."
Saffa said that sometimes that his aunt would threaten him that if he fails to perform a chore, she would not give him food to eat: "Because of that threat, I would not do what he would tell me to do…"
"I knew even then that no one was my God. I was not going to rely on anybody to get me out of where I was….", Saffa said.