1Identify the Exclusion
You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance.… You have to get close.
At home in Sierra Leone, I hardly ever use an alarm clock. When I’m visiting rural communities, I’m more likely to be woken up by the kokorioko sound of a chicken, the melodious calls of songbirds, or the Muslim azaan, the call to prayer. In my neighborhood in Freetown what usually rouses me is the deep baritone of a bread seller singing “tapalapa two thousand,” a man preaching the Gospel of the Lord through a megaphone as he walks down the middle of the street, or the beeping horn and revving motor of an okada (motorcycle taxi) transporting early risers to work.
Once roused, I open one eye and reach for my phone, which is usually lying on top of whatever book happens to be sitting on the white table on my side of the bed. Squinting against the light shining through the thin white linen curtains, I turn it on and start browsing through the headlines. Most mornings I am interrupted by a knock on the door before I can click on any of the stories, and a chorus of tiny voices shouting “Dadaaaa, bu waa!” (“Good morning, Daddy!”). As soon as I hear that, I slide my phone under the pillow and lift the blue mosquito net that hangs over the bed so our two children—Nyaanina Sophia, now seven years old, and her sister Peynina Athena, three and a half years younger—can join us. Both love their morning routine, which includes tight hugs and cuddles mixed with tickle attacks and laughter. Nyaanina and Peynina are similar in many ways, yet also very different, so their routines vary accordingly. Nyaanina describes herself as a “love person”; she could easily spend hours expressing and receiving affection, so she gets a longer cuddle. Peynina is eager to begin her daily explorations of the house, so she only wants a quick hug and a kiss on her forehead. Their older teenage cousin, fourteen-year-old Kadija, often follows them into the room and whisks them away to breakfast. Kadija is my elder sister’s oldest daughter but I treat her as if she were one of my own. She moved in with us soon after we returned to Sierra Leone because space in her parents’ home was tight. Also, we wanted our girls to grow up amongst extended family and my sister wanted the same for Kadija.
Breakfast, like every meal chez Krontiris-Sengeh, is an event. My wife, Kate Krontiris, is a social scientist and trained facilitator. That means discussion and debate are always on the menu, no matter the time of day, and everyone is expected to participate fully, even Peynina. Kate and I first met at MIT where we were graduate students. Kate was part of the MIT Africa team that had invited me to speak in the spring of 2012 on the topic of African Youth: Entrepreneurship and Education. Kate and I started dating right after that conference and got married three years later. Those topics have remained constant themes for debate in our home as my life’s work has revolved around them.
My workday is typically between nine and ten hours and, unlike my mornings with my girls at home, it is anything but routine. As cabinet minister, I engage with a cross section of stakeholders including representatives from teacher organizations, civil society institutions, and development partners, and parents who, I’m glad to say, often take me up on my open-door policy. The meetings only stop when I leave my office to attend an external event or make a surprise visit to a school. During those school visits, I regularly find myself at the blackboard teaching. I try to connect with students as often as I can, to better understand their daily realities. In the midst of all this, I’m always on standby to attend a meeting with the president or one of his delegates since, as chief innovation officer, I am his primary adviser on science, technology, and innovation.
I’m quite mindful of the clock during the day because it’s very important to me to be home on time for dinner. Kate, Kadija, Nyaanina, and Peynina usually wait for me to get home so we can eat as a family. We use that time to debrief one another about our days and also debate about topics that concern us. Nyaanina loves being the one to ask, “What’s your peach and what’s your pit?”
In between the start and end of my days, my mind is fully dedicated to work. I try to be fully present at home, although I’m not always successful at that since my work does follow me everywhere. Kate usually makes a point of reminding me to log off and leave my phone far away from the dining table and our bed, but as evidenced by my morning scroll through the headlines, it’s a challenge I’m still working on. I’m successful sometimes, but when I’m not it causes understandable tension and unhappiness.
On the evening of November 20, 2019, when Kate asked me, “How was your day?” I had plenty to tell her. And it wasn’t good.
That morning, less than twenty-four hours after I had been approved by the Parliament of Sierra Leone to be the new cabinet minister in charge of the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, and just hours after I’d been sworn in, I’d slipped into the back of the Freetown International Conference Centre to attend an event. I was a bit late because I’d been meeting my new staff, and the speeches were already underway. On the agenda was a commemoration of World Children’s Day, and then our new president, Julius Maada Bio, would deliver the keynote address.
Students, teachers, civil society organization representatives, diplomats, and heads of development partner organizations all sat quietly in the dimly lit, jam-packed room to listen to the president’s speech on the status of children and their right to education in Sierra Leone. I was physically in the room, but I wasn’t fully present.
My mind was stuck on the image of a girl we had driven past on the way to the convention center. Although my SUV’s dark-tinted windows were closed, I could tell it was windy outside because her long purple skirt was billowing. Her hair was finely plaited and her face shiny and well oiled. Had her skirt not had a flowery pattern, I would have assumed she was wearing a uniform and on her way to school. She waved for us to slow down, and my driver stopped to let her cross the road. As she paused in front of our vehicle to let an okada in the opposite traffic lane pass, I noticed she was pregnant. She couldn’t have been any older than sixteen—about the same age as the schoolgirl I happened to be sitting next to in the auditorium. She could have been attending the same school as my niece Kadija, I thought. How did she get pregnant, and how was her family and society advocating for her future? Under the current government policy, she wasn’t allowed to attend school and I wondered if she would ever go back. Thank goodness, I thought, that the policy would soon be overturned.
Girls and young women face unique challenges, whether in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, or elsewhere, that prevent them from safely accessing classes, staying in school, and obtaining quality education. In many places, girls, or certain groups of girls, are denied access to education purely because of their gender, depriving them of their best opportunity for improving their lives, and perpetuating the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The problem had been at the back of my mind for years. Until the challenge it poses to equity and justice is addressed, development at local, national, and global levels will be stunted. Finally, I was in a position to do something—something radical—about girls’ educations.
When a group of people are excluded or feel excluded, they often don’t even have the language to express the challenges they experience, never mind the power to change their situation. Exclusion is almost always about power and the need to retain it. Sometimes the actions that lead to others being excluded are not intentional; they may seem mundane or normal, like one kid making fun of another’s speech impairment, mimicking the way the other child mispronounces certain words in class. This may seem inconsequential to those observing, but what if this leads the child with the speech impairment to drop out of school?
The child doing the teasing and the adult who witnesses the behavior may not feel that they are doing anything wrong, but what’s important is not what those with power feel. The important thing is to understand how the excluded feel and why they feel that way.
All of us have been excluded at some point, and it never feels good. But while being left out of a trip to the movies by your family feels terrible in the moment, it is different from the most pernicious and hard-to-combat kinds of exclusion: those that are structural or institutional, and that transcend a singular context or experience. These are the kinds of exclusions that people refer to as “systemic.”
Racism, tribalism, sexism, and the many other negative “-isms” are all examples. When we directly observe individuals enforcing these exclusions verbally or physically, I would hope that we would stop and intervene. But people are excluded from all sorts of activities and opportunities every day. Many of us remain silent even if we’re disturbed by it, and the world goes on. That’s why the first step to enhancing inclusion is to identify the things that lead people to feel excluded, at both an individual and a systemic level, and put a name to them. Once we name something, it is harder to ignore.
Before he named me education minister, President Bio and I had spoken informally about the ban on pregnant girls in schools a few times, both over lunch at his office and also casually at his home. He knew my position clearly and though he hadn’t said as much explicitly, my sense from our conversations was that he was open to reviewing the ban. When my mind tuned back in to the president’s voice in the conference center, everything he was saying was music to my ears. He spoke about the government’s flagship Free Quality School Education program which was enrolling more and more learners across the nation, including increasing numbers of girls. Then he lifted his head ever so slightly and looked up at the high wooden ceilings of the auditorium, which were swathed with cobwebs. He seemed to be pondering a question. I had already spent enough time around the president to learn some of his mannerisms. I could tell he was about to go off script because he placed his left index finger on a line on the paper as a marker.
I knew he was pondering something important; I did not know what. Then he spoke. “People have asked me if pregnant schoolgirls should go to school,” he began. I squirmed uneasily in my seat.
He took a pause, which felt like eternity.
Could he have seen the same girl I saw on his way to this event? Why was he bringing up this topic at this time? For a brief moment, I got excited, hoping he would seize the occasion to overturn the ban right there and then. But it quickly passed.
“For me, I say no,” he said, going straight to the point. “If a girl child is pregnant, let her stay home until she delivers before she can return to school.”
The president looked directly at me as he spoke, catching and holding my gaze briefly before he lowered his eyes. As he further expanded his thoughts, looking in the direction of where the development partners and diplomats were sitting, I sank deeper and deeper into my chair. It felt to me like the world had stopped spinning; gravity had ceased to exist, and I was just floating in that auditorium. All of a sudden, I was a key part of a government that was actively supporting a policy that I found deeply objectionable but would be tasked to enforce. There was absolutely no ambiguity in the president’s position.
I wasn’t sure what was more shocking—the president’s words or the loud applause that followed. One of the promises of our government was it would be different from its predecessors in matters of what we refer to as “human capital development.” Gender equity and access to education are central to human capital development. Why did the president not see that his policy was exclusionary, in conflict with human capital development, and a continuation of the previous government’s bad policy? Why did he not just stick to his script?
Before I wandered off in worried thought for too long, I was jolted back to reality by the loud clapping of the young girl who was sitting right next to me. She looked at me with glee as she said, “Maada Bio is right. I do not want to be in the same classroom as a pregnant girl.” She did not know who I was, and I had not asked for her opinion, but she felt it was important to express her support for what the president had just said.
She must have seen from my expression that I did not agree. I took a deep breath and asked her to tell me why she felt the president was right. I listened attentively for a while as she repeated the same points that lobbying groups had been pushing for the past decade: pregnant girls need to be protected; they are bad influences on their peers in the classroom; it isn’t morally right; allowing them to attend school is tantamount to condoning sexual activity among teenage girls. And that was just for starters. After listening for a long while, I cut her off mid-sentence. “It is OK, thank you,” I said.
I’d had enough, and I had not even completed a full day in my job as minister.
Many people had opposed my appointment. During my parliamentary approval interviews, I responded to a critique from a member of Parliament who had said I was an inexperienced politician who wouldn’t last in the post. He was right about my political inexperience, I told him, but I was there “to do my job, not to keep my job.” Now I wondered whether his critique was justified and whether I was even ready to do the job.
When I accepted President Bio’s generous invitation to join his cabinet, some civil society organizations and social activists had rightly assumed that overturning the ban would be one of my top goals. But in that auditorium, for the first time in my life, I began to wonder if something I had set my mind to might prove impossible to accomplish. Surely if the president, as head of government and head of cabinet, publicly stated his view on something, then that was the policy that everyone else on the team should support. I considered resigning, but not for long. Holding a view that pregnant girls should not go to school did not make that girl who sat next to me in the auditorium or President Bio, or anyone else who held the same view, a bad person. Many who were against pregnant girls going to school just didn’t realize how exclusionary the policy was. But if the image of that girl in the street had refocused my attention, the president had drawn the battle lines in the most public way. And I was ready to fight.
To my mind, the issue was crystal clear and unambiguous. Every child has an inalienable right to a quality education, no matter their condition. That our society had accepted that a female child could lose this right was unjust. It took a boy and a girl for a girl to become pregnant, but the pregnancy was, of course, borne solely by the girl. That girl crossing the street should have been on her way to a school compound that morning and yet, because she was pregnant, she was out in the streets going anywhere except a school. That was not right.
Civil society activists and feminist organizations had been fighting against the ban for nearly half a decade. But an even louder set of activists believed, just as the schoolgirl sitting next to me did, that allowing pregnant girls into classrooms would set a bad example for young people. Now that I was squarely in the middle of the conflict, I made a commitment to delve deeper into both sides’ positions so I could build my own arguments more effectively.
Before I walked out of that auditorium, I vowed to make overturning the ban not just one of my top goals, but the very top one. Education—safe access to schools, retention in class, transition to higher grades, quality of learning—is not always equitable for boys and girls in Sierra Leone, nor is it in many countries. Girls are systematically excluded through explicit policies, institutional infrastructure, and sociocultural practices. This is further exacerbated by sexual and gender-based violence. I did not know how to solve all those problems, but I knew it was unjust to deprive pregnant girls of their education. That, at least, was something we should and could remedy.
The first step, I realized, was to name this exclusion loudly, clearly, and without equivocation. But I also knew that the voices that needed to be centered in the conversation were those of the people who were being left out. Over the years, I’d heard all sorts of people opine on this topic—from older women to schoolgirls, from religious leaders to cultural leaders and government officials—but seldom had I heard from a schoolgirl who had actually been barred from school because she was pregnant.
The full weight of the first principle of radical inclusion hit me in that moment like a log over my head. I had been feeling sorry for the pregnant girl I saw on my way to the auditorium. But there’s a huge difference between feeling sympathy for someone and identifying an exclusion in a way that accurately reflects its true reality. No exclusion can be remedied until you research it, gain a deep understanding of its complexities, and then define it in a way that makes its injustice unambiguously clear to others. So, how many pregnant schoolgirls had I talked to myself? The answer was exactly none.
As I concluded recounting my day to Kate, I promised myself that I would meet as many people affected by the ban as I could. And I did. Starting the very next morning, I actively sought out pregnant schoolgirls and parent learners (meaning someone who had a child and returned to school). I listened as they told me that while there were indeed some physical challenges related to school attendance, there was absolutely nothing that significantly affected their ability to learn. One girl told me that whether she was in school or not, the morning sickness and nausea were the same. She would rather be in school with morning sickness than suffer through it while selling peanuts in front of her house. The teenage mothers who had just recently given birth reported being taunted by both their teachers and their classmates, especially when they opted out of certain activities. Many chose to stay home rather than subject themselves to the constant shaming and bullying in school.
The pregnant girls and parent learners told me about other ways their exclusion from the classroom affected them. At home they were pressured to either get married or do more household labor, taking them further away from their educations. Friends from school shunned them, sometimes because they no longer shared the same interests but also because their parents forced them to end their friendships with girls who were pregnant. While their pregnancies took a toll on their bodies, the psychological and psychosocial challenges were equally arduous. Many suffered from depression.
One thing I never heard from any of them was that they had become pregnant because they saw that another girl in their school was pregnant. So it seemed hard to imagine how their presence in a classroom would result in other girls deciding to become pregnant.
One weekend in early 2020, I went to visit my mother in Bo. My parents’ compound is always filled with members of our extended family who are either visiting or found reasons to stay on. Our compound also has a clean water well with a tap. Ever since I was a kid, several other families in the neighborhood have used that well as their source of drinking water. Neighborhood schoolchildren go there during their lunch breaks to get water as well, so on any given day, between fifty and a hundred children come to get water for their families.
Lucky for me, a young pregnant girl came to fetch some drinking water as I rested under a coconut tree in the yard. She had a lappa wrapped around her torso, and walking behind her and kicking a small football was a boy I assumed to be her younger brother. I asked if she wanted to join me for a conversation. She agreed and we walked to the veranda, which offered more privacy than the well.
I’ll call her Aminata. While she did not reveal who the father of her child was (I did not ask), she pointedly observed that he was still doing what he did before she became pregnant, which was going to school; only she was being punished by the state.
But when I asked Aminata if she wished she could attend school during her pregnancy, her answer was vehement: “No!” When she saw how surprised I was, she explained that while she wanted to continue her education, it was difficult for her to concentrate because of morning sickness. It had been the same with her first pregnancy, she said, explaining that the little boy who accompanied her to the well was not her younger brother but her son, delivered just after she completed junior secondary school, likely before her sixteenth birthday.
Aminata came from Pujehun District, which has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Sierra Leone. Many of her other classmates either have children already or are pregnant. Several hid their pregnancies from their families and teachers until they could no longer do so. She had done that herself with her first child, which was how she was able to take her junior secondary school examination. This was more difficult to do in some schools, where, as a pregnancy check, teachers would reportedly measure the size of girls’ bellies as they stood in line to take exams. But she could not hide her pregnancy this time because her uniform was too tight. What made her situation worse was that the government policy didn’t just forbid her to attend school; it also forbade her from registering to take the national exam to continue her education.
Aminata burst into tears as she grappled with the prospect of missing a whole school year. With two babies, she might never be able to go back. I could not give her any comfort as I fought to hold back my own tears. How is it that we as a society are so good at further victimizing those who are already victims? Twelve years of public education and she was at risk of not graduating from secondary school. Twelve years of public investment in her education and now the state was limiting her potential. Why? Aminata left with a full bucket of fresh, clean water balanced on her head, as her son kicked his ball behind her.
Copyright © 2023 by David Moinina Sengeh