Unlike the marathon, which was in its 10th edition in 2023, the bike ride was completely new. I had no idea what to expect. In fact, since I would be borrowing a Sierra Leonean bike, I wasn’t even sure it would have pedals and a seat! This challenge could have gotten very interesting very quickly! As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry. The bikes were perfect, in fact, nicer than my trusted old Halfords bargain mountain bike I have at home. For starters, the gears changed! The seat was pretty comfortable too! I was surprised.
The only problem I had throughout my entire ride was that my saddle insisted on lowering itself, meaning that my knees would hit my chin every now and then. However, a mechanic was riding with us (on a motorbike), so whenever I felt it needed adjusting, I’d give him a nod. We would coordinate a quick dismount, lift and tighten, leaving most of the other riders oblivious that I had even taken a break!
I’m not surprised they didn’t notice though. They would have been completely entranced by the stunning countryside we were riding through. For the first 33 km, we navigated the red dirt roads east of Makeni. Bumpy and uneven with deep ridges and potholes, they were the perfect trails to enjoy on a mountain bike. The vibrant reddish-orange hue created a striking contrast with the lush green foliage lining the roadside. Despite their rustic appearance, these tracks are the lifeline for rural communities, connecting them to markets, schools, and healthcare facilities. And it is communities like these that Street Child supports to ensure the kids have access to education. Unfortunately, many communities become cut off during the rainy season as these dirt roads turn from hard-packed soil to mud slaloms.
As we rode past each village, children ran out to greet us while women in bold, bright-patterned dresses gathered around the water wells filling up plastic containers. Men sat in the shade, seemingly doing nothing. Unlike the marathon route, where locals are accustomed to see runners, these villagers were surprised to see us and watched wearily as we approached. Luckily, I knew some magic words. As soon as we were in earshot, I’d shout, “Kushe”. Their faces would instantly transform, big smiles appearing as they straightened up to wave. Some even called back, “How di bodi”. “Di bodi fine” I’d reply. It never ceases to amaze me how learning just the most basic words can completely transform an interaction.
The dirt roads gave way to asphalt, and we soon joined the marathon runners on the Kamakwe Highway, an out-and-back route that seemed so easy on a bike compared to running it last year. We met the faster runners on their way back and caught up with the last of the marathon runners at the turnaround point. There were regular pit stops on route, allowing us to fill our water bottles, eat some snacks and top up our electrolytes.
Until this point, the stops had been brief, but now that we were at the 48 km mark, we used it as a chance to properly take a breather. We chatted with the crew of helpers while the medics cleaned the scrapes of one of the cyclists that had taken a tumble. As I waited, a police officer approached me. What had I done wrong? With a serious face he asked: “Can I have a selfie?”. Then, he smiled.
Refuelled, we hit the road again, overtaking Josh, ten times Sierra Leone Marathon runner and master sweeper, as we tackled the final 23 km back. We had been alternating whom we spoke to throughout the ride, giving us a chance to learn more about each of our fellow cyclists. On this stretch, I got to chat with Harry, our lead cyclist and one of Sierra Leone’s finest. Harry, 19, is using cycling to transform lives by getting boys and girls into the sport. When not at university studying Computer Science, he is coaching other young riders and raising funds to get the necessary equipment to give other youngsters a chance to represent their country. I hope his dream of riding the Tour de France one day comes true.
Despite the ride only being 70 km in the end, it was tough! Especially the final 10 km through the jungle. I didn’t remember this section being quite so hilly during the marathon, but without the option of walking, I felt every last bit of incline on those short sharp hills. By now the heat had become oppressive. My phone suggested it felt like 40 degrees. I believed it! Sweat was pouring profusely from every pore, and despite trying to take in as much fluid as possible, I knew it wasn’t enough. I was craving salt, and I was still unable to pass water (a problem that had inconveniently surfaced the day before!). There was no denying it, I was struggling, I was tired and I was hot.
But then, as we neared Makeni, kids came out for high fives, and locals cheered us on, shouting “tenki” as we rode past. My spirits were instantly lifted as we covered the final few kilometres into Wusum stadium, where everyone who had already finished waited to cheer us over the finish line.
I was somewhat worried about coming back for a second year. My first trip to Sierra Leone, back in 2022, had been so special that I wasn’t sure how 2023 could top it. The group of international runners that I met last year really helped make the trip memorable. What if I had just got lucky? It turns out that they were just as nice the second time around. Of course, I missed some of the friends I had made in 2022, but some of the faces were familiar, and I left once more with a whole new Sierra Leone family and, hopefully, several people I will remain in touch with for years to come.
When I wrote about my marathon efforts last year, I commented: “I came to Sierra Leone alone but left with a new family”. I may not have come alone this year, but the sentiment remains. And I suppose it is not surprising. It takes a special kind of person to sign up to a marathon or bike challenge in a country like Sierra Leone.
Partly I’m sure it is for the sense of adventure. But predominantly, it is because of Street Child’s work and because it is one of the few charity challenges where you get to see how the money raised is used. The Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon and Bike Challenge is so much more than a sporting endeavour. It is a week-long immersive experience where you get to meet first-hand the beneficiaries of the money being raised. It is an emotional week full of highs and lows. Some of the stories I heard were heartbreaking, but then they were coupled with awe-inspiring tales of lives being changed for good.
This year’s event coincided with Sierra Leone’s Independence Day, which meant we lost a day of site visits. Specifically, the day spent meeting the grant beneficiaries. However, I explained those visits last year in detail, so I urge you to check that blog out. Nevertheless, a day lost in visits was a day gained in other activities, which gave us the time to hike up Wusum Hill, from where we could enjoy a bird’s eye view of Makeni.
Street Child’s work can be summarised into three categories:
Providing families with a means to make enough money to put their kids through school. This is done through a business grant and training.
By providing social support to enable the most vulnerable kids to access school. These could be kids living on the streets, teenage mothers, or simply those in communities where education isn’t valued.
Building schools in remote rural areas where there is no school, or alternatively improving existing facilities to make them suitable for education.
I will speak about all of these in more detail below, and I also discuss them in last year’s blog if you wish to read that. However, for now, I want to help you appreciate what I mean when I say rural. I, for one, never appreciated just how rural “rural” really is until I got picked to go to Tambaka.
Our group of 20 piled into five cars as we set off on a 3 ½ drive to one of Street Child’s most remote schools. The tarmac road soon gave way to a progressively bumpier red dirt track. Without aircon to keep us cool, we sped along with the windows open, dust filling the inside of the car. We hadn’t been going long when our driver abruptly pulled over. Our car had broken down and could not go on. So we each joined one of the other cars, a little cosier than we had been before, and continued on our journey.
Not for long though. No more than 10 minutes further down the road, another car broke down. Passengers were redistributed into the now three remaining vehicles, and we continued our journey, even cosier than before. Whereas some were a little disillusioned that this had happened, I saw it as a great example of the daily challenges that Street Child faces when it comes to operating in Sierra Leone. Most vehicles have so many miles on the clock that the clock has started over! And the conditions they have to operate in are far from ideal.
The dirt road lane progressively became narrower and bumpier. Although it is the “main” road from the Guinea border, this wouldn’t even classify as a greenway in the UK! A beautiful bridlepath, yes. But you can guarantee there would be a sign saying “unsuitable for motor vehicles”. Yet this was the main thoroughfare for the villages we were visiting. And we had the benefit of visiting during the dry season when we only had to deal with dry hardpacked uneven soil. Once the rains come, they are cut off entirely.
It took us the best part of 4 hours to get to the first school, which was just over 100 km away. We spent the last hour simply bouncing our way up a 7-mile track! If Street Child wanted to get across just how remote their work takes them, they had succeeded!
Parents and children were waiting to welcome us when we arrived at the school. The town’s chair lady greeted us in a song and dance and thanked us profusely for supporting her community. She mentioned that before Street Child had come along to help, there was no school. Kids would need to walk 4 miles each way every day, something that was only possible during the dry season, as the tracks were impassable once the rains arrived. That means that kids had no means of accessing education between late May and early November.
However, that wasn’t the “really” remote school we were meant to visit. To reach that one, we needed to cross a river by raft, which unfortunately was broken. We did try and drive through the river Top Gear style, but the water was too deep. Some of us were prepared to walk across it and continue the adventure on foot, but sense prevailed, and we decided to turn back so that we could reach Makeni before dark.
Before we did though, I had a chance to speak to the teacher that had been waiting for us by the river. Every day he walks across that river to reach his class. He removes his dress shoes to cross but can’t help but get his suit trousers drenched. He said it isn’t much of a problem though, as by the time he gets on a bike on the other side and reaches the school, they have dried off! Now that is dedication!
Aside from building schools and training teachers, Street Child also works within communities to identify the most vulnerable children not in school and determines what is needed to get them into education. Often this is down to communities or parents who don’t understand the value of education. Sometimes it is because girls have become pregnant in their teenage years and don’t have a caregiver for their child. But unfortunately, some of the kids the social workers identify are those that are living on the streets without a carer, often living in ghettos or slums under the supervision of an adult that exploits them.
It is these street kids that prompted founders Tom and Lucinda Dannatt to pledge their help back in 2008. At the time, Street Child committed to supporting 100 kids off the streets and into a safe environment where they could access education. Fifteen years on, they have now reached over 900,000 children across more than 20 countries. However, street children are still a reality in Sierra Leone. There are many reasons why they end up on the streets. Sometimes it is the loss of a parent (or both). Other times they run away from abusive situations at home. And sometimes, it is simply peer pressure and the allure that life on the streets can provide riches they will never experience if they remain at home.
The street kids often live a life of crime, stealing, and conning their way for the approval of their “leaders”. Some of them beg, while others sell themselves. It was upsetting to hear what so many kids go through, not just in Sierra Leone but elsewhere too. What really tipped me over the edge though, was when a fellow runner and friend, Jo, asked how they manage to remove the kids from these “leaders” without repercussions. After all, if they take away the kids, they take away the “leader’s” livelihood.
Marie, one of the most passionate individuals I have ever met, looked at Jo with sadness in her eyes and said, “We negotiate. We can’t save them all. We identify the most vulnerable and do everything we can to get them out. But sadly, we can’t save them all”. Even writing this I am still welling up. Imagine having to make that choice! I know I couldn’t.
The more I delve into the world of charitable aid, the more I realise it isn’t always as beneficial as the intentions with which it is done. Many charities sweep in with large sums of cash to “make things right” before disappearing onto their next project. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do much good in the long run other than create dependency and stifle entrepreneurialism.
Like the old adage says, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish, and he will eat for life”. That is Street Child’s approach, which is precisely why I am so committed to supporting their work.
Very often, the barrier to education is cost. Some families simply can’t afford to send their kids to school or need them to stay home to help with the younger siblings. Often they may need the kids to provide an income too. In short, for one reason or another, money is a barrier to education for many.
A lot of charities working in the education sector will raise funds to pay for the kid’s tuition year in and year out. This quickly adds up and costs the donors a lot of money. With this method, you either have deep pockets or are forced to limit the number of children you can support. Furthermore, the onus of success rests entirely on the charity.
Street Child takes a different approach. They provide families with a business grant and training so that they can set up a small business that makes them enough money not only to cover the costs of going to school but also to provide for the rest of the family. It sets them up to become role models for their children and the community. And most importantly, it empowers them to develop the life they want for themselves and their kids.
I met many beneficiaries of this program last year. So if you are interested in discovering more, please read last year’s blog.
Street Child’s work goes much beyond simply putting kids through school. How they handled the Ebola crisis is a testament to that. Again, like with education, many other charities spent vast amounts of money building state-of-the-art medical facilities. However, with a mortality rate of over 50%, the real problem was cultural. People didn’t understand how Ebola spread and therefore were putting themselves at risk and causing the rapid-fire spread of this deadly disease.
While others threw large sums of cash at the problem, Street Child deployed their teachers to the most rural communities in Sierra Leone with a single aim: to educate the community on the importance of social distancing, hygiene, and not touching the dead. Street Child believes that through education, they were able to save more lives by stopping the spread than any big fancy facility did while only costing donors a fraction of the money.
Education is far more potent than we give it credit for, which is why it is so vital that we support universal access to education to help eradicate poverty.
Whether you sign up for the 5 km, marathon, or the bike challenge, you will realise that the trip is so much more than what happens on race day. Race day certainly helps drive the donations, but the reason why so many people say that their trip is life-changing is because of everything that happens in the lead up to it.
It is impossible not to return a more grateful and humble individual after spending time in Sierra Leone. The cold bucket showers I turned my nose up to on day one quickly became a luxury I was thankful to have by the end of the trip! It is the kind of “holiday” that allows you to appreciate better what you have and certainly helps put life into perspective. I have definitely returned a changed person on both occasions, and I can’t wait to get back out again next year. I am in love with Sierra Leone and its people, but also the community of intrepid travellers that choose to use up their annual leave in this way.
If you think this sounds like the kind of adventure you need in your life, then all I can say is, “Do it!”. You can sign up on the Street Child website. You won’t regret it! I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have, and if you would like to explore Sierra Leone beyond Street Child, do get in touch. I am happy to share any knowledge I have to help you plan your own trip, and I will also be arranging a small group tour again this year for anybody who wishes to learn more about Sierra Leone!
You can check out the itinerary here, and if you are looking to explore on your own, then don’t miss out on my Complete Guide to Sierra Leone.
Don’t forget to sign up if you want updates on next year’s trip!