“Whether you finish it or not, the hardest part is already done. Being out here, seeing the work Street Child does, and raising all the funds is why we are all here and is the only thing that matters. So please don’t be a hero. If you need to cut it short, cut it short. If the medics ask you to stop, stop. Do not keep going until you can’t. If something bad happens, it is the children that will suffer for it”.
Did I have enough in the tank to run a marathon? Had I done enough training? Was I going to have to cut it short? A few messages had poured in the day before telling me that whether I completed it or not it didn’t matter. Was it because they had their doubts?
“Just know that even if you choose not to run at all, you’ve not let anyone down. You may feel disappointed in yourself, but it’ll only be you thinking that.”
“You’ve done the good work now. But running it, or not, does not change the money you’ve raised, the awareness you’ve brought, and how your life and outlook have changed.”
“To get to where you are now is incredible! Honestly humbling.”
I knew one thing, they might not believe in me, but I did! I was going to keep going until my body told me it was no longer wise to, but without risking the charity’s reputation.
After 2 ½ years of waiting, I was finally just hours away from running my first ever marathon. Not just any marathon though, but the Sierra Leone Marathon! I had signed up on a whim while bored on Christmas Day 2019. Street Child’s Facebook advert had caught my eye, and feeling like I needed adventure, I had put my name down and used my Christmas money to pay the deposit. No going back!
But the truth is that I hate running! Why I ever signed up for a marathon still baffles me. Maybe it was because people kept saying, “do it for long enough and you will start to enjoy it”. Well, 2 ½ years was not long enough. I am yet to experience a runner’s high!
But the real reason I was doing it had nothing to do with my enjoyment. It was actually the cause that had got me to say yes! If you have read my Mental Health story, you will know I didn’t have the best childhood. However, what I did have was a great education which enabled me to become who I am today. But that is a luxury that not everyone has, yet it is something that Street Child is changing.
Street Child was started when Tom Dannatt visited Sierra Leone in 2008 and decided to pledge to get 100 kids off the Street and into education. A lot has changed since then, and now Street Child works across 20 of the poorest and most challenging countries in the world, giving the most vulnerable children a safe home and access to primary education.
I am a big believer that universal education, particularly for girls, is key to eradicating poverty. Access to education is linked to fewer teenage pregnancies, less child fatalities, fewer child marriages, overall better health, improved care for animals, more nutritious diets, improved agriculture, and overall better prosperity for the entire community. This was something I could certainly get behind!
However, taking part in the Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon was much more than just a race. Not only because we would be running it in 36 degrees Celsius and 92% humidity! But because it involved spending 4 days beforehand visiting the many projects that Street Child is involved in, which for me was the most worthwhile part of the trip. We got to see exactly how the money we had raised was being used to support children, schools, and families in a way that provided a sustainable, scalable future.
Providing aid can be quite detrimental to the entrepreneurial spirit of a nation, and I speak a bit more about it in my article “Is aid really a good thing?”. However, these communities still need a helping hand, and I personally think the way Street Child does it is perfect.
Bea chats to a SCoSL staff member on the urban project visits.
The element of Street Child’s work that inspired me the most was how they support families in urban settings. There are generally two main reasons for children not going to school:
The parents don’t see the value in it because they may not have been to school themselves. According to the UNDP, the average Sierra Leonean adult has only received 3.6 years of schooling!
The parents can’t afford to send the kids to school. The kids are often needed to help drive income for the household by selling goods at markets or on the side of the road. Other times it is easier if they stay home to take care of younger siblings while the parents go to work.
Street Child tackles both of these scenarios differently. When it is a social issue, a social worker gets involved to highlight the benefits of education to the parents. When the problem is money, the Business Grant Scheme comes into play, which is what I really connected with.
Families are provided with grants so that they can set up their own businesses. They are given all the support and advice that they need to ensure they can develop the necessary skills to run a successful and profitable business. They are then provided with savings targets which, when met, Street Child matches. Through this 2-year program, families can turn their own life around. It enables them to make enough money to function without the kids’ support while also being able to afford to send them to school.
Building a sustainable future is so much better than simply paying for the kids to go to school. It changes the mentality and drives the behaviours that enable communities to enterprise and lift themselves out of poverty.
Meeting the Urban Beneficiaries
We met a number of the beneficiaries on our urban adventure day. The first lady we met, Mami Yube, broke my heart. She was taking care of 10 children, not all of which were hers. She had a little business selling firewood, coal, and palm oil. As she told us about her business, she broke down in tears. Between sobs she explained that she had lost her business partner only a week before. Not only had she lost a dear friend, but she was now also caring for all of her partner’s children!
Unfortunately, stories like this were common. I have never come into contact with so much loss anywhere else before. Most people I spoke to told me stories of lost loved ones. Babies lost before they had seen the turn of the year, brothers and sisters killed in road traffic accidents, parents killed during the civil war, and loved ones lost to ebola or covid. It took everything I had not to break down in front of them.
Proud dad at the amputee camp. His son wants to become a doctor
Although we encountered a lot of sorrow, we also heard many heart-warming stories. For example, while in the amputee camp, most of whom were victims of the civil war, we met a man who thanks to the Street Child’s grant, had opened a small shop. This had enabled his sons to go to school, one of whom wanted to become a doctor so that he too could provide life-saving surgery, as his dad had received on his leg.
At the polio camp, we learnt how a street beggar had turned his life around thanks to the Street Child grant, and now had his own workshop making shoes. He shared the fears he used to have. “I could get by by begging. People took pity on the condition of my legs. But I only earnt enough for myself. There was nothing wrong with my kids, so they got very little when they begged. I was worried for them. But now we don’t have to worry. They are all in school, and we live a comfortable life”.
A very proud dad who has turned his life around, from begging to making shoes
That day spent exploring the urban projects convinced me that I could not have chosen a better cause to raise money for.
The next day we set off to visit some of the rural projects. We travelled 2 hours out of Makeni in a convoy of 4x4s. The group that had headed out the day before had made most of the journey on rutty red dirt roads, whereas we followed the perfectly asphalted Chinese-funded roads all the way.
Villagers waved as we drove past while I stole glimpses into rural life in Sierra Leone. We eventually made it to the school, where we were introduced to each class and watched them in action. Every time the teacher asked a question, almost every hand would shoot in the air Hermione style, eager for the opportunity to answer the questions. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to my own schooling, where no hand was ever raised for fear of being uncool! Despite being a very studious kid, I never appreciated the value of attending school. In Sierra Leone, school is one of the most precious things these kids have, and they know it!
As well as seeing the school, we also took a hike through the surrounding farmland. Street Child sets them up with land and a grant to produce crops, ensuring that the schools are sustainable. These crops feed the community and provide income for the school so that they can afford to pay their teachers and save some money for a rainy day, when potential repairs or improvements may be needed.
As we walked through the fields, I chatted with the school chairman. A wiry older gentleman, he talked passionately about his family while simultaneously pointing out what each crop was. His English wasn’t great, and neither was my Krio, but we understood each other fine. Chairman, pointing at a green-leaved plant. “This pepeh”. Me: “Chilli? Hot? Spicey?”. Chairman “Yes! Very hot!”. Our conversation went something like that as we explored the lush green surroundings. At one point, we had to wade through a couple hundred yards of calf-deep water. We made it to the other side just as the rest of the group got to the start. Our Street Child guide shouted, “I don’t think this is a good idea. Should we go back?”. The chairman replied, “School is there. Turn back is too far”. And then to me, “Let white man suffer as black man does”.
Driving back from the rural visits was the lowest point of my time in Sierra Leone. Not because I wasn’t enamoured with what we had seen, but because my brain was in turmoil. I found the level of poverty I had seen in Sierra Leone overwhelming. I had arrived a couple of days before the rest of the crew so that I could explore Freetown. Right next to the mass ebola graves, and within a stone’s throw from a couple of apartment blocks, sat one of Freetown’s large landfill sites. People, including children, were scaling the large rubbish pile in search of anything of value. That was possibly the most shocking sight I saw throughout my stay. And as we drove back from the rural visits, I slumped back in my seat, lost in my mind, trying to comprehend the injustices of the world.
I was grappling with the knowledge that Sierra Leone has the resources to be an economically viable country. Its land is fertile and laden with precious minerals, gold, diamonds, and oil, yet who was seeing the profits? It certainly wasn’t the citizens of Sierra Leone! Of course, the country making headlines for “taking over Africa” is China, but the one question I couldn’t shake from my brain was, “what role did England play?” “How much of Sierra Leone’s hardship is due to its colonial past?”. I’m afraid this isn’t the article to go down that rabbit hole, but I will be writing about it soon.
I shared my feelings with fellow runners, surprised to find out I wasn’t alone. Everyone I spoke to was going through a similar emotional rollercoaster. But there was one thing that we were all sure about! That was the amazing work that Street Child was doing, which was confirmed yet again the next day when we sat through some workshops.
Women are at the heart of much of Street Child’s work. Single-parent households are always at much higher risk of poverty, and Sierra Leone has a disproportionate number of single mothers. There are several reasons for this, but it predominantly comes down to two. Firstly, old men marry young brides, meaning they pass long before the woman, leaving a single mum with all the kids to raise. Secondly, it isn’t uncommon for men to have multiple wives, only sometimes the earlier wives get ignored for the newer “models”.
The number of kids a man has is considered a symbol of wealth and power, and women are expected to have as many kids as God wishes to bless them with. On top of that, women who choose to use contraception are considered to be promiscuous. All this means is that there are many very vulnerable households with multiple kids and only a single breadwinner (or I should say, bread-winning adult!).
The workshops on our final day before the Sierra Leone marathon consolidated everything we had learnt so far about Street Child and Sierra Leone. We took a deep dive into how beneficiaries are selected and supported, how kids are taught based on their ability and not their age, as well as some more fun activities like learning Krio and dancing!
We also watched an amputee football match that frankly put David Beckham to shame! The goalkeepers were missing one arm, and the rest of the players were missing one leg. And yet, despite this, they moved faster than an average footballer would, and even more impressively, they didn’t complain when they fell! I’m not a football fan, but watching this game was awe-inspiring. A reminder that where there is a will, there is a way. During the bloody civil war that tore Sierra Leone apart, roughly 10,000 people were intentionally amputated, with a further 17,000 left disabled. It is a rather shocking number! The only place I have encountered anything like this before was Cambodia, where 3 decades of war has left 40,000 people dismembered.
Whether you like football or not, if you are ever given a chance to watch an amputee match, please do. You will be left amazed!
So having watched that incredible display, as well as having met all the beneficiaries from the £4,000+ I’d managed to raise, I was as ready and motivated as I would ever be to run the Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon.
At 2 am, my first alarm went off. Groggy, I ate my breakfast (2 granola bars) and tried to go back to sleep until my second alarm went off at 4 am, ready for a 4:30 pick-up to be taken to the stadium.
The streets that were usually so busy with fruit sellers were now deserted, apart from the bodies that lay on the pavement, sleeping under tables. Unfortunately, despite Street Child’s efforts, there are still 100s of kids sleeping rough. And every night, when the storm rolls in and the sky lights up and the thunder wakes us ahead of the torrential rain that inevitably follows, I can’t help but weep inside thinking about everyone sleeping rough.
Once at the stadium, the nervousness and excitement was palpable. Some people warmed up, others stretched, and others ran to the toilet. I did try and go for a pre-run wee, but when I saw 100 people’s poo floating in the overflowing bowl, I decided to go for a wild wee instead.
The only obvious place was behind an outbuilding, so together with another female runner, we decided to try our luck. We stamped our feet as we crossed the tall grass to fend off any slithering beasts, and when we reached the back of the building, we navigated the brown landmines that had been left by previous guests. Eventually, we were ready to squat. However, all our stomping had attracted a couple of locals who instead of allowing us to save whatever little modesty we had left, decided to squat with us. Only they weren’t weeing. They were simply squatting and watching! It wouldn’t be the first time a local would see my white bottom that day!
The music got louder. The atmosphere became more electric. The motivational speeches got us excited until it was finally time to go! As we ran away from the start line, the former President of Sierra Leone cheered us on from the sideline. That’s how important this marathon is to Sierra Leone!
The route took us through the red dirt streets of Makeni as the locals started to go about their day. A mum braided a little girl’s hair. A little boy brushed his teeth. I settled into a comfortable trot and chatted with the locals in my broken Krio. My plan was an easy one. Fast walk up the hills and run the rest.
I noticed that not far behind me was Bianca, a kindred spirit whose company I’d been enjoying a lot on this trip, so I slowed down to wait for her, and we proceeded on together. We chatted about the impact of aid in Sierra Leone and the culture that it has created of kids running up to say “give me water”, “give me chocolate”, “give me money”. Such a dangerous mindset as it suggests prosperity is given and not earned (although I suppose just by being born in England, I was always guaranteed a certain level of fortune). Engrossed in conversation, we soon made it to the 11k mark, where she turned off to continue on her half marathon challenge while I proceeded on my own down the open road.
Despite now being in the countryside, I was never alone. Motorbikes slowed down to ask me how I was, or tooted and waved as they passed by. People on the roadside houses clapped and cheered or shouted “tenki” and “aw di bodi” (how’s the body). Kids ran alongside me, and grannies handed me mangoes, which I took and gave away further down the road (unfortunately, I can’t eat and run, or else it gets messy!).
I caught up with an older lady at the 21km mark. She had fallen a couple of times and was complaining of a poorly tummy, so I decided to stay with her. We walked the 10 km to the next medic post, where we bumped into another runner that was happy to walk the remaining 14km. I left them together and proceeded to trot into the jungle on my own.
The following 10 km were beautiful. A single bright red dirt track undulated through the lush green rainforest. Because of how remote it was, I had a guy on a motorbike with me the whole time, carrying extra packets of water (they come in packets here rather than bottles) and spraying me with water whenever he thought I was starting to look too hot. By now, it was midday, and the sun was beating down hard while the lack of breeze was suffocating. As well as drinking lots, I was constantly pouring water over my head to keep myself cool. It was surprisingly efficient!
I spotted a monkey in the tree, and at one point, a massive green snake slithered across the path in front of me, stopping me and the bike right in our tracks. Luckily, I was too sweaty for its liking! Sierra Leone is teaming with wildlife. After my week with Street Child, I extended my stay so that I could explore more of Sierra Leone. I spent a few days with Salone Hidden Tours on Tiwai Island, where I was lucky enough to spot several species of monkeys. Namely Diana, Red Colobus, and Black and White Colobus. I also visited the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, where I got to see many Chimpanzees. I speak more about these experiences in my “Top Things to Do in Sierra Leone” blog.
Soon after my snake encounter, I got the best sighting of them all. As I rounded a corner, I spotted a group of 20 odd children ahead. As soon as they saw me they all turned and ran, arms flailing towards me. I braced for impact as they descended upon me, all keen to be the one to hold my hand. I wasn’t sure it was possible to hold 20 hands at once, but somehow they managed it! And those not holding my hand held on to my arm as they shouted in unison “opopo” and “I love you”. Opopo originally meant Portuguese person (they were the first to colonise Sierra Leone). However, the meaning has now evolved to simply mean white person.
Earlier in my run, I had bought a large bag of lollipops from one of the streetside vendors, so I used this encounter as a perfect stop to take a break and handed them all out. The genuine joy in their faces gave me the energy to keep pushing despite the oppressing heat.
The miles after this passed relatively quickly. I caught up with the last of the half marathoners who cheered me on as I passed. I felt a little rude as I didn’t really engage with them, but at this point I was in my zone, aware that I didn’t have much left in the tank and that I needed to keep pushing through if I wanted to make it to the end.
The jungle eventually turned to civilisation, and soon I was back in Makeni. The town was in full flow now, and with all the locals shouting encouragement and thank you (tenki), it was easy to keep going… even if the Sierra Leone marathon did end up being 28 miles and not 26.2!! In any other marathon, those extra two miles would have been excruciating, but I was running high, especially when I turned into the stadium. All the previous runners were still there, cheering as I ran across the finish line.
Pete, from Coopah Running, was the first to step up and give me a big bear hug. It was emotional. Had I not been depleted of fluids, I would have no doubt cried. But I had no energy left for that. So instead I just beamed from ear to ear as David, and then Luke, Jordan, Bianca, Tom Dannant, Nella, and a load of people I didn’t even know came over to hug me. I came to Sierra Leone on my own, but in a matter of a few days, I left with a family.
Celebrations at the finish line for everyone!
As a much-needed reward for all of our efforts, the final days of the Street Child Sierra Leone Marathon were spent enjoying the peace and quiet of Tokeh beach, which quite frankly was as close to paradise as you can get. Bright white sand, turquoise clear water, and lush green rainforest.
I stayed in a beautiful large villa overlooking the quiet beach. I spent my chilled days bobbing up and down in the warm sea or exploring the local village of Tokeh, chatting with locals and buying their local delicacies. This included black dung-like soap made from ash, peanut squares (gooey peanutty sweets), spicy potatoes, and rock-hard doughnuts.
I hadn’t been adventurous with my food ahead of the marathon as I was so worried about getting an icky tummy, but once it was over, I was up for trying it all! And the locals loved that we were interested in their customs! Plus, buying different products from different vendors was the best way to support their economy! Not only does it provide them with income, but it encourages enterprise over begging.
Our Street Child gathering finished with a beachside BBQ and a cultural dance display around the fire. It’s hard to articulate just how special my week with Street Child was. I think I have done a pretty comprehensive job explaining everything that Street Child does, but I’m not sure I can put into words the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I think of all the people I met that week.
I was pretty nervous coming into the week as I am somewhat socially awkward. I was also worried that being a plus-size runner I would be looked down upon by all the pros. But that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, I was surrounded by like-minded individuals who genuinely cared about making a difference. Everyone just oozed kindness, acceptance and a genuine want to see others do well. And when you are surrounded by that kind of energy, it is impossible not to feel at ease.
So I only have one piece of advice for you, do it! Join me next year in Sierra Leone because I promise you one thing, it will change your life!