Even as a small boy growing up in Gbeworbu, a rural village in the Pujehun district of southwestern Sierra Leone, Aruna showed great academic promise. His widowed mother, recognizing her young son’s potential, pleaded with a friend in Bo to take Aruna, so he could go to a better school.
“Where I came from, we had no doctors, only community health assistants who came on outreach from Bo. I remember when we went to the doctor, we had to queue for a very long time to get treated,” Dr. Aruna Stevens says. “I decided I had to become a doctor so I can help people. We cannot only have doctors in the city.”
In Bo, Aruna lived in a crowded, noisy communal home with his mother’s friend, Fatmata, who made her living selling street food in the park. He attended Ahmadiyya Primary School, where he excelled despite the harsh circumstances. Before and after school, Aruna was expected to work to earn his upkeep and his school fees. “I only got to eat after selling,” he remembers. “What remained is what we eat. I never had time to study. We had to prepare food early in the morning, and I was always late for school.” It was a hard and lonely life for a small boy, far from his home and family.
Aruna’s life changed forever when the Child Rescue Centre, newly launched to rescue orphaned and abandoned children from the streets of Bo, identified him as a child at risk. With his mother’s permission, he was brought into the residential centre. “At the first interview, they asked me ‘what do you want to become?’ and I said, ‘a doctor who gives injections.’”
The CRC was a radical departure from his former hard scrabble life, Aruna recalls. “At the CRC everything was different. I had my own bed. I used to sleep on the floor when I stayed with my auntie. At the CRC, I had three square meals a day.”
In the stability and structure of the residential home, Aruna applied himself relentlessly to succeed in school. “After study time when I got to my room, I would do an extra two hours of reading and studying. When we had time to play, I used some of my play time to study. I tried to stay ahead of my class. I created additional time for my studies.”
“What motivated me to do that?” he asks himself. “I have a family and I really love my mom. I have three sisters. I’m the eldest. I had to be somebody who takes care of my family, and be someone who can help people.”
Aruna recognizes both the benefits and drawbacks of growing up in a residential home. In the CRC, he was protected from the dangers of street life. “It is getting difficult for [kids today] because of the advent of social media and distractions. I was totally protected. Kids don’t have these protections. At the CRC your day is very structured, on the outside it is not,” he observes.
On the other hand, he missed his family. “Even though the CRC gave us clothing, food and everything, the family connection was not there. You had many brothers at the CRC, but you sit alone and you miss some part of you, even though you have everything. I love my mom, even now I think about her every day. But I don’t have that connection with her because I didn’t see her for so long…I never had the chance to really connect with her on the level of mother and son.”
Aruna felt a separation between kids in the community and the kids at the orphanage. “Some boys looked at us as special, and teachers treated us differently. You want to blend with your colleagues and be treated like any other kid, but some people treat you differently. People expected a lot from us,” he remembers.
Aruna graduated Senior Secondary School and was accepted to the premedical program at College of Medical and Allied Health Sciences (COMAHS) of the University of Sierra Leone in Freetown. At first, he found it difficult to adjust to life outside of the residential centre. “Adaptation was the big gap. At the CRC every need is met, and all my fees paid, so it was very easy. When I went to university, I had to find a place to stay. I used to get three meals at the CRC, and we had light from the generator. Teachers came and gave us extra classes. It was a new world after the CRC. Now I had to find my own food. Where I stayed there was no generator, so I had to buy candles to study. In the CRC, my day was planned. Now, I had to prepare,” he says.
He recognizes that it is hard for young people to make the transition from residential home to community life. “Most kids who transitioned from the residential home to family care could not easily adapt to these changes. It was only with the help of God that I could come through these problems.”
Finishing medical school was the biggest challenge he has faced so far, Aruna says. “Studying medicine in Sierra Leone is very difficult compared to other places. The first and second years of medical school were really tough. We were shouted at all the time and not encouraged, emotionally tortured. You don’t get the self confidence that you can do things. I felt like I could quit. Somebody suggested ‘Can you switch to something else?’ There are other ways, but if you have a goal, you have to work towards it. Beginning with the end in mind, I wanted to help my country,” Aruna says.
He graduated medical school in 2018 and finished his housemanship (residency) in March of this year. Mercy Hospital quickly seized the opportunity to hire Aruna, and he was happy to return to Bo, the place he considers his home. “Working at Mercy Hospital is a dream come true,” he says.
Aruna was the only graduate from his class who wanted to serve in a semi-rural area. “People in Freetown have better medical care, more doctors,” he says. “I graduated with 36 people and they all stayed in Freetown, except for me. The problem is when they come to the provinces they get deprived from all the fancy things they enjoy in the city.”
He is willing to forego the advantages of city life for the gratification of caring for an under served population. “If I treat people in Freetown I never see them again. If I treat someone in Bo, they are my people. Some of them knew me before and they never believed in me. They say, ‘He’s very young.’ But by the end of the day they say ‘Oh, I am grateful you are here,’” he laughs.
Aruna says the most prevalent medical concern he sees at Mercy is metabolic disease, which he believes is caused by poor diet and the lack of health information among a predominantly poor and illiterate population. “During my final year in med school, my research was on disease patterns presenting at Connaught Hospital, the main ICU in all of Sierra Leone. Non-communicable disease is on the increase with high mortality. People die in Sierra Leone from what should not kill them, things that could be prevented by health education. People get to the hospital very, very late.”
He wants to help change that through improved health education and preventive measures. “My primary aim is to reach out to people. I don’t want to be the doctor who only treats them for their condition and never sees them again, I want to help them take care of these co-morbidities before they get so sick. We have people who are diabetic, or have hypertension, who don’t know how to take care of themselves. We could train medical students and nurses to go out and take people’s blood pressure and teach them how to take care of themselves. I’ve always been yearning to do this.”
Children’s health care poses a different set of problems, Aruna observes. “For children, the chief complaint is malaria and its complications. When I did rural postings, we saw a lot of kids with hernias. The abdominal wall is weak from kids lifting heavy loads.”
Aruna is so grateful for the opportunities he has been given, but he wishes he were closer to his family. “Ten years ago, if they asked me where I want to go, I would say the orphanage. Now, looking back I would love to stay with my family, if my needs could be met. I would love to be connected to my family.”
One of his sisters is studying for a degree in business administration, and another is studying financial administration. “My mom is doing good. Now I’m thinking she could relocate to Bo. I last saw her at graduation. She had so much faith in me – she knew I could do anything,” he remembers fondly.
Brian McCaffrey, Aruna’s long time sponsor through Helping Children Worldwide, was so happy to learn about his appointment to lead doctor at Mercy Hospital. “I smiled ear to ear as I read [the news],” Brian wrote. “What a wonderful opportunity for him to give back to his local community, while also serving as a role model to the current CRC students of what they can aspire to.”
Aruna is enjoying the opportunity to reconnect with the community. “I happened to visit one of my teachers who taught me in class three. I met her three weeks ago and I told her ‘I’m a doctor now’ and she was so surprised. She always tried to motivate me. I had to introduce myself to her, but then she remembered me!”
“For me, it’s a joy to work with the people that saw me growing up. It may not be what I anticipated, but it is good to be back home,” Aruna says.
“If you have a goal, you can work towards it,“ he says in conclusion. “Not everyone needs to go to medical school, but everyone needs to read and write. Because a medical doctor is not the only way up. There are many opportunities.”
The Child Reintegration Centre's education department, led by Education Manager Mabel Mustapha, organized a forum for secondary students to hear from successful graduates of vocational and technical programs. The forum aimed to remove the stigma students and their families may have towards vocational or technical training, and encourage them to seek successful careers in fields that don't require a university degree.
Daniel Lahai, a carpentry teacher at Sierra Leone Opportunities Industrialization Centers (SL-OIC), one of the CRC's approved post-secondary institutions, spoke to the students about training opportunities in the construction field. Mercy Hospital electrician Mohamed Bangura and CRC accountant Lucy Jusu shared their stories of personal success as graduates of votech programs who now have interesting, good-paying jobs with room for advancement. All three speakers attended SL-OIC before embarking on their current careers. Lucy worked for many years at the CRC before going back to school to earn an accounting degree.
On a national level, the 2019 WASSCE exam results were very disappointing, and few students earned the scores required for university acceptance. Job training is an excellent alternative for senior secondary (high school equivalent) graduates. The most recent labor statistics from the World Bank show that just 10% of the population are wage or salaried workers, so good jobs are not easy to come by in Sierra Leone, but welders, electricians, accountants, and other skilled workers are in high demand.
The Child Rescue Centre is encouraging Senior Secondary school graduates to consider vocational or technical education if they don't do well on the college entrance exam. Throughout West Africa, graduates of Senior Secondary School (high school equivalent) sit for the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), to determine their eligibility for further education. Upon receiving their results, CRC students are welcomed to apply for a Promise Scholarship for university or votech programs. Many CRC students who scored high on the WASSCE have pursued university degrees including medicine, engineering, journalism, applied science, or social work. However, the test is difficult and many students don't earn scores that will gain them entrance to university.
The CRC aims to remove any stigma about votech education, and help every student become a self-sufficient, contributing member of their community. CRC Director Olivia Fonnie and other staff members recently met with graduates to encourage them to consider vocational or technical training.
There are many successful individuals who do not go to college; they went to technical or vocational school," CRC Case Manager Victor Kanu explained. CRC graduate Amara Foday used his scholarship to attend welding school, a highly sought-after skill in Sierra Leone (read about Amara here) and is now enjoying a career in the booming Sierra Leone construction industry. CRC students have successfully completed vocation and technical education programs including catering, tailoring, and auto mechanics.
The CRC is offering extra tutoring and preparation classes for the students who decide to take the WASSCE a second time.
Henry Kebbie works at the Child Rescue Centre (CRC) as the Assistant Coordinator for the Sponsor A Child Program. Henry is also responsible for a caseload of 70 children supported by the CRC’s programs. Engaged to be married soon, Henry is the proud papa of a young daughter. Henry’s story is unique in that he was a child supported by the CRC’s Child Support Program, which provided health and education support from primary through secondary school. After graduation, he applied for and won a Promise Scholarship which enabled him to attend university. Graduating with honors, Henry holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Njala University.
Henry credits his being a CRC student with his path toward becoming a social worker. “It has always been my desire to be a social worker so that I could return to work with an organization like the CRC which is working to save helpless families and especially destitute children,” Henry says. Henry applies the lessons he’s learned to his work with the children on his caseload. “I always encourage them to take their studies very seriously, as I did,” he says. “I went through the same program at the CRC, and now I am working for the CRC. I believe it is important that children are educated and grow up to be a good example for others, just like I am.”
Henry Kebbie was drawn to social work out of a desire to help people - particularly those who are vulnerable. At the Child Rescue Centre (CRC), Henry found an opportunity to help the most vulnerable children and their families. He was deeply interested in community development and wanted to engage in work that would have a deep, lasting and positive impact. Being a case manager for vulnerable children and their families helps him see that impact every day. Henry finds the work at CRC particularly rewarding because of the CRC’s vision and focus to give something positive to the community of Bo.
Henry’s deepest hopes for the children on his caseload are that they all do well in school and find a bright future, and that they all know how deeply they are blessed by God.
I consider myself lucky, and hope to help other people by the grace of God.
Ernest lost both of his parents by the time he was 10 years old and was staying with a distant relative who used him for unpaid labor, when he was referred to the Child Rescue Centre by the Ministry of Social Welfare, where he spent his early childhood.
As a teenager, Ernest was reunified to live with extended family in the community, as mandated by the Sierra Leonean government. After completing Senior Secondary School, he applied for and was granted a Promise Scholarship to become a lab technician. Ernest graduated with a diploma in laboratory science in June and sat down with CRC Case Manager to talk about all the CRC has meant to him over the years.
The CRC has played a great and important role in my life, by helping me to achieve my dream. When I was breaking down from school, they helped to build me in my education. When I was weeping and mourning the death of my mother and father, the CRC made me laugh. When I was silent, the CRC helped me speak. Thank God for that. I consider myself lucky, and hope to help other people by the grace of God.
It meant alot to me to be awarded a Promise Scholarship. It is this scholarship that has made me who I am today. The scholarships has helped me to achieve my dream. It builds up my leadership skill and my level of understanding in terms of reading and writing, and has increased my level of understanding in knowing God and the things that we are doing on earth. As it is written in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:1, "there is a time and a purpose for everything on the earth."
The CRC has supported me at the post-secondary level by providing education materials like text books. The attend CRC allowed me to attend the Global Leadership workshop, provide transport for me, provided health facilities, and made provision for computer classes. They also helped me with my assignments and counseled me to take my education into good faith.
My future career plan is to further my education and become a histopathology or public health officer. I hope to have a job and get married and have a family. My advice to the JSS and SSS students is for them to study very hard and know that there is no easy thing in this world and to note that if you suffer today, tomorrow you will not suffer. But if you do not suffer today, tomorrow you will suffer in life and that is the time you will find life very hard to live in the world.
Ernest has been interning as a lab technician at Mercy Hospital while finishing his laboratory science diploma. "My future plan is to become a histopathology or public health officer," he says.