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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

My wife understands me very well.

When I get that look on my face and my body sags and my mind is not where it should be, she says, “You need to go home, dear. Go. We can manage.”

And I go. I get my plane ticket, pack my suitcase, kiss my wife and children goodbye, and head back to Sierra Leone, the country I fled in 1999 when a war over diamonds decimated the land and left thousands dead.

There is something about a country that has been through a war. It divides people into two groups: those who face the sun and those who do not. There are those who want to move forward and leave the shadows of the past behind them, and there are others who turn their back to the sun and see only the horrors of the past.

I am of the former group. I am facing the sun.

The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted 11 years and destroyed many schools, leaving children without an education or a future. I have a future, and I have a wonderful family and a great life in Canada. It only seems right that I do what I can to help the people in my home country. Especially the children.

In 2009, 10 years after I fled, I decided it was time to rebuild and reclaim the life that we had before the war. With more than two-thirds of the schools destroyed, it was a mammoth task. But I began by focusing on one school at a time.

First, there was the school in Mbureh village. My friend had called me: “Bassie,” he said, “life is terrible where I am teaching right now. The school has been nearly demolished. There is barely a roof over our heads.”

So, with the help of several charities and businesses, the organization I work with raised the $15,000 we needed. The school was rebuilt and the children paid me with smiles. I consider that payment in full.

And it pushed me to do more.

I went to Kissi town, in the east end of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in December of 2010 and my dreams grew. I looked upon an empty field and pictured a school that met all the needs of the children. Classrooms for all ages and grades, a playground, latrines ... My head almost exploded as I saw this vision. I felt like the man in the baseball movie: Build it and they will come.

And we built it.

With each brick that was cemented into place and each nail that was hammered, I thought about the kids who were now going to have a future. Workers and volunteers laboured day and night until, one month later, the school was complete.

When the school opened, it was packed, so we created two shifts, a morning and an afternoon shift, to fill the need.

Later, we put an addition onto the school, then in 2020 another five classrooms were added. But the need was still there so we added eight more classrooms in 2021. As each classroom was added, more children smiled. More payments in full.

After each school was built and I returned to Canada, my wife could see the transformation in me. I held my head a little higher and my back a little straighter because I knew good things were happening in my home country.

Sometimes this happy feeling would stay with me for months, sometimes even a year, but then something about my life here in Thunder Bay would take my mind back to the problems of Sierra Leone.

Sometimes, it was wandering the colourful aisles in the local grocery store that made me want to return. All that food, readily available, reminded me of the empty stomachs of the children overseas. Or sometimes it was the complaining I heard around me that made me want to go back: the weather wasn’t just right, the lineup at the bank was too long or a flight had been postponed. As if these were things a person should complain about.

“Go,” my wife always said. “We can manage.”

So I’d return once again to build more schools, create more futures and see more happy children.

I’m back in Sierra Leone now because I have set my heart on building a vocational school. It will be a place where older students can learn computer skills, culinary, carpentry, bricklaying, welding, agriculture and sewing. The board of CanSerra, the organization where I work, are the people who have taken this journey with me. They pointed out it is a mountainous task. “Bassie,” they said, “we don’t have the money. Not only is there the building, but there is the staff, the equipment, the salaries, the.…” I just shook my head and said, “It will happen. There are no problems. Only solutions.”

I remember the looks on their faces when I was able to tell them a large donation had come in to support the build. I never saw jaws drop so quickly.

I must admit despair has taken over my mind once or twice, but I have faith. And sometimes it is something small that can crush the biggest of problems. For example, we had only a month available to build that first school and with so much to do, there were not enough hours in a day. Then a friend of mine, a retired army officer, sent over a generator and the solution fell into place. We started a night shift and people worked under the lights run by the generator.

The more you search for the solution, the more likely it will come your way. People will fall onto your pathway, and good things will often come out of these encounters.

I have met many people who have the same heart as me and want to see the smiles of children in Sierra Leone as much as I do. We all know how much a smile can sustain us: It is payment in full.

Bassie Kargbo lives in Thunder Bay, Ont.