Volume 17 Number 3
Addressing Child Trauma in Sierra Leone
01 June 2004
The two women, from the US and Sierra Leone, quickly found they had shared concerns. Kamara told White-Baughan about her work with a grassroots community organization in Sierra Leone called Children’s Learning Services (see FAC April-May 2003). ‘She added that the children could not seem to learn due to trauma from the decade of civil war that had just ended,’ says White-Baughan.
WHEN JENNIFER WHITE-BAUGHAN met Emma Kamara at a conference on peace and reconciliation in Caux, Switzerland, last year there was a ‘fire of connection’ between them.
The two women, from the US and Sierra Leone, quickly found they had shared concerns. Kamara told White-Baughan about her work with a grassroots community organization in Sierra Leone called Children’s Learning Services (see FAC April-May 2003). ‘She added that the children could not seem to learn due to trauma from the decade of civil war that had just ended,’ says White-Baughan. ‘I told her that I was a trauma specialist who worked with children who were war and trauma affected—and that I had just closed my practice!’ Needless to say WhiteBaughan promised to visit Sierra Leone.
She had no difficulty in enlisting the support of her husband, Dr David Baughan, who had been with her at the conference and had also met Kamara. The Baughans live and work in North Conway, a small town in rural New Hampshire, where David is a family doctor. They invited Pam Goss-Power, a colleague specializing in early childhood education, to be the third member of their team.
‘David has experience designing primary healthcare delivery to least developed areas,’ says White-Baughan. ‘Previously we have both worked at the University of California, San Diego, Medical School with refugees from Central and South America, Vietnam and Laos—and with immigrant Mexican workers. With Pam’s expertise, I think we made a well-balanced team.’
The three arrived in Sierra Leone in March 2004 armed with school supplies and toys donated by two New Hampshire schools and with the news that a freightload of computers, given by a local medical group, was on its way. Three days of the visit were spent visiting schools in the Port Loko District of the Northern Province, an area which had experienced some of the worst fighting. They also met with members of several ‘Peace Clubs’, groups of students and teachers trained to be peer mediators in conflict resolution by Kamara’s Children’s Learning Services and a partner organization, Rainbows of Hope.
‘It rapidly became apparent that trauma among teachers was deep and widespread,’ says David Baughan. ‘Therefore any intervention for the students must be offered to the teachers as well.’ His wife adds, ‘We found that one school alone had 880 ex-combatants in their midst. Some were older than their teachers. The teachers felt overwhelmed and traumatized themselves as survivors, not to mention the presence of children who had killed and terrorized them.’
At one Catholic girls’ school, the nun asked how many of the girls had been affected by the war, and all raised their hands. ‘She had more than hinted that most of the girls had been raped regardless of age.’
They also travelled by UN helicopter to the eastern part of the country near to the border with Liberia, where they visited child development clubs sponsored by World Relief.
During the visit White-Baughan had the opportunity to give presentations on post-traumatic stress and on trauma and the brain. The team was also asked to assess what help was needed and could be offered. They see no easy solutions and are mindful of the dangers of imposing western models, but hope that it is now at least possible to assess the extent of trauma in children of different ages. ‘If we can help teach Sierra Leonean teachers how to recognize traumatized children that will be a start,’ they say.
They are now looking at ways forward based on working through schools as centres for understanding and healing trauma, and as focal points of development in rural areas. White-Baughan points out that, using local labour, a school can be built or re-built for as little as US$12,000. ‘The village feels ownership of the school. With a little training, teachers and para-professionals can go out to the homes to link parents back to the school for parenting and child development classes.’