A Kiwi who built a school

Nelson geologist's humanitarian mission

JO DIVETT
Last updated 08:17 04/02/2013
Joel Newman

OPENING DAY: Joel Newman speaks at the opening of the new school building in Mamuria, Sierra Leone.

Joel Newman
CLASS OF 2012: Joel, background, with the children at their new school in Mamuria.

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Former Nelson man Joel Newman did more than just work for a big multinational company when he left Perth to help manage a mine in Sierra Leone. Jo Divett tells Joel's story:

When Joel Newman was growing up in Nelson, mountainbiking was one of his hobbies. Never did he imagine that one day it would lead him on a humanitarian journey in West Africa.

After training as a geologist, Joel spent nearly seven years in the mines in Australia. Sick of the Perth-based fly-in, fly-out working week, and wanting a change, he accepted a position with mining company African Minerals (AML) in Sierra Leone.

Packed up and ready for adventure, Joel flew to the beachside airport in the capital, Freetown.

As an air-conditioned Land Cruiser sped him towards the mine site, he looked out on mud houses with no electricity or water.

"There were a few small towns along the way, but outside of those, these guys plod along fishing, farming, subsistence living.

"Even in the last 10 kilometres to the mine, there are villages back to basics. They might have a school, but otherwise it's just like you see on National Geographic Channel - mud huts, maybe a well, hundreds of kids running around, and goats and chickens walking across the road."

Joel said the juxtaposition of the mine against this landscape was quite a shock.

"You are just driving and then suddenly, bam, you hit a mining area and there's massive machinery everywhere. There's buildings, vehicles, people and security gates, and it's in a valley, so suddenly it's there and it's pretty massive."

This mining bubble, consisting of about 200 expatriates and 200 locals when Joel started, was to become his home base for the next year and a half. He'd work six weeks on and then have three weeks off, which he used to travel to various countries.

During his six weeks on, Joel would work 12-hour days and have every 14th day off. The work was long and challenging.

"It was very early days when I first went to the mine. I could see there was a lot of work to do, and I could instantly tell that my experience in Western Australia wasn't going to be enough. This was a whole new experience."

Joel's work day began at 5.40am with the handover from the night shift to the day shift. He was in charge of a team of 42 workers.

"My day was balanced between the technical aspects and the management responsibilities, and that's what was really interesting."

He soon found that it was worth spending time on the professional development of the local geology graduates.

"Once we got all the systems and processes in place, the focus was on developing the locals, and that was starting with critical thinking, analysing data, problem solving, that sort of thing."

The local employees were used to a style of management where the boss fixed all the problems, whereas Joel's approach focused on teaching them how to come up with their own solutions.

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It was hard work, but rewarding, and although a lot of the employees struggled with his management style to begin with, they warmed to it over time.

"Many of them, particularly the ones who had worked on the diamond mines in Kono, had worked under very tough conditions in their previous jobs, with the threat of violence if they didn't work hard enough."

Joel said AML was trying to set the same standards as those it had in Western Australia.

"African Minerals is British-based, with investment from all over Europe and the US. It's a publicly listed company but it also has a significant amount of Chinese ownership as well. We were aiming for a world-class operation."

Joel soon tired of spending his days off inside the expat bubble at the mine site, where there was a choice of a gym, a bar or a recreation centre. Thinking back to his Nelson days, he knew what to do.

"I got a ride down to Makeni [the nearest town], picked up a mountainbike for $80, and I'd go ride into the valleys around the mines."

He only needed to ride for 20 minutes from the mine site to encounter people living as they had for hundreds of years. As he rode through the villages, kids would come running at the sight of a white man on a bicycle.

"In some villages there was a friendly vibe, but in others adults would stare at you."

In a village called Kulufaga, Joel was called "Bangladese", a legacy of the brutal civil war that took place between 1991 and 2002. United Nations peacekeepers from Bangladesh were stationed in the village, and they formed the unique local experience of foreigners.

Ninety minutes from the mine site, nestled in a fertile valley among grasslands and tropical rainforest, Joel came across the village of Mamuria.

"I just got a really cool vibe."

On the outskirts of the village was a small thatched hut next to a football field. Inside, three blackboards were set up, with the day's lessons scrawled in English.

"When I first stopped to check out the school in the original hut, I could instantly tell it was well-utilised, and someone was taking some real pride in what they were doing.

"It wasn't until later that I met Daniel and came to know the man behind such an awesome little school."

Daniel Sesay, a pastor and the sole teacher in Mamuria, taught all the children from years 1 to 6 (about 70 kids) by rotating between the blackboards, writing questions first and then coming back to write the answers while the other year levels copied and answered.

He had been living in the nearby town of Bendugu, but it was so badly damaged in the civil war that he moved to Mamuria in 1996.

At that time, there was no school in the village, so the educated, English-speaking pastor took on the job. He has been teaching there for 16 years.

The school is not officially registered, and apart from some days when the schoolchildren help out on his farm, Daniel has received no pay.

Back at the mine site, Joel couldn't get the village and its school out of his mind. So, with the help of the community liaison team at the mine, he spoke with the elders of Mamuria about his plan to build a new school.

"Even though I was doing this independently, from the locals' point of view I'm a representative of AML, so I had to work out what I could do that fits in with AML's priorities."

For half a day each week, Joel would drive down to Bumbuna to get supplies to take to Mamuria. The villagers made the mud bricks and chopped down trees to be used for the rafters.

The project started in March last year, and the new school took seven months to build.

On October 8, two carloads of workers from the mine celebrated the opening day with the villagers. Joel was made an honorary chief, and the villagers gave him a calf. "They slaughtered it and we ate it."

For Joel, the day came with mixed emotions.

"It was a proud and humbling moment to see how much this school meant to the community, but at the same time I knew that I would be leaving Sierra Leone in a couple of days, so this would be the last time I saw those guys for probably many years."

The new school building has three classrooms with chairs donated by Downview Primary School in West Sussex, England. Two other teachers have been recruited to teach. Joel has handed over the school to British-based not-for-profit organisation called Street Child of Sierra Leone.

Originally created to get kids off the streets and reunited with their families after the civil war, the organisation has expanded its focus to include an "Every Child in School" programme. As well as building schools, it identifies students to send to tertiary education to train as teachers. The long-term goal is to get the government to pay teachers.

"It's an interesting problem that companies like AML face in Sierra Leone, finding the balance between supporting the communities directly and relying on the taxes and royalties they pay the government to filter back to the people.

"I could see that it's going to take time for communities like Mamuria to see the benefits from the mine nearby, which is a real shame, because it has only taken a small amount of money and initiative to do this.

"It's a long-term mining project, with at least 70 years' worth of ore to mine, and by helping the people of Mamuria educate their kids now, they will be more likely to get jobs in the future, and it will provide some real long-term gains."

Joel is in Nelson for the summer, and is hoping to raise the money needed to train and pay Daniel and a female teacher a basic salary for three years.

"The fundraising part is daunting, I've never attempted anything like this before. It was easy when it was just me driving down to Bumbuna to pick up some more supplies and dropping them out at the school.

"But I'm confident that the wider community back here in New Zealand will see the positives of what has already been done in Mamuria, and decide that they want to be a part of the most important next step, making it sustainable by providing some formal training for the teachers."

Joel has set up a website where people can donate money to the cause. For more information or to make a donation, go to justgiving.com/MamuriaCPS.

- Nelson

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