Portrait

The woman working to keep Sierra Leone’s children in school. By Cass Moriarty.

Jane Shakespeare and the Fig Tree Children

Jane Shakespeare was deeply affected in her travels through Sierra Leone. The Ebola crisis, which left more than 12,000 children without parents, came after a near-11-year civil war. In one of the world’s poorest countries, aid agencies struggle to provide basics such as food, clean water and medicines, to treat preventable birth injuries such as fistulas, to protest against genital mutilation and child soldiers. Strangers shelter abandoned or orphaned children at risk of exploitation, discrimination and malnutrition. About 42 per cent of the population are under 14, and yet one of the most glaring deficiencies is education, critical for the country’s growth but often disregarded simply because of cost: carers cannot afford school fees or books, and even young children are required to work.

Jane and her husband, Jeremy Davies, wanted to help; they planned to adopt 18-month-old Cecilia, malnourished and afflicted with ringworm. But the process was interrupted when the couple relocated to Brisbane – the Australian government had different, much stricter, requirements, and time ticked on while they navigated red tape, until they were deemed “too old” to adopt. Cecilia remained in the orphanage – one of the “lucky ones” – but for the family, it remains a regret that they weren’t able to offer her a home.

But sometimes out of sorrow, seeds of joy flourish. Jane was determined to help other children, and she decided that the best way to do that was through education. The Fig Tree Children charity was born.

Named after the fig trees that provide shade and shelter from the African sun, the charity has its roots firmly planted in transparent and accountable policies, its branches offering hope and opportunity to a small but growing group of disadvantaged children, with education the priority. Even a mosquito net, or a mattress instead of a damp floor, can make an impact. Each child has a story. Each child’s life is improved by this direct approach.

Some as old as 18 are still attempting to finish primary school after many interrupted years. Fig Tree Children is a grassroots organisation that supports “that one child scrabbling around on the scrapheap trying to find metal to sell for $1 a day”.

Jane, Jeremy, and their teenage son, Harry, have taken their role one step further: they have invited Sierra Leone woman Manjia and her five-year-old son Kingsley to live in their home. After working for 15 years as a nurse, including throughout the Ebola crisis, Manjia’s dream was to study a bachelor of nursing overseas and return to her country to train others. After years of negotiating bureaucracy, two months ago Manjia and Kingsley arrived on a student visa. Manjia studies at the Queensland University of Technology and hopes to improve her English, volunteer at an aged-care facility and find part-time work. Jane and Jeremy consider Manjia and Kingsley a “temporary adoption” and are committed to personally funding all costs for the four years they will live in Australia, including university fees, health insurance and living expenses. Kingsley is not entitled to free state schooling and now attends a local Catholic school through the generosity of the parish. Both are gradually learning basic daily living skills that we take for granted: Manjia’s proficiency as a carer contrasts with their mutual incomprehension of simple children’s games and puzzles, highlighting gaps in conceptual knowledge, a result of inadequate education.

While Jane and Jeremy are privileged by some standards, they are ordinary Australians with a mortgage. They operate the charity from their own funds and don’t take a wage. All sponsorship goes directly to supporting the children, with some assistance and partnership with other organisations such as Caritas Freetown and Healey International Relief Foundation USA. The small team, which includes two salaried Sierra Leonean staff and is led by Father Peter Konteh, closely monitors the children, assisted by a volunteer board including Charles, a former child soldier and Aimee, a refugee.

Jane’s message is simple: “We don’t choose where we’re born. Some of us are born in countries of opportunity. These kids don’t have that hope, but it is not their fault. It’s only fair they have opportunities, too. To give a little of what we have, to one child, is not a big ask.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "One child at a time". Subscribe here.

Cass Moriarty
is the author of The Promise Seed. Her next novel, Parting Words, will be released in August.

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