I knew at an early age that I wanted to be an accountant/auditor. It’s possible that my deep love and admiration for my dad, who is an accountant, may have influenced my career choice. Besides, accounting was probably the only career I was exposed to as a kid. And so my path was charted. Once I sat to the BECE, I chose to focus on business and accounting. From there I would go on to Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM) and obtain a degree in Applied Accounting, get a job at one of the auditing firms (KPMG was at the top of my list) and secure my ACCA (professional accounting certificate) on the job. My life path was predictable at its best and I was well on my way when I found about the UWCs and the scholarship program.
The United World Colleges are a group of colleges (15 in total) with the mission of bringing together students from all over the world, regardless of race, culture, religion and socio-economic background and through an engaging and transformative educational experience develop them into well-rounded, informed and responsible global citizens. The scholarship program, run by the National Committee in Sierra Leone, is highly competitive and only the crème de la crème of students dare to apply. While academic excellence is key, other factors like extracurricular involvement, proficiency in a foreign language, extracurricular involvement, demonstrable leadership potential and a strong desire to make a difference form part of the selection criteria. Even though I had never pinned my hopes on living overseas to succeed, I knew I wanted this opportunity. My friend had hinted that the scholarship opened doors to many more opportunities including further studies in the United States. I wanted in.
I was already doing well academically and wanted to do even better. I had aced the BECE with the best result (an aggregate nine ) that year at St Joseph’s, had represented my school at several debates and quiz competitions and also held several leadership positions in and outside school. Additionally, in my final year of secondary school, Senior Secondary School (SSS) 3 I was appointed Deputy Head Girl at St Joseph’s. I was under intense (self-induced) pressure to do really well at WASSCE. My eating habits were severely affected and I was diagnosed with stomach ulcer during that period (to me it seemed like stopping to eat was a waste of time when there was so much to do). When I sat to the WASSCE, I emerged with 3As, 4Bs and 1C. I was thankful to God. Deep down inside, i was disappointed with myself.
I was nominated by my school for the scholarship along with two other top performers. The other secondary (high) schools in Freetown also sent in their best students. The race was on! After submitting our applications, we were interviewed by a panel of judges who decided on the award recipients. There were about more than a dozen of us competing for the three available scholarships that year. The judges must have been impressed with my performance at the interview because in the end, I was one of three recipients (Arthur Sillah and David Sengeh being the other two) awarded the scholarship that year. I was elated! This was a miracle.
My life was about to change dramatically but I had no clue.
I had opted for the UWC in Canada given that I had previously visited and fallen in love with Canada. But God had other plans and in retrospect, His were way better than mine. The Canadian embassy was not issuing visas to Sierra Leoneans at the time and so the chair of the National (selection) Committee recommended I took the second option, the UWC of South East Asia(UWCSEA) in Singapore. She said it was a good school. At the time, very little was known about Singapore; most people could not locate Singapore on a map (in fact many thought Singapore was in China). Moreover, at the time, any country other than England and Amerika was accorded less than overseas status. Evidently, almost no one seemed to be impressed with the idea of me going to Singapore to study.
But I was excited and nothing was going to dampen my excitement. Prior to UWC, I had only been away from our family home on two occasions. I still vividly remember the first time. It was during the summer holidays (more like rainy holidays here) when my sisters and I went to stay with an aunt. Our ‘aunt’ was in reality one of our teachers at St Anthony’s primary school who had become fond of us three and wanted one of us to spend time with her family. We were inseparable as kids and so it was an all or nothing deal. My aunt took the deal and all three of us went to stay with her. My parents, ever the protective ones, would not have consented under normal circumstances but my aunt was insistent. Everyday after getting off work at Freetown Cold Storage Company my dad would stop by our aunt’s house at Adelaide Street, just to check on us. This went on for about a week or two until my aunt got tired of it and finally shipped us back to our parents’, cutting our one-month holiday short. She just could not understand why my dad wouldn’t let us be.
The second time was hard to forget because of the miracle that it was. Cause Canada, a Canadian charitable organization, had sent out letters to each of the top performing schools in Freetown asking them to send two of their top students to be interviewed for an opportunity to attend a youth conference in Canada. I was one of the two students selected to attend the interview and vie for the opportunity. Interestingly, I had been absent from school that day tending to my sick cousin when I got a call from the Principal’s secretary to attend the interview. I had no clue what the interview was about. I had rushed home, got dressed and headed to the interview at Pademba Road off Campbell Street. I was interviewed like everyone else and few days later, a call from Cause Canada confirmed that I, along with Vanessa James of the Annie Walsh Memorial School and a handful of members from Freetong Players, had been selected to attend the conference (we also made an appearance at the Banff Television Festival) in Calgary, Alberta. I secured a passport immediately while Cause Canada handled the full costs of the trip including visas, tickets, accommodation etc. I was blessed.
But this trip was different. I. Was. Going. Abroad. To Study. I was going to be alone, on my own … for the first time. The thought both thrilled and scared me but I was ready. Or so I thought. My flight was booked, Freetown – London – Singapore. Before I left, I was showered with well wishes and prayers as well as gifts of differing nature including monetary gifts. By departure day, I had amassed up to $700 cash in gifts (including $200 from my parents) to help with the initial adjustment. I was a rich girl! On the day of departure, I felt like a celebrity; my send-off party/ entourage must have occupied more than half of the departure hall at Lungi airport because everyone came to see me off. My mom, sisters, aunties, friends, cousins etc. were there. Naturally, I was knackered by the time I boarded the first leg of my flight and was soon asleep once on board the flight. I was travelling alone but I was not afraid. My aunt had coached me well in advance for my trip to Canada on how to step on to the imposing, intimidating escalators especially with my suitcase and I had had enough experience to do it on my own. My flight landed at Gatwick airport and I caught the bus to Heathrow airport where I boarded the Singapore Airlines 17 hour non-stop flight from London to Singapore. Yes 17. Non-stop. I must have slept and woken up a thousand times only to find out we were only 10 hours to our destination. That flight still holds the record for the longest non –stop flight I’ve been on to date. Two full days of travelling and the 8-hour time difference between Singapore and Sierra Leone left me disillusioned. By the time I arrived, I was not sure what day it was. Luckily, there was a team of wonderful people waiting to receive us at Changi International airport in Singapore. Orientation began that evening and continued the whole week.
And then it hit me.
The United World College of South East Asia was not just a good school; it was a great school (I later found out that it was one of the leading and most expensive private schools in the world). The school was fully equipped with two boarding houses, an Olympic size pool, up to date science laboratories (where you could carry out experiments and actually see the stuff you are talking about), performance spaces (theatres), music facilities including recording studios etc. I was in a different world. I was a boarding student; my roommates that year were from Britain, Thailand and one of the Koreas. Our room was a large space divided into four corners each with a bed, a table and other basic essentials. We all had our own separate wardrobes. Our rooms were self contained fully equipped with a shower and running water. Gone were those days of waking at the crack of dawn to scout for tap water; I now had running water in my bathroom. This was a miracle! Most importantly, I now had my own bed…for the first time! We also had maids who made our beds and cleaned our bathrooms. This Congo Tong girl was being spoiled rotten…from no bed to having one plus having someone make my bed. My life was a string of miracles. My alarm clock was also markedly different; now instead of being woken by the poda poda (local mini buses) apprentices announcing their arrival to early risers/market women heading to Dove-cot (one of the largest open air markets in Freetown), I now owned an alarm clock.
My life had changed and I didn’t even know it…
Daughter of the King