School founder fears 50 students were killed in Sierra Leone mudslide tragedy

Sierra Leone Mudslide
Debris from the mudslide that was one of the country's worst disasters (Develop Africa)

Children's welfare after natural disasters, Education Cannot Wait, Education in emergencies, Teachers and learning

The school that provides education to some of Freetown's most disadvantaged children was also destroyed in last week's flooding.

Ann-Marie Caulker scrolls through the images on her smartphone – the faces of young girls who were her some of her brightest students at school in Freetown until the landslide hit. 

“This girl has died,” she says through the tears. “This one also has died. She was very clever.” 

The death toll from last week’s mudslide and flooding in Sierra Leone’s capital city is approaching 500. Hundreds more are missing after one of the country’s worst disasters. 

Caulker, 48, founded the Royal Kings International school a decade ago to provide education to some of Freetown’s most disadvantaged children.

Today, she says she lost as many as 50 pupils and at least two teachers in the tragedy. 

“Our school was destroyed completely. Pupils, teachers and parents also died during the disaster,” she tells AFP. 

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Dressed in a purple hat and sneakers, Caulker picks her way through the capital’s Pentagon district, the red earth strewn with rocks and other debris scattered when the ground gave way.

Houses – simple, corrugated structures – used to cling to the hillside above dotted with mango and palm trees. 

It was from there, after three days of rain, that the torrent came on the night of August 13-14, sweeping away everything in its path, slamming into ramshackle homes and trapping families while they slept.

“All these rocks were not here,” she says, gesturing at the detritus. 

“All the places that you’re seeing, there were houses of two-storey buildings. Many people are dead.”

We groom these people for the future and then unfortunately, they die. Felix Mansary, teacher at Royal Kings International school

The school was mainly divided between two buildings. One, at the foot of the valley, was washed away in the landslide. Another, higher up the hill, has since been hit by looters. 

“We used to have chairs and benches,” Caulker says. “They have taken all during this crisis.”

Teacher Felix Mansary says the fate of many of his pupils and colleagues remains unknown.

“We are still trying to get information about other teachers, pupils and parents of the school,” he says.

“This (tragedy) discourages us, because we groom these people for the future and then unfortunately, they die.”

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The Sunday before last, hundreds of Pentagon residents crowded into the community church to celebrate mass. 

A week later, after the devastation, barely 30 people made it to service. 

After hymns sung to the beat of two drums, pastor Charles King addressed the congregation.

“This is a time of sorrow and pain as the church lost many members,” he said. 

He called on surviving churchgoers to be kind to each other, an attempt at offering some sort of relief in this deeply pious nation.

But for Caulker, who is raising funds to rebuild her school even as bodies continue to be pulled from the mud, the pain will last a lifetime. 

“Some of the women, right now they are homeless, people are sleeping in the rain,” she says.

“I’m still scared and don’t sleep at night when it starts raining.”

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