By Richard G. Wallace, past governor of district 7470 and member of the Rotary Club of Blairstown, New Jersey, USA
I believe Rotary is every Rotarian’s “Passport to People” through the fellowship we share, and endless service opportunities available to us. For over 37 years, I have come to cherish this passport because it has taken me to people not only in my community but in distant countries and cultures.
My most recent trip to Sierra Leone is an example.
Like many Rotarians in the United States, I have been presenting student dictionaries to third-graders here in Blairstown, N.J. However, in the past few years we started sending them to schools and orphanages in various African nations as well as Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Peru through mission groups.
In January 2011, I was invited by a friend, a citizen of Sierra Leone, to visit and help the children in schools there. I jumped at the chance and with the sponsorship of The Dictionary Project, a few inoculations, and a visa, I arrived for an incredible 11-day visit in May 2011.
My purpose was to distribute over 1,200 Rotary-donated dictionaries, along with other school supplies, clothing, and sneakers collected by our Interact students, to schools in the rural area of the Kono District in eastern Sierra Leone. The materials arrived before we did and were waiting for us at the Port of Freetown. After loading our trucks, we began the 225-mile, six-hour drive over very rough roads to the town of Yengema.
The Kono District was severely damaged by the10-year civil war that ended in 2002. Many people were killed, many children were orphaned, and many more saw their homes, schools, churches, and roads destroyed. It is an area without infrastructure – even now electricity, sanitation, and water systems are non-existent. It is equatorial and thus very warm. I was fortunate to have purified water to drink. The people depend on local wells often located a long distance away, with the water carried by young boys and girls.
Despite the destruction, I found the children, teachers, parents, grandparents, and villagers most welcoming and hospitable and very grateful for the simple gift of a dictionary for their children, a Gift of Knowledge. It is an experience I will not forget because of the strength and determination of the people to do the best they can in their circumstances, including maintaining a proud heritage and culture. There’s no electrical light, but there is firelight and conversations around it. There are no stoves, but there are cooking fires, which they prefer.
During one of my school visits, we were visited by several village chiefs, as well as Sierra Leone’s education minister and the United Nations ambassador. The ambassador thanked Rotary, and quickly picked up on the Ludwig Wittgenstein quotation written on the cover of the dictionaries — “the limits of your language are the limits of your world” — in his comments to the children, and emphasized the need for them to study.
Many clubs and Rotarians in the United States participate in the Dictionary Project, and we all enjoy seeing the smiling faces of third-graders receiving their dictionaries. I have now witnessed children of Africa with the same smiles, same joy, and excitement that our children express under quite different circumstance. I am so proud of them.
When I left, I knew we helped stretch the limits of their world through Rotary and my Rotary Passport to People.