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Last Updated: Friday, 22 August, 2003, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Blind choir thanks UK
By Alice Martin

A blind children's choir from Sierra Leone is touring the UK to say "thank-you" for British involvement in bringing peace to their country.

Students from Milton Margai School
Half of the school are members of the choir
Thirty-five blind or partially-sighted children from the Milton Margai School in Freetown have been performing all over Britain, including at the BBC World Service's Bush House building in London.

The children, who have a motto, "We cannot see, but we will conquer" have dazzled audiences including soldiers at British military barracks.

"We want to say thank-you for helping us put an end to the war," says Headmaster Sam Campbell.

The British intervention in Sierra Leone paved the way for a large United Nations peace-keeping mission, bringing 11 years of conflict to an end.

Build the peace

"We are now all of us trying to build upon that peace," says former British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, who is credited locally with bringing in the troops.

Former British envoy to S.Leone Peter Penfold
Penfold is a household name in Sierra Leone

As for neighbouring Liberia, Penfold believes "there are many parallels to be drawn."

Penfold explains "the use of regional organisations together with the United Nations were invaluable".

"But what proved key was to have a leading member of the UN getting directly involved. This was the role Britain played and it is the role I think America has to play in Liberia."

Penfold's personal interest in the country, in music and in bringing a different image of Sierra Leone to the world have been driving forces behind the tour.

Choir of children

"We are the children of the future," says Sadia Murana in a reference to one of their main tracks Children of the Future. "We should be given the opportunity to learn. We need care and love."

"I'm proud of my singing," says Safi Koroma, one of a number made blind during the conflict. "If you know how to sing, you will be a better person in the world."

Safi is 13. The British troops came just too late for her.

Four years ago, rebels killed her father. As she cried, they poured burnt plastic over her eyes.

Another of the girls, Fanta Fornah, lost her sight when she was two due to measles.

"I like singing sentimental songs," she says. "They make me forget myself."

Preventable or curable

Sight Savers International estimate that 80% of blindness in developing countries is preventable or curable.

Composer and Headmaster Sam Campbell
Music can earn blind people a living, says the head teacher

The Milton Margai School for the Blind was founded in 1956 when Sierra Leone was still run by the British and named after its first independent Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai.

It began with three pupils and now has over 80. Many are integrated into further education alongside sighted students.

"I record the lessons," explains Essa Murana who attends Freetown's Prince of Wales Secondary School, "and when I get back to (MM) school at the end of the day, I type up my notes in Braille."

"In general the blind students do well," says Essa, "but we work twice as hard".

Students from Milton Margai School
Blind children are often discriminated against in Sierra Leone
Finding a job though can be tough. Didymus Kargbo believes discrimination is still strong.

"They find an intelligent way of not giving you a job."

Headmaster Sam Campbell believes music is one way forward. The school has spawned a number of bands.

One based in Guinea-Conakry is currently touring France. Others perform to acclaim back home.

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08 Feb 02  |  Newsnight


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