SWATS is a UK registered charity that aims to create educational opportunity for some of the most vulnerable children in West Africa.
Our focus is on Sierra Leone, a country with a 40% adult literacy rate. We've set up the Evans Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone where 7 staff members educate 92 pupils through primary school and beyond. Many of these pupils are orphans who have been adopted by families in the local community and who, without this school, would not receive a free education.
Ruth Handcock (nee Evans), Chair of Trustees
I moved to Freetown for a year in 2010 to work for the Africa Governance Initiative, an incredible charity set up by Tony Blair to build capacity in African Governments so they can effectively govern, and provide for, their people. In the Ministry of Trade I was charged with improving the investment environment and helping to expand the pool of foreign investors that brought industry and jobs to the country.
I first met James Ndamah, our head teacher, in March 2011 when my Mum, Jenny, was visiting me in Freetown. James had taken in my good friend Sulaiman in the months after the civil war, in which Sul had lost his father, and they'd remained friends ever since. As a teacher in the UK, Mum was keen to see what primary school in Sierra Leone was like so Sul took us along to see James running a school for about 25 children in a leaky, sweltering room balanced on the top of someone else's house. Mum and I were taken by his passion for teaching and decided to build them a new school so the children could study in an environment that was more conducive to learning. A combination of my Mum's excellent fundraising back in the UK, with me and Sul on the ground buying materials and directing workmen allowed us to open a new building before the end of the summer term that year. Fast forward five years and the school has gone from James working voluntarily to teach 25 pupils, to 7 teachers earning double the average national wage, more than 90 pupils and a building with a water tank and private toilets (quite a luxury in Freetown). You can read more about Sul here.
Although I'm now back in the UK, I still feel a great attachment to the people of Sierra Leone and my calls with Sul on a Sunday afternoon are a highlight of my week. I have high hopes for the school and, now we're registered as a UK charity, can't wait to start pushing the boundaries - healthcare for all the children, a permanent piece of land with a playground for sports, sponsoring children through their secondary school - things that many of the families can only dream of.
Claire Purchase, Trustee
I first visited Sierra Leone in early 2014 with Ruth, Fraser and Laura. One of the highlights of an incredible trip was a visit to the Evans Primary School. I was so impressed by how much Pastor James and his staff were achieving with the support that Ruth had built with her family and TWOAT. This made becoming one of the founding trustees of SWATS a very easy decision, and I'm delighted that we are now established as a registered charity and can make exciting plans for the future of the school and the charity.
In the short term I'm excited about adding a cook to the school staff this year - not only does it mean that all the children will get a hot meal during the day but it is also providing a job for a member of the local community. In the long term I really feel that the sky is the limit.
Claire lives and works in New York, making her the reason that Skype has become a large part of the working practices of SWATS.
Laura Wilshaw, Trustee
I first visited the Evans Primary School in 2011 when it was in its infancy. A tiny rickety room with patchwork tarpaulin as a roof and a handful of students.
Since then, under Ruth’s stewardship it has blossomed.
I knew from the start I wanted to get involved and I’ve been lucky enough to return to Sierra Leone and the school on a number of occasions. Most recently I was there with work at the height of the Ebola crisis. The school was shut and Pastor James was keeping a close eye on the health of the kids. It’s wonderful to know it has re-opened and the students are thriving again.
With my job as a broadcast journalist, I’ve seen a lot of countries that have known war and struggle - but the beauty and bravery of Sierra Leone has struck me more than most. I’m delighted to be a founding SWATS Trustee.
Fraser Handcock, Trustee
Almost any time when you mention Sierra Leone in conversation, the immediate reaction is one of interest but also trepidation – the civil war was well covered by the media and its bloody reputation has been sustained and embellished in the films and songs of Western popular culture. So when Ruth told me, a few months after we first met, that she was moving there for a year I was naturally, but ignorantly, concerned for her welfare.
Two months later when I paid my first visit to the country it was clear that I needn’t have been anxious. The people of Sierra Leone could teach us all a thing or two about tolerance, optimism and friendliness, and no one seemed to embody this more than Sulaiman. He showed Ruth – and all her dozens of visitors who came to see Sierra Leone for themselves – parts of the country that we wouldn’t otherwise have experienced: from its beautiful beaches, to the remote villages where he grew up and the colourful markets of Freetown. Most importantly, he not only showed us the school but demonstrated how much could be achieved and improved with relatively modest inputs. He and Ruth make a formidable team and having people like him and Pastor James on the ground means that we have direct and frequent communication with people who are energetic, selfless and entirely trustworthy. It is a great foundation to have for what we hope to achieve.
So, while first impressions of Sierra Leone are often misleading, the recent Ebola coverage does indeed confirm one reality. For despite all the optimism and bustle there, life is hard and opportunities are very difficult to come by. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of some of the challenges so at SWATS we are focused on tangible goals with immediate but sustained results. I have long supported an educational charity in Tanzania and have seen the recurring impact that education can have on the broader community: on jobs, on prospects, on self-esteem.
Getting involved in an official capacity with SWATS was a very easy decision, and I am really optimistic about how we can genuinely change the prospects of hundreds of eager students. The only downside is it does formalise my wife as the official boss!
Our major supporters
We're hugely grateful to some individuals and organisations that have been enormously generous in supporting our work over the past few years.
The Tadworth and Walton Overseas Aid Trust
TWOAT is a small charity active in three villages in Surrey (Tadworth, Walton and Kingswood) that provides support to a number of overseas aid projects and has generously supported SWATS for the past five years. We are hugely grateful for all their help.
Aspen was at the coalface of providing medical support during the recent Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Following an introduction to James and Sulaiman, the local medical team have been regular visitors to the school to provide healthchecks to the children. Their generosity has extended to providing vital school equipment and a generous donation. Thanks Aspen!
Elvis and Kresse
Elvis & Kresse reclaim materials and make amazing furniture and accessories from them, in the pursuit of a time without landfill. An organisation dedicated to giving back, they have been incredibly generous in supporting the work of SWATS through their charities programme.