By Cyril Jengo
People have inspirational stories about their lives that prompted other people to go for their dreams and never give up. We are always fascinated by stories of people who beat the odds with tenacity to cut their mark and emerge from difficult circumstances. In the Mountain Rural District of Leicester Road community in Freetown, lives the well-known and unassuming, 41-year-old Gibrilla Bangura. Like many of his peers during the rebel war, Gibrilla could not continue with his education beyond High School. Poor and unable to cater for his educational needs, his parents gave him up for adoption.
He wanted at least a university degree that would have earned him a white-collar job. No thanks to the war, poverty and a difficult upbringing, that dream never came to pass as Gibrilla was unable to pay his way through school nor was there anyone to help him out. His goals were shattered, but he compensated for his inability to getting a better education by providing one for the over 150 pupils currently attending the Galaxy Academy Preparatory School on Leicester Road.
Though he was not a businessman in any grand sense of the word, through his meagre savings spanning many years, he founded the well-at-tended community preparatory school that is now a lifeline for many of the kids and their parents in the community.
His story is a testament that a newspaper vendor and retailer can also dream to provide educational opportunities for deprived children, kids who may have suffered his same fate had this opportunity not availed itself. Today, Gibrilla, the newspaper vendor turned proprietor of a school is no longer dreaming, he is fulfilling his dream as Cyril Jenjo finds out when he sat down with him for this exclusive interview.
Question - Can you tell me about yourself?
Gibrilla Bangura: God bless you, sir. I was born in Tonko Limba, Kambia district on April 26, 1977. I attended St Edwards Primary school & proceeded to the Ansarul Islamic Secondary School. After a year there, I joined St Edwards Secondary school.
Question - Did you complete secondary school?
GB: No, I did not.
Question - Why?
GB: Because of the war that was raging and my aunt with whom I was staying was a struggling petty trader. My parents had given me up for adoption at the time as my father was out of a job and things were difficult.
Question – How did the war affect you in terms of your daily livelihood
GB: It was challenging. Things were not conducive for me. In life, you take it as it is. Food was not enough at home. I accepted it. I had to do something about it. I had to sell things.
Question – How did you get the capital for that?
GB: My aunt started giving me things to sell. Then I started taking up the responsibility to do more because the profit wasn’t good. I just saved whatever there was and reinvested. I was thirteen at the time. I sold everything that was sellable. I sold rice, fish, kerosene, sugar, pepper, oil… to pay my school fees. I was conscious of the importance of being educated. Along with supporting my education, I took up responsibility for the home.
Question – Why then are you not a graduate by now?
GB: Education is the key to success. No doubt. But over time, I have also come to see education as not necessarily
the papers you carry like degrees but what you can do
as a person to make a difference in the lives of generations yet unborn. That makes you educated too. And again, as a news vendor, I like reading. I used to sell Newsweek, Focus on Africa magazine, Africa Confidential, West Africa magazine. I used the headlines to convince people to buy. Of course, I sell national newspapers although much infrequently now as I dedicate myself to building the Galaxy Academy Preparatory school.
But make no mistake, I wanted to get a higher education beyond secondary school. I dropped out of school at form four. The responsibility I had on me was huge. There were my younger ones all looking up to me. At this point, I decided to forego my education to concentrate on being a news vendor, which was the best I could do at the time.
“I have also come to see education as not necessarily the papers you carry like degrees but what you can do as a person to make a difference in the lives of generations yet unborn”
Question - You are the founder of the Galaxy Academy Primary School here along Leicester Road. I see learning is going on right now. Why did you decide to set up this school and not invest in other lucrative businesses? What’s the history?
GB: Wherever you are, you should have a passion for your community. You must have the love for that community. This very land (since 1993/94) was where youths met, and we discussed everything. We would meet and discuss the war, our future- everything. Leicester Road was sparsely populated. Very few buildings. It was during those days that I thought youth empowerment would be a good idea. I met the owner of the land, an old man, and I told him I wanted the property. He said, “Look how small you are. Can you buy it?” But I did not give up. I told him I wanted to do something that would benefit future generations. I said I wanted to build a primary school and a vocational institute. That was long before I even started. At the end of it all, I convinced him to sell the property to me, and he did.
Question – Where did you get the money to make the first instalment and then embark on this project?
GB: Well, I was the type who after school did a lot of hawking including selling newspapers, and I would be out there every day and well into the night. Whatever I got, I saved. Early in the morning, I would go down to the 'Post Office' at Siaka Stevens street to buy the newspapers in huge quantities. So, much of the money to build the flat that houses the school today came from selling newspapers and magazines. There are good people too who supported and are supporting this project. Mr Aiah R. Senessie, former teacher at Albert Academy; Chief Julius Kondor, Deputy Fire Chief; Mr Ibrahim Sorie Sesay, a newspaper vendor; and Mr Mohamed Jusu, Secretary to the Public Service Commission are the school’s biggest sponsors. There are many others, and I can go on and on. But I’d say, “may God bless them”
Question – How did Galaxy Primary school start? What’s the journey like for you?
GB: I want to thank many people who inspired me. Some even put their resources to get this project going. The actual journey for Galaxy Academy Preparatory School started five years ago, on April 14, 2015. After I had saved for many years and with the help of other good people, I started this school wi-th 47 pupils. Today, I have ten staff and 150-plus pupils. We have from nursery to prep one to class six. As you can see, the classes are convenient, and the teachers are doing their best.
Question – You are not a government assisted school, and I see most of the community people here have their children attending, so how do you pay staff and keep this place running.
GB: Well, only 60% of the pupils are paying. The rest come from very deprived homes and my board members, and I come together to fill the gap. It’s not easy. Because of our flexible policy with school fees, some pupils who were no longer going to school in the last 2-3 years have started coming to join us. Some have joined us because we have toilet facilities and we take hygiene seriously. We want government and other humanitarian organisations to step in, so we can expand and provide educational opportunities for more deprived children.
Question – Where do you see this school in the next decade?
GB: I see this place having several departments – secondary school, vocational institute, a cultural centre and library. A library is critical to spreading knowledge. I see us harnessing the skills of young people. We have laid the foundation & this building housing the school can take up to 3-4 stories, and that would be good for expanding into other departments. It’s not easy, but I have faith that comes from my love and passion for my community. I also have faith in this generation that they will turn things around, which also squarely depend on us to nurture them well. A lot of other people, especially the school board, and I have started something, and for me, I will never get tired of ensuring our children in this community get the education I did not get. If the elders, the politicians and people with more means than I have, could have this same thinking, this same ideology to build a better generation, then the future of our young people, in general, is bright.