For decades, the E.J. Robinson Municipal School has been a symbol of learning, community, and growth in the Congo Town Community. It is not just a school; the land on which the school stands is the heart of Congo Town’s intergenerational, multi-ethnic, and religiously tolerant community.
In a surprising turn, the Freetown City Council has signed a 50-year lease to the Faith Healing Bible Church for the meager sum of one leone, an amount less than one American penny. Community residents say the land was leased without consultation and consent. The FCC’s decision has created tension between the Faith Healing Bible Church and the community, which has already started construction for a church building on community land. A once tight-knit community is now fractured by FCC authoritarianism.
“Constructing a church or a hospital on this land doesn’t make sense,” said Ayo Webber, a parent whose child attends the school.
“It will disrupt our entire community, putting our children at risk, especially now when the country’s economic situation doesn’t allow us to send our kids to schools far away, which are both expensive and inconvenient in terms of distance.”
Members of the community are outraged by the decision. They have organized meetings and a petition to voice their concerns. They took the case to the High Court of Sierra Leone, where they argued that the land and school are integral parts of their community and FCC had violated several of its legal obligations by handing over the land to a private entity without consulting the community. However, the court said that too much time had passed between the signing of the lease and the court action. Community leaders have appealed the decision on the grounds that the Freetown City Council intentionally buried information that they would have used to challenge the agreement sooner. Beyond the lack of consultation, the lease is a bad deal.
“The terms of the lease agreement are highly unsatisfactory; it was leased for a mere one leone per year for 50 years, and the community isn’t reaping any benefits from it,” said Kebbie Koroma, a 25-year Congo Town resident.
Reverend Mary Newman, a community elder, says that even as a Christian, the land should continue to serve everyone, underscoring Sierra Leone’s envied position as one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world.
“While the church serves as a place of worship, its activities don’t always align with the diverse needs of our community. It’s crucial to remember that our community comprises both Muslims and Christians,” she said.
Despite the community’s objections, Faith Healing Bible Church construction on community land continues even during school hours. Parents, teachers, and community members have voiced their concerns for the safety of their kids, but no one is listening. Children are at risk during lunch break as their playground is now a construction site, and teachers have to teach over the noise from builders.
The Muslim community has also been affected as the Congo Town Municipal School land has been the place for Eid prayers for decades. The Ummah served by the land comes from Murray Town, Banana Water, Congo Cross, and beyond.
Imam Alie Bangura, the Chief Imam of Congo Cross Mosque, says that even though the Ummah can’t access the land as they used to, his main concern is child safety.
“It has not only been transformed into a work site but also could become a car park, and raises safety concerns for our children. If this situation persists, the school may eventually have to close down,” said Imam Alie.
Congo Town leaders like Imam Alie and Reverend Newman want the lease to be nullified and the community determines how they want the land to be used. The FCC says the church will also build a health center on the land, and that this will help the community, but there’s a problem.
In 2017, a parliamentarian, Dr. Michel Sho Sawyer, asked the Freetown City Council to lease the land to build a health center at the same location. After an environmental and health assessment was done, his request was denied, and the FCC identified a more suitable location for the project.
In a letter addressed to MP Sho Sawyer, the Council wrote, “Based on an independent on-the-ground Dep. Assessment, it was reported that the construction of a health center is not ideal for the purpose. Therefore, the technical specialists are recommending the relocation of this project to another site in order to avoid the risk of a disaster and damage to the community people, especially the school children from hazardous waste.” Yet the Council leased the same land to Faith Healing Bible Church for the same purpose almost four years later.
The community is neither anti-Christian nor against a health center; they’re afraid of the negative health and environmental effects a clinic in that location would produce. And beyond that, they want to expand E.J. Robinson School so that the overcrowded building can move to a one-day shift instead of two and include a junior secondary school so community children don’t have to commute too far from home. The Freetown City Council’s decision to lease the school’s land means these children and the community will lose their only open gathering space.