I want to do more one day

Cleaner collects kilos of lost pens for schools in Sierra Leone

Cleaner Lamin Sow keeps all the pens, glasses and notebooks he finds at the Law Faculty so he 
can hand them out in his native country, Sierra Leone. “It makes some people cry.”

About ten cleaning trolleys are stored in the basement of the Kamerlingh Onnes Building: stainless steel contraptions with blue-green tubs filled with cloths and detergents. If you take a better look, you’ll see notebooks and a few cheap sunglasses stashed between the bottles of cleaning fluid. The trays at the bottom hold dozens of pens, markers and felt-tips.

Things cast carelessly aside here are given a new lease of life by cleaner Lamin Sow (34) in the country where he was born. Nearly every trolley has something. “My colleagues know I need pens”, he says. “I have lots more at home.” He points to a corner of the basement, to a large pencil case on a ledge. “When that’s full, I put it in a plastic bag and take it home. Then I take it with me when I go to Africa. I’m allowed to take something like 23 kilos on the plane, but I don’t need all that weight for my stuff, five shirts and five pairs of trousers, so I thought, what can I do? That’s why I fill up my suitcase. I can’t take very much anyway, because I can’t afford the extra weight.”

His haul consists mostly of pens, notebooks and sometimes the cotton bags the university hands out to new students. Once or twice, he’s found an inhaler.

“They throw them away and I pick them up. Sometimes I buy paracetamol and other medicines. I once bought a hearing aid at Lidl for ten Euros. When I worked in the Lipsius Building, I got about forty bags at once. The receptionist gave me a whole pile of pens and a pair of glasses once. Sometimes, people leave things like that in the library. I take the glasses I find to villages. They’re a real help to older people who can’t see well. It makes some people cry.”

Sow came to the Netherlands when he was sixteen, nineteen years ago. Since then, he’s worked at the university as a cleaner; the last eight he has spent working at the Kamerlingh Onnes where he is now a familiar face – people say hello all the time while we take his picture. “I’ll have a lot of explaining to do tomorrow.”
Sierra Leone has “’the most beautiful beach in the world’”, he says. And it is very, very poor, he stresses at various times in the interview. “And when I say poor, remember Ebola and the rainfall we had a few years ago. Many people died.”

In 2017, hundreds of people died when the capital Freetown was flooded with mud during the wet season. The Ebola outbreak that began in 2014 claimed nearly 4,000 lives. Sow grew up in Freetown with a civil war raging. The war, which started in 1991, killed fifty thousand victims until the UN decommissioned the troops in 2002.
“I can’t explain it very well”, says Sow, “but is was really, really awful. I never went to prison, but life was very hard, lots of violence.” He pauses for a moment. “It’s hard to talk about it.”

“I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m here and I’ve got a job. I have three beautiful children. Sometimes I have as much as a thousand Euros in my pocket. But I come from a poor country and have had a hard life. I tell people here who walk around angry: you’re so lucky! You were born here. Be cool.”

Corruption is the biggest problem in Sierra Leone, according to Sow. “The country is rich, but corrupt. It spoils everything. People fill their own pockets with money. I went to Africa, gave the pens to an organisation and not a single child had received one a week later. That’s when I thought, I’ll see to it myself. I put the stuff in a box and go to the schools myself. They’re so happy with them. You would never believe it unless you saw it with your own eyes.”

He warns people who want to donate money: “I try to tell everyone: it’s easy to help there, but some people just grab it for themselves.”

One school has particularly caught his attention. “In Freetown, the capital, there are private schools and public schools. The public schools are poor, so I try to visit them. Last time, I took some stuff to elementary schools outside the city, in Waterloo, and Sparrow, and Sussex. When I arrived, most of the children had nowhere to sit.”
“I want to do more one day. In Waterloo, I always go to a school that is so poor, there are a hundred children in one class. There’s plenty of land in Africa, but they don’t have the funds to make the schools bigger. I do cleaning work here, so I don’t have much, but if I had more, I would do more.”

“I’m a rich man! I don’t know whether you believe that. I can put money in my pocket, go to Africa and stay at a guest house. I’m a lucky man. When I retire, I’ll go home and help those poor people. There are plenty of NGOs, I’ll join one of them.”

After the interview, he puts the pens he has collected in a bag from Hoogvliet. He’s heading to Africa again in October.“By the time September’s here, I’ll have collected lots and lots”, he assures us. “My suitcase will be full of rubbish.”

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