SIERRA Leone is a country of contrasts; along its coastline, one can see white, sandy beaches that go on and on; up on the hills, the view is dominated by green, lush forests, while the view of the centre of its capital, Freetown, is dominated by reddish-brown sand and dust.
If Sierra Leone is uttered in conversations these days, the words “ebola” and “civil war” will undoubtedly, more often than not, follow.
The country, which was involved in a devastating civil war from 1991 until 2002 that left over 50,000 dead. It was recently struck with a terrible Ebola outbreak that started from May 2014 and ended in March 2016, leaving 3,955 dead.
Due to the tragedies befalling the country in recent years, many then do not know that Sierra Leone was once an educational hub for West Africans eager to receive a Western-style education close to home.
The country, flanked by Guinea, Liberia and the Atlantic Ocean, attracted West Africans from its neighbouring countries to study at the country’s famed Fourah Bay College. (see map)
Founded in 1827, it is the oldest university in West Africa and the first to offer a Western-style education to its students.
It is this strong history in education that attracted Limkokwing University of Creative Technology founder and president Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing to venture into the country.
It is also this strong history in education that Lim wishes to resurrect with the opening of a Sierra Leone branch of the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT).
Awarded the title of the National University of Transformation by Sierra Leone president Dr Ernest Bai Koroma at its launch on March 17, the Sierra Leone LUCT campus is set to change the landscape of education in the country.
The official opening of the university was attended by Dr Koroma, vice-president Victor Bockarie Foh, Education, Science and Technology Minister Minkailu Bah, other members of the country’s cabinet, and representatives of foreign embassies in the country.
Dr Koroma said in his speech at the launch that the opening of the local campus of the university marked the Sierra Leone government’s dedication to make education as a centrepiece for national transformation.
“This is a response from the government for a new demand of human capital in the field of digital technology.
It is a moment that underscores our vision to make education the centrepiece of national development,”he said.
He said that it was an honour for the country to have an international university in Sierra Leone.
The campus, which currently has 1,100 students, started its first academic year for 2016-2017 on July 6 last year.
It is also the the result of the first public-private partnership in the field of education between the government of Sierra Leone and a foreign organisation.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, in a message read out at the launch, congratulated Lim on the expansion of the university into Sierra Leone. He added that the opening of the local campus helped bring respect and recognition to Malaysia’s high standard of education globally.
The Sierra Leone LUCT campus, with its white walls and red roofs, stands apart from the other buildings nearby due to its relative newness.
In keeping with the style of the buildings in Freetown, a large yard stands between the two blocks of classes, where students can be seen chatting together in a group, enjoying the warm, sunny days the country has during its dry season.
The library, a large stand alone room at the end of the two blocks, houses a complete collection of reading materials the students need for their courses.
It has also been fitted with state-of-the-art computers, a rarity in the country whose infrastructure is still years behind Malaysia’s.
The computers, the books, and comfortable, air-conditioned room have made the library a draw to the students on campus.
In keeping with LUCT’s student-friendly philosophy, a counselling room is also provided within the campus.
The room is a cosy area decorated with the artwork of students.
An amphitheatre and a canteen complete the campus.
National university of transformation
Lim said the opening of a campus in Sierra Leone is a right step for the university and the country.
“As I spend more and more time in education, and as you travel the world and meet young people, you realise there is so much you can do for them.
“And Africa is where the most help is needed,” he said, adding that he first became familiar with the continent 22 years ago when he came to work with the late South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.
“Usually we find ourselves in countries that are in need of a quick transformation.
“It’s important for us to be able to also contribute to the country’s development,” he added.
He said that when the Sierra Leone government invited him to open a campus there, his first task was to ensure that the university could work well with the government.
“You can see the rapport we have with the Sierra Leone government,” he said, adding that a good rapport meant a partnership is unlikely to fail.
“Four years ago we started work on the campus here, but then the Ebola outbreak happened and everyone (foreign investors) started to leave the country but we stayed to campaign against Ebola,” he added.
The government, he said, also gave the university the buildings to be used as a campus.
“It was actually a dilapidated building; an old building that was not in use anymore.
“We renovated it and put in the computers (in the libraty) and now this is the most high-tech campus in the whole of Sierra Leone,” he added.
The fact that the campus is a result of the first public-private partnership between the government and a private organisation in the field of education showed the confidence the government of Sierra Leone has for Malaysian education and for a Malaysian university, he said.
The Sierra Leone campus, he added, is also the first branch of LUCT in West Africa.
The graduates of the Sierra Leone LUCT campus, he said, are expected to pave the way for a transformation in the country.
“Our students here will have the skills required to transform the industry they are in and the economy of the country. These are skills that are lacking here.
“The technology we have brought here is the latest technology in the world,” he said.
The students, said Lim, see the chance to study at LUCT as a new beginning for a brighter future.
“They don’t have much, so when they have an opportunity to study they are so happy and so proud,” he said, adding that the students have a large appetite for acquiring new knowledge.
He said the opening of the LUCT campus in Sierra Leone also ensured that the relationship between Sierra Leone and the Malaysian governments continue to thrive.
“Africa will be the next continent to grow after Asia, so this is also about building long-term partnerships with African countries,” he added.
The Ebola outbreak placed a pause on the opening of LUCT in the country, as the university originally planned to admit its first batch of students in July 2014.
Bah said that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the government and the university was signed in 2013, but the Ebola outbreak prevented further progress on the university.
“Had it not been for the Ebola outbreak, this would have been the year we celebrated our first graduates,” he added.
Bah said that the opening of the campus in the country is a positive step for its development and in line with its aspiration to become a middle-income country by 2035.
“From what we have seen, the students have been studying for less than a year and they have already shown that they can be industrious,” he added.
“This is where LUCT comes in, to produce that kind of skills, to produce the kind of youths we need to carry that agenda forward,” he said.
LUCT, he said, is changing the landscape of education in the country by teaching courses and bringing in technology that other universities in the country were not providing.
The LUCT branch campus in Sierra Leone is offering diploma and undergraduate programmes.
LUCT regional vice-chancellor Prof Cedric Bell said the university is planning to provide accommodation for students on campus.
He said the Sierra Leone campus will eventually offer Masters programme.
On plans for the future, Lim said LUCT hopes to open more campuses in the African continent.
“I feel that the next ones could be in Uganda and Rwanda,” he added.
Limkokwing University of Creative Technology is collaborating with a university in Sri Lanka, the National Institute of Business Management, to open the first national innovation centre in the country.
The university is working with the Maldives’ biggest tv and radio network by providing technology driven perogrammes for the Maldives Media Institute.
Giving new hope