Taking responsibility: an interview with Pandit Mami ‘10
by Dr Linda de Flavis
University Advisor, Dover Campus
“You never knew from one moment to the next if you would be alive or dead. Any second you could be the one shot. I still wonder why I was the lucky one when so many of my friends were killed."
These were the first words I heard Pandit Mami say, back in 2009. He was addressing a group of UWCSEA students and teachers at a forum on Sierra Leone, and it was not only his story, told so matter-of-factly, that kept the room spellbound, but also his energy and spirit. Like other Sierra Leonean scholars, Pandit had been trapped in the middle of a long and brutal civil war fought over control of the diamond industry. It affected his childhood, changed his future, and seemed at various points to rob him of all his hopes. But his innate capacity for joy remained strong.
Years later Pandit is still one of the most exuberant and compassionate individuals I know. He has a special way of dealing with a difficult past and transforming it into a positive source of activism. Here is his story.
Tell us about your life before you came to UWCSEA.
Before UWC, I was mired in a world of uncertainty. My dad had suffered a stroke and lost his speech in 1998. From that time on, I became his walking stick and his mouth piece. Our family depleted all our savings to nurse him back to health, but that never happened and he eventually died in 2004.
I can still recall seeing my older siblings dropping out of school as the financial constraint began to kick in. We were forced to move to the slums and lived under deplorable conditions – no electricity or indoor plumbing, and our roof leaked when it rained. I studied under candlelight and kerosene lamps. I became accustomed to walking miles to school on an empty stomach. I remained in school solely through the goodwill of some of my dad’s friends.
Then you came to UWCSEA. What was that transition like?
I couldn’t possibly have fathomed what to expect. And quite frankly, I don’t think I could have prepared adequately, either. The problem was never about academics. I was ill-equipped for the technological savviness required for IB. I didn’t know how to use a computer and I had no clue how the internet worked. I can still remember my first Theory of Knowledge assignment: we were asked to write a six-page essay and I stayed up all night typing one letter at a time.
With sheer determination I was able to face the challenges with the right attitude. They gifted me with the burning passion to invest in my nation’s human capital through the vehicle of education and technological awareness.
UWC dovetailed critical thinking and technological savviness in an international and multicultural environment and gave me the tools to connect with all people regardless of gender, culture, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.
After UWCSEA, you went on to study on a scholarship at a US college. Which were the pivotal experiences there that led you to where you are now?
At Colby College, I studied Political Science, minoring in Religious and Jewish Studies. I’ve encouraged other Sierra Leonean National Committee scholars to explore new areas of studies, not just the natural sciences. UWCers won't make a significant impact in their native countries if they're not calling the shots in every major field of study. We can only be change makers if we’re at the vanguard of policy reforms in our home countries. If not, we’ll spend our days as spectators, criticizing everything from the sidelines – something I would never opt for and no one should.
Tell us more about the Ngoyeaa Back to School Foundation.
I started the scholarship initiative in November 2016. The word “Ngoyeaa” is from the Mende language, a Sierra Leonean dialect, and means the same as “Ubuntu”. It captures the essence of our humanity and compassion to others. It’s evocative of what we want to accomplish in Sierra Leone: bringing hope through education. It’s a pilot program focused on students within the Aberdeen community in Freetown. Over time we hope to expand it into a nationwide initiative.
It began after my trip to Sierra Leone in October of 2016 when I saw first-hand how shaken my nation had been by the ebola virus. I knew something had to be done to mitigate the suffering of ebola orphans and underprivileged children. These kids were becoming susceptible to gang recruitment, drug addiction, sexual harassment, assault, and petty crime.
Their plight resonated with me because during my dad’s illness I owed my own education to the largesse of individuals who invested in me to ensure that I became a constructive member of society. They inspired me to invest in the lives of others. So, before returning to the US, I met up with some of these kids, listened to their plight, and made a pact with them that if they were willing and ready to go back to school and work hard, I would raise the funds to see them through school and college.
At Ngoyeaa, we believe that education should be a right for every child regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion. In the past six months, we’ve sponsored 24 students, selected based on their potential and the severity of their circumstances. We raise funds to pay school fees and buy uniforms and books for the students. We also assign mentors to motivate them to work hard in school. The mentors help the students with their homework, pay regular visits to their schools and attend PTAs and other school functions. We want our beneficiaries to succeed.
We also have non-Sierra Leonean mentors abroad who contact these children once or twice a month to facilitate cross-cultural learning and multiculturalism. Inspired by the UWC model, we believe that cultural interaction and internationalism should be at the epicentre of any educational model in the 21st century.
What was the impact of your UWCSEA education on the life you lead now?
UWCSEA forever changed the way I see the world and make sense of contemporary events. It made me realise that we’re participants in history, not bystanders – and we should never believe that it’s the responsibility of others to right the wrongs of society. All of us should make it our point of duty to mitigate the suffering of others and heal our world.