I first heard about the village of Kent in Sierra Leone towards the end of last summer. After a visit to the West African country, my mother told me about this beautiful fishing village on the tip of the western peninsula, and how friendly its people were.
But they were also very poor and the village school – located above an old slave depository – had no books. “You should use your paper to help them,” she suggested.
So I decided to ask the readers of Kent on Sunday to help the children of Kent in Sierra Leone to get a better education.
Before going public I wrote to all the 14 council leaders in Kent, requesting old library stock.
A month later I had around 25 boxes of books in my conservatory.
We launched at the beginning of February with a double-page spread with a big picture of a street sign for Kent, against a background of palm trees and blue skies.
Headlined “Welcome to Kent – but not as you know it”, the story introduced our readers to the village, its history as a holding post during the slave trade and its troubles during the recent, horrific rebel war. I told our readers we were going to help this place and asked them to join in, putting my direct number and email address at the bottom of the copy.
The phone did not stop ringing for weeks. I had scores of emails, hundreds of phone calls and more offers of help than I could possibly deal with.
I spent the next few days driving around the county, picking up books and sorting them into boxes. Within a week or so, my conservatory was full to the rafters – with a tonne of books. The response from our readers was overwhelming.
Next came the frustrating bit: trying to get the books to Sierra Leone. BMED, which operates under the British Airways colours, initially agreed to fly the cargo.
But when pushed for dates, it was unable to commit, saying it could be “months”.
In the end, a decent man called Bill Brookman, of freight forwarder Robert Claire & Co, stepped up and shipped the books, free of charge.
Last month, I had the jabs and caught a plane to Sierra Leone to hand over the books in person. I have been on foreign assignments before, but this was an entirely different experience.
I had spent months obsessing about the campaign and making sure it was a success. To actually be in Kent, Sierra Leone, after all that work felt like a major achievement.
It is a beautiful place. A long, golden beach is the pride of the village. The locals are warm and friendly. The children of the village sang a specially prepared song of welcome and thanks. On behalf of our readers, I handed over the books.
Village chief Tunde Savage said to me: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
He wants the village to be twinned with Kent in the UK: “Please don’t forget about us here.”
When I got back, we published an exclusive article written for us by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who wrote: “I was thrilled to hear of the close links being forged by Kent on Sunday and its readers with the people of Sierra Leone.
“It’s a tremendous initiative, which demonstrates once again the generosity of the British public – and the vital role of local newspapers in our national life.”
Our readers showed enthusiasm, generosity and compassion. The runaway success of this campaign proved to me that if you can connect readers with a cause and then give them the opportunity to do something positive to help, they will respond in force.