By Aroun R. Deen
It was twenty-two years ago in March that a once respected and popular secondary school educator suddenly passed away in Freetown to the shock of her many relatives, former colleagues, students, and friends.
Raila Rahman was the Principal of Kankaylay Islamic Secondary School in Freetown. Before gaining her top position there, she had worked as a teacher and acting Vice-Principal at the Annie Walsh Memorial School also in Freetown. But it was her deep sense of compassion and humanity toward others that still linger in the minds of many about her.
Just two days before her sudden death, Mrs. Raila Rahman, sounding cheerful, had spoken by phone to some relatives and some of her female colleagues and students congratulating them on International Women’s Day on March 8, 1999. The 48-year-old Principal had plans to engage in women and girls’ programs in the country on her retirement. But death would deny her the opportunity.
Relatives and friends still remember with deep sadness her shocking death. Her two nieces who were abroad when she passed away, still could not muster the courage to watch a video of her funeral. Both Kiptiatu Iscandari and Haja Ebi Sankoh, in California, fear watching the video may retrigger the pains they suffered when she passed away.
Mrs. Rahman was the matriarch of her family, a well-known family that included her father, Alderman Abdul Fatta Rahman, who broke barriers to become the first Muslim to be elected Mayor of the City of Freetown. She and her nieces were contemporaries due to the close age gap between them. Their mother was an elder sister of Mrs. Rahman. The mother was by far older than their aunt.
Growing up, Iscandari and Sankoh, and their brother, her nephew, Alhaji Wahab, developed a close bond with their aunt. She was more of an elder sister and intimate friend than an aunt to them. They used to confide in her more than they did in their parents. All three of them are now working as senior personnel in the health care sector in the United States.
They also attribute their academic success as well as other accomplishments to the educational foundation she led them through. It was a trait her son, Abdul Fatta Rahman in Freetown echoes as well. Fatta Rahman describes his late mother as a disciplined, selfless, and kindhearted woman.
Haja Ebi Sankoh recalls Mrs. Rahman taking them to the city library and registering them. She also ensured that they attend frequently. “She instilled in us the habit of reading consistently,” she remembers. Sankoh says her aunt was always supportive of the family in every respect. Kiptiatu Iscandari agrees. She says that their aunt was special. Iscandari says Mrs. Rahman was a mentor who meant so much to them, adding that she was inspiring as well.
Standing at five foot ten, and always wearing a serious look, Raila Rahman’s disposition personified diligence, a no-nonsense, and upright woman. Her persona, plus her uncompromising dedication to learning led her to appear intimidating to some young men around who would only imagine at most. To some, she was thought of as Miss. Hard-to-get. Navy Officer Lieutenant Younusa Rahman was one man who was not so intimidated. The two got married later. He relishes that they both shared the same last name, Rahman, even before they got married. He nicknamed her, R-Square, as a result. Unfortunately, they were separated before she died.
At the Annie Walsh Memorial School where she spent close to two decades of her professional career, the former teacher of English Language and Literature did more than teaching. She also was concerned about the well-being of her students.
A former student of Mrs. Rahman at the AWMS, Khadi Mattia agrees. “Mrs. Rahman was very dedicated, very interested in making sure young women like us were molded into becoming productive and worthy citizens of society,” Mattia says she was privileged to be taught and nurtured by the late teacher who she also describes as brilliant, amazing, and magnanimous.
A former colleague at the Annie Walsh Memorial School who knew and who for much longer was closer to the late teacher, Richmond Garrick says that she exhibited an extraordinary passion for the teaching profession, and for the English Language and Literature subjects she was teaching. He says Mrs. Rahman would counsel, rather than impose punishment on students who were found wanting.
Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Rahman were also close friends. She says her former colleague and friend was disciplined, patient, upright, and ambitious, adding that she was a keen listener who would also not hesitate to say things the way she saw them. “She would say what she believed was right.”
On March 10, 2021, Khadijah Kabbah did a Facebook remembrance posting of her late mother. One of the commenters, newscaster of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, Haja Kadie Johnson, refers to the late woman as a close friend. She writes, “I could remember those days when we used to be together, chat deeply and try to be happy…”
Impressed by her mother’s care for the children of others, Khadijah Kabba had longed for the days she too would have babies and her mother taking charge. Unfortunately, her mother died before she did.
It was not all-work and no-play for the late woman. Aside from her reading hubby Mrs. Rahman was also fond of music. She would listen to music while performing other chores at home. Love songs by Jamaican music legend, Sonia Spence, who incidentally was herself a teacher, were her favorites.
Nephew Alhaji Wahab says her aunt was an accomplished woman in many respects but that she was also a humbled individual notwithstanding her many achievements.
Mrs. Raila Rahman was herself an alumna of the Annie Walsh Memorial School, attending there from junior to senior levels before proceeding to Fourah Bay College University of Sierra Leone where she pursued a degree in Literature and Education. After graduation, she returned to her alma mater to teach English Language and Literature.
She rose in ranks during her long tenure at the Annie Walsh Memorial School, getting up to the position of acting Vice-Principal. A former Principal of the school, Madam Gracie Williams once described Mrs. Rahman as one of the best gifts that the school had been blessed with.
One of the oldest schools in Africa, the prestigious all-girls Christian secondary school was founded in 1849. It was named after a young English girl whose dream was to become a missionary in African but who, unfortunately, died at an early age. For Mrs. Rahman, attending the school, and then serving there as a teacher was a dream come true.
At a low-key remembrance prayer ceremony held in her honour at the family house at Fourah Bay in Freetown, Chief Imam of Jamiul Atiq Mosque, Alhaji Hassani Karim says her death was a big loss to the many she crossed paths with during her lifetime.
Alhaji Sheriff Rahman, says the occasion brought back sad memories of a woman who was charming, caring, and a pride of the community. Alhaji Rahman urges all to always keep her in their prayers.