In 1999, Hastings was contacted by Wayne Addy, a young officer from Sedlescombe who was working under the auspices of the UN. The then British High Commissioner, Sir Peter Penfold, was urging members of the peace-keeping forces to contact UK towns with the same name as Sierra Leonean towns, to see if they could help rebuild the country, which had been devastated by the civil war. The Twinning Officer asked for more details, but it seemed that the overwhelming need for humanitarian aid was beyond the scope of the local authority.
In 2001, at a chance meeting in the House of Commons, the then Defence Minister, Peter Kilfoyle, approached our own MP Michael Foster with much the same request. Michael in turn asked Dr John Geater, Chairman of the local Christian charity LOAF Project, whether they could help. LOAF Project had recently built a school in Rwanda and an orphanage in Romania, and had huge experience in both fund-raising and managing a large project in a developing country. LOAF adopted Hastings SL for its 2001/2002 project. The town’s infrastructure and bridges had been virtually destroyed, so that it was almost impossible to get goods in and out, or for the people to get to work in nearby Freetown. Yet Hastings had been a flourishing town, and can be so again: the airstrip and the regional police training academy are getting back into operation, and the vocational school can be started up again, with outside help.
Local engineer Derek Tomblin identified some 13 bridges that needed totally rebuilding, restoring or upgrading. LOAF appealed to the Hastings & St Leonards community – schools, churches, businesses etc – to sponsor a bridge, and a generous community responded. See Repairing the Bridges.
LOAF sent out a container-load of food, clothing, equipment and £1000 worth of tools donated by the Builders Centre. Items like typewriters and sewing machines went to re-equip the vocational school, so that the young people could be trained to earn their own living.
In 2003, a group calling itself the Hastings Sierra Leone Friendship Link was set up, to ensure continuity when LOAF went on to a new project. It has raised funds, for example through musical events with an African flavour, an annual cryptic quiz sheet and an annual quiz night. The Link continues to send goods out to Hastings. The second big project was the community resource centre, again with the help of LOAF, which opened in 2010; and the third project – still ongoing – is the extension and refurbishment of the little health centre. In December 2014, the Rotary Club of St Leonards paid for the complete re-wiring of the health centre.
In 2007, Hastings Borough Council recognised the strength of the friendship between the two Hastings and signed an official ‘twinning’ charter. Over the years, a dozen schools partnerships have been set up, including teacher exchanges. Sadly, the Ebola epidemic has set things back, and there is much work to do to support the schools and to revive some of the partnerships.