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Africa marks a day for children

By NBC correspondent Ron Allen

Editor's note: Watch for upcoming reports from Ron Allen and producer Amber Payne in Sierra Leone on NBC Nightly News.

Sierra Leone--When our driver asked for directions to the school, the man standing by the side of a badly rutted dirt road lifted both arms and seemed to be pointing to the sky. "Go up that steep green hill, with what passes for a road," he was saying. It was more trail than road. But eventually we got there.

It was June 16, the International Day of the African Child, an annual moment of recognition that has been observed across the continent since 1992, when scores of South African school children who were demanding a better education in the South African township of Soweto were massacred by apartheid-era security forces in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. It's a terrible piece of history that seems far removed from the World Cup competition happening in the same place where Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in prison for his civil rights activism, is now a former President.

We were visiting the Abigail D. Butscher Primary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a place where the children need a decade of recognition, perhaps two—not just a day. The school was built by Madieu Williams, Butscher's son, a man better known for his work Sunday afternoons for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings than for his efforts in West Africa. Williams is why we are here. The family came to the U.S. when he was just nine years old. Now, he's a rising football star, a Free Safety for the Vikings. When he's not trying to stop the NFL's best receivers, he's a philanthropist, humanitarian and world citizen, who's back where he was born, trying to make a difference.

By just about any global socio-economic measure, Sierra Leone ranks near the bottom of the charts. On a day devoted to African children, it's troubling to think that one of every four kids here dies before age five. More mothers die giving birth than just about anywhere else. Only 30 percent of the students here, where the state struggles to provide free education, make it to high school, which helps explain why only a third can read and write.

Photo by Ron Allen/ NBC News

Students attend class at Abigail D. Butscher Primary school

One can see what all of that means in real life at the Connaught Hospital, a hulking concrete building downtown, that like so much here feels trapped in the nation's British colonial past. Many cars still have right-hand drive steering wheels. Every sign is in English. We just passed Regents Road, then Gloucester Road. The front of a mini-van bus says it goes to Gordich Street-New England. A store called "Mobility International" sells Nokia phones.

In the heart of downtown Freetown, Kissy Road bakes in the midday sun. Few clouds give relief today. It must be 90 degrees and humid. We're anxious for the daily torrential rains for relief. People pack the streets and markets. Just about everything you can imagine is for sale, especially clothing. There's a surprising amount of commerce in a place where more than half the people earn less than a dollar a day.

We visited Connaught Hospital's pediatric ward with a team of American doctors and nurses from The Healing Hands Foundation, a Baltimore based non-profit, who are here on something of a scouting mission. The group has partnered with The Madieu Williams Foundation. While one group focuses on education, the other looks at health. They hope it's a very long term deal. Most of Connaught's doctors fled the country during Sierra Leone's decade long civil war that ended in 2002. That war made this nation synonymous with blood diamonds, child soldiers and wrenching amputations, a reputation and reality it now struggles to overcome.

Photo by Ron Allen/ NBC News

Two boys wait for their first visit to the dentist.

One measure of the desperate medical condition here is that there are just six dentists in the country. Some 6 million people live here. The Healing Hands team has two dentists. This morning, people came from miles around when world spread they were here.

A humanitarian award and football brought the two organizations together. Healing Hands' director, Dr. Jamie Flores, is a surgeon based at the University of Miami. He's a big guy with a vice-like handshake grip who played football—defensive tackle— at the University of Maryland, as did Madieu Williams. The school recently honored both for their humanitarian efforts. After the event, the two former players decided to team up.

We watched as Dr. Flores and his team examined children with cleft palates. Another had burns over much of his body from a household accident with boiling water, his mother said. Another child's face was swollen by a cancerous tumor. Flores plans surgery for several of the kids—routine procedures that will take less than an hour and are taken for granted in the United States. Here, as one of Flores' colleagues put it, surgery is so rare, it's like magic.

It's pure coincidence that we are here with the two non-profits when the continent marks a day for children. The kids here who survive face as tough a life as perhaps anywhere else on the planet.