…An unusual Diplomat, A close friend, An advocate for the education and employment of persons with disabilities in Sierra Leone
Peter Penfold, CMG, OBE was a UK Diplomat who started his career in 1963 and served for 38 years in the British Diplomatic Service. As he noted in his book (African Anecdotes: Reminiscences of a British Diplomat in Africa), he served in various ‘hotspots’ around the world, especially in Africa, where he witnessed several coups and conflicts. He was awarded the CMG and the OBE by the Queen and was appointed a Paramount Chief, Komrabai, by the people of Sierra Leone.
…An unusual Diplomat
His love for Africa began when at the end of his posting in Bonn, West Germany in 1968, he was posted to Kaduna, Nigeria. Peter admitted that had he, been able to choose his posting—he would probably not have chosen Kaduna and may not have considered Africa, but the posting “started [his] love affair with Africa”. From Kaduna, he served in several other Diplomatic posts in Latin America, Mexico City, Ecuador, St. Vincent, and later Canberra in Australia in 1972. He went back to London briefly before he was again sent to Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe and served there from 1975 to 1978. In between London and other postings to Port of Spain, and Governor of the British Virgin Islands in 1991, he was offered a post as the new British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.
Peter drove in his Land-Rover vehicle all the way from London to Sierra Leone in 1997 and his encounter with a Sierra Leone Police Officer to get directions to his residence in Freetown was brilliantly narrated in his book (Atrocities, Diamonds, and Diplomacy). Peter arrived at the time when Sierra Leone was in a bloody war that ran for 11 years (1991 to 2002). Around the time that he arrived in the country, President Kabbah’s government was overthrown. In the immediate aftermath, Peter managed to evacuate the president and diplomats. He also facilitated a government in exile (in Guinea), negotiated with the AFRC to re-open the national airport and eventually helped to restore the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Later in 1999, the Sierra Leone government entered negotiations that resulted in the Lomé Peace Agreement. As Peter will later recount, “his previous experience in Africa, particularly in Uganda, stood him in good stead for the events of his posting to Sierra Leone”.
Peter was an unusual Diplomat – and a great man of faith, he spoke truth to power. He had great persuasive skills, was a man of great resilience, and was always calm under pressure. This was demonstrated in many of his African postings, where he played a significant role in dealing with wars, evacuating diplomats, or managing to avert coups, or at his leisure, attending Idi Amin’s wedding reception, and persuading a reluctant President Mobutu to attend the Queen’s birthday reception. Peter’s diplomatic service in Sierra Leone has gone down in folklore as a saviour of a would-be carnage had he not intervened to restore democracy in the country. His early retirement in 2000, ignited his passion to help others, especially the marginalised by taking on roles with various charities including the UK Association for Schools for the Blind, Sierra Leone (which he founded and supports the Sir Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown), and the Dorothy Springer Trust.
A close friend….
My friendship with Uncle (he is referred to Uncle with deep affection) Peter was close. He was my mentor, my promoter, my supporter, especially the Dorothy Springer Trust, and grandfather to my firstborn. I encountered Uncle Peter in 2007, while I was in the UK setting up the Dorothy Springer Trust (DST). I was putting together the list of people to serve as Trustees, based on the many people who have impacted my educational and personal life in the UK, as part of the UK registration of DST. At our first meeting, I disclosed to the Trustees the amazing work of Uncle Peter and how he was revered in the country. I told the trustees that the Dorothy Springer Trust charity would hugely benefit if Peter Penfold agreed to become a patron. We researched the BBC website and looked through photos of Peter’s crowning as Paramount Chief. The DST Trustee’s decision to ask Peter to become a patron was unanimous. His amazing work and the love the people of Sierra Leone have for this retired Diplomat were obvious. We agreed to write to him and invite him to be Chief Patron of the Dorothy Springer Trust. Uncle Peter accepted our invitation to be Patron, and this was the start of a relationship that led to a close friendship.
[Photo of Uncle Peter and Abs]
Uncle Peter has been incredibly supportive of me and the work of the Dorothy Springer Trust from 2009 to his passing 1st October 2023. In his twice-a-year visits to Sierra Leone, he would introduce me to Presidents, Ministers, Directors of Government, Diplomats and influential Sierra Leoneans. He introduced me to former British High Commissioners – Ian Hughes, Peter West, Guy Warrington, Simon Mustard, Alistair White and Lisa Chesney. In our dinner with Ian Hughes in 2010, Uncle Peter told my story in a way I couldn’t tell it better myself. As a way of earning some income, Uncle Peter encouraged me to apply for a position at the High Commission as a Residence Manager. I worked at the High Commission for 2 years. When another opportunity came for me, to work at State House, Uncle Peter supported me in writing an application to the then, First Lady, Sia Nyama Koroma and we went together to see the First Lady. A year later, I was appointed as a Manager at the Office of Diaspora Affairs. By this time Uncle Peter had impacted my life as a ‘returnee’ and I began to believe that people with disabilities, when they acquire a good education, and there is an enabling environment through advocacy, have a real opportunity to be gainfully employed. This realisation shaped the overall strategy of the Dorothy Springer Trust – training to impart education/knowledge, advocacy, and employment opportunities.
In many of our visits, I drove in my self-adapted vehicle and when we arrived at these meetings, people would stare at me as I got down out of my vehicle with crutches and wonder who drove Komrabai. He was quick to always respond that I was his main driver, and they would further wonder how this was possible. Uncle Peter would respond by telling them that I had adapted my vehicle to drive around by using my engineering skills to build a hand control system. One scary moment, when Uncle Peter decided to test the hand controls was when we drove back from Bo and we were heading down Spur Road towards Lumley Roundabout to go to his favourite hotel – The Family Kingdom – his foot got stuck on the accelerator, but he remained very calm and controlled the vehicle steadily, but seeing the speed at which we were coming down the hill, I quickly took the hand controls to slow down the vehicle.
As for his advocacy abilities, in one meeting with former President Koroma, he told him that the State House needed a lift to make it accessible for persons with disabilities. Before, the installation of the lift, we went up three flights of stairs and I was sweating by the time we were ushered to see the President. The President then recognised the drench of sweat and asked Peter why I was sweating. Peter looked him straight in the face and said, Mr. President, this young man has just had to come up three flights of stairs to see you. You need to do something about this. The former President promised to install a lift and a year later a lift was installed. Achievement!!!
In 2015, Peter was in town and my firstborn was delivered on 10 January 2015. Two weeks after his birth, I sat with Uncle Peter at the family Kingdom for dinner and we discussed the name to give to the child. Peter advised that since I was considering Isaac, the child should have his dad’s name (Abdulai), so we only needed a middle name and he kindly and graciously agreed that we could use his name Peter – so now we have a technology name – Isaac Peter Abdulai Dumbuya (IPAD). In the traditional naming ceremony, Peter took the child in his arms and named him Isaac and took him out and showed him the way to school when he grew up. Isaac became his godson and would frequently ask after his ‘special’ godson and bring him presents and photos he took of his previous visits.
[Photos of naming ceremony Isaac Peter Abdulai Dumbuya]
Uncle Peter always sought to connect me with his great friends in Sierra Leone – Pa Jaward, Proprietor of the Family Kingdom, Dr Kitty Fadlu-Deen of Balanta Academy, Dr Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella, Solomon Lebby, Ibrahim Suma in the UK, former Minister Sheka Mansaray and many others. He would always precede his introduction, by saying so much about me and the amazing work of the Dorothy Springer Trust.
Whenever I visited the UK, I always spent a day with Peter. He gave me wise advice on how to move the organisation forward, attending the DST’s Trustees meeting, or creating the opportunity to update the Charity Group at St Helen’s Church, Abingdon, UK. On my last visit in 2022, I spent a day with him and the Chairman of the DST on Peter’s boat – Komrabai at his riverside residence, in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. I even got to captain his boat and we made many jokes and had a lovely lunch by the lakeside.
[Photos of Captaining Peter’s Komrabai Boat]
Following Uncle Peter’s long illness, his death was not unexpected – In early, 2022, we spoke on the phone, when I was seriously ill myself for nearly two months. He disclosed to me that he too had been ill and that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was only given six (6) months to live. On his visit to Sierra Leone in early 2023, the Dorothy Springer Trust recognised his many works for the Trust named the training room after him – “The Penfold Hall”. Uncle Peter wrote three books and several other papers, and in two of these books, he writes about the work of the Dorothy Springer Trust. In fact he gave me two of his books which he personally signed – I will treasure these forever.
[Photo of Uncle Peter with DST Staff The Penfold Hall]
…his work to empower persons with disabilities through employable skills
Uncle Peter’s work with persons with disabilities started when he set up the UK Association for Schools for the Blind, in Sierra Leone, (which supported the Sir Milton Margai School for the Blind (MMSB) in Freetown) and took MMSB to the UK in 2003 and became the first blind Choir and Band to perform at the Westminster Abbey. The success of this tour led to another visit in 2007. My encounter with Uncle Peter led to him expanding his engagement with persons with disabilities beyond persons with visual impairments to encompass other types of disabilities. As he was now an active Patron of the DST, he worked tirelessly for the passing of the Sierra Leone Disability Act 2011 and helped to change the approach of giving alms to PWDs to create an enabling environment for PWDs to be trained and secure employment. This approach led to the recruitment of the first disabled people into the Sierra Leone Police – history-making in Sierra Leone if not the whole of West Africa. He came to the Freetown Cheshire Home and met children, of the home and school and was admired by all the children, especially when he demonstrated his magic tricks by making a torn-up piece of paper into whole sheet paper – implying sometimes with all our differences, we can be united and stand as one. This is a message he took to many places.
Uncle Peter participated in many events with DST – from “Ring the Bell” campaign, held at the New Freetown City Hall entrance in 2022 to making the public aware of the need to ensure that all children including children with disabilities are given access to school. Uncle Peter named the DST Building situated in the compound of the Freetown Cheshire Home, “Opportunities House”. He saw the DST building as a place where PWDs could be provided with countless opportunities through training. In his many engagements with DST students, where he counselled them to focus on gaining education or physically participating in the assessment of the students’ work – he always projected fairness, rigour, and love for the students even as he spoke truth to power.
[Photo of DST Students]
Knowing Uncle Peter has been a huge blessing to me, and he has served humanity well. So, it was devastating news hearing of his passing – oh my close friend has gone, the Diplomat who fought for the peace and stability of Sierra Leone – and our very own disability advocate and activist has gone. You have left a huge legacy in Sierra Leone and we will love you forever!!
Rest well Uncle Peter.
His impact on one of many persons with disabilities has been captured in this lovely poem by Abu Kamara (a former resident of the Freetown Cheshire Home and former student of the Dorothy Springer Trust, who is now a third-year student at the University of Sierra Leone, with aspirations to read Law when he finishes his current course of studies).
In the realm of service and noble intent,
A soul emerged, with purpose sent,
With dedication true, and a heart so kind,
A beacon of hope, a guiding mind.
The former British High Commissioner we mourn.
A life well-lived, a legacy adorned,
In Sierra Leone’s embrace, he found his place.
A champion of humanity, with grace.
Through turbulent times, he stood tall,
A guardian of peace, he heard the call,
With wisdom and compassion, he paved the way,
To heal the wounds, and bring a brighter day.
As Grand Chief Patron of the DST,
His spirit soared, his vision set free,
He understood the power of education’s might
and touched the lives of disabled people,
To uplift the nation, to ignite its light.
In classrooms and corridors, his presence was felt,
Inspiring minds, where hope would dwell,
He believed in the children, their dreams untold,
Empowering them to shape a future boldly.
With humility and empathy,
he embraced the land,
Extending a helping hand, lending a hand,
Building bridges of unity, forging bonds,
In his gentle footsteps, harmony beyond.
Today, we bid farewell, with heavy hearts,
Yet his legacy lingers, never departs,
For the seeds he sowed, with love and care,
Shall bloom forever, in the Sierra Leonean air.
Oh, former British High Commissioner,
PC Komrabai Peter Penfold,
Your spirit soars in eternal splendour,
As we remember your service, your noble quest,
In our hearts, forever blessed.
Rest in peace, dear servant of humanity,
Your dedication and love, are an everlasting symphony.
Sierra Leone mourns, but your light shall remain, Inspiring generations, a beacon to sustain.