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Image credit: Philemon Kamara, Lifeline Nehemiah Projects

PJ Cole: Fighting Ebola as a Queen's Young Leader

PJ Cole: Fighting Ebola as a Queen's Young Leader

"It was a bit crazy for me!"

Growing up, PJ Cole shared his clothes, food, and parents with the ex-child soldiers his father, Richard Cole, had taken in during Sierra Leone’s civil war. In 2014, PJ was working with them to run Nehemiah Lifeline – a project to rebuild the country – and planning to expand its work “slowly over time”. But Ebola, and the Queen’s Young Leaders Award, changed all that.

PJ’s community was an Ebola hotspot, with five people dying each day.

“Ebola attacked the very fabric of our culture,” he says, “because in Sierra Leone people would hold hands, shake hands and hug. Suddenly touching became something you don’t do.”

In response, Nehemiah Lifeline changed their focus. They downloaded a guide on building an Ebola clinic from Google and set to work, building the clinic, educating the community about Ebola, and delivering supplies to those in quarantine. They went from managing 60 to 400 staff within a couple of months.

“It was really a community effort. You had local chiefs preparing food,” PJ recalls. “And it was emotionally draining. The team was tired and really stretched.”

Lifeline Nehemiah Projects Ebola Education team

Lifeline Nehemiah Projects Ebola Education team

When the announcement came that PJ had won a Queen’s Young Leaders award, he recalls that government and other stakeholders began to be more supportive of Nehemiah Lifeline’s response to Ebola. “The doors just opened.”

Increased profile

Over his year as a Queen’s Young Leader, PJ’s profile sky-rocketed and he values the opportunities he has had – and still has – to contribute to global discourse.

“It gives an opportunity to talk on issues of policy and to bring in that learning we’ve done over the year.”

In March 2015, he shared his story at the Commonwealth Celebrations in Westminster Abbey. He went on to do a Tedx Talk, was pictured in Vanity Fair with Kofi Annan, and  spoke at November’s One Young World Summit in Bangkok.

He's used his increased profile and the interest in his story to introduce members of his team to contacts made as a Queen’s Young Leader. The BBC interviewed PJ’s deputy, Prince Tommy Williams for their online magazine and World Service Outlook programme.

He says, “The whole team feels a part of that, and that’s been quite useful – to speak about what we’ve learnt in terms of peace and conflict and forgiveness.”

Team benefits

The team at Nehemiah Lifeline felt their work was recognised and validated by PJ winning the Queen’s Young Leaders award. “Having the Queen’s stamp on it” boosted morale in the midst of the Ebola Crisis.

But they have also learnt from the Leading Change course, as PJ has shared materials and learning with them. “The course has helped us learn new things but it’s also helped us to name things we were already doing.”

Because of Ebola, PJ says, the Queen’s Young Leaders year was “a bit crazy for me”. So he is planning to go through the course again with the Nehemiah Lifeline team, “just to make sure we get a lot of benefit from it together”.

Staff training programme discussing leadership

From left to right: Joseph Bundu (teacher), Saidu Tarawalie (vocational trainer), Albert Dimoh (lead mentor), William Kondeh, (estates manager) discussing leadership as part of a staff training programme at Lifeline Nehemiah. Photo by Martin Smith Photography.

Visiting the UK

PJ is keen to emphasise that Nehemiah Lifeline is a team effort. This team spirit continued when he left Sierra Leone in the midst of the Ebola crisis to for a week in the UK.

“When we got our awards at the weekend, that injected quite a bit of energy back into the team. So when I met the Queen I sent the pics on Whatsapp. That was an excitement we could all share!”

Naturally, he was concerned about the situation back home but says that staff and the other Queen’s Young Leaders were understanding and supportive.

In Cambridge, although the workshops were “taxing”, PJ says they helped him by forcing him to take a step back and think long term. “At a time when vision setting made no sense, I had to be doing it. And that inspired me.”


PJ also met his mentor, Rich Celm, at the Cambridge Residential and had “some really good conversations”.

“Frances was really able to match me with someone who understood where I was at, and the difficulties that that presented.”

Rich Celm is an expert in business start-ups and incubators and introduced PJ to useful contacts at Accelerator in Shoreditch. “He was able to point me in the right direction and chat me through a few things.”

Betteh Tumara Freetown Vocational Training auto mechanic trainees reassembling a motor vehicle engine

Auto mechanics reassemble a vehicle engine as part of their vocational training. Photo by Martin Smith Photography.

Because of the situation, Rich and PJ weren’t able to spend as much time on the mentoring as they had hoped but have kept in touch. PJ appreciates this flexibility.  “I feel I can Whatsapp him and get a response.”

The future

After a hectic year dealing with Ebola at home and making the most of being a Queen’s Young Leader, PJ feels he has developed his leadership style.

IT trainees are tutored by Benjamin Kamara

Vocational training: IT trainees are tutored by Benjamin Kamara. Photo by Martin Smith Photography

Since the Queen’s Young Leaders programme started, Nehemiah Lifeline has expanded. A grant from Comic Relief is funding a business incubator for vocational courses, and there are plans to scale up work with farmers in Kenema in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province.

“We are looking to extend vocational training to young people in Kenema and equip farmers with the skills needed to improve quality and increase quantity of their yields,” says PJ, adding that he wants to connect farmers to markets and tackle poverty more generally.

Consultation with Farming Community, Punduri, Kenema

Consultation with the farming community, Punduri, Kenema. Photo by Philemon Kamara, of Lifeline Nehemiah Projects.

PJ is also keen for Nehemiah Lifeline to contribute more to policy and thinking, particularly in terms of young people – “sharing what we’re learning here and also doing stuff with others.”

This is already happening both through work with Lifeline Network in the UK and opportunities to speak at conferences. “With the Queen’s Young Leaders badge, we’re more and more being asked to contribute to global discourse.”