Almost every prominent politician or member of society has made a public statement about the dire state of the education system in Liberia. The preferred word to describe Liberia’s education system is ‘a mess,’ a description coined by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and later tempered with by Education Minister George Werner, who has made it his goal to turn the sector ‘from mess to best.’
One thing most people are clear on is that the sector is largely the responsibility of the government to improve. However, during a recent two-day celebration by the local youth-led organization SMART Liberia, organizers and participants were bucking this very trend and pushing for change themselves.
National Director Ahmed Konneh said the organization was determined to drive change and would not wait for the government to provide a solution to the education sector. “SMART Liberia has always been about young people leading change and seeing themselves as changemakers,” he said.
The organization has already been involved in several programs that characterized this citizen-driven approach to solving societal problems. A notable program was ‘Complete 8,’ a month-long vacation school program that allowed 84 students to complete an enhanced curriculum during a school year truncated by Ebola. The group also led a campaign aimed at convincing University of Liberia authorities to build a website to provide students with better access to information.
Announcing the launch of her first resource center and reading room in Paynesville’s Duport Road community, Moore said, “Only through collective effort we Liberians can change Liberia. We cannot keep waiting for people – we have to do it ourselves.”
In what turned out to be a surprisingly rousing part of the night, a Mandela Washington Fellow, Fombah Kanneh delivered a powerful motivational speech of how he rose from poverty as a child in a slum community to meeting U.S. President Barack Obama. And further, going on to help other unfortunate children in his community by providing them with educational resources. Kanneh’s remarkable presentation of the ‘Seven Mindsets’ for success should be a staple at every high school and university.
The education summit was sponsored by the British Embassy in Liberia, whose Ambassador David Belgrove expressed his thrill at the opportunity to support an organization like SMART Liberia. He said, “The young people of SMART Liberia show that you don’t need to wait for that change to come. You can bring that change yourself.”
I recently stumbled on an article written by a journalist I met at the 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. here is an excerpt and a link to the full story:
When asked why she became a first responder during Liberia’s Ebola Crisis, Brenda Brewer Moore said she drew her resolve from one of her country’s darkest times, “I lived the majority of my childhood years in Liberia during the civil war and saw the amount of death and destruction that the war caused. And as a child, one thing I promised myself was that one thing that I would always do when I grew up was to be part of the solution – not just to sit and complain but to make some tangible contribution towards the development of Liberia.”
Moore’s was one of several gripping stories told by women first responders from around the world at this year’s 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), hosted by the United Nations and ActionAid from March 14 to March 24 in New York City. The panel, “Women as First Responders: Featuring Testimonies and a Visual Gallery Elevating Women’s Voices in Humanitarian Action,” took place on March 15.
Each of the women on the panel was soft spoken but firm about her passion for her work. All told stories about the lack of resources, inexperience, and heartbreak they had experienced. They also emphasized the importance of valuing the roles of everyday women in disaster planning, management, and response.
Women first responders have been all but absent from the stories we hear about emergency response work, which traditionally focus on the role of police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and other stereotypically male figures. By describing women as the first (and sometimes only) responders, this year’s CSW provided a different narrative.
While their stories may be less well known, as mothers and caregivers, women around the world are often the first on the disaster scene. “Women are in many cases the first responders and in many cases, the only responders when crisis strikes,” said Kyung-wha Kang, the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during the panel. “In Fiji, following Cyclone Winston, women looked after the sick and elderly, they helped one another source food and water, and provided one another with support. In conflict-ravaged Sana’a,Yemen, women got involved in every aspect of response, from search and rescue and assessing needs, to using social media to convey information, and setting up a mass hosting network to house the displaced,” she added. “As a first responder in Yemen told us, ‘the women here are everything and everything is on them.’”
In the case of Liberia’s Ebola emergency last year, the government was forced to close schools for six months to help curb the spread of disease, leaving children without a way to continue their education. Moore, a human resources specialist and mother, decided she could not let Ebola keep the children of her country from learning and growing. Her organization, the Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP), took action and delivered door-to-door educational materials, eventually reaching over 7,000 children throughout the country. The organization has since expanded to provide a range of support to Liberia’s educational system, and is currently completing a free computer literacy lab for the country.
While women often help others in crisis, they are also frequently the victims of catastrophic events. On average, women and children make up more than 75 percent of those who are displaced by war, hunger, persecution, and natural disasters. Those women who were already impoverished and vulnerable before crisis struck, as many are, are at even higher risk for sexual exploitation and violence.
As the victims of crisis, women have unique perspectives that can inform their work as first-responders. Mary Jack Kaviamu’s experiences in her home country of Vanuatu are a testament to this. Kaviamu spent much of her career with the country’s provincial government, as well as with the Pacific Institute of Public Policy, an independent think tank dedicated to supporting and stimulating informed policy debates for the Pacific Island community. After running unsuccessfully for a local government position in Vanuatu’s recent elections, Kaviamu became manager of ActionAid’s Women Talk Together Forum, where she continues to advocate for gender empowerment. “Tradition in my country and culture has become a barrier in all [levels],” Kavaimu observed during the CSW panel.
A popular tourist destination, Vanuatu was devastated in March 2015 by Tropical Cyclone Pam, a category 5 storm. A year later, the country’s infrastructure is still in disarray and water, food, and shelter remain in limited supply. In her prepared remarks at the CSW, Kaviamu described the crisis’s impact on women in Vanuatu: “We are not included. If we are not included, men cannot discuss our issues—women’s issues. Women alone can explain their issues and determine their priorities. Men cannot explain the real issues that affect women. It is women alone who can explain themselves.”
“Women trust women – that’s the reality,” added Moore. “[With Ebola], you have a lot [more] women who are home during the day than the men, so with the teams that we sent out into the communities that are made up of the mothers, they were not as responsive as when we had female team leaders… They have to accept what you brought because some of them believe that, oh there was Ebola in the packages and all these kinds of misconceptions. So seeing another woman, another mother out there, made it easier for them to accept what we were trying to do. And just the fact that we were able to relate on so many other levels, it helped our work a lot.”
“I don’t want to keep women in the role assigned by the [gender] division. But clearly – because of all this experience, they know how to manage catastrophe, they know how to organize distribution of equity. They know how to be creative with difficult situations,” said Yolette Etienne, a veteran first responder from Haiti who now works with ActionAid as the country’s director. “And that means they can be more effective in times of emergency and because they are suffering a lot in times of emergency. If they are in charge, that means also they can transform the gender power division.”
Researchers with both UN Women and the Institute of Development Studies have found that involving women in humanitarian programs helps reduce gender inequalities, improves access to services, and increases the effectiveness of humanitarian responses. Despite all this, women often run into structural and cultural obstacles that make it difficult to participate in humanitarian action. “In my country, women have no political representation in the parliament, which makes [it] difficult for women. Public decision is [a] male space with no women participating,” said Kaviamu.
These obstacles can perhaps be overcome by the growing solidarity between women first-responders, a recurring theme among the panelists at CSW. “The context may be different but [each of us] are facing the same challenges and the same fight,” Etienne told Muftah after the event. “It’s about learning, it’s about feeling ‘It’s not so singular what I am doing, I’m not fully isolated, I can coordinate better, and that [is] the only way to overcome the situation.’”
Panelists also highlighted the overall importance to their work of women’s empowerment. “I am a living example that women can be first responders and key players in humanitarian response, provide innovative solutions and that community-lead responses can be led by women,” said Moore, who still works as a human resources professional while running KEEP in her free time.
Kang echoed those sentiments. “Empowering [women] to take on those roles but also to go further and to be an integral part of decision-making on humanitarian action from the lowest to the highest level is also one of the most effective ways that we can deliver humanitarian action.”
Working with Project GirlSpire has afforded me incredible opportunities to talk to some amazing women and girls from our global community. Even though Project GirlSpire is pro-women and pro-girls 365 days a year, this Women’s History Month has allowed me to get acquainted with women who are making history daily, honoring them as they take their journey rather than after. These are the women who girls in the future will look at and aspire to be. These are the women that movies and books will be written about…women who will be immortalized because of their willingness to take action now, instead of waiting for someone else to make the world a better place for them.
In 2014, Liberia was literally shut down because of the Ebola outbreak. With the disease running rampant, schools were closed with no sign of reopening in the foreseeable future. While the children of other nations…
This is a common song sung around many neighborhoods in Liberia.
Thieves are called rogues in Liberia and it’s common to hear shouts of “rogue rogue rogue” at night in many communities in Liberia. Once someone is pointed out as a rogue, everyone in the neighborhood starts to chase that person until caught. Back before “the war”, once a rogue was caught by the neighbors, they were beaten a bit and then turned over to the police. These days, post war Liberia reacts differently. We have “mob justice”, so once caught, immediate action or justice is meted out to the alleged “rogue”. Death on the spot by beating of the crowd.
My first encounter with a rogue was probably in 1987 and I was probably around eight years old.
At the time, my step father’s sister had come to live with us…
I sleepily moan and curl up even tighter, wrapping the cover sheet closer to my body.
“Brenda, wake up. We late! Get up.” I hear the urgency in my mother’s voice and open my eyes.
“Please go use the bathroom and come help me get the children ready to leave. I woke up late and we have to leave here before daylight.”
With that, she turns to leave the room and for a moment, I am tempted to curl back into bed and as if reading my mind, I hear her say “ if you hurry up and finish with the bathroom and changing your clothes in ten minutes, I will let u play in the creek later today”.
My eyes widen in the darkness and all sleep quickly vanishes from my eyes. My mother doesn’t like…
In a male dominated society and culture like that of Liberia, it is not often that we see women assuming traditionally held male positions. You hear about and see women having such positions more in the urban areas in offices and companies. Even then….
A short while ago, I was actually amazed and excited to meet Chief Rachel Wea in Panwloh Town, Grand Gedeh county.
Chief Rachel (she insisted I called her Ma Rachel) is the first female town chief I have had to honor to meet after visiting several communities in several counties in Liberia.
I was wowed that a woman holds such a high leadership position in a region that is known for a high rate of sexual and gender based violence against women and girls.
Ma Rachel told me that she was elected by the entire town about 5 years ago because she is “hardworking and like judging plawa business”.
She is a farmer and grows plantains, bananas, bitter-balls and rice which she sells to help sustain her family. She has 9 “living children”, 7 boys and 2 girls.
She had make me promise to send her a copy of this photo to keep to remember our meeting, and, a promise is a debt. She is so energetic and full of life! I was just blown away.
I asked her husband if he had a problem with his wife being the head of the town and he said “but if she Town Chief, then I’m Chairman, so I got power too!”
I am told there is another village further down the road that also has a female Town Chief.
Two weeks ago I wrote about a family we came across in the Red Hill community. They had lost both parents to the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and were completing the compulsory 21 days quarantine the day we got there.
We were told how supportive the community had been in helping them with food and supplies during this period. We were also told that there were actually 4 families that had lost parents in that community.
I am happy and pleased to report that the story touched the hearts of a few people who reached out.
Thanks to Ne-Suah Livingstone who shared the story on her Facebook page and to Annakor Lawson for reaching out. We were able to get a bag of rice and other supplies to take to them.
We were also able to get in touch with Madam Mary Broh at the GSA through the assistance of some kind ladies from the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Thanks to all for helping to reach out to these families.
A few weeks ago, I read a story on Front Page Africa that touched my heart. The story was about a boy in the Island Clinic Community who, due to the closure of schools in the country, had started teaching other kids in his immediate surroundings.
The boy’s name is James Fahnbulleh (aka Jimmy) and he is in the 8th grade.
A few of us are currently doing a project called Kids Engagement Project. The intent of the project is to provide educational materials (pencils, sharpeners, erasers, notebooks, etc.) and math and English worksheets to children to keep their minds engaged academically during the Ebola crisis and the closure of schools in the country. The worksheets are simple and easy to do and understand and are all aligned with the Ministry of Education’s curricular for each grade level. We target kids in primary school (Pre-school to 6th grades). We also engage the parents or caregivers in the home to make time to teach the kids during this crisis period. We do a biweekly check in with the parents and the children to see if they are utilizing the kits. The idea also is for parents or caregivers in the home to make time to tutor the kids and not to bring in “study class teachers’ to teach the kids during this crisis period.
On October 30, Kids Engagement took a few educational packets to Jimmy and the children in his immediate neighborhood. His mother wasn’t home, but we met his aunt.
We also met Jimmy and most of his students.
They were excited about the kits but also requested that we assist with blackboard chalk to help them continue their studies.
It is rather remarkable how we Liberians adapt and “make do”.
Thank you Jimmy for thinking about others and wanting to learn.
Today during the course of distributing educational packets to children in the Red Hill community (just after the St. Paul’s bridge), we came across a group of children that had lost both their parents to the Ebola Virus Disease. I counted about 9 of them. Their ages ranged from about 2 years old to about 15 years old.
They had been under quarantine for 21 days and today was their last day and so they were in a joyous and thankful mood.
I saw these children and started crying. I couldn’t imagine what they must be feeling. Their mother’s sister has taken them in and told us that the rest of the family were waiting for the 21 days to end to make a decision on how to how take care of the children.
Our community liaison told us that the community has been very supportive in providing food and supplies weekly to this family and supporting in many ways to ensure they don’t feel ostracized, stigmatized or alone.
I looked at these children, so happy, gleeful and excited over receiving (among other things) coloring pages and pencils and whatnot and just said a silent prayer of thanks to God for life. For health. For being good to me and my family.
I cannot imagine what these children must be dealing with. The confusion of not knowing where both their parents are. Of being told to stay in their home all day, not interacting with anyone else. Not playing with the other children. They seem too young to grasp the enormity of all of this.
I asked their aunt if she wouldn’t mind us taking a few pictures to share with you all and she said she didn’t.
We have been to many communities, and I must say I am very impressed with how organized the red Hill community leadership is in dealing with and responding to the Ebola crisis. The level of support I am told they give to this family and 3 others in similar situation is really amazing and laudable.
If you are able to help them, please let me know and I will forward the contact info of the family and the community liaison.
you can follow our daily activities on the facebook page facebook.com/KidsEngagementProjectLiberia
Its indescribably fulfilling when you notice that parents are taking heed to your message. While out distributing and doing follow-up with parents in the community for the Project Kids Engagement, we walked on this father taking the time to tutor his kids at home. He says he drives a taxi cab during the day and doesn’t usually have time every day to tutor his kids, but leave daily “assignments” for them to finish using the worksheets we provided and reviews their work on Sundays.
The message continues to be: Schools are closed indefinitely in Liberia due to the Ebola Virus Disease crisis. Do not let the time go to waste, make time to tutor your kids so that they are kept engaged academically so that they aren’t too far behind when schools do reopen.
Really happy that one father at least is heeding our message.