By Guy Hubbard
GANTA, Liberia, 15 July 2010 – At 6 a.m., Atleta Suomie is already hard at work sweeping the floor and arranging the merchandise in her family’s small store. Atleta is a top mathematics student and this comes in handy through the morning’s roaring trade. But come lunchtime, she hands the shop over to her stepmother, changes into her school uniform, collects her books and leaves the shop.
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Her route to school takes her past the shells of buildings destroyed by rockets and signposts riddled with bullet holes. Ganta was the scene of vicious battles during Liberia’s 14-year civil war, and the scars of the conflict are everywhere. Thousands fled the fighting here. Everyone was affected.
Atleta and her family fled Ganta to seek refuge in the capital, Monrovia. Her mother died in childbirth en route and she herself missed out on years of schooling.
Picking up the pieces
“When we woke up that morning, we just heard gunfire,” explains Atleta’s father, Edward Suomie, describing the ordeal.
“We left everything – our house, our materials, everything, and ran into the bush with the children,” he continues. “The children’s mother was with me and when we ran into the bush. She was pregnant, she fell in pain and that was how we lost her. Then we all fled to Monrovia.”
Six years on, Liberia is still struggling to pick up the pieces. Ghostly shells overlook Monrovia, an ever-present reminder of nearly 14 years of conflict that saw the almost total collapse of the city’s infrastructure.
The country’s young people were affected the worst. Many were killed, orphaned or recruited as child soldiers, losing their childhood forever.
Meanwhile, the education system collapsed, as various rebel groups swept through the country, often targeting schools for recruits. Almost every child in every classroom has missed out on years of learning. Now they’re desperately trying to catch up.
Free education and overcrowding
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist, is well aware of the importance of education in the effort to undo years of neglect. Her government has introduced free primary education for all and has tasked the Ministry of Education with providing it.
Architect, Finley Pitt is proud of her work here. “The people of this area, the people of Nimba, are well known to have a high value on education,” says Pitt. “So if this project is going to succeed … the sense of ownership the community have over this project is very important.”
And UNICEF and its partners in Liberia have placed special emphasis on girls’ education. As a result, girls in school now outnumber boys here – a major advancement in West Africa, where girls are often forced out of school and into early marriage.
A long way to go
“Education is important, because when you are educated you’re able to get a job,” says Atleta. “When you’re working, you can earn money and be able to support other people.”
But while the introduction of free primary education has made education far more accessible, it has compounded overcrowding in schools as new students arrive daily. It is a school’s responsibility to accept everyone, and thus the teachers’ capabilities are stretched. Liberia’s schools are severely lacking in resources, and classrooms are packed so tightly that students often have to bring their own chairs.
Atleta’s school in Ganta is no exception. It became so overcrowded in recent years that some classes moved outdoors and the small faculty had to teach hundreds of students at a time.
School construction and rehabilitation
Now, however, UNICEF, through the Education Pooled Fund – comprising donations from the Government of the Netherlands and the Open Society Institute – has been building and rehabilitating schools throughout Liberia. Here in Ganta, a new child-friendly school is expected to be completed this month.
Her father agrees: “I believe that education is important for every human society. I will try my best to make sure my kids get through high school and go even further, like university.”
With a dedicated President, universal access to primary education, new teachers and new schools, Liberia is on the right track – but it still has a long way to go. Much more needs to be done before the country is able to provide free quality education for all. This will require huge amounts of time, effort and investment. Still, it is only through education that Liberia’s young people will be able to lift themselves out of poverty to rebuild their nation.