By Adolphus Scott
MONROVIA, Liberia, 4 January 2008 – “I was big when I started school,” says Benetta Nyemah, a 15-year-old student who attends primary school here in the capital of Liberia. “During the war, my parents left Monrovia and we went into our village to hide. There was no school in the village, and we used to work on the farm all day.”
When her family returned to Monrovia three years ago, Benetta says, there was no money to pay school fees. “My father used to break rocks just to send my two brothers and me to school,” she reflects. “That’s why I am now only in the fifth grade.”
Liberia’s 14-year civil conflict, which came to an end in 2003, claimed as many as 270,000 lives and severely disrupted the country’s education system, causing thousands of children to miss out on starting school at the appropriate age.
At first, Benetta admits, she felt ashamed of being in fifth grade at her age. “But when I walk outside the school fence,” she now says, “I see many others who are older than me and cannot even read or write.”
Education for every child
Around the world, one in six children of secondary-school age attends primary school because of starting school late or having to repeat grades. The number of such children is largest in sub-Saharan Africa, where substantially more secondary-school-age children attend primary school than secondary school.
The Government of Liberia recently introduced free and compulsory primary education nationwide. For the 2007-08 academic year, the Ministry of Education has provided instructional materials and free uniforms to primary-school students in two of the country’s most remote and disadvantaged counties.
“With the advent of free and compulsory education, our school is overburdened, with a student population of close to 800,” says Principal Cecilia Koise of J.W. Pearson Primary, Benetta’s school. “Many of those registered are over-age students who have fallen behind due to the war.”
With this huge influx, Ms. Koise adds, the school is in dire need of more teachers, furniture and other school supplies.
‘Off the streets and into the classrooms’
UNICEF has stepped in to provide school materials and supplies to all public primary and community schools across Liberia, and to support in-service teacher training conducted by the government for 750 primary school teachers.
“The civil war is over, but we have another fight on our hands,” says the Assistant Minister for Primary Education, Keturah Seibu. “That is, to mold the minds of our children who missed out so much due to war and poverty. We need to get our children from their homes, off the streets and into the classrooms.”
For Benetta, being in school is like a gift. “I am really happy that ‘Ma Ellen’ is giving us free education,” she says, referring to Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. “And I will try my best.”