Africa, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines

EDUCATION-LIBERIA: Civil War Leaves School System in Tatters

Abdullah Dukuly

MONROVIA, Jun 16 2004 (IPS) - The Day of the African Child, celebrated Wednesday, is a sober occasion for Liberia, where fourteen years of intermittent civil war have undermined the education system on which many of the country’s children depend.

According to the Ministry of Education, 2,400 schools had been established in Liberia before fighting in the West African country broke out. However, 80 per cent of these were put out of operation by the conflict.

Similarly, about 12,000 teachers were on the public school payroll in pre-war Liberia. Many of these teachers emigrated, or took up alternative employment to make ends meet during the war. The teacher training institutes in south-east and central Liberia were also destroyed.

The effects of these developments can be seen across a dismal array of statistics.

Government puts Liberia’s literacy rate at a scant 28 percent. And, only about 50 percent of the 1.5 million children who should be attending primary and secondary school in the country are doing so.

(About 800,000 children are thought to have been driven out of school over past years because their parents were forced to flee their homes, or because they were obliged to become child soldiers.)

Those educators who have persisted still face enormous odds in their day-to-day work.

“When you are teaching the pupils who come to school hungry, they often ask for an excuse to go outside in their numbers. As you try to stop them, they will tell you ‘An empty bag cannot stand’,” says the headmaster of a junior public school.

“Many of these children are from poor family backgrounds – they do not have their meal before coming to school. Most of them walk to school…These children often group themselves together to go and buy a bowl of rice (the nation’s staple food),” he added.

Willie Varney, senior teacher at the GW Gibson High School in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, says educators sometimes have to make a considerable effort to locate textbooks and other teaching aids.

“We always go extra miles to borrow a book here and there, just to educate the youth of this country”, he told IPS. “There are no incentives, but we have to try our best…Sometimes when we come, we are faced with students who sometimes challenge us in the classrooms.”

Yet another challenge has been provided by the task of dealing with former child soldiers, who are more familiar with weapons than academic work.

Alexander Tarpeh, a science teacher at the Martha Tubman Memorial High School in Monrovia’s western suburbs, says staff “try to be more tolerant and persuasive” with these children.

“With the conglomeration of other students of diversified backgrounds, we hope that most of the child soldiers will shy away from violence and the harsh realities of war,” he added.

Faced with the monumental responsibility of piecing together the education system, government says it has earmarked 137 million dollars to fund a 10-year plan for rebuilding schools, buying educational materials and paying teachers’ salaries, amongst other things.

Tarpeh is unimpressed: “Pronouncements are made on the matter of education, but are never implemented. For us at the public schools, we are only offering sacrificial services to our youth.”

Education Minister Evelyn Kandakai admits more could be done. “The government should spend more money on education than it is spending now,” she told IPS.

The minister says that a law passed in Jan. 2002 indicated that 25 per cent of the government’s budget should be set aside for education, “But that has not taken effect now.” Kandakai refused to be drawn on the amount of money that would be spent on education if the 2002 law was implemented, but conceded that even these funds would probably be insufficient to cover Liberia’s education needs.

As government struggles to rebuild the education system, private schools are outbidding their public school counterparts in the matter of salaries paid to Liberia’s 7,000 teachers.

Certain public school teachers earn as little as 10 U.S. dollars a month, while those in private schools are paid in the region of 50 U.S. dollars.

“Our take home salary cannot even take us home, considering the hike in transport fares and the prices of basic commodities. Some of us live at far away places and we pay 40 Liberian dollars (nearly 1 U.S. dollar) every day to come to work, so the salary structure is very, very discouraging,” said the junior public school headmaster, adding “The private school teachers are well paid and they receive their salaries, bonuses and other fringe benefits on time.”

According to Tarpeh, “Teachers are not well paid. Most of them don’t care much. They scavenge for part time or permanent jobs at the NGO (non-governmental organisation) offices and elsewhere to supplement their living.”

Low salaries – and late payments – have further eroded the morale of teachers in public schools, who are already battling to cope with classrooms filled beyond capacity. Public classes can include 100 pupils – many of whom are too old for their grade.

“This is why you always find our classrooms noisy – and there is no policy and monitoring mechanism,” says Tarpeh.

In private schools, a quieter atmosphere appears to prevail. Class sizes are about half those of public schools, pupils and teachers are properly attired – and their conduct is regularly monitored. Certain private schools also have the luxury of facilities like laboratories and libraries.

Various NGOs and United Nations agencies have stepped in to try to help Liberia’s ailing education system. These include the Adventist Relief Agency (ADRA).

“We provide food and non-food items to schools within the country. With the assistance of other donors, we also provide subsidies to schools that are badly in need of material assistance such as textbooks and repair materials,” says ADRA spokesman George Badio.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) joined government in launching a primary education program last November. Under the 20,000 U.S. dollar project, UNICEF provides a certain number of exercise books and pencils for children, and textbooks for teachers.

Parents are still required to pay school fees and buy uniforms for their children, however – expenses which many struggle to meet.

Public schools charge up to 20 U.S. dollars per year, while fees at private schools are between 100 and 175 U.S. dollars per annum.

Government estimates that 52 per cent of Liberians live on less than 50 U.S. cents a day.

Joseph Spencer, a businessman with six children in private school, says his family has to deprive itself “of certain basic necessities to be able to afford the cost of our children’s education in Liberia.” These necessities include two of the three meals which should be eaten daily.

However, life in the Spencer household might be considered luxurious by children who were abandoned or orphaned in the course of the war, and who now live on the streets.

“I live with my boyfriend who does everything for me. My father and mother are unable to support me because of the war,” says Genevieve Carter, 18, who attends a private school in Monrovia. But, she adds, “The man is not that educated and can’t give me much time to study my lessons at night.”

The question of what to teach a nation of children who have been scarred by civil war also prompts debate. Kandakai says certain aspects of the curriculum are hopelessly outdated.

“The last time that the curriculum was revised was in 1996. Some of the (new) topics that were placed in the curriculum were HIV/AIDS and peace education,” she told IPS. However, these new subjects have not been treated with the seriousness they deserve.

Education officials are now giving some thought as to whether vernacular languages such as Vai, Kpelle, Bassa and Gio can be used when teaching children who have only a passing familiarity with standard English. In addition, there are plans to teach children who have graduated from primary school vocational skills like carpentry and plumbing, so that they can earn a living.

Furthermore, Kandakai says government is also looking at incentives to ensure that parents keep their daughters in school, and that girls who fall pregnant are given the chance to resume their education.

The civil war that has dogged Liberia for most of the past 14 years came to an end last year when President Charles Taylor agreed to go into exile in Nigeria, (prior to his departure, rebels had taken over most of the country). However, the peace in Liberia remains fragile, and sections of the countryside are still under the control of armed militias.

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