by Jessica Shor:
June 16 marked the International Day of the African Child, a commemoration of the day in 1976 when black schoolchildren in Soweto, South Africa marched for greater educational rights, and police fired on them. In the weeks that followed the march, more than a hundred people died in protests across South Africa.
In Liberia, the Day of the African Child did not bring much celebration. In the senate chamber, the president pro tempore blocked discussion of a bill that aims to bring greater rights to Liberian women and children (http://jessicashor.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/its-all-politics-on-the-day-of-the-african-child/). And out on the street, the scene would dismay any teacher or children’s advocate. On weekdays, children are everywhere in Monrovia, hawking plastic baggies of water and palm nuts, playing on decaying, half-built structures, and sitting with their parents. They are everywhere, it seems, except in school.
During the civil war, an estimated 95% of school buildings were damaged or destroyed, and thousands of children were enlisted to fight as child soldiers. Today, most teachers have less than a high school degree. Nationwide, only 37% of children ever attend primary school, and less than 20% make it to secondary school.
The most obvious, and the most widely used, remedy is to send what schools lack. Western NGOs, governments, and community groups donate thousands of books, chairs, and school uniforms to Liberia each year, hoping to enrich the education children receive here. These gifts do help – after all, some books are better than no books – but they do more to appease our conscience than ameliorate the problems facing Liberia’s children and their education system.
When I brought up education several days ago, Ville, one of the reporters I work with at The Daily Talk, complained about aid mistakes. “You know what they did when Bush came to Liberia? They brought us chairs and books. They brought us chairs so we can sit, and books so we can read,” he mocked, feigning the position of someone lounging in a chair, leasurely reading. “They didn’t bring us help to get the kids to school, though.”
The root of the problems facing Liberia’s children is poverty, and that’s the most difficult issue to solve. With two-thirds of families living on less than a dollar a day, many parents must send their children out to sell goods on the street, unable to pay for schooling. NGOs, foreign governments, and the UN have been pumping billions of dollars into Liberia since the war ended, and while there have been improvements, the poverty, even in the capital city, is glaring. I’ve
been here for less than a week, so I won’t pretend to know the magic solution to Liberia’s poverty. But even five days in Monrovia are enough to see that books and chairs aren’t enough for children in this part of Africa.