Liberia: A New Paradigm in Youth Education

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

May 15, 2002

Back in 1981, I jubilated at news of the scientific feat of a Liberian student studying in the U.S. at the time who won accolade for his high school science project by fusing old newspapers and termites into gasohol to yield gasoline. I must admit that I did not, and still do not, know Daniel Harris. But I jubilated at the prospect that Liberian youths have the same potentials to accomplish any feats as youths in any developed country if only given the right opportunity. And in a commentary, “The Daniel Harris’ Example” (Daily Observer, May 28, 1981), I admonished Liberian educators to heed the example of Daniel Harris and prioritize science education in Liberian primary and secondary schools in order to unleash the scientific potentials of our youths. But that was 1981.

In 2002, there is a new paradigm in youth education in Liberia. And this new paradigm has nothing to do with the traditional Liberian grade school courses of science, math, English, civics, or geography. The new subject is called “political pawns 001,” and it is not like traditional grade school courses intended to prepare the youths to grasps a proper understanding of and appreciation for the culture to which they were born, or the complexities of the world around them. In “political pawns 001” no classroom attendance, lectures or discussions are required. Students may pass the course nonetheless by parading before national podiums and making speeches of far-reaching cultural and political consequences for which they know little or nothing. I hope you got my drift!

But this is no fun matter! The state of education in Liberia today is in flux. The residual effects of the seven-year civil war and the prevailing socio-economic and political conditions continued to impact greatly on the standard and quality of education in Liberia. And the situation is exacerbated by a confluent of new educational edicts and pronouncements by the education ministry, and calculated efforts by special interest groups such as the National Association on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (NATPAH) and others to impose their agendas on the educational system.

On April 23, several internet new services lifted a news article from The News newspaper in Monrovia in which a junior high school student was paraded before a national podium at a NATPAH-sponsored workshop and called for “the teaching of the danger of traditional practices that affect the health of women and children in all Liberian schools”. Under the headline: “Teach Harm of Traditional Practices”, the paper quoted the student as also calling for “similar training for traditional leaders, including chiefs, zoes, and county superintendents in a bid to curb these harmful practices.” Then, as if to preempt any dismissal of his remarks as sheer innocence and childhood frolics, the youth was quick to identify the harmful traditional practices as “female genital mutilation, early marriage, and tribal markings.” But did the youth in his remarks provide an accurate portrayal of Liberian traditional cultural practices, or was he beholden to the misinformation and cultural stereotypes and prejudices fed to his young mind? These questions are as serious and deserving of urgent answers as are the factors that contributed to the present precarious state of affairs in Liberia.

First, as a product of the Liberian grade school system I can tell you that unless the grade school curriculum has changed for the worst, no junior high school student living in Monrovia will have any in-depth knowledge about the traditional Liberian culture, let alone controversial topics that deal with rites of passage rituals involving female circumcision, body piercing or the dowry system of marriage. Even in the few Liberian high schools that ventured to teach the traditional Liberian culture in their African studies classes, the subject was always relegated to peripheral issues and western stereotypes.

“Female genital mutilation, tribal markings or early marriage” are words coined by some western-educated Liberians to project their own stereotypes, biases, prejudices and political agendas and are not directly associated with traditional Liberian culture. And the very existence of NATPAH point to these stereotypes, biases and prejudices of a select group of western educated Liberians whose concerns for practices that affect the health of women and children are limited to rites of passage rituals in the traditional Liberian culture but not rites of passage rituals in western-oriented Liberian franternities, including the Masonic craft, UBF and college and high school sororities.

Second, what and where are the empirical data that support claims that traditional Liberian rites of passage rituals pose health hazards to Liberian women and children anymore than rites of passage rituals of western-oriented Liberian fraternities? What is the percentage on the national average in Liberia of the various forms of illnesses or deaths resulting from traditional practices involving rites of passage rituals such as female circumcision, male circumcision, marriage by dowry, etc. as compared to Aids, malnutrition, malaria, measles, whopping cough, chicken pots, and pledges at the Masonic craft or other fraternities. Who is qualified to train traditional “zoes and chiefs” in the so-called health awareness training program since zoes and chiefs are the mainstay and chief custodians of Liberian traditional culture? When did Liberian county superintendents transform from county administrators and local chief executives to “traditional leaders?” What is “female (or male) genital mutilation, tribal markings or early marriage” in Liberian culture? Are so-called health risks to women and children allegedly posed by traditional Liberian cultural practices any difference or worse than health risks to women and children by certain clinical trials and surgeries at Liberian medical centers and university teaching hospitals or for that matter, at prestigious international medical centers and teaching hospitals worldwide?

Of course, these are pertinent issues and questions that NATPAH wishes to avoid by permitting an innocent junior high school student to be used as a “political pawn” in its crusade of cultural misinformation. But NATPAH will have to address these issues and questions publicly to assure itself of any credibility. NATPAH cannot pursue its political agenda disguised as caring for health of Liberian youths by preying on the innocence of clueless junior high school kids to do its public bidding (at least 50 junior high school students and principals attended its three-day workshop). NATPAH will have to act sooner rather than later in making public the factual basis of its crusade, as its crusade run afoul of pronouncements by authorities of the Liberian ministries of health and social welfare and education.

For instance Health minister Peter Coleman, whose ministry provided the venue for the three-day NATPAH-sponsored workshop on “the roles and responsibilities of youth towards the eradication of harmful traditional practices that affect the health of women and children,” that gave rise to the junior high school student’s remarks, said in reaction to the recent U.N. Panel of Expert report for continued sanctions on Liberia: “Why is it that these people are recommending more hardship for Liberians? Why is it they have come on the grounds and seen the realities that almost 90 percent of our people are living below the poverty line, and unemployment is at its peak; all the health indicators have gotten too bad, and yet they say yes, we will impose more sanctions?”

Coleman’s frustration, as reported on the government’s website on April 22, also relished in the reality that the “vastness of the (Liberian health) problems are so glaring to the extent that after an hour six women die in child birth while over 32 children also die from various diseases.” Here, the minister made no mention of traditional cultural practices that affect the health of women and children as contributing to the current huge maternal mortality rate of 578 to every 1000 persons, and child (under-five) mortality rate of 194 to every 1000 children (UNICEF Liberia figures). In fact, other vital statistics (1985 figures) show that, based on inpatient hospital records, the major causes of death in Liberia per 100,000 of the population are complication during pregnancy 632.6, malaria 79.8, pneumonia 64.2, anemia 50.2, malnutrition 23.4, measles 12.7. Violence and gruesome acts of war were also major causes of morbidity and mortality from 1990 onward.

Notwithstanding, the health ministry’s tacit endorsement of the activities of NATPAH in so far as providing a venue and participating in the organization’s recent three-day workshop made the ministry equally culpable in poisoning the minds of Liberian youths, as well as reinforcing cultural stereotypes and biases about the traditional Liberian culture. But if NATPAH succeeded in winning tacit support from the health ministry in its crusade of cultural bias, stereotypes and misinformation, the education ministry may not be so accepting of its agenda if pronouncements by the education minister are any indicators. In a statement to mark 34th international literacy day last September, education minister Evelyn Kandakai called for “the teaching of Liberian culture in both public and private schools,” adding: “education does not only mean to acquire knowledge but it also entails inculcating appreciation for cultural values.”

Perhaps Kandakai is aware that no people can prosper intellectually and developmentally without full awareness and appreciation for their social and cultural values and norms. And this is true because the cultural value system of every country or people is so unique that even if riddled with ambiguities, nonetheless forms the true identity of that particular group of people. So no matter how belated the minister’s call for the teaching of Liberian culture in Liberian schools, it may just fill the void surrounding the ambiguity of the cultural identity of the average Liberian. Liberians could have done much soul-searching and minimized the current level of violence, suspicions, apprehensions and hatred amongst themselves if steps were not taken in the past to divide the citizenry along cultural and social lines as NATPAH is attempting to resurrect.

But the foundations for NATPAH’s current nip-picking crusade against traditional Liberian culture were laid long ago through concerted efforts by successive Liberian governments led by the ruling Americo-Liberian elites aimed at suffocating and marginalizing the indigenous peoples of Liberia and their traditional cultural practices in favor of a local brand of Christianity that lacks tolerance, human compassion, justice and fair play, and respect for cultural diversity. The thirteenth President of Liberia, Wilmot David Coleman (1896-1900), born in Fayette County, Kentucky, USA, summed up the same strategy NATPAH is pursing today in this excerpt of his January 1, 1900 inaugural address:

“I have not the least doubt that all intelligent citizens (Americo-Liberians) are desirous for the elevation of this class (indigenous Liberians) into complete citizenship, and as the Christian people generally believe, that the sooner the fall of the superstitious customs that now exist among them, the sooner the object will be attained. Therefore it is quite natural to expect that the effect of our civilization and Christianity has been to break down these greegress and other heathenish beliefs of our native brethren; this effect is just what is rightly to be expected as a result of our contact with them."

But lest we sail too far

afield, it is worth noting that NATPAH’s cultural crusade is not the only assault on the quality of youth education in Liberia today. The education ministry is equally overplaying its hands with new sets of rules that bar primary and secondary school graduation exercises, restrict school gala day activities and parades, and prohibit any increment in tuitions and school requirements, among others.

Under the guidelines, adopted June 2001, any public school principals who hold graduation programs or increase tuitions or school requirements (not clear if admission or graduation requirements) without prior approval of the education ministry will be suspended indefinitely, while private school principals guilty of similar violations will face revocation of their schools’ operational permits. The ministry understandably fearing public uproar and indignation, took pains to clarify that the ban on graduation exercises was meant to lessen the financial burdens on parents relative to the huge costs associated with graduation ceremonies, but remained mute on reasons for restricting gala day activities and parades, and related issues except to claim that the new edicts are intended to improve the Liberian educational system.

But will the standard and quality of education in Liberian primary and secondary schools be any better by banning graduation exercises and gala day parades? I think not because the Liberian school system, like every sector of the battered Liberian economy, is already in disarray, if not in total shambles, as a result of myriad problems associated with poor school facilities, inadequate trained teachers, the lack of basic textbooks and school supplies, and overcrowdiness. At worst, prevailing national socio-economic factors such as the current high rates of unemployment and crime, and the lack of basic pipe-borne water supplies, electricity, and adequate housing are sure to adversely impact the Liberian school system, and Liberian youth and their parents in particular, than any graduation programs. Yet, in the interest of lessening the financial burdens of parents, the education ministry banned graduation exercises, one of the most exciting and self-fulfilling days in every student’s life worldwide, and perhaps the only incentive to keep Liberian youths in school in the midst of uncertainties and appalling living conditions.

Indeed, this new paradigm of youth education in Liberia - whether it is infusing their young minds with cultural prejudices and stereotypes as advocated by NATPAH, or eliminating the rites of passage ritual befitting of their academic achievements as mandated by the education ministry - is sure to have serious repercussions for the intellectual and psychological developments of our youths if this trend is not revised

The present perplexing lifestyle of Liberian youths and the gross abuses they suffered during the seven-year civil war as child soldiers, drug addicts, and other societal renegades or misfits should inspire those in authority to take great care in treating the youths as the “precious jewels” they are, by prioritizing their intellectual and social development through positive reinforcements and not negative reinforcements. Otherwise, Liberia is destined for more chaos after this present generation of feuding adults has expired.

Special efforts must be made both to keep the youths in school and to provide them with measurable quality education. It is bad enough to fathom the psychology of banning graduation exercises while requiring final year junior and senior high school youths to sit and pass a national examination for promotion to the next grade level, but it will be worst for Liberian education in general if no corrective measures are taken to offset the country’s present alarming social and educational statistics.

Apart from the gloomy health statistics quoted earlier in this article from the Liberian health minister and UNICEF (Liberia), a 2000 UNDP (Liberia) report shows unemployment in the formal sector of the economy at 85%, severe poverty at 52%, and access to safe drinking water at 26%, life expectancy at 47 years, and adult literacy at 37%. These figures showed, relative to life expectancy and literacy rate, great declines against 1996 life expectancy figures of 55 years (males) and 60 years (females), and 1995 literacy rate of 38.3% for age 15 and over. In fact, present literacy rate is reported at only 30%.

Also, if the Liberia’s 1995 demography data (under 15, 44.5%; 15-29, 25.6%; 30-44, 15.6%; 45-59, 9.0%; 60-74, 3.9%; 75 and over, 1.4%) mean anything at all, it is that the country is dominated by youths whose intellectual and social developments must be given urgent priority at all times if the country must make any meaningful social, economic and political progress in the near future. Every effort must be exhausted to improve the standard and quality of the Liberian school system in terms of quality instruction and the development of marketable skills suited to the local economy. At least this was the main thrust of the education component of a speech delivered by opposition politician Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Monrovia in November 1999 during a conference on the Liberian economy, though sadly education was the sixth priority of her economy recovery plan.

“Over the years our educational system has produced a lot of graduates but relatively few trained people. This is because of the low quality of teaching staff and the lack of textbooks and school equipment. Recent conditions including the tendency to buy promotions and degrees have exacerbated these problems. As a result the majority of those graduating from our colleges and universities hardly possess a high school equivalent education and are woefully unequipped to compete in an environment of their peers worldwide. The literacy program, important as it is, could also be revamped, since literacy without some form of skill can hardly result in a major contribution to development,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf summed up the myriad problems confronting the Liberian educational system today. Indeed, the Liberian educational system is in dire need of reforms, but cultural stereotypes and graduation banning only trivialize the seriousness of the problem! Hope Liberian educators will take note and get back to the drawing board!

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