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Church schools confront challenges in post-war Liberia

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Photo by D. Snyder and J. Malone

The Rev. Frisco Reese watches as a student carries untreated water to Camphor Mission school.
Aug. 11, 2005

By Dean Snyder and Jane Malone*

BUCHANAN, Liberia (UMNS) — “Give me pen, not guns” reads a hand-written poster on the cafeteria wall of J.F. Yancy School at Camphor Mission near Buchanan.

The slogan is not hyperbole. Beginning in the early 1990s, boys as young as 12 and 13 years old were recruited or forcibly drafted into rebel armies, given guns, and deployed to fight and kill other Liberians for more than a decade.

Since 2003, when former president Charles Taylor finally stepped aside and the United Nations deployed peacekeeper troops, Liberia’s deadly 14-year civil war has largely subsided and order has been restored to much of the nation.

Yet the chaotic war took countless lives and has left the nation’s buildings, roads, schools, businesses and government in disarray. Liberia has no centralized systems for providing electricity, sanitary water, safe disposal or trash collection. Unemployment is estimated at 95 percent.

In an election scheduled for Oct. 11, Liberia will select a new president, and many people hope the nation once considered the “jewel of West Africa” will be able to rebuild.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

Students at J.C. Early United Methodist School play in a classroom being rebuilt with dirt blocks.
In the meantime, Liberian United Methodists are eager to get the nation’s children back into the classroom.

As the 2004-05 school year drew to a close in July, Richard Clarke, director of the Department of General Education and Ministries for the denomination’s Liberia Annual Conference, reported that its 120 schools are at least partially back in operation, although some are meeting in church buildings because classrooms vandalized during the war are unusable.

To recover the scope and quality of education that characterized its pre-war school programs, the conference must overcome overwhelming challenges: ruined school buildings; insufficient funds to pay teachers; untrained new teachers; shortages in basic school supplies and school furniture; and inadequate resources to cover costs for families who cannot afford the modest tuition (the equivalent of U.S.$12 to $67 per year, depending on the school’s location).

Circumstances at J.F. Yancy School and two other United Methodist schools in the Buchanan vicinity in southeast Liberia illustrate the desperate lack of resources in the nation’s United Methodist schools.

Yancy School is a boarding and day school on the grounds of Camphor Mission, a few miles outside Buchanan. Its faculty and students fled Camphor when rebels took over the campus. Since the war’s end, the school has reopened and serves 184 elementary and junior high students, a fraction of its former enrollment. Only a few students live at the school; most walk to class from villages as far away as two or three miles.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Dean Snyder and Jane Malone

Officials of W.P.L. Brumskine High School show a U.S. visitor the metal frame they hope to recover to create new classrooms.
Other programs at Camphor Mission that serve the school’s students and families as well as the larger community include a health clinic, a church with a congregation of 300, and a fledgling agricultural project that includes the making of soap, growing of vegetables, and the raising of pigs and chickens.

Arthur Jimmy, director of Camphor Mission, is eager to repair the mission’s schools and other buildings so its educational and other programs can become fully functional again.

As Jimmy guided visitors from the United States around the grounds in July, he talked about the need for books, salaries for teachers, and repairs to the buildings.

“We have another obstacle, a big one,” he added. The mission’s only source of water is an untreated shallow stream.

As Jimmy led his visitors down a narrow muddy trail through the bush to the stream, he explained that the mission desperately needed a source of clean potable water for the health of the school’s students, but also for the thousand nearby residents who depend on the Camphor clinic for health care and midwifery.

Without a well or reservoir, students and mission personnel must carry water from the stream 100 yards up a steep hill to the dorms and cafeteria. The stream is so shallow that a bucket can be filled only half-full at a time. Because the water is untreated, students and faculty often suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses and even cholera.

The cost of building a reservoir where water can be collected and purified — about U.S.$60,000, Jimmy said — is almost inconceivable in an economy where families can afford only small tuition payments on their meager incomes.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo by D. Snyder and J. Malone

J.C. Early United Methodist School is being rebuilt one block at a time.
Five miles away is the Brighter Future Children Rescue Center, a United Methodist school system serving more than 500 students from first through twelfth grades. Built with funding from Operation Classroom, a United Methodist-related program, the W.P.L. Brumskine High School is already overcrowded.

During the war, about 2,500 refugees were crowded into the school’s buildings, according to Principal Chapman L. Adams. After the displaced families were resettled by the United Nations, the school’s teachers returned to repair and repaint the buildings.

As the school year ended in July, Adams worried about where he would put students in September when classes begin again. The high school has four classrooms. This year, the school had one senior class with 50 students, a junior class with 50 students, and two sophomore classes with 50 students each. Next year, he will need two sophomore and two junior classrooms, as well as a classroom for seniors. The year after that, he expects to need six classrooms.

The campus includes a large metal frame structure that was once covered with a tent, until refugees tore it apart to make makeshift shelters. The large tent had provided space for three elementary classes. If Adams could erect a new tent on the old frame, he could move elementary classes into the tent and expand the high school classrooms. To do so would cost about $2,000, he said. Barely able to pay teachers’ salaries, he has no idea where he will be able to find the money to rebuild the tent by September.

Another school, the J.C. Early United Methodist School, is inside the city limits of Buchanan in a neighborhood called Gbehjohn. The school was begun during the war for students forced to flee from Camphor Mission into the city.

Faculty and parents built a makeshift facility out of dried reeds and bamboo in this urban community. Once the mission reopened, Buchanan continued to need a school, so the makeshift school became permanent. It serves 316 elementary and junior high students.

Recently, the school administration recognized that the bamboo buildings constructed in haste 11 years earlier would not serve the needs of a permanent school. With almost no resources, the school is being rebuilt a block at a time, with dirt blocks fashioned by the workers.

It is a slow process, said Vice Principal Abraham K. Wilmot, but with no money to buy building materials, it is the only option.

A corollary benefit of a United Methodist school continuing in this Buchanan neighborhood is the birth of a new congregation. The school buildings are used on Sunday mornings for worship and Sunday school by Gbenjohn United Methodist Church, a congregation begun by the Rev. George Mingle eight years ago. The congregation has grown to more than 200 worshippers.

*Snyder and Malone are communicators living in the Washington D.C. area. Snyder is senior minister of Foundry United Methodist Church. Malone is an affordable-housing advocate with the Alliance for Healthy Homes.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York (646) 369-3759 or

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