A Small College Undertaking a Big Project


It is actually rare for a college or university in Liberia to teach the language of any one of the country’s 16 tribes. The difficulty lies in the lack of well-written corpus, which is a large collection of texts, written or spoken material upon which a linguistic analysis is based.

A corpus provides grammarians, lexicographers, and other interested parties with a better description of a language. However, despite the challenges in the teaching of any one of the mother tongues among high institutions of learning, Harbel College (HARCO), in Lower Marigibi County, is taking up the challenge by making it compulsory for its students to study the Bassa Vah.

The Bassa Vah is the written language of the Bassa ethnic group, invented by Dr. Thomas Flo Lewis from the mid-1900s through the 1930s, with its influence being highly felt in the 1910s and 1920s.

HARCO is now the newest of the four public colleges and universities in the country to ever attempt or try teaching the vernacular. The University of Liberia (UL) did it in the late 1970s but did not consider it as much as possible since it was not a required course for the student population as is being done at Harbel College.

HARCO was founded in 2012 by the National Legislature and accredited by the Commission on Higher Education but has since been underfunded, though it has the best possible vision to re-brand or revolutionize higher education in Liberia.

Dr. Syrulwa Somah, the President of Harbel College and a passionate advocate for culture, has written numerous books, which include Nyanyan Ghon-Mana: History, Migration, and Government of the Bassa and Historical Resettlement of Liberia and Its Environmental Impact.

“We see the teaching of the Bassa language as a key step to the survival of the language’s written forms, the culture, and civilization of the people. The written form of this language was in extinction, and the easiest way to bring it back to light is to teach it. One of the reasons why the Bassa Vah when into extinction was because not many people could read it; and so to avoid this situation, we are introducing the teaching of the language. In the near future, we will develop a complete corpus of the Bassa language,” he said.

Despite the huge interest among students in learning the Bassa Vah, the college faces major challenges, like the lack of enough textbooks on the Bassa Vah—a situation which has hindered the college’s ability to fully educate the student population in that language.

“In life, there will always be challenges, but only the smart ones cross it. We have developed a strategy in the way that makes the teaching of the language effective, which is having a profound impact. This strategy is the digitalization of the text we have, so the student population can have easy access to it,” Dr. Somah added.

He noted that in addition to teaching the Bassa Vah, Harbel College also makes it compulsory that every one of its students take two courses of pre-Liberia history both in oral written forms, because Liberian education system, unlike that of many other nations, appears  not to be able to teach students in accordance with Liberia’s own cultural values and perspectives.

“At a time when Liberia’s education system is staggering under the burden of physical reconstruction, emergence from wars due to divisive history and not knowing or learning about what we are as Liberians, Liberian Studies is significant,” Dr. Somah said. “Liberia’s history is complete and the one being taught in high schools is not comprehensive. So in order for these future leaders to know lots about their country, before the coming of the settlers, we introduce this pre-require course. It looks at the history of the entire tribal majors and minors, civilizations and religious practices.

“The teaching of oral history makes students engage in practical research about native Liberia before the coming of the settlers upon their completion of the course,” Dr. Somah said. “This research paper will give them vested insights into the native people’s unique way of life, which is not covered in most history books on Liberia. This research work will be published for posterity.”

A score of students interviewed has expressed excitement for the teaching of the two courses.  One of them is Tabitha B. Duo, a 23 years old Safety Engineering major. Although she is Bassa, Tabitha had never known much about her own history until she came to the college.

“I have learned a lot about the history of the Bassa people and their over 3,000 years of civilizations, as well as about other ethnic groups that I have never had the chance to learn about in high school. This course has enlightened me and my colleagues about the true history of our people that were hidden. Learning how to read the Bassa language has actually brought the job to me. It was a chance I have never had,” Tabitha said.

Meanwhile, Harbel College is the only college in Liberia that owns a sports academy. The sports academy, established in 2015, creates an environment where practitioners take the lead in collaboratively studying and piloting effective, developmentally informed practices that prepare females and youth for college, beginning at an early age.

“I believe in girls’ education, and since not everybody has the resources to attend university, we initiated this academy to help girls who have the desire to play soccer seek college education right after high school.

“Since the academy was launched, we have seen an improvement in female admission. Secondly, the support academy is meant to give these female college students a career path in soccer,” added Dr. Somah.

The college offers Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Construction Management, Safety Energy, Renewable Energy, Information Technology, Climate Change, Geography/Liberian Studies, Environmental Science, Management, Public Administration, Taxation, Economics, Criminal Justice, Agribusiness, Primary, Secondary and Special Education.

Harbel College, although its official campus is not built yet, is hosted in an incomplete structure of about ten-classrooms, but only 5 are suitable. Though the College’s low budget definitely hampers its big visions, its president appears not to be moved by these challenges.

“I’m not a failure and will not fail in implementing this vision. While we are complaining of lack of funds, the university will continue to use its little resources wisely to underwrite its vision.”


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