--- The plight of Woumai Town in Bong County highlights a larger issue plaguing rural communities nationwide — a dire educational crisis, with the hope of betterment becoming an elusive dream.
“They are killing our children's future.”
These words of Abraham Brown come as he watches countless children and adolescents in his town plunge into the depths of illiteracy as the only government-run elementary school in his town remains non-functional since 2016 — six years after its construction.
The plight of Woumai Town in Bong County highlights a larger issue that plagues rural communities nationwide — a dire educational crisis, with the hope of betterment becoming an elusive dream.
The detrimental consequences of this neglect are seen in a World Bank Human Capital report on Liberia — highlighting the steep decline in the human capital development of the country.
Liberia’s score of 32% is one of the lowest in the world and signals that a child today in the country may reach only 32 percent of productivity, the Bank says.
“Our children deserve better. The lack of access to an elementary school in Woumai Town has a far-reaching consequence but the greater harm is that it perpetuates a cycle of limited opportunities from one family generation to another,” says Brown, a father of three, whose children, like many others, are not in school.
“Education is the bedrock of societal progress and individual empowerment and when the right is denied, poverty perpetuates and this is our case,” Brown claimed.
“The only time Woumai Town ever had was in 2009 and a few years later, which was in 2016, the school closed. This is a bad situation but no one wants to care.”
Brown says the neglect of Woumai Town’s children is a violation of their rights to equal educational opportunity — arguing that the problem seems to have no end in sight as “there has not been a concrete response from local authorities.”
Brown’s town, situated in the Sanoyea District, lower Bong County, according to residents, has long been neglected by successive governments — for lack of development -- which they say has become an elusive dream.
The nearest school is more than two miles away, making it an impossible journey for most of the town school-age population. Parents are then left with no alternative but to let the children forgo school for farm work or find odd jobs to sustain the families.
The decision, according to parents in Woumai Town, is taken in consideration of safety concerns associated with long commutes and, if children are allowed to go to school, they must stay with a relative or family friend in the nearby town of Gbonota, which is three hours away.
Most parents say the option is less as their children end up being abused and are not even going to school… “So bitterly, we have to let them stay with us.”
Woumai Town’s situation comes amid Liberia’s significant decline in education benchmarks, compared to other African countries. The country, according to UNICEF, has one of the world's highest levels of out-of-school children, with an estimated 15 to 20 percent of 6–14 year-olds who are not in school.
Just over a third of pre-schoolers have access to early childhood learning programs and only 54 percent of children complete primary education.
And for those children who are enrolled in primary and secondary school, many are over age. In fact, the vast majority of Liberia’s students are older than the appropriate age for their respective grades and are therefore at high risk of dropping out, UNICEF says.
President George Weah, in his quest to tackle this problem, announced the Education Sector Plan (2022-2027), in which his administration outlines a range of new approaches and strategies to tackle over-age enrolment, which is a legacy of significant investment in the country's postwar education sector.
“The critical task of this ESP,” writes Weah in the plan’s foreword, “is to bring many more children, if not all, especially those from poorer, underserved areas, into the education system at the right age and ensure that they progress through and complete school on time in a healthy, safe, protective environment, and leave with 21st-century foundational skills.”
However, much has not been achieved since the ESP was launched three years ago as Woumai Town and many rural communities across the country still grapple with the issue of a school or teacher shortage problem.
In the case of Woumai, the only school, which the government runs, has been closed since 2016 due to the lack of teachers. Parents, such as Miatta Kollie, say that the situation is heartbreaking as many of their children are being denied the right to education, which would help them in achieving their dreams.
“For decades, we have relied on neighboring towns for access to primary and secondary education. And so when a primary school opened here in 2009, we were happy. But the joy was short-lived as the school closed in 2016 and has not opened since. We have sought timely solutions to the problems but no solution has been forthcoming.”
“The ever-increasing costs of transportation and issues of safety have forced families to make difficult decisions to stop sending children to nearby towns to attend school,” she says.
Silas Juahkollie, the District Education Officer of Sanoyea School District, of which Woumai Town is part, says the school’s problem started when its teachers’ names were deleted from the payroll due to the lack of qualification.
Since the situation, Juahkollie says the teachers have not been replaced as the Ministry of Education is grappling with numerous challenges, which has impacted its ability to adequately address the situation.
“Besides Woumai school, there are other schools closed in the district that are out of teachers, and this problem is not only limited to Sanoyea but the Country,” he says.
Juahkollie did not say whether the next academic year, which starts in September, Woumi Town elementary school would be re-opened or not.
The admission from Juahkollie highlights the issues of poor investments in education over the years, which has now affected the country's Human Capital Development.
According to the World Bank, Liberia is ranked as one of the bottom countries of the Human Capital Index globally with a score of just 0.32.
The score indicates that Liberia’s human capital outcomes are amongst the worst in the world largely due to slow progress in education, the bank says in a 2022 report titled: ‘Liberia Economic Update’ with the theme: “Investing in Human Capital for Inclusive and Sustainable Growth.
“Investing in human capital will be crucial for Liberia to grow faster, reduce poverty, and deliver substantial social benefits in the long term,” says Gweh Gaye Tarwo, the World Bank Country Economist and author of the report. “The Liberian Government has made some strides in these sectors, but more can be done.”
The report also says in the ECOWAS region, Liberia has the lowest human capital — far below the conflict-stricken countries of Mali and Nigeria.
The report by Tarwo claims that 50 percent of Liberia’s loss of human capital was due to poor education, an increase of 9 percentage points. Human capital, according to the Bank, is vital to ending extreme poverty and creating more inclusive societies.