The Challenge to Educate All Our Children

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On several occasions over the past years, especially during her first term of office, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with glowing pride recognized the huge number of Liberian children overflowing the schools across the country.

They are no longer dodging bullets, but are flocking into the classrooms throughout the country; and for the first time in many years, enrollment has swelled almost beyond the capacity of the government to cope, the President loved to say.

That was great news for the whole country—until sometime in 2012 when the exasperated (frustrated) President admitted that Liberian education was “in a mess.” The problem was that the quality of education had declined. More than three years after that painfully unfortunate admission and the change of three Education Ministers—Dr. Joseph Korto, Othello Gongar and Etmonia Tarpeh—the situation has not improved. That is why the government, under new Education Minister George Werner, has now decided to undertake the highly controversial policy of “outsourcing” education to a foreign group called Bridge Academies.

Now there is renewed urgency in the Liberian education sector, trumpeted (proclaimed) by three local advocacy groups, A World At School, It Takes A Village Africa and Bridge International Academies. The three groups held a joint press conference on Tuesday, June 15, launching the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the International Day of the African Child being observed today, June 16. They are challenging the government to enroll all school age children in school.

June 16 is the day on which thousands of South African children, mainly from Soweto, took to the streets in a peaceful march to reject the teaching of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in black schools. The children said they regarded Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor” and demanded that it be removed from the curriculum.

Afrikaans is spoken by the Boers who traced their ancestry to the Dutch, German and French Huguenots who arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1662. It was they who, as members of the ruling National Party, in 1948 established apartheid, an ideology that preached racial segregation.

The African National Congress (ANC), founded by the South African black majority, waged an armed rebellion against apartheid that led, in 1961, to the 27-year imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.

During the Soweto student demonstration in 1976, the Boers launched a brutal attack against the innocent, unarmed students, killing an estimated 700 of them. This became one of the high points in the anti-apartheid struggle.

In their statement last Tuesday, the three advocacy groups said there were too many Liberian children out of school and selling on the streets around the nation, especially in Monrovia. The time had come for them to be removed from the streets and enrolled in school.

Ambassador Moses Owen Browne, Jr. of Global Youth Ambassadors told the press conference, “We believe education can change the world, no matter what. Education can take us into the future that we have long dreamed of. What matters most to us is training, teaching and mentoring young people with the right mind and curiosity, hope and resilience so that they may become active creators of the future they want.”

Along with Erica Davies, founder of It Takes A Village Africa, Ambassador Browne pledged to continue dialoguing with Education Ministry authorities “because we can no longer sit back and watch millions of children perish in poverty without an education; we must use this day to reecho our call to governments around Africa to prioritize education.”

There is no need to argue this urgent and painful reality. Just last week the Daily Observer, in an Editorial, agonizingly reminded the Liberian government and people of the tens of thousands of Liberian children of all ages, from three through their twenties, on the streets of Monrovia and in the marketplaces selling trivial items such as chicklet, cotton buds and water, when they should be in school. We also mentioned grown, able-bodied young men and women “selling,” when they should be either on farms or in trade schools preparing to lead a more productive life.

On this 25th anniversary of the Day of the African Child, we call on the government of President Sirleaf to heed the call of these advocates and devise, as a matter of urgency, a plan to enroll ALL Liberian children in schools. Let this be one of her enduring legacies—that even if at the end of her term, all school age children in Liberia are enrolled in school.

Let the Monrovia Vocational Training Center (MVTC), too, be empowered with funding to go into the streets and recruit young men and women and train them, so that they may be prepared to lead more productive lives.

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