Dear Malia and Sasha:
With esteemed hospitality and a great degree of compliments, we want to heartily welcome you and your mom along with her entourage to Africa’s oldest and the world’s second black republic. Liberians, especially teenage girls, are glad to have you (Malia and Sasha) visiting a rich, but yet poor country like
Liberia. Receiving such a high-power delegation led by the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama, is historic and worthwhile.
Ten (10) years ago in January 2006, when President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was about to take the oath of office as Africa’s first democratically-elected female Head of State, our nation, including adolescent girls and women, gave a standing ovation to U.S First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
About 32 months after our new President (Madam Johnson-Sirleaf) was inaugurated, the streets of Monrovia were again abuzz as Liberians were in full readiness to welcome another great U.S. stateswoman, who is now the popular face of the Democratic Party in the United States of America. This time around in 2009, it was Secretary of State and former U.S. First Lady Hilary Clinton.
Malia and Sasha, the memories of these historic visits remain an embodiment of our nation’s chronicle. Surely, they will forever live with us, especially our sisters, nieces, mothers and daughters. Even during these tough times, where girls and young women are extremely vulnerable to all forms of abuse due to entrenched poverty and inequality, these are moments worth remembering.
We will together remember these moments even while in tears. We will together bear in mind that in a period of less than four years between 2006 and 2009, two (2) former First Ladies of the United States of America had to travel from Washington DC to Monrovia for approximately 9 hours 44 minutes (4688.8 miles) on an official visit. Even though there is an unending strike of poverty across our nation, yet we remain proud of our identity and heritage.
Malia and Sasha, Liberia’s relationship with your country is longstanding. This relationship began in 1822 and even became stronger when the United States of America finally recognized Liberia as a sovereign State in 1862, fifteen (15) years after Liberia declared its independence. I am trying to unveil a glimpse of Liberia’s link to America. It would interest you to know also that our constitution, flag, capitol building, governance structure and other features are direct replicas of the United States of America.
After 194 years of securing such bond, our nations (Liberia and USA) remain indivisible. No wonder why our country won’t stop receiving high-profile U.S. delegates like you. Hosting dignified guests like you (Malia and Sasha) and your mom (Michelle Obama) means a lot for our country. It does not only mean a lot for our country, but it also brings a lot of good news for girls and young women in Liberia, most of whom are hopeless, choiceless and powerless.
Since this is the very first visit of the first family from the White House, we look forward to a concrete outcome and a wide-ranging impact on Liberian girls and women. When you and your mom shall have left our soil, at least our girls and young women should be able to smile again after enduring countless numbers of despicable conditions.
We thought our girls and women would have gotten some level of relief and liberty after the visit of U.S. First Lady Laura Bush in 2006. We thought a good percentage of them would have left the streets to pursue academic and vocational education after the departure of former First Lady Hilary Clinton. We thought that the visit of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have helped to make Liberia a ‘no go zone’ for rape and sexual exploitation. These thoughts still run through our minds even now.
Malia and Sasha, it is unarguably evident that the visits of these prominent and influential U.S. women brought a lot of socioeconomic and political benefits to Liberia. Even though the impact of those visits is rarely seen as a result of systemic corruption and greed in public service, millions have been dished out by the U.S. government to Liberia for girls’ education and women’s empowerment since 2006.
With the presence of you and your mother along with her entourage in our country, I am very certain that millions are about to be spent again to promote girls’ education and women’s empowerment. However, if those millions are not properly monitored through a systematic framework of accountability and transparency, your visit to our country would just be another historic moment without any concrete impact left behind. This has been the trend in Liberia for decades now, evident by the mass suffering of our people, especially girls and women.
Sasha and Malia, probably you may be unaware of what teenagers like you are really going through in Liberia. It is good for you to know the hardcore facts and realities unfolding across our nation. The scene in Margibi County may misinform you momentarily that the livelihood of girls and women is improving, but that is far from the reality. The hard truth is that most adolescent girls and women are experiencing hard times and they have been reduced to nothing. From Montserrado to Maryland County, they have lost their self-pride and dignity as a result of poverty and inequality.
I have chosen to write you, Sasha and Malia, on behalf of voiceless and vulnerable Liberian girls and young women for two (2) fundamental reasons:
1. To accurately inform your perspective about the mass exploitation and extreme hardship girls and young women in Liberia endure on a daily basis.
2. To plead with you to whisper in the ears of your mom and dad to give more support to Liberian girls and women.
Malia and Sasha, I chose not to directly address this communication to your parents, but you, because I know your voice(s) would sound more appealing and make a lot of impact than anyone else. More besides, both of you are powerful teenagers who could easily be heard by world leaders. It takes just a whisper from you to make a lot of difference in the life of a girl who is currently crushing rocks for a livelihood in Liberia.
It takes just a word from you to your parents to keep thousands of girls in school. It takes just a sentence from you to take hundreds of teenage girls off the streets. Without a doubt, the dreams and aspirations of Liberian children, especially girls and young women, are between poverty and hopelessness.
They are confronted with all forms of abuse, and nothing seems to really be changing as they crawl in shackles and shambles.
There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys that have given up as a result of abandonment. There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys who are crying out for help and rescue. There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys who are in economic bondage. There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys who are in pursuit of juvenile justice. There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys who have no hope of entering a classroom as teenage pregnancy skyrockets. There are thousands of weeping voices who are engaged in prostitution, child labor and drug abuse.
There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys who have been victimized and stigmatized by rape, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, forced marriage, hunger, neglect, disease and ignorance. There are thousands of weeping voices in dying valleys who have become orphans due to the Ebola crisis. These weeping voices are in Montserrado and Maryland. They can be found in Bong and Bassa. They are in Nimba, Margibi and Sinoe. Their number continues to rise in River Gee, Rivercess, Grand Kru and Gbarpolu. They are crying out for help in Lofa, Bomi, Grand Gedeh and Grand Cape Mount.
Malia and Sasha, with the less than four hours you have to spend in Liberia, you may not have the time to assess or see what teens like you are going through in Liberia. I could go on penning down dozens of pages to narrate the actual story of our sisters, daughters, mothers and nieces for almost 12 years now, but permit me to run you through a few lines. The story of Liberian teenagers and young women is a story that is too difficult and painful to narrate.
It is a story of despair and desolation. It is a story of mediocrity and melancholy existence; a story of self-pity and low self-esteem. It is a story of subjugation and stereotyping. It is a story of exploitation and abuse. I wonder sometimes whether these sad stories will ever come to an end. Even though
millions of dollars have been spent by the US government and other partners to educate teenage girls and empower young women across Liberia, unfortunately, these resources are yet to make concrete impact as a result of greed, patronage, lack of patriotism, nepotism, fiscal indiscipline and corruption.
This is what happens when the people’s leaders become insensitive to their plights. The rush for wealth among those in authority today is unprecedented. Public service nowadays in Liberia is about self-enrichment to the detriment of the ordinary masses. While the majority suffers, millions of the people’s money have been wired to foreign accounts by a few self-seeking micro-nationalists whose ultimate mission is to keep our people in perpetual poverty. As a result of their cruel action, girls and young women in Liberia have become very vulnerable to danger.
The weeping voices of minors/teenagers no longer matters to those in power. It seems like the ears of our leaders have been sealed to the appalling conditions of underprivileged citizens, especially girls and young women. We hope your visit to Liberia will give girls and young women some level of relief. Across the nation, hundreds of girls and young women die every year from curable diseases like malaria and the flu.
Across the nation, teenagers are at war with malnutrition and illiteracy. Across the nation, our sisters are taken to foreign countries by business merchants and sexually abused. Across the nation, our girls and women are being raped and harassed by wicked men. Across the nation, hundreds of children are found working in goldmines and on plantations. Some of them have no choice, but to become breadwinners before their proper growth and maturity. Malia and Sasha, we hope your visit to our country will help put an end to some of these visible cruelties.
For some time now, I have admired the unstoppable courage and passion of your mother to promote girls’ education and women’s empowerment worldwide. Even though the distance from Liberia to the United States of America is 9,256 kilometers, I follow her activities often. Without a doubt, she will be remembered in human history as an illuminating symbol of hope for millions of vulnerable girls and women across the globe. Her quest to ensure that every girl child in the world gets an education through her LET GIRLS LEARN initiative is welcoming.
Malia and Sasha, I was inspired by the speech your mother delivered at the Summit of Young African Leaders in July 2014, when she cautioned African Leaders to focus more on girls’ education. It is left with our leaders in Africa to either act on this message or ignore it. The advocacy of Mrs. Obama for girls and young women has gone beyond boundaries. Please extend our gratitude to her and your dad for remembering Africa, particularly Liberia. At least they have not forgotten their roots!
Malia and Sasha, I know the love you hold in your heart for your peers in Liberia is beyond measure. This is why you had to leave the most comfortable and powerful home in the world (The Whitehouse) to travel such a far distance with your mother. This historic visit means a lot for every teenager in Liberia, especially girls. Malia, I know you would be unhappy to begin college at Harvard in the fall of 2017 while thousands of girls who are at your age (17 years) are yet to see a classroom in Liberia.
Sasha, I know that there are times you sit in your classroom at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington and think about other girls at your age (15 years) who cannot even write their names because they didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. I am quite sure that it is because of your conviction and compassion to promote girls’ education that you had to leave the incomparable comfort of the White House and visit our country for the very first time. Our gratitude to you and your grandmother also!
As you go back home, please inform President Obama and the American people that all is not well in Liberia – The Liberian people are going through hard times after 168 years of independence. They live in a small country with abundant natural resources, but yet they are among the poorest and most abused group of people in Africa and the world. Please whisper to President Obama and the America people that socioeconomic equality and justice for the poor are far from the shores of Liberia. Please inform presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton that the gender gap in Liberia remains very wide even after her visit in 2009. Most parents are still unable to sponsor their children in school due to unemployment and the lack of opportunities.
Today, more than 62 million girls around the world are out of school, and Africa accounts for a good portion of this number. More than half a million children, mainly girls, are out of school in Liberia according to UNICEF. It will interest you to know that net enrollment rate in primary schools is 46%. While net enrollment rate for boys is 61.41%, girls account for 34.12%. The number of dropouts in Liberian schools is high, with 65% accounting for boys and 73% for girls. These students drop out of school before reaching the 5th grade.
Furthermore, rape is becoming a culture in Liberia. If swift action is not taken to prevent this stigmatizing threat, Liberia is doomed. In 2014, Liberia had a total of 554 rape cases. Recently, the Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection reported that about 731 children were raped and sexually abused between January and March 2016. These are provoking statistics that also need to claim your immediate attention.
Teenage pregnancy is another crisis facing our country. The rate of teenage pregnancy in Liberia is at 38%, according to UNFPA. The rate of child prostitution in Liberia is growing exponentially. Liberian girls below the age of 17 years are found in clubs prostituting themselves, not to mention, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse.
As you visit Liberia, Malia and Sasha, and return home, please remember teens in Liberia especially girls. While in the White House, please remember street children; children out of school; those in mines and on plantations; the ones who live in slum communities, villages and towns across our country. They are in dire need of your help and just a drop can make a lot of difference if properly managed by those you entrust with it.
Amid all these challenges facing Liberia children, I am wondering whether the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has gone into a coma. Today, I stand to ask the African Union “is the 1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child no longer in existence?” In tears, I am constrained to question the sincerity of our leaders about the promises they made to Liberian children especially girls in the 2012 Children’s Law of Liberia. Even though some progress has been made, this progress remains subservient to the rising challenges facing children in Liberia.
Malia and Sasha, much has been said and it is time we collaborate more closely as nations to rapidly address these issues. I could continue recounting even more scary realities taking place in Liberia, but what matters the most to me now is for us to find lasting solutions to these problems together. Just know that as you go back to the White House, there are thousands of girls like you in Liberia who will not have an opportunity to enter a classroom until they die. Surely, they are weeping voices in dying valleys. With resilience, I know they shall one day overcome – the Liberian people shall one day triumph!
Malia and Sasha, please enjoy your brief stay in Liberia as we look forward to an impactful outcome as a result of your visit. Once again, I want to say in our Kpelle language: “Ka seepai Liberia lui su. Yala ei mei kaa a nelee kake leeipolu yongna.” which in English means: “Thank you for coming to Liberia. May God watch over you as you return home.”
Martin K. N. Kollie
Youth Activist, Republic of Liberia.
Cc: United States Embassy near Monrovia
United States Agency for International Development-USAID
About the Author: Martin K. N. Kollie is a Liberian youth activist, a student leader, an emerging economist and a young writer. He hails from central Liberia, specifically Bong County. Martin currently reads economics with distinction at the University of Liberia and he is a loyal stalwart of the Student Unification Party (SUP). He can be reached at: [email protected]