|© UNICEF/Kent Page|
By Ship, By Truck, By Taxi, By Wheel-Barrow And By Hand... All the Way to ‘Maybe’:
It’s barely 9 a.m., Saturday morning and there are already 63 school representatives registered and waiting in the looming heat and humidity of the Paynesville Elementary, Junior & Senior High School yard. Suddenly, the high iron gates swing open and two large trucks come rolling in, their front cabs adorned with large ‘Back To School’ banners and their holds laden with heavy, metal boxes.
Their arrival marks just another step in the long journey the precious cargo has made since leaving UNICEF Supply Division’s warehouse in Copenhagen a few weeks ago. First, the boxes were shipped by sea from Copenhagen to Monrovia’s Free Port. Last night, teams of stevedores at the port loaded them onto trucks hired by UNICEF and now, on arrival at the school, they are immediately being unloaded by hand into the school’s storeroom. The silver containers provide real hope for the future of Liberian children: each is an UNICEF School-In-The-Box education kit.
Over the past few weeks, Rapid Assessment of Learning Spaces (RALS) teams, composed primarily of Ministry of Education officers, have traveled in the accessible counties of Liberia, assessing the educational needs of schools. The assessed schools were then registered and according to the registration lists for Paynesville District, the education kits are now, within minutes of their arrival, being distributed to the appropriate registered school representative. But the kits are still a step away from their true destination - the classrooms in ‘Red Light’ and other areas of Paynesville District, located on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia.
"This area of Paynesville is called ‘Red Light’ because just up at the next intersection, there’s a single red light hanging to stop traffic", explains Elizabeth, a school teacher working in the area. "Our red light hasn’t worked since fighting began 14 years ago in 1989. Up to that time, it was the only light shining in this area at night, so the area became known as ‘Red Light’. But now that things seem to be better in Liberia, maybe our red light will be fixed again."
Patience and optimism. These are just some of the inspiring qualities that Liberians have shared throughout 14 years f destructive war that has not only extinguished Paynesville’s red light, but has also caused the virtual collapse of Liberia’s education system. But Liberians are not only patient and optimistic. They are also determined and hard-working. Determined that their children get back to school now that there is a semblance of stability in many parts of their country. And ready to put in the hard work required to make it happen. The first job at hand is to complete the school supply process and get the education kits to the schools. That requires the help of young Liberian men like Johnny and Harris.
|© UNICEF/Kent Page|
Johnny’s a perfect example of Liberian determination and hard work. He goes running by so fast, his blue shirt blowing in the wind, that it’s hard to get a photo of him. He’s tireless, dodging the school representatives in the schoolyard as he passes by with yet another heavy School-In-The-Box education kit on his head. Johnny plays an important role in the supply system: his job is to get the education kits out to the taxis hired by the school representatives as fast as possible. "No time to stop for a photo", he says, the sweat pouring down his face. "Too many kits to move!" Once loaded, the taxis whisk the kits to schools in the district in time for Monday morning’s launch of Liberia’s Back to School program.
Harris is also a vital part in the Back to School supply system. Harris has a small wheelbarrow service and each wheelbarrow can take two education kits at a time. Like Johnny, he’s hard to keep up with - literally running as he pushes his heavy load in the wheelbarrow to a small primary school about a kilometer away. The school’s representative is sweating and breathing hard as he tries to match Harris’ pace. "The sooner I deliver the kits, the sooner I can get back and deliver more", says Harris. "Some of my nieces and nephews are ready to go back to school again on Monday, so it feels good to help out."
Outside the school, a small crowd is gathered, watching the flurry of activity as another two trucks enter the schoolyard to drop off even more School-In-The-Box kits - nearly 500 kits will be distributed from here before the morning is over. David is one of the parents standing outside with his three daughters. "This Back to School Campaign is giving us real hope", he says. "My girls have been out of school since May. That’s when schools closed down yet again when fighting resumed all around Monrovia. It was too unsafe for children to go to school and I tried to tutor them at home, but it’s not the same. I’m not a professional teacher and they learn better in a classroom and have more fun when they’re with their friends in class. They’re looking forward to going back to school on Monday and I’m feeling fine about it, too!"
David is proud of his daughters, and introduces them: Sarah, Mary and Maybe. Maybe? "Maybe was born 8 years ago during the war. We had so many problems in Liberia then and when she was born there was no medical help for her", says David. "My wife and I were very worried because she was born small and we tried to do everything to keep her alive, but we kept thinking, maybe she’ll live, maybe she won’t. When we could see her getting stronger, we decided to call her Maybe to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have her."
With the launch of the Back to School Campaign in Liberia this Monday, Maybe and her sisters will be going back to school for the first time in months. And, thanks to the help of both the UNICEF and Liberian supply systems, they’ll be going to a school newly equipped with School-In-The-Box education kits. What does Maybe want to be when she grows up? "I want to be a teacher", she whispers, sitting on top of one of the education kits waiting to be loaded into yet another waiting, yellow taxi.
Text/Photos: Kent Page, UNICEF Regional Communication Officer, West & Central Africa Region
Red Light (Paynesville), Monrovia, Liberia, 1 November 2003