|© UNICEF/ LIB2009-1699/Gordon|
|Salomie Kieah, 6, and her grandmother begin preparations for starting school this year in Ganta, Liberia’s second largest city. She'll be among the first group of six-years-olds to enter first grade without ever having seen war in their lifetime.|
By Louis Vigneault
GANTA, Liberia, 11 September 2009 – Salomie Kieah is one of many six-year-old children starting school this month in Liberia. After a final adjustment to fit her new uniform and a stop at the stationery shop to buy supplies, she is ready for her first day in primary school.
Salomie was born in 2003, a few weeks after her country restored peace following 14 years of conflict that killed, wounded and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. She is among the first class of first-graders to be born in peace here in many years.
But Salomie’s aunt, now 18, had to flee with her family during the war and missed three years of school. She is currently trying to catch up with her education. It’s the same story for many Liberian young people. Only one in three schoolchildren is studying at the traditional grade level for his or her age.
Even in the lower grades, the age gap is present. Most of Salomie’s classmates will be older than her, because children must be able to read and write when they start first grade – and very few parents can afford to send their children to preparatory school.
|© UNICEF/ LIB2009-2899/Gordon|
|Only one-third of children are at the right age and right level in school systems in Liberia, where 14 years of war forced most of the population to flee and children missed out on their education. In photo above, Salomie walks to school.|
Salomie’s mother lives in the United States and sends money to pay for her education at a private school. At $50 per year, this option remains out of reach for most families in a country where 84 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Liberia is now enforcing free and compulsory primary education in all public schools. With limited government resources to build new schools, however, the public school system is overwhelmed by new enrolment.
According to Ganta District Education Officer David N. Kehzie, 8,700 primary school students were enrolled in the district last year. More are expected this year. He says four new schools are needed to accommodate new students.
‘We must continue on this path’
UNICEF and its partners are building a new school in Ganta as part of 'Learning Along Borders for Living Across Boundaries' initiative, which uses strategic education interventions to help advance development in post-conflict Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
|© UNICEF/ LIB2009-2965/Gordon|
|Salomie and other six-year-olds beginning first grade this year dream of a better future for themselves and Liberia.|
The child-friendly public school in Ganta will be able to offer free primary education to about 270 new students in a few weeks. But classrooms for many more children will have to be built.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently called for more international support and investment in primary education.
“Young children today feel that they can have a future that they can be safe” she said at a press event in Monrovia. “This is the first time that six-year-olds will go to school not knowing war, not having to run, not having to hide. Those children see life in Liberia as normal. We must continue on this path, so they can become adults in a normal environment.”
'Back on Track' website