Friends of Liberia… Working to Improve the Nation’s Future— by Stephanie Vickers

 

Laundry Day. Stephanie Vickers in her first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia during 1971.

Stephanie Vickers does her laundry during in-country training in her first month as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zorgowee, Liberia during 1971.

I asked Stephanie Vickers, the president of Friends of Liberia (FOL), to do a guest blog today outlining the work that the organization does in Liberia and her connection to that work. If you are a regular follower of my blog and/or have read my book, “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” you are aware that I once served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia and have maintained an active interest in the country since. You can obtain a copy of the book on Amazon. Half of the profits from the sale of the book go toward supporting FOL projects in Liberia.

Education is a key ingredient to improving life in Liberia, as it is in all third world nations. During the civil war that raged in the country for over a decade from 1990 to 2000, education efforts ceased to exist. They suffered a similar fate this past year during the Ebola crisis. A 2012 study revealed that there were 571,555 school-aged children out of school and over 400,000 at the risk of dropping out. According to UNESCO in 2014 (before the Ebola crisis), only 26.7% of school-aged children were attending school. 

Friends of Liberia, Peace Corps and other non-government organizations are working in partnership with the Liberia government to once more make education a national priority. I was particularly excited to learn about FOL’s Family Literacy Project, a new program that is designed “for situations where parents with low literacy levels want to become involved in their children’s education.” It is literally a case of helping parents to help their children at a point in their lives when such help is critical to their future educational success.

Stephanie brings a high level of expertise to this effort and over 17 years of experience in working with the people of Liberia (three as a volunteer and fourteen as a member of FOL). Her words:

 

Friends of Liberia began in 1986 at a National Peace Corps Association conference as an alumni group for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Liberia.

At the outbreak of the civil war in 1990, the organization changed its mission to advocating for Liberian peace, which it did so aggressively. It also turned to actively helping organizations addressing problems in Liberia. By necessity, FOL evolved over the next decades to be far more inclusive in its membership, welcoming Liberians who live in America and many others who had worked in Liberia. Today, it is open to anyone who cares about Liberia and her people. To read more about the early days of the organization, go to http://fol.org/history/.

My connection with Liberia started with the Peace Corps. I grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1967, and grad school in 1968. I was hired to teach in the Berkeley Public Schools until I joined the Peace Corps in 1971.

I was originally recruited to work as a teacher trainer in Sanniquellie, Liberia with counterparts that traveled to schools to train and support teachers. Unfortunately, the program was loosely organized and I wanted to work more, so I requested a transfer to St Mary’s School (7-12 grades) where I taught Reading/English, Liberian and World History and Economics.

At the end of my two-year assignment, I spent a third year in Liberia helping train new Peace Corps Volunteers. I was responsible for arranging cultural activities to introduce new trainees to the Liberian culture. I also served as an education trainer for new groups of teacher volunteers. My responsibilities allowed me to travel extensively throughout the country.

Stephanie in her role as Peace Corps Trainer in Liberia, 1973.

Stephanie in her role as Peace Corps Trainer working with Roosevelt Harris and Dan Goe in Tapita, Liberia, 1973.

After 30 years spent teaching and administering education programs in the U.S, I was drawn back to Liberia in 2001 as a volunteer in FOL’s early childhood education teacher-training project, called the Liberian Education Assistance Project (LEAP). Ironically, I actually got to do teacher training, the original assignment I had as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1971. Professionally, it was very exciting. I went on to serve as the Administrator and Language Arts instructor of LEAP for 14 years.

FOL Trip to Liberia May 2009: Literacy lesson with first graders at the Ganta Mission School

On an FOL Trip to Liberia in May 2009, Stephanie shared a literacy lesson with first graders at the Ganta Mission School.

Working directly with Liberian early childhood educators just emerging from the war years, I discovered that many of these teachers and principals had serious gaps in their education and had not had professional development since the 1980s. The small difference I could make as a Language Arts trainer in our methodology sessions was not enough to combat a serious literacy crisis.

Partly due to FOL’s advocacy over all those years, the Ministry of Education has taken up the cause for early childhood education and is addressing it with teacher training and creating model schools. We have yet to determine the full effect of the recent Ebola epidemic that caused schools to close for most of the year on this and other education programs.

I am part of FOL’s “education working group” (EWG), which has decided to take a more holistic approach to improving the literacy rate among adults and children. The FOL Family Literacy Project is in its design stage but aims to be implemented in the next year.

The goal is to improve the academic success of children by improving adult parenting and literacy skills and child literacy skills through a program developed in Israel and widely in use in the U.S and a half-dozen other countries. Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) http://www.hippy-international.org was designed for situations where parents with low literacy levels want to become involved in their children’s education. FOL will partner with organizations in Liberia to implement the project.

I hope Curt’s fascinating stories and my own experience might generate interest in others to get involved in helping Liberia. The Family Literacy Project will need major support to get started and prove itself effective in some of Liberia’s poorest communities. We will continue to keep you updated on www.FOL.org and appreciate your interest.

I would like to close by urging you to follow Stephanie’s link to learn more about FOL and its programs. Please hit the donate button. Reducing illiteracy and empowering people to take charge of their lives is in all of our interests. It’s a small world and getting smaller. –Curt

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” Is Now Published…

Facebook Bush Devil

The Bush Devil Ate Sam is now available on a number of sites worldwide as an eBook including Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo— plus several others you can find by visiting my author’s page. It will also soon be available as a print on demand book on several sites including Amazon and Barnes and Noble for those of you who prefer a printed version.

In the meantime, you can Email me at cvmekemson@gmail.com for printed and signed books. I have two versions, an original ‘beta’ copy with a few mistakes for $10 plus shipping, and a revised copy for $13 plus shipping. Tell me which book you would prefer and provide your address. We will mail it to you along with an invoice (as long as the books last).

Sam and I cut back weeds with machetes in front of our house in Gbarnga, Liberia. Our outhouse is off to the left.

Sam and I cut back weeds with machetes in front of our house in Gbarnga, Liberia. Our outhouse is off to the left.

Ready to eat monkey meat in Ganta, Liberia.

Monkey meat anyone?

The "Bush Devil" featured on the cover of my book was created by Freddy the Carver shown here. Freddy was a leper who lived in a leper colony in Ganta, Liberia circa 1965.

The “Bush Devil” featured on the cover of my book was created by Freddy the Carver shown here. Freddy was a leper who lived in a leper colony in Ganta, Liberia circa 1965.

 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, here is a brief summary of what it is about:

In 1965 I left the chaotic world of UC Berkeley and the student revolution of the mid 60s to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the even stranger world of Liberia, West Africa. When I arrived, descendants of freed slaves from America ruled the country with an iron grip while the tribal people were caught in a struggle between modern culture and ancient Africa.

I quickly discovered that being a Peace Corps Volunteer was anything but dull. Army ants invaded our house. Students strolled into class with cans of squirming termites for breakfast, and Sam, the young man who worked for me, calmly announced that the scars running down his chest were the teeth marks of the Poro Bush Devil.

On the teaching front, my seniors took top national honors in social studies, but the national government determined a student government I created to teach democracy was a threat to Liberia’s one party state. My students were to be arrested; I was told to pack my bags.

These and many other stories are included in The Bush Devil Ate Sam. If you enjoy my blog, I think you will like the book. I conclude with an epilogue that traces the history of Liberia since I served in the country including the recent Ebola crisis. The book is designed to capture both the humor and challenges of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Half of the profits from this book will be donated to Friends of Liberia, a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1980 and is made up of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, people who have served on missions in Liberia, experts on international development, and Liberians. The goal of the organization is “to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs.”

To say that I am excited (or maybe relieved?) about finally publishing the book is a gigantic understatement. (Grin) I had no idea about how much work was involved. Now I get to jump into marketing. Woohoo. Last week, I held my first book signing in Sacramento, California (75 people attended). Today is my blog’s turn. A whole series of other activities are to follow. And of course, I get to start on my next book. It’s going to be on Burning Man.

One bit of fun news. I recently received an Email from Steven Spatz, the president of BookBaby. BookBaby is the largest distributer of eBooks in the US and I worked with the company in publishing my book. He wanted to feature The Bush Devil Ate Sam on his blog as a perspective on the range of books BookBaby produces. Go here to see what Steven had to say.

My thanks to each of you who purchase a book and a special thanks to those of you who helped me pick out the name of the book several months ago. One request, if you do the download from Amazon, please do the review. It impacts how Amazon places the book.

Book signing in Sacramento. I am off in the corner working.

Book signing in Sacramento. I am off in the corner working. (Photo by Wayne Cox, my nephew.)

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The main street of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Coming Soon… The Bush Devil Ate Sam— and Other Tales of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa

Cover for book by Curtis Mekemson.

It’s countdown time here at the Mekemson household. The Bush Devil Ate Sam will be available worldwide as an E-book by the end of they year. Below is a promotion piece I’ve written for the book.

 

Scruffy soldiers with guns pointed in all directions were scattered around my yard when I returned from teaching. “What’s up?” I asked in a shaky voice. Liberian soldiers were scary.

     “Your dog ate one of the Superintendent’s guinea fowl,” the sergeant growled. The Superintendent was the governor of Bong County. Apparently, he was quite fond of his fowl birds. But Boy, the perpetrator of the crime, didn’t belong to me— and he regarded my cat Rasputin as dinner.

     “Why don’t you arrest him,” I suggested helpfully. “Not him. You!” the sergeant roared.

In 1965 I left the chaotic world of UC Berkeley and the student revolution of the mid 60s to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in the even stranger world of Liberia, West Africa. The Bush Devil Ate Sam is the story of my experience. When I arrived, descendants of freed slaves from America ruled the country with an iron grip while the tribal people were caught in a struggle between modern culture and ancient Africa.

I quickly discovered that being a Peace Corps Volunteer was anything but dull. Army ants invaded our house. Students snacked on squirming termites for breakfast, and the young man who worked for me, announced that the scars running down his chest were the teeth marks of the Poro Bush Devil.

On the teaching front, my seniors took top national honors in social studies, but the national government determined that a student government I had created to teach students about democracy was a threat to Liberia’s one party state. I was told my students would be arrested and I should pack my bags.

These are only the beginning of the tales you will find in The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

Half of the profits from this book will be donated to Friends of Liberia, a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1980 and is made up of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, people who have served on missions in Liberia, experts on international development, and Liberians. In addition to supporting the fight against Ebola, the goal of the organization is “to positively affect Liberia by supporting education, social, economic and humanitarian programs.”

The Tragedy of Liberia: Part IV… Peace Corps Returns

 Hopefully todays young people in Liberia  will not face the grim future my students shown here from 1967 faced.

Hopefully, today’s young people in Liberia will not have to face the grim future my students shown here from 1967 experienced.

Peace Corps exited Liberia in 1990 because of the danger to Volunteers created by the civil war. At the request of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, the organization returned in 2008.  Once again Volunteers are spreading throughout the country and joining with Liberian teachers in educating young people.  At this time, they are teaching math, science, and English– subjects the Liberian government has determined are critical to the development of the country. Of equal importance to their jobs is the sense of friendship and stability Peace Corps Volunteers bring to Liberia. They become part of their communities, live at the level of their peers, roll up their sleeves, and go to work. It’s how Peace Corps does business. It provides a powerful message.

As I follow blogs of Volunteers presently serving in Liberia, I am struck by the similarities of challenges we were faced with in the 60s, but I am struck even more by the differences. How could it be otherwise given the devastation the country has been through? We dealt with absenteeism, lack of supplies, corruption, and the daily challenges of living and functioning effectively in another culture. But our students and communities had never experienced the fear, psychotic behavior, and death the civil wars unleashed.  Neither were we overly concerned with our own security, as Volunteers must be now. (Although I must confess that when the soldiers came pounding on my door with their guns at 4 AM one morning in 1966, I was a wee bit concerned.)

Capacity building, helping people to help themselves, has always been a central goal of the Peace Corps. The Bosh Bosh project in Salala, Bong County provides an excellent example of what can happen when a talented and enthusiastic Peace Corps Volunteer is paired with a welcoming and supportive community. Charlene Espinoza from San Diego, California began her Peace Corps assignment in 2011. She has documented her experience on her blog. I highly recommend reading it for an insight into Peace Corps life.

Here’s the short version of the Bosh Bosh story. The community of Salala built a house for Peace Corps Volunteers– even though none had been assigned to the town. Dutifully impressed, Peace Corps posted Charlene, along with a roommate, Kristin Caspar, to teach junior high at the Martha Tubman Public School in Salala. The two were soon consumed with teaching, tutoring and building a library. A few months into their tour, they went on a brief vacation in Sierra Leone where Charlene came across a purse made out of brightly colored lappa scraps. (Lappa cloth is the fabric that West African women use as wrap around dresses and that tailors turn into shirts and other clothing.)

Inspiration struck! What if she went back to Salala and introduced the concept there. Young women could be taught how to sew and develop marketable products. In addition to learning valuable skills, the girls would also be increasing their self-confidence. The LapaScraps Project, later to become the Bosh Bosh Project, was born. Bosh Bosh is a Liberian word for different types of fabrics.

Charlene, working closely with her Liberian counterpart at school, reestablished a local but dormant Girl’s Club and recruited young women to sew lappa scrap bags.  The girls loved the work and the project soon acquired several sewing machines. A tailor was hired to come in and teach the girls more sophisticated sewing techniques. New market lines such as purses and E-reader covers were introduced. Regular seminars in everything from women’s rights to HIV Aids Awareness were also offered to the club members. As the products begin to sell, profits were put back into the project, providing the girls with full scholarships to meet their education costs.

What is most important about the Bosh Bosh Club is how it has changed the self-perception of the young women working on the project. They now believe they have a future; they have hope. And they are eager to make a difference in their country. Most have a perspective similar to Comfort Thomas who is 20 years old and has a six-year-old child:

“I decided to join the Salala Girls Club because I like the projects objective. I have learned a lot while being in the club. I have learned how to sew different things, and it has made me more aware of my own health through the workshops offered and has given me a better understanding of how to take care of myself and think about my future as well. When I graduate from high school, I want to attend the University of Liberia and major in Political Science so that I can work in the Ministry of Education, and help many indigent people in Liberia and around the world.”

You can go to the Bosh Bosh website and learn more about the organization, its products, and the participants.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Liberia are also working to help the country. I recently received a call from Judy Reed of Madison, Wisconsin. Judy served in Liberia Group IV (1964-66) with my friend Morris Carpenter. In 2007 she and a friend, Jane Scharer, visited Liberia and reconnected with 15 of her former students who are now adults in their 50s and 60s. She describes the experience as “bittersweet.” Many had barely survived the war years and had lost family members to the conflict. Life continued to be hard. Their children had few opportunities for education.

Judy and Jane returned to the US determined to help. They created a small non-profit organization called the Liberian Assistance Program and went to work. Former Peace Corps Volunteers, friends and community organizations jumped in and offered support. Today, as a result, a new school stands in the town of Cow Field with over 200 students and 15 employees. The principal is a former student of Judy’s. My wife Peggy and I have signed up to sponsor a student at the school for three years.

The most extensive Return Peace Corps Volunteer effort is being carried out by Friends of Liberia (FOL). FOL was originally created as an alumni group for returned Volunteers in 1986. By 1989 the organization was centrally involved in raising awareness in the US about the plight of Liberians involved in the civil conflict, and in seeking solutions to end the horrendous war, a role it continued to play up until the close of the conflict in 2003.

Today FOL is focused on encouraging early childhood education/teacher training, improving the skills of health care workers, and in fostering entrepreneurship. The latter involves helping identify, educate and provide startup capital to motivated Liberians who would like to build small businesses. The ultimate goal here is to support the development of a middle class, a move that is essential to the long-term stability and prosperity of the nation.

Peace Corps is only one of numerous private and government agencies that are offering aid to Liberia and other African nations. One of the most ambitious programs is being pursued by the Obama administration: providing 7 billion dollars for electrification in Sub-Sahara Africa. Obviously this program has the potential of making a significant difference in the lives of Africans, assuming it lives up to its promise of building internal capacity, balancing urban and rural needs, and using both traditional and renewable energy sources.

Liberia is blessed with natural resources. Historically, these resources have been exploited by outside economic interests such as Firestone and have served to make a small minority of Liberia’s population wealthy. Used to benefit the nation, these resources can provide the base for rebuilding the country. Continued investment by outside corporations is critical. Obviously such investments require a stable government and a promise of profits, but they also need to be accompanied with decent salaries, training for the workforce, focus on local development, and protection of the environment. Balance between meeting the needs of the investors and meeting the needs of the country is critical.

The tragedy of Liberia is a tragedy shared by most other African nations. The past history of colonialism and outside exploitation combined with Africa’s own unique challenges such as tribalism, minimal education and lack of economic development, have left these nations easy prey to outside forces and internal abuse. From slavery, to ivory trade, to blood diamonds, to rare woods and even rarer minerals, Africa has been viewed as a way to instant, illicit wealth regardless of its cost in human life and suffering. It has also been viewed as a battleground between powerful, opposing forces. Colonial nations, various religious groups, and dominant political blocks have all seen Africa as a means to some outside objective.

Liberia is still very fragile and must have continued support from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and other countries. What is desired, however, is independence, not dependence. The country, with help, has the potential of standing on its own and becoming a model for the rest of war-torn Africa, not simply another tragedy in a long line of tragedies.

My students at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga from 1965 to 67 were as bright, caring, and ambitious as any group of young people. They were excited about their future. They saw their dreams dashed by greed, corruption and civil war. It is my hope that today’s youth, given guidance, education and opportunity, can become the backbone of a more prosperous, democratic, and peaceful nation.