LIBERIA 1.jpgHuman Well Being 

Ebola: Learning to Tell Their Own Stories

This article was originally published by Ebola Deeply

By Kate Thomas

Registration gets underway at the government-funded N.V. Massaquoi Elementary and Junior High School. There are 1,235 students beginning the new school year here. A little over a year ago, a very different kind of registration was underway here: that of Ebola patients. “We opened very late last year and we ran a very short accelerated learning program,” said the school’s principal, M. Gleh Mason II. “We are now starting our rightful term,” he added.

The school served as an Ebola holding center in August last year, and classrooms were used to isolate dying patients, as the photographer John Moore documented for The New York Times. Desks and chairs were burned, and the classrooms were transformed by the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) and partners including Welt Hunger Hilfe and German Cooperation. Today, seventh grader Issac posed for Ebola Deeply inside a sparkling new classroom.

“The majority of our students are from West Point,” Mason said. “Ebola rapidly spread in West Point; it’s the most densely populated community in Liberia. To have Ebola enter into West Point, especially into their school as an Ebola holding center, affected our students a lot. Fortunately, we did not lose any of them directly, but Ebola traumatized them and made them fear for their lives. We have a guidance counsellor here who talks to them and their parents.”

When West Point residents protested against the use of the school as an Ebola holding center last August, riots broke out and 15-year-old Shakie Kamara was killed in a clash between police officers and protesters. Today, students sit outside a library dedicated to Kamara.

“Reading plays a cardinal role in the lives of our children,” said Mason. “When a child knows how to read, that child will know how to speak, how to write, how to deal with issues. It’s especially important for children to read Liberian books. They speak about the reality of our lives. If you tell me that somebody was on Wall Street, and he turned left to go to a different part of New York, how will I relate to that? I’ve never been to New York. But if you tell me that somebody got on a tricycle [Liberian tuk tuk form of public transportation] in West Point and went to Waterside, I’d say, ‘Oh!’ I’d be in the picture. It’s important for children to know themselves in the picture. Liberian books show us who we are and what our country is.’”

Murals in and around the school were designed and painted by artists from Guinea, Liberia and Baltimore.

Third-grader Mohammed Sheriff, top in his class for literacy, reads to fellow students. He says he wants to encourage them to rise above stigma and the area’s poor reputation. “Not all West Pointers are criminals or intellectually impotent, as the majority of those living outside the township often think of West Point,” he reads. “Any resident of West Point can become great from the brains instead of from brawn.”

Liberian author Samuel G. Dweh reads an excerpt from his children’s novel, Grade Sin. Dweh, also an editor and newspaper publisher, grew up in West Point and attended N.V. Massaquoi School. “If Samuel G. Dweh from West Point can write a book, you too can write a book,” Dweh told students today. If somebody will not give you a job because you are from West Point, they are wrong,” he said. “You can be anybody you want to be.”

Today’s reading was part of a series organized by Liberia’s Ministry of Education, featuring authors conducting educational readings in and around Monrovia. The series is designed to inspire children and boost literacy rates in a country in which 25 percent of people aged 15 to 24 cannot read or write (World Bank figures).

Grade Sin is the story of students who are forced to exchange sex for grades. In some Liberian schools, children are handed false grades, or asked for monetary or sexual bribes in order to do well at school. “Some teachers say, ‘you have failed, but give me your body and I will pass you for free,'” Dweh said.

Children at the school are learning how to tell their own stories. Here, a student tackles narrative homework, while a blackboard explains the basics of storytelling. “A comedy is a story with a happy end. A tragedy is a story with a sad end,” it reads. Those beginning the new school year here are determined that their story will not be the latter.

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Kate Thomas is a contributor to Ebola Deeply. 

[Photos courtesy of Ebola Deeply]

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