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Monday, January 31, 2011

Two Liberias: The "Haves" and the "Have Nots"

The “Haves” and the “Have Nots”
Two Liberias with No Middle Class
 By Vee Ward

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”Frederick Douglass 

Economic Inequality is on the rise in Liberia, and with this comes a huge divide.  There is a dividing line or fault line that is very easy to distinguish once you have spent a few days in the country.  Names can be given to the divisions, such as the “Haves” and the “Have-nots”; the rich and the poor; the educated and the uneducated; or the “big people” and the “little people”.  The fault line is not new; only the players have changed over the years.  It is no longer the same line that divided so-called “Conga” or “Kwi” Liberians from indigenous Liberians prior to unrest in Liberia. However, it has become two Liberias: One for the privileged and the other for the underprivileged.

I am no economist or politician, but I don’t think it takes one to know that creating and expanding a middle class helps to attain political stability and real democracy. This trend of the growing poor with majority of the population living on $1.00 a day, while high income bracket citizens are  living lavish lifestyles, does not augur well for the stability of Liberia.

Perhaps economic inequality would be less troubling if there were opportunities in Liberia where those from humble beginnings could rise to the top because of skill and intellect.  For example, if there were quality schools and colleges throughout the country, a poor student who attends a struggling government school in Zwedru could have a chance at a bright future as well as a student from an affluent family attending a highly rated school in Monrovia after they complete college. This is how a boy from the American South who grows up in a single parent home with not much money can grow up to become the President of the United States.  This is how the son of an African can attend Harvard University and become the President of the United States. But this is not the case in a Liberia that has no middle-class.  This is not the case in a Liberia that although resource rich, most of her people are dirt poor.

Most of our Liberian schools are substandard schools where not too much learning takes place.  Many of the teachers are unqualified and even though  the curriculum on paper at the Ministry of Education matches that of most schools in the United States, many teachers are not qualified to deliver same to their students.  The quality of education in Liberia has been on the decline for years due to the unrest in the country.

It is sad because each generation should be better than the last. When I was in school in Liberia I had a textbook for each subject. We also had elective courses for which we had books.  I remember taking Business Math, Typing, Music and Home Economics. Male students in my high school class opted for a class in Automobile Mechanics. This type of education ensured that even if you were not one with an aptitude for Biology or Algebra, you could still develop skills in a vocational area that could land you a decent job after high school.

Currently, high school students in Liberia head to school each day with one notebook and a pen or pencil.  For the most part the schools do not have textbooks.  Teachers have a high absentee rate in some schools and their teaching methods are antiquated, to say the least.  In fact, the Chemistry Department at the University of Liberia has a limited amount of textbooks.  Chemistry students are sometimes in groups of 15 to one lab station. An external assessment report paid for by the Ward Educational Fund and conducted by two PhD. Chemistry professors from the University of Nairobi, Kenya in 2009 showed that a major weakness in the department was a lack of qualified professors.  In more recent times, the new President of the University of Liberia, Dr. Emmet A. Dennis, has sent several instructors (most of them Ward Fund beneficiaries) abroad for further studies due to bi-lateral scholarships from the Chinese and Indian governments.

Education is not the only determinant of whether Liberia becomes economically able or not; but, it is certainly a key determinant.  The best way to mend the divide and bring about a middle-class is education and training.  The two Liberias need a link in the middle: a place where the little people, the “have-nots”, the poor, the uneducated find reachable. This can be done if Liberia places the education budget line at the top of the list.  Liberia also has not tapped into its human resources as it should.  Too many young men are hanging outside the Abi Joudi supermarket doing absolutely nothing.  Too many young girls are hanging outside the Cape Hotel waiting for men to pull up.  Imagine a Liberia where those same young men were participating in a program such as Americorp, where young people can volunteer their time and service for money toward their education. Imagine a Liberia where teenage girls could be linked to female mentors in business and government who sponsor them in school and at the end of their schooling they could go to work for their mentors or others in business and government.  I remember when I was a teenager in Liberia, I worked for the National Port Authority during my vacation breaks under Ms. Comfort Bedell, a woman I admired and looked up to because she worked in an office and commanded a certain salary because she was educated.  But, it was the experience of getting up each morning and going to work that taught me the value of making my own money. When I was not at school and work, I was busy with my church youth group where I was the Secretary and Recreational Chairperson.  It is at the First United Methodist Church where I learned to speak before a group of people. Little did I know I was developing leadership skills that would prepare me for my life now.  I am sure some of my peers had similar experiences. I guess the burning questions on my mind are: Why are we not engaging our young people in positive, uplifting and educational opportunities that will raise them out of poverty?  Why are we not arresting men who pick up underage girls for the sole purpose of sex?  Is it enough that we finally have a law that has a large penalty for rape on the books?  Why are we not enforcing this rape law?  Why are we not making the army attractive enough so that our young men can enroll into boot camp and learn discipline and a skill? Liberia, why are we wasting away our future generation by not preparing them to lead the country when we are gone?

What breaks my heart when I travel to Liberia is how poor most Liberians are.  They work harder and yet get paid pennies.  They are up at dawn preparing for the day, washing their clothes, cooking and getting ready to go off to the market.  If they have enough to send their children to school by purchasing the uniform and a note book, and giving them money for lunch then they send them off to school.  If not, then they take the children with them to the market.

During my recent trip to Liberia, we took our driver to eat and have drinks with us at Kendejah (American Bob Johnson’s resort) and other establishments such as Palm Spring Hotel and the Mamba Point Restaurant. He mentioned that he never knew places like these existed in Liberia. It’s a shame that Liberia is his country too and as small as Monrovia is, he had no clue that these places existed.  He seemed somewhat reluctant to enter these establishments.  My guess is he feared someone would ask him to leave.  He lives in the first Liberia.

Imagine selling kidney beans all month only to make $25.00 for your family.  Butter rice (the cheaper rice) costs about $35, so that means many people buy rice by the cup for the month after paying your $10.00 rent. One lady said to me, “I ain’t got no man oh..da jes me and my chayren…..plee hep me.”  She is only 28 years old.  If her situation does not change, she will die a poor woman. She has never seen a dentist; she only goes to the neighborhood clinic when she or her children have malaria.  There are days when she doesn’t have water, so she buys water in a 3 gallon jug to cook.  When I saw the jug, I cringed because I saw enough dirt in it to keep me sick for the rest of my stay in Liberia.  Her name is Hawa, and she lives in what I call the first Liberia.

In the other Liberia, there are Liberians who have drivers, gardeners, security guards, kitchen staff, house boys, house girls, and bag carriers.  It is something to see this type of opulence smack in the middle of grinding poverty.  In the United States and other countries, the rich live in insulated mini cities tucked away behind trees with wrought iron gates and fences.  Rich Americans can leave their homes without having to once lay eyes on poor people because they don’t share the same zip codes. So, it becomes out of sight, out of mind. In Liberia, the rich live among the poor and the only thing that separates them is a high 11-foot concrete fence with a metal gate. But, most of the rich turn a blind eye and perhaps pretend that they are not there.

As you walk or drive through various parts of Sinkor, Congotown, Brewerville, Virginia and Robertsfield Road, you see huge homes with gigantic Roman columns hidden behind high fences and right outside the fences are zinc shacks and sometimes mud houses inhabited by poor Liberians.  I visited a couple of these homes and what I saw blew my mind. As the driver drove us up this winding road, I saw the home in the distance and for a few seconds forgot I was in Liberia.  We could have been in Great Falls, Virginia, USA or the Rockliffe Park area of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  As I got out of the car to walk into this marbled- floor passageway into the house, I looked behind me and saw a little girl looking into the gate to get a quick glimpse of what she will probably never experience in her lifetime. In fact, she will be lucky if she becomes the maid one day to the rich people who are her neighbors. Yet, Liberia is her country, too.

As we entered the home, I marveled at the beauty of it and how well laid out it was.  Silk curtains hung from the gigantic windows and music piped throughout the home through speakers. There were flat screen televisions and expensive-looking leather sofas, and a veranda off the master bedroom with a view to die for. As we sat down to have dinner, all I could think about was the little girl outside the gate. I believe she was walking home and I couldn’t wait to leave so I could check out the homes outside the gate and maybe get to see where she lived. After dinner, I walked into a very large kitchen to take plate and drinking glass I had used.  There I met the kitchen staff and they seemed surprised to see me, and I said hello and asked them how they were doing. The family was very nice and hospitable and we had a nice visit with them.  We said our goodbyes and thanked them for having us over for dinner, and as we got into our car and pulled out of the gate, I saw a zinc shack in the direction the little girl was headed earlier.  It was the only house toward the end of the dirt road and I remember thinking to myself, that must be where she lives. The house was so small and I wondered how many people lived in it.  It was roofed with old zinc and there was one small opening near the doorway that serves as a window.  A little boy stood at the window looking outside.  The image of the little girl has stayed with me even as I write this blog. The children in this rich home looked nothing like the little girl.  They wore name brand sneakers and name brand clothing.  They walked around with expensive cell phones and in fact, one of them was home on holiday from school abroad. This family lives in what I call the second Liberia.

How do we increase the living standards for the first Liberia? How do we create better-paying jobs for the first Liberia? Is it only members of the second Liberia who should be privileged enough to have the ability to fly out of the country to seek medical attention or get check-ups while members of the first Liberia die from severe dysentery, malaria, and  other diseases that are curable?

Without more investment in education, Liberians will struggle to move up the economic value chain.  So, it seems to me that the lack of educated and enlightened people in Liberia should be treated as if it is the bubonic plague.  We should be addressing this plague that is killing off our citizens.  We need to send in trained and qualified educators.  We need to overhaul our education system.  We need to start growing a strong and robust middle-class.
According to the United Nations, if every child could read in Africa, 17 million children could be lifted out of poverty. No child in Liberia should live in deep poverty. We can start here, but we also need to look at our market women and our “Yanna” (Here now) boys, street sellers, farmers, high school and college dropouts.  They are part of what I call the real Liberia.  They have the power and once they understand it, they should use it.  They have the power to demand from their country their fundamental rights as described in the Constitution:

Article 6
The Republic shall, because of the vital role assigned to the individual citizen under this Constitution for the social, economic and political well being of Liberia, provide equal access to educational opportunities and facilities for all citizens to the extent of available resources. Emphasis shall be placed on the mass education of the Liberian people and the elimination of illiteracy.

Article 7
The Republic shall, consistent with the principles of individual freedom and social justice enshrined in this Constitution, manage the national economy and the natural resources of Liberia in such manner as shall ensure the maximum feasible participation of Liberian citizens under conditions of equality as to advance the general welfare of the Liberian people and the economic development of Liberia.

Article 8
The Republic shall direct its policy towards ensuring for all citizens, without discrimination, opportunities for employment and livelihood under just and humane conditions, and towards promoting safety, health and welfare facilities in employment.

Those of the real Liberia should use their power in their votes in the upcoming elections.

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