The Somerton United Methodist Church is a small congregation that thinks big and does big.
Last year, members of the Bustleton Avenue church established a mission in rural central Liberia, and earlier this year they built four classrooms of a planned 10-classroom school.
The congregation raised the money to pay for its Liberian Education Project. A few members even traveled to the West African country to work alongside villagers and lay the building’s foundations.
Not bad for a local church that might have 50 members.
“And we still have a lot to do,” congregation member Dennis Fisher said at the church last week. “We’re doing it step by step.”
Right now, for example, church members are raising money to buy desks for their special project, the Ghenwein Mission School, which is being constructed in Kokoyah, a cluster of villages of about 15,000 people who are relying on humanitarian support in their efforts to overcome poverty and plant the seeds of economic growth.
Fifteen bucks, which wouldn’t buy two movie tickets here, will buy a school desk in Liberia. In fact, money goes far there. Twelve dollars sponsors a student for a month. Fifty dollars pays a teacher’s salary.
What’s expensive in Liberia, a country devastated by years and years of civil wars, is transportation, said Jacob Madehdou, a Liberian who came to the United States in 2002. Besides the expense, traveling is time-consuming in Liberia because the roads are dreadful.
Madehdou said it took about seven and a half hours to travel the roughly 125 to 150 miles from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, to Kokoyah, a distance that might take two and a half hours on a U.S. superhighway.
Dorothy Holland, who made the trip to Liberia’s interior in January, said that just crossing a creek could be a little dicey. Some bridges are little more than planks, and you have to make sure they’re securely in place before you drive across.
But it’s not just the roads that are harrowing. Much of the country’s infrastructure has been ruined by the political violence and civil conflicts that began in 1989 — over the next seven years, more than 200,000 citizens died during the unrest in Liberia, a nation of 4 million that is slightly larger than Ohio.
Fisher and George Memis, another church member who made the trip to Liberia, said there are power outlets but no power. There is plumbing, but no water.
The Northeast Times first reported the Somerton church’s efforts in Liberia in September 2010.
Years of fighting drove many Liberians from rural areas to Monrovia, and many charities operate near the capital, which also is a port city. Madehdou told the congregation’s members of the great need to aid the people who lived in the interior.
The congregation’s members were sold on the idea of building a mission and school in a remote rural area. They also saw it as an unusual opportunity — to curtail Liberia’s traditional practice of female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.
They’ve had some success in that regard, Madehdou said. In Liberia’s countryside, many girls are educated in what are known as “bush schools.” The girls learn cooking, homemaking and child-rearing. Circumcision is performed near the conclusion of that education as a sort of cultural entrance to womanhood, Madehdou said last year.
The hope was that, by providing more formal schooling to girls, the young women could avoid the bush schools and the ritualistic circumcision.
As the foundation was laid for the mission school this year, along with installation of a roof on four completed classrooms, the project took shape as a persuasive argument.
“We were able to convince the village elders we were an alternative and they closed their bush school,” Madehdou said.
He explained that he pointed to Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf — who five years ago became Africa’s first democratically elected female president — as an example of how far education can take girls in Liberia. That argument succeeded, Madehdou said.
“This is what we have worked for,” he said. “It was a work of God.”
But it was a lot human toil, too.
“I was so impressed by people working so hard under the boiling sun,” Holland said, noting that everybody pitched in —men, women and children. “The village women wanted their children to have an education.”
When church members previously visited Liberia, there wasn’t a lot of hospitality as they traveled to the country’s interior. Civil war has ruined the economy, and poverty is almost universal. Corruption is widespread. You want to do anything in Liberia, go anywhere in Liberia, somebody is going to try to make you pay to do it.
Simply traveling through checkpoints, or getting the right government minister to sign the right piece of paper, costs money. There always seemed to be an open palm waiting to be greased.
Things had improved a bit by the time church members returned to the country this year, they said. Madehdou acted as the advance man in mid-January, smoothing the way. His contacts in Johnson-Sirleaf’s government helped a lot. And some conversations with the cops who had demanded money at checkpoints persuaded them to let the church members go on their way without payoffs.
“Things are getting better there,” Madehdou said of his country, explaining that those who lived there but left a few years ago would notice the difference.
But it’s not difference that impressed Fisher, at least as far as people are concerned. He recalled a night he’d gone to bed early but didn’t fall asleep right away. He lay awake listening to people talking and laughing.
“The people in Africa do all the same things we do,” he said. “We’re all God’s children.”
Although English is the official language of Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century, about 16 other languages are spoken by several ethnic groups.
Madehdou expects that the school will have 185 students next year. The plan is to have a school for 400 pupils, and maybe, after that, convert part of it to a boarding school so children who live farther away also can get to classes.
The church’s progress on this project is clear. Yet despite the physical evidence of the mission, the new classrooms and the new foundation, the local people still have doubts, Fisher said.
“They’ve seen foundations laid before and never finished,” he said. “They’re afraid we won’t be back.”
Church member Robert Murray is certain they will.
“This school will be finished,” he said firmly.
That might sound like big talk. Maybe it is, but who would bet against it happening? ••
How you can help …
Members of the Liberian Education Project said a donation as small as a dollar will help them continue to build a 10-classroom school in rural Liberia.
• For more information, call 215-673-2745 or 215-303-9991.
• Jacob Madehdou can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Reach Dennis Fisher by e-mailing email@example.com.
• Visit the Web site at liberiaeducationproject.org.
Donations may be sent to the Liberia Education Project Inc., 13073 Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19116.