Rebuilding a nation

Hard times in Liber­ia have stirred the spir­it of a small con­greg­a­tion at a Somer­ton church.

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 jac­ob@liberi­ae­du­ca­tion­pro­ 

• Reach Den­nis Fish­er by e-mail­ing den­nis@liberi­ae­du­ca­tion­pro­

• Vis­it the Web site at liberi­ae­du­ca­tion­pro­

Dona­tions may be sent to the Liber­ia Edu­ca­tion Pro­ject Inc., 13073 Bustleton Ave., Phil­adelphia, PA 19116.

You can reach at

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