Tag Archives: education

Play, not puddles

In Tuesday’s senate session, Senator Gloria Scott waxed poetic about her childhood in the 1970s. With grand gestures, she spun a tale of a rustic, carefree lifestyle. “When I was a child,” she began, “I would play in the dry season [roughly November through March]. The weather was nice, so we were always outside together, playing. Always playing. We also could help our parents with the harvest, and go to the market with them to sell it.”

In the 1990s, things changed for Liberian children, preventing them from enjoying summers like Scott’s. There was, of course, was the civil war, which robbed children of their playtime and replaced it with guns. Yet it was another, more subtle change that Scott believes harmed Liberian youngsters and continues to negatively affect them today. That reform was the change in Liberia’s school calendar, which switched the school year from February through November to September through June. The Liberian parliament is currently debating an education bill that will, among other things, maintain the current school calendar. The bill is expected to pass, though not if Scott has her way.

“Now they have vacation during the rains,” complained Scott. “They can’t play outside! It’s so important for our children to play, but they cannot.” After experiencing nearly four weeks of Liberia’s rainy season, I can’t say I disagree. It rains almost every day, ranging from a passing drizzle to an all-day downpour. At best, the paved streets flood; at worst, dirt roads become impassable mud puddles that trap cars for hours on end. And although Liberia lies north of the Equator, technically making it summer here, Liberians consider the rainy season their winter. Temperatures may be moderate by my New Englanld standards (high seventies to mid-eighties most days), but Liberians find it chilly, and winter coats are for sale in many roadside stalls. The dry season may be hot and humid, but nearly all Liberians agree that it beats the rain.

As Scott continued to list the drawbacks of scheduling summer vacation during the rainy season, though, her reasoning changed. What began as a push for children’s welfare became a glimpse into Liberia’s national psyche. “Our neighbors modeled their school years off of their colonial masters. Their masters in the West made their school years so their children could play in the summer. But Liberia is not Europe or America, and their summer is not our summer,” she proclaimed. “We should not have just copied them. It’s important for us to know why our laws are the way they are.”

Liberians freely admit that they are reliant on Western aid and NGOs, moving to Europe or the US remains the ultimate sign of prestige, and Liberians love to remind me that their country was established by Americans. Still, Liberians are fiercely proud of their country, and beneath the veneer of foreign influence here, Liberians are not ready to trade their culture for that of the West. Especially not when that means playing in the torrential, cold rains.

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Break it down now

English may be Liberia’s official national language, but yesterday’s round of Ducor Debates was bi-lingual in an unexpected way.

Before an audience of primarily men, panelists from timber companies and the national legislature stood up one by one to discuss the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), the subject of the morning’s debate. In May, the European Union and Liberia signed the agreement, which seeks to ensure that all timber exported from Liberia to the EU has been logged legally.

Isaac Manna, one of the panelists, summarized the agreement’s benefits, arguing, “this will rekindle our reputation! It will help with capacity and human resources building! It will help our economy!”

When he finished, Kollie invited a volunteer from the Liberia Media Initiative to the microphone to “break it down small.”

“You’ve got a group of white people called the European Union,” the volunteer said. “The trees you have, the big trees, its called ‘timber’, and it’s good. It’s really, really good. The other group of people, the VPA, goes between the white people group, the European Union, and the people in the timber industry, the big wood industry.”

The men in the audience nodded, and the man continued. “So my people, you are here, you understand the message. Go tell other people the message that our government is making the laws, the laws to protect the country. So when people cut the trees to bring to the white people’s country, they do it with laws.”

The man spoke in “simple” or “pidgin” English, translating the formal language of the panelists into more basic terms for audience members to understand. In Liberia, written English is nearly identical to that used in the US or the UK, but the language spoken on the street and used in public service announcements is markedly different. When landowners want to prevent pedestrians from urinating on their property, they spray paint “No pepe here!” on the potential restroom. (Men using the bathroom on the side of busy streets is not an uncommon sight here.) Anti-AIDS campaigns urge lovers to use protection during “man-woman business”, and signs prohibiting bribery exclaim, “No money business!”

Unfortunately, understanding both formal and informal English is not a two way street. While educated Liberians use both with ease, their counterparts who never made it past primary school – or who never made it to school at all – cannot easily follow formal English.

Glancing around at his fellow audience members at the debate, Chris Nippy, a local student of Political Science, argued for the importance of using simple English. He explained, “Not everyone is a college student, so pidgin English is the best. It’s the English that the common Liberian can understand. You’ve got to bring the English down to them so they can share it with their friends.”

That’s exactly what Kollie attempts to do with his bi-lingual debates, and what the government and NGOs strive for with their pidgin public service announcements. With the current state of its education system, Liberia is unable to give all its citizens the skills needed to understand the country’s official language in its formal sense. So instead, grassroots and government groups alike bring the language to the people. It’s a band-aid approach, but for now it works. As the debate concluded, the audience members rushed to the stage, bombarding the translator, not the panelists, with pointed questions about logging and laws.

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