Growing up in an impoverished community and society, one gets to appreciate and value the benefits of education from an early start. I guess my conversion towards Western education came about from what I saw happening around me. My parents were all Muslims.
My grandparents from both sides were also Muslims. My maternal grandfather married off my mother to a Paramount Chief in Klay District in Bomi County when she just 12 years old. Her husband was in his 60s. After Paramount Chief Zuannah Ginneh died few years later, my father met my mother and paid her dowry. There is nothing romantic about a child undergoing Arabic training in rural Liberia. When your parents turn you over to your teacher, you become a slave for the length of period you will have to master the Koran and graduate. You haul water for the teacher’s many wives, go into deep forests and break wood to cook for the household, and then you must recite the Koran until you doze off, and then wake up before dawn (Subah) to haul water, break wood and recite the Koran again, and again and again. I would have ended up a diviner in my village or an Imam, calling fellow Muslims to their daily prayers. But my parents were liberal Muslims; so they sent me and my siblings off to Monrovia to learn the White Man’s book. It’s been a long journey, more than 40 years now. Both my parents are dead, but I am now a father to three beautiful girls. The oldest will be entering college this year. My three girls grew up not knowing any of the complexities their grandmothers had to endure. The issues of early childhood marriage, female genital mutilation or rape are things they probably read in the newspapers, picked up on CNN or discussed in class as subject matter. In fact, the girls’ first visit to the interior parts of Liberia was when my father died and we had to travel to Grand Cape Mount County to inter his body. So Michelle Obama is coming to visit Liberia with her two beautiful daughters. It’s not surprising that my daughters have been following Sasha and Malia on the Internet. They love the way the two First Daughters dress and behave themselves in public. In a way, my daughters can relate to Sasha and Malia because of the easy access they (my daughters) have to social media. But as Monrovia goes gaga today with the arrival of the First Family (minus Barack), I wonder how many young girls in rural Liberia will have the opportunity to know that Mrs. Obama is in Liberia to promote girls’ education? I wonder what would be the impact of Mrs. Obama’s visit on families in rural Liberia who have no means of sending their children to school? I wonder when Mrs. Obama leaves Liberia, if parents in rural Liberia will stop sending off their young girls into the Sande societies where unsafe cultural practices are still being carried out in the name of our national heritage? Will Mrs Obama’s visit really change the rape situation in Liberia? Or will our grandfathers stop paying dowries for our teenage daughters in rural Liberia? For me, I sincerely believe, even if Mrs. Obama spends one year in Liberia talking to our people or setting up programs to change the lives of our girl children, everything would amount to naught if we ourselves are not serious about instituting national programs and policies that would change the situation. To be frank, the change has already started, but it’s the sustenance that matters most. Admittedly, government’s national policy on girls’ education has been a groundbreaking initiative since its introduction in 2006 under the auspices of the Ministry of Education. Now that the National Policy on Girls’ Education is in place, the implementation must be followed through to ensure that: (1) counseling is provided in schools for girls; (2) more female teachers are recruited and trained; (3) the impunity of teachers who commit sexual abuse and assault of students is curtailed; (4) life skills education is offered at schools to raise self-esteem so girls can say no to sexual abuse; (5) the availability of small scale scholarships for girls is increased; (6) new parent teacher associations and girls clubs are opened, among others. To achieve this, all stakeholders, especially the National Legislature, must come aboard, change the education landscape and alter those outlandish practices that tend to impede progress for our children. We cannot continue to sit in our ivory towers on Capitol Hill and expect manna to fall from heaven. No matter what Mrs. Obama says or does here in Liberia, it won’t change our situation until we muster the courage to take those drastic steps. Until we realize the importance of educating our children (especially our girls) so that they can make informed decisions; until we completely outlaw female genital mutilation; until those proven guilty of rape in courts of competent jurisdiction are accorded the ultimate capital punishment; we will continue running around in circles.