Thieves have smashed a hole through the wall of the library at the Carolyn A Miller School in Payensville, Liberia. They took the school’s two computers, passing them through the person-sized hole, protected by the cover of darkness in this un-electrified neighbourhood. But they left the school’s scant collection of books and this surprises me, because they are expensive in Liberia. A set of Grade 4 books costs $50 – a month’s rent. Karrus Hayes, the founder of the school, has nailed a block of wood across the hole. Daylight seeps through the cracks, illuminating the near-empty shelves.
Karrus Hayes started the school in 2003 on the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana with a $50 loan and the use of a church hall. A decade since he started his project, the school is still one of a few non-fee paying schools in Liberia that educates up to 12th Grade.
Karrus’ school seeks to solve the dual problems of corruption in education, and delivering quality teaching to Liberia’s poorest young people; state schools only educate up to 6th Grade, are under-resourced and are often closed due to staff shortages. But Liberia’s textbook crisis is holding Karrus’ school, and its students, back.
‘Star Longman is the only book store in Monrovia that gives people the means to education. They have to get the books from Ghana and the US to Liberia, which makes them so expensive,’ Karrus explains. This bookshop is the only glass-fronted shop I have seen in Monrovia; others are crumbling, concrete-block and tin-roof arrangements with names such as Lucky Business Centre and Looking Good Barbing Salon hand-painted in dazzling colours. The owner of Star Longman keeps her stock of textbooks locked behind glass cabinets, out of reach from thieves. The titles are enticing: Women’s Empowerment in Post-war Liberia, and Mapping West Africa. Answers to Liberia’s development questions are screened off, available only to the wealthy élite.
Theft is a big problem in Liberia. As Karrus and I walk back from the school through Paynesville’s Red-Light market, a boy of about 10 approaches us with a selection of well-thumbed textbooks fanned out in his arm. ‘Hey, how much is this book?’ Karrus asks. It is $5. Karrus hands it back and signals the boy on. ‘When you see some guy selling books in the street for a cheaper price, it means that they are stolen.’
Many of Carolyn A Miller’s students spend their afternoons selling items at Red-Light market after school has finished and I recognize a few faces in the crowd. A 10th-Grader is winding a wheelbarrow piled high with jeans around the puddles, and a female student sells soft drinks from a large tin bowl balanced on her head.
In 2013, some 25,000 school leavers sat the University of Liberia entrance exams, and every one of them failed – a stark indication of the deteriorating school system. Consequently, corruption in education has become a common feature.
Integrity is the foundation of the Carolyn A Miller School’s values. ‘Some teachers today ask students to give them money for good grades. So students don’t take the whole thing seriously,’ Karrus tells me. ‘Everyone is seeking money, and teachers are not giving out what the children need.’ I ask Karrus how he tackles bribery in his school. ‘I go to all classes and give them my numbers and say “if any teacher asks you for money then contact me”.’
Liberia has remained peaceful for over a decade since its 14-year civil war ended, but protracted conflict has de-skilled the country and its infrastructure is weak and reliant on outside resources: Chinese contractors are rebuilding the road from Monrovia to the country’s mineral-rich interior.
‘We have the gold mines, we have the rubber, we have iron ore,’ Karrus stresses as we pick our way over the grey pools left by the monsoon. ‘We have all these things – but the most important thing we have is the kids. We have human resources. When everyone is educated, we can discover what is underground. But if we don’t know the value, it cannot help us.’
Knowledge is expensive here, but without it the cost to Liberia is even higher.