A School is Built
The Liberian civil war that erupted in the late 1980’s continued for fifteen years. It led to the mass exodus of Liberians, who sought safety in neighboring countries. Ghana opened its doors to Liberia’s displaced communities, and the Buduburam refugee settlement, 40 km west of Accra, became home for 42,000 people.
As fighting continued in Liberia and spread to Sierra Leone, it soon became apparent that people would not be returning anytime soon. Although UNHCR auspices provided immediate shelter and food and immediate health care, education and schooling was not guaranteed. Liberians did not have the same access to school, health care or even bank accounts as Ghanaians did, and so those with refugee status were stuck in a kind of no man’s land; unable to return home and unable to enjoy the same rights as free people.
Without education and social development in the interim, what hope did Liberia have of rebuilding itself if a generation of children, who would return fully grown, had gone without an education and had no skills to contribute; left to drift listlessly?
Karrus Hayes, a Liberian refugee, recognized these long term problems when he arrived at Buduburam. In 2003, with the support of an American donor, Ms Carolyn Miller, Karrus started the only free school on the camp, and has provided thousands of Liberians with an education whilst they prepare for their return.
The self-named Carolyn A Miller Elementary School provides the camp’s most vulnerable children with a curriculum that includes core subjects, as well as social development, peace studies, and access to IT, and sports. For young people with refugee status, being part of a school community also provides a sense of belonging- something that it lost when people and families are displaced for long periods of time.
Thanks to the school, some have since returned to Liberia with their West African Certificate in Secondary Education, and as Liberia enters a relatively stable period under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidential guidance, the school is preparing to relocate to Monrovia. It’s ten years since Karrus began his mission, and I am proud to have been part of his efforts.
Arrival and Departure
I remember the day I arrived on the Buduburam refugee camp six years ago as clear as a bell, and I shudder at the memory of my naïve self. We pulled up at the camp’s headquarters in a shiny new 4x4 with my new rucksack I’d bought specially, and sunglasses to protect my eyes from the scorching midday Ghanaian sun. I remember Karrus, the program leader, waving and smiling to us amongst what I could only describe as a rubbish heap, and Pastor George climbing over the refuse wearing a starched white shirt and three piece suit; open arms, ready to great the school’s first volunteers.
My stomach did somersaults at the sight of the chaos: 42,000 people live here, how can this be? I thought to myself. The decision to volunteer at the Carolyn A Miller School had been made fairly quickly, through an inspirational contact I had in the UK. I’d read up about Ghana and Liberia, and had decided to find out the rest by going to see for myself- it was a leap in the dark, and one I regret not preparing better for.
The day I left was less of an occasion: the sunglasses were long gone and my rucksack was dusty and worn. Karrus and I parted quietly, misty eyed and with promises to stay in contact. Six years on that promise has been kept. I jumped into a battered trotro, piled high with passengers and yam, and made my way to the airport.
The school was painted bright orange with a black trim, and students wore matching orange shirts and black shorts. I imagined that this was what the inside of a wasp’s nest was like. Classrooms were dotted around a square courtyard, which during class was an empty dustbowl, but during break and lunchtime was busting at the seams with four hundred excited children. Each morning I arrived at school from the small volunteer house that had been built on the camp. The beginning of the school day was signified by the sound of the Liberian national anthem, sung by the students, drifting through the lanes; the sound of iron on rock as the gates were locked shut for the day. I cannot shake the memories.
Each day, more and more names were added to my grade six register. I’d gulp at the growing number of little bodies that were crammed onto the benches; more eager little faces grinning up at their strange, new teacher. It was both delightful and terrifying.
Library lessons were the best, the school was receiving more and more donations of books, and my colleagues and I enjoyed spending hot lazy afternoons cataloguing and stocking up the once empty shelves. I’d listen to students read aloud to me, and, most of the time, they were happily lost in pictures and words.
The only problem about library lessons was the dangerous journey from their classroom to the library on the opposite side of the courtyard. There was no way of stopping the stampede that followed after I called library time- often I had had to tend to scuffed knees and bruised ankles of smaller students who had fallen in the race for the best books. These were the children who got to sit next to me in the library on the best seats. Sometimes, I’d sneak a candy their way in way of an apology for inadvertently submitting them to the hazards of library time, and we’d exchange conspiratorial smiles.
The other teachers at the school were all living on the camp, and had all been education professionals in Liberia before they were displaced. They were a solid team, and I was happy to have their guidance and support whilst I taught the Ghanaian syllabus. The school has now achieved charitable status, and receives donations to help finance wages for teachers so that they too can support their families. However, a monthly salary is never guaranteed, and when I was there, months went by with no wages, but I never knew a teacher to be absent for a single class.