Rather than suffer in Boston’s cold, I spent the better part of two January weeks in Liberia, in West Africa – where the temperature hovered around 90 and the “comfort index” pegged at 107. I went to the war-ravaged country, first colonized by free American blacks and freed slaves, on behalf of CODE and the International Book Bank, two literacy NGOs dedicated to the proposition that literacy, reading, and critical thinking are the keys to every other kind of improvement and success. I spent the first week running a workshop for Liberian writers, illustrators, and photographers, whom IBB, and the Liberian group We-Care, hope to teach to produce non-fiction school books for primary school students. This required teaching the students in the workshop the difference between fiction and non-fiction – which was much more difficult than you might imagine, and starting with the most basic principles of photography. It also required five days of teaching from 9-5, a far cry from one, three-hour, night-a-week at the Institute.
I spent the second week photographing in urban and rural schools, documenting, where possible, the work of CODE, IBB, and the We-Care Foundation. The photos you see here should provide a sense, if nothing else, of how privileged we in this country are. I have returned from Liberia thinking, as I returned from Somalia two decades ago, that we in America do not even know what poverty and true deprivation are. And I returned ready to do more of this work anywhere it is offered to me.
You may see more images, a color collection called Liberia Through My Eyes, and Liberian Schools in Black and White, in galleries on my website.
Inside the school near Buchanan
Here, where the students lack text books, we found three steel cases containing what appeared to be brand new books. Three teachers at the school said the books arrived three years ago, and were being preserved in the trunks because they are "precious." Apparently they are too "precious" to be used by students.
A scene in Buchanan
A costal Liberian town that was bombed from the air, bombarded from the sea, and repeatedly changed hands during the more than a decade of brutal civil wars in Liberia. Ten years after the wars finally ended, the town's main street along the coast still looks like the war zone it was.
Another scene in Buchanan
While making this image I ran up against the reality of why my Liberian hosts had told me I could not be on the street photographing. A man came up to me, seemingly out of nowhere - and quickly was joined by two companions who boxed me in, telling me that I owed him money because I had photographed "his" property. He quickly became very insistent, but luckily one of my Liberian companions, sitting 50 feet away in our pickup truck, yelled to the leader of our group, "B. D. needs you - now!" Mike Weah, found of We-Care, came over, tried to gosh with the three Liberians, and started to shove me back to the pickup. The attempts at mollification - and pointing out that the government owned the property - didn't work, and the incident only ended when we all managed to jump into the truck and drive off, leaving the three men behind shaking their fists. Liberia is not a place for tourists.
School girls reading in the We-Care Library, in the heart of Monrovia, Liberia
The free library, supported by the We-Care Foundation, provides free services to readers of all ages, and is filled every day with school classes, and adults. The work of We-Care is supported by CODE, a fifty-year-old Canadian NGO working to improve literacy and teacher training and critical thinking in schools around the world, and the International Book Bank, a Baltimore-based NGO that provides books free or at cost to schools in developing countries, including Liberia.
A young student reading in the We-Care Library
A street scene in Monrovia
A corner of the We-Care Library, in Monrovia
The library was established as the We-Care book chain by Michael Weah, at the start of Liberia's savage civil wars during the 1990s and early 2000s. Weah loaned books out to people to give them some distraction during the endless curfews, and only asked that they pass the books along when they finished reading them. Today, the We-Care Foundation is working with the country's Department of Education to improve Liberia's appallingly low literacy rate.
Driving from Roberts Airport to Monrovia
Students in a rural Liberian school
Students in a public school in Monrovia
A teacher at work in a school in Monrovia
The schools lack electricity, and some do not have any drinking water.
Public school building
Members of the community served by this Monrovia public school scraped and saved to purchase the two water tanks in the foreground. But they cannot afford the -per-tank, per-month that it would cost to provide the children with clean drinking water.
A student reading to the class in a Monrovia public school
The students uniforms cost their parents about .50 in a nation whose economy has not begun to rebound from more than a decade of civil war, and a security guard is lucky to make -a-month.
A student I found by himself in a classroom in a public school
He reminded me of a scene I might have expected to see in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s.
A student in a Monrovia public school reading a book provided by the International Book Bank
The International Book Bank is a Baltimore-based literacy NGO which provides books free or steeply discounted to schools in developing nations.
A corner in a Monrovia public school classroom
Read the list of words.
Morning in Monrovia
The structure in the background is the military barracks from which Sgt. Samuel Doe and fellow mutineers left to storm the Presidential mansion on April 12, 1980, and murder President William Tolbert. The coup represented the overthrow, after about 150 years, of the so-called Americos, Liberians descended from American free blacks who were first settled in Liberia in the 1820s. The Americos completely dominated Liberia's government and economy from then until the coup lead by Doe, a member of a native Liberian tribe.
Representatives of Liberia's We-Care Foundation, and of the International Book Bank
Together they saw this public school building outside Buchanan, Liberia, said it is the worst they have ever seen. The school is only a few miles from the local headquarters of ArcelorMittal, one of the world's richest corporations, and the world's leading steel and mining company.
B. D. Colen is a writer and photographer who during 27 years at The Washington Post and Newsday shared a Pulitzer Prize and covered medicine and health care for 17 years. He pioneered the coverage of bioethics in the mainstream media, and created and served as the editor of Newsday's weekly science section, wrote a nationally syndicated column on the intersection of health care, policy, and politics, and covered everything from the Karen Ann Quinlan "right-to die" case, to the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to the famine in Somalia in the early 1990s.
The author of more than a half-dozen books on medically related subjects, since 1999, Colen has been teaching science journalism and news writing courses at MIT, and in 2001, he created and began teaching a documentary photography course - 21W.749, "Documentary Photography/Photo Journalism - Still Images of a World In Motion." His photography can be seen at http://www.bdcolenphoto.com.
Since January of 2014 Colen has traveled to both Liberia and Haiti to document the work of five different NGOs, two focused on literacy efforts, two working with orphans, and one delivering medical and health care.