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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.