THE waters of the River Maher swirl in muddy eddies as the canoe makes its way towards us. Carved out of a single trunk, it is at least 40 feet long.
Loaded up with a few 50kg sacks emblazoned with the words “Mary’s Meals, a Gift for the Children of Liberia”, three passengers and a boatman, it sits low in the water.
No matter, for the boatman is used to his cargo and knows the river and its currents well. This is the only way the Scottish charity can transport the bags of rice, peas and corn soya blend to the village school in Maherzoobandi, one of 364 it feeds in Liberia, in its bid to help children escape poverty.
Surrounded by bush, in some of West Africa’s last rainforest, the village is a bustling, vibrant place. Dogs pad along the cracked mud pathways and chickens scratch about in the sand, teenage mothers dance as they sew and bathe their kids outside in big bowls and young men in football shirts doze in the shade under the rush and tin roofs as the sun climbs high. It is mid-morning, and at the school the excitement among the children in the bamboo and mud-built classrooms is rising.
They are hungry, and the smell of the huge pots of rice and beans heating over the fire wafts along from the outdoor kitchen. Two village women in bright African prints and headscarves stand behind the bamboo fencing topped off with a tin roof, stirring a huge metal pot.
A welcoming party of village elders, the PTA chair, school principal and the teacher greet us, presenting us with kola nuts, a symbol of purity and full of caffeine, which are used to ease hunger pangs. Mary’s Meals is popular here and everyone is smiling.
The teacher comes out to talk, but with 200 children in the school and only one other teacher, he can’t be out of the classroom for long. Teaching here is a juggling act, with the children divided among four classrooms and teachers darting back and forward teaching several lessons at once, with few materials available to make it easier. There are no books in most Liberian classrooms, just the children’s jotters.
Before the bloody civil war that raged between 1989 and 2003, St Raphael’s school was on the other side of the river, which meant children as young as four making a twice-daily crossing. The currents are strong, but that’s not the only danger. The villagers say there are crocodiles, too.
After the war that killed more than a quarter of a million people, the 1.3 million displaced began to return to the countryside from which they had fled to escape the brutal rebel groups. Children and youths had been routinely dragged out of the bush and forced to join the fighting, becoming Liberia’s notorious child soldiers and, fuelled by drugs and alcohol, were forced into participating in many of the atrocities.
With the coming of peace, the villages swelled once more and in 2006 the school was moved back across the river. Not only does this mean avoiding the crossing, it also gives the children protection from abduction.
“Child slavery is common,” says Mary’s Meals country director Chris MacLullich. “And children are vulnerable to being forced to work or abused. School is a safe place for them to be.”
In this country of four million people, where 95 per cent of the population survive on less than £1.20 ($2) a day, child abuse is common, as is domestic and sexual violence. According to a United Nations survey, during the war 75 per cent of women were raped and it is still the number one crime reported to the Liberian police, with most of the victims aged between ten and 19. Forty per cent of children suffer malnutrition and, according to Unicef, 60 per cent of them remain out of school.
The settlement we are visiting is a Gola-speaking village, one of 30 indigenous languages spoken by Liberia’s 16 tribes, though English is the official language in which all schooling is conducted. The population is split among religions, and Mary’s Meals feeds across them all, working with village leaders, imams, parents and communities to deliver a daily meal to 113,503 children in schools across three counties in western Liberia. Another two counties will be added in 2014, with the government emphasising education and showing increasing interest in using the Mary’s Meals model for its own feeding programme launched this year.
“There’s a direct relationship between school feeding and enrolment and attendance,” says MacLullich. “When feeding is not going on in a school, the enrolment could drop more than 50 per cent, especially in rural Liberia.
“Children walk in from villages far away and when they go home for lunch, they’re not coming back. They’re kept at home to work.”
Mary’s Meals feeds more than 800,000 children every day at schools in 16 countries, including Malawi, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Haiti, India and Eastern European countries. Present in Liberia since 1994 when it delivered emergency medical aid, it is the charity’s second largest school feeding programme. Of the £10 million Mary’s Meals raises in a year, £1.7m is spent in Liberia.
Liberia was founded by freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean, and their descendants now make up 5 per cent of the population, these Americo-Liberians still dominating Liberian society. The rest of the population is comprised of indigenous groups and the disparity in wealth and influence was a contributing factor in the war.
However, ethnicity is not something Liberians like to talk about. As Mary’s Meals’ assistant country director/head of programmes Joseph Flomo Goelo says: “I’m not happy about people asking me my tribe. It creates a gap. That’s how people die. Let’s not be concerned about tribes. We are all Liberians.”
Working together to get school feeding going is the key to Mary’s Meals’ success compared to other feeding programmes. Before the charity begins delivering meals, the community must sign up to providing a kitchen, latrines, volunteer cooks, secure storage for the food and a garden with a view to growing additional fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement the meals.
“We are not just going to deliver the food without community partnership,” says Flomo Goelo.
While those with most status in the village are men, it is the women who weave the fabric of society. They are the ones volunteering to cook for hundreds of children every day. A force to be reckoned with, it was Liberia’s women who heralded the end of the civil war when they staged mass peaceful demonstrations for months in Monrovia.
This, along with international pressure and being hemmed in by rebels, persuaded president Charles Taylor and the warlords to go to peace talks in Ghana. Taylor went on into exile in Nigeria, leaving a transitional government to steer the country towards elections in 2005 and in 2006, the newly-elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, formally requested his extradition.
Taylor was sentenced by a UN Special Court in the Hague in 2012 for aiding rebels who committed atrocities in Sierra Leone during its civil war and is currently serving the remainder of his 50-year prison sentence in the UK.
Ten years on from the end of the war, Liberians do not like to look back, but Taylor still has support in the country. Back in the 1997 election, his unofficial winning slogan was “He killed my pa, he killed my ma, but I’m still going to vote for Charles Taylor”, and there are those who think he was mis-represented.
Today in Bomi County, however, as the children queue for their meal, the mood is hopeful for a peaceful future.
“I love Mary’s Meals because they are feeding the children,” says Bandu Sheriff, chair of the PTA and part of the committee that runs the school.
“It was Mary’s Meals who helped by giving us the materials and we built the school. Everyone in the village agreed because we wanted the children to have somewhere to learn, and they all helped. It took a few months, but we did it and we’re very happy.”
Sheriff values education because she did not go to school herself, in a country where 40 per cent of the adults are illiterate.
“There was no tradition in my village. I would like to be a teacher and would like to have gone to school. I’m glad my children have.
“It makes a difference to the future of the village to have the school. If the children are educated they will come back and help the village and the school. It gives us a future.”
It costs Mary’s Meals just £10.70 to feed a child in school for a whole year – a simple idea, bringing hope to a hungry world
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