‘These children can be like everyone else’

Jerrydine Pinky Jones, the principal of Oscar Romero School for the deaf. Picture: Esme Allen
Jerrydine Pinky Jones, the principal of Oscar Romero School for the deaf. Picture: Esme Allen
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School for the deaf provides skills needed to survive in war-torn Liberia

JERRYDINE Pinky Jones had just given birth. Her baby daughter, Cecelia, lay in her arms but there was no time to count toes and wonder at the miracle of a new life as the sound of gunshot drew nearer. Jones knew if she and her family were to survive, they had to move fast. Just 45 minutes later the young mother was on the road, walking to save their lives, but walking right back into a war zone.

Children help each other with sign language. Picture: Esme Allen

Children help each other with sign language. Picture: Esme Allen

“My mother threw the afterbirth in the river and we wrapped the baby in a cloth and just walked. I was bleeding all the time but we kept going. We walked from 8am in the morning to 6pm at night. Then we reached Liberia,” she says.

In 1990, the 18-year-old Jones and her family had fled the civil war in her home country of Liberia for the next door state Sierra Leone, but with the intervention of Liberian president Charles Taylor into his neighbour’s affairs, that country too plunged into civil war. Those who had fled there were faced with a choice of either becoming embroiled in further fighting or escape.

“It was a typical story and many people suffered like me. Some people were killed right in front of their parents or children and people have terrible stories, much more than mine,” she says quietly.

Now, 23 years on, Jones is acting principal at the Oscar Romero Deaf School on the Mary’s Meals compound in Tubmanburg, in western Liberia, from which the Scottish-based charity feeds 113,500 children in schools in the country every day, including this one. Liberia is the second biggest of its operations in 16 countries.

Here too Jones and her staff take charge of the 78 deaf or hard-of-hearing children from all over Liberia entrusted to their care. These are youngsters who have not only experienced the aftermath of war and life in Africa’s second poorest country, but also have to contend with the loss of hearing in a place where life is tough even for the able-bodied.

Every morning as the Liberian flag is raised outside the school, she leads the children in the national pledge. There are 30 indigenous languages or dialects spoken here, but English is the official, unifying one, and at Oscar Romero there’s another language too: sign language.

As Jones speaks the words, she signs as she goes, and the children’s hands flutter back in unison: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of Liberia and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

For Jones, and the children here, all members of Liberia’s 16 tribes or descendants of the freed US slaves who started this nation, the national pledge has a weight and meaning forged by their experiences of their country’s troubled history. There isn’t a child or adult at Oscar Romero whose life hasn’t been touched in some way by the civil war that raged between 1989 and 2003, killing over a quarter of a million people and displacing a further 1.3 million.

These are children who may not have heard, but they have definitely seen too much in their young lives. Jones and her staff are determined to give them the skills needed to survive outside the Mary’s Meals compound.

“It’s not easy in Liberia, but these children can be like 
everyone else. We take them as our own, show them love, protect them. We teach them sign language because they need to be able to integrate, give them an education and the ability to work when they leave. We teach them agriculture, computing, tailoring, carpentry ... we take responsibility,” says Jones, now 41.

“Often they have been rejected because the parents think having a deaf child is a stigma and the children have been outcast, or the father leaves the family, but we people need to realise these children are like ourselves. Deaf children need to be educated and cared for too.

“Some of them are born deaf, some are deaf due to illness and an overdose of the quinine used to treat malaria. It also happens that the father abandons the mother and child and starts another family because they think nothing good will come of deaf children. Oscar Romero is the only deaf school in Liberia,” she says.

Jones’s story is typical of many Liberians. Like others, she endured 15 years of fear and uncertainty, moving around to avoid the rebel fighters who recruited children as soldiers, seeking out refuge in Liberia and abroad. Jones and her family left the capital Monrovia when the rebel violence hit, fled to Sierra Leone then back again before escaping once more to a refugee camp in Ghana. She eventually returned in 2008.

“We lived in Monrovia when the rebels entered in 1990. Some of them started doing bad things and some started feeding us. One Wednesday in the market, a classmate of mine was killed. … We became afraid and picked up our things and went,” she says.

Named after Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, a Catholic bishop who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980, the Oscar Romero school opened in 2008.

At playtime, what’s noticeable about the children racing around the playground is their size – 40 per cent of Liberian children are stunted due to malnourishment, irreversible if it happens in the first three years. Despite looking young, many pupils are older than the norm, ranging from four to 25. This is because many missed out on education because of their deafness, but also because of child labour.

“There are a lot of over age students who started late and we want to get them through education too,” says Chris MacLullich, Mary’s Meals Country Director. “You have to admire young teenagers who go through the humiliation of going back to school, sitting next to young children in class.”

Leadeh, age 23, is one such pupil, joining the school five years ago in the ‘abc’ first grade when she was 18.

“I came big but started in the abc grade and now I’m grade four. I’m a fast learner. I was a bit embarrassed at being older, but it’s good to be at school. I want to be a farmer, with a family and a husband, to go back home to Nimba County and grow more food.”

In Liberia, deeply-held traditional beliefs and the influence of the secret societies or bush schools are widespread. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself, who is from nearby Bomi County, spent nine months in the bush at the age of 16.

Like Fight Club, no-one will discuss the Poro and Sande societies that exist to teach hunting skills and manhood for boys and help girls prepare for marriage and running a home. For girls there is also the ritual practice of genital cutting.

“Early marriage is common here and is a big reason for young girls leaving school,” says MacLullich. “Basically a man buys a young girl, giving her father about $46 for her. In rural areas it’s at 14 or 15, particularly in Muslim areas. He often has a first wife and a couple of kids and they want a young woman around who does the chores. We don’t directly tackle that issue, but take a non-confrontational approach, saying look at what you can achieve if you’ve got an education.”

Another child who was born hearing and has come to education late is Mohammed, 22, from Monrovia, who stands out with his highly-polished shoes. He doesn’t know what happened to his hearing or when he lost it exactly but has been at the school for three years.

“The rebels came and we were afraid,” he says. “I saw people being killed and wanted to get away. My mother and father took us three children away and we hid until the UN came and the soldiers took us to a safe place.”

For him the past is understandably a blur that he has no wish to examine, but he has no problems looking ahead. When he leaves school he wants to study business and has plans. He pauses and looks down at his feet. “I want to be a cobbler. With my own business.”

Jones and her staff are proud of their pupils and their determination to build a better future for themselves and their country. Jones’s own baby Cecelia is 22 now and like Liberia, has emerged from the trauma of the war years and their aftermath, to struggle with the challenges ahead.

“The nation has changed around and we should put these bad things we experienced in the past and forge ahead, pick up the broken pieces and try to work towards a better thing coming forward,” says Jones.