When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected Liberia’s president in October 2005, more than 250,000 of her countrymen had been killed in a 14-year civil war that was among the most violent to have occurred in Africa. By some estimates, nearly half of Liberia’s 3 million people had fled the West African nation since war started in 1989. Its infrastructure was shattered and its economy crippled by 15-percent unemployment.
Five years later, the future holds potential. Johnson-Sirleaf has helped restore some semblance of peace as Liberia’s “Iron Lady” and is expected to win reelection next year. Her platform is built on maintaining security, reducing corruption and rebuilding Liberia’s fragile education system.
The third challenge will be incredibly difficult, says Tina Richardson, associate professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education. Young children fought for the government and the opposition during the 14-year civil war, and an estimated 21,000 “boy soldiers” need to be reintegrated into society and the classroom.
The challenge extends to higher education, where students and faculty are finding it difficult to readjust to an educational calendar that was riddled with wartime interruptions. They’re also trying to focus on a future of peace and prosperity when the culture of war still reverberates throughout Liberia.
“Most educators are still in survival mode,” says Richardson. “After 1989, education was put on hold because of the war. So there’s a significant gap in preparedness and readiness, both for teachers and students.
Tending to the needs of a devastated populace
“Almost everybody in Liberia was impacted by the war. Families were torn apart. Boys left school to take up arms. You cannot make progress in educational reform without addressing the psychological needs of a population devastated by conflict and unimaginable circumstances.”
Like most Third World countries, Liberia has placed little emphasis on the mental health of its populace. The capital city of Monrovia has only one mental health facility to serve a population of one million. On the outskirts of town and in Liberia’s interior villages, psychological help is impossible to find.
Richardson is working with University of Liberia President Emmet Dennis on a plan that creates a welcoming campus community that offers everything from behavioral health services to academic and extracurricular activities.
“In Liberia, the university has to be concerned with healing and recovery as much as education,” says Richardson, who will help Dennis survey the needs of the public university and its 15,000 students and match them with available resources.
Dennis is positioning the university as a beacon for hope for students with limited means, says Richardson. He believes it can be a vehicle for healing and a safe harbor against cultural extremism, a place from which a new generation of problem-solvers and leaders can emerge.
“There is tremendous resilience and desire to succeed among Liberia’s educational community,” says Richardson. “Despite being surrounded by the chaos of war, the university was always a place where people could reconnect with the past—with safer times. It was a salvation for most people during the war.
“The environment may have changed, but the university remains a powerful symbol of hope for Liberia. It will be one of the most important factors in Liberia’s transition into a strongly independent and economically vibrant nation.”
Richardson plans to expand her work with the University of Liberia, which began in 2007 when she formed a partnership with the university’s teachers college.