Growing up in Clara Town slum, George Weah was dealt the same deck of cards as most Liberian children. Just over a week ago, he was sworn in as the President of Liberia.
A lot happened in between these two events and it wasn’t luck.
Instead, it was the compilation of hard work, study and persistence, persistence, persistence. Weah’s rise to presidency is a story that every child and every youth in Liberia can look up to for motivation to work hard in the classroom and pursue one’s passion, and most importantly, to never give up.
When George Weah lost in the 2005 election, he was largely criticized for his lack of education in the face of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Master of Public Administration from world renowned Harvard University.
Sirleaf was sworn in becoming the first elected female head of state in Africa, setting an example for females and all youth throughout Africa that times were changing and gender equality was on the rise.
So what did Weah do after this tough loss? Firstly, he didn’t give up. Instead, he enrolled in a Master’s program at DeVry University in Miami and graduated with a Master’s of Public Administration - following which he returned to Liberia and became a Senator in 2014.
Next he went for the presidency and he won showing Liberia’s youth just how much education and persistence can pay off when it comes to reaching one’s dream, which is why improving Liberia’s education system is one of his top priorities to see through in his term — so the quality of life for all residents can improve from increased income generation to improved health outcomes and more.
In his inauguration speech, President Weah states that Liberia has a strong historic relationship with the USA and that he hopes it will become stronger under his administration. I along with a few other Americans that have been working for various nonprofits, as well as Peace Corps, throughout Liberia could not agree more — the relationship is historic and the special ties between the two nations reflect this importance.
Nearly two years ago, while many of us were working far from Monrovia in Maryland County’s Harper City - a town named after a US Senator from Maryland and member of the American Colonization Society, Robert Goodloe Harper - we met one Liberian by the name of Musa Sheriff as he was a driver for an international NGO operating in the southeast.
A lifelong resident of West Point, Musa would tell us all about West Point, what life is like back in the slum and most particularly, what life is like for the children of West Point who lack the opportunity to go to school and what he wants to do to change it.
For those of us that hadn’t yet been to West Point, we went and visited. We went to the single government school serving a slum of 75,000 residents and we did research only to learn that an estimated 22,000 children in West Point are currently not able to go to school due to a variety of reasons.
During our visit while walking around West Point, Musa would point out to me where he once was able to watch his biggest idol on the television, George Weah, play soccer matches as the people on the streets in West Point he told me would literally go crazy in celebration each and every time Weah - a child who once grew up the slum just next to West Point known as Clara Town - scored a goal.
With much of the country growing up with Weah as one of their biggest role models, if not the biggest, more and more of Liberia’s youth are now looking at his example and saying if he can do it, so can I, so can we.
Thanks to Musa’s passion that was contagious and our firsthand experience spending time in West Point, there was no doubt we were going to do something about it to support him in his strong desire to help his home community using what he has learned working for various international NGOs over the years — a turnaround he feels strongly about and has shared with others such as this article he wrote encouraging others to do the same as many of the NGOs they work for continue to leave Liberia.
Together, we founded Educate West Point (EWP) — a Liberian nonprofit founded by Liberians and a US sister nonprofit responsible for supporting factors such as advocacy, fundraising and technical advising.
Coming to work in partnership with the Liberian Ministry of Education, our goal is to help improve the access to education for the children of West Point so that one day all children in the slum are able to receive the quality education they deserve.
In September, we enrolled our first 9 out of school beneficiaries into the government school once the Ebola Treatment Unit for all of West Point. As we start out, each student enrolled has a sponsor for five years covering school uniforms, shoes, book bags, school supplies, two meals a day through the EWP feeding program and more.
Though 9 students is a small amount in the face of the estimated 22,000 children in the slum who do not currently go to school, it is 9 lives transformed as a result of Musa’s passion and ambition, and it is a stepping stone on a long journey we are committed to taking.
Today instead of watching George Weah play soccer on TV from his same neighborhood in West Point, Musa along with many other now young adults are watching Weah take his seat as the President of Liberia — and their dreams are growing along with his.
Like Weah, EWP Founder Musa Sheriff lacks an education as his education career was sadly broken up like many other Liberian youth, with two civil wars followed by the worst Ebola outbreak in history that wreaked havoc over the West Point community.
Instead of giving up or trying to carry on without an education, looking up to his continued role model in President Weah, Musa wants more than anything to also go back to school to obtain first his college degree which is why he recently enrolled in continued education to prep him for just that.
Soon Musa hopes to pass high school exams and go on to university setting an example for the students his nonprofit is seeking to support, in the same way George Weah set an example of returning to school for Musa and all of Liberia’s youth who looked up to him as the great soccer player he was.
As President Weah tackles a top item on his agenda — corruption — more and more youth will be learning that there is no easy answer to success, and that education and hard work are the way to reach one’s dreams.
Moreover, as President Weah and the Ministry of Education with all its partners keep pushing on with the major undertaking of improving access to quality education for all children throughout Liberia, the number of children who will have the chance to reach their own dreams through the power of education, as Weah has demonstrated is possible through his rise to Presidency, will only continue to go up.
Katie Letheren is an American international development worker with seven years working overseas in Asia, Africa and Europe. Following her time working in Maryland County, Liberia on a post-Ebola health system strengthening project - passionate about getting to the root of the poor health outcomes she was seeing - Katie co-founded Educate West Point - a Liberian nonprofit and US sister nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children in West Point through increasing their access to quality education. Katie attended New York University where she received her BA in political science with a strong focus in journalism. She later completed the Global Health Delivery Intensive Program at Harvard School of Public Health.