Where Liberia’s Leaders Promote Reading Culture

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The Author (Samuel G.Dweh) with three A.G. Mission School students:  Anita Seevelee (far left) Bendu Sammie (3rd from left) and Beatrice Kettor in Foya. Photo credit: Alfred  L.M. Gesaye/INSIGHT Newspaper (Monday, May 1, 2016)

My friend, Patrick Nippy, a social worker with an NGO into psycho-social counseling business, told me in this month (May) that U.S. President George W. Bush, Jr. was reading to school kids at a school when terrorists struck the Pentagon and the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The 11th day of September was the second day after the International Literacy Day (September 8), set aside by the United Nations for each literate citizen to teach his/her illiterate compatriot how to read.

Patrick was responding to my comment expressing my frustration on most Liberian government officials’ apathy toward promotion of reading culture, or promoting it only on paper or only on a bill board hoisted in a public area.

Many Nigerian government officials have made reading to school kids a culture in their country. I have a copy of a Nigerian newspaper with photo and story of the then Executive Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, reading to students on 2009’s International Literacy Day.

Do Liberian government officials do as their colleagues of other countries mentioned above? Based on their closeness to a nation’s resources for the promotion of any national development agenda, government officials are expected to take the lead in undertaking—or completing—a nation’s common good.

In the Kissi Quarters (community) in Voinjama, of Lofa County, stands a gigantic bill board of Liberia’s current Vice President, H.E. Joseph Nyumah Boakai, looking into a book.

Below the VP’s photo are the wordings: “reading opens the mind to endless possibilities”. The sponsors of this public information are the Ministry of Education, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Liberia Teacher Training Program (LTTP), being sponsored by the Government of the United States of America through USAID.

The first time I saw this bill board was Sunday, May 1, 2016, when I was in the county for the Press Union of Liberia’s three-day celebration of the 2016’s World Press Freedom Day.

What I sensed VP Boakai saying to me (when I was staring at the bill board with photo of him looking into the book) was, “I do not only read from a poster or bill board.” After viewing the bill board, I thought of interviewing students and school officials of Lofa County on their knowledge of the bill board and whether VP Boakai had any personal reading programs in their school. To reach the students and the officials, I joined a Journalists’ Field Trip team (of the PUL members) for Foya Statutory District on Monday, May 2. I would speak to students and school officials at other parts of Lofa if time allowed me.

The first people I met and spoke with were three female students—Bendu Sammie, age 17, 11th Grade; Beatrice Kettor, age 17, 11th Grade; and Anita Seevelee, age 20, 11th Grade—in uniform of the Assembly of God Mission High School in Foya Statutory District.

“We do not have any reading program in our school,” Bendu Sammie told me, after she and her colleagues took a group photo with me.

The next persons I spoke with were four boys of the Foya Free Pentecostal Mission School. Two introduced themselves as Maxwell H. Nyumah, 12th Grade; and Mark Chokpelleh, 11th Grade.

“I have no knowledge of a reading program in our school by Vice President Boakai, but I’m aware that he provided Text Books to Foya’s Schools, through the District’s Education Office, in 2015,” Maxwell H. Nyumah responded to my question.

The Vice President’s reading promotion campaign on the bill board had ignited passion for reading in students and some school officials have noticed this new love, I had thought in Voinjama.

During an interview with my batch of PUL members, I spoke out my assumption to the Foya Statutory District’s Education Office, Mr. Robert T. Saasaiwor at his office.

“No student has come to me and said ‘I love reading because I saw Vice President Joseph Boakai reading on a bill board’, ” DEO Saasaiwor said in response to me question.

At the Foya Central High School, which I was told is VP Boakai’s alma mater, I saw only a Computer Training Institute…Computer Lab, a unit of the school, with the wordings “Donated by H.E. Joseph Nyumah Boakai” written on the wall. No “Reading Room” with the VP’s name.

Still in Lofa, I hoped to meet Liberia’s #2 citizen physically someday to repeat what he was ‘saying’ from the cloth (banner) to me.

The next Liberian government official that comes to my mind on this subject of ‘bill board reading promotion’ is Senator Dallas A.V. Gueh of Rivercess County.

During an exclusive interview with me for my education newspaper, Edu-Diary, at his office at the Capitol Building in August (2015), Senator Gueh bragged: “There’s a big bill board in my county, Rivercess, with photo of me reading…I promote reading in schools in my county…”

But a confirmation visit in the County in May (2016) saw no “reading program” in any of the schools, linked to this “well-read” Legislator, who had told me (during the interview) that he had spent “more than thirty years in the teaching profession in the public and private sector.” The only Reading Program is at the Senator’s house…“Every Saturday, I ask my children to read,”

he told me during the interview. I was expecting the honorable man to say the reverse of this story: “Every Saturday, I read to my children.” With other PUL members heading to Lofa for the 2016’s World Press Freedom Day anniversary, I saw two other ‘reading culture promotion’ bill boards with different government officials. One is in Margibi County; the other in Bong County. Each of these bill boards is on the highway—outside of the main town—so that it would attract the attention of many people.

Other counties (not mentioned above) has a reading-promotion bill board (sponsored by USAID for the Ministry of Education) with photo of an influential person (or the child//children of a powerful person, from a private school), but you won’t find “reading program” in most of the schools in these counties. The absence of a “reading program” in our schools by our leaders (whose images are on ‘reading promotion’ bill board) in a county where the leader hail from tells how insincere and shameless that leader is. It also shows the person’s mockery to other citizens who expect a leader to “show by physical example” what he/she preaches.

For me, neither Liberia’s current Head of State (Madam Ellen Sirleaf) nor any of her political appointees (Etmonia Tarpeh and George Werner) has shown enough interest toward the promotion of reading culture in the country.

For the sake of time and limited space for newspaper to publish this commentary, I would give one example.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Education Minister George K. Werner sent out letters to “literate Liberians” (including Writer & Author Samuel G. Dweh) to read to their illiterate compatriots “where you live or work” (portion of the letter quoted) during the 2015’s International Literacy Day. While we (non-government officials) were reading (I read at the N.V. Massaquoi in West Point Township, my alma mater in the 80’s), the President and the Education Minister were into ‘non-reading-related’ activity. (Challenge my guess with phtos or newspaper’s report about President Sirleaf and Education Minister reading to a group pf people on 2016’s International Literacy. have photo and newspaper’s story evidences about my reading at N.V. Massaquoi School on the day).

At the launch of a poetry collection, titled “Yearnings of A Traveler”, by my literary comrade, Lekpele Nyamalon at the Corina Hotel in April, Education Minister George Werner, told the audience he is a “reader” and a member of a “readers’ club”. But his love for reading has not taken a physical form (readers’ club) in any grade school in the Country. However, expect a ‘reading promotion’ bill board of “Senator” or “Representative” or “Head of State” George K. Werner somewhere in his county, Grand Kru, someday.

THE READING-PROMOTION BILL BOARD DURING MADAM SIRLEAF’S TENURE

The idea of erecting reading-promotion bill board (some observers say only the photo of a rich person or a rich person’s child is selected for the bill board) came shortly after the launch of the National Reading Campaign (NRC) by the government of Madam Ellen Sirleaf in 2013 at the Gray D. Allison School in Monrovia.

However, most monitors on Liberian schools, specifically those at the grade level, are complaining about “no-impact” of the NRC, as majority of students can’t read, or do not have passion for reading. Other are complaining about non-existence of a National Reading Mentorship Program (to be a complementary partner to the NRC), where Liberian authors (like Samuel G. Dweh, the person writing this article) would visit schools with kids and read to them. Researches have shown that a child’s interaction with an author reading would ignite passion for reading in that child.

There’s another problem: Most of those over the NRC do not love reading (every day), they can’t motivate the lukewarm reader to be a firebrand reader; they are kept in the system on political connection, or affiliation to Secret Society, or on ethnic background.

FOR THE HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL, WHAT COUNTRY’S BOOK ARE THEY READING?

Another issue, related to the image on the bill board, is the problem of the nationality of the Author of most of the books Liberia’s leaders read. Right now, majority of books recommended by the George K. Werner-led Ministry of Education for use in Liberian grade schools are written by foreigners. Example: Only one Liberian book (“The Rain and the Night” by Wilton Sankawulo) out of 16 Literature Text Books chosen for the Senior High division in the National Curriculum. This way will go on for four years, beginning from 2014, when President Sirleaf placed Mr. Werner over the MoE.

On foreign books flooding Liberian schools, Mr. Werner is continuing with the four-year legacy of his immediate predecessor, Madam Etmonia David-Tarpeh.

I reserved the details of this foreign books issue for a different commentary for another day. If we (Liberians) are serious to realize our collective dream of being a reading nation, we should bring that ‘reading image’ on the banner, transform it into an animated person, and then hold him or her down in our yard or classroom.

Samuel G. Dweh (0886-618-906/0776-583-266; [email protected]/[email protected])/ Contributing Writer

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