Monrovia – Elizabeth Margaret Blunt, is a household name to Many Liberians, most especially during the early years of Liberia’s civil unrest in 1989 and 1990, when the British journalist braved the storm and came to report on the civil war that killed over 250, 000, for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Focus on Africa at the time.
Blunt is back in Liberia this week, one of many visits she has made since completing her assignment more than a decade ago. Blunt who has retired after nearly forty years with the BBC, is now visiting Liberia again, but this time, on humanitarian basis, raising support and awareness for two schools named in her honor
She and her colleague, Mr. Peter Nettleship, are in Liberia on humanitarian mission concerning two schools named in her honour. Blunt says the first school is located in Lofa County while the second school is located in Chlorate City in Gardnerville.
For Blunt, it was a no-brainer when founders of the school in Lofa, wrote to her asking that they wanted to name the school in her honour. Blunt says she agreed and honoured to have a school named after her.
The journalist whose voice on the popular Focus on Africa programme offered Liberians trapped in rebel-held areas and the Diaspora live reports from the frontlines – long before the dawn of social media recalls:
“When the 2003 war came, those who built the school settled in Chocolate city where they opened another Elizabeth Blunt school. When we first came after the war, the building was kind of makeshift, but we bought some materials and the parents and teachers built the school.
The students even helped by carrying some sand and other small materials on their heads. We do not have money, but six friends of Elizabeth Blunt and their friends have been doing their best to raise funds to renovate the schools.”
Liberia ‘Special in a Different Way’
Speaking in an exclusive interview at her Sinkor Guest House, Blunt says she has noticed that Liberia is very special in a different way from many West African Countries she worked in, because the people are very independent-minded.
“I noticed that about the Liberians when I visited before the war. Maybe because their governments never did very much for them, so they get up and do things for themselves and do not wait for the government. “
“In Lofa where I visited, they found and paid their own teachers and did not have to wait for the government to do it for them. This initiative could not have been done in Sierra Leone or in French-speaking countries; they would wait for the government to do it for them.”
Blunt says although she and her friends bought the materials, the citizens rebuild the school and the community. The other school which is a private institution is the only school in Chocolate City, Blunt says.
Sustainability a Worry
She adds that the only elementary school is located in New Georgia, and being a private school in the area, many parents send their children to her school, because they fear sending their children across the motor road away from their homes.
The school in Chocolate City has a little over three hundred students and around 18 teachers, but sustainability of the school is a big problem.
“Fees collected by the school are not enough to pay the teachers, so we have been supplementing their salaries, but it is our worry, because if we cannot continue the salaries in the future, what becomes of the school”?
Visiting the school on a Monday morning, a journalist spoke with some students regarding their school fees.
The students who were dressed in light green tops and forest green bottoms were on break, and happily running around the campus and playing, while the school’s authority and Madam Blunt were in a meeting.
“I love this school because have been here since I was in the 4th grade, and now I am in the 9th grade, says Hassan Varney, a 9th grader. “My father is paying 4,950 (US$55.00), but he has to pay it little by little because he is not working, but learning to be a carpenter.”
The lad, donning checker-board green and white shirt, says he too is practicing to become a tailor after school hours because that is his career path for the future.
Dorcas Nyenfuah, who has been in the school since the 1st grade, is now in the 8th grade. She says her fees are $4,000(US $45.00) and her father also pays it bit by bit because he works for the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC).
Oliver J. Sailey, the school’s Principal, who was walking out of a meeting with Blunt Monday, told a reporter that he too is worried about the sustainability of the school after Madam Blunt and her friends can no longer come to their aid.
“This school started as a displaced school in 1998, but by 2003, we renamed it Elizabeth Blunt School, because at the time, we had no help and were seeking funding. So we wrote Madam Blunt and told her that we had decided to name the school after her, and she agreed and started helping the school from four class rooms covered with rubber sheet as roof to a zinc roof Jr. High school.
Blunt Pay Teachers, WAEC Fees for Kids
Madam Blunt has really been doing well for the school since it got her name. She does not only pay our staff but pay our 9th graders West African Examination Council (WAEC) fees and upkeep the computer lab that teaches the children from 4th grade to 9th grade.”
Asked why the Ministry of Education is not helping the school with subsidy, to pay teachers’ salaries, Mr. Sailey says he has not written the Ministry of Education because when he headed another school in New Georgia and asked the Ministry of Education for subsidy, the Ministry said the government did not have money.
“The government is only giving subsidies to schools that are well established but not community-based schools such as this school. Presently, Madam Blunt and her friends are paying the staff because what we collect is not enough to pay them and run the school. But my worry is what happens if Madam Blunt and her friends, who are aging, pass on? What becomes of the school and the Liberian children’s future?
If government cannot help with cash, they can at least come up with instructional materials, it will be a great help, but how do you expect me to reduce my school fees when you are not even helping me run my school?” He concluded.
Reporting on the war in Liberia
Wearing a light flowery blouse, on a hot afternoon, and sitting on the porch of her Guest House in Sinkor, Blunt, referred to as the Iron Lady in Liberia, because of the way she covered the war, narrated how she started her life as a journalist.
She says she started as a studio technician in 1968 and when she got married, she moved to East Africa with her husband who was assigned there. And after two years, she then returned to London and started working with the BBC in 1986 as the West Africa correspondent, who was responsible for reporting on Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and other countries in West Africa.
“I first came to Liberia in 1986 and visited few times before the war in 1990. So I came to cover the war in Liberia because it was my job as the West Africa Correspondent, and I felt useful doing it, because this is how people around the world knew about what was going on in Liberia. And at the time, BBC was very important to many people,” says Blunt.
She says just like anybody during the war in Liberia she was scared, but she still had to go beyond and get the facts. She then listed some of the scary instances she encountered while reporting in war torn Liberia that was much intensified at the time.
Doe’s Capture ‘Scary Moment’
“The scariest moment during 1990, was when President Samuel K. Doe was captured at the Free Port of Monrovia on September 9th 1990, when I was caught up in the shooting that lasted for an hour and half.
I was caught up inside the National Port Authority building and the window was opened. I could have been shot by anybody, but nobody was targeting me in particular, but being in the wrong place at times could get anybody killed,” she said.
Pointing out another time in 1990, she further narrated that she and Maureen Sieh, a local journalist, working with Daily Observer at the time, were on the LAC rubber Plantation, and they saw a rubber tree placed in the middle of the road that was not there earlier.
“It must have been an ambush set for the soldiers by the rebels, and the plantation men riding with us, told us to stay in the car, so they could check, but I think because the rebels knew the plantation men, they did not harm us, so we passed.
Another time, was on Harbel Rubber Plantation road, when we noticed that there was no fresh fire place, where people used to cook, there were no goats, no chickens, or anybody in the town, and it looked fearful and scary, because it was deserted.
I knew we were in no man’s land, so we went back. Other journalists did go down that road, and got to rebel territory and they were arrested by Taylor’s people.”
Outside of Liberia, Blunt recalls another scary moment in her life in Sierra Leone at the Mammy Yoko Hotel, when the Hotel was attacked and set on fire by the rebels.
“The rebels attacked the Hotel after an American warship off shore started firing. The rebels, who thought it was an attack, knew foreign soldiers and civilians were lodging at the hotel, because this hotel was where foreigners were evacuated. So the hotel was besieged, shelled and a fire started.
We could smell the smoke. But the British Military Attaché was kind enough to negotiate for the civilians to leave, and the rebels agreed that the civilians go but demanded that the ECOMOG soldiers and other military men stay.
And the soldiers guarding the Hotel, had run out of ammunition, and we had to leave them behind when they finally let us out and we walked along the beach and left. The funniest thing is that, I was wearing the same T-Shirt I wore when President Doe was captured, so I do not know if it was my unlucky T-shirt or not.” Madam Blunt, who said she reported in the Monrovia area, said She was once hunted by the government soldiers belonging to Doe.
Doe Minister May Have ‘Saved My Life’
“I was told by the then Information Minister Mr. Moses Washington, that the government soldiers of Samuel K. Doe were asking where I lived, and because I was always in the Monrovia area, so he told me it was time I left the country to be safe.
I left and travelled by sea, and I never heard from Washington again, until I heard he was killed by the rebels when he was arrested on ELWA campus where he went to seek refuge, but he may have saved my life.”
She further said in one instance she had to travel by road and passed through Guinea, because it was difficult to move in and out of Liberia during the heat of the war, when she had to cover other countries, because first the Roberts International Airport (RIA) was closed and then Spriggs Payne Airfield was also closed.
Asked whether she was trained to be a war correspondent and if she was always scared being a journalist, she answered with a smile: “It was fun being a journalist most of the times while I practiced, but at times it gets scary. “
“I did not become a journalist to be a war correspondent but at the time, I was given the job as the West Africa correspondent, so the job as a war correspondent sought me out, but I did not seek it out. When I started reporting on the war in Liberia, I saw war as everybody else saw it, because I did not get any kind of training, so I was just as innocent to war as everybody was, so I had to be scared.”