Liberia: Underaged Children in Remote Bong County Risk Lives on Canoe Daily to Obtain Education

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HAINDI, Fuamah District – Every morning in Haindi, Fuamah District, school-going children board canoes — crossing the St. Paul River to get to the Gadama Public School in Bong’s electoral district seven.

Jerry Baysah,15, a first-year secondary school student who has been crossing the river for two years, told FrontPageAfrica: ‘The only school in Haindi is an hour distance from where I live. The Gadama Public School is very close, so, we have to cross in canoe to get to the campus is.’

For girls — who are particularly affected by illiteracy in the country, school is an escape from early marriage.

At 15, Beatrice Jones escaped marriage at the end of primary school. Now, to continue her studies, she has another challenge: walking 10 kilometers and crossing a 50-meter wide river in a canoe.

Jones, a student at Gadama Public School, outlines her daily routine to this newspaper: “I live in Haindi, I come here every day and now I cross this river by canoe to go to school.”

Crossing the river is not without risks as the school children navigate without life safety jackets on makeshift canoes made of tree trunks. 

During the rainy season from May to October each year, the trip is even more dangerous.

The second part of the journey is done on foot, with the children wading knee — even waist-high water.

Upon graduation, most children are left to marry, raise cattle or engage in farming. The Ministry of Education in Bong County says it’s fighting to make a change.

Foday Gray, principal of Gadama Public School, said he’s ready to keep up efforts to protect the future of youths in the district. His words: “We are fighting this battle against illiteracy, even if it means children crossing the river”.

He added: “This is the only means we have to educate our children. We are aware of the risks traveling over the river bring, but we need to educate our children”.

‘Dangerous but only alternative’

Parents whose children travel via canoes on the river to seek education told FrontPageAfrica they are aware of the danger, but have no options.

Alfred Thomas, a father of two, said: “Nothing is available to us in this community. The suffering is too much. They wake up as early as 6am so they can leave the house early to travel via the canoe. We know it’s dangerous but we have no options”.

“They leave home by 6am so that they can be in school by 8am resumption time. Many of them have to sweep their classrooms before classes begin. When you see them going in groups to the river in the morning, you’d pity them. It’s worse when they are returning.’’

Thomas, who said she had been living in the community for some years, said he was unhappy that the community had not experienced any meaningful developments.

“I sell farm produce but the bulk of my profit goes into transportation for my children to board the canoe. It’s better in the dry season because when it rains, the river becomes violent. We work hard but we have little or nothing to show for it,’’ he stated.

Also, another parent, only identified as Chris, lamented that since he moved to Haindi, it has been one suffering to another in sending his children to school.

He said, “Our children are really suffering. They board the canoe every morning to go Gadama, which is the closest government school for them. Some even go as far as Totota, electoral district six. To drink water is trouble, when they return from school, they are tired.  They want to wash their school uniforms, they have assignments to do. It’s tough for them, the same way it is for parents. Many of the children have even stopped going to school.”

Inhumane condition

FrontPageAfrica’s reporter travelled to the Gadama community to monitor the conditions under which pupils of the school are being taught. 

There was palpable discomfort written boldly on the faces of the pupils as offensive odor momentarily filtered into the classroom environment. 

In what appeared as their way of guiding against the putrid smell, some of them had their hands placed around their nostrils. This reporter, who was at the school, observed an open space around the classroom windows, which serve as makeshift ‘toilet’ for pupils in the school.  

The offensive odor filtered in from the open space, pupils said.

“That is what we confront here sometimes,” a source at the school, who spoke to FrontPageAfrica under strict condition of anonymity, said.

“The open space behind the classroom is what serves as ‘toilet’ to pupils. They defecate there because there is no functional toilet. Although they try to monitor them so that the place can be kept clean, the offensive smell of feces still come into the classrooms sometimes ––but not all the time.”

A pupil who introduced himself simply as Joshua confirmed the claim in a chat with FrontPageAfrica, adding that other pupils prefer to go further into the bush to defecate.

“We don’t have toilet as the one we had broken down for long. The open space at the back of our windows is where we defecate. Many of us who are older prefer to go to the bush but the small ones do it here because it is safer,” 7-year-old Joshua said in Kpelle, pointing at a nearby bush located at a spot not far away from the open space that serves as ‘toilet’ for the pupils.

This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through its Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with Front Page Africa

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