Tropics Voices • A Dangerous Pursuit of Education
By Patrice D. Juah
TROPICS VOICES – It was a cold and dark day in June of 2003 and Liberia was witnessing the start of yet another crisis which would be remembered as one of the most brutal civil wars in the country’s history. The clouds were dark, as the ringing sounds of bullets – supposedly the theme song of that era, filled the air. Violence reigned supreme, while fear governed the day. We were writing our exams that week and I was excited to be nearing my completion of high school.
By Patrice D. Juah
In spite of the reality at hand, I got fully dressed in my catholic school uniform, determined to go school on that very day. My big sister, Rita, also known as my ‘backup mom’, sat quietly in the living room of our home in Paynesville, a frightened look in her eyes. “Are you sure you want to go to school today?” She asked. “Yes”, I answered, unable to look her in the eyes. I had lived with my sister, who’s also my oldest sibling, since I was a child and she had done her utmost best to clothe, feed, shelter and send me to school throughout the war years. She had even fled with us to neighboring Cote d’Ivoire for a few years, so that we’d continue our education without interruptions from the war. Our mother, a primary school teacher, lived in Gbarnga, our hometown.
I was tired of the constant interruptions of my schooling due to the war and wanted it done with once and for all. School was always a safe place for me. At school, I felt like a star, having been in several clubs on campus – the press club, writer’s club, debate team and choir. I was an “Ever Ready Battery”, a nickname I earned on campus due to my willingness to engage in activities that brought pride to my school. My time at St. Teresa Convent, a prestigious all-girls catholic school was beautiful, but I wanted a new beginning at college, to fulfil my dream of becoming a Writer and Broadcast Journalist.
Sis Rita thought long and hard about my decision to attend school that day; she told me that the city was unsafe that day to even leave the house, let alone go to school, but after minutes of persuasion, she finally agreed to let me go, under one condition – that I write and sign a note, stating that she had refused to let me go, and that I had insisted on going, hence, she wouldn’t be held responsible if anything happened to me. I confidently wrote the note, signed it, handed it to her and walked out the door, feeling like a heavy stone had been placed in my throat.
At that point, I felt totally alone and terrified, but maintained a straight face. I walked from our house to the road to get a taxi for town and met a group of thugs, who gave me piercing looks from the corners of their eyes. As the only one dressed in uniform out there, I instantly stood out. There were no taxis in sight – only rusty vehicles that appeared to have been stolen. After waiting a few minutes, a taxi arrived and I got in. The driver announced that the fare to my destination, Broad Street, was $150 LD – three times more than what we paid before the conflict started. It was a bit steep for a simple student like me but, resolute in my decision to reach school, and quickly hopped in.
It was like riding through a ghost town, an eerie silence along the road, igniting fear. The city was empty and overcast, bringing to mind an apocalyptic feeling. I was the only female in the taxi, dressed with pride in her green and white uniform. I remained quiet throughout the ride and looked forward to a great day at school, but the eerie atmosphere that covered the city quickly reminded me of what Sis. Rita had said before I embarked upon this journey – Monrovia was certainly unsafe and dangerous now. A young girl like me had no business being in the streets at all. I was well in the middle of it all, having absolved my sister of all responsibility for my safety.
The streets in central Monrovia were empty and wet with rain, as our taxi reached a final stop at the corner of Broad and Randall Streets. Aside from those who were in the taxi with me, the only other person I saw was a man at the intersection of Broad and Randall streets, carrying a wheelbarrow filled with bread, but no customers to buy – a frustrated look on his face. Perhaps like me, he was stubborn and determined to leave his home to sell bread to feed his family. Maybe he too had been warned by his family against being out there. I took a final glimpse at him, and began my long walk down Randall Street towards the compound of St. Teresa Convent, my beloved school.
By then, it was was raining and I was cold and shivering with fear, I walked from one empty street to the next. I started to run, so that I’d finally be safe once on the school’s campus and felt relieved as I approached the gates. It was certainly a heroic day so far and I was proud of myself for braving the storm in pursuit of my education. That feeling of excitement soon came to an end when a family friend whom I considered an uncle ran towards me, shook my shoulders and screamed ‘‘what are you doing here, Patrice?’’ I attempted to explain, but he wouldn’t let me. “Go back home!” He exclaimed. There was no one at our school that day and the gates were locked. I was the only student in all of Central Monrovia and it was clear that I was out of place and in danger.
Frightened and confused, I headed back to Broad Street to get a taxi for Paynesville. It had become even more terrifying than I had left it. I couldn’t see a vehicle or anyone. I was alone and felt like my uniform made me a target. One of those old vehicles arrived as I stood there thinking about my ordeal. The driver in a shaky voice told me that he’d be make his final stop in Congo town and not Paynesville, where I lived. I had no choice and jumped in – a glimpse of hope at last, but a journey even more horrifying than the first one had just begun.
The vehicle made its final stop across the road from former President Charles Taylor’s home – White Flower, just where the road sloped down into Paynesville. Militias around there were waving their guns in the air. I was afraid, but could not show it; I wanted to cry, but could not find the tears. I was in the middle of it all and had to fight to keep myself together, lest I become the center of attention. I walked for about five minutes down to SKD Boulevard Junction, hiding behind trees on the sidewalks, until I met a large group of people also heading into Paynesville. I joined them hurriedly and we made our way to ELWA junction. At ELWA Junction we were greeted by makeshift barricades and a full squad of disgruntled fighters. I grew dizzy and wanted to disappear.
“Hey you!” One of them shouted at me in Liberian pidgin. “So you think you are the only one who knows book ehn? Good, good men them like us standing here; sound, sound men them like us…and you say you going to school? We will deal with you.” I was numb and could not say a word, as he walked closer to me, his gun pointed in the air, and his chest protruding with power. I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself before he even touched me. A part of me wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I just stood still, strengthened by my conviction that my education was worth fighting for. I held onto all the prayers I’d said in the past, the service I’d rendered to my church as a young lay reader in Cote D’Ivoire, the blessings which hung over me for being a respectful child, and the confidence my teachers had in me for being a good student. Yes, I hung onto them all, hoping that, a part of me would soar beyond where we stood. He entered my personal space and I remained silent as he circled around me. Suddenly, as if some supernatural force had taken over, a huge crowd of fighters from another warring faction stormed the check point and ran through the gates. The crowd dispersed, as we all fled in various directions for our lives. I regained my strength somehow, running between houses, through piles of dirt and mud until I made it home safely to my sister Rita, who received me with a mix of sadness, anger and relief. She made me something to eat as we sat and chatted our way thankfully through the events of the day.
12 years later, in a peaceful Liberia, I still find myself on that same journey, along with many young people across Liberia – fighting the challenges, beating the odds, holding on to faith, breaking barriers and not allowing my location, or the difficulties of living in Liberia to place limitations in the pursuit of my dreams. I’ve come this far due to conviction and discipline. A lot of young people do not hear that these days – they’re only told that they need to "make way" by hook or by crook, and many get caught up in corrupt or criminal activities.
That journey in 2003 nurtured my sense of conviction and resolve to work tirelessly to mentor and create educational opportunities for girls in rural Liberia through the Martha Juah Educational Foundation. And as I work with promising young people across Liberia – some disenfranchised and frustrated, complaining about what the government is, or is not doing, I encourage them to keep pushing, and sometimes share this very story with them – a story of courage in the midst of the storm, of hope in the face of hopelessness, of tenacity in place of doubt. And I do not leave without asking them this simple and profound question: “How convicted are you in the pursuit of your dreams? »
Written by Patrice D. Juah, Tropics Voices Ambassador in Liberia.