Country of the Week: Liberia

A month from now, on October 10, Liberians will head to the polls to begin to elect a new president, who will be sworn in in January 2018. When this inauguration takes place, it will mark the first time in 70 years that a living, democratically elected president will pass power to another. As the peaceful transfer of power draws nearer, each Liberian has been asking him or herself how to ensure a peaceful electoral process. The 14 years of devastating civil war remain fresh in many people’s memories despite the fact that now as many years of peace have passed as there were of war.

Liberia’s population is incredibly diverse. Sixteen ethnic groups comprise about 95 percent of the country’s population. This multiethnic, multicultural demographic weaves together the distinct tapestry of Liberia’s rich history and culture that was officially born 170 years ago this year on July 26 when freed American slaves established Africa’s first republic in present-day Liberia.

Thanks to the work of people such as the members of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Network, Liberia continues to rebuild its economy while investing in its education and health care systems. The nation has also made great democratic strides, including the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—Liberia’s current president and Africa’s first-ever elected female head of state.

The positive contributions by YALI Network members are an important part of Liberia’s development towards peace and prosperity, and we are proud to feature their work while Liberia is the YALI Network #CountryoftheWeek!

Keep reading to see how three incredible #YALINetwork members are working to end poverty, encourage civic engagement, and save lives throughout Liberia.

Working to End Poverty

Local community members meet with leaders of the Gbor Clan Farming Union and Rural Early Learning Program.
Local community members meet with leaders of the Gbor Clan Farming Union and Rural Early Learning Program.

In 2010, Brocks Pokai was visiting Liberia’s rural Grand Bassa County. While there, he witnessed some of the country’s most pressing social issues: lack of access to adequate health care, extreme poverty, and insufficient childhood education.

“I watched a woman give birth to a baby in a wheelbarrow about a one-hour walk from her nearest health facility,” says Brocks. “Local children weren’t attending school, and farmers were living in extremely poor conditions. I wanted to help change that.”

That’s when Brocks came up with the idea for Growing Liberia Democracy, or GOLD, a rural development program designed to improve the economic and social wellbeing of rural citizens in Liberia. By identifying and measuring the various challenges facing rural farmers, as well as encouraging civic engagement, GOLD aims to address the underlying causes of social inequality, increase small farm holders’ incomes, and eradicate extreme poverty.

Brock’s programs are already making a measurable impact. So far, GOLD’s Help Farmers Fight Poverty and Child Abuse project has organized over 50 local farmers into a farmer’s union. Based on traditional Gbor clan values, the Gbor Clan Farming Union works to empower farmers by offering training in organizational leadership and modern farming techniques. GOLD has also piloted the Rural Early Learning Program, which now provides education to over 50 children in Liberia’s Gbor District.

Encouraging Civic Engagement

Losene Talawally speaks to a group of young people in Voinjama City, Lofa County about the importance of civic engagement in advance of Liberia’s upcoming presidential election.
Losene Talawally speaks to a group of young people in Voinjama City, Lofa County about the importance of civic engagement in advance of Liberia’s upcoming presidential election.

A student at the University of Liberia, Losene Talawally says that the YALI Network has inspired him to succeed academically and has helped him recognize his passion for volunteerism: “Because of my work with YALI,” he says, “I want to motivate and inspire young people to achieve academic excellence and ensure that the next generation receives education…no matter their tribal or religious backgrounds.”

To do that, Losene hosts events focused on educating young people about the significance of elections and civic engagement. “It’s critical that young people understand the importance of choosing good leaders and participating in government,” he says. “I want to inform people about their responsibilities as citizens.”

With help from the YALI Network, Losene has the tools—and the support—to stay motivated to follow his career path, and to inspire others to do the same.

Saving lives throughout Liberia

In the summer of 2014, Liberian YALI Network member Yassah Levalah had just finished participating in the Mandela Washington Fellowship program when she received an intriguing offer from the US government: stay in the US.

“At the time,” Yassah recalls, “Liberia was being ravaged by Ebola, a deadly and highly contagious disease for which there’s no cure. But as one of the only nurses from Liberia trained in treating the virus, I made the decision to go back and help. All major health facilities were shut down or overwhelmed, so I returned home to ensure that our local clinic remained open.”

As it turns out, Yassah’s incredible self-sacrifice would save hundreds of lives.

Yassah Levalah from #CountryoftheWeek Liberia demonstrates how to use protective equipment and other emergency tools in a midwifery training session.
Yassah Levalah from #CountryoftheWeek Liberia demonstrates how to use protective equipment and other emergency tools in a midwifery training session.

Yassah had originally applied to the YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship in order to pursue courses in entrepreneurship and to establish a community midwifery center to address Liberia’s high rate of infant mortality. But when she returned home to Liberia, she began working at the country’s only Ebola treatment unit and as a field supervisor for the Ministry of Health, while also operating her own community clinic. Additionally, she conducted several workshops and lectures on disease safety and prevention, helping to ensure that her community stayed Ebola-free.

And when the community’s clinic was on the verge of closing due to lack of supplies and protective equipment, her friends at Notre Dame University—where she had spent six weeks as a Mandela Washington Fellow—stepped up to provide critical support. Members of the Eck Institute for Global Health mobilized a university-wide fundraising campaign alongside Notre Dame’s Initiative for Global Development (NDIGD) and the Kellogg Institute’s Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity, ultimately raising more than $26,000 for the clinic.

“We were in dire straits,” explains Yassah. “Then, news of my situation spread throughout the Notre Dame campus. The fundraising effort helped supporters purchase enough medical supplies to fill a 40-foot container, which was delivered to my clinic in Paynesville. These supplies saved hundreds of lives at my own clinic and helped us keep other smaller health facilities open.”

Today, the clinic is thriving: “We’ve trained more than 85 traditional midwives who are currently assigned in the community as infant and maternal health ambassadors, and they receive a regular supply of equipment from the clinic,” she says. “With support from the YALI Network, I have purchased land and have raised enough money to begin constructing a 25- bedroom clinic that will house Liberia’s first midwifery center with a focus on sexual reproductive health and preventing infant and maternal mortality.”

That’s not all—Yassah was also recently admitted to Harvard University’s Master’s Program in Global Health Delivery and Social Medicine. She credits the YALI Network, as well as the YALI Network Online Courses and #YALILearn events, for providing the valuable guidance and training required to advance her career and transform her community.

“As a result of my work with YALI, more people in my community are seeking health education and care regardless of financial barriers,” says Yassah. “We’ve been able to transition over 35 young girls back to school—many of whom had dropped out due to teenage pregnancy. And our community now has trained midwives available for emergencies who can also provide sexual and reproductive health education to the 80 percent of residents living below the poverty line.”

Want to get involved in your community? Like the YALI Network Facebook page, and access free online trainings, virtual events, and more by visiting the YALI Network website.

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