This interview was published originally at: https://internationalednews.com/2020/06/10/a-view-from-liberia-abba-karnga-jr-on-school-closures-and-the-pandemic/.
This week’s post features an e-mail interview conducted by Maretta Silverman with Abba Karnga Jr., Program Manager at the Luminos Fund in Liberia, where the school lockdown continues. During the Ebola crisis, Karnga also served as Director of the Stop the Spread of Ebola Campaign. In partnership with the Country Health Team, he created an Ebola Emergency Response program responsible for social mobilization, case identification, and distribution of emergency supplies to affected homes. In 2019, he also reflected on his own educational journey in a Luminos staff profile: The Fight for Education Equality in Liberia: Living Up to My Father’s Example. Diaries from the Frontlines from the Center for Global Development provides additional perspectives on the outbreak and school closures from Luminos Fund staff as well as staff from The Citizens Foundation.
This interview is the sixth in a series that includes posts from Scotland, from Chile, from Japan, and from the Netherlands. The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education
Maretta Silverman: What’s happening with you and your family/friends?
Abba Karnga Jr.: My family are like every family in Liberia: on lockdown, staying home, and not doing normal things. All of Liberia is in a state of emergency and there are lots of rules. We’re observing curfew, wearing masks when we go out in public, and handwashing constantly!
Right now, my kids are with my mom who lives in another county, doing the same thing. The major challenge my mom faces is trying to find activities for the kids to keep them occupied. It is the same for my friends and neighbors. Everyone’s kids are idle. My family has it better than most in Liberia, especially regarding food: we were able to prepare well for this crisis, have food, and can stay at home. But many families are having a lot of difficulty finding food. People aren’t eating regular meals. I feel like I have a responsibility, as someone who has a little, to share with those who are less fortunate. It’s a very weird and strange situation in Liberia. I think it’s much harder on children than adults.
MS: What’s happening with education/learning in your community?
AK: Liberia’s Ministry of Education has ideas and strategies to help schools reach children and to help programs like us at the Luminos Fund to reach our students. One major thing they are concentrating on is radio programs. This is a great effort but I do see challenges because, in some places like the rural communities where Luminos works, either radio stations don’t reach, or families don’t have radios, or people haven’t heard about the program schedule so don’t know to listen. I’m afraid many students aren’t paying attention. I think everyone realizes the limitations, but radio is perhaps the best tool in the national toolkit to reach children.
Education is very, very slow in most of our communities. Some school systems have created lessons to send home but, anecdotally in my friend group, most kids aren’t really doing them. In Liberia, we know most learning happens at school. Parents are busy and may not be educated, so it’s hard to expect them to guide learning at home.
At the Luminos Fund, we offer a 10-month program to help out-of-school children catch up on their learning: to learn to read, write, and do math. In March, all our classes closed because of COVID. We decided to focus on learning that students could continue at home, as well as to distribute materials directly to our students’ homes: readers, math workbooks, and worksheets. We believe this is good practice for students, helps them continue engaging in education, and it’s useful for them to know their teachers are thinking about them. There are challenges, of course. I’d estimate that about forty percent of our facilitators (teachers) live in the community they serve and can easily assign lessons and check on students regularly by walking past their homes, which is great. In communities where there aren’t facilitators, one of our supervisors goes to check in with students once a week.
“About forty percent of our facilitators live in the community they serve and can easily assign lessons and check on students regularly by walking past their homes.”
MS: What do you/your community need help with?
AK: Two things. First, food. There’s extremely high unemployment right now in Liberia. Most people depend on a daily hustle or contracts to survive, and much of that work has stopped due to the Coronavirus and lockdown. The Liberian government proposed a stimulus package some weeks ago, but it hasn’t moved forward. Families are really suffering.
Second, I wish children had more home recreation options during this period. Most homes in Liberia don’t have electricity, so TV isn’t realistic. Board games would be nice. It’s lockdown, but many kids still try to play outside and people have to chase them away. It’s risky. Parents are trying to make ends meet.
MS: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?
AK: I’m excited about the support we’re witnessing from people in communities across Liberia, who have created local Coronavirus awareness teams. I’m on the team in my community. I think this community-level action comes, in part, from our experiences with Ebola a few years ago. Right now, we’ve set up handwashing sites. We ensure people coming into the community wash their hands and wear a mask. We go around with flyers (practicing social distancing) or loudspeakers on cars to raise awareness about COVID and share good information. It’s motivating and useful. I think it’s great when people mobilize themselves.
MS: What are you reading, watching, listening to that you would recommend to others?
AK: I listen to the Liberian Ministry of Health press releases that are shared every Friday on certain radio stations. They are credible and have the latest information.
MS: What have you found most inspiring?
AK: Our program! Luminos is an education organization but pivoted quickly to provide relief to students’ families during this crisis, including learning materials, soap, detergent, barrels for water, and food. Recently, we distributed food to over 1,600 of our students’ homes. For more than a week after, we received calls from parents. Some parents were literally crying in appreciation of what Luminos did. They said they never expected it and it was so timely. Some families were out of food and hadn’t known where they would find their next meal. We even heard from other community members and local leaders who heard what we did and called – not even parents. So, seeing the humanitarian aspect of this work is what’s most inspiring for me. I’m grateful we can do this for these families, and to be involved.