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Daughters

August 14, 2014

Sanni Flag Day 2012

It was completely unplanned and unexpected, but in Liberia I became a mother. Just like they say, it’s been miraculous. The resemblance and (lack of an) age gap often raise eyebrows, but there is nothing I wouldn’t do for my children. I’ve pushed and pulled and impulsively spent in ways I didn’t know I was capable. And I’d do it again without blinking. If anything, they have taught me how to be tough and how to keep going through the roughest storm.

My only regret, and it’s through no fault of their own, is that all my children are sons. Every year I pray for a daughter and every year I think ‘this is it’ only to discover the universe has other plans. Flying to Liberia I had dreams about girls’ clubs and literacy programs with market women but when I hit the ground I found a different reality.

There’s no “I” in Peace Corps. They teach you to throw your own dreams of service out the window and put your effort behind what your community needs. During our site visit I asked my principal about starting a girls’ club. He responded enthusiastically then said, “But can the boys join? They need help too.”

They need help too.

My inner hackles raised—I pretty much came out of my mothers’ womb with Gloria Steinem’s portrait tattooed on my tiny bicep—but as I became part of the community and interacted with the students I realized he was right. Sustainable peace and development was in the hands of the boys just as much as the girls. After all, men are usually the participants in war while women are the victims. Educating and training men so they don’t want to go to war helps women.

So I got involved with the quizzing team and my informal math club and the plans for the girls club (yes, I actually wrote some up) collected dust on the shelf. This was what my community needed and what they wanted so that was my job. I quickly became a close confidant and friend to many of my students and I started to watch them move mountains. Out of that original cohort two are now studying at EARTH University in Costa Rica and two are studying Arizona State University in the United States.

I’m close with just as many girl students as boy students, but the girls have had no luck with the scholarships. They’re usually older than the boys and almost all of them have at least one child, some of which are already adolescents. All of that comes up on a scholarship application and, no matter how great a girl is otherwise, her age and her motherhood put her out of the running.

This was something I accepted as the unfairness of life until I started teaching the course Rural Sociology, Gender, and Culture. Diving back into the reports and the theory I started to feel… like a hypocrite. Four times a week I stood in front of seventy students and told them it’s hard to be a girl! That girls work more hours in a day and receive less encouragement and support but are the absolutely key to solving the problems of food security and poverty. I know I’ve written about this here before but it continues to blow my mind. Women’s education is a better indicator for food security in a country than the amount of food in that country.

Stop and let that soak in: Educating women is a more effective way to reduce hunger than giving people more food!

Soil Texture Lab April 2014

I wrote it on the board and shouted it at the top of my lungs then packed my bags and walked home with my sons. “I wish there was something I could do,” I would think lying in bed at night, “but they’re old and they have families. I have to put my energy behind what I can do and I know I can help the boys. The next person will have to help the girls. They’re just not ready.”

They’re just not ready.

That was my light bulb moment. As a result of the gender gap women are quite literally a generation behind the men. Many of my students are pioneering women who have scraped and fought to be the first in their family to graduate high school, but it takes time. Unlike many NGO workers I’ve never accepted that the war created a ‘lost generation’ with problems too complicated and depressing to solve.

Ok, so I can’t send the girls abroad… but what can I do?

Just because they can’t go to the US doesn’t mean they can’t continue their education (something only 5% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa get to do). Sanniquellie has a community college where they could train to become teachers, nurses, or agriculturists while still fulfilling their equally important roles as wives and mothers. My job wasn’t to find women to send abroad—my job was to train the mothers of the girls who would someday be ready to study abroad.

But, ironically, it’s easier for me to find scholarship programs abroad than actually in Liberia. Even though the cost of education is very low compared to America the scholarship programs are rife with corruption, nepotism, and arbitrary requirements. There is no personal interview. There are no recommendation letters. There are transcripts (that can be forged) and WAEC results (that can be bought) and giant stacks of applications that get ‘lost’ at collection centers.

My soil science TA has a 4.0 GPA but he hasn’t gotten any of the half dozen scholarships he’s applied for and is on the verge of dropping out of school over finances. Something else is going on…

Living an hour away from Sanniquellie and having a different full-time job, I just wasn’t going to be able to help any girls fight that uphill battle. Again I thought, “There is nothing I can do.” This problem is just too big and too complicated.

But those of you who know me know that I don’t accept no easily.   So a week before I left Liberia I made a list of all the girls I knew who were intelligent, honest, and hard working but who were filling their post-graduate days selling small small things on their porch. It was a long list but after a lot of what felt like agonizingly arbitrary cutting I got it down to five. Tuition at Nimba County Community College is between $100 and $150 per semester so for the cost of bringing one to Cuttington I could send five to NCCC. I renegotiated my salary and decided to dedicate the extra to getting some daughters.

I called the first one and started probing her about whether she was interested in community college. She was enthusiastic, but said there was no way she could go even if someone paid her fees. I was confused. Hadn’t she supported herself through high school? That’s when the pieces started shifting into place.   I had the sobering realization that we are the same age (I would have sworn she was barely 21) and her adolescent daughter is getting ready to start junior high, which has higher tuition fees.

I thought that daughter was her little sister!

This threw a big wrench in the whole plan. I was planning to pay tuition for the girls and just ask them to cover their living expenses. So either I crossed this girl off the list (unthinkable once I realized her need was so great) or I reduced the number of girls and gave each one more help. After a lot of thought I did some more agonizing cutting and got the list down to three. Sure the girls had somehow supported themselves through high school, but they were dividing time between chores, childcare, farming/selling and schoolwork. If I could give them a little more help and ease that burden just a little it would make them better students and increase their chance of success.

So I wrote three letters, enclosed money to pay for the entrance exam August 2, and sent them with a student who was traveling north. Two days later I boarded an airplane for America and the country turned upside down. The entrance was postponed and schools are closed indefinitely.

Frustrated doesn’t begin to capture the feeling. May Liberia make a speedy recovery so we can all get back to our lives.

“Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.”

Clementine Paddleford

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert Dahl permalink
    August 15, 2014 1:10 pm

    THANK YOU REBEKAH, FOR WRITING THIS…REMEMBER I ASKED ABOUT THE GIRLS/DUGHTERS…YOUR MOM.ESPECIALLY HAS TO HAVE BEEN A REAL ENCOURAGEMENT TO YOU SINCE THE DAY OF BIRTH/GLORIA STEINHEM START. I ALWAYS FELT MY TWO BROTHERS ALWAYS GOT PRIVILEGES WE EIGHT SISTERS NEVER DID.ONE TIME WHEN LINED UP FOR LUNCH WITH HOUSEFUL OF RELATIVES AT MY PARENTS HOME, I SAID.”WHY DO ALL THE GUYS/BOYS GET TO BE TOLD TO GET IN LINE FIRST?” SOME OF THEM ACTUALLY STEPPED BACK,SO HAD TO ACT ON QUESTION….GRANDMA IN MN

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