Ebola has shackled my education and my future – but we can fight back

Not the civil war that lasted for 14 years and put millions out of school. Not a crisis that the international community can call for a ceasefire and mount pressure on warring factions to put down their weapons or face prosecution.

Not a crisis like an earthquake or flood, shattering and unkind but over in a moment. This is a deteriorating crisis, which Liberia is again struggling to contain. This is a crisis that is yet to have any court for trial.

This crisis is Ebola. The current outbreak in West Africa is the first time the disease has ever appeared in that part of the continent. Liberia is having its share of this pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than 5000 people in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali and the United States.

In Liberia, the virus has taken away more than 4000 lives and still counting. The virus has already left many hopeless and turned many into orphans. Liberia already has a swelling number of out-of-school children and this is expected to get worse since schools had been shut down for five months.

This potentially means more illiteracy and poverty and threatens the future of the country that is recovering from a brutal civil war.

As a Global Youth Ambassador, the outbreak of Ebola had brought me into an unimaginable situation. I left Liberia on August 14 to attend an international summit of young social entrepreneurs and peace builders in the Netherlands. The goal of the summit was for participants from Africa and Europe to get training in social entrepreneurship and present a social venture to a team of global social entrepreneurs and get support for implementation.

My venture, LIFT-LIBERIA, was about to start the construction of libraries and reading rooms in schools and communities – something that is lacking in Liberia. I won the hearts of my colleagues and organisers at the summit and many of them pledged to support my costs.

My pitch was voted the best by the 24 participants at the summit and I won a cash prize of 400 Euros. But I didn’t get the money. I was about to become one of the very people I am trying to help – out-of-school children and school dropouts.

Ebola ravaged my community and neighbourhood, claiming the lives of many of my friends and loved ones. I feared risking my life and decided not to return home, instead asking for protection in the Netherlands – a process that is yet to start three months later. I am an unwilling refugee experiencing one of the most difficult periods in my life, hoping to restart an ambitious life.

It’s a situation that has shackled my future and education. But I remain optimistic that it will get better and I will restart my journey of education whatever the condition. But many may not be in my state of mind with the passion and energy to continue that journey.

Today, I and millions of other children are out of school and we have no idea how and when this crisis will end. It may only get worse because there is no clear sense of direction from our duty bearers. But we can put the right measures in place and turn the tide to safeguard the future.

Through programmes such as “Reading for Breakfast”, community reading clubs and Book Chains, community-based organisations and individuals will be provided with books in basic subjects for reading purposes. Parents will read with their children and they will also encourage their kids to keep their focus on education in the midst of the Ebola outbreak while considering all the preventive measures.

The Book Chain program can be useful for teens and youth, while a book is being circulated from one person to another until it comes back to the first person it was given. A card will be placed in the book to get contact information of all the readers and they can be gathered together every week or two to share information from the book.

Through this, we can have hundreds of kids and youth reading every week and thousands of books being read. This will make children and youth active through positive activities – preventing them from contracting the virus through unguided interactions with others.

Governments, institutions and partners look beyond Ebola by crafting a long-term school and community-based health policy to prevent further outbreak and spread of the virus.

Governments and institutions must do a situational analysis on the cost and effects of reopening schools in regions where the virus is not present or at a low rate. Governments and institutions must also assess the possibility of putting measures into place to prevent overcrowded classrooms, thereby preventing contraction.

By doing this, authorities can reduce the daily hours of schooling to enable more students to go to school at different times of the day since we will have fewer students in classes in the absence of school facilities.   

I believe children and youth being kept out of school because of Ebola will cost us more in the future than Ebola costs us now. If I am listened to, we can safeguard the future now by acting in our various professions and capacities as state actors and open schools now without any risk of spreading the virus amongst students.

Before coming to the Netherlands, I crafted a national action plan – “Save the Future” – as a Global Youth Ambassador, intended to enroll out-of-school children. But Ebola has halted this ambitious dream and even reduced my functions as a GYA. But I am still using social media to help make a change.

There is no way out of education. Education is the only way out.