How young people are finding solutions to Liberia’s Ebola crisis

Benjamin M. Freeman Jr. is an A World at School Global Youth Ambassador. He is a founder of the Liberia Institute for the Promotion of Academic Excellence (LIPACE) and a Mandela Washington Fellow of the Young African Leaders Initiative. Here he writes about returning to his homeland after spending several months abroad,

After an exciting 14 weeks in the USA as a Mandela Washington Fellow, I faced the mind-boggling challenge of returning to Liberia in the midst of a raging Ebola outbreak.

The government of Liberia had announced a state of emergency and a curfew in the country. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had projected more than one million deaths over the next four weeks in Liberia if rapid actions were not taken.

I knew for sure I would be returning to a different Liberia than the one I had left. I would no longer receive the customary hugs and long handshakes given to indicate welcome. Even close family members didn’t want me back in Liberia at such a time. The media’s doomsday picture of Liberia made it appear that I was leaving a place of hope for a place of death.

My first week in Liberia was enough for me to experience the changing reality of day-to-day life in Monrovia. On my first trip to Monrovia, I saw buckets with chlorinated water and a dispenser in front of every home. All the stores had the same, with signs reading “wash your hands before entering.” I was in search of an electronic item in one of the stores but had to wait for 10 minutes before entering because of a family of three who had to wash their hands.

If my wait at a store was nearly 10 minutes, I wondered, how long would it take at a public market or in a densely populated community?

I remembered this experience later when I witnessed the dedication of a hand-washing tank in West Point, a densely-populated community in urban Liberia with a population of more than 75,000. It soon became clear that the frustration was not unique to me. But I was now witnessing an innovative solution initiated by a young Liberian.

For Sarah McGill, a Mandela Washington Fellow, this problem needed an innovative solution. Backed by a strong desire to contribute positively to ending the outbreak, Sarah had initiated the design of hand-washing tanks that could hold 440 litres of chlorinated water with six outlet dispensers.

For Sarah, the waiting time was unacceptable and would harm business. This was leading to overcrowding at handwashing stations that in turn risked creating more close contact.

With the tank, six people now had the chance to wash their hands at the same time. The capacity of the tank meant that it needed to be refilled just once every day instead of the five-litre buckets that were refilled every three to four hours in densely-populated communities and in front of stores.

As I sat and reflected on my own experience during the dedication of the fabricated tank project, my passion for change was reignited. It fills my heart with joy to be part of a generation of thinkers that are finding innovative solutions to problems, inventing new ideas and challenging the status quo in the midst of such turbulent times.

Sarah’s innovation proves that youthful ideas and invention in the midst of the crisis are worth investment. With support from the American Embassy in Liberia, the tanks helped 16 communities across Montseraddo County. As impressive as the invention is, there is a need to scale its impact by providing more hand-washing tanks, especially for rural villages and communities.

The changing reality of day-to-day life in Liberia has proven to be a platform for innovation. I am glad I returned to join a team of young people that are exploring solutions in the midst of the crisis.

If you want to know more about the fabricated tank project or support the production of more fabricated tanks in preparation of the reopening of schools and for rural villages and communities, contact Sarah McGill [email protected].

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