A 10 minute read……
This is the background which ultimately lead to the Leaders in Liberia programme.
It starts with an inspiring man and a call to support him in serving the children of Liberia.
His name is Emmanuel Wragboe.
I met Emmanuel when visiting Liberia in May 2014 with an international group of coaches. We were visiting the country to run an education programme for 300 + teachers, to distribute filtration systems to remote villages with no access to clean drinkable water and to complete a school building project that had been started by my dear friends Spryte Loriano and Robert Evans.
As part of our trip we visited the Youth Action International centre in Grand Bassa, which offers computing courses for young people in rural Liberia. We had a fantastic morning running self-empowerment workshops for a number of the students. The sessions took place outside in the village and so while we taught the rest of the community stood around us in a big circle and observed our interactions. It was amazing for us to teach these young people and share in their dreams and it’s also where I met Mekie, a young girl who wants to become a medical doctor so she can serve her people – but more about her later.
At the time, Emmanuel was employed by Youth Action International. YAI is an organisation set up by Kimmie Weeks who, as a fifteen year old in the height of the civil war, brokered agreements with the warring factions to bring end to the use of child soldiers. YAI’s mission is to provide education, healthcare and economic empowerment for children and young people living in post-war African countries and Emmanuel was the liaison officer for Bassa County and was assisting us in organising the workshops and in distributing the clean water filters to remote villages.
The computing programme itself came about because of Emmanuel’s spirited belief in the importance of education in re-establishing Liberia. He had been so inspired after hearing Kimmie speak passionately about the youth at an Independence Day celebration in 2008 that he approached him asked him to open a free computing school so the youth of the county could learn valuable computing skills. Kimmie accepted his request and a few months later he came back with the computers and a delegation of 15 messengers lead by Spryte Loriano.
Kimmie recognised Emmanuel’s commitment and asked him to apply for the post of Liaison Officer for the county, a role he held from 2008 until 2015, when the centre was forced to close in the midst of the Ebola crisis and he lost his job.
In the time the centre was operational, over 500 students graduated from the free computer programs and most of these started working with banking institutions, NGOs and many other local businesses. Later they introduced a Women’s Empowerment Program where they taught hairdressing, tailoring and other courses. Over 200 women graduated from this programme and many of these women are now operating their own businesses. Emmanuel has been at the heart of all this important work.
I came home from Liberia shortly before the Ebola epidemic in may 2014. I had been due to return there again in 2015 but it was obviously not possible. I can’t imagine the horror of being there while this devastating disease was rampant. Not only were so many people dying from the horrific symptoms, but all public meetings were suspended, schools closed and people in their thousands lost their jobs and income. Food was scarce so prices rose, while the money people had to spend ran out and so hunger and other disease became prevalent. It must have been for many like returning to the dreadful days of civil war.
I tried to keep in touch with some of the people I had connected with via the Internet and mobile phone. My daughter even became pen-friends with three girls from the More Than Me Academy in Monrovia. I, along with several of my colleagues, sent the occasional gift of money, and some of our group lead by the example of David Taylor and Rafael Bejarano even started to fund orphanages, which was the only way they kept them going through the crisis.
So what of Emmanuel? We kept in-touch. He sadly lost his job at YAI when it was forced to close and he was struggling to feed his wife and 5 children, surviving with what little money he received from his supporters abroad. However, what really stands out for me about Emmanuel is that his honesty, his passion for education and his humanity have never diminished, despite the obvious hardships he has faced.
He continues to support 2 orphanages that were set up for children whose parents died from Ebola and he recently helped me to connect with the young student called Mekie I mentioned earlier, who I had met while delivering the workshops at the computing centre and helped me in sponsoring her schooling so she can graduate and fulfil her dream of becoming a nurse.
Getting the money to her was tricky. Few organisations in Liberia have access to banking as we in the UK would understand it and so I arranged to send the money electronically to a local Western Union office. Emmanuel went to pick it up and took it to the girl’s school where he met with her and paid her school fees for the year. He then sent me a photograph of the receipt and another of Mekie holding it to reassure me everything was above board, he even offered to send me updates on her progress each term.
I had included some additional money for food and clothes for the children at the orphanages and he sent me some photographs of them standing by sacks of rice and parcels of clothes to show me where my money was being spent.
I was grateful for this. I have to be honest – I did have moments of doubt about whose pocket my money would end up in. But I decided to trust, to believe in the power of integrity and the knowledge that we are all aspects of the same consciousness. These are my values and so I sent the money in this spirit and I was not disappointed. Here is a man who had his hands on over $200 dollars cash and has a hungry family to feed and yet he took nothing for himself above his own expenses.
Shortly afterwards he did send me a request not to forget about his personal needs. I respected this request – He had helped meet the needs of others but he must still provide for his own family. But I am a coach – I draw an important distinction between helping and serving; in my view, simply giving money creates imbalance and adds to the cycle of poverty. I wrote back saying that just sending money is not the answer and I was looking for a more sustainable solution. He replied: “Good! I see u as a very wise man and believe in teaching one to fish for themselves”.
He went on to tell me about his business plan. He wanted a 1000 US dollar loan to buy a motorbike which he can use as a taxi and transportation service. He had calculated how much he can earn, how much he needed to feed his family and how much he can reinvest each month so he can then buy a second motorbike and be able to employ someone.
This is when I decided to set up a fund. We raised $2,400 so he can start his own business, so he can feed his family and contribute to the local economy. We raised double our target so we bought a second bike and to employed someone who is also able to feed their family – and it provides an income for the orphanages.
Unfortunately, these bikes no longer operate – one was stolen and the other was involved in an accident. Emmanuel and I spend some time reflecting on the what could be learned from this. It was a great lesson.
But the story does not end there.
Being a coach, I asked Emmanuel what his biggest dream was and he shared this incredible plan with me: “I have passion for education for which I did education administration in college. I plan to partner with any well meaning humanitarian to build this school.
This school will purposely be for nursery. Bassa doesn’t have such school. In my plan, I need buses that will take the kids to school and also instructors. It is a day care school and all what is needed for the kids should be there. Beneficiary of this school should include the orphans, less fortunate and others.” The size of this vision really inspired me. He has started working with an engineer to realise this dream but with no idea how to move towards it beyond the power of the vision itself.
And this is when my dream was also born – I too decided I would love to partner with other well-meaning humanitarians in building this school with Emmanuel. This is such a powerful vision – Education is the key to Liberia getting itself back on its feet – this is the proverbial “teaching one to fish for themselves”, that Emmanuel quoted.
I am totally committed to seeing this project succeed – I do not know how and simply writing this intention makes me feel slightly sick and like withdrawing from the commitment immediately. But my experience is that is how all great projects are born, and it is about something greater than me.
So the group that I am taking to Liberia for 10 days in late February 2017 will be the leadership team – a group of leaders who share a vision of making a difference and are committed to making it happen.
We will be coming to Liberia to experience the beauty of the country and the warmth and vibrancy of its people, and most importantly we will be coming to serve in the ways that are of most use to the people we meet. We are creating opportunities to meet with local entrepreneurs and offer them our love and support in becoming better able to meet their own needs. We will visit schools and run workshops for the students and teachers. We will also be visiting Emmanuel and his community and we will speak to the children and parents of the village and learn how the school will change their lives for the better. We are going to create connections, inspire and be inspired – the leadership team will leave Liberia having experienced the trip of a lifetime and their legacy will continue.