Story and photos by Monique John.
Brenda Moore says her passion for reading is an unlikely result of her country’s 14 years of civil conflict.
As Liberia’s government and rebel forces exchanged gunfire between 1989 and 2003, Brenda fortunately stayed safe, confined to her parents’ home. She had nothing else to do, so she read books day in and day out. It was a habit that would take her far beyond the norm in Liberia, a country where the literacy rate for young women is less than 40 percent.
“I was in fourth grade and reading law books,” Brenda says. “I was reading about countries that I would never visit. I was travelling the world from right in my home. That really helped shape who I am today.”
Having witnessed her country’s devastation from the civil conflict, Brenda promised herself that she would one day take part in the reconstruction of her country. She eventually took action during West Africa’s Ebola crisis from 2014 to 2016, when Liberia suffered from almost 11,000 Ebola cases, leaving close to 5,000 fatalities.
Now an adult, Brenda began to make packets of reading and math exercises for her children, who were unable to attend school because of the outbreak. Upon seeing that educational problems faced by other children in her community were only exacerbated by the epidemic, Brenda expanded her efforts.
“No matter what county you’re in, you find that the children don’t read as much or as well as they should,” she says. “The education level is just not where it should be.”
With the help of 25 volunteers, Brenda started KEEP, or Kids Educational Engagement Program, a weekly program in which she distributed hundreds of free educational packets to children throughout Liberia. Incredibly, she reached more than 5,000 kids within a few months.
Today, KEEP partners with donors, local literacy promotion projects, and other institutions specializing in youth education to provide children with access to books and classes for public speaking, computer literacy, and vocational learning. Earlier this month, KEEP opened its fifth and largest reading room and is now offering services in Montserrado, Grand Gedeh, and Gbarpolu counties. KEEP also offers teacher trainings to encourage an appreciation for reading in local educators and to give them strategies to help students engage with literature.
Despite KEEP’s progress, Brenda and her team are still fighting an uphill battle, specifically in sustaining and enhancing female students’ access to education.
Brenda and some of the girls in her program say that teenage pregnancy and lack of money for school fees are just a few of the factors that run girls off-course when pursuing an education.
Because their families are unable to pay the necessary fees, many of the girls in the KEEP program still struggle to stay in school, despite their dreams of becoming pilots, fashion designers, businesswomen, and medical professionals.
“I want to be a medical doctor so I can help people when they get sick,” says Helena, one of the KEEP participants who is also an Ebola survivor.
In one of the KEEP reading rooms, the girls sit and discuss a few of their favorite books, which include Nelson Mandela biographies, the Bible, and works by the esteemed Liberian author, Wilton Sankawulo. The girls all say they feel fortunate and grateful to be in the program, and for Brenda’s work. However, they all agree on what still needs to change in their country.
“If more girls had access to education, Liberia would be a better nation because we’re the youth and we can make Liberia different,” says Teata, another KEEP student. “If you educate a girl, you can educate a whole nation.”