Unleashing Brain Power in the Land of the Free

Liberia, the “Land of the Free,” was founded by African Americans and freed slaves from the United States in 1820. In a few years, thousands of them piled into settlements, and, in 1847, they proclaimed the independence of the Republic of Liberia.

After 133 years of Americo-Liberian political power and restricted rights of indigenous people, in 1980 the indigenous Liberian sergeant Samuel Doe seized power in a coup d’etat to form the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). Over time, the Doe government began promoting members of his own ethnic group, the Krahn, which soon dominated political and military life in Liberia, a situation that raised ethnic tension and caused frequent hostilities among the 18 tribal groups. By 1989, a small band of rebels led by Charles Taylor invaded the country from neighboring Ivory Coast and started one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, which would last for six years and claim the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and the displacement of over a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. During the following six years, a second uprising took place, raising unemployment and illiteracy above 75 percent while little investment was made in the country’s infrastructure to counter the ravages of war.

On August 11, 2003, under intense international pressure, President Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria. The October 2005 presidential and legislative elections saw Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defeat international soccer star George Weah to become Africa’s first democratically elected female president. After five years of successful leadership, she won the election of October 2011 for another term.

Sirleaf’s government, the U.N. and civil society have together carried out intensive security-sector reforms, the disarmament of over 100,000 ex-combatants, the reconstruction of armed forces and the Liberian National Police, as well as national reconciliation efforts. The country is recovering. A history tainted by 14 years of civil war has left scars that Liberians are, extraordinarily, overcoming.

Conflict has played a huge role in Liberia’s children missing out on an education. As the country transitions from post-conflict to development, ensuring that all teachers are certified, having enough space for the students and providing such basic services as water and electricity are the educational system’s highest priorities. School attendance is unstable and dropouts are high. To allow people who could not access school during the war to catch up on their education, there are so-called Accelerated Learning Programs (ALPs) in most middle and junior high schools. The ALPs give young people from age 14 up to adults in their 30s a chance to complete their primary education.

After lengthy discussions between the International Brain Education Association (IBREA), the Permanent Mission of Liberia to the U.N. and the Liberian Ministry of Education, a pilot project to bring Brain Education to two schools in Monrovia was born early this year. “We offer something new,” says Ju Eun Shin, IBREA’s director. “Something that can be a very useful tool during these times of transition in Liberia.”

IBREA is currently bringing Brain Education to countries in the developing world, including countries that have suffered from conflict and violence. A holistic type of education that works at physical, emotional, and cognitive levels at the same time, Brain Education offers an innovative way beyond the traditional methods of learning that can have a great impact in countries with children whose stress — in many cases heightened to the level of trauma—is hampering their focus, motivation, and confidence.

The foundation of Brain Education is the belief in the great value of the human brain. No matter what the external circumstances may be, Brain Education understands that we all have the power in our brains to achieve our dreams. By moving our bodies and focusing deep inside ourselves, we can release the negative information accumulated in our bodies and brains and recover our true nature, which is pure and capable.

In countries facing particularly difficult circumstances, Brain Education brings a great dose of hope and a veritable tool to recover from trauma and negative experience toward an empowered state of being. External technical assistance such as building schools or providing technical training definitely helps a country recover and develop, but it does not bring about a fundamental change in people’s minds. Brain Education believes that all the answers exist inside our brains, and only by knowing that and practicing the realization of our own value can we create lasting change in ourselves and our surroundings. The basis of this belief is that no one or thing can hold responsibility for one’s condition and situation but oneself.

On March 9, the IBREA team — Ju Eun Shin and myself, as program manager — land in Monrovia’s almost pitch-black Roberts International Airport. The hour ride to the city in complete darkness makes evident the electricity challenges in the country. The next morning, we enter the center of the city, where the Ministry of Education is located. Everything is vibrant, noisy, colorful, and full of life. Huge posters and billboards against corruption and rape, promoting protection from HIV/AIDS, empowerment of women and a united Liberia crowd the streets and highways: Beware, corruption puts you behind bars; Rape needs hospital care fast; Towards a New Vision; Liberia rising 2030.

The government is cleaning things up. “There is no more corruption, and no more rapes,” a Mr. Jacobs from the Ministry of Education tells us. “Everyone knows that as soon as you commit a crime, you are in jail.” The following day, we make our first field visit to the schools. Monen Duoe, county officer from the Ministry of Education, accompanies us. In view of the sustainability of the Brain Education project, we agree with the Ministry of Education that two officials would be trained in Brain Education and be a part of our team in Monrovia. Duoe was in New York in January of this year for a 10-day Brain Education program for young international leaders. She’s ready, motivated, and the best interlocutor we could have for Brain Education in Liberia.

Together with the Ministry of Education, we choose to work with two schools for our pilot project: Paynnesville Community School, with 50 students and 20 teachers; and Special Project School, with 40 students and 15 teachers. We soon discover that the schools have limited or no electricity and water, and that both schools are overcrowded. Paynnesville Community School is a clear example of the current explosion in enrollment at the county level, with small classrooms containing up to over 100 children.

Brain Education’s operational challenges arise: space, electricity for playing music, a cushioned surface, enough space for the full groups to move their bodies, and transportation to and from the schools.

The streets in the center of Monrovia are full of people willing to help. Numerous street vendors are lined up one next to the other. If one doesn’t have what you need, they point to someone else who does, or they go themselves next door or a few blocks down to get it for you. Active, friendly, and willing to find quick solutions, Liberians always find answers to the project’s needs. Power brains.

Music is an essential part of our training. Rhythm and natural movement help release negative information from the brain. Since there’s no electricity, we have to find a way other than the customary boom box. After recharging our computer, we realize we have enough battery for the day. And instead of large speakers, which suck up too much electricity, a street vendor provides us with a solution — a tiny stereo we can plug into the computer. Mats! We need mats for our training, since an important part of the Brain Education classes consists of lying down and doing breathing exercises. At the doorsteps of the city’s numerous mosques, we find the perfect fit: 6 x 12-foot prayer mats. With four of them, we can cover the whole floor of each classroom. And last but not least, transportation. How do we get ourselves to the school and back every day? Duoe teaches us the taxi signals and language, and for 80 Liberian dollars (around U.S.$1.12 dollars), the three of us can get a daily ride to our schools, together with four other people. Yes, we squeeze. Good for our limited budget.

Space, mats, music, transportation — we’re set to start Brain Education in Liberia.

In our short discussions with the government and the teachers, taxi drivers, street vendors, and media people, we are inspired by their determination to overcome, despite the hardships they face. From our headquarters’ perspective in New York, our Brain Education work can sometimes seem distant and abstract. Projects such as this one open our eyes to what can be created every day on the ground, and together with the people benefitting from the program. While the reality shows us how much needs to be done in order to unleash the great brain power and confidence of children living in countries affected by conflict, it fills us with hope to see the determination of the government officials, principals, teachers and the children themselves to improve their lives and their country. The amazing power of the human brain reveals itself once again in another corner of the word.

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