Liberian minister appeals for help in rebuilding war-torn schools


June 15, 1999|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THE TREE-LINED streets of Long Reach are far removed from the battle-scarred ruins of Liberia. Ten years of civil war in the small West African country have left an indelible mark.

You can ask the Rev. John T. Johnson about that.

The 72-year-old Assembly of God minister has come to Long Reach from his home in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, to visit his son David, his daughter-in-law Rachel Angeline and grandchildren Elliott, 5, Naomi, 21 months, and Aaron, 3 months.

On Sunday, Johnson stood before about 100 church and community members at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center and described his country's agony and his efforts to rebuild schools, hire educators and bring children back into the classroom after the long conflict.

Ezekiel Pajibo, policy analyst with the Africa Faith and Justice Network in Washington, also spoke about the need for attention to Liberia's plight and assistance for its people.

His organization estimates that about 200,000 children were coerced into fighting during the war. Now educators are struggling to teach them how to be children again.

Charles Ghanky Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997, and an uneasy peace has come to Monrovia, Johnson said, although fighting continued around the country until September.

According to Pajibo, 40 percent of the country's budget still goes for arms. But agriculture is returning and schools are beginning to reopen.

Johnson has built the John T. Johnson School a school in Monrovia, which includes kindergarten through ninth grade. His school takes in war orphans and the homeless, he said, and the government wants him to build more.

Some families sleep in the school at night, Johnson said, leaving the building in time for classes in the morning. Thieves take the tin roofing and other building materials when the three-room school is unoccupied.

Johnson also has established 40 informal schools employing volunteer teachers who meet with children in abandoned buildings and other locations.

Johnson came to Columbia in February to visit his family, rest and gather resources for his work. When he goes home to Liberia next month, he hopes to take funds with him to buy supplies for his schools.

Three hundred U.S. dollars will run a Liberian school for a month. That's enough, Johnson said, to pay the best teachers and provide books for the children.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia learned about Johnson's efforts through members Karen Angeline and her husband, John Shea -- Rachel Angeline's sister and brother-in-law -- and invited Johnson to speak at the congregation's Sunday service.

With David sitting beside him and Rachel Angeline and the children in the front row, Johnson told a remarkable tale of uncertainty and faith.

The war began on Christmas Eve in 1989, he said. When it reached Monrovia, Johnson, his wife, Mary, and their 13 children fled the city. (Son David was already in the United States.)

Seeking sanctuary near a Voice of America post in the countryside, the Johnsons had no food or money and lived on tree roots and leaves.

After two months, intense fighting began to close in on their refuge. The Americans abandoned the VOA base. Johnson prayed for guidance.

The family decided to go back to Monrovia, a place they at least knew well.

They found the city under the control of rebel leader Prince Johnson. He was no relation but remembered John Johnson's son Daniel as a political supporter of his from the past.

"He told us that we had nothing to worry about, he was here to protect us," Johnson said. He told the Johnsons, "Go back to your home."

It was the the answer to the minister's prayers.

Daniel, who returned to Monrovia with his family, created a volunteer corps to mobilize the war-torn community. The goal was to bury the bodies, rebuild facilities and restart agriculture.

He was appointed mayor of Monrovia by acting President Amos Sawyer in 1991.

The elder Johnson was recruited by his son to help rebuild the schools.

According to a news report, the war is believed to have killed 150,000 of the 2.4 million people in Liberia and driven 1.5 million from their homes, many into exile in neighboring countries.

In 1997, when Taylor was elected, Daniel Johnson, now 43, stepped down from office. He still lives in Monrovia.

David Johnson, 45, had been sent to the United States in 1979 to study business. He attended the University of Massachusetts, where he met his wife. The couple lived in New York and in California before moving to Columbia about a year ago. David Johnson now works in Baltimore.

"When I came to visit my son," the elder Johnson said, "I never thought in all the world that someone would want me to speak about the civil war in Liberia."

The Unitarians listened and got the message. When a collection was taken up, cash and checks totaling $1,142 were donated to Johnson's schools.

Town hall meeting

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 3rd District Maryland Democrat, will hold a town hall meeting at the East Columbia 50+ Center at 2: 30 p.m. Monday.

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