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A school named after me
By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC world duty editor

A letter from the school and
The school did its best to keep in touch with letters
When the Liberian civil war started in 1990, I was the West Africa correspondent.

Reporting it was exciting and scary, and a big responsibility.

The local papers grew thinner and eventually disappeared, as they ran out of newsprint. The radio and TV stations went off the air when they were overrun by the fighting or had no more diesel to power their transmitters.

The BBC became the only way for Liberians to find out what was happening in their own country.

So it was that, at the end of a terrifying afternoon cowering in the middle of a gun battle, I was the one to tell them that their president had been carried off by one of the rebel warlords.

And it was my voice, the next morning, which told Liberians that President Doe was dead, and his mutilated body put on public display.

I tell you this just to explain how it was that, in this small rather battered corner of the world, I got to be so famous that they called a school after me.

Honoured

The first letter came after I had left West Africa and was back in London.

It was from someone called the Reverend Anthony Mbolonda, who wrote to say he was starting a primary school, and would I mind if they named it after me.

Of course I wouldn't mind, I replied, I would be most honoured. He promised to invite me to the official opening.

Then there was a long silence.

The fighting in Liberia ebbed and flowed. Charles Taylor mounted a big attack on Monrovia; the Nigerian peacekeepers launched 'Operation Octopus' to drive him back.
President Charles Taylor
The school was destroyed in the mission to drive back Charles Taylor's forces
When, eventually, another letter arrived, it brought bad news.

The school had been in the full path of the offensive and had been trashed.

Every couple of years a letter would arrive. The story was really the story of almost everyone in Liberia, of getting knocked down, time after time, and picking themselves up and starting again.

Last year a letter came saying that the school was back in Monrovia. I asked our local correspondent what he knew about it, and about the Reverend Mbolonda. He'd never heard of either of them.

But then, one Friday afternoon in January, I got an email. And this time it had an identifiable address and a photograph attached of a crowd of extremely real-looking children.

Mark Doyle was about to leave for Liberia. A rapid shopping trip for picture books, a quick rummage in my desk for some left-over dollars, and he was on his way, with pleas to try and find 'my' school ringing in his ears.

By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent


Smiling children at the school
Most of the children are refugees from Lofa County
It was one of those busy trips. Radio producer Dan McMillan and I were on a lightning tour of Liberia.

The story was: Return to Liberia - can the peace hold?

But we had another equally important assignment too - finding Liz Blunt's school.

As the days went by, with contacts learning we were in town, the usual Liberian problem emerged - we gradually got more and more appointments with people wanting to talk to us, and the schedule was looking tight.

One afternoon, in between interviewing a former rebel general and trying to pin down the UN-appointed police commissioner, I realised we were near the alleged location of the school, which was supposed to be in a suburb of Monrovia called Chocolate City.

I looked at Dan and said: "Let's give it 20 minutes? See if we can find the place?"

Scatty approach

He agreed, so we asked our driver to point the nose of his rusty steed in the direction of Chocolate City, and we started asking out of our side windows for 'The Elizabeth Blunt School'.

It may sound like a scatty approach, but that's the way you find things in Monrovia.

After about ten minutes, we were parked in a side street when a teenager called Charles came up to the car.

"I hear you want the Elizabeth Blunt School," he said. "I know the place."

He hopped in and five minutes later we were there.

Like most of Monrovia, it was in a sorry state. A row of decrepit buildings - huts really - lashed together with a minimum of mortar and a few roofing sheets.

This is the email I wrote to Liz about the school named after her:

"When Dan and I arrived the kids were on some sort of break. As we approached, pandemonium of course, because Dan had a digital camera.

About two hundred children, I would guess, from five to 15. I met a head teacher, about 40, male, and six other teachers, mostly in their twenties, men and women. All serious and obviously educated people.

A sign at the school baring Liz's name
The school proudly wears Liz's name
The school has two functioning classrooms with roofs, a couple of blackboards and a motley selection of benches.

They hotdesk two sessions a day to maximise resources. Some of the teachers appear to do both sessions.

No running water, no power of course.

The kids are mostly refugees from the war zones of Lofa County, northern Liberia, as are the teachers, though the teachers insisted local Monrovia kids were welcome as well.

Some of the staff dream of moving the school back to Lofa. The kids pay a 'registration fee' - not the same as school fees, I was told firmly, because the kids couldn't all afford that.

The teachers described themselves as volunteers who got a little food from the registration fees. As we sat there chatting, more teachers arrived. They were all well dressed and seemed serious.

The owner of the school land is the father of one of the men who wrote a letter to you telling you about the place.

He pointed out that apart from the two functioning classrooms there are the shells of several other potential ones. They need wood and roofing sheets to make them waterproof.

There's space outside for the kids to play in; in fact there is lots there - enthusiasm, brains, land, kids - just no money, except the $80 you gave me to give them if I thought they were serious.

I handed it over, in front of everybody, to the head teacher, along with the children's books you gave me. The staff were very, very grateful."


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