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Page last updated at 09:30 GMT, Wednesday, 11 April 2012 10:30 UK

What's holding back Liberia?

The Today programme is embarking on a year long project in Bong County, Liberia.

Liberia, in sub-Saharan Africa has been torn apart by civil wars, misruled by corrupt and brutal dictators and its people are in desperate need of everything from decent medical care to a basic education.

But the continent is beginning to get its act together and democracy is taking over from dictatorship and economies are expanding and relying less on foreign aid.

The Today programme's John Humphrys reports from Gbarnga, and heard from the likes of Mark, a former child soldier, who described how he killed people after being dragged him from his home at the age of 14 and forced to fight.

He went to Phebe Hospital which serves the whole of Bong County. It has four doctors and four ambulances which serve 350,000 people.

At a rural primary school, 20 year old pupils are being taught alongside students a third of their age but they remain optimistic despite many of their parents being killed in the war.

"I would like to work with the media... To be a reporter, writer, everything," one student said.

It's not only the war that holds this country back, it's riddled with secret societies each with its own leader called a devil who's known only to the members.

They've exercised real power for centuries and it's a touchy subject in Liberia with many encourage bizarre and cruel traditional practises including female genital mutilation.

In this country that embraces Christianity there is a real ambiguity about western values versus traditional practises and even the president tiptoes around the subject.

Paramount chief Flomo T Barwror, who says he's 100 years old, told John Humphrys that "what is breaking up family structures is what they call human rights".

John asks whether there is an indifference towards change in the country and whether Liberia is to blame for the lack of progress.

He went to a Cuttington University College where a student tells him "I want to start my own business in microfinance".

The university's president Dr. Henrique Topa, disagrees with the notion so popular in the west that poor African countries like Liberia need US to deliver their salvation.

"We need guidance... but those aids such be designed to build our capacity, to thrust forward.... no-one can do it alone," he said.

There vast numbers of young men without work, facing an unemployment rate said by most to be 95%? Young men like former child soldier Mark, who told Today presenter John Humphrys that "if there are jobs, then we won't go back to war".

But he said that if his mind was not mature and someone offered him $10,000 to go on a mission "I would do it to survive".

Dr. Topa said that poor people like Mark must be brought into the middle class if there is to be any hope.

"If you have the very rich and very poor there is going to be trouble," he added.

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