Small Liberian project, big life changes

At the African Palace hotel and bar on Carey street, the dank rooms go for $10 an hour, the ladies go for less than $2. Thelma worked here for three years. Young, pretty, and – like many here in war torn Monrovia – terrified of not having any food with which to feed her family, she felt she had no choice.

There are few jobs to be had in this capital. Eighty-five percent of the people are unemployed, according to Central Bank statistics, and 99 percent live on less than a dollar a day. The government, busy fighting off rebel advances, and by all accounts corrupt and mismanaged, is more a part of the problem than a solution. Few international aid organizations are willing to invest in large-scale development projects in such an unstable environment, and investors are equally uninterested.

The best way to deal with this dire situation, say observers, is to start with baby steps. "The bottom line is that in many places in Africa you simply have to think small scale and small returns," says Phil Hall, a development consultant to several micro-economic projects in Nigeria. "At the end of the day most everybody in Liberia, as elsewhere in poverty-stricken West Africa, has become a petty trader," he says. "So what is needed is to promote basic skill training relevant to the existing marketplace."

Johnetta Massaquoi is doing just that. A bubbly social worker turned fashion designer, Ms. Massaquoi opened up a training workshop right around the corner from Carey Street in 1998, inviting in women from the neighborhood to learn about different kinds of trade, other than prostitution.

The "Wise Center" teaches sewing, knitting, and baking, and encourages students to start modest home-based businesses. These are skills that used to be passed along from mother to daughter – but most here, growing up in violent, chaotic times, never knew their mothers or had the time to learn from them. And, while the income to be earned from such trade is paltry, it's intended to keep the women and their families alive and their dignity intact. Massaquoi plans to expand the program by granting graduates small loans to help structure and expand their businesses.

The school's first graduation (the two-year course was disrupted by civil war) will take place next month when 70 former prostitutes, ex-combatants, war widows, rape victims, and street girls will all take a hesitant step forward to what is hoped to be a relatively more stable life.

"I decided to start this," says Ms. Massaquoi, a teacher's daughter who made her way to schools in the US through scholarships, "...to teach what I loved, which was fashion ... but more importantly to give my sisters hope. Some sense of self. To raise them upwards."

"We encourage projects targeted at women, since they are the ones taking on responsibility for the children," says Brian O'Neill, chargé d'affaires for the European Union in Liberia – which granted the Wise Center initial funding to buy sewing machines, turn a burned-out warehouse into a classroom, and set up a small shop to showcase the student's wares. "Women are often the more reliable partners when given a chance."

Thelma's family, all of whom are dependent on her, consists of four younger sisters, an unemployed boyfriend, and a small son. She has seen her child's father just once. That's when he – a fighter in rebel-turned-president Charles Taylor's former forces – raped her. He later killed her father. Her mother died of malaria.

For a while, Thelma tried selling potato greens, but she could not get by. Then she sold herself. "It was not fine. I knew there had to be a way out," she says, "but I could not find it." She walked by the Wise Center for months before she found the courage to join. Massaquoi loaned her the first year's $21 tuition.

Today, nearing the end of her two-year course, Thelma has a knitted baby's outfit displayed in the store window, and has opened a made-to-order business in her small shack, sewing skirts and dresses for the neighbors. She also bakes cookies every morning for her sisters to peddle. At the end of each month – after paying for rent, food, transport to school, and fees – she has about $2.50 to put in her small saving box. But, she explains, she is "holding everyone very much together."

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