After charity sex-abuse scandal in Liberia, a storm of anger, guilt, and grief

Jonathan Paye-Layleh/AP
Students from the More Than Me Academy play outside their school in Monrovia, Liberia, on Oct. 12, 2018. Liberia's government announced it is investigating the charity, founded by a young American woman, after a new report detailing allegations that a staffer raped several students.

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“More Than Me,” a charity founded by a young American woman, operates more than a dozen public schools in Liberia. Last week an investigative news report detailed a More Than Me staffer’s abuse of girls and the organization’s response, and since then the capital city has seen an outpouring of grief and anger. For some the scandal is a warning against the often unchecked power of foreign charities in Africa. “The Liberian government’s neglect of the education system has made it vulnerable and made communities dependent on outside charities to educate their kids,” says Lakshmi Moore, whose nonprofit organized a march through the streets of Monrovia Thursday to call for accountability. At times the outrage has been mixed with feelings of guilt and vulnerability over the fact that the girls needed a charity’s help to begin with and that their government had not protected them. Activists have called for better oversight as well as better services for victims of gender-based violence. But for many people in the communities such schools serve, things are still more complicated. Outsiders “can say [close the school] because they have money,” says the mother of one student. “Why should they ask for the school to be closed? [I have] no job, nobody to help me.”

Why We Wrote This

A report detailing sexual abuse at a girls school founded by an American woman has spurred soul-searching in a country where debates about foreign assistance run deep.

She was an idealistic American with a vision that everyone, no matter where they came from, deserved a good education. They were girls from a poor Liberian neighborhood who dreamed of a way out of their difficult circumstances.

When Katie Meyler opened the tuition-free “More Than Me” school for girls in a smart green and white house in the center of Liberia’s capital in 2013, it seemed to many both here and abroad a perfect match.

“More Than Me is designed specifically to help young women choose the lives they wish to lead,” explained a 2015 profile of Ms. Meyler in The Christian Science Monitor.

Why We Wrote This

A report detailing sexual abuse at a girls school founded by an American woman has spurred soul-searching in a country where debates about foreign assistance run deep.

“We address every barrier that a girl faces,” Meyler told the Monitor at the time. “We are relentlessly fighting for our girls.”

But beneath the upbeat story that More than Me told about itself – and that news outlets like ours told about More Than Me – was a darker story. Over a period of several years, one of the charity’s key founding staff members, Macintosh Johnson, allegedly had raped or assaulted as many as dozens of girls in its care. Meanwhile, Meyler and the nongovernmental organization had distanced themselves from the scandal, going on to take over 18 schools across Liberia and draw accolades from the world’s most influential philanthropists, according to an exposé published last week by Time magazine and the investigative news nonprofit ProPublica.

In the days since the story broke, the revelations have inspired an outpouring of grief and anger here – a kind of societal soul-searching that has filled the airwaves and the headlines, the subject of public transportation chatter between strangers and hushed family conversations over dinner.

Newspapers hawkers bobbed through traffic Wednesday in the capital clutching papers with headlines that read “Petition to shut down More Than Me swarms social media” and “Online campaign seeks justice for victims of sexual abuse at More Than Me,” signs of the growing tides of public outrage.

“As a mother I very angry because the school did nothing to protect the children in the first place, and that white woman was just using the children to get rich,” announced one woman in a shared taxi heading for the city center.

“But what were the mothers doing?” the taxi’s driver shot back. “These days mothers care less about their daughters.”

Where to put the blame for what happened, indeed, remains a major question here. For some, the scandal is a warning against the often unchecked power of foreign charities in Africa. It “reveals our warped tendencies to glorify foreigners for swooping into poor countries under the guise of doing good,” wrote the political commentator Robtel Neajai Pailey in Al Jazeera this week.

But for others, what happened to the girls at More than Me is a reminder, more broadly, of the many dangers that still come with being young, poor, and female in Liberia today. For many Liberians, their reaction to the article was a mix of anger and guilt – that these young Liberian women had been mistreated by a foreign charity, yes, but also that they’d needed that charity’s help to begin with, and that the government hadn’t protected them from the abuse either.

“We are getting to the point where we have to wear our outrage on the surface,” says Lakshmi Moore, a member of the Liberia Feminist Forum, which organized a march of about 500 people through the streets of central Monrovia Thursday to call for accountability from both the government and the charity. “Women’s issues aren’t being taken seriously in this country. But if one good thing could come of this tragedy, it would be if it gives us the momentum to really change things here.”

Johnson was arrested and suspended from the school in June 2014, after a few students confided in staff, and an administrator reported him to police. A first trial ended with a hung jury. He had AIDS, according to the ProPublica report, and died in 2016 while awaiting a second trial.

On Tuesday, the country’s information ministry promised that it would carry out a “meticulous” investigation into what happened at More Than Me. The charity’s Liberian Advisory Board, meanwhile, has asked Meyler to temporarily step down while it conducts its own investigation, and she has.

“In reviewing the allegations as published by ProPublica and TIME we uncovered several statements that were either inconsistent with the information provided to us by More Than Me leadership or that were new information,” the board said in a statement.

Activists for women and girls here have called for better oversight for charities here, as well as better services for victims of gender-based violence.

“The More Than Me incident highlights the critical need for improving the justice system … to protect Liberian women and girls from violations in the first place,” wrote the organizers of Thursday’s march in a statement. “We therefore remind the Liberian government to use this as an opportunity ... to protect Liberian women and girls from these horrifying and inhumane experiences.”

But for many in the communities More than Me serves, things are more complicated.

Outsiders “can say [close the school] because they have money,” says Angeline Nyonnoh, the mother of a student at one of More Than Me’s schools who lives in West Point, a jumbled seaside settlement of shacks and small houses backing up into the Atlantic near central Monrovia. Most of the girls who attend More Than Me’s original school came from this area. “Why should they ask for the school to be closed?” Ms. Nyonnoh says. “[I have] no job, nobody to help me.”

Indeed, says Ms. Moore, the reason education charities have become so powerful in the country is that the country’s public education has long been among the worst in the world. When the Liberian Ministry of Education surveyed adult women who had attended school through the fifth grade, for instance, it found only 20 percent could correctly read a single sentence.

“In terms of people wanting to save Liberia, [Meyler] is not new,” she says. “The Liberian government’s neglect of the education system has made it vulnerable, and made communities dependent on outside charities to educate their kids.”

Two years ago, for instance, More Than Me was handed control of more than a dozen failing Liberian public schools. The move was part of a government-led experiment that turned a portion of the country’s public schools over to private organizations to be managed independently.

“We do need the [foreign] support” for our public schools, says Charles Wreh, a Monrovia resident and father. “We need that help.” But in the future, he added, “let the monitoring be more rigorous.”

Across Monrovia this week, indeed, that seemed to be a kind of collective prayer, and a collective apology. Let someone watch over them. Let someone protect our girls.

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