Students at the R.S. Caulfield school in Unification Town, Liberia, had a visit from an unusual guest on Monday: U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, accompanied by her teenage daughters Malia and Sasha, and her mother, Marian Robinson.
Obama spent Monday in Liberia to push for girls’ education, visiting a girls’ leadership camp as well as the school, which is located in an area hit hard by the recent Ebola outbreak and still reeling from more than a decade of civil war. In connection with the visit, USAID announced a $27 million funding boost for the girls’ education initiative Let Girls Learn.
Obama talked with the female students at R.S. Caulfield school, listening to their stories and sharing advice.
“When I was your age, if anyone had told me that I would be the First Lady of the United States of America, I would have laughed at them,” Obama told the girls. “Because growing up, in that space, there had never been an African-American president, let alone an African-American first lady. So to be where I am today is basically doing what many people thought was impossible.”
She added that women and girls should fight the urge to “hide ourselves,” noting that, “in the class, boys always raise their hand even if they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ll talk and talk and talk, and we’ll wait and make sure that we’re absolutely right before we say anything.”
Among those who greeted Obama on Monday was Miatta M. Kawah, 14, a sixth grader who aspires to be a lawyer after witnessing her aunt lose a land dispute. After the visit, Kawah said Obama’s words had taught her the value of female education. “I learned that girls need to go to school and learn; we should be educated so that no man can bluff [show off] in the future,” she said.
But Kawah also said her school needs more books and a modern library to help improve her reading skills. “I want Madam Obama to help our school with books so I can be able to read every day after school or when I want to do my assignments.”
Out of the 1,034 students attending R.S. Caulfield school, just 334 are female. More than 50 students at the school lost their parents to Ebola, according to Vice Principal Steve Bannie.
“[Obama’s] visit will have a lifetime impact on [female students],” Bannie said, adding that the school has experienced high dropout rates in the past, but partnerships with NGOs and donors such as UNICEF and USAID have boosted female attendance rates. Female students typically drop out much faster than boys, in line with traditional gender roles in Liberia, particularly as puberty approaches.
“This visit highlights ways in which girl students can protect their future,” said Matenneh Rose Dunbar, a Liberian gender advocate and radio talk-show host. “Many girls here want to be like Michelle Obama – to go to school, to work, to excel. This country could be a great country where you have everyone educated – girls along with boys. These girls have now been told: If you learn to read, you can communicate with the rest of the world, you can make an impact in the world, you could be the wife of the next president of America.”
Or, for that matter, they could be the president of Liberia, a country that made history in 2005 when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was voted into power, becoming Africa’s first elected female head of state.
For fifth grader Rebecca Fayiah, Obama’s visit has reinforced the importance of studying hard. “Once my school was chosen for the U.S. president’s wife and her daughters to visit, I felt important, because girls here really need to be serious about their education,” she said.
Her older sister, 17-year-old Tawah, is still in the sixth grade, as her studies were interrupted, a common occurrence for girls in Liberia. She said many of her peers have already dropped out of school to work or get married, but that she will continue with her studies now she has met the U.S. first lady.
“Some girls get pregnant and drop out of school,” she said. “Others drop [out] because they are ashamed that they are old for their class. But I’m happy that I’m still in school and was able to see a woman like Madam Obama. This makes me very happy and it encouraged me to be educated as a woman.”
Both students and teachers agree that although the visit was inspiring, real change also hinges on access to resources and equipment. Student Hannah Frisk, 20, who wants to become a doctor, said the school needs a science laboratory.
As for Kawah, the student who was encouraged to pursue a legal career, she first plans to spread the word about the importance of girls’ education.
“I want to encourage my [female] friends to go to school and learn, because education is very good for the girls of today,” she said. “It is the only way for us to be future leaders in our country.”