Learning how to dream again
Alumnus sees education as Liberia's hope
Alumnus Marcus Dahn appeared on the cover of Ohio Today's print edition in Spring 2006, when he served as Liberia's deputy minister of education. A few months later, the enrollment of master's student Sam Johnson marked the first Liberian to attend Ohio University since Dahn himself.
We caught up with both Dahn and Johnson during Dahn's summer visit to Athens. Read on to learn about Dahn's new role in the Liberian ministry of foreign affairs and why he hopes to send more students like Johnson through the halls of Ohio University.
By Anita Martin
This July marked 160 years since Liberia became Africa's first independent republic, but after a debilitating 14-year civil war, the nation is practically starting over. According to Marcus Dahn, MAIA '90 and PHD '95, now the country's deputy minister of foreign affairs for administration, education remains the best hope for Liberia today -- and one of its greatest challenges.
Ohio University, he says, can help.
In early July, Dahn visited Athens to lay the groundwork for future educational partnerships between Ohio University and institutions of higher learning in Liberia. He met with President Roderick J. McDavis; Josep Rota, associate provost for international affairs; Renee Middleton, dean of the College of Education; Ben Ogles, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and John Day, dean of the College of Business.
"My goal is to get the educational policy moving forward," Dahn says. "There's no better place to start than my alma mater."
Due to the level of Liberia's post-war devastation, a full collaboration will take some years to materialize. Still, the country seems to be on the mend. Under President-elect Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female head-of-state in the history of Africa, electricity and water are slowly but surely returning to urban regions, and displaced Liberians are beginning to come home, encouraged by peaceful conditions and government-issued resettlement packages.
An urgent need for change
Although Dahn ran for the Liberian presidency in 2003 and joined a coalition that ran against Sirleaf in 2005, he has long-standing ties to Sirleaf and enthusiastically supports the current administration.
"Right now, the most important thing is to make Liberia a democratically respected nation," he says, adding that the country is very proud to have elected Africa's first woman head-of-state. "For women in Africa, she is their Nelson Mandela," he says. "She helps encourage girls to stay in school and aim high."
For Liberia, a country with an almost 75 percent illiteracy rate and one of the fastest growing populations in the world, schools are in urgent demand. In his previous political campaigns, Dahn devised detailed educational programs, many of which have already been implemented by the previous and current administrations.
In addition to forging overseas educational partnerships and helping to restore the presence of non-government organizations such as the Peace Corps, Dahn is working to combat corruption at the higher levels of government. "The ministry has been run by nepotism for too long, and we are now getting away from that, coming to more professionalism," Dahn says.
Dahn also hopes to mobilize Liberia's educated youth, a slim but vital demographic, to give back to Liberia. Samuel Johnson, MAIA '08, the first Liberian student to attend Ohio University since Dahn, is prepared to accept that challenge.
Johnson, who arrived to Ohio University in August 2006, is earning a master's degree in international development studies with a focus on economics. He remembers Dahn from the University of Liberia, where Dahn sometimes teaches graduate-level international relations. Once Dahn learned that Johnson planned to attend Ohio University, the two began to correspond.
Reaching out to the next generation
The lives of Dahn and Johnson share many parallels. Both attended Liberia's Tubman High School, and both have affiliations with the University of Liberia -- and now, Ohio University. More importantly, Johnson shares Dahn's passion for reviving Liberia's economy and educating others.
"Until the final weeks of high school, I wanted to become an engineer," Johnson recalls. "Then, at the resurgence of civil war in 1999, I made a radical shift to pursue economics and demography, to learn how to rebuild what we've destroyed. I want to help Liberia in my own lifetime."
In a way, Johnson said, learning to implement the economics of development is a form of engineering. Without basic resources and the earning potential that education brings, he said, social infrastructure, from family and community to law enforcement, justice and politics, all break down.
"The generation born in the late '80s suffers the most," Johnson says. "A child in Liberia could be 12 years old and have never known peace. Those children lack access to the basics of life: food, shelter. Many have never gone to school. Then they grow into men and women having children they cannot care for. We need urgent actions to break this cycle."
Johnson because of his level of education, he was always able to find jobs, and now he wants to empower those less privileged by investing in Liberia.
"My mother was a microeconomist," he explains. "Basically she made small personal loans to farmers and business people in local communities." Johnson plans to follow in her footsteps by providing such low-interest loans and free consultation to individuals in struggling areas.
He also plans to teach at the university level, to help empower and inspire the educated Liberian youth to give back. Johnson shares Dahn's conviction that efforts need to be made at all levels, including higher learning.
"We have a deep need to teach primary education, but how do you go to the primaries without qualified people to teach them?" he says. "We need to also start from places like the university, to train the teachers, economists and engineers."
Although Dahn and Johnson acknowledge the challenges of the future, both men find optimism through sustained positive action. "Liberians still feel a great anxiety, but talking to people back home, it seems there is a blossom of hope among us," Johnson says.
Anita Martin, BSJ '05, is a writer for University Communications and Marketing.