The Liberian Literacy Foundation and Sierra Student Coalition visit Bergey WindPower Co.
Published: August 13, 2006 12:00 am
Winds of progress
The Norman Transcript Local windpower company commits to fighting illiteracy in Liberia
By Bunmi Ishola
Transcript Staff Writer
After driving about 18 hours straight from Chicago to Norman because of bad online directions, the delegation from the Liberian Literacy Foundation finally pulled into Bergey Windpower.
From the moment they first caught sight of the wind turbines, their spirits lifted and they had no doubt in their minds that every minute of their long trip was worth it.
"When I see it (the wind turbines), I'm just thrilled," Karto Marshall, who sits on the board of directors for the foundation, said. Even after all the time wasted, she said seeing them brought hope and "when there is hope, there is a lot of will."
Marshall, along with Victor Helb, executive director of the foundation, Alexander Gbayee, U.S. Consul General of Liberia, and Liberian international student Moriah Yeakula, came to Norman to visit Bergey Windpower with the hope of partnering with Bergey Windpower to help provide electricity and clean water to Liberian schools.
"Our goal is to help the situation in Liberia, West Africa, where the illiteracy rate is very high," Marshall said. At least 75 percent of the country is illiterate, she said. "We have been doing a lot of research hoping we get a lot of help and establish a future for the children (in Liberia)."
While the foundation's primary focus is collecting and recycling books for Liberian schools, they are seeking to branch out and help education in a new way.
"Large parts of Liberia are not yet electrified," Helb said. "That means safe drinking water is hard to come by in most of the country." This, Helb said, challenges the growth of education in the nation.
Hence the visit to Bergey.
Bergey Windpower has done rural infrastructure/rural electrification projects in about 40 countries over the last 20 years, president Mike Bergey said. They have worked with the World Bank, Foreign Assistance Agency, the UN development program, the International Red Cross and many other organizations.
They have been a major supplier to villages in China, so much so that Bergey now has a manufacturing factory in Beijing. In Africa, the company has worked with the Moroccan government, as well as in Egypt and Mauritania. The company is currently active in Kenya, where they are doing telecommunications work.
"They are one of our biggest customers in the world," Bergey said of the East African country.
Right now, Bergey said his company is finishing up a contract to provide wind turbines for seven villages in the African country of Eritrea.
"We're a tool," Bergey said. "Our equipment is a tool ... it's a necessary component of rural development."
Most electricity is powered through diesel power or grid extentions, he said. While both remain the traditional ways of electrifying rural areas, Bergey said wind power generally has a lower construction and lower operating cost and "there is a steady progress to greater use of it."
A little bit of electricity goes a long way in changing a country, Bergey said. It can help run lights, computers and phones, and pump water to villages, bringing much needed progress. Adding Liberia to the list of countries Bergey has worked with would be an honor, he said.
"We're going to do what we can to support the project," Bergey said.
He has two different models which can help bring electricity to Liberia. The 1-kilowatt turbine could power a school, clinic, small business or about five houses, Bergey said. The 10-kilowatt turbine would be able to run the center of a small village. These are the resources the Liberian Literacy Foundation hope to harness.
But the cheapest turbine costs about $6,000. As a nonprofit organization, that isn't a cost the foundation can easily procure, especially if their goal is 30 turbines for 30 schools by February 2008.
This is where the books fit back in. The literacy foundation has set up an online bookstore, partnering with Barnes and Noble, Alibris.com and DHL. In November they plan to launch the "A Million Books for a Million Lives" campaign on about 12,000 college campuses in the United States. The books collected on these campuses will be recycled and exchanged through the foundation's online bookstore, the proceeds largely going to fund buying the wind turbines from Bergey, Helb said.
"It's part of a larger project essentially bringing Bergey on board," he said. Members of the University of Oklahoma's Sierra Club Student Coalition, OU Campus Climate Challenge and Our Earth also came to Bergey to meet with the delegation and tour the company. Their hope is that OU will be able to partner with the Liberian Literacy Foundation in this endeavor.
There were hopes that Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf also would be present yesterday, Helb said. The group extended an invitation to her since she is in Oklahoma to speak at Langston University's commencement ceremony. However, she was unable to come so the group took lots of notes and pictures. Gbayee said they will meet with her in Langston today and share their findings.
Johnson-Sirleaf "is very much interested in education for our people," the consul general said. He took many pictures of the wind turbines and the company in general; they will stand as proof that there is hope for the Liberia. The country is starving for any educational advancement they can get, he said. "All the kids today, if you ask them what they want to do, they say they want to go to school," Gbayee said.
"Liberia, after 14 years of civil war, is desperate to return to normalcy and part of that is getting hundreds of thousands of children that have been displaced (back in schools)," Helb said. This endeavor "is expected to play such a positive role to the lives of these children."
"The bottom line is that the Liberian Literacy Foundation believes despite the Liberian government's best intentions and certainly their capabilities, we believe it's individuals and organizations like ours that are ultimately going to play the greatest role in Liberia's revival."
DETROIT -- Victor Helb was just 12 years old when his parents put him on a plane from war-torn Liberia so he could seek refuge with an uncle who lived in Waterford.
Now 32 and a student at Wayne State University, Helb hopes to restore literacy in Liberia, where millions of children missed out on an education during the country's 14 years of civil unrest -- and his plan has captured the support of university officials and the Liberian government.
The goal is to get 1,200 U.S. colleges to provide a scholarship for a Liberian college student -- and at the same time get students on those campuses to donate their used text books to raise money to launch literacy centers across Liberia. Each college will also be asked to recruit one volunteer reading tutor to go to Liberia.
To show it can be done, Wayne State University became the first to provide such a scholarship -- for Moriah Yeakula, 19, who was granted four years of tuition and a job to help cover living expenses. Student organizations also raised $4,500 in a used-text book drive last spring. Helb has been trained to be a reading tutor, and stands ready to become the project's first tutor volunteer.
Helb wants participating colleges to commit to at least four years of tuition for a Liberian student; money from book sales will help with costs for room, board and transportation from Liberia.
"It's very contagious when people hear about it, and ... it's a doable plan," said Linda Seatts, director of the WSU Office of International Students and Scholars, and the faculty advisor for the project. "It's very gratifying to see something of this magnitude being done by a collaborative effort."
The West African nation was founded by freed American slaves in 1822, a minority that became the nation's ruling elite. But the government was overthrown in a civil war that broke out in 1989, and stability didn't return to the country until 2003.
Clinics, hospitals, schools and roads were destroyed or badly deteriorated during the chaos. Yeakula and her family, who lived in the capital city of Monrovia, were forced to flee their home for four months at one point and take refuge inside a Firestone rubber plantation in the countryside.
"When we returned, there were holes in the roof and the walls where the bullets had fallen," Yeakula said.
Yeakula was able to complete high school at a private school in Monrovia, but access to schools is limited for children in the country, Yeakula said. Both private and government-run schools charge tuition, she added. Especially during the war, many families didn't have the money to send their children to school.
When stability was restored, Helb returned to Liberia and was appalled at what had become of the nation's education system.
"Students at the university had no books and had to study by candle light with only copies of materials," Helb said. "At the end of this road trip I figured there had to be a way we could help."
Back home in Detroit, he created the Liberian Literacy Foundation, and with help from Seatts and others at Wayne State, launched the Liberian Book Project.
A delegation that included Wayne State University officials, a Liberian embassy dignitary and Detroit literacy experts traveled to Liberia in January to assess needs and devise their strategy for implementing the project.
The group, which included Helb, Yeakula and Seatts, met with Liberian education ministers and accompanied Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the "hinterland" outside the capital city of Monrovia for the opening of a newly renovated school.
"The government likes the project," said Edwin Sele, deputy ambassador of Liberia to the United States, who accompanied the delegation. "The potential for it is very, very great.
"There are people today at the age of 20 who never sat in a classroom because the war took so long," Sele added. "We're talking about nearly 75 percent of the country who can barely read and write.
Helb formed a partnership with Pro-Literacy Detroit, a nonprofit that provides free reading help and trains volunteer literacy tutors. Pro-Literacy Detroit has agreed to provide technical support for the project and to train tutors to go to Liberia.
Helb hopes to launch a nationwide tour this spring to recruit universities to participate in the Liberian Book Project.
Yeakula, who is earning a degree in economics at Wayne State, said she plans to return to Liberia after she graduates. She wants to use her education to help rebuild the country. And she hopes to volunteer at one of the literacy centers she believes will be funded by the Liberian Book Project.
"(Liberia) is changing, but it's a very slow upward movement," Yeakula said. "We need it to move faster. We need every child to have access to a great educational experience."