Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Field Trip: University of Liberia

I walked around the UL campus the other day, a real hive. The place is built on a set of low, rocky outcroppings such that huge black boulders are a main feature of the grounds. This is Capital Hill; from several vantage points on campus you can see the Congress building and the Executive Mansion, constant reminders of where you might end up working if you study hard and network with the right people.

Kids along the main driveway sell notebooks, folders, and ball-point pens from wheelbarrow-based stationery stands. One young guy with fancy gold eyeglass frames was doing a brisk business making photocopies from a machine on the sidewalk. Well-dressed young (and not-so-young) people studied or ate lunch in groups on the rocks, or on wooden desk/chairs stenciled white with “UL Property”. Handfuls of young men yelled about politics and football, while older ladies in head wraps chatted and cooked rice over gas flames in small wooden restaurants.

Inside of the peeling yellow and brown concrete buildings, students shuffled from class to class, sometimes crowding outside of a lecture hall where they weren’t in time to get a seat. Most of the lectures appear to attract a fair number of unenrolled onlookers, too, gathered around the windows and doors. Owing to the lack of electricity, all the classes are held in the darkness of indoor daytime. I wondered if they fire up a generator for night school. The foundations of the permanent buildings are marked with the names of politicians in chipping commemorative gold lettering from the year they were constructed, or else with newer white signs reminding that they were built with the support of the United States of America or some other country.

Like everywhere else in Monrovia, teenagers walk the halls selling used clothing, bags of peanuts, and plastic cellphone covers. Dot-matrix printouts are wheat-pasted to the walls and pillars, enrollment lists for Macroeconomics 1 or Advanced Principles of Accounting. Student elections were held last week, so candidates’ posters are plentiful. And in recent weeks there’s been a high-profile revolt of students and some faculty against an allegedly corrupt university administration, so renegade meeting flyers are everywhere to be seen. Students are enjoying their new ability to congregate and speak truth to power without being beaten down by the cops. The Iron Lady went as far as to reconstitute the school’s governing board the other day.

One giant open-air classroom looked like it could hold several hundred people, but it had been sectioned off into smaller lecture areas by free-standing plywood chalkboards. With its size, this must be the venue for commencement ceremonies later this month. The giant courtyard of another building was ringed all the way around with about 100 students in single file, all facing the same direction and concentrating on the Greek symbols of an advanced Mathematics test in the open air. Seeing their tongues sticking out in strained concentration, I was happy to be just a tourist.


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