Today in Liberia

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Media captionSeven people who live in Bong County tell their stories

The sprawling town of Gbarnga, the capital of Bong County in northern Liberia is a hive of activity.

For the next year, journalists from Radio 4's Today programme will be travelling to the town, a four-hour drive from the capital, Monrovia, to report on life in this part of Liberia.

It is a country which could, even should, be prosperous - it has natural resources such as iron ore deposits and rubber plantations, a climate which should make famine impossible, and a glut of young people eager to work.

But, in common with several African countries, those advantages have been blighted by the country's history, poor leadership and a 14-year civil war.

The Today programme will be exploring how Liberia can recover from the devastation of that conflict and how it can rebuild to become part of a more prosperous Africa in the 21st Century.

Throughout the year we will be following the lives of some of the people who live in Bong County, getting to know a little more about their day-to-day lives, hopes and fears.

Update: June 2012

Since we last spoke to her, traditional midwife Gorma Patrick has successfully referred four expectant mothers for safe delivery at the Phebe Hospital.

Image caption Street child Patrick Solo

She is expecting a baby herself, due in October.

Patrick Solo has been taken in by a lady in Gbarnga who used to work at the orphanage when Patrick was there and is no longer living in the warehouse.

Just after we spoke to university student Josephine Zogbaye, she found out that her father was sick.

Between this, a problem with her leg brought on by cold weather and the walk to college, and financial difficulties, she has been out of school for two weeks.

But she is still determined to complete her degree and become a sociologist. Despite a lack of respect for the subject in her county, she says, "I will become a good educator".

Image caption Student Josephine Zogbaye

Brother Paul Gussin's son has graduated from high school in Monrovia, and he is trying to find a way to to get him through college - all at his own expense.

Business is still hard, and the exchange rate between the US dollar and Liberian dollar - 75LD to $1 - is giving him a tough time.

He is being forced to sell his products cheap just to make ends meet, he says. But the good news is that he has almost completed his yearly rental payment of almost $400 (£260) to his landlord.

For motorcycle taxi union president Sam Elliott, life has been good.

His college course has led to great improvements in his life, he says, and his business is going well - he has recently bought a maroon Nissan car - reasonably rare on the streets of Gbarnga - that he intends to use as a taxi.

Mary M Koli also has some new wheels. She and her boyfriend bought a brand new mortorcycle which is making them 500-1000 Liberian Dollars (£4.40 - £8.80) a day, on top of the 100 Liberian Dollars (88p) she makes from her small business.

Image caption Shopkeeper Brother Paul E Gussin

They are also planning to build their own house by next year.

Jestina Segbee has graduated from a youth journalism training programme, run by the YMCA. With great pride she says she got the third highest mark - the first girl to do so well.

She is volunteering as a news reader and presenter of School Report on Radio Gbarnga in Bong County.

It seems Jestina also has keen political ambitions. She plans to run for elected positions both within the student government and the children's parliament.


Gbarnga - pronounced "Banga" - town centre is little more than a matrix of four or five dusty roads lined with small shops, the market between them.

A rugged looking truck grinds to a halt outside the market carrying traders and their goods. They are quickly surrounded by a band of street children who, after swift negotiation, start unloading the bags and boxes from the truck.

Among them is seventeen-year-old Patrick Solo. His parents died when he was a baby, he says, and the nearby Rainbow Orphanage took him in.

He reached 4th grade in school but then decided to leave the orphanage - for the last three years he has lived with 10 other street children in a warehouse tucked away behind the market.

The warehouse has a basic toilet, a leaking pipe for water and most of the children, the youngest 14, sleep on cardboard boxes on the floor.

They each earn 50 Liberian Dollars (43p) per day unloading the trucks, pooling their money together to buy food and clothing.

Away from the commotion, Brother Paul E Gussin stands behind the counter in a small shop on the periphery of the market, its shelves lined with creams, deodorants and beauty products.

Fewer people are coming to the market these days, he says, and with little price control and harsh interest rates on credit, growing his business is hard.

Image caption Motorbike union leader Sam Elliott

He sells to survive, is how he puts it, making the journey back to Monrovia every few weeks to see his wife and five children.

The drone and wizz of a motorbike taxi drivers are a common sound in the town, as they ferry around a person or two and baggage of almost every conceivable shape.

According to Sam Elliott, rubber farmer and president of the Bong motorbike taxi union, some 75% of the riders are "war affected youth" or former child soldiers.

It is perhaps no surprise that these mobile young men have become a focus of concerns about the stability of the area, but Sam is optimistic - if there is enough opportunity to better themselves, they will stay on the straight and narrow.

Image caption Traditional midwife Gorma Patrick

No one can rebuild Liberia except Liberians themselves, he says, and with education and empowerment, it can be done.

Far out of town, down dusty red-mud backroads, education is something Gorma Patrick has embraced whole-heartedly. Like her mother before her, she is a traditional midwife in the village of Taleta.

Until recently, the traditional midwifery practices in Bong County included sitting on the mothers belly to speed up delivery.

But Gorma has been trained by the charity Save the Children to deliver children according to medical advice and refers mothers to the local clinic if there are complications in the birth.

Image caption School pupil Jestina Segbee

So far she has delivered nine babies successfully this year.

And empowerment is not something you need to remind Jestina Segbee about. The 17-year-old Gbarnga high school pupil is a budding campaigner on childrens' rights and a keen debater. She is the president of the Liberian children's parliament, with aspirations to be a journalist and then enter politics proper, like her heroine President Sirleaf.

Jestina was born in the Liberian bush during the civil war after her parents fled the fighting in Bong County.

Like many Liberian children, her education was disrupted - she only started school at the age of eight - but she is determined to carry on her education through to university.

Behind the microphone a few minutes down the road in Cuttington University radio station, Josephine Zogbaye is getting the education Jestina wants.

Born just at nearby Phebe Hospital, she is studying sociology and conflict resolution and plans to train as a lawyer.

Further from Gbarnga, in Balama village, higher education is a distant hope for Mary M Koli, as she sits outside the rural school she is not able to attend.

Twenty-one years old, Mary has two children, the first of whom was born when she was 15.

Image caption Mary M Koli, mother of two

She agreed with the father that she would stop school for him to finish his education and support the family - but once he finished school, she says, he abandoned her.

With no support from her family, she has to care for her sick grandmother and children, earning 75 Liberian Dollars (63p) per day selling palm oil.

Over the course of the next year, we will be following Patrick, Paul, Mary, Josephine, Jestina, Gorma and Sam, to find out where life in Bong County takes them.