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By: Jake Heller

When Wayétu Moore fled war-torn Liberia as a five-year-old and arrived at an elementary school in New York City, she was greeted with a surprising question:

“Did you go to school on an elephant?” one of her new classmates asked her.

“Something I experienced as a young foreigner here was the lack of knowledge about other cultures,” the now 26-year-old Moore said from her apartment in Prospect Heights.

So in January 2011, Moore launched a children’s book publishing company called One Moore Book, which strives to share the stories of foreign people and the customs of foreign countries with American children. Its books will “serve as a key to unknown people and places for all kids who do not have access to cultures outside of their own.”

“I hope that children can pick up these books… and understand that the world is just so much bigger than what we know and what we have been taught,” said Moore.

Thus far, One Moore Book has sold more than 3,000 books across the country, and is present in schools from Houston, Texas to New York City.

Chloe Taylor, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 116 in Gramercy, thought that her students would do well to learn from Moore’s books. Last November, in a colorful classroom draped with pastel drawings and splotchy paintings, she introduced her class to Moore’s first book, “J is for Jollof Rice.”

The book tells the tale of a young Liberian girl who scours her nation’s countryside, her city’s markets, and her parents’ kitchen for food to make for dinner—all while learning the alphabet. Jollof rice is a mix of rice, tomato sauce, vegetables, meats and spices, and is one of Liberia’s signature dishes.

The students sat squarely in front of 25-year-old Taylor, on a colorful checkerboard carpet. It was near the end of the day, but they all still had boundless energy. They squirmed in their spots, imaginarily affixed to the ground, and shot their hands into the air whenever Taylor probed them with questions.

“How many of you have eaten rice before?” she asked.

Almost all of the children’s hands shot up.

“I’ve eaten brown rice,” said one student.

“Rice with beans,” said another.

“Sticky rice!” shouted someone from the back.

“I really liked “J is for Jollof Rice” because there are a lot of similarities between what the girl in Liberia did and what children do in New York,” Taylor said.

The book’s main character even transforms the apples she buys in a Monrovian market (Monrovia is the capital of Liberia) into the classic American food: apple pie.

“How many of you have eaten apple pie?” Taylor asked.

“Me! Me! Me!” the classroom erupted.

Indeed, in Moore’s Liberia, J may be for jollof rice, but P is still for pie. And parallels.

“I want children in America to learn that Liberian children are not that far removed from them,” Moore said.

Parents of Taylor’s students agree.

“I think it’s great when the kids learn about any other culture and country,” said Sarah Browne, Julian’s mother. “I think it expands their knowledge base and expands their view of the world.”

Shanika Bailey, whose daughter Neeasia is the only black student in Taylor’s class, concurred. She was particularly pleased that her child was learning about African culture.

“When blacks were enslaved they lost their language, their culture and their way of life,” Bailey said. “That’s why I feel it is very important for [Neeasia] to know as much about Africa as possible, so that she can get a sense of self.”

But Moore’s aim is not merely to educate Americans about other cultures. She has also targeted her books towards children living in countries with low literacy rates. By telling stories that reflect specific cultural narratives, she hopes that she will be able to increase literacy levels in countries like Liberia, where such levels remain low.

According to the State Department’s last calculations, done in 2008, 42 percent—nearly half—of Liberians are illiterate. And according to the United Nations, in Liberia’s rural areas, 74 percent of people do not know how to read. Only 19 percent of men and eight percent of women in Liberia have completed high school or university, the UN also reported.

“It would serve the children in Liberia so so much if they had access to literature written for them,” Moore said.

Since January, One Moore Book has published six children’s books, all about Liberia. Moore authored or co-authored all of the titles, while her siblings provided the illustrations. Next, Moore plans to write books about—and for—children in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Bolivia.

“I feel like children are so impressionable and so vulnerable to the world,” she said. “I hope that children can pick up these books and say: ‘I want to go to Liberia someday,’ or… ‘maybe I could have a friend who is Haitian.’”

As Taylor closed “J is for Jollof Rice” and carefully placed it back on the shelf, her students all began to clap and cheer.

“Who wants to go visit Liberia now?” she asked.

“I do!” the crowd in front of her answered.

By: Jake Heller

It was a flash in the pan. On October 7, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The world’s media erupted. Sirleaf’s soothing smile was splashed across television screens, front pages, and computers the world over, and, if only for a fleeting moment, a small, impoverished, recovering West African nation found itself at the center of attention.

By the time Liberia’s election came around four days later, the news had moved on.

An A6 story from the New York Times, an online photo gallery from the Washington Post, and a next-day article about the prospects of a run-off election from the L.A. Times were all the nation’s top newspapers could muster.

Four days later, it no longer seemed newsworthy to mention that the election was only Liberia’s second since its civil war, that some of Sirleaf’s main opponents are warlords, and that eight of 10 Liberians still live on less than $1.25 a day.

Four days later, a 57-year life expectancy, a 58 percent literacy rate, and an unemployment rate hovering around 80 percent no longer seemed relevant.

It was just another election in another far-away land.

Four days later, America’s news agencies proved that $1 million dollars and a shiny medal is always more interesting than the nuances of nation building, the importance of elections, or the precariousness of peace.

In the months that have followed, Liberia’s fragile stability has started to unravel. It turns out that there was a run-off election, as the LA Times predicted. And it also turns out that Sirleaf’s opponent in the run-off, Winston Tubman, boycotted the vote. He accused the Nobel laureate of rigging the elections, which were deemed free and fair by the Carter Center, a pro-democracy NGO that monitored the election.

He and his party are now holding massive rallies aimed at unseating Sirleaf, who won the second election with over 90 percent of the vote. (Though only 37.4 percent of people voted.)

Tubman has called for a “Great Victory Rally” to begin this evening and to last 30 days. At his last large rally, on the eve of the run-off election, national police killed at least two protestors, according to The Guardian.

The police are not capable of reigning in such massive unrest. Michael Keating, a lecturer of international relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston, called them “underfunded, undertrained and over anxious to use their authority” in an op-ed published one week after the killings.

The political apparatus is equally shaky. Liberia is beset by a legacy of imperialism, patronage, and local allegiances that continues to plague their rebuilding and reconciliation processes.

“Politicians campaign by handing out money from the back of their SUVs,” Keating writes.

The United Nations has a significant presence in the country, but the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) is not powerful enough to prevent another civil war. Liberia is still far from returning to the carnage that claimed more than 250,000 lives over the last two decades—it did just hold two successful elections, after all—but it is a country characterized by all of the symptoms of a pending catastrophe: poverty, illiteracy, inequality, marginalized youth, and an elite hell-bent on preserving its importance.

Speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington this February, Liberian activist J. Aloysius Toe described the potentially perilous permissive conditions that continue to haunt Liberia today. He declared that Liberia is “sitting on a time bomb of social unrest, and may soon explode with volcanic fury.”

Winston Tubman seems poised to set that bomb off.

So when Sirleaf delivers her acceptance speech in Oslo on December 10, media organizations around the world should do more than to concentrate on the palatial decor of Oslo’s City Hall, on the privileged few afforded an invitation, or even on her words. They should concentrate on her actions, and on the actions of her compatriots.

Because as important as celebrating the Nobel Peace Prize is, the prizes awarded for good work should not be more revered than the work itself.

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