SALAYEA, Liberia — "S-TEC! The fruit of life! Learning on God's grace! In union, success we assure! We all attend!"
The thunderous chant of the school ode at the Salayea Technical Education Center served as a warmup for the afternoon's big event: the first graduation exercises that this dusty town of erstwhile war refugees has witnessed in a decade.
Auto department! Carpentry department! Masonry department! Metalwork department! Nearly 200 students, sporting matching uniforms of bluejeans, T-shirts and color-coded hard hats, paraded past the podium with chins high. Townspeople jostled for a glimpse under the sweltering equatorial sun.
"The aims and objectives of this training exercise are clear: to transform our ex-combatants, high school dropouts and war-affected youths into useful citizens for the reconstruction of our motherland, Liberia," training supervisor Johnson Arku said as he issued the graduation certificates. "As you leave this place of learning, remember that you have greater tasks ahead."
"S-T-E-C!" the graduates shouted. It was an inspirational moment in a country where inspiration is in short supply. These dapper graduates are making history not just for completing school but because they are putting their new skills to practical use.
The Secret: Thinking Small
About 90% of the students have already secured jobs with international organizations working to help communities recover from the material destruction caused by seven years of civil war, school officials said.
The students' achievement is a near miracle when considered against the backdrop of poverty, despair and political paralysis that persists across Liberia more than two years after the fighting stopped.
The secret, aid organizations here say, is thinking small.
"There is not the confidence in the government's capacity or readiness to govern," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who recently toured the country and met with top Liberian officials. "I advocate for the bottom-up approach. If you give money from the top, it doesn't reach the bottom."
Just down the road from the former Lutheran school where S-TEC holds classes, two bridges are being erected with money from the U.N. refugee agency and muscle from S-TEC students.
In the nearby town of Zolowo, the German development company that runs S-TEC has just finished repairing a primary school destroyed by fighting. Again, S-TEC students were there.
During the last year, the firm, GTZ, has rebuilt 10 schools and nine health centers in this lush region of tropical rain forests. Salayea and Zolowo serve as commercial centers for tens of thousands of people in 25 surrounding villages.
As the rebuilding program continues, officials here said, S-TEC graduates are forming the backbone of a modest but long-awaited revival in the local economy.
"The bridges are already making a big difference for people," said Gerhard Gessner, a GTZ engineer. "They are the life connection to the rest of the country. Since we started construction, a lot of people who fled during the war are returning home."
Nearly 300,000 refugees have come back to Liberia since May 1997, when the U.N. began tracking their return from asylum in Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. An additional 200,000 or so remain abroad but are expected home soon.
Gross Disparities in Wealth
Although training programs such as the U.N.-funded S-TEC are helping to ease the transition, aid officials acknowledge that these programs reach only a fraction of the uprooted population.
Also, the officials said, it is impossible to alter the country's harsh political realities, which include a largely ineffective government not looked on favorably by most Western countries that could help.
"I have a house to go back to, but nothing else," said Rebecca Seye, a mother of nine with a newborn strapped to her back, waiting in the Guinean town of Balaa to cross the border into Liberia. "I have no husband, but I have to go and try. There are hard times all around."
About 85% of the Liberian work force is unemployed. Only one in six people can read and write. The government is so strapped for cash that the 1999 budget for the nation of 2.7 million people is just $65 million--less than this year's municipal expenditures in Irvine, Calif.
l "If you travel around Liberia, you are amazed and dismayed to see the extent of the destruction," said Donald K. Petterson, chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Liberia. "There is just crazy, wanton devastation of everything that stood, practically. They have a hell of a long way to go."
There are glaring exceptions.
In Monrovia, the capital, outlaw-turned-president Charles Taylor drives a Rolls-Royce, resides in a new mansion appointed with French provincial furnishings and surrounds himself with a security entourage equipped with fast cars and high-tech gadgetry.