MacDella Cooper : Investing in Africa’s at-risk children, one child at a time
Twenty-two years ago this month, the people of Liberia suffered the devastating effects of of civil war. The country’s economic, political, and social systems were decimated. The United Nations estimates that 250,000 people were killed and one million displaced. Children suffered the most; tens of thousands were abandoned or orphaned. Most were powerless against exploitation as boys were recruited as child soldiers, and girls were captured and forced into sexual slavery.
I was thirteen when the rebels advanced to the neighboring town. Just the day before, my mother and my two youngest brothers had boarded a flight bound for the United States; I stayed behind with my stepfather and two older brothers. The morning of June 17, Dad thought it was a good idea to get dressed and go meet the soldiers. He figured he would go and respectfully introduce himself, show them his ID, and explain that he worked for the United Nations, not the government they were overthrowing. Before he left, he instructed us kids to stay inside the house — he’d be right back. While we waited, minutes turned into hours, and we heard the fighting get really intense, with lots of gunfire and bombing. The hours turned into a whole day. Dad never came home.
The next day, the rebels came to our house, and were met by three excited little kids. We were so happy to see them banging on the metal gate; we thought this was a scene from “Rambo,” and they were here to rescue us! Except that was not their mission. And when we got a closer look at these men, our smiles disappeared. They were so scary-looking, carrying AK47s with bullets strapped across their chests, and they smelled awful. They went through the rooms, asking questions, taking food from our pantry — and our pet birds and pigs from our yard, to be eaten later. The next day, another group of soliders raided our house, taking whatever the previous group had left behind. These guys were even scarier than the others; they looked and smelled like they hadn’t showered for months. One of them was after something more than just food. “I’m going to the mansion to kill the President,” he told me, “and after that I’m coming back to take you as my wife!” I was horrified. After this crew left, my brothers and I decided to leave too. Anything was better than staying there.
For several days, we’d seen large groups of people walking on the road that ran parallel to our house. That day, we joined them. With the rebel soldier’s horrifying overture ringing in my ears, I made sure to wear overalls and an old T shirt, braiding my short hair back; the idea was to appear as boyish and unattractive as possible. We saw people abandoning their possessions, because the longer you walk, the heavier your things become. We saw old people lying on the sidewalk, exhausted from so much walking. We saw dead people by the side of the road; I’d never seen a dead body before. Everyone was going in the same direction: North East.
It was months of walking, with rest stops at abandoned houses. We would sleep under the beds we found, to be safe when the bombs fell, and we ate whatever we could find. I would use the kitchens of abandoned houses to boil whatever we’d dug out of the ground or fished out of the water (my brothers and I were grateful that we knew how to fish). We lived and walked like that for a year, until finally we reached a refugee camp in a small, rural village on the border between Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
We were among the more than 700,000 Liberians who fled to neighboring countries. I was very fortunate to come to the United States in 1993, when I was reunited with my mother. We lived in Newark, New Jersey; I received a full academic scholarship to the College of New Jersey and embarked on a career in the fashion industry. I became a mother myself. Liberia was a distant memory — or was it?
I couldn’t forget the country I’d left behind. I thought of the children who hadn’t been so lucky to escape unharmed. I wanted to do something to help.
In 2004, I founded the MacDella Cooper Foundation, a 501(c)(3) international charitable organization dedicated to providing basic human rights for Liberian youth, especially orphans and abandoned children. The foundation’s mission is to provide the young people of Liberia wtih education and the basic necessities that are every child’s right — clothing, food, and safe shelter — at the MCF Academy, the country’s first tuition-free boarding school.
Today, Liberia has enjoyed six years of democracy under the leadership of the first female president on the continent of Africa. Since her inauguration in January 2006, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, with the help of the United Nations and the international community, has worked tirelessly to restore order and peace to Liberia. Many Liberians who fled the country are now returning to help rebuild the country’s infrastructure and economy.
Yet despite the progress that has been made, there are still many in need who are not being reached; 85% of the population in Liberia lives well below the poverty line. And, just as they did during the war, the children are the ones who suffer the most. Vulnerable children are easy targets for recruitment by sexual slavery rings, terrorist breeding groups, gangs, warlords, religious fanatics, and cults. These groups prey on impoverished, uneducated children, who feel they have no hope and need something — anything — to validate their existence.
So many things can go wrong when vulnerable children are denied their right to an education from an early age. I’m so lucky that I was raised never to hurt anyone or myself — this is what enabled me to resist the advances of the rebel soldiers that day 22 years ago. I knew such a life was not an option for me, and I couldn’t disgrace my parents and teachers; I would rather have died. I’m alive today because of a decision I made 22 years ago — a decision I would never have been able to make had I not had the benefit of a basic education.
My dream is to protect and educate as many Liberian children as the MCF Academy can support, to empower them to do what’s right for themselves and, later, for their country. Thanks to the Academy’s generous donors, we currently have 60 students in our care. The children we educate today will have the skills to contribute to their country’s continued economic redevelopment. I believe this is the only way to ensure that the tragic chapters of Liberia’s recent history are not repeated. Education is the saving grace of Liberia and Africa as a whole — and the only way to ensure that the tragic chapters of Africa’s recent history are not repeated. Venture capitalists are always searching for emerging markets; I’m invested in the children of Liberia as one of Africa’s most valuable resources. They carry the hope of Africa’s future. I hope you will join me in giving them the education they need and deserve.
Dubbed “Liberia’s Angel” in the media, philanthropist MacDella Cooper has dedicated her life to the children of her homeland. To date, the MacDella Cooper Foundation has raised over one million dollars, providing scholarships, renovating orphanages, and building the MCF Academy. On Saturday, July 14th at 5.30 pm, Seasons of Southampton is hosting a fundraiser for the MCF Academy; proceeds from this event will grant additional scholarships for the 2012/13 academic year.