MY PRO-BONO LIFE « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


Purpose is Prime

Why West Africa, Why Literacy?

While some say that the past one hundred years delivered lessons that have enabled a more stable and interdependent world, we need not look very far for signs to the contrary – decaying, ineffective educational systems, growing pharmaceutical dependence for emotional “stability,” environmental deterioration, and destruction of human rights and civil liberties to “fight” faceless terrorism. These herald this emerging Twenty-First Century as more anguished and inhumane than the one that has just passed.

I became a lawyer in the 1970s infused with the idealism of the time. I have since tried to best use my profession to support the basic rights — and to promote the responsibility — of humankind to create and change conditions for the better.

I first journeyed to West Africa to assist Mary Shuttleworth for a week-long Youth for Human Rights International conference in Ghana, July, 2005.  That was the plan: one week, meet a few young people, help with speeches on the U.N’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, go home to frame a few pictures for the desk and continue the law practice full time.

Change of plans.  A skinny kid named Joseph Jay Yarsiah from some country called Liberia also showed up at that conference.  Over the week we hung-out, he described the unbelievably savage 14-year-long Liberian civil war (1989 – 2003) in which he had grown up. This was a region notorious for child soldiers, kids as young as 7 or 8 years old reduced to mindless killing machines as graphically portrayed in the motion picture Beasts of No Nation (2015).

Jay told of his family’s repeated miraculous escapes from torture and execution. Yet, he was not bent on rage and revenge despite all the reasons otherwise. Rather, Jay was calmly and resolutely determined by human rights and literacy to help bring his country and people out of their hell-on-Earth.

At the end of that week (again, this was July, 2005), Jay asked: “Will you help me?”  That was THE cross-roads moment.  I thought, “oh man, I am just a lawyer from L.A., what can I do?  So unfair to ask me that question!” Yet, an admonishment rang loud inside my head: “The wrong thing to do is … nothing.”  So, I said yes.

I returned to West Africa ten months later, May, 2006, flying into Liberia to meet Jay and his intrepid band of 20-something colleagues. Devastation unfolded in the gathering darkness on the 40-mile drive to town: the airport a military base for 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers keeping the warring factions from further slaughter; dirt poor roadside population; five heavily fortified checkpoints before reaching the capital Monrovia; no electricity and no running water; and a generation of young starkly illiterate after over a decade of a ruined, bombed-out education system.

Were the challenges insurmountable: illiteracy, poverty, corruption, injustice?   The real question was and is whether one is willing to fulfill the first prerequisite no matter the odds: to show up.

We thus created the YHRI African Human Rights Leadership Campaign, eventually activating thousands of youth as human rights educators in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana to make a difference, socially, culturally and economically. The seeds so planted have bloomed: doctors, educators and other civil servants and, dare I admit, lawyers.

That “Campaign” effort (2006 – 2013) was prelude. In August, 2013 came news that every one of the 17,000 high school graduates applying to the University of Liberia had flunked the entrance exam.  Explanation: a newly appointed minister had changed the grading from a bell curve to a 70% proficiency standard.  … and not a one passed. Result: greater powers promptly sacked the minister.

The word “education” is from the Latin educere, to “lead out.”  If education is the systematic giving and receiving instruction for application, it must mean someone is doing the leading.  But with education systems built on rote memory and institutions fraught with incompetence and corruption, the questions in Liberia and West Africa were and are who is actually doing any leading and to what end?

So in 2014 we turned focus to UDHR Article 26, the right to meaningful education,  partnering with Applied Scholastics International, an NGO offering solution to illiteracy through the proven effective learning methods of American author L. Ron Hubbard, widely known as “Study Technology ” or “Study Tech.”

Nearing two decades of work in the region, I have never been more optimistic.  Year-after-year, our African Literacy Campaign continues to deliver “competency-based education” workshops and training to teachers, students and administrators. Time and again, Study Tech’s learning tools inspire educators and youth to view life with new eyes, with hope that in their hands are the means to make the impossible possible for self, family, community and country.

Only through an effective literacy education movement — equipping the emerging generations with competent, courageous leadership — can West Africa emerge from the wars, corruptions and other disasters that have plagued the region for too long. We aim to contribute in ways that can make a true difference toward this worthy end.

I went to Africa for one week but never came home. And so we work.

Tim Bowles
February 17, 2023

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