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Liberian President Comes to Washington Looking for Help


President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Africa's first elected woman president, arrives in the United States Tuesday for an official visit. While here, she will meet with President Bush and address a joint session of the U.S. Congress as well as the U.N. Security Council. Sirleaf is looking for money to begin the task of reconstructing her war-torn country.

The election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf brought high expectations that Africa's first woman president would deliver on her campaign promise to reconstruct a country battered by 14 years of civil war. The task to rebuild is huge and will affect virtually every aspect of the Liberian society.

Willis Knuckles is the minister of public works charged with repairing Liberia's roads.

"All of the roads need repair and maintenance," said Willis Knuckles. "Some bridges have gone bad. A lot of public buildings, including my own ministry were looted and burned. So we're going to be busy for the next 10 years even if we started tomorrow.

Education Minister Joseph Korto says he's not surprised by the magnitude of the problems his ministry inherited.

"We have serious problem of extreme limitation on the available educational opportunity," said Joseph Korto. "What I mean is that we do not have sufficient number of school places to accommodate the school age population. One of the problems we also have is that most of the schools we have are inadequately staffed or understaffed, and the existing teachers are poorly trained or have no background in education."

Labor minister Samuel Kofi Woods says his entire department has one computer that is hardly working and a borrowed printer. For Woods, priority number one is getting basic equipment for the labor ministry.

Woods has also been working on a whole new value system that he hopes would inspire confidence and motivate a demoralized civil service.

"I go to work by 7:30, 7:45," said Samuel Kofi Woods. "And over the past one week since we took over, workers have begun to get used to be to work by eight o'clock. We've been able now to put in place the most responsible use of government equipment and vehicles. It means that vehicles are used only for official government function or at least when we have to attend government function."

Woods, a human rights activist before taking his new job, says his vision is to restore dignity to the Liberian labor force, which he says has endured years of dehumanization.

Members of the legislature were hoping that they would immediately begin to do the people's business following their election, but Senator Blamo Nelson of Grand Kru County says they are faced with major obstacles.

"Little did anybody realize that upon entering into the building, there would be no electricity; there would be no water in the bathrooms; office doors and windows are all torn apart; the rugs and desks and furniture in the building are all gone," said Blamo Nelson. "And so you enter in a place where you really can't do anything without the logistics."

Senator Nelson says the legislature also faces the problem of lack of office space, but adds many governments have offered to help.

As President Sirleaf arrives in the United States, she will need all the help she can get to keep her promise to bring back electricity to Monrovia by July 26, Liberia's 159th independence anniversary, and rebuild the country.

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