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Liberia Tries to Count Citizens

For the first time since 1984, Liberian census takers are visiting dwellings throughout the country to count the inhabitants. Overall estimates of the post-conflict population range widely from two to four million people. One area that needs better statistics is the health sector, as part of efforts to stretch limited funds and help as many people as possible. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Throughout Liberia, houses were chalked up with numbers, a catchy tune about the census was played on the airwaves. And, billboards were erected reminding villagers to stay home for three days starting Friday to properly be counted.

Thousands of census-takers are knocking on doors again from the capital Monrovia, to remote, barely accessible areas, trying to count Liberians.

Health Minister Walter Gwenigale says this war-delayed exercise is crucial.

"The census is important for many things in the country," he said. "And for us, if you want to put facilities in communities based on the size of the population it helps you for better distribution of resources and to meet the needs of the people that you have to work with."

Despite long years of conflict and hundreds of thousands of people killed, Liberia's birthrate appears to have remained very high. Gwenigale says that it will be interesting to determine how many young people there really are in Liberia.

"Most of the Liberian people are young. You can design programs to meet the needs of the different groups. There are certain diseases that will affect certain age groups," he explained.

He says health surveys actually helped with statistics for organizing the 2005 post war elections, but that the census should be more precise.

"When we were doing polio eradication, we had to work with community people and we did rough estimates of population sizes and number of children," he recalled. "So you had some information based on which you were able to say we think we have this many people in this county or in this district and I signed numbers for them for us to have done the election that brought in over 60 representatives and 30 senators. So there has been some information there, that we have been using, but it will be better, we will have a clearer view, when we do these statistics."

Catherine Gbozee, a community health specialist in a rural, remote area also wants the census to be a success.

"This is very, very important," she said. "We are very happy for the census because it will help us know the population of the community and it will also help us to know how many community health workers we should be recruiting per population. Because if you want a community health worker to take care of 2,000 people he will not be too effective."

There has been some confusion in a heavily illiterate population about what the census is for. Some Liberians say they thought it was for them to pay taxes, or for young men to be recruited in the post-conflict army; while others thought they would be getting free food, school funds and household equipment, if for example they said their children were not going to school, even if they were, and that they had no television, fridge or generator, even if they did.

Government officials say a nation must have a census, and that its cost will be worthwhile. They say the main objective is to better allocate mostly donor-funded budget money for development.