- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - “Ebola is real!” says the hand-drawn flier.

Simple pictures of monkeys, bush meat, hugs and handshakes are covered with X’s - indicating ways to prevent spread of the deadly virus.

Communication “needs to be that simple: a monkey with an X on it,” says Wendy Saul, a literacy expert and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (https://bit.ly/1nii4UG ).

Liberia’s literacy levels are so low, communication must be swift and easy to understand for both adults and children in the west African country fighting the Ebola outbreak.

Saul visited Liberia in January as president of the International Book Bank, which supplies new books to impoverished countries. She’d collected literacy tests that her students at UMSL helped compare to previous evaluations. But signs of improvement were soon squashed by other news.

Ebola broke out in Liberia two months later. Since then, more than 2,300 people have died in the country, according to the World Health Organization. Schools are closed and families are quarantined. The crisis isn’t helped by the fact that residents, many of whom are uneducated and survivors of the country’s civil wars, distrust the government and sometimes health workers.

“Literacy impacts how you live a life, not just how you do in school,” said Saul, who holds UMSL’s B. and Helen S. Shopmaker chair in education and international studies.

The Ebola disaster has many components, but the International Book Bank is working to help with one:

“There is another Ebola crisis that people aren’t thinking about - the long-term crisis,” Saul said.

“We know what will happen when kids in book-starved families are out of school for two months in summer - there are huge drops in achievements. Imagine what will happen in 8 or 12 months.

“Now, every kid in the country of Liberia is out of school.”

So her group, along with other nonprofits such as the We-Care Foundation, hope to put together boxes of books for students in especially poor areas of Liberia. In with the books will also be fliers about Ebola, pencils and copybooks.

We-Care’s director, Michael Weah, has written that not only will packages help with learning, they will give “younger ones the opportunity to ‘draw their experiences,’ a method of psycho-social counseling used in dealing with traumatized kids.”

The book bank, which has a warehouse in Baltimore, has thousands of donated new books. But it is raising $20,000 to ship a container of them to Africa this month so the children will have the books by Christmas.

“The United Nations, the government deals with food and water,” Saul said. “We’re not good at that. We need to deal with what we’re good at.”

She recently talked to a group of Church Women United in St. Louis. The organization, formed in 1941, helps women and children worldwide as part of its mission.

The group pledged to match donations up to $5,000 to send books to Liberia.

Jean Gilbert said learning about the crisis “left a strong feeling on the hearts” of several members. Gilbert, president of Church Women United in the metropolitan area, said:

“It’s a way to make a difference in these children’s lives. What’s exciting about it for me is that they are new books. So many times we tend to give what we have. But these are new. I can just imagine the look on the children’s faces when they get something brand spanking new.”

Liberia, about 85 percent Christian and with English as its official language, was colonized by African-Americans, many of whom were freed slaves. Overall, about 60 percent of its 4 million citizens can read, but the percentage is much lower for young people, Saul says.

In the poorest areas, nobody has a book at home. But Saul has found that some students who received books from the International Book Bank improved two to three grade levels.

When UMSL students analyzed the African students’ tests, one link between higher achieving students was that they had books in their home.

In the meantime, UMSL can help St. Louis students in grades 7-12 understand the Ebola epidemic. A facilitator can lead workshops on the virus, such as its link to monkeys and other primates and the ways in which disease and culture intersect to impact the spread of the disease. For more information, call the university’s International Studies Resource Library at 314-516-6455.


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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