Cecilia Cassidy
Climate Change
Environmental Health
Rosemary Sokas
Spring 2024

Jesuit Projects in Climate-Change-Affected Liberia

By Rosemary Sokas, Professor of Human Science at Georgetown School of Health and of Family Medicine, Georgetown School of Medicine

Photo collage of the Holy Family Medical Center and building projects in Liberia. Photos courtesy of Fr. Kevin; Design by Cecilia Cassidy.

The African continent, which has contributed only 4% of the carbon emissions driving global climate change, is experiencing disproportionate climate devastation compared to those countries that have contributed the most. Poverty, war and racism are all disaster magnifiers, furthering the effects of global warming. 

Liberia, located on the west coast of Africa, has a complicated history, which includes the settlement of free African Americans in the early 1800s; a 14-year period of bitter civil wars which ended in 2003; and the devastating Ebola outbreak from 2014 until 2016 which took the lives of nearly 5,000 Liberians and 8% of the healthcare workforce, already one of the smallest in the world. Midwifery in particular suffered extensive losses due to the transmissibility of the virus and extensive exposure during childbirth.  

And to make matters worse, Liberia ranks as the ninth most vulnerable country to global climate change, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. Extreme heat and devastating floods have worsened in recent years, challenging initiatives aimed at improving health and education.

In 2014, Georgetown University faculty reached out to, what was at the time, the only Jesuit institution in Liberia, Holy Family Parish. The parish was founded by Jesuit Refugee Services in the wake of the country’s civil wars. It also houses a health center, which serves as a midwifery and maternal and child care center. Although many health services shut down during the Ebola epidemic, Holy Family’s Health Center continued to provide health services and has expanded to primary care services today.

Georgetown faculty, students and staff have collaborated to offer financial assistance and continuing education at the parish. A workshop hosted at the Holy Family Health Center in 2018 featured hands-on midwifery skills training and occupational health instruction focused on respiratory exposures — using tuberculosis as the case study. 

In Liberia, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in economic collapse rather than severe disease and a high death count. Rising unemployment and lack of infrastructure support left many feeling hopeless about their future; storms and flooding as a result of climate change have only worsened economic opportunities. The conditions for climate and economic refugees in Africa have also emerged as an issue.  

In response to these difficult times, Jesuits opened a second project in Liberia, the Xavier Jesuit School which serves kindergarten through fifth grade students and aims to expand to twelfth grade in the future.

In keeping with foundational Jesuit principles, this project hopes to facilitate a more positive future for young people, help the poor and marginalized and engage in “care for our common home.”

The environmental concerns in Liberia are two-fold. Recurrent and worsening flooding episodes damage buildings, leaving standing water throughout compounds. This allows mosquitoes to thrive, increasing the odds of malaria transmission. 

“The parish has witnessed the adverse effects of water erosion, leading the community to unite in the face of this challenge. The increasing frequency of heavy rainfall and inadequate infrastructure exacerbates the situation, resulting in stagnant water,” Fr. Tersoo Gwaza, S.J. noted. “The Catholic Youth Organization and parishioners actively participate in planting trees and flowers along the parish hall, where stagnant waters like a village swimming pool and other vulnerable areas are present. This initiative serves as a natural barrier against erosion and contributes to the overall ecological health of the community.”

The electrical grid, unsteady in the best of times, has sustained further damage due to the effects of climate change, disrupting both education and health care. The parish and health center are also actively raising funds to install solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint and improve patient care.

The newly established Xavier Jesuit School faces even greater challenges, beginning with clean water. Due to the increased flooding and incursion, not only are mosquitoes and malaria issues worsening, but the well which provides clean water needs to be dug very deep, greatly increasing costs.  

Fr. Kevin Odoo, S.J. is meeting these challenges head-on, fundraising for both solar panels and the well. In addition to identifying scholarships for education, the school aims to feed their students and is planning a curriculum that will include organic gardening and an emphasis on “care for our common home.”

All of these activities require resources, and fortunately, Magis Americas, the U.S.-based non-profit organization that offers a tax-exempt portal to support overseas Jesuit missions, has recently expanded from a focus on the Americas to offer help globally.

Georgetown students who have participated in the Global Health Initiative program and who have established the Georgetown Undergraduate Environmental Health Collaborative have been active, as have faculty from the newly established Schools of Health and of Nursing. We are eager to identify colleagues from other programs, institutes and schools on campus and beyond to help with these efforts.

Please find additional information about each of these projects, as well as how to offer financial assistance, on the Magis Americas website and by navigating to the Holy Family Health Center, Caldwell, Liberia and Xavier Jesuit School pages. 

climate change
environmental health
Global Health Initiative