Deborah Gonkpah '26 poses against a backdrop of cherry blossoms

Deborah Gonkpah '26, International Relations

March 6, 2024

Deborah Gonkpah '26 plans to major in International Relations to prepare for a career in public health and diplomacy. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

"I am one person but represent many. I recognize the little things I do on campus and in Liberia have the tenacity to change the world."

Before Deborah Gonkpah '26 arrived at Bucknell, she was transforming everyday life for those in her home country of Liberia. As a high school student, Gonkpah started the nonprofit organization WeCanLiberia, which promotes sustainable development through sanitation, education and entrepreneurship.

"Public latrines are vital to stop the spread of dysentery and cholera, the third highest killer in Libera," she says. "Ending open defecation, especially in rural areas, improves sanitation and can curb the suffering caused by preventable diseases."

Through her nonprofit, Gonkpah constructed two public latrines that serve 500 people in Bong County — but her efforts didn't stop there. The opportunity to further her nonprofit through Bucknell's partnership with Davis Projects for Peace enticed Gonkpah to apply. Once on campus, she proposed her project, to build three more public latrines in Bong County during the summer after her sophomore year, and received a $10,000 grant.

The Project

Gbartala, a town in Bong County, is divided into four zones, and the toilets Gonkpah had previously built were only benefitting one. The toilets in her grant proposal were strategically placed so that multiple neighborhoods could use and maintain them, creating connections across communities. Gonkpah was now able to impact two additional zones and up to 1,000 more people.

She led a team of 10 people, using her pre-existing network from WeCanLiberia to construct the new facilities. Gonkpah also partnered with Arch Media Agency and ECOWAS Radio to spread awareness about the project. In addition to discussing public health and societal development on radio stations, she created and distributed flyers, and posted information on social media and her personal website.

Because research showed that most people in Bong County wanted to use latrines but struggled to maintain them, Gonkpah's Peace Project also included an education workshop to help the community make the most of the positive change.

"My passion is to see people satisfied by having access to facilities, and also my education having an impact in my society," says Gonkpah, who plans to major in International Relations to prepare for a career in public health and diplomacy.

Inspiring Others

Growing up, Gonkpah lost her cousin to cholera and witnessed the 2014 Ebola outbreak, in which nearly 11,000 people died, according to the World Health Organization "I really wanted to improve the medical field in my country," she says. "I saw the reason that amount of people suffered was because of the poor health system in my country. It needs more doctors and more health workers."

A year after its construction in May 2021, Gonkpah returned to see WeCanLiberia's first latrine. "The toilet was in good shape. It was so, so clean," she says. "This year, I went back again, and I saw light — the people had installed a light over the toilet." With her educational support, the community has improved the facility to meet their needs. "It's so impressive."

Seeing what others are capable of once their needs are met inspires Gonkpah to continue pursuing grants and building infrastructure for rural communities that lack access to running water, electricity or quality education (her new venture, Girls Go for Higher Education is helping send girls in rural Liberia to school). She hopes to eventually build enough toilets to serve all the people of Liberia — 100 in total.

"I still have 92 to go."

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