12/10/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Out of the Mouth of Babes: 'Making Corruption' at the Expense of Children in Liberia

My father in Liberia recently told me an amusing yet profound story about my 4-year-old niece, Chrisetta. Tip-toeing to the family porch while drinking his usual morning tea, he watched Chrisetta concentrating intently, stacking plastic green Lego bricks on top of each other. It looked like she was building a miniature skyscraper.

Amused, my father asked her what she was doing. My niece smiled and said without the slightest bit of irony: "Grandpa, don't you know I'm making corruption here?"

My dad almost choked on his tea. He corrected Chrisetta gently, telling her that the word she meant to use was 'construction'. My niece was undeterred. She said with exasperation, "No, Grandpa, come see it! This other corruption is not bad."

Chuckling, my father reminded my niece that I had a written a children's book about corruption, entitled Gbagba, and that the main characters Sundaymah and Sundaygar discovered the 'c' word was actually bad. Unconvinced, Chrisetta looked at my father silently for a split second and then carried on making her corruption tower.

I was reminded of this story on December 9, International Anti-Corruption Day, because it speaks to so many issues plaguing Liberia's children. At the moment, children across the country like my niece are out of school because, among other problems, too many people have been 'making corruption' at their expense. The public purse has simply not been managed properly, and the Ebola outbreak exposed deficiencies in our system.

According to Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released last week, Liberia scored 37 on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 denoting the highest levels of perceived corruption. This represents a decline from 38 in 2013 and 41 in 2012. Liberia also ranked 94 out of 175 countries, with 175 representing the country perceived to be the most corrupt.

Although the CPI only measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption, is highly subjective and does not take into consideration illicit flows from private sector graft, it does represent a starting point to begin an earnest conversation about how corruption can be tackled.

In 2012, I got really frustrated with all the rhetoric about fighting corruption in Liberia, and wanted to start a national conversation with children. After teaching in two of Liberia's universities and working in policy spaces in national government, I realised that integrity must be strengthened at the earliest stages in a child's life in order to mitigate the practice of corruption in the next generation. So, I wrote Gbagba, published by One Moore Book in 2013. I wanted to create a narrative that Liberian kids could see themselves reflected in, thereby increasing their love of reading and planting the seeds of a values revolution. Eight to 10-year-old children are the perfect targets because it is at this stage that they begin to form an ethical core. In writing Gbagba, I imagined myself a proverbial anti-corruption pied piper, without the instrument of doom.

Even though Gbagba's setting is Liberia, it remains a universal tale about children's emancipation from the confusing ethical codes of the adults around them. Children like my 9-year-old nephew, Courage, provided inspiration for the twin central characters, who have more integrity in their index fingers than some of the adults around them. They are precocious as ever, constantly asking questions, not taking 'no' for an answer. It is children like these who will ultimately embarrass adults into doing the right things.

I've done readings of Gbagba followed by discussions with children in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, and was struck by how astute they are. They understand issues of integrity better than we adults do, and are able to articulate themselves with such bright-eyed innocence. Before conducting a workshop and preview reading of Gbagba at a local elementary school in Monrovia, one girl told me, "Corruption is breaking the Ten Commandments and hurting people." This young child understood so fundamentally the intrinsic value of accountability, and it validated my reason for writing Gbagba.

In 2013, the Liberian Ministry of Education placed Gbagba on its list of supplemental texts for 3rd to 5th graders. And late last year, I secured a grant from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) for 1,500 copies of Gbagba to be distributed across the country. We would have piloted the book in 10 rural schools, but the Ebola outbreak and subsequent suspension of schools derailed our plans. With the grant, I also commissioned Takun J, Liberia's premier Hip-Co musician, to write and produce the song, "Gbagba Is Corruption" about the book. He would have made a music video of the song this year to launch the pilot, but Ebola got in the way.

My publisher and I recently launched a special promotion of Gbagba to ship donations of the book directly to Liberia. Anyone interested in this initiative can visit and enter the code 'gbagba' at checkout. The offer ends 31 December. We have partnered with the Centre for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL) to distribute the books to children across the country, depending on the number of donations received.

While children wait out Ebola, they will be schooled in the ways of integrity. Instead of 'making corruption', children like my niece can begin to construct a better future for themselves and the generations to come.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at SOAS, University of London.