Letters connecting people to God:
One of the main reasons I started a blog is to document memories of the journeys I have already taken. So far, that has been very difficult. I will start with the trip and the people I still think of most often.
A year ago this month I took my first trip to the African continent and landed in Liberia.
Before the trip I knew only that my country had helped contribute to many of the problems in Liberia (first, by sending free Americans to Liberia in the 1800’s and “giving” them already-occupied-land so the US could continue slavery with less of a fight, the subsequent colonization of Liberia by these people and more recently, in 1985 by allowing Charles Taylor to “escape” from a US jail and eventually return to Liberia…). I had seen Pray the Devil Back to Hell as it was shown on college campuses across the US. Generally, I knew very little about the country and people who live in Liberia. To help increase my understanding, I looked for books on Liberia and after beginning a few dry, dated ones written by westerners I found these three much more interesting and helpful:
Our plane landed late afternoon on a breezy, grey, surprisingly cool day and the air smelled faintly of burning wood. We waited for a while to get through immigration. Officers looked stern and asked each person a series of questions after being greeted by friendly security who joked with people, asked where everyone was from and welcomed us one by one. I was starting to see that my arrival card which is always marked with “vacation” as the purpose of my travel is appreciated much more than those who state their purpose as “business” or “work”. A driver met us outside immigration, led us through a crowded and chaotic parking area, helped us load our bags into the office vehicle and whisked us away down a nearly empty highway. Many of the arrivals were taking a motorbike or walking to their next destination.
We arrived at the hotel which not only had running water and electricity but also wi-fi.
I had no idea yet how uncommon each of these things were. Just off our room was a common balcony where I watched the first downpour of our trip while listening to the music that projected through the heavy rain from the club across the street. That club would provide our evening soundtrack during the time we stayed in Monrovia.
We were in Monrovia to be present for the launch of a report on youth created by young Liberians and a few university students from the US. The presentation, which took place at the Ministry of Youth and Sports at Samuel Doe Stadium, was impressive, professional and showcased the large amount of evidence collected solely by young people. (The data from this report helped to highlight infrastructure and job needs in the country which in turn has resulted in thousands of new jobs for Liberians.)
After a few days of office work and meetings we were able to use our free time to travel around and see a bit more of Liberia. The best aspect of tagging along with my spouse for work-travel is that I get a more realistic view of each place by visiting with the people who live there. We are always welcomed more than I ever expect and I have found, like anywhere else, people really want visitors to see and understand their country. Here are some of the highlights of the trip which I continue to think about:
- The first day my Liberian English was tested by the young adults who created the report. I failed their test miserably but was able to answer a few of the questions directly, which impressed a few, and caused a lot of laughter for everyone.
- There were multiple attempts to teach me the Liberian handshake. I made many happy in my attempts (so happy they could not stop laughing…).
- I was so impressed everyone was able to identify where I was from as, “Hey, American!!” was yelled as a direct greeting. Then it was explained that this greeting was synonymous with ‘Hey, there’s a white person!”. I bet all the European workers are thrilled about that.
- I read through anonymous surveys the young people had collected and one question was, “In the last three months…how many times have you or your family gone without food?” Almost everyone responded: Never. The next question asked, “How many meals do you have a day?” and most responded: One.
- One smile could break the most stern-faced person into a grin. Liberians are resilient and some of the toughest people I have ever met but a simple question or a smile seemed to soften almost everyone. During our first walk to the coast in Monrovia we found the beach access blocked by a large group of young men. Being a teacher, a large group of young people rarely causes concern but I was a bit nervous (I had read too many exaggerated travel warnings). We asked if we could get access to the beach, they said sure, we started talking and one of the men escorted us to the beach. He pointed out things of interest (most importantly, ways to get past the seemingly endless wall blocking the beach from the community as the tide quickly came in) and asked where we were from. We received handshakes and laughter after he suggested a well-known ex-pat bar for dinner and we asked for something more Liberian. As we exited the beach the same way we came the rest of the group shook our hands as we walked by.
- There is an Ivorian restaurant in Sinkor that makes great fried fish but I have talked plenty about food here. During an earlier trip, my husband (promising to eat healthy meals) visited so often that the waitresses joyfully remembered him and began to joke with him… immediately dispelling the myth that he ate there, “only once or twice”. His cover had been blown.
One of the office workers sacrificed time (paid, of course) away from his family when he offered to take us around to places we wanted to see. He drove us through the Firestone Plantation past Gbarnga, to Phebe Hospital area, almost back to Monrovia, to Robertsport and back again. He was our companion, guide and our negotiator for days. He spoke of the country’s history and his own (very few do), plans for the future and pointed out places of interest all along the way.
- Our enthusiasm over the beauty of the lush, green landscape during the rainy season was contrasted against everyone else’s worry of the sanitation and disease issues that come along with too much water.
- Outside Monrovia, hotel rooms were more expensive and did not have electricity or running water. The extra cost covered all the gas used to run the generator from 9pm-2am and hopefully gave a little extra to the young men who moved a large, full trash can of water from a well to our bathroom each day.
- The town of Robertsport (where Lake Piso and the Atlantic Ocean join) is unforgettable because of its stunning, natural beauty and the surprise of seeing so many old buildings. Many houses are modeled in similar fashion to those in the deep south of the US. So many structures had been simply abandoned and it was fascinating but heartbreaking to see the decay and wonder what had happened to the people there.
Meeting an old man and possibly his grandson outside of the Pure Bar and Restaurant. Both were clearly very sick and very friendly and both reached to shake our hands and welcome us to town. After we shook hands and exchanged greetings the old man thanked us and quickly disappeared but the boy ran back and forth on the porch, flashing a grin and exchanging funny faces with us each time he passed the door, as we sat down for our meal of the day.
- Seeing evidence that remained after the war was incredible. I was unprepared. Nine years after the last civil war ended not only had all the electrical wires been removed in most areas, so had all the electrical poles. Only some evidence of electricity was seen in Monrovia and most of that was the loud hum of generators in the areas of town that could afford the luxury. Evidence of battle is still easy to see on many of the buildings. Many animals that fled have not returned; we saw only a few birds and lizards. There are so many abandoned homes and so many who need housing. When asked why someone doesn’t move in to an empty house we were told simply, “That is not their home. They know it does not belong to them.“
- Walking into the YMCA to see the summer camp that was taking place transported all of us back to our own YMCA days. We watched kids playing basketball, working in the computer labs, settling in to view a movie, a few were picking up something to eat from the snack station and many were just ‘hanging out’. We agreed that the Y doesn’t seem to change much no matter the country. It was chaotic, loud and there were smiling kids everywhere.
- I heard over and over again that despite struggles and difficulties the people face that everyone is tired of war. Even if circumstances get worse before they get better: no more war.
- A., a generous young man who is a rising star in radio, spent an entire day showing us parts of Monrovia we would have never seen without him. He took us to see a girl’s school that was started by an American who has returned home to Liberia. He showed us the Ducor Hotel (once the highest rated hotel in west Africa) which had been looted and abandoned and was going to be fully renovated by the Libyan government until Gaddafi’s death. From the view of the Ducor, one can see West Point, the largest “slum” in Liberia. We drove to West Point and walked around the neighborhood as A. pointed out things that must improve. Only afterward did he tell us that most Liberians had not been to West Point and that was confirmed by a few locals the next day. We saw what was described as an “Independence Hall” where there is a memorial to the founding settlers of Liberia. This is also where some of the festivities take place each year on Liberia’s day of Independence.
- Preparing to leave to return home I felt the duality of Liberia within me. I was exhausted yet inspired. I had learned so much yet still knew so little. I wanted to return to my easy lifestyle but no, I was sad that we could not stay, felt I had adapted well to the daily routine and knew there was (is) so much more to learn. There were ways I could help support young people; one more foreigner did not need to come in and tell people what to do in their own country. The students in Liberia could benefit from all the resources in my classroom; my students would benefit even more from being in Liberia and learning from the students there. I wanted to stay to see the people I met succeed at the amazing things I know they will accomplish; not one of these people needs my recognition or approval to push forward and accomplish great things.
On this Independence Day I hope there is happiness across Liberia.
May opportunities continue and may there be more and more to celebrate.
*If you have access to any pre-war photos taken in Liberia,
please consider posting them here: http://liberia77.com/
On an unusually pleasant first day of summer I think back to some of the warmest locations I have been. Today is nice; the windows of my home are open and a cool breeze is blowing… but there are many hot summer days ahead.
I grew up in the southern United States; food is a tremendous part of my culture. Thanks to family, friends and spending years with a second family (my “North Carolina Grandma“, a.k.a. my babysitter) after school I am too familiar with some pretty tasty foods: macaroni and cheese, fried okra, ham biscuits, green beans and collard greens (or any vegetable) cooked for hours with some sort of ham, fried chicken, potato salad, sweet iced tea, butter on everything, dessert after every dinner. I would watch my friends snack on a livermush sandwich or crunch on a handful of fried pork rinds (two things I just could not bring myself to eat). Most likely, I am still alive because I stopped eating those lovely foods on a regular basis before I turned ten years old. My family tried to eat healthier and I still attempt to do the same.
Food is still a big part of my life. I try to disconnect it from love and care and to see it solely as nutrition for my body but I don’t think I will ever be able to separate it from my roots, my tradition, my culture. The older I get the more I see that my food, our foods—seem to be connected. My husband is Sri Lankan and our home towns are quite a distance from each other but we both grew up with spicy food and drinking very sweet tea to combat the heat. In both families, love was communicated to the family through food and the cook(s) felt love in return depending how much a meal was enjoyed.
The best meal I ate in Liberia was a ‘green soup’ at a tiny stand in a small village. The taste so clearly reminded me of my Grandmother’s greens that I fought back tears and the urge to go back to the kitchen to see if she was there (she passed away in 2001, so of course she wasn’t…). The soup wasn’t pretty but the best meals rarely are.
In Rwanda, the same connection occurred. One of the best soups I have ever tasted took me back to sweltering summers, in a hot kitchen and the distinct taste of fresh vegetables cooked for a late dinner after a long day of harvesting them from the back yard garden.
It happened again in DRC as I filled my plate with vegetables at a lunch buffet. The same hostess who urged me to take the varied meats, and looked incredulous as I declined all meat offered, later stopped by and nodded in approval as she noticed my cleaned plate. The potatoes, cabbage, beans, greens and carrots were all gone. Again, each dish could have come from that steamy summer kitchen where we had to speak up to be heard over the crickets and cicadas loudly chirping through the screen windows and doors.
How could I be pulled back to my childhood memories when I was so far away from those places? How could these meals seem so familiar to me when I had not been here before? I considered historical connections and recipes passed along generations but those connections seemed too impossible, the links were too thin. Riding in a bus over the “hills” of the Rwandan countryside, seeing the crowded farmland that covered every bit of space on the steep mountainsides, made me recall my Grandmother’s childhood home. She grew up on the side of a rocky mountaintop and her family farmed tobacco on that steep, stone covered land.
The food connections I experienced, for which I am grateful, were from a shared culture of poverty, resourcefulness, creativity and love.
Resolved to be more appreciative: for my education, a home of my own, good health, plenty of food and family who are safe. When one meets people who are struggling daily to acquire all of these things with determination, optimism, grace and faith it is a constant reminder to be thankful.