My sister, Maggie, is in Africa again!  Liberia, this time, through the summer.  Her blog is accessible by clicking HERE, and  you can read her first entry below.  She's already got a second entry up on the site, so read up!

A Glorious Return to Africa

After landing in The Gambia in 2004, I still distinctly remember the drive from the airport, the massive ENJOY COKE signs along the road, the strip of ostentatious tourist hotels, and the throngs of people walking along the side of the road in bright skirts and kaftans. My first impression of Monrovia, however, greeted me before I even landed: a massive UN helicopter on the side of the runway. There are ample COKE signs here, of course, but far fewer kaftans (Liberia is only 20% Muslim, compared to Gambia’s 98%), no tourists, far fewer hotels, and – while this may just be my imagination or the fact that I haven’t traveled much in the city so far – the fabric doesn’t seem as bright or as abundant. The UN, however, is abundant. The mission has actually been scaled down in the last few years from its highest point at 15,000 troops to around 10,000 now. I’ve only seen two heavily armored massive white tankers plowing down the middle of city streets, though they used to be everywhere in the years immediately following the war.

I’ve only been here about a week, so I have much to learn about the city and the country and its people. But it’s interesting to be in a post-conflict country – I feel completely safe. I’ve met nice people and many of the blown out buildings in Monrovia itself have been repaired. If the UN cars and trucks and buildings and checkpoints weren’t ubiquitous, it would be hard to immediately identify Monrovia as a city that was recently engulfed in a war. At the same time, wars don’t just come and go without leaving any marks. There are security risks, and you just have to be conscious of them.

I find myself wondering when I pass people on the street or talk to them on the side of the road: what’s your story? Did you flee to Monrovia looking for safety? Did you lose your home? Your land? Your livelihoods? Did you lose your husband? Your wife? Your children? There’s a lot of people – both old and young – who have seen and lost a lot here. It’s subtle, but (comparing to The Gambia again), there’s clearly of loss of innocence here. The people are so nice when you talk to them, very kind, friendly – but on the street, passing people, there’s not that same lightheartedness as there was in le Gambie. It’s hard to explain, people are still nice, kind, friendly when you chat. . . but it’s different, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the natural personalities of Liberians vs. Gambians, but it’s hard not to think that the war had something to do with it.

I’m living about 11 miles from actual downtown Monrovia. Which has its negatives and positives. The negatives were glaring at first – it can take up to an hour to get into Monrovia during rush hour, it’s a pain to find someone to drive you all the way back late and night, and you can’t really hang around the city after work too late unless you’re with another person. But the positives became more evident over the course of the week as I walked through the neighborhood. We live in a neighborhood of utter contrasts: we’re in a rather comfortable compound; to our right, an as yet unfinished, ridiculously expensive 5-star hotel; to out left, Liberian families surviving on, maybe, one meal a day; and of course, everything in between.

On Sunday, I went and sat with Saypa, a neighbor who we’ve hired to help our incompetent Western selves with laundry. I’ll end up doing most of my own, just because it’s kind of fun (when it’s a choice and a novelty…). But it’s great to help her have some kind of income. Her sister, Cecilia, works at the hotel – but Saypa was unable to get a job there. So she’s home, with her three kids, and Cecilia’s one kid, doing “nothing.” I quote that because I find it hard to believe an African woman ever does “nothing.” Had she any food to cook, she’d be busy cooking, but there’s no breakfast or lunch to prepare, so she actually does have some time, unlike many African women. Not that lack of food to eat and cook is at all ideal: “If we are lucky, at the end of the day, we can have cassava.”

We were sitting, chatting, and I was asking her about where she was from. So many people here are not from Monrovia - they fled to it during the wars. Monrovia was a city built for 200,000 people, but now hosts between 1.3 and 1.5 million (this is a huge percentage of the total Liberian population, which is estimated at 3.5 million). Our area, Kendeja, is not included in that count, but clearly the entire greater-Monrovia area has been impacted by swelling population. Saypa is originally from Lofa county, which is one of the farthest counties, sharing a border with Guinea’s Forrest Region. When the war first started, primarily in Nimba county, Saypa and her family were able to stay in Lofa. Her father, however, became ill, had no access to medicine, and died. As the war intensified, Saypa and her family fled to Monrovia to escape the warring factions. She married (though I’m not sure if this was before or after fleeing) and has three children: Michael, Patricia, and Emmett. Her husband left her for another woman in Monrovia. She lives in a sturdy cement shell of a house, has no fence, no privacy, no real compound to speak of, no support, no money. She’s 35 and says, “Since my eyes could see I have only seen war. My whole life is only war.”

She’s surprisingly young looking for having three kids, a traumatic lifetime, and current struggles to feed her family. But when she was talking about the war, she looks so sad: “We have seen too much. Terrible, terrible things. They killed too many people. The women, the children, the old people – they suffered the most. The soldiers would kill and kill, they would beat. They would rape.” She just shakes her head. I don’t know what she went through, and I don’t want to ask her too much, not yet at least, I don’t even know what to say, I just shake my head to. She talks about fleeing, about babies dying on their mother’s backs, about how one of Charles Taylor’s rebel soldiers almost shot her: he stopped her on the road and tried to forcibly remove her earrings, as he pulled at her ear, his gun, pointing downwards, accidentally fired into the ground, narrowly missing her feet. It’s hard not to cry: sitting in extreme poverty (0-1 meals a day! Makes Gambia look like a resort!), listening to this young, beautiful woman talk about how her whole life was uprooted, her family members killed, her innocence lost, all because “some people just wanted more power.”

Walking with Saypa through the town, she points to a compound: “During the war, this whole place is filled with bodies. Everywhere you look, you only see bodies.” It’s crazy to just walk by this place, and the thousands of other seemingly innocuous places around Monrovia, that were scenes of chaos and mass death not that long ago. Saypa also took us to Maa Maartha’s Orphanage. Maa Maartha and sixteen kids living in an unfinished (blown-out?) cement structure.

This is all, remember, within 100 yards of the 5-star hotel serving $3 cokes.

* * *

That was, perhaps, not the most uplifting of initial "I’m in Liberia!" blog posts. . . but there are good things here! There is progress! I went out Bomi County on Saturday for a workshop on Decentralization. The format was essentially going through Liberia’s pending decentralization policy and getting local feedback. The workshop had about 60 participants from throughout the county – from the Superintendent (who was a powerful and cool lady) to regular people. The goal is to build strong local government capacity so that the center of power is NOT based solely in Monrovia. And the people were involved, they were interested, they were active participants and they had great ideas and suggestions. I just watched and learned. It was really great to see that side of Liberia – even though the surrounding hillsides were peppered with blown-out buildings and deserted towns, there was a clear and strong feeling a hope and potential. We also stopped in and saw Blue Lake, an old iron-ore mining site now an expansive, crystal lake. Quite lovely.

And even Saypa, though her story is hard and sad and just tragic, she’s a happy person. She wants to send her children to school, she would love to be able to be a teacher herself. She still has dreams and potential. She also has a small plot of land, so we’re going to try to plant some banana and such.

We walked on the beach this weekend up to the lagoon, it’s truly beautiful (having the unbridled Atlantic as your backyard is fantastic). And probably much, much safer than the beach. I went swimming Sunday in the ocean and didn’t go past mid-thigh level water – the tide and undertow were super strong. Reminiscent of Bermuda, circa 1995, when we went swimming on a deserted beach right before hurricane Felix hit. Maybe not quite that bad. Still, for just being a regular, clear-skied beach day, it was pretty intense. A bunch of people were swimming where we were, but none actually venturing very far beyond the shoreline. I mean, you can be sitting on the sand and a wave will come in and then it’s just like a rope that pulls you out. I am not a petite person, I was getting thrown around, it’s quite exhilarating, but it’s one of those beaches that reminds you how strong nature is, and strongly implies that you don’t mess with it. Luckily, I do acknowledge and accept my weak swimming skills and won’t challenge the strong tides (so don’t worry, Mom). But the lagoon is great – calm, peaceful, not deep, no waves or tides.

So far, the country seems to be one of contrasts: the extreme poverty next to a 5-star hotel, the history of violence versus the current peace, the former power-hungry leaders versus a government working to decentralize power. It’s an interesting place to be and an interesting time to be here, especially working within the government, getting to go out to the counties where much of the war played out, hopefully getting to contribute in some small way, and most certainly learning a whole lot.

Today I went to a meeting with the Mayor of Brewersville, it's about a 30 minute ride outside downtown Monrovia. But when we got there she wasn't there - her aunt had died and she went to the funeral. So then we drove back. And that's been my day so far. Slowly slowly. I'm now supposed to write a policy memo for the Minister of Interal Affairs on how to organize and fund an emergency election in Brewersville within the next week. Hm. One of those things that I don't even know where to start . . . at all . . . but going to go try to figure something out.

This Friday, I'm heading out to the provinces to a village about 5 hours outside the capital. We're going to talk to community members of the village, Borgeazay, about a potential agro-storage project in the village. I'm looking forward to get out of Monrovia, even if just for a night. It was great to get to Bomi this past weekend, but it will be nice to really get out there and see what's going on in the countryside.

So then, until next time :)

For more information and background on Liberia’s civil unrest and war: You can definitely get a lot on google of course, but if you’re looking for a quick and fantastic beach read, check out: This Child Will be Great, by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It’s an autobiography of her life (the first African female head of state, current President of Liberia, and – technically, at least – my boss), but it’s also a very good overview of the history of Liberia. It really is a great beach book – I sat on the beach and read it this weekend :)