A First Taste of Liberia

Greetings from Liberia! 

 I arrived safely in Liberia Wednesday night after over a full day of exhausting travel. After less than a week, I have found myself falling in love with this beautiful culture and its people. My DEN-L coworkers have been extremely welcoming and eager to make me as comfortable and at-home as possible. I am quickly becoming accustomed to the hot and muggy climate, the few hours of the day when electricity is available (my flashlight and headlamp are probably the two most useful things that I packed), the spotty running water situation (bathing with just a bucket of water to splash on yourself is so much more fun), and of course the killer mosquitoes. 

Children selling goods by the road in Gbarnga

 In the short time I have been here I feel that I have already learned so much from the people I have met and the observations I have made. I was fortunate enough to arrive in the middle of a week-long workshop headed up by DEN-L’s Civic Action Program (CAP) on our compound, which meant that I had to add 30 workshop participants to my list of names to learn! I attended the workshop on Friday, which was incredibly interesting. One thing I admire about the Liberian culture is that it emphasizes the importance of integrating song, dance and entertainment into virtually everything. The Liberians comprise a culture that truly recognizes the importance of such things in keeping spirits high and remaining hopeful, despite the difficult situations that many of them are faced with. The workshop proceeded to include dialogue, reflection, role play, and team exercises educating participants (mainly members of other NGOs and community leaders) on promoting sound governance, peace and reconciliation, advocacy, transparency and team building. DEN-L follows the ideology of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, who developed a radical, transformative approach to modern education that emphasizes dialogue, a two-way learning process between educator and pupil, and the collective formation of the oppressed to seek control over their situation. 

Kokoyah Women's Association greets us at our arrival

 

 The most interesting experience I have had thus far occurred on Saturday when I was invited to attend a town meeting in the rural community of Kokoyah. We drove almost two hours on a bumpy dirt road (the roads in Liberia are in very poor shape and are littered with giant potholes and craters) past many tiny villages of grass-roof huts where people were cooking over fires and small children with bloated bellies were helping parents by tending to farm animals and siblings, cooking, gathering food, and cleaning. This part of Liberia is rich with gold, so we saw young children and some adults sifting for gold in the rivers as we passed. 

Town meeting in Kokoyah

 

DEN-L has been working with small, remote villages including Kokoyah to educate the citizens on their rights and the role of government. We teach them how to collectively organize in order to demand transparency, accountability and representation. In Kokoyah, the people were discouraged because the social development funds that had been promised to them by the UN’s Millennium Village Project had failed to reach them. This is an extremely common problem in Liberia and other developing countries around the world. Money that is given to county representatives and political leaders is misallocated and diverted from the poor people it is intended for due to corrupt practices and a lack of incentive to provide accountability. Additionally, the community is not reaping the benefits of the large gold mining initiatives headed up on their property by the American Liberian Mineral Company (AMLIB). AMLIB has failed to share the earnings promised with the village people and has continuously kept information from them to keep them in the dark. 

Liberian Senator Jewel Taylor receives a warm welcome by the Kokoyah people

 

The village people are very poor and often uneducated. Their largest problem is that they are kept uninformed and out of the loop, and they do not always understand the processes involved in these development projects or their rights as citizens. DEN-L informs citizens in such communities of their rights and helps them to organize in order to demand accountability from their representatives and leaders. This meeting was called by the town of Kokoyah and was attended by Liberia’s Senator, Jewel Taylor (wife of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who is now being tried in the Hague for war crimes), the Bong County Representative, the County Superintendant, and other notable political figures. While I felt that the Representative skirted some of the questions asked and avoided providing concrete facts and information, I think that the Superintendant was more in tune with the needs of the people and recognized that their concerns must be addressed. Although not all the questions were answered and not all the issues were addressed properly, this meeting represented a turning point for the Kokoyah community. Its people have demonstrated collective action and an understanding of their rights. I hope that this is not the last meeting for them and that they will continue to follow up on the issues at hand until they successfully pressure the government into awarding them what is rightfully theirs. 

 As I mentioned previously, accountability and adequate representation of the Liberian people is scarce in developmental efforts. Western nations can give and give, but their efforts will not be effective if corrupt leaders are absorbing the funds. Liberian journalist and future candidate for a county representative position, Peter Toby, asked me to send this message back to America. He stressed that this meeting is a clear example of the fact that “trickle down” development is not always effective if there is not a sound government in place. We must rethink our efforts and focus more on development at the community level. We must see our funds and efforts through to fruition to ensure their productivity and effectiveness. I look forward to working with DEN-L this summer to continue to give a voice to the Liberian citizens and to educate them about democracy, accountability and their rights as a people so that they can demand that which they deserve.    

 In peace, 

Anna

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