Gimme my 26th!

Hello friends,

Church at the Liberia-Guinea border covered in bullet holes

Since my last blog post, I have had the fortune to be able to travel around Liberia, which has opened my eyes to both a great deal of beauty as well as much despair. Last week, my colleague James and I took a trip to Ganta, a town about an hour and a half from Gbarnga by bumpy Liberian road. During the Liberian civil war period, many people fled from Gbarnga to Ganta on foot and eventually made their way to Guinea or took refuge in the forests of Nimba County. Rebel forces looted and destroyed villages as they made their way from the capital to the rural sectors of the country, and much of the havoc they caused is still observable today. We passed many ransacked buildings that had been burned and were never rebuilt. House frames overgrown with weeds loomed eerily all along the road.  James drove me to the Liberia-Guinea border where a church pocked with bullet holes still stood across from the newly-constructed border patrol building.

Before joining DEN-L, James worked as a nurse and he received his medical training at the Methodist Hospital School in Ganta. He drove me through the campus and the many windy roads that surrounded it where people live in small houses and shanties. To James’ surprise and dismay, many of the roads in the area were overgrown and impassable. He told me that when he was studying medicine there the roads were paved and frequented by many. After the war, much of the infrastructure in the area was left in shambles and has never been restored.

James and I also paid a visit to the Leprosy Hospital, which is a branch of the Methodist Hospital and includes a clinic along with a compound where lepers and their families live. Upon developing this awful disease—which badly deforms its victims’ extremities, damages their nerves, discolors their skin, and causes many other terrible symptoms—patients are perceived to be useless (and even dangerous) to society, and are often quarantined to sites such as the one we visited. Leprosy is curable if caught in its early stages and the symptoms are pretty extreme, so it would seem to many of us that it is hard to miss and even harder to ignore. However, many people in Liberia are ignorant regarding the causes and symptoms of the disease and do not seek treatment until it’s too late and the physical damage has been done. I have to admit this visit to the Leprosy Hospital was one of the most depressing parts of my time in Liberia. The clinic was dark, gloomy and reeked of sickness. The sight of the poor patients and their delight in receiving us visitors will forever be engrained in my mind.

Streets of Monrovia

Onto a more positive note—Friday was my birthday and it was wonderful to be able to spend it with all my DEN-L friends. Everyone sang to me and the cooks even baked me a cake. In the afternoon, James and Danny took me to Monrovia—Liberia s capital—for the night. I was so excited to see the city, as this was my first trip to the capital. Monrovia is about a three hour drive from Gbarnga. Once you enter the city, the traffic is congested and huge crowds of people swarm your vehicle trying to sell you various goods. There are barely any tall buildings in Monrovia—the tallest ones would be considered miniscule in any American city. The city is packed with people and is extraordinarily polluted. I was sorry to see all the smog and the litter that coated the grounds (people all over Liberia are highly ignorant when it comes to environmental issues—they throw all their trash on the ground and let it accumulate into huge, smelly heaps). My colleagues pointed out all the major sites—the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the president’s office and house, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) headquarters, the National Elections Commission, etc. We also visited the beach, which was just as polluted as most of the rest of the city.

Beach at Monrovia

Besides being bigger and more developed than Gbarnga and the other rural sectors of the country I’ve visited, Monrovia also has more imported goods, which makes sense, seeing as it is the capital city and is located right on the ocean. There were western-style supermarkets selling imported American shampoo and cereal at exorbitant prices (the $15 bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo made my jaw drop), as well as electronics stores and clothing stores that actually sell new clothing. There were many looted and destroyed building structures and houses that I was told were burned and ransacked during the war and were never rebuilt. Mentally and physically disabled people seemed to be begging everywhere. In many ways, Monrovia is a sad and decrepit ghost town of sorts. I can see how it could have been much more vibrant and beautiful once, but I left feeling thankful that I am stationed in a rural part of the country.

Monday, July 26th, Liberia celebrated its 163rd anniversary as an independent nation. I had been greatly looking forward to celebrating the Liberian independence day since my arrival; it has been a much anticipated occasion that was talked up to me since I got here. Each year, the major July 26th celebration is held in a different county where the presidential entourage is hosted. This year, the major festivities took place in Nimba County, which is where the town of Ganta is located. Last week when I was there with James the town was undergoing a makeover in preparation for the celebration. Decorations were hung and roads were being cleared and repaired (funny that the country doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the decrepit infrastructure except when a major celebration rolls around). Here in Gbarnga, all the children were bought new clothes and even the toddlers got fake hair plaited into their heads. They walked around storming up to people and demanding their “July 26th” with sass. I found out quickly that this means they expect you to give them money. I bought a bunch of candy and dispersed it among all the village children and that seemed to go over pretty darn well. I learned that Liberians pinch their pennies for this day—I guess it’s bigger than Christmas or any other holiday. The streets of the market were packed with people playing games, drinking (palm wine, Liberian beer, and strong fermented alcohol), dancing, and enjoying themselves in general. They hold feasts at their homes and no one works for about 4 or 5 days surrounding the date. They party well into the night at bars, homes and in the streets. Whew, what a day. It definitely made for an interesting experience.

I will depart Liberia in less than two weeks, which is insane to think about. The three months I’ve been here have flown by. There have been times I have never felt more at home and times I’ve longed for all the American luxuries I’ve taken for granted my whole life (a cheeseburger would be so awesome right about now). I plan to really make this final stretch of my African adventure count. We have another workshop coming next week that I will help facilitate, so stay posted!

In Peace,