Final Reflections on my Liberian Adventure

Friends-    

I arrived safely in Boston last week after almost 30 hours of travel, bringing to an end my great Liberian adventure. I find that even after a week, I am still slowly getting used to electricity at all hours of the day, functional roads, American food and toilet seats, among other things. While I feel that I have been able to jump right back into my old life in some ways, I know that I am doing so with a new perspective—a new lens through which the world looks quite different.    

Girl cooking for her family

 

First of all, I want to thank my DEN-L colleagues and each and every person I met in Liberia for helping to make my time spent there by far the most transformative and eye-opening experience of my life. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who welcomed me and showed genuine interest in educating me about their culture. Upon arriving at DEN-L, I had no idea what to expect in terms of the development methodologies and practices employed by the NGO. I was impressed to find that they followed the revolutionary teachings of Brazilian educational theorist, Paulo Freire, and to discover the firm grasp that my colleagues had on modern development theory and practice. Most of all, I was astounded by the enthusiasm and passion with which they approached the work that they do. It can be tiring to execute workshop after workshop, especially when the audience demonstrates opinions and values that give life to many of the root problems that are hindering the country’s development, yet are so deeply ingrained in their minds. I admire the way that my DEN-L colleagues approached each workshop with enthusiasm and hopefulness. They are all deeply passionate about facilitating development in Liberia and improving the situation of the Liberian people. Even at times when the remarks made by a participant or the apparent lack of progress and understanding was demonstrated, the DEN-L facilitators had an admirable was of calmly posing questions and citing examples that would open the minds of the people and encourage them to at least consider the implications of their views and actions.   

The Liberian culture is a beautiful one. Although it has been infiltrated by Western ideas, laws, religions, goods and commodities, there are still some traditional practices and ideals that have persevered. Never have I witnessed such a celebratory and vibrant group of people. There is nothing the Liberians appreciate more than a chance to sing, dance and celebrate with their friends and families. Even the funerals were giant parties! Despite the fact that most people work incredibly hard just to feed their families without any promise or hope for improvement of their situations in the future, they manage to get up each morning thankful that they were able to do so. Community serves as a safety net—a sort of insurance plan, if you will. In a country where any sort of external shock could have fatal ramifications for a family, the support that the community can give is vital. I will never forget how many Liberians would tell me “life here is hard.” They couldn’t be more correct, yet they manage to maintain a sense of hope and perseverance that is truly inspiring.   

Children from Nimba County

 

We Americans often see photos of Africans dressed in rags living in grass roof huts without electricity or running water and we think how sad it is that people live in that kind of poverty. My time spent in Liberia really caused me to question the meaning of the word “poverty.” It seems to me that poverty is really a concept that was amplified after Westerners imposed our values, products and ways of life on Africans. Sure, there are many people in Africa who lack food, adequate health care, education and other basic rights and needs; however, poverty is a relative concept to some extent, and many of those Africans we see living “simple” lives are happier than plenty of wealthy, educated people in the developed world. As human beings, we all crave the same things no matter where we come from or how much money we make. As long as we have security, food, water, shelter, love, dignity and a sense of voice or notion that we can influence our situation, we can live content, meaningful lives. In fact, when we acquire much more than our basic needs, I feel that we tend to complicate our lives and compromise our happiness. The African people who live out “in the bush” at least are able to appreciate the small but important aspects of life. Many of them seemed happier to me than most Americans I’ve met.    

This is not to say that Liberian society is perfect. In fact, it is far from it. I had an idea of the unemployment, lack of education, maltreatment of women, inadequate health care, poor infrastructure and rampant levels of corruption that plague this post-conflict society, but it’s a whole new ballgame when you see these phenomena and the devastating social, political and economic effects that they yield first-hand. Talking to community members in Kokoyah about how their political leaders had eaten the development money they were supposed to receive via the Millennium Village Project, hearing male workshop participants cite that men can beat women as part of their daily roles in society, and talking to a girl who was forced to sleep with her physics teacher in order to pass his class are just a few of the eye-opening experiences that I had while living in Liberia. The issues are real and it will take a great deal of creativity, patience and cultural appreciation—not to mention time—to turn the country around. As I mentioned in my previous post, I came to DEN-L with a strong interest in the sound governance, peacebuilding and leadership training aspect of the organization. As I began to work with the Liberian people and learn more about their culture, I developed a greater interest in the issues surrounding gender inequality and awareness, as I strongly feel that the machismo and oppression of women and girls lies at the root of most of the development issues facing the country.   

Me and a Duo baby

 

I have to admit that my experience was not all enlightening and easy. It’s idealistic and naïve to travel to a country riddled with poverty and corruption and think that you can change it overnight. I often found myself frustrated and discouraged. At times I would put so much effort into opening the minds of workshop participants regarding a particular topic just to hear them express views at the end of the week completely counter to those we were trying to promote. Other times I would listen to the stories of Liberian women being beaten, raped and denied the property that is rightfully theirs despite the legal framework that the country has adopted to protect women’s rights (which is obviously rarely enforced). Sometimes even my own colleagues would demonstrate behavior that contributes to the oppression of women or lack of development in general. It was easy to lie in bed at night thinking that my efforts are far too small to make an impact. At times like those I had to remind myself that my three months in Liberia are only the beginning of my time spent learning and working in Africa. Every one of the people who approached me after a workshop to tell me that I had made a difference in the way they looked at a situation or socially constructed norm represents is a testament to success and impact. Development is a frustrating and trying field to work in and I’ve learned that it’s important to celebrate the baby steps and to also appreciate my own enlightenment and growth as a step in the right direction. Instead of letting myself become frustrated or overwhelmed, I am going to remain hopeful and engaged. I see this experience as a call to action. It was my first time in Africa, but it certainly will not be my last.   

Liberian Village in Bong County

 

Lastly, I want to thank all of my wonderful readers and supporters who were with me in spirit from thousands of miles away. The interest you showed in my work and the encouragement that you offered helped carry me through this experience and always put a smile on my face.    

I am going to close my Liberian blog writing experience with a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi that a friend of mine imparted to me before I left for Liberia. I read it whenever I felt discouraged and it reminded me of my mission and restored my sense of hope and understanding. Take it with you wherever you may go and I hope it will do the same for you:    

Where there is hatred, let us sow love;    

where there is injury, pardon;    

where there is discord, union;    

where there is doubt, faith;    

where there is despair, hope;    

where there is darkness, light;    

where there is sadness, joy.    

Grant that we may not so much seek    

to be consoled as to console;    

to be understood as to understand;    

to be loved as to love.    

For it is in giving that we receive;    

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;    

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.                           

Pray for peace    

Fight for peace    

Peace be with you,    

Anna (Kou Sennie)

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