Day One Liberia has been all about learning about the area, how 14 years of civil war, followed by Ebola has impacted on the country and its people.
We visited Ducor Hotel, what was Monrovia’s premier hotel pre war, a chic and prestigious place to stay. When the war escalated the hotel was abandoned and left to ruin. The shell is all that is left and we walked through it, noticing hints of the grandeur from days gone by. The security guard even showed us some pictures of it in the glory days – big change!
We didn’t visit the hotel just to mourn the loss of somewhere nice to stay though, from here you get the best view of West Point.
West Point is built on a peninsular that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is home to approx 70,000 people, with 4 public toilets. It is described as a slum.
There are very few schools in West Point, children grow up fast.
After looking down the hill to West Point we set off into it.
Jam packed with shacks and shelters it was teeming with life, colour, noise, smells.
Sunday afternoon everyone chilling sat outside, children running around oblivious to the car! Little 3 wheel yellow cabs also oblivious to the car, I felt sorry for Sunday our driver (yes his name is Sunday) who will no doubt have to sort out all the scratches caused as we were scraped past.
West Point seems to be one big hustling ground. Everyone selling something, popcorn, bananas, oranges, chicken wings and everything else! But also there was a lot of relaxing too, kids making up dance routines, women braiding each others hair and guys playing football (we had to turn round at one point as the road had been blocked off with a sheet so that the local teams could play their derby).
We drove as far as we could before we got to the point where the road had collapsed (the ocean is eroding the land around West Point), we got out of the car and walked round to look back up the hill to hotel and take a photo of the reverse view. It felt a bit edgy, getting out of a big white SUV, clearly ‘not from around here’ to take a photo, I was conscious of being a voyeur on this life that I have no comprehension of. I avoided taking pictures of West Point itself, it didn’t feel appropriate, but I did get a snap of a YMCA funded by Comic Relief and also a Dentist to share with anyone afraid of going to the Dentist over here!!!
Jackie, our guide and co-ordinator in Liberia, is a great storyteller and shared with us the history of how modern Liberia came to be, from when freed slaves landed, to clashes with the native Liberians to the first President of Liberia being elected.
On our tour round Monrovia we also visited Charles Taylors house, different government buildings and other historical landmarks of Monrovia including various Ebola Treatment Units and hospitals. Throughout the journey Jackie filled us in on the most recent war which ended in 2003 and the Ebola crisis response. It was a fascinating day of learning for me.
Even against that backdrop, a story of fight and trauma for the Liberian people, we saw dancing and smiling, people going about their daily business, children playing and running about and the world generally turning, as if nothing has happened.
The next few days we will be meeting with schools, project and community leaders and amazing individuals who are passionate about ensuring that not only does Liberia get over the wars and ebola, it thrives.
Day Two Liberia brought many challenges, not least that I have written and rewritten this post several times because I just can’t seem to find the words that do it justice.
Never did I expect to be driven up the craziest of pothole roads, bounced about into the middle of nowhere, a place where people set fire to rocks inside of tyres in order to be able to soften them, so that they can split them and haul them up the side of a quarry by hand, then sit with a hammer (and no eye protection) crushing them into little rocks to sell at 30cents per half a water container.
And that’s just the women and children.
Today I listened to young children express their desire to become scientists, psychologists, doctors, lawyers, agriculturists, mathematicians, teachers, civil engineers, nurses and pilots. Given that Acres of Hope school in Rock Hill was established as a means to get children off the rock crushing I would say these aspirations are a testament to it’s success, I only hope that they remain connected to their dreams as they grow.
We then got to share cake and bread with a group of WAG’s, not your typical WAG’s though, the participants of the Women and Girls Training Program have lost their means of income due to their crushed rock market declining.
Their community leader, a fiercely passionate woman, shared with us that these women experience domestic violence, rape, FGM and abandonment as part of everyday life. In her view the ONLY way to reduce this is to empower the women. To give them skills. To create the means for them to be self sustainable.
For her these women must be able to carry themselves in such a way, with a particular look in their eyes that shows any man that they are not fair ‘game’.
To sit with these women who were quietly unassuming and looking regal in their uniforms, it was almost impossible to imagine this to be their experience of life, yet it is. And baking and sewing could be the key to their rising above this.
We discussed ideas with them about how to become sustainable and we also debated their challenges around access to water. It was a lively conversation and I could quite happily of stayed there all week!
Instead we left with enough bread and cake to keep us going for the rest of our trip and a head full of thoughts about how we might approach our next visit with them in February.
The fact that we didn’t know we would be meeting them, to now not even being able to consider visiting Liberia without seeing them, is testament to the power and vision that they hold and the effort they are making, in their own way, to be the change that they want to see in their world.
I realised today the strength of the women in Liberia, and I fell a lot in love with them.
Day Three Liberia was definitely change maker day!
I’m not sure how many people know that the reason I am in Liberia is because of stories I heard about the More Than Me Academy. I first heard about the school thanks to my coach David Taylor and his sharing of his experience there in 2014. I felt connected to them from the outset, the girls are all referred by social workers from West Point, generally they have been referred due to being found on the streets, abandoned or trading themselves. The school has a kindergarten.
I keenly followed the reports from the school during the ebola crisis, Katie Meyler, the schools founder, was named Time person of the year in 2014 for her role in fighting ebola.
Last year I began communicating with them about a letter writing project that I hope to initiate between young women in the UK and young women in Africa, it didn’t come to fruition for various reasons, I still have hope that it will.
So to say I was excited to be going there today is a HUGE understatement, but to be there discussing possibilities for coaching and training their team, when we take our group of leaders over in February, was bordering on hysteria.
I held it down though and Simon and I heard about their plans for growth next year, they opened 6 more schools this year and have plans for another 30 over the next. It’s a young team, full of passion and energy, but like any fast growing organisation they face challenges. It was energising to discuss ways that we could be of service to them in their growth when we return.
Next stop Youth Action International, set up by Dr Kimmie Weeks. When Kimmie was 16 he organised a campaign to disarm the child soldiers in the civil war. This contributed to the liberation of 20,000 child soldiers. Later he founded Youth Action International to provide education, health care and economic empowerment for children and young people affected by war.
We couldn’t meet with Kimmie today as he is visiting the USA, however he set us up with his team, Zara and Stacey, and I’m so glad he did!
These two were a complete pair of stars, we had a great discussion about the challenges facing young people in Liberia and what their team were doing to support organisations that have been set up to empower and raise aspirations in young people.
This was a surreal conversation for me, we were having a proper business conversation, discussing practical details for a conference we are hosting when we go back in February, when suddenly a huge reminder of the context would crop up in the conversation, such as women selling their bodies for 5 cents to feed their siblings or the fact that thousands of ebola survivors are considered ‘untouchable’ due to society being scared that they are ‘contagious’ even though there is no evidence at all that they are.
Imagine surviving something like ebola, only to discover that no one wants to sit near you on the bus, or give you a job or allow your children to go to school. YAI are supporting ebola survivors and looking for ways to tackle this problem. It hadn’t occurred to me at all that survivors would be considered in this way, and yet sadly as they raised it I realised that I could imagine a similar situation playing out at home in the same circumstances.
And yet despite how ‘depressing’ this sounds we left the meeting feeling buoyant and with a sense of progression. Stacey and Zara, are super focused and positive about the impact possible, they are already delivering on it. I can’t wait to develop my relationship with them further and see them again in February.
We spent the afternoon in the comfort of the Mamba Point Hotel, one of our chosen hotels for February. There we met the charismatic Samuel Babajuah and his business partner Maerose Wilson. There was a lot to love about this duo, not least Samuel’s passion and enthusiasm for his cause. I felt a massive wave of emotion when Samuel relayed back to Simon that his trip in 2014, where he ran some training for a group of teachers, had set Samuel on his path to setting up his own NGO with a vision to train other teachers in raising self esteem in young people (a theme that comes up again and again over here). I don’t know how Simon managed to stay so calm and present!
I also loved how Samuel completely got that whilst he carries the vision, he needs others with different powerful strengths to realise it, and that’s where Maerose comes in, a quiet unassuming woman, but with underlying strength and great listening and processing skills. He proclaimed that he could not be doing this without Maerose and I wholly believed him.
We set them a challenge to take action before we come back in February, we asked them to go and deliver in at least one school, we encouraged them not to worry about it going wrong, just to notice what worked well and what they would do differently. We coached them not to wait til the ‘perfect’ moment, when ‘everything’ was ready, but to hold the big vision and take small steps. They took this challenge seriously, and I really look forward to hearing about their progress.
Finally we met with Dan Maxwell, a ‘new’ Liberian. He is creating his own success and is a professional coach and consultant. Simon invited him to come along with us tomorrow to Grand Bassa and I’m sure we will learn more about his vision to develop agricultural schools then.
This is such a long post and yet it doesn’t cover the half of it! All I can say is that I leave today feeling incredibly joyful. I know that we are on the right path and we have the right people journeying with us.
Tomorrow to Buchanan under the care of Emmanuel!
Day Four Liberia was a momentous day for many reasons. Today was the day that the school really began to be realised. Wednesday 16th November 2016, the day we will never forget.
We set out early this morning, out of the city for the more rural Grand Bassa County, heading to Duwehn Town near Buchanan. Even though our brother Emmanuel had set out a detailed itinerary for the day we genuinely did not know what to expect.
We passed through Firestone rubber plantation, which is owned by Firestone tyres and a story for another time! I really enjoyed the greenery on the journey and the space, a contrast to what we had experienced in Monrovia the last few days.
Our arrangement was to meet Emmanuel on a bridge near Buchanan, a good landmark on the highway. We got there early and parked up next to a market, our big white SUV instantly drawing the attention of a group of children and young adults who were selling everything from shrimp (live and cooked) to oranges, live chickens (being dangled from their feet and waved into the window!) to pineapples cut straight off the tree. It was chaos!
Then a little boy knocked on Sunday’s window and asked if he could give him a ‘copybook’ which means notebook. This was an astounding thing to ask for, of all the things he could have asked us. Sunday asked him why he wanted it, he replied, so I can go to school.
Luckily I had a notebook in the boot and so rummaged for that and a pencil for him, Sunday asked his name and what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied that his name was Alpha and he wanted to be President. So I wrote a little note in the book to him, telling him to enjoy school and that President Alpha is a great man. This swiftly followed with a girl called Precious asking for the same saying she wants to be a Police Director and a little boy called Uriah asking Simon, after proving what a great speller he was, Uriah said he wanted to have a car and be a businessman.
This is all literally at the side of the road, on a bridge next to a market. It felt beautifully normal, even though it couldn’t be further from, and it set the scene for the day
Arriving into Duwehn Town was like a dream, Emmanuel met us and we followed him in the car to the township. We pulled up next to the current school, approx. 50m long and school for approx. 300 children. Greeted joyously by the towns children who were all crazy excited we took a look at the school and then walked down into the village to meet the village elder and leaders, and actually pretty much everyone else there too!
The children were singing and clapping and excited to touch us, I realise we must look alien to them! We walked round the town and were welcomed everywhere, the women doing a little dance and singing for us, laughing at me trying to say hello in their local language.
What happened next will stay with me forever. We sat under the meeting shelter and were introduced to the Elder of the village who carried out a ritual to welcome us. He presented to us, on a white plate that represented the village, local white clay to signify the purity of their intention and kola nut to signify value in the exchange. To show our commitment we each took a bite of the kola nut. The Elder then took time to announce each of the village leaders to us, I was overwhelmed with pure joy when I witnessed what a strong community of leaders they have.
Emmanuel then presented the story of how Simon and I came to be there, a beautiful story. During this story he addressed the community to let them know that he wished to bestow Bassa names upon us. This is a real honour, and I felt truly blessed and welcome in that moment. The leader of the women bestowed my Bassa name upon me – Decontee which means Everything Has Time. She clearly got me sussed from the start! Simon was named Gamonga which means Man be Man. Our names would be chanted to us throughout the day, everyone we met afterwards were told our Bassa name and they addressed us by it with huge smiles, it was ace!
Emmanuel then asked myself and Simon to address the community. I’m so glad Simon went first as I cannot begin to explain how I felt in that moment, it was if it was all a dream! And then suddenly there I was, stood in a village shelter in this beautiful part of Liberia, declaring my commitment to support them until their school is built.
Following this each leader was given a chance to share their thoughts, what I have learnt about the Liberians is that they can be great speakers, passionate and sincere in their energy. As they all looked to us and shared their vision and thoughts I felt so much love and joy in my heart, the acceptance and trust that they are placing in the partnership between us and them is astounding. They are so committed to realising this dream. I couldn’t be anything other than 100% all in for them.
The leaders then showed us the trade of Duwehn Town, clay making, they make clay baguettes and sell them, for people to eat. Yes, to eat. That is another story too, and I have a challenge to give to my Staffordshire Potteries friends following the visit, which I am really looking forward to.
After that they took us to inspect the 50 acres of land that they have made available for the school to be built. It’s right next to the football pitch and as the football team were there in their kit I took the chance to take a team photo another surreal and yet completely normal moment
We were sad to leave the town, but we had a strict schedule to meet and we wanted to stay on track. From there we headed to the Good Samaritan Orphanage and School, who will be the recipient of all the books we have collected. The children performed a song for us and said their prayers with us. The staff of the orphanage and school each spoke and shared their joy at us being there and shared with us their list of requests, one of which was books! They also requested training for their teachers, something we hope to facilitate, perhaps through Samuel who we met with yesterday, already we are seeing connection and collaborations that keep the strength and empowerment within their own communities.
We gave them the books and sweets that we had and Simon caused a riot with his bubble blowing and sharing of tennis balls….so much fun!
Then on to serious business, a meeting with contractors over lunch where we discussed the implications and challenges of a community build and county officials later in the afternoon where we actually had the smoothest ever conversation you could imagine with town planners and council leaders, they informed us of how to get the process moving to have the deeds for the land signed over to the foundation that will ‘own’ the project.
But I have missed a cherished and special moment that occurred between these two meetings, we got to meet with Emmanuel’s family and also Mekie (a young woman Simon has been sponsoring through school). It was an absolute pleasure to meet Cecilia, Emmanuel’s wife and she presented me with a handmade Liberian style dress that brought me to tears, a gift I could never have anticipated and so beautiful in its intention, an intention to welcome us into their family. Simon was presented with a shirt and we both just grinned from ear to ear, bowled over!
Heading back to Monrovia I think Simon and I both felt the same sense of awe and wonder at the day we’ve had.
The people of Liberia that we have met so far have been astounding, outstanding and upstanding. I go to bed a very happy Decontee.
Day Five Liberia, the last day and a day of two halves.
This morning we left the Kendeja Hotel which has been our home for the last four nights, the service there has been impeccable, staff always smiling and friendly, attentive to our needs. Absolutely delicious fried plantain too!
We set off to Becky School, which has a beautiful story centred on a man called Mr Wisseh who posted his vision to build a school in an internet chat room (remember those?!)
Of course many ignored him, however a lady called Becky gave him $5 and in that moment Mr Wisseh held the belief that the school would be built and he would name the school after her. Although progress has been made, 10 years on the school is still not complete, despite having a register of over 300 children, 72 of whom are Ebola orphans.
The journey to Becky School was quite a ride, we journeyed through to Firestone and then asked for directions, one thing I am learning about Liberia is the addresses can be very loose (Becky School near Firestone). Asking for directions in Liberia is also a treat, Sunday, our driver, enjoyed stopping every few metres to ask someone else for directions and people love to give them, sometimes whole groups of people getting animated in their involvement.
Today we had two really funny responses, one was ‘you go straight, then you go straight, then after you gone straight, go straight’ I was crying with laughter inside. Then after driving through some of the dodgiest roads ever known (I’m talking potholes like ponds!) we stopped and asked again, we were told we’d gone past it and should have turned off at Broad Street (next to the motorbike!).
It’s difficult to explain how funny this was to us all, but for a start there are no street names signposted, so how we know where Broad Street is we couldn’t know and then there were definitely no streets fitting the description Broad and finally we all thought that a moving landmark was not necessarily the best thing to look out for. We had some fun with the lady who had shared the directions and then headed back, luckily we spotted the only street that could have been remotely close to being called Broad Street, and there were a couple of bikes around, so we stopped and asked again.
This time a guy asked to jump in the back so he could take us there and this is where the driving fun really started! The roads were nothing like any road I have ever experienced, bone shaking is not the word, twisted narrow, full of rocks – at one point Sunday questioned getting the car through, only to be told by our guide, ‘you’ve got four wheels, it’s good’. We seriously wondered where this guy was taking us!
But we finally made it to Becky School and were greeted by all the children running out to say hello, it was like a swarm of green, with big smiles. Dolas Town, where Becky School is, was hit particularly hard by Ebola, not surprising then that there were Ebola orphans and survivors at the school. It was interesting on the journey, because Jackie really pressed us about our fear of Ebola survivors, I realised that whilst I was fearful of Ebola I wasn’t afraid of Ebola survivors – they’d survived!
It did make us reflect that there must have been rampant fear during the outbreaks, it could be transferred simply by touch, by holding a hand, giving a hug, imagine for these children, not been able to hug their parents or siblings in case they were carriers.
None of that was visible today though, these kids were CRAZY! It was scorching hot, blazing sun and I was being chased round by 15-20 children at any one time, I decided to take control of the situation and played the only games I could think of – ring a ring of roses and the hokey cokey! They loved the hokey cokey
We then played catch and nearly started a riot because we only had a couple of balls! I was literally dripping so much with sweat it was stinging my eyes, so I took refuge in the car for a second to dry my face, when I got out one of the boys had fallen and hurt his face, a big gash on his chin. I remembered I had a small first aid kit in the car so I passed it to the teacher and instructed him to put gloves on, wipe it clean with the steriliser and then we made a makeshift bandage for his chin with lots of plasters. Ideally it would have been glued but that wasn’t possible here. I took him into the shade with some water and told him jokes til he was smiling again. As we got off I suggested that they might replace what I’d done with something better, it turns out what I did was the something better.
Becky School gave us a lot of insight, this is a project that hasn’t had one steering hand, there has been many kind and generous supporters but not one person responsible for making sure it happens in a sustainable way. As a consequence, 10 years on, the school is still not finished and the teachers are all volunteers, no one gets paid. It gave us really valuable learning for our project and we had quite an animated discussion in the car on the way out of Dolas Town.
The next stop, our final stop, is Libassa Eco Lodge for some welcome R&R.
A beautiful resort right by the beach, with a swimming pool and lagoon. This is where, for the first time on the trip I felt genuinely scared, there are so many crabs on the beach! I didn’t realise how scared of crabs I was until I wanted to paddle in the ocean, usually my favourite thing, I was so hesitant, but did do it! Then watching the crabs was very amusing, chasing the waves and then getting washed back up in the tide, it kept me busy for a while giggling to myself. I then went and enjoyed the peacefulness of the lagoon, where Simon had already taken himself off to and I managed a cheeky snap of him snoozing there! It was lovely to dangle my feet in the water, they have been hot and dusty all week, it was beautiful relief.
We have just spent the evening chatting with the French manager, the site was built by the Renault dealership owner in Monrovia, initially for his family but now extended for guests. Johann the manager is the perfect caricature of a French man, he would absolutely be in a Disney film! He made us laugh with his views and tales of life in Liberia and many other parts of the world, we shared stories about our experience in China.
Eco tourism and ‘traditional mud hut’ Liberian style tourism is starting to pop up now and will be a good source of income in the future, it’s yet to be seen if the owners will be responsible and fair employers and tax payers.
The resonating thought that Jackie left with us this afternoon was how can a country so rich in resources, be so poor? It could be a recurrent theme in my relationship with Liberia, but one I am prepared to explore and challenge.
The people are ready for a shift in mindset, they are ready to take ownership and accountability for their country’s prosperity, and I am happy to be a supporter of that.
On the last leg now, train home. Can’t wait to see my baby girl x
But these three, what a week I have spent with them!
Sunday, our driver, and gentle bouncer when people got too excited ‘don’t touch the car!’.
Sunday is still in his twenties and has lived the kind of life none of us can imagine. What he shared with us about his experience of the civil war stays between us, but I do want to share that Sunday was an ambulance driver during Ebola, a job NOONE wanted.
He stood up and showed up. He shared that he might pick up 6 people and by the time he got to the ETU 2-3 were dead. This was his life, no sleep, just getting the sick to the hospitals.
Sunday doesn’t say much but he has that quiet self assurance that you know you can trust. A good family man with ambition, he rocks.
Jackie, this woman is fierce! She has taught me so much this week about asking for what I want. Never have I met anyone so fearless about asking for what she wants.
Our Project Manager in Liberia, Jackie sees nothing scary about driving up to the Nigerian Army UN Compound and arguing with soldiers, asking to drive in and show us around!
And if you ever get into a standoff with her you better watch out!
She’s had me in stitches this week and I know she has our back, love this woman!
Finally, Simon Crowe you put your faith in going on ‘holiday’ with me and trusting me with your vision.
We barely know each other and yet we now have a mission that goes beyond the Leadership Programme, a testament to our shared values and your vision! I’ve loved getting to know you better and hearing about your family and life in London and across the globe.
Thank you Team Liberia November 2016, bring on February 2017!