November 13th 2016
Today we toured Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. 14 years of civil war have destroyed the infrastructure, decimated the public buildings and left a litany of social problems, but the city has a warmth and a vibrancy and a spirit which is noticeable everywhere.
These photos were taken at the ruins of the once majestic Ducor Palace Hotel (you can see the photos
from the 1970’s brochure and my picture of the swimming pool) The hotel, once on of the finest hotels in Africa before the war and subsequent looting, offers sweeping views of the city, the port, the St Paul and Mensurado rivers with their islands and the bustling cityscape.
The view to the north is of the city’s most densely populated townships Westpoint. You can see it on the spit of land over Natasha’s shoulder. 70,000 people are squeezed into this maze of narrow streets and cramped hand erected dwellings. Most of these people were evident in the streets as we drove through its heart an hour later. We looked back up at the hotel perched on its hilltop and could see how both stand for differing aspects of the city’s plight.
We talked to Jackie Mccay, our guide for the day, about what Ebola must have been like for these people, who live crammed on top of each other many to a room. With a disease which spread through human contact how did anyone survive? Well, Jackie explained, they tried Marshall law which almost caused a riot, but, once the community had understood the risks, they had taken responsibility to educate and organise themselves. In this way they defeated Ebola – if we can beat Ebola we can overcome anything- said Jackie.
We reflected on our purpose for coming back in February over dinner. It will clearly need to tap into this spirit and empower the people to see once again that the solutions to their problems lie within.
November 14th 2016
An amazing day 2 (and it’s only the second day!)
We visited Rock Hill school – a school built by charitable donation and a potential model for our school project in Bassa. We visited each class of immaculately behaved children who were wrote learning their way through science, spelling, handwriting (Natasha lead the way), and bible – I learned something in every
I even learned the recipe for Liberian ‘gravy” – chillies onions tomatoes and peppers. We learned that about 25 % of the kids come to school with nothing to eat and how those who have food always share.
Rebecca the school president showed us the bowls that were handed round when there was food to share. These kids are a mixture of ages in each of the grades because they miss years of school when their parents cant afford to send them.
Rock Hill gets its name from the hand duffest quarries that provide the whole village with a meagre income – they quarry large rocks from the vast open queries using car tyres which they burnt soften the rock and large hammers. they then carry the rocks to the top of the quarry and the families break the rocks into different grade of hardcore and gravel – with rudimentary hammers.
We saw fathers, mothers and children smashing away at piles of rocks – half a bucket eared them around 30 US cents – This was the incentive for the school – to give the children more choices in the future and we heard from a group of the school kids their aspirations to be doctors, scientists, pastors and even a pilot.
After the school visa we spent time with a group of women in their beautiful tailored uniforms who were attending an empowerment programme.
The programme was set up by one of the villagers to teach the women how to cook and
The idea is to give them skills that they can start micro businesses with but primarily it is to build their self esteem.
We talked about their dreams for the programme and soon came up against the conversation about funding. It will cost less than 5000 dollars to put 60 women through the basic programme – but what I loved is that this programme has been started by the woman of the village with nothing.
I keep hearing about the strength of the women in Liberia as a force for change (Liberia has the first female president in Africa).
They cooked us a batch of corn bread – count cake and some seriously delicious cookies.
Natasha and I are learning to ask very different questions from the ones that are initially presented with by the people we meet. It appeared on the surface that they just want resources (and these would definitely help) but by probing more deeply it became apparent to everyone that their strength is in the collective –
So we talked about how they could start a cooperative and support one another – how they could cook the food for the school and even sew their school uniforms – the community then starts to support the community and it becomes self sustaining.
It would be great to workshop these ideas when we return in February and support them in moving these ideas forward.
November 15th 2016
What’s the point of these trips? – what’s the impact, the lasting legacy?
I ask myself this from time to time. I deeply want to serve and I want our presence here to add value, but how can we be sure that people’s lives are positively impacted by our efforts. Well today I had two moments that showed me that our work here two years ago is still felt today and it brought up a lot of the heart felt emotion I experienced then.
This morning we visited The More Than Me Academy. After a very productive meeting we were shown around the school. Towards the end we entered the grade 7 classroom. At the back of the brightly painted room were 4 of the girls that Richard Morgan and Angelica Gutierrez had run an impromptu workshop with in 2014.
They recognised me and they started to chatter excitedly between them. I waved and told them I was so proud of them for continuing to go for their dreams.
These girls, all from the Westpoint township, have suffered some unbelievable abuse and hardship in their young lives and yet they have found a way to persevere with their studies.
It brought tears to my eyes and I felt so proud of them. “The girls from the Power class” I shouted! “Yes, yes tell us your name again!” There was a part of me that had wanted the chance to reconnect with those girls since that day – to let them know that I will always hold their dreams and keep them alive. They impacted me in ways they will never know and I feel such love for them.
Then, this afternoon we met Samuel Banajoua, a teacher who had attended the empowerment conference we ran in 2014. Samuel told Natasha and I that his life had changed that day. He said he remembered every word we said and had held on to every ounce of wisdom. He said “I knew I just had to create a vision. To write it down and find people to help me.”
He told us that until then he had just been teaching to get a pay check but he realised that he could inspire the young people he taught in the same way we had inspired him. He has gone on to found an NGO with the wonderful title “High Self-Esteem Young Liberians Initiative ” focusing on exactly that – empowering the young Liberians to have dreams of their own and to build their self esteem. It was so great to hear his testimony and I felt the biggest smile as he passionately shared his vision and his gratitude.
Natasha and I set him a challenge to start working with a few schools as pilots and then come to our event when we return in February and we will support him to make the next step. I love being inspired by people who don’t look for excuses or point to the hardships of their lives, but find ways to make a difference from exactly where they are.
This is the impact that Natasha and I are here for. This is the reason we are here preparing the ground for our return in February. I can’t wait.
November 16th 2016
Today was in some ways overwhelming and very emotional. We spent the day with my friend and brother Emmanuel – he had created a full programme of meetings which made today very auspicious in terms of building the school as we met the community, were dedicated the land and received official approval from the county sheriff’s office.
I met my “daughter” Mekie for only the second time. I have been supporting her and her family financially as she goes through high school – she lost her father and calls me “Dad” – we speak once or twice a week on the phone but I felt a real sense of pride to see her today – she is a sharp girl and knows how to ask for what she wants. We exchanged gifts and talked about her ambitions. When I met Mekie in 2014 she shared with me her desire to be a doctor and told me that her dreams would come true now that I was holding the dream for her. She reminded me of this story today and I remembered how important it is for people to believe in us and share our dreams.
I gave her my best “Dad talk”about avoiding sex and focus on her studies and remember that it is always ok to say No. Girls in Liberia generally suffer from very low self esteem and are easily prayed on by men who leave them pregnant and do nothing to support the girl or their families. We have met teenagers this week with four babies by 4 different fathers, who drop out of school and their self esteem falls even lower.
Mekie and I discussed a business idea of how she can suppprt herself financially rather than relying solely on gifts. She has a great idea for a micro business but I wanted to find a way that I can back her financially but with the right checks and balances in place. I said I would think about how this could happen. Then, this evening Jackie introduced me to a Californian woman who runs a micro financing initiative for young women in Liberia and she has offered to mamage the funding I send Mekie as a business loan – I was so moved when I realised that we will be able to enable Mekie to realise another of her dreams.
We also visited an orphanage which my friend Emmanuel supports and who I occasionally buy food and clothes for. The children sang to welcome us and we were honoured for our presence by the principal and president. We then spoke to the children about how they mattered to us and that people in the world care about them. – These children have no parents and live in real lack. We learned that often they go to bed with only water in their bellies. We returned on the way back home with 50kg of rice just so they can eat for a few days. It was a gesture but Natasha and I will apply some thought to how we can make this sustainable.
We then went to the village where the school wil be built and were honoured in a ceremony by the elders and the whole community who gave us tribal names and told us that this was our home and they were our family. Natasha is now known as Dehkon-Tee or “Everything Has Time”, which is so appropriate considering how this project had accelerated since she came on board.
My name is Gar-Mon-Gar which
means “Man Be Man” because they see me as a man of my word with the strength to take this project forward.
Rafael was also mentioned so many times today as their angel and we were officially recognised as now the bearers of the torch. Bless you my brother.
We later went to a local restaurant and ate fried fish and rice and were met by teams of builders who wanted to
be involved in our project.
Then, we headed to the local municipal offices where we were addressed by our Bassa names and made feel so welcome and assured by the county sheriff that the land would be made available to the school project and that a surveyor would register the land to us as soon as we submit the paperwork. I have never been in a government building where the officials have made a welcome speech before!
We also visited a beautiful resort on a lake which is being built with traditional methods and materials – they were even making the furniture on site. It was so organic and created such good energy It made us dream of how our school could perhaps be. I’d love to stay there when we return in February.
Writing this post had been the hardest yet – so much happened and we were greeted so warmly everywhere we went it has been really heartwarming.
I have not done justice to any of the emotions I felt or the magic of the experiences – in fact, I am still just realising what an incredible day it was. You do not have many days like this in a lifetime and I am lying here cherishing the memories of it.