Posts Tagged ‘Liberia’

Easter in Monrovia

April 14, 2010

A year ago I spent Easter Sunday in Bujumbura, Burundi as detailed elsewhere on this blog. My friends and I went to a mass in the main cathedral led in French. The children’s choir truly had angelic voices. Although I don’t speak French, there was an unmistakable, familiar rhythm to the service. A memorable day during a memorable trip. That was a year ago.

This year I fought jet lag and slept the latest I think I have ever slept – just before before 1PM – in Monrovia, Liberia. Not so memorable. We had intentions to attend an African service at a Lutheran church somewhere in town; however, our contact we met on the plane didn’t get back to us. Needless to say, the added rest expedited the jet lag recovery.

I’m writing this short post days after Easter. Since then I have begun to hear stories of the trials, tribulations, and hopes of the Liberians with whom I have met through TH. Each time I find myself on the African continent, I find myself struggling with how I talk about my experiences, but more importantly, conveying their experiences. I want to capture the oppression but not at the expense of the strength of the human spirit in a world with far less material comforts, essentials, and social recognitions of human dignity than in high-income countries, where there it is not perfect either. It’s an ongoing discussion for me, one that continues to be shaped by experience, discussion, and reflection.

I brought a number of books with me: The Roads of Man by Ted Conover, Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, The Birth of the Clinic by Michel Foucault, and A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer. I also brought a stack of magazines, among them The Christian Century, a mainline theological magazine, which I have enjoyed for years. An article I read the night before Easter speaks to some of my thoughts on human expression in many of my African continent experiences. I’m excerpted a little bit below. Although it comes from the perspective of the Christian tradition, I think the theological dimensions apply widely for all readers regardless of any/no religious tradition.

“…On two mission trips to Haiti with undergrads, there was widespread agreement that the most disarming thing about the country was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing. How dare they sing when their life expectancy is so horribly short? Was their laughter an escapist respite from the tragedy of their lives, or a smart rebuke to our assumption that their lives were trapped in tragedy?…The insufferably earnest releases from our church agency presume that the morally attuned among us, the truly courageous, are the ones with the guts to admit how bad things are in this terribly flawed, fallen world… But those singing-through-their-tears Haitians make me wonder: a truly theological analysis suggests that we may be meant by God for music, destined for joy. Maybe our fitful good deeds are not the end of story. The church’s relief bulletins rarely include that theology along with its lists of sins and disasters. This is what you get when anthropology over takes Christology – it’s always Good Friday. What’s dead stays that way…” From “Now can we sing?” by William H. Willimon

There is singing. There is joy. Everyone should know. I’m not here to report on that solely, to downplay or overinflate it. Everyone deserves a lifetime to spend with their friends and families, to pursue their interests, to be treated with dignity. And by all indicators some societies are doing markedly better jobs healing and promoting health than others for a number of complicated reasons, including access to health care, health services, medical supplies, etc. That’s a reality, front and center with joy. But for this Easter in a country with dismal (but improving) health indicators, a country where in a report I read today that an infant mortality rate of 110 per 1000 births is “showing significant improvements,” if I’m honest to myself, I have to say “amen” to character and spirit of Willimon’s reflection after 6 years of experiences on the African continent. The needs don’t dissipate because of joy, but song in part reminds us of who we are and what we are to do.


Monrovia April 2-3, 2010

April 5, 2010

When I step back for a moment to contemplate it, I find the stark infrastructure and economic contrasts between capital cities truly remarkable. On my way home from Uganda last year, the acute contrast I saw within 24 hours was between Kampala and Reykjavik. On Friday, April 2 I spent 2 hours in downtown Brussels during a layover in the morning and then the evening in Monrovia, Liberia. One city with guilded exteriors, prolific chocolate shops (stereotypically true), and immaculately clean compared to another city with bombed out buildings from its country’s civil war, a few very well paved roads (a positive sign of improvement), and one not to be walked around at night. The rhetorical, perennial question lingering (when one brackets national sovereignty and history, of course): why do these stark contrasts persist?

In Brussels shortly before departure, we talked with Kimmie Weeks, a Liberian guy who has repatriated to Liberia after being in the US during Liberia’s civil war. He has been a significant child rights activist (, and people at the airport from different countries came up to him given his past media presence and work. We all boarded, and Roona, Raj, and I landed in Monrovia later on April 2. As we descended in the air, I viewed the dense, verdant foliage meet up with the ocean with eagerness. The air appeared steamy – I knew what to anticipate weather-wise. We disembarked from the plane into 95F air with near 100% humidity. The familiar exhaust smelling air I’ve experienced on the airport tarmac in African and Latin American countries brought a flood of memories, reinforcing the power of the olfactory system in memory recollection. We waited in a chaotic line to have our visas stamped. Thankfully, my luggage arrived though Raj’s did not. We met a very kind Tiyatien Health staff member, Ben, after leaving the airport. We bought some delectable, simple bread at the roadside and started the 45 mile journey to Monrovia.

The Monrovia airport was built by the US military during WWII to facilitate exportation of rubber tires for the Allied forces in Europe. The location so far outside the city was chosen because Firestone has a nearby rubber plant. (Firestone has been in the country since around 1920). We passed many families on a very paved road as we left the airport. Rudimentary mud dwellings dotted the roadside, dense jungle-like foliage ended behind the homes, and a beautiful steamy sunset welcomed us as we drew closer to Monrovia.

The most memorable part of this road trip was Ben’s story during Liberia’s civil war. Trained as a physician’s assistant, he ended up provided care to the warring factions at different points in the war. One particular day, rebels had come near the school where his 2 children were attended. He found out that his kids were bused away safely, but rumors abounded that children were being abducted, adopted, and killed. He described the environment at the time, the fear, and the hopes for the future. As I felt in Rwanda and Burundi last year, the ramifications of such stories on a society and its individuals were rather unfathomable to me in the context of stable upbringing. We capped off a great conversation with a discussion about President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current president and the African continent’s first woman president. There’s an upcoming election, next year I believe, and we spoke about her and her competition.

We met up with Kerry Dierberg and Ana Weil, the former a Massachusetts General Hospital (Harvard) Durant fellow who agreed to work for Tiyatien Health in Zwedru during the fellowship. They were eating dinner at Golden Beach, a restaurant on the beach in Monrovia. Monrovia’s beaches are dangerous for expats in terms of security and undertow, and so being able to enjoy it at this restaurant was a great venue for us. We listened to Kerry and had some good introductory conversations about health in Liberia and TH operations in Zwedru. The connections among Raj, Ana, Kerry, and Roona are fun to trace. All of them except me have affiliations with Harvard and/or Johns Hopkins and had other contacts related to those institutions in Monrovia that they were not expecting. I enjoyed watching the energy of rekindled relationships.

Saturday April 3, we started the meetings en masse, which as I write this are ongoing through April 5 evening. We started on Saturday meeting with a senior leader in the National AIDS Control Program about an upcoming shared grant roll-out in Zwedru where we will be heading in a few days. (Zwedru, a southeastern Liberian town 20 miles from the border with Côte d’Ivoire, is TH’s main headquarters in Liberia.) We grabbed some street food and then headed to downtown Monrovia.

We bought some odds and ends on the main drag, Randall Rd. Events included a good falalel sandwich at a Lebanese eatery, stocking up on groceries and supplies before heading to Zwedru (all expensive because almost everything in this country is imported), and I thwarted an attempt of someone opening my backpack (I guess I learned some street smarts in Uganda). I should emphasize how friendly I find Monrovia overall right now! We then headed back to our air-conditioned guest house, a seductive luxury that we will quickly need to be accustomed to being without in Zwedru. As we were about to nap, we received a call from a programs officer at UNHCR-Liberia (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). A gracious man, we met with him and another UNHCR staff woman to talk about further building UNHCR’s relationship with TH. We also showed him a PhotoVoice project that took place in Zwedru with some former US TH volunteers. PhotoVoice ( is an educational modality with a mission statement “to bring positive social change for marginalised communities through providing them with photographic training with which they can advocate, express themselves and generate income.” When that TH video gets posted on the internet, I will definitely post the link and provide more explanation.

We spent the rest of the day at the cafe of a nice hotel overlooking the ocean in order to discuss some issues in development work, goals for the upcoming weeks, and to enjoy the internet. All sorts of expat personalities shared the tables around us. Some military, some business, and most doing activities I can only imagine at this point. The stories here are undoubtedly plentiful and outside the type of my daily conversations in Chicagoland. The acronyms and vocab remind me again of my year in Uganda and some its excitement, success, frustrations, and failures. The evening finished with the appearance of one of Raj and Roona’s friends – Ranu – who is a medical resident in the Global Health Equity program at Harvard’s Brigham hospital and who is here independently consulting the Liberian Ministry of Health. His story is an entirely different post…

For now, listening to the delightful dialect of Liberian English spoken, re-immersing in the energy of change and all the complexities it entails, and working with an organization committed to community-driven solutions to problems keeps me revved. I leave this post with one comment by Kerry that I found inspiring that I will summarize and not do justice to in its eloquence: “some level of despair is what helps keep me motivated in advocating for my patients.”