Three weeks ago this morning my plane from Liberia by way of Ghana touched down in New York. My adventure had come to a close and on the very long overnight flight I once again got used to things like toilets that flush, drinks with ice and in-flight movies (by the way, The Butler is excellent).
As I reflect back on what I saw and experienced in two weeks, it boils down to this:
- Much in Liberia is just fine without us. Soccer there is a spontaneous game, helped with a brand new ball delivered by visitors but more often played with whatever can be rolled together and taped into a sphere for even a few minutes. There are no soccer moms, snacks with juice boxes or liability waivers to keep the soccer league out of court. I found it very refreshing that in rural areas life was still largely like it was decades or centuries ago. I’m proud that we have added clean water from wells and some training for traditional birth attendants (midwives) but in many ways I think their lives are better for their isolation.
- Sustainable food is a real issue. Liberians import a huge amount of their food from China. In an area with plenty of land, fertile soil and enough water, combined with ridiculously high unemployment, agriculture is still limited. Like many of you I remember images of Ethiopia in the 80s when a severe drought made agriculture impossible. But in Liberia I saw a fertile area that provides the natural resources to not only allow these people to feed themselves but to export food to other nations. The population density is 92 people per square mile, about the same as Missouri. I very much like the East Ohio Conference’s Farmer to Farmer program which seeks to connect “teaching” farmers in the U.S. with novice farmers in Liberia. But this is a drop in the bucket.
- Education is way behind. A 14 year civil war saw education fall by the wayside for an entire generation of Liberians. The thirty-year-olds who could be teaching have not been to school themselves. While many have a strong desire for more education, they are now raising families and are unable to travel to community colleges where they could get caught up. Last year 25,000 potential students took the entrance exam for the two public universities. Not a single student passed the test. Not one. Education not only provides skills such as reading, it opens the world and helps people dream of a better life. Camphor Mission has about 200 students in its school, few of whom pay the tuition. As a result the school program is drastically under funded, salaries (which are often behind) are low and the best teachers are lured away to other positions. The UMC is blessed to have Helen Roberts-Evans in our corner. Helen was born in Liberia and was raised in the U.S. She was a career educator in Chicago until she gave it all up, sold all that she owned and moved to Liberia where she is now the head of all the United Methodist schools. Helen has a wonderful combination of formal education, high expectations and a real sense for Liberian culture.
- No one is worried about mental health. About one in 15 Liberians was killed in the civil war. A huge majority of women and girls was subjected to sexual violence. This is a nation that lived in fear for a decade and a half, leaving issues such as post traumatic stress disorder in a broad wake. In a nation struggling to feed its people, mental health services are nonexistent. Over time this will simply find its way to the grave, but for the next 30-50 years this will haunt country and affect the way its citizens live their lives.
OK, so problems exist. I struggle with the question of how can I help? What can my church do? What can the Foundation do? What can our denomination do about these things. And not only what can we do but what are we willing to do? Far more of us can go over there and help than will actually do so. At least for the food and the education Camphor has the infrastructure to help. With 750 United Methodist churches and 61,000 people sitting in our pews on an average Sunday I believe we have all we need to make a difference.