Edit Blog Post
Published: March 31st 2011
“Life is a challenge.”
It’s been three days since I first set foot in West Africa, but, as with most trips to the field, it’s taken me a while to fully grasp where I am. Today, I find myself in the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, just outside one of Merlin’s health clinic, staring at the license plate on the back of a motorcycle parked next to the rehabilitated facility. “Life is a challenge” it reads unassumingly. I don’t think there is a single human being with a remote understanding of modern history who will refute this truism, especially as it applies to the continent of Africa. Life has been, is (and I’m afraid) will continue to be) a challenge. But, as is the case with many marginalized, destitute parts of this often times-forgotten continent, one has to be there to understand WHY.
Liberia fascinates me. Constantly ranking in the bottom ten nations on the list of the world’s poorest countries, it is home to about 3 million people, half of whom live in the capital. For a country as large as it is, this number baffles me. Having only skimmed the surface of this beautiful continent with short
visits to various parts of Eastern Africa in the past, it seems a rarity compared to its densely populated neighboring countries. Liberia’s history is just as unique as its sparsely populated composition. As Americans, we often boast about the misconceived notion that the United States has never colonized another country. Unlike our European friends, we pride ourselves on the groundless belief that we’ve reached our dominant status not by colonial might but by riding on the crest of globalization, with a consistent emphasis on economic and cultural cooperation. FALSE!
Aside from being captivating, a short overview of the country’s past is important to understand this fallacy. From what I’ve read, little seems to be known or told about Liberia’s history pre-1800s. What is most remembered is the period from its settlement by freed American slaves in 1822 until their overthrow in 1980 – an era marked by domination of the country’s majority by a minority elite – a sort of reverse slavery if you will. Ex-slaves, you see, used the skills they learned in captivity to help Africans develop their own continent. In principle, the idea was noble. What transpired, however, was anything but noble.
Let me explain.
In the early 1800s, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was administered and eventually given $100,000 by the U.S. Congress (a ridiculous sum at the time) and in 1821, ACS representatives and military officials terrorized local communities and eventually purchased Monrovia for $300, which was named as such after President James Monroe, an ACS member who wanted to build a “little America destined to shine gemlike in the darkness of vast Africa.” Calling themselves “Americo-Liberians,” these settlers adopted a declaration as well as a flag similar to the United State’s and unapologetically dictated the country under an oppressive black colonial aristocracy. Almost the entire population of indigenous Africans were subsequently disenfranchised and forced into labor on various plantations… Forgive me for sounding skeptical, but I’m pretty sure it falls under the auspices of colonization!
As if Liberia hadn’t experienced enough strife all the way up until the first military coup in the mid 1980s, the country then plunged into two of the world’s bloodiest and anarchic civil wars, culminating with the overthrow of Charles Taylor in 2003. I won’t go on about the atrocities that occurred under his corrupted regime, but will share one small telling anecdote. When Liberians greet
each other, it is custom to snap your fingers together because, unlike many of their tortured ancestors from past oppressed generations, Liberians, today, HAVE fingers to snap. I think you get the point.
Back to the future…
After many years of civil conflict, Liberia inaugurated its first post-conflict President in 2006, (the first democratically-elected female president) and subsequently began the process of rebuilding its broken country. And, as is the case with so many nations rising from its post-conflict ashes, the health needs were and continue to be immense. Enter Merlin. In the middle of the civil war, Merlin started its programs to respond to the medical emergencies stemming from the ongoing conflict. By the end of the war, in 2003, while most NGOs left the country, Merlin stayed on to respond to the changing needs of the population from crisis to transition - from emergency to recovery. Again, I won’t go on about Merlin’s achievements (though the list is vast).
I will, however, highlight another gross misconception– the misleading assumption that since the war is over, the country is now fine. The war might have ended, but the health needs have never been greater. This became
apparent as I candidly spoke with Florence, a proud Kenyan who works as Merlin’s Health Coordinator in Monrovia, overseeing the operation of 7 clinics and 3 health center. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the Maternal Mortality Rate in Liberia has practically doubled since the end of the war (from 556/100,000 to a staggering 994/100,000!) How could this be? Teenage pregnancy, as Florence explained, rose dramatically during the war, as so many were left homeless and hungry. You see, with such a vast population living in poverty, many young women turned to prostitution to buy food to feed their families, which in turn led to a spike in pregnancy rates and inevitably led to more maternal diseases and deaths, as so many have been delivering at home without birth attendants. Just stop and consider this vicious cycle for a second. Poverty leads to hunger, which leads to prostitution which in turn leads to teenage pregnancy and culminates in either death or back to an even greater level of poverty. This is why Merlin is still here and will continue to be here, training midwives and other vital health workers, in a country that currently only has about 200
nurses and 50 doctors... My apologies if this blog is not consistent with my usual ebullient ways.
Oh, and Malaria… It is estimated that between 40 and 50% of the country’s deaths are due to malaria. Just stop and think about that for a second. Almost half of the population dies from a purely preventable disease. In some places, such as the desolate, mosquito-infested area around Arthington clinic, that rate can go up to 90%.
Yet despite these numbers and despite the conditions, Liberians are fighting on and this resilience shows in the smiles and genuine friendliness which seems to permeate from every interaction I’ve had so far. Genuinely selfless people who are working tirelessly to get out of this vicious cycle – such as Moses, our driver who speaks French fluently (from his time spent in Guinea, where he fled to during the war), or any of the other Merlin staff across the country who are eternally grateful, despite the seemingly inevitable harsh conditions. I want to write more. I want to describe each of these interactions and how much they mean to me, but I can’t seem to find the right words. I’m exhausted – physically
drained, and frankly tired of witnessing such injustices… At the end of the day, the somewhat gratifying notion that Merlin is making a difference in these people’s lives allows me to selfishly sleep in my comfortable air-conditioned room.
And what about the estimated 100,000 refugees coming across from the Ivory Coast, seeking refuge, safety, food and the gleam of hope for a better life. It's strange in a way how this seems, once again, to be a sort of reverse migration. Thousands of Liberians had fled to the Ivory Coast during Charles Taylor’s bloody regime and now, less than a decade later, Liberia (still licking its wounds) unconditionally steps up to help its neighbors - a true paradigm of humanity.
Yes, Life IS a challenge… But there is so much more to it, and this beautiful, complex country is living proof. I promise to do my best to write a more personal (and uplifting) entry next…
Tot: 2.283s; Tpl: 0.051s; cc: 23; qc: 120; dbt: 0.0824s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.7mb