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Published: April 7th 2011
Anthony is a gregarious Liberian who has experienced more in 30 years than most people do in a lifetime. Forced to flee Liberia at an early age, he escaped with his family to neighborhood Guinea, where he obtained an education, interrupted by bouts of civil unrest, and eventually came back to Liberia a few years ago. He is now married and has a beautiful daughter in Monrovia, where he works as a Driver.
Today, I find myself walking while exchanging stories with Anthony on a remote, white sandy beach in Robertsport, a sleepy town in Northern Liberia, just a few miles from the Sierra Leone border. Captivated by the conversations, I forget all about my sandals, which I seem to have left behind somewhere. After a few minutes of searching for the misplaced footwear, it becomes clear to me that this is an exercise in futility. I’ve lost my sandals… so it goes. Seemingly concerned with this innocuous discovery, Anthony takes off his own shoes, without a single hint of hesitation. “Take MY shoes,” he says to me emphatically, as he immediately places his sandals in my hands. And that was it. Despite, my ineffective attempts to politely decline, I
soon found myself walking back towards the car in Anthony’s (comfortable) shoes.
Though this is only a mere anecdotal display of selflessness, it helps me to capture the bigger (albeit generalized) picture – to place West African values in perspective. I have often remarked, throughout my travels, that the people with the least often times give you the most. It seems that despite the harsh and varied conditions that impenitently menace the many dignified people I have met around the world, one unifying theme holds true: OF THE LITTLE THERE IS, ALL IS SHARED. From families perpetually facing famine and dislocation to communities plagued by civil war and natural disasters, I can’t seem to find a single exception to this observation.
But it goes beyond these reactive acts of kindness. Allow me to symbolically “walk” you through my reasoning… Take for example, a remote community in Grand Bassa County, where MERLIN has set up a primary health care clinic, serving a population of about 6,800 people. Upon first impression, this clinic looked very similar in size, structure and layout as the other 80 health facilities supported by MERLIN throughout Liberia. From the tidy consultation room to the well-organized
dispensary, it feels familiar, which I like (etching the health care system one step closer to sustainability). What is different however, is what lies just outside the clinic. As I look around the bucolic surroundings, I notice what looks to be a newly-erected structure, still in construction. I ask Yeanee, the Officer in Charge, what this project pertains to and she proudly explains that because so many expecting mothers around the community have to walk such long distances in the blistering sun, a number of unsolicited volunteers got together to build a maternal waiting room – a safe place where these soon-to-be mothers can spend the night before or after seeing Merlin’s Midwife. With this simple structure in place, it encourages more consistent visits throughout a woman's pregnancy - a vital key in improving maternal health in Liberia.
I’m afraid I don’t do this endeavor justice... This is truly incredible. Community volunteers, driven purely by their own goodwill, and not by any sort of monetary incentives, have recognized the intrinsic value of health care, especially prenatal and neonatal consultations as a tool to combat Liberia’s appalling maternal mortality rate. Cognizant of the grim reality – the fact that women
often have to walk up to 20 hours in the sun to access a clinic (and therefore all too often deliver at home and consequently face the high risk of pregnancy-related complications and deaths), these volunteers are making all the difference. I’m not only impressed and inspired by this unrestrained display of humanitarianism, but also proud to believe in the same cause, despite our cultural differences. This moment of appreciation got me thinking… In the West, it seems, we often celebrate and embrace the past – we look for ways to remember and immortalize certain fleeting moments; while in West Africa, most look to the future, to forget the atrocities of the past. Well today, it becomes clear that humanity lies in accepting life...not as it was, but as IT IS.
Generosity, as we have learned to appreciate, leads to unadulterated satisfaction. In that sense, we can all practice our own spontaneous acts of kindness and, loosely speaking, humanitarianism. Easy enough. But compassion, as James Orbinski explains in “An Imperfect Offering,” “leads not simply to pity, but to solidarity.” And this solidarity, he goes on, means “recognizing the dignity and autonomy of others and asserting the right of others
to make choices about their own destiny.” Humanitarianism is therefore more than medical efficiently or technical competence… It seeks to relieve the immediacy of suffering and, in doing so, brings people together. It suffices to say that these community volunteers, who are building that maternal waiting room, are true humanitarians, working unreservedly, in the face of a daunting sense of destiny, to create a space to be human.
Alas, my time in Liberia is over for now. En route to the airport, as I retrospectively think about all that we have seen and everyone that we have met, I experiment yet another powerful demonstration of West African kindness. Marbey, one of Merlin’s Program Manager, with whom we had bonded and shared laughs and stories over the past week, gave each of us hand-woven traditional African shirts as souvenirs to take home. Throughout the trip, we had all been impressed with Marbey’s stylish wardrobe and commented on how much we particularly liked his shirts. When we offered to reimburse him for the purchases, which clearly amounted to a substantial portion of his modest salary (not to mention the fact that he went out of his way on his only day
off), Marbey almost looked offended. In Sierra Leone (his home country), as is the case with the rest of West Africa, he explained, the concept of paying someone back in cash is nonsense. Instead, you remember and one day, you return that good deed, wherever, whenever and however. You can be sure that I’ll never forget it… I’ll never forget any of it.
In “A way of being Free,” Ben Okri reminds us that “we have not yet discovered what it means to be human. And it seems that this ordinary discovery is the most epiphanic that can be made – for when we have learnt what it is to be human, when we have suffered it, and loved it, we will know our true estate, we will know what it means to be free, and we will know that freedom is really the beginning of our mutual destinies."
Admittedly, I will never know what it truly feels like to walk in Anthony’s shoes. Thanks to the time I spent with him, Marbey and the rest of the MERLIN family though, I‘ll walk away from this experience, one step closer to understanding the complexities of humanity.
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