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Published: August 14th 2012
Happy Birthday Liberia!
Celebratory dances before the official Independence Day program starts in downtown Monrovia.
The week after my last blog was one of those landmark weeks. One of those in which everything that happened seemed serendipitously planned and you cannot wipe the smile off your face or the sense of satisfaction from your heart; when, if you take a second to just stop and look around, you wonder how you ended up here. It was the moment in which, even though you’ve been comfortable in your new place for weeks, in seems like someone flipped a switch and you suddenly feel home— you finally get the public transportation; you know the potholes to avoid on the road; you have your favorite market for the best avocados; your preferred tailor is programmed into your phone; local restaurant employees notice when you change your hair.
It really all started that Tuesday, when, after not feeling great for a day or so, I took myself to a clinic and was diagnosed with malaria. (I promise it gets better than this.)
While of course it sucks to have malaria, I fortunately caught it very early and everything was just fine. All I had to do
Where I confirmed that I had malaria
was sleep a lot and take three days of meds. Many others wind up at the hospital with medicines administered through IV, so I was grateful that my case was mild. It was also very interesting to go through the clinic experience in Liberia, observing their record-keeping processes and facilities. The one I went to was recommended for expats, but things are certainly still rudimentary and it was a great learning experience. It was also sort of a rite of passage, like getting the tires on your new truck dirty from a good day of off-roadin’.
After getting Wednesday off from work due to my condition, the weekend was pretty much already underway, as Thursday was July 26th
, or the 165th
Liberian Independence Day. Friends’ festivities, pool and dance parties, and karaoke nights started Wednesday since everyone had Thursday off. Late that night, a colleague called me with an extra ticket to Thursday’s official government Independence Day program, to which my office did not initially get tickets, so I was excited to grab it!
So, on Thursday morning, I joined numerous other Liberian government employees, guests,
Newspaper given out with the program
diplomats, and other politicians (including President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone) at the Centennial Pavilion in downtown Monrovia for a formal, protocol-ridden ceremony and celebration! While four hours of protocol was borderline too long, I found it fascinating to hear the speeches by the country’s official National Orator (a former Minister), see some of the traditional dances and songs, and hear Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf speak (as short as it was).
For me, there were two highlights: one was this amazingly crazy, random citizen woman— I’ll call her Ms. Liberia, the name she wanted— who was dressed up in fantastically patriotic costume and inserted herself into almost every other official act in the program, walking down the aisle and up to the President as if she was part of the show and taking in all the attention like a queen. Everyone cheered for her every time. (See my picture with her!) The second was the performance of “Peace in the Mano River Basin,” a song celebrating the four countries in the region, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast, which was sung beautifully and just festive in a very unifying way
This lady was hilarious and just got into every part of the Official Program
as flag bearers from the four countries walked through the building.
The weirdest part? When a group of Korean teenagers from the “South Korean International Dance Team” performed for the officials on stage— the groups’ relationship to Liberia or to the administration was unclear, and the dance itself was laughably cheesy. At one point, as I was sitting in the audience, one of the ushers asked if I was part of “the Asian dance team.” I politely made sure that she understood I was not.
After all the pomp and circumstance at the official program, it was time to party! Fellow colleagues from my building and I decided to attend the invitation reception at City Hall just to grab free food and had planned to leave immediately to meet up with other friends. Little did we know that it would be one of the most fun and best memories in Liberia! We were pretty much the only non-Liberians there, and the women— in their lappa-best (traditional Liberian wear)— just loved to grab us to dance with them. Before long, we were participating in congo lines, London
Bridge lines, and breaking down with the DJ (interestingly, even at official government events, they still only play the same few songs; namely, those by P2
and Azonto, interspersed with “Happy Birthday to Liberia”).
After a few hours, we were about to head out when we see the foyer fill up with reporters and bodyguards— Her Excellency was coming! She was making her rounds at the various government parties and had finally made it to City Hall. After a bit more dancing (not with her, unfortunately— she just came in and sat down in the room after making a few greetings), a colleague who works with her took us over to be introduced. We shook her hand, took the requisite photo (see here), and went back to dancing. That was the end of my Presidential engagement (or so I thought, more later).
After finally leaving the party at City Hall, hanging out at a friend’s pool for awhile, and meeting up with other interns at a billiards hall, a bunch of us made the spontaneous decision to attend the Azonto concert in town that night (which
The crew that got me a ticket!
Colleagues from government and NGO's
was supposed to have started at 4:30p, but it was already 7:30p and it was reported that the performers had not even come on stage yet— Liberian time!). Even though this made for my longest day ever (especially because I was virtually the only one not taking advantage of the open bar situations everywhere due to my malaria situation), it was probably one of the best decisions ever. About seven of us crammed into a cab to the stadium, where we bargained and paid $15 for $50 VIP seats, and spent the rest of the night cheering for and dancing to musicians we didn’t know and seeing Azonto perform one song only in a dance-off contest. If you’re unfamiliar, you must watch their video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTUIlOudlHI); they basically taught people how to move to this dance and it was the only song they performed, over and over again, and somehow the fans were still screaming and it was spectacular every time!
All of the above, and I still managed to be home before midnight. Operation: Happy Independence Day, complete.
The next day, I went in for a
half-day of work at the Philanthropy Secretariat, but most of all, spent the day in eager anticipation for the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics! Now, I’m pretty obsessed with the Olympics and just love watching it and all its associated commercials every four years, so without TV in our home or the ability to stream it live online, I was worried about how I would fare over the next two weeks. That night, though, friends and I gathered at a bar with satellite TV and sat there for the next five hours as the Summer Games kicked off live. Before we knew it, the entire place was full of expats— mostly other fellow summer interns from many different schools and our fellow colleagues— all shaking our heads in united bewilderment as the English show and humor unfolded before us. I don’t think I had ever watched the Olympics ceremonies with more international folks than that night, so it was fun to cheer for everyone’s countries as the athletes marched in! Post-Olympics, the night continued through dancing and clubbing until it ended in satisfyingly cheesy and delicious pizza at 3:30am, as it was the last Friday and weekend in Liberia
for many of us, including me, who would leave some time over the next week.
The next day, on my last Saturday, I joined a friend and her Liberian colleague to peruse the infamous markets of Waterside in downtown Monrovia, where you can buy anything from universal battery chargers and dust pans to lingerie and baby formula (see photos of the markets). Waterside is always a blast and we had a particularly successful trip: my goal was to find two good lappa designs and get it to a specific tailor that would make a distinct type of dress and skirt for me and pants for Michael. My friend’s goal was to commission a complex job with many types of lappa designs on t-shirts. Lappa is basically printed material that’s sold in rolls across endless stores in Waterside; ladies use them to wrap around their waists and heads as everyday wear, or bring them to one of many great and inexpensive tailors to make customized traditional Liberian clothing. Our excursion was efficient, we found an amazing tailor that came highly recommended, and got great deals. I just love wandering through the hectic stalls, not
unlike how I love shopping through the messy rows of outlet stores’ discount racks.
After Waterside, we attended the St. Peter’s Massacre Memorial in the evening, which was quite a contrast to the immense celebrations across the country over the last few days. The 1990 St. Peter's Massacre
was one of the most brutal attacks during the civil war, wherein Liberian soldiers killed over 600 unarmed refugees that had been hiding out in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and school. The fact that it occurred in a place of worship and safety was particularly heartbreaking; that it happened right there, in a church that has now been restored and is open for regular service only four blocks away from where I lived in Sinkor and that I pass by everyday, made it downright chilling. While words of hope and learnings from the mistakes of the past were shared, photos of the massacre and a live testimony from a survivor kept it solemn and emotional for many. I cannot describe how powerful the choir was. They were one of the most talented I’ve ever heard for certain, but in addition to singing songs, they also provided what
I can only describe as very effective background sound effects to the entire agenda— whether it was during the photo slideshow, a poem reading, or the candlelight vigil at the end, everyone hummed and swayed so softly, yet so profoundly and at exactly the right time, that it seemed as if the air was whispering to you as it blew past, enveloping you in the memory of those lost.
Through all the speeches and sermons, there was one particular part that really stuck out to me and which I think epitomizes how so many people feel: After referencing the stats and photos from the massacre, one of the Church leaders simply said: “We are not this. Liberia is not this, and we cannot let ourselves ever be this.”
The chorus of “amens” and grunts that agreed with him immediately made me realize how crazy it is that these people right around me— my coworkers and drivers and nearly everyone who I see on the streets— have witnessed “this.” Almost all of those eyes have seen such brutality and have memories of hiding out or being forced
to pick up weapons or losing family members in random slaughtering. It’s a wonder that they’ve been able to move on in what is, relative to a lifetime of necessary healing, a very short time. It also made me think of what’s happening in Syria right now and wonder how other countries can continue in civil strife when the world has seen time and again, in Liberia and elsewhere, how deep the losses and scars of civil wars are. We are all humans and we are simply not this.
The memorial’s dual tone of a hopeful tomorrow shielding a bitter past carried into the rest of my last week. At work on Monday, the Philanthropy Secretariat office had a meeting with Madame President Johnson Sirleaf. I did not know until my boss got in that morning that I and everyone else in our office would also be attending (I had thought it would just be my boss). It was meant to be an update on the conclusion of the office’s pilot program and proposed steps and requests for the future. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was at least a
little cool to walk through what is essentially Liberia’s West Wing into the Presidential boardroom and sit in the meeting with the President. She was in a good mood that day and had positive feedback and comments, and again it was mentioned how Liberia is continuously rebuilding and still growing from what it experienced. We talked about corruption and how the perception of it— real or not (though much of it real, unfortunately, at least for now)— is hurting incoming philanthropy dollars to Liberia and the need to create a new Liberian success story to replace the world’s current story of the country. Yet again, a hopeful and exciting time, yet often overshadowed by darker tones.
That night, friends and I went to a very delicious local restaurant featuring Ivorian food that was supposedly closed on Mondays, but when they saw us coming, they opened their doors and fired up the grill. The food was unspeakably delicious, but it took over two hours from the time of my ordering to arriving at our table. This is not an exaggeration—literally over two hours and we were the guests for whom they opened up. The
entire thing was a perfect symbol for what has been one of my greatest takeaways from Liberia: If you knock on their door, they’re more than happy to open up and let you in and even give you great service, and importantly, you’ll highly enjoy it; it just might take awhile because they’re still growing, just leaving some infancy stages and learning to progress to the next, and that just takes some time. If you are patient, the fried fish and cassava are soooo delicious at the end.
And that Monday night was the cap to one amazing, beautiful week.
(See the rest of the photos on next couple pages.)
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