Dorothy’s Story

Dorothy is a 20-year-old woman who was born and grew up in Gbarnga, Bong County, in the north of Liberia – the place where we have spent the last week. She is the only person in her family with any sort of education; both her sisters went straight into work. She has graduated from high school and currently attends Cuttington University, a private college located just outside the city of Gbarnga, studying as a trainee nurse. She is determined to reach her dreams so that she can serve her fellow people of Liberia.

The only Catholic in her family, Dorothy is part of the choir at St. Martin’s Cathedral, and it was there where we met her after Mass last Sunday morning. Later on Dorothy took us for a walk round the dusty red streets of Gbarnga and joined us for a Club Beer in a local café. She was relaxed and friendly and confident, and it was only as her story unfolded that we realised how the weight of her family’s expectations lies on her young shoulders.

We met Dorothy after Mass, when we were invited to join about forty young people who are part of the parish’s Catholic Youth Association – a pretty good turn out compared with our churches back home! The Youth Group welcomed us to the parish and their meeting, but also apologised that they wouldn’t be around for a long meeting as the choir leader had died of typhoid the day before, one day after we arrived in Gbarnga, and the group had to leave as they were meeting the bereaved family.

The preparations for the funeral showed us how involved Dorothy and the rest of the young people are in the parish’s activities. The young men of the youth group committed to digging the grave, and the others were involved in organising the wake and other activities relating to the funeral.

It has been refreshing to see how involved the youth are here and how much of a chance they are given by the adults of the community; there is a lot of trust placed in them. Here, youth are defined as anybody between the ages of 15 and 35 and it’s estimated that 60% of the population are in that category. However, it is still sometimes difficult for the youth to have their say partly because young people are often blamed for the recent civil war. But we have heard there are plans that young people will be able to send three representatives to Government to champion the causes of under-35s. For the time being, though, the youth are getting involved with all sorts of activities – from Church groups such as these, to community football teams, to volunteering cleaning the streets.

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Music, food and love…

“Darling, last night you were incredible,” said the woman on the Sassy Bitter advert on the car radio. Sassy Bitter is a beer with remarkable invigorating qualities, it seems, and was later described by one of our Liberian friends as “A beer that makes you sassy,” and that’s all you need to know.

The car radio and tape deck – there are no iPod docking stations in these vehicles – have a profound effect on us as we go from place to place, providing the soundtrack to our adventure. And it’s not just adverts.

The drivers seem to have rules to follow about what songs they should play – a couple of classics have appeared regularly when we’re travelling both with Simeon (Don Bosco Homes, Monrovia) and Flomo (CJPS, Gbarnga). One of our particular favourites has been a Liberian song called “Dependable God” sung in an African gospel style with male and female harmonies… and bizarrely joined in the last few verses by what sounds like the Christian friends of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

There’s also an eight minute anthem featuring the words ‘I’m coming home tomorrow’ sung mournfully over and over, and it begs the question if it makes you that sad, why not go home today?

So much for music; now moving onto food.

Our experiences of Liberian food have, on the whole, been pleasurable – lots of rice and fish. If you like rice and fish, of course! On our first weekend, we ate the Liberian speciality Palm Butter, made from the oil from crushed palm nuts, followed by some delicious pineapple and a delectable chocolate cake. If that was a culinary high spot, last night left us somewhat bemused: we were presented with four whole fish cooked in peanut butter, a plate of raw onion, a large tureen of Cup-A-Soup, green beans, boiled plantain, and three bread buns, which seems a little odd since there are four of us.

Week One we had almost entirely Liberian dishes – cassava leaf, potato greens and groundpea soup – but in Gbarnga, it’s been different. Earlier in the week we had some beautiful pizza, spaghetti bolognaise, and then roast pork and chips!

Music, food … so now for love!

There’s a script waiting to be written for a film probably starring Sandra Bullock as a young woman torn between her vocation to be a missionary and the devotion of a frustrated basketball player. Let’s give them random names. How about … Anna? And … Eric?

In evaluating the visit for future generations, let’s be clear, don’t give out your phone number – no matter how clear you’ve been that you are only here for one month and to work and most definitely NOT looking for romance – unless you want repeated calls from people who say “’sup, Baby?” and texts like this: “Hello Anna I eric from don Bosco new matadi I love you I choose to be my wife.”

Sounds like someone’s been at the Sassy Bitter…

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Another day in the life of Don Bosco Homes… Zoon – “Saved by Grace”

Today, for the first time in our lives we received the generous gift of a live chicken! We were in Old Field, New Georgia, Liberia having just returned Zoon – who we initially thought could have been called Shoe, Sue or Zoo – to his family after he’d been missing for three days. He was welcomed home by the whole community with hysterical relief, singing, dancing and hugging…Two happy Aunties took the opportunity to lift Anna off her feet in their embraces!

It was wonderful to see Zoon so surrounded by love and friends and family and was a contrast to the scared and lonely little boy we picked up at the police station on Monday.

On Monday, we had entered our second and definitely not last police station of the week. We passed down the usual dark corridor to the Women and Children’s Protection Section office where seven-year-old Zoon was waiting with a female investigator. At first he was quiet and it was difficult to get his correct story, never mind his name. What we could be sure of was that he got lost on the way from church on Sunday morning. Over the course of the following three days, the story unfolded. Zoon had been at church and at Sunday School for the small children. It was the birthday of one of the other kids, so they all went to sing Happy Birthday to him. Somehow, Zoon and at least one friend got distracted by a group of people playing drums and followed the music. Zoon wandered off and lost his way, but was fortunately found by a woman called Grace, who took him to the police station.

Zoon’s story is typical of the cases that Don Bosco Homes deals with. We took him to the DBH halfway house in Virginia, an hour out of Monrovia, called Savio Village. Savio Village is home not only to boys waiting to be reunited with their families, but also to children accused of crimes, many more who are victims of crimes, and some who have been retrieved from orphan traffickers. Savio Village gives them the chance to be children again; it gives them a routine, food, basic education and the opportunity to play. It has a homely atmosphere and Zoon settled in quickly – once he was taught “A Sailor Went to Sea, Sea, Sea” it was all he wanted to do, do, do.

Over a couple of days, the DBH staff were busy tracing the family, particularly following leads relating to their Church. By Wednesday, Zoon was ready to be reunited. He was excited and happy, dancing to our driver Simeon’s cassettes in the backseat of the car – a complete contrast to how he was when we met him.

First contact with the family was to take place at a Total Petrol Garage (globalisation at its finest). The whole family travelled to meet us – Mam, Dad, Aunties, Uncles, and friends from the church. They danced, cheered and whooped, and hugged us all, and to our surprise thanked us for returning their lost boy.

Despite the emotion, the process is formal. The handover isn’t official until the child is back at home and their next of kin and a witness from the community have signed a form. DBH’s new social worker Anna Therese McGivern performed the handover. Afterwards, DBH will do a follow-up to check the child’s progress.

The whole community came out to welcome Zoon home under the mango, coconut and other tropical fruit trees, and during a plethora of speeches from Robert from Don Bosco, a family friend and a woman from the Church, we gradually became aware there was a party waiting to happen. But before we could move onto the next call, the crowd parted and a member of the community came forward to present Sasha with a chicken. The ever-resourceful Robert tied its feet with a long piece of grass and put it in the back of the car. “We will eat it with pepper soup,” said Simeon the driver, as we pulled away, leaving the party to get going.

We’re Here!!!

The first day, not only in Liberia, but in the continent of Africa, we end up in the police station; talk about Brits abroad! As we walked into the dark vestibule signs screamed at us not to loiter, stand or wait.

We followed our companion quickly up the marble staircase, our feet echoing around the hall.

Heading towards a dark room at the end of the long corridor, we passed numerous interview rooms, some of them full, some of them half-full but all were willing to interrupt their detection to give us a cheery wave as we walked past.

We arrived in a room with the sign “WACPS”: which contrary to our momentary fear that the department had something to do with WASPs, turned out to be the Women and Childrens’ Protection Service.

In the room a group of people were gathered casually around a black and white telly watching a Liberian soap- it wasn’t quite what we expected of the police headquarters.

We were there with CAFOD’s partner Don Bosco Homes who are the leading child protection service who work with underprivileged children. They have close links with the police and were there to help out a teenager who had got into some kind of trouble and were going to arrange counselling.

In only two days, the visit to the police station wasn’t the only thing we’ve accomplished: we’ve eaten mountains of rice, shoals of fish and flocks of chickens, we’ve seen lizards for the first time, plodged (or paddled to those from the South) twice in the Atlantic Ocean, watched a football match played at full speed on a pitch that resembled a sandy minefield, and been on the receiving end of several speeches welcoming us to the country and then had a go accepting those welcomes in kind.

Lots of the things we’ve experienced here are things we have at home, but with a Liberian twist – and that’s not just the rice. When we arrived at Mass, the street outside the church was full of cars – all of them 4 by 4s, jeeps, landrovers showing the make-up of the congregation.

In a sermon about Jesus’ baptism, the priest found out that not one person in the church was baptised before 1960. At the end, a parishioner reading the parish notices asked first-time visitors and those returning after a long time away to stand up and be clapped.

The welcome we had in the parish was emblematic of the welcomes we have received everywhere in Monrovia – a mixture of feeling slightly conspicuous but at the same time warmly included.

Our introduction to Africa has been full, vibrant and warm – in every sense, given the 30 degree heat, and we’re all excited to see how the rest of the month unfolds.

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