Small Romeo

The biggest complaint in all the police stations we visited was lack of funding for transport and basic furnishings. The policemen often don’t have enough money to hire a motorcycle taxi to go to crime scenes, and one policeman apologised that they didn’t have enough chairs in the station for us all to sit on. There were five of us.

But he was proud of the businesslike way they had developed their own police jargon – ‘Romeo,’ he told us, was code for ‘rape’. There are so many people hanging around police stations that they don’t like to broadcast the news if there is an accusation of rape.

In our first week, we came to a police station with three little boys – aged nine, ten and 12 – in the Women and Children’s Protection Section. “Small Romeo,” said Robert, our Don Bosco Homes guide. “Are you getting me? Small Romeo”. The policeman behind the desk also looked at us knowingly. The charge on the sheet was “corruption of minor”.

One of the boys looked slightly tearful, another blank, and the third – who said he was 12, but looked much younger – seemed excited by this sudden appearance of white people and beamed at us. He was so taken with us when we all left that he forgot his toy car. The policeman called him back and handed it to him as we left.

At Don Bosco’s Savio Village halfway home, Robert gave the three of us a sheet each to fill in with the boys’ details. It was difficult, partly because of the Liberian English, and partly because we were nervous about the sensitivity of the case.

Some details emerged: they were on the way to or from the water pump; there was a building nearby; there was a man involved – possible the uncle of one of them.

The next day we were leaving for a week in Gbarnga, but when we returned, we asked what had happened. We heard a confusing story. The three boys had been returned to their families and there was to be no charge brought; the community would deal with the incident. Our first reaction was of outrage: surely this couldn’t be fair?

Robert took us out for a full day following up different cases. The last one was to visit the three in the Small Romeo case. We met the two aged nine and ten in a dingy half-constructed building with a huge hole in the floor that the owner had intended for a cesspit, but which was currently lined with rubbish and dirty water. The father of one boy was in a wheelchair; the other boy’s father carried his baby daughter and answered the official questions stony-faced.

The boys were healthy and apparently happy to be back home, we heard. Both fathers had talked to their boys, and the community witnesses said they were behaving normally. Everything seemed comfortable, but we were all thinking of the seriousness of the case, and wondering if one of these men was the ‘uncle’ in the descriptions we’d heard.

The third boy lived in a house almost on the beach. We walked further into the community, through mazy paths and sudden corners, but he wasn’t there. For a moment, we stepped out of a dark alley and savoured the bright sunlight and the fresh sea air. Word had got to the boy and he came to meet us. He was at his Grandmother’s stall back up the road the way we’d come, and he happily walked us back there.

The same questions followed: Was he healthy? Was he happy? Was there anything to be concerned about? His Granny again seemed content that all was well with the boy: he helped carry the stall – selling vegetables and bottles of locally produced gin – out to the main road in the morning and back in the evening. He washed his own clothes, carried water, and cleaned up in the house.

We took a picture of the three of them before we left – again one looked sheepish, one blank and the third one was smiling happily.

Back in the car, we were burning with questions, so we asked Robert to explain the full story. He told us that the three boys had waylaid a girl on her way to the pump and raped her. The ‘uncle’ had caught them. Because they are minors, they can’t be charged, so the best that can be done is for the community – with DBH prompting – to monitor their behaviour and keep them on track as best they can.

“Ah, they are bad boys,” said Robert.

Football – The unifying force…

Football atheism in a land of believers:

Here in Liberia – in this land where everyone believes in something and literally everyone loves football – you get a similar bemused reaction saying you don’t support a Premiership football team that you would if you said you don’t believe in God. One devout worshipper has even embarked on the hopeless task of trying to convert me: promising to email me once a week on our return to England with reasons to support Arsenal.

Yesterday we went along to the final of the African Cup of Nations at the Relda Cinema: a dark cavernous shell of a building that was almost destroyed during the war – everything was looted from inside, including the entire upstairs. All that is left are the red theatre-style seats, most of which don’t fold up, some of which have the springs poking through, and here and there, there is no seat at all. To our surprise there were two games projected onto the huge back wall: the final between Ghana and Egypt and a game between Arsenal and Manchester United.

As people with little to no interest in football, to Michael and I it was like watching a load of brightly coloured ants running around a billiard table. I’d sooner have turned my chair around and watched the audience, who broke up the tediousness with constant screams of support and excitement.

Surprisingly everyone’s attention seemed to be on the English Premiership match rather than the African final: there’s globalisation for you! When there was nothing much happening a man a few seats down simply stood up and shouted delightedly at the screen: “Football, Football!” The enthusiasm of everyone here hasn’t quite succeeded in breaking through my own indifference to the game but I have been impressed to see what a unifying and motivating force football is in Liberia.

I don’t know if there was an official statement released to this effect, but everyone tells you that football in Liberia is “a unifying force”. During our stay, the County Meet – a football tournament between Liberia’s 15 counties – came to a climax, and the final was to be contested between Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties – the two main antagonists in the county’s 14-year civil crisis. Nimba won 2-0, but there was no crowd trouble: county officials shook hands on the pitch before and after the game and fans joined together in one big post-match party. Unlike our Premier League’s over-paid stars, professional footballers in Liberia earn around $40 Liberian per game, so anyone playing football at any level in Liberia can only leave the country to be a success.

Teku Nahn, who toured the UK with the Millennium Stars football team as a teenager in 1999, was top scorer in Liberia with 16 goals before Christmas last year. Callers to radio phone-ins clamoured for his inclusion in the national team. He was invited for a three-month try-out with Cape Town FC in South Africa, which he thinks went very well. He scored in his first game and impressed the coaching staff with his skills and hard work. Now he is waiting for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to be over before finding out whether they will offer him a contract.

If Teku makes it to South Africa it will be a success for the whole Millennium Stars club – a narrow bridge to success that others may be able to follow him across. For those left behind, the focus is shifting from their own dreams to the dreams of others. Now in their fourteenth year – they are engaged in a consultation with team members to transform the football club into a community organisation to be role models to local children and help them develop their talents in music, singing, sport, and especially football.

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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.