I am already behind on my aim to write a daily post from Liberia. Upon arrival we hit the ground running with very little time to stop and because there is so much that I want to share about my experience here, I get overwhelmed trying to write it down!
I will try and keep it to one thing a day (maybe two if I can’t pick, which is way more likely) but perhaps over the next few weeks, I will be able to get down in words more of my experience here. Words can’t do justice to so much of the experience here, but I will do my best.
Arriving at the airport on Monday, it was amazing to be warmly greeted by familiar faces and meet many new people including other members of this trip for the Level the Field Campaign. The aim of the trip is to showcase the Right to Play program here in Liberia, share their stories and demonstrate how the programs here are leveling the field for kids in this country.
Even for this first post, I am going to break my aim of focusing on one aspect and share two things. First, the story of a volunteer named Keifala and second, my first trip back to West Point.
I had heard Keifala’s story was incredible but hearing him share it, incredible was an understatement (there is no way that I will be able to do it justice here, realistically I can only give a small portion of it). Keifala had just finished high school when the civil war reached a point where he had to leave out of fear of being captured and forced by rebel soldiers to join their fight, like many his age experienced. As a result, he entered a refugee camp in Sierra Leone. He had been training to be a teacher so in the camp he started working with school-like groups and heard that a program called Right To Play was in the camp.
He was first introduced to Right to Play in the refugee camp and got his training certificate there, something he explains as an empowering and proud moment for him. In 2003 when the ceasefire was signed, he was among the first to migrate back to Liberia and settled in Clara Town and as a volunteer started running RTP programs in his local community. When he later discovered there was a national office for RTP in Liberia, he went and introduced himself and became one of their strongest advocates and community leaders. Fast forward a few years, the funding for the RTP project ended and when Keifala heard this, he created the organization Restoring Our Children’s Hope, a volunteer coaching program that would continue to implement play for education within local communities, with local leaders and facilitators. When RTP received CIDA funding and were able to stay in Liberia, they partnered with ROCH as program implementers because of their vast connection with local leaders. Today, ROCH has over 3000 volunteers across Liberia implementing play for education programs.
What really struck me while listening to this story is that Keifala is around my age. The civil war only ended about a decade ago. While I was in high school, kids my age were being captured by opposing forces, kids were being displaced from their homes into refugee camps and kids were being separated from their families. On the other side of the world, I had no idea. While playing with kids and asking their ages, speaking with youths at youth forums, I can’t help but think of what they have gone through in their lives.
One of the first visits we made was to West Point. We arrived at the field where the session was going to take place and were greeted by many RTP coaches and volunteers, including a few that I had met last time I was here. The play session was, as always, fun. You see the joy and happiness that the kids get from being included and hear the discussions that take place after the games, you can’t help but become fully engaged (it doesn’t hurt that each of us had about a half dozen kids come and grab our hands and usher us into the group). Some games were familiar, some games brand new but all with the few resources that they had. When the session was done, the coaches yelled something (that amidst the yells of the kids I missed completely) but all 250 students started booking it down the alleyways. A group of kids grabbed hold of my arms and I was swept up in the crowd navigating through the narrow alleys between the shanti houses. I literally had no idea where they were taking me until a few minutes later we reached the school that had been newly built for them.
After visiting the school, we joined some of the community leaders and they showed us around their community, something that we had not had as much of an opportunity to do last time I was here. I spent the majority of the time chatting with Emanuel, one of the volunteers who is a teacher at one of the local schools. He shared with me more about his community, his school and pointed out the different areas. They walked us down to the beach. The sand that was there had been once covered by more dwellings but a few years ago, the dwellings were wiped out by particularly high tides. We walked along the beautiful beach and saw some people fishing, a group of women crowded in the shade of a boat, some young boys swimming… It was a truly beautiful sight. The water was very inviting in the 40 degree heat after running around. I kept walking with Emanuel and looked to the other side where there was an inland small pond/lake that connected to the ocean by a narrow stream of water.
On the other side of pond, there were a number of structures that looked much like the dwellings but that were built over the water and Emanuel asked me if I knew what they were. I said no. He explained that people had built these structures as latrines for the community and charged 5 Liberian dollars to use them. Talking about it later, Sarah, the member of RTP Canada who is traveling with us pointed out that for a family with 4 kids (less than average likely), and estimating that they would go to the bathroom twice a day, this would cost $1 (US) a day. Rent for a space in West Point is $10 (US) a month. The average income for a family in that community is far less.
Very few parts of the world live like we do in North America. I think that it is so important to remember that and also to teach our kids back home. Here in West Point, going to the bathroom is something you do in public and they do not have the luxury of toilets. We saw kids bathing in small buckets. Many kids walk around with only a shirt or pair of shorts and many walk around alone. It is a fishing community and that is how they survive but the government is planning to relocate the citizens of West Point elsewhere where they will not have access to their main source of livelihood.
Some people asked what the point of our trip to Liberia was. I know I am very lucky to have the opportunity to be here and have these experiences but I am also hoping that those of us on the trip here for Level the Field will be able to share the stories of people like Keifala and Emanuel, of RTP and the communities here so that, unlike me in high school, students learn about different places in our world and how people live every day.