Newspaper Column 2

Trip Start Dec 2006
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Trip End Dec 2006


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Flag of Liberia  ,
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

"Praise God, thank you Jesus," he said when got into the car.  "Praise God, thank you Jesus," he said again when he stopped the car and got out. 
 
John Kpewoan has good reason to thank God over and over again when he gets in and out of his pickup here in Liberia.  Monrovia is far and away the scene of the most chaotic auto dance that I've been privileged to take part in.   Swarms of houseflies act in more predictable patterns than the traffic in Monrovia.
 
"You see all of deese poles?" John leans across me and points out my window as I sit in the passenger seat with a white-knuckle grip on the door handle.  "We used to have power all over da country."  I tentatively peek out and see the poles at odd angles with strings of power lines dangling into the grass beneath them.  He's talking about his country sixteen years ago, before two civil wars and one of the twentieth century's most notorious political thugs ripped it apart. 
 
300,000 people died and a full third of Liberia's population fled to neighboring West African countries during the wars that began in the early 1980's, and ended with Charles Taylor's exile in 2003.  The stories of mutilations, executions, and torture captivated the media in 2003, and are now being retold in the movie, "Blood Diamond," which takes place in neighboring Sierra Leone where Taylor's brutality spilled over.
 
"But tings are getting better," said John.  And he's right, albeit in degrees.  Even though 85% of the population is unemployed and illiterate (wandering about in traffic during much of the day it seems), no one is shooting anyone any more.  And Liberia is now governed by a democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
 
"Sirleaf has a zero-tolerance policy on corruption," John said calmly after slamming on the breaks and veering to the left to avoid a casual pedestrian woman with what looked like a laundry basket full of fish balanced on her head.  "Der is still many bad people out der from da war dat have to be brought to justice.  She'll find dem eventually."
 
I'm in Liberia for two weeks working for God's Kids with some of the thousands of orphans that are the product of war.  Some of these kids watched their parents die in front of them.  Some, it is said, were forced to kill their parents themselves before joining the war as a child soldier. 
 
Violence and corruption have brought hundreds of countries and empires to their knees over the course of history.  But what has impressed me most in the week that I've been here is the strength of this nation's legs.  The people are tired of corruption; they are overwhelmingly unified, more so than any other point in their history as I understand it; and each person that I talk with is extraordinarily optimistic.
 
When I asked a man what he loved most about his country, he said, "I love Liberia because we are free.  If we work hard, have faith in God, we will make it alright."
 
There are thousands of people living in mud-brick shacks with a dirt floor, and nothing but a metal tub in a fire pit for cooking, bathing, and washing clothes.  But nobody is complaining.  When I say hello and ask, "How are you?" they always begin with "Oh, I am blessed." 
 
Anyone under the age of 25 is fixated on getting an education.  They want to be a nurse, a lawyer, a pastor, or anything else that will help their country (I might suggest that someone establish a Cal Trans. equivalent).  I'm eager to see the new Liberia that will emerge from the ashes of war.  "You come back in two years, and dis will be a different place," said John Kpewoan. 
 
With his right hand honking the car horn intermittently to warn pedestrians that he's approaching, John weaves me through the streets of Monrovia.  Thousands of people are selling anything they think people might buy so they can feed themselves and their family.  Based on the people I've talked with this week, things won't be like this forever.  The children that I'm working with today will be the leaders of Liberia in a very short time.  They are the legs that the country is standing up on.
 
Until then, I'll buckle my seat belt, get a good grip on the car handle, and do my best to engage in casual conversation.
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