Monday, May 28, 2007

a bend in the path

is post is about a bend in a heart and a bend in a path. The events following my encounter with a bent heart were astonishing; the events following my journey around the slight curve were tormenting.

the bent heart

17 hours ago I started out my morning, slightly tired. It was day 11 of clinical and administrative meetings with a number of individuals from headquarters. Three fellow clinicians and myself, our county director, five members from our sister site in DRC, two members from our sister site in Sierra Leon and six members from HQ just completed a 6 day clinical retreat at Thinkers Village, a local beachside hotel. It was six days of meetings, de-briefings, break-out groups, and problem solving. Back at our district sites we were playing host as well as subordinate; while serving fu fu and mango shakes we were being evaluated and quizzed about our work. Thankfully the evaluation was not on the diversity of our cuisine because rice and mangos are about the only option we currently have – as our cook humbly says every morning – “the market is dry.” To add to the blurring of boundaries that occur when you are feeding your boss, our supervisors were staying with us in our home and we had to plan outings and social activities so they could go home with eclectic memories of West Africa. By day 10 everyone had left for their respective homes aside from our clinical supervisor - so Sharon and I prepped for our last big last hurdle.

We planned to get our supervisor out to visit our project activities and remote field sites. On site we showed her our programming, groups, community activities. On this final morning it was my turn to showcase our activities. The plan was as follows: I would take her to our three district sites (45 and 55 and 125 minutes away respectively). We would attend groups and then continue on to Dukku to attend a GBV (Gender Based Violence) Task Force Meeting. After that we would facilitate a case conference with our counselors working in Mossorado County.

After waiting 25 minutes for our admin assistant, Sam Ponnie, (an uninformed addition to our caravan who needed to run home and pack for an overnight training with the database representative from HQ), we managed to depart for the first site with only a 30 minute delay. We arrived in Belefanai 25 minutes late for the start of a women’s group. Fortunately the women were just starting to gather. We joined the woman in a small empty room in a house that was half built with no roof. We placed straw mats on the floor and took off our shoes at the makeshift entrance. As we sat on the floor we smiled at the few women who were present; the peer support counselors busied themselves with preparations and calling for the other group members. Five minutes later I was in a small room filled with 16 women (6 more than had originally singed up for the group but women who reported serious trauma nonetheless). Seven of the women were nursing babies. One question presented itself, do we start as is or do we turn the uninvited ones away? The new additions expressed a genuine desire to attend and understood the parameters of the group, so we acquiesced. With one quick glance at their desperate faces we kept them all in the packed room and planned to break the group up into two the following week.

Sitting side by side with nursing mothers and the local counselors I felt honored to be involved but also knew my skin color was striking. We went around the room and did brief introductions and talked about “a good memory.” They women (all strangers to me) called me Gomah, referencing the Kpelle name I had been gifted a few weeks prior by the village community leader I had spoke with get to permission to work in the village. Apparently Gwen is not a familiar name in Liberia and due to the fact it was difficult for him to wrap his month around it, he stared at me for a second placed his hand on his chin and simple stated – I will call you Gomah. These women had apparently been informed. It was clearly a complement and I accepted the gift willingly. With this new information I proceeded to say, “Ya un, cu man y? na ba Gomah.” (Good morning, how are you coming along? My name is Gomah.)

The fond memory activity was easy for some but remarkably difficult for others. Life is hard in Liberia and good memories can be difficult to access for those who have shut themselves off from the past. Even the possibility of feeling vulnerable feels like a weakness and access point for exploitation. But, one woman proudly raised her hand and wanted to be the first to share. I took one look at her and wondered why she had even joined this group. She had a glow to her and a sparkle in her eye and she seemed about as out of place as me. Her story quickly dismantled my confusion.

** Hawatu was a widow and the mother of 2 children; a girl, age 5 and a boy, age 7. Three months ago she had sent her children to Monrovia to live with their auntie so they could attend a better school. It was hard for her to let them go but she believed she was making the best choice for their future. Horrifyingly, a few days after the children arrived, they went missing. There were rumors that the children had been kidnapped by a cult group practicing black magic that needed human organs for ju-ju sacrifices. Young children are typically the first to go missing for such practices and they are vulnerable and common targets in the markets.

Given I told you we were talking about “good memories” I’m sure you can image what I am about to say next and you would be correct and the story of their return is moving. Hawatu’s little ones were so sad and so desperate to be back with their mother that after arriving in Monrovia they decided to walk home, a 350 mile journey. They each packed a little sack with mangos and grumpy nuts and walked right out of big bad Monrovia for what ended up being a three month journey.

These two small but determined children had been frequently stopped along the way. Each time there were stopped they were fortunate enough to run into a Good Samaritan who took them into their own home to care for them. On more than one occasion Hawatu’s children were mistakenly assumed to be confused “orphans” living in a fantasy that their mother was still alive but in reality they were in desperate need of caretakers. After a few days or even weeks with these kind strangers, Howatu’s little ones would pack up their sacks and once again and start walking home. They arrived the evening before our group session. Hawatu was beside herself with joy, relief and pride.

the bent path

The story of the bend in the path is much less touching, but it was part of my day nonetheless and it captured the elusive nature of safety and happiness here in Liberia. Following the close of the group, we packed up the Land Cruiser and headed due west on a dirt road. After a few miles, we hit a rare patch of pavement. Even though it is a reprise on one’s back to be off the dirt roads, you quickly are struck by the speed in which all the vehicles start to move. We turned a corner and then another and then we noticed a gathering up a head and were forced to slow down. Upon approach we realized there had been an accident and before I had time to prepare I saw two small children, one girl and one boy (ages 9 and 14 respectively) broken, bloody and deceased on the pavement. It was horrifying and called for a moment of silence but this moment was not granted because in the second it took to look up, we realized something very scary was happening. The truck that had hit these children had turned off the road and was driving through the bush. Young men and teenage boys in the area quickly gathered and began chasing the run away vehicle. People were screaming and police sirens were coming but it was evident their arrival would be too late. The children were gone and it was clear some locals had decided the fate of the driver. There was nothing we could do so we simply pulled off the side of the road and continued. Linda and I started to cry, our driver began to fidget nervously and blasted the world news filled with the horrors of the Middle East and other parts of Africa, and Sam Ponnie turned up the volume on the I-Pod I had lent him and quietly started singing.

Accidents happen everywhere but the violent response of the community shook me to my core and put me in an existential funk for the remainder of the trip. Can a nation with such a reflexive violent reaction to tragic events be reprogrammed? At what point have things simply gone too far? My mind racing, fatigue taking hold, I gazed out the window and was ironically struck with an image of police barracks - unlivable to most, filled with poorly paid men with dirty uniforms they wore on and off the clock with entrenched expectations of bribes, arrests being something the accuser pays for, convictions being rare and fleeting.

I turned to Sam Ponnie and asked if he ever felt disheartened, given the situation we just experienced, if he felt his work, and the work of other honest hark working patriots like himself, amounted to something. He didn’t glace over at my question. He remained focused on his hands, inspecting his nails. “No,” he answered, “I believe change is a constant and the fighting has stopped. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” This stock phrase would have been empty, elsewhere. But here the words carried strange weight, for it was possible to feel, in Liberia, what it would take to transform a society, to build a new civilization. The immensity of the task was palpable. Looking around it appeared that there is a relentless burden on the shoulders of men like Sam Ponny, a constant resistance to every step, for anyone who aimed at even a part of such change. My shoulders felt too weak, my lungs too shallow, to contemplate it.

** names in all my tales are changed for their protection and confidentiality.

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