November 13th, in the Catholic Hospital in Monrovia a trouble maker came screaming into this world around 8pm. My mother was still married to my Sierra Leonian Dad and the Liberian war was a year away. The years ahead will consist of fleeing to neighboring countries for refuge, growing up in tropical weather, trading my rice for cookies and eventually settling into the United States. Somewhere between bullets and fleeing, I came to learn the philosophy of my life: No Condition is permanent. Whether we lost our house, cars or whatever other material things during the wars, we’d always come back to start over with what was important; family. I’ve learned to never attach too much value to things and always make people the most important part of my life. In the last 3 decades, I’ve come to learn about life mostly by learning about myself. I’ve had only the clothes on my backs and I’ve also had walk-in closets filled with more than I needed. I lived in refugee camps in Ivory Coast and I also live in overpriced Boston Apartments with a jacuzzi and a rooftop. In both of those places, I learn that the most important part of my experience was not what I had, but who I share my experiences with. My life is lucrative mostly because of those around me. And for this, I am grateful. This new age is the beginning of a new journey with new people in a new place. I am ready, but most importantly I am fearless. I do not know what’s ahead, but if the last 30 years is any indication of what I can expect, I anxiously await it. Here’s to one more year of learning to live with some of the very best hand I have been dealt with.
According to Aid Data, there are over 7,000 aid-related projects and NGOs operating in Liberia. The population of Liberia is a little over 4 million people. During Ellen Johnson’s Sirleaf leadership, she estimated that there were about 1 NGO per every 4000 Liberian citizens and in 2013, the country reported about $13.7 billion dollars in international funding. With such a huge amount in aid, Liberia still sits idly at number 4 on business insider’s poorest countries in the world. With Liberia’s GDP about 934 per capita, one would think $13 billion dollars in aid should go a long way. Instead, 5 years later with new leadership, Liberia continues to sink in deep economic challenges and continuously reaching out her hands in hopes for more aid. The question then becomes what are NGOs and other aid-related projects really doing to help Liberia move towards real sustainable development?
According to the Ministry of Labor, Liberians daily earnings are around 3.5USD for unskilled workers, 5.5USD for skilled workers and a little over 50USD monthly. Conversely, working for NGOs means higher income and in cases involving International NGOs, it can be comparable to working somewhere in the US or Europe. A friend of mine working for an International NGO (INGO) brings home about $900USD monthly as a county representative on an education project in rural Liberia. In comparison to my other friend who is a teacher in a private school, $900 remains a dream to her $150 monthly salary that gets delayed many months due to challenges facing schools. With income as a motivating factor, there is an influx of young Liberians hoping to score positions with INGOs even if it is not in their field. According to the Afrobarometer, a pan-African series of national public attitudes on democracy, more than half of Liberia’s population is unemployed and about 41% of Liberia’s population are considered youth or under the age of 14. Young Liberians only hope for stable income is working with NGOs even if it means gaining no professional development or ignoring personal aspirations.
Every corner of Liberia is plastered with the presence of NGOs. When I say every corner, I mean in the bushes of Fishtown, Rivergee County and on the red dirt roads leading to the rubber plantation in Pleebo, Maryland County. I have seen stickers, posters, cars, campaigns, etc of NGO in every county I have been ( I have been to 13 out of the 15 counties in Liberia!). So what exactly is going on with NGOs and where are the fruits of their labor? In 2014, Global Witness reported that Liberia might be tired of NOGS. The Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf blamed NGOS for the economic problems facing the country. Whether these claims were valid or not, we know there were a lot more NGOs at the time and that number has increased yet, Liberia’s economy is arguably seeing the worst cases of inflation of all time. The World Bank reported, “GDP’s growth is projected to slow to .4% in 2019 and remain at about 1.5% over the medium term (2020-2021), well below the rate of population growth of 2.6%”. While the rise in the cost of living continues, NGOs all flying under the banner of development continue to operate in Liberia in hopes of something I have yet to identify.
West point, one of Liberia’s slums, has been the hot spot for so many NGOs. The population of West Point is approximately 75,000 people according to reports from NGOS working in the area. Name a documentary about poverty in Liberia and I will show a place in west point that was featured. Located on a peninsula of the Atlantic Ocean, West Point residents are some of the most impoverished citizens of Liberia despite Liberia’s NGOs directory reporting West point to have the highest amount of NGO compare to other communities. As the title of this piece indicates, NGOs come and go and yet there are no significant changes in places West point. So when will Liberia come to terms that NGOs are not really making any significant impact? Cities Alliance, another NGO operating in Liberia and featuring west point in their promo video described the community as being “displaced by the sea”. During the deadly Ebola breakout in Liberia, West point was again a hot spot for NGO and efforts to eradicate the virus. Shortly after that, the erosion by the seas coupled with the daily life in a slum challenges keeps NGO activities very high in that community. In all my 30 years of living, West Point has always been impoverished. With all the NGOs and specifically INGOs focusing on West point, why does this one small community continues to be the face of poverty for so many campaigns? Is the real goal not to alleviate poverty or when will change come?
The big joke here is Liberia started off as an NGO from the very beginning. When the American Colonization Society (a private organization) decided to assist the US in bringing back freed slaves from the Americas to Liberia, it was the beginning of NGOs operations in Liberia. From missionaries to present-day development “experts”, Liberia remains vulnerable to foreign aid. Local NGOs tailored their projects to fit the funding requirements. Everyone is chasing the money and new NGOs keep popping up, but the sad reality remains that there is no real improvement. This is no strange news that foreign aid is often associated with mismanagement. We all remember years back when the devastating earthquake hit Haiti. The Red Cross was caught in a firestorm with a case of huge donations and no real development years after the earthquake. ProPublica and NPR reported The Red Cross hired Program Manager for their aid work in Haiti after the storm for about $140,000 USD inclusive of a house, food, and other lucrative allowances. Yet, Haiti too, Like Liberia, remains in the shadows of poverty. According to the Center for Global Development, many international NGO operating in Haiti and other developing countries estimate about $200,000 each year in salary. Imagine what $200,000 could do for a Liberia or Haiti? This is not to say International Development work is not needed, but if the overall objective is to develop the countries or communities they operate in, something has got to change.
In Liberia, for example, we cannot continue to host foreigners with little to no knowledge about the culture, history or daily life (other than the copy and paste Africa development work) in charge of projects and hope for a miracle. INGOs operating in Liberia living in the nice parts of Monrovia and visiting their field sight in their air-conditioned Land-cruiser will never fully understand development challenges. Even if they walk around in African print hoping to blend in, the fact remains that race and social status makes them stick out in Liberia. Local Liberian NGOs struggling for funding will not collaborate with International NGOs especially since most collaborations are approached as if locals are not the experts. International NGOs fly in and out of poverty-stricken areas (West Point), take their photos, build a well/hand pump, write their reports and move on to the next project while local NGOs remain in the communities waiting for the next collaboration.
As NGOs continue to permeate every aspect of Liberian society, it is imperative that we set some guidelines for their operations. In the Liberian way, Liberia has become the “Go-Buy-Chop” destination for NGOs (which loosely translates to hand to mouth way of life). As NGOs come and go with new projects, new “experts” with new ways to solve Liberia’s problems, the lives of everyday Liberians remain the same. There has to be a better way to build more sustainable and ethical projects where we avoid using Liberia as bait for funding charitable projects and start providing tangible services that help Liberia. Maybe we can start with the crazy idea that requires all INGO to have 90% Liberians staff and mandatory partnership with Liberian NGO who has demonstrated success through length of service and tangible outcomes (No, building a well does not count!) Another crazy idea would be to actually required that all registered NGO operating in Liberia currently be asses rigorously through what I called the checklist for sustainable and ethical practices for developmental. What have you done in the last year that directly correlates to economic development for Liberia? How long have you operated in Liberia and what can you show for it? (No, wells and hand pumps do not count!) We have to close the “Go-buy-Chop” market until things start to change for the benefit of Liberia and her people.
A chubby cheeked brown boy smiling with food on the side of his mouth, wearing no shoes with a torn t-shirt barely covering his full belly. What a sight! For most westerners, the urge to pick this little boy up and show him to the world seems irresistible. As someone who was paraded around in Europe as a “poor African war child”, I can say this with confidence, please stop picking poor children up for photos.
In 1998, renowned opera singer Pavarotti along with some of his wealthy and famous friends hosted a concert to benefit countries affected by war (see photo below). At the time, I was a happy almost 10-year-old student in Liberia. My school offered numerous extracurricular activities and chorus was one them. I joined chorus and got the opportunity to travel to Europe to sing. After preparations for the trip, we finally arrived in Modena, Italy. There I saw white people obsessed with “poor African children” every stop we made during the days leading up to the concert. People came up to take photos with us, even picking us up and happily smiling while holding “poor African children.” Luckily for us, this was before hashtags so there might not be traces of these on social media platforms, but that experience stayed with me.
Today, nothing truly happens unless you post it, snap it or tweet about it. Social media make us want to show the world our “perfect” lives. We select, organize and present images and stories that we want others to see. In doing so, we sometimes expose other people and cultures in ways that can leave lasting consequences. We travel to places nowadays not because of our exploratory curiosity, but because we want to show the world that we are world travelers or inherently good people helping disadvantaged people. That is the narrative we want to tell with our photos. But imagine seeing a child walking in Walmart alone, Will you A. pick the child up B. Run away C. Look for the parents? Chances are you will look for that child’s parents. Now, after finding the parent, do you A: smile and walk away B. take a photo of their reunion C. hold the child and take a selfie ? I would guess you will politely smile and walk away. This same principle should apply when you travel. As much as poverty makes us reflect on our own life, poor people do not want to be poor. Sharing photos of poor people with the world (consciously or unconsciously) is wrong. What you will not do at home should not go abroad.
Another thing to think about is the danger of a one-sided story, as narrated by Chimamanda Ngozi the Nigerian writer. Ngozi warns that these types of stories are incomplete and make one side of the story seem like the only side. In the case of the lost child in Walmart, what if you posted it with the caption “Lost child in Walmart. Please help”. In the moments before you saw the parent of that child, they might have been lost. Right? The child needed help, but to tell the world (or your followers) that story will be only one side. What if the child ran ahead of the parent or this is their routine of hide- and -seek? We must learn what is unacceptable here at home is unacceptable in other places, even if they have red dirt roads and fit our notions of “poor people”.
Consider before picking a child up for a photo or taking random photos during your travel: these are real people with real lives. Would you want to be documented doing regular things too like drinking coffee or holding your cellphone? Although the people and culture might be new to you, this is an everyday experience for people. We must refrain from posting it and captioning it the way we want others to see it. When in doubt, always ask if it is okay to take a photo and when you do, do not share without their consent and or never makeup captions or try to tell stories of places with your own labels. Ex: “Poor people are happy people.” Is that so? Did you attend a poor people convention and learn that? We must be considerate and compassionate about our words online. To name is to claim power, even as Jamaica Kincaid observed in her work A Small Place; we should avoid trying to possess other’s histories.
If you find yourself abroad armed with good intentions ready to save the world, please try to remember even superheroes have restrictions. You do not need to travel across the world just to appreciate the privileged life you have. Experience with a poor person should not validate you. But, if you find yourself in Africa (Any of the many countries on the entire continent) and feel the need to pick up a baby or children, here are some other alternatives:
Eat Plantains! They are like the noble cousins of banana, but tastier
Eat exotic fruits. Did you know that Uganda (where most people go to pick up Orphans or go on a safari) is known as the Tropical basket of Africa? Pick up fruits and try them
Do you know there’s a place called Banana Island? Off the coast of Sierra Leone (I’ve never seen more gorgeous waters!)
Boulder Beach (Known as the Penguins colony!) you can see thousands of penguins and take their photos instead
If you are really into taking photos, what is more majestic than Mount Kilimanjaro? Come back and brag to your friends about seeing the highest free-standing mountain in the world!
I’m engaged to be married to a fellow Hokie, Liberian, forever student and professional fufu eaters. We’ve come a long way from the red dirt roads of rural Liberia to the college town of Blacksburg, VA. Our love for Liberia, the entire continent of Africa and education is the glue that hold us together. Here’s to occupying spaces our parents only dream about and paving the way for the next generation of Liberian Hokies fufu eaters!
Today we drove past the old U.S Embassy in Liberia. As we took a turn, I couldn’t help but notice a building with the sign GreyStone on it. If you went to Google Greystone in Liberia, the first photo that came up was this. Let me tell you something -This photo just like my memory brings back some parts of my childhood that were almost erase by bullets…
Greystones was one of those places people ran for shelter during the Liberian Civil war. I was almost 8 years old during the 96′ crises. I remembered the sounds of bullets, my family packing, my older sister having to dress “dress down” so she was not sexually appealing to the rebels- Whatever that look like. It seem just like yesterday when people were moving in opposite directions with mattresses on their heads. It was always an interesting sight to see. People never knew where they were fleeing to, but they always brought their mattresses. I guess knowing where you are sleeping was not as important as having something to sleep on.
My family and I were some of the few blessed to survive the civil wars and migrate to the Great United States for a chance of a better life. At 25 years old with a Masters degree, running my own not-for-profit organization and actively advocating for little changes in our big world, I was grateful for migration. Even in my gratitude, driving by that day, I couldn’t help, but think about those horrific things I saw waiting outside the gates of Greystones. It could have been me or a member of my family that I saw during the war laying on the side of the road lifeless. I saw a child bleeding in the arms of a crying mother as my mother held me closer while we awaited our chance to get into the shelters at Greystones. To this day, I still remember my very first sight of a dead body. I saw the body laying on his left side with a hole where his right ear used to be. I felt the need to hold my little ears at the time as we escape to safety.
Life at those moment had a whole different meaning. We try to survive each day only to get to another day of survival. Today, I like to think that life is much more appreciated. I have come to understand and appreciate migration in a way that most might not. I know the power of spaces that open their doors, borders and opportunities to me and my family. I am forever thankful for mothers and their survival instincts that kept us going. I do not take for granted any opportunity afforded to me to make a better life for myself and those around me. Why am I sharing all this? I just wanted someone out there to know it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you can use that as a road map to get you to where you want to be. Thanks for the reminder Greystones. You and other images of Liberia will always be my motivation for bigger and brighter things. Peace & Love.
It is hard to tell whether we put walls up to shield ourselves from the outside or to keep the outside from getting to us.
Sometimes we put walls up that are so high for anyone to climb so we become trapped.
For some, the walls also have caution tapes on them.
They build high walls then create fear for those who attempt to climb them.
Sometimes, the outside world no longer seem like a safe place
And from behind those walls, there is still fear of who would dare to climb
I read a quote somewhere about people building walls to see whose brave enough to climb over them
For some, climbing over these walls might be an evasion of their alone time. For others, it might take some adjustment…
Walls are protective-
Walls are Safe-
They might not be the safest or the best way, but they work
They work in ways that words fall short to describe
When you are hurting, you need a reason to feel like things will be OK again, build your wall.
Things happen that will make you wish you never met people. You go places and you wish you never went. Life comes at you fast, but you have to be able to bounce back every time. Take time to build those walls that will keep you safe. Take time to find yourself in the midst of the noise. If you need to remove yourself from everything, then that is what you do.
Walls can be security. Take care of yourself and if the world dare to climb, let them.
Often times, we don’t give people their roses while they can still smell it. We wait to say the most heartfelt things at funerals and these days on social media. For some of us with African parents, our people do not get the love and affection they are due. Facebook and emojis are not enough for what they do and most times, they do not reach them.
This month I want to celebrate a woman who deserves all the praises and my gratitude. Unfortunately, she cannot read this because she is illiterate. She did not get formal education, but she is one of the smartest people I know. I wanted to document this for my children and all the world to know about Ma Julia (known to many as Juju) and her tireless service and love.
Growing up in Liberia, having a maid is not a big deal. It doesn’t mean you are wealthy (although that is the case for some). It simply means you can afford to have that necessity. Labor is very cheap so you find families with maids, security guard, Errand boy, etc. My family was blessed to have Ma Julia with us for most of my early childhood and teen years. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry, iron our school uniform, grocery shop and did everything to keep the house in order. She was employed to be our maid, but became family. I remember watching her memorize the entire grocery list because she could not read the actual list to the market. I admired her as my mother would red out loud each items and she would nod and take mental note. She could remember a list of over 50 or more items without any mistake every single time. Talk about amazing! Among all that she did, were the things that were not part of her job description that touched me the most…
When I first started liking boys, it was not a friend that I shared it with; it was Juju. She told me “man business cant pass, just take your time”.
When I first saw my period, it was not my mother I told; Juju was right there telling me what to do and what it meant. “You woman na ooo”
When I used to wet my bed as a young child, I would confide in her and she will change the sheets without telling anyone. That was our little secret and she protected it. Thanks Juju!
When I broke a glass and knew I was getting a beating for it, she covered it up for me. we never spoke about it after that day.
As a teen, she was my sound board. When I needed to complain about my teenage life, or talk about boys, fashion, or celebrities (Lil Bow Wow), she was there to listen.
Julie would sometimes offer advise or most times just listen and say “norma yeah?” meaning sorry.
When I cried about things she knew she could not offer solutions to, she would say “I na know what to teh you oo, bor keep talking” (I do not know what to tell you, but keep talking). Now, that’s love!
I know I can never pay her back for her time and service, but I hope my continuous gratitude towards her keeps her smiling.
I spent over 10 years abroad and came back right into her arms. She is still my maid because she refused to “just sit down”. I’ve tried to get her to play another role in my life, but service is her calling. Continue reading “Happy Birthday JuJu”→
Some women have a list of what they would want their “perfect” guy to be. I quote perfect because we all know saying perfect and a guy in the same sentence is hysterical.
Well, back to this post. Some people will make a list (mental or physical) of what they want in a partner. Obviously, the list varies and because women are allegedly complicated (COUGH COUGH ), we have longer list. If we are complicated, sometimes….well, we most certainly are not complicated most times, but you get the gist.
As we grow and matures, you start to see that the list of what you want is really just things we wish to have, but they are impossible standards to hold people to. Now I know some women are lucky to meet the guys on their list
There is always that ONE exception of course- Go you!
Whether your guy now is the guy from your list or not, I wanted to make a few points about compromising.
I have come to realize that with age and maturity, come changes to items on the list. It is no longer just that perfect guy. It has nothing to do looks or other physical characteristics. What becomes important is YOU and how happy he/she makes YOU. Your list can have all those nice qualities and attributes, but you must have those same one to attract others. You cannot be asking for apples and holding gin. If you can’t offer apples, at least have a fruit.
When you meet him/her and you start to discover things that makes YOU happy and your definition of happiness itself start to change, trust me, the list would not matter! Do not get me wrong because some things on our list as women are pretty damn important. Look at Lauren…
What girl doesn’t want a guy with nice eyes and hair?!? *insert sarcasm here*
A pretty face would not pay the bills and a hefty bank account certainly would not perform in the sheets. You most certainly can still have these things from your “perfect guy” without requiring them prior to knowing him.
As we grow and matures, things on your list start to become trivial.
When you are stuck at a job you hate and he sends a note to brighten your day, the list is far less important
When your car is covered with snow and he shows up to get you out and ready for a job interview, you will not have time to review your list.
As you get to know people, you get to add new things to your list or erase those things that didn’t really matter. (cough cough Blue eyes Bobby)
You find yourself spending more time adding thing that will only make YOU happy and erasing those things that was appealing to the eyes of others.
If you are still trying to find a partner that will fit certain attributes, I caution you to start over on a whole new page. Get a list that focuses on YOU as a person and all that life has taught you about love. Let your list reflect someone that would give happiness a whole new meaning. After all, who needs abs when you can discuss retirement plans or point out why Africa is the poorest richest continent ?
I hope this inspires someone to take a good look at what they are looking for in a partner