Over the course of my twenty years in the travel business I’ve been privileged to visit many places completely off the grid, watching them develop into trendsetting hot spots. Cambodia comes to mind. When Ken Fish led his first journey there back in 1991, before the embargo was lifted, he had to pay $300 at the Grand Hotel (now the Raffles) to get the electricity turned on. These days, Siem Reap and its chic hotels grace the glossy covers of the trendiest travel magazines. The town we knew then, with its lone luxury hotel and a handful of small restaurants, has transformed into a city packed with some of South East Asia’s most prestigious hotels and too many restaurants to count. These days it seems real travel secrets are nearly nonexistent, but after my recent visit to Liberia I know there are still a few out there. This June I had the opportunity to visit this West African country with our partners, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), to meet with their grassroots grantees. We truly witnessed a country and a people that have moved past their complicated history and are looking forward to more peaceful times ahead. Although I’ve worked with AJWS for several years, this was the first time I had the chance to see the powerful impact of their work in person. From our visit with the first elected female head of state in Africa, Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and our time spent with Leymah Gbowee ,the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, our schedule was packed with experiences that were both deeply gratifying and hugely inspiring. As a woman, it was especially heartening to witness the impact of the Liberian women who have pulled the country together after a horrific civil war and have truly rebuilt a country worthy of its name: Liberia — “Country of the Free.”
My journey affected me in so many ways that I scribbled down my thoughts along the way in an effort to capture the power of this unique experience. Here are a few: June 16: They say here that Monrovia is Liberia because 75% of the population lives here, but that is hard to imagine because Monrovia is so small by western urban standards. There are two main roads, and on one of them, Broad Street, you can look back at the center of Monrovia and it’s only about five blocks long. Only 2% of the country is on the national power grid. Before the rest of the group arrived, I had the opportunity to do some touring in Monrovia. Sadly, much of the touring is related to the horrors of their civil war, including a stop at the beach where Samuel Doe executed 13 members of President Tolbert’s cabinet on television after killing President Tolbert. On a much happier note, we also visited the Mamba Point craft market, which is very small but had some lovely beadwork, wooden sculptures and paintings. It was a great indication of how far Liberia has come. June 17: The AJWS group arrived today. Little did I know it at the time, but this is such a wonderful group of people – and amazing troupers through a lot of hardships and inconveniences. We had no air conditioning, no internet, and sometimes no power or water. But everyday everyone was up and ready for the next experience with the people of Liberia. I just loved their sense of adventure and their sensitivity and engagement with what we were seeing around us.
June 18: We had the worst rain of my trip last night. It came down so hard it crossed my mind that my bungalow might just float away. Luckily, it cleared about the time that we were ready to board our vans because this was our first day of visits to NGO’s that AJWS supports. We went to a “low cost” refugee village with Self Help Initiative for Sustainable Development (SHIFSD) to see an adult literacy program. The whole village came out dancing to celebrate our arrival. The women were so proud to show off their newly acquired ability to write their names. There was one man who particularly touched my heart, as he was the first man to enroll in the program. At first the other men made fun of him, but then he learned to write his name and now there are 7 men in the program. He was wearing a blue tee-shirt with Cookie Monster eyes on it. The women told stories of being married off at a young age, having many children, and struggling to make ends meet. The children were adorable, and it was so hard to see them dressed in thread bare adult t-shirts, especially when I know how my own three year old boy’s clothing shows so little signs of wear. Some of the kids were wearing clothing that wasn’t at all right for the climate, a heavy knit wool dress for instance. The people see so few visitors that they were taking pictures of us as we were taking pictures of them. The two guys who started SHIFSD were particularly inspiring. They saw a need in their refugee camp in Ghana and filled it, and when they came back home to Liberia they kept filling it. In a moment I think we will all remember, Abraham, one of the AJWS group members, was given a scrap of paper by one man he had been talking with which simply said, “Remember my name – Mohamed.”
Today we also visited with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She is an inspiration and her thoughts on women and power are not opinions that are normally voiced by heads of state. We had our picture taken with her and it was published in the Daily Observer, one of Monrovia’s major papers. It was a very memorable encounter. June 19: This morning we met with the American Charge D’Affaires at the brand new US Embassy. It was like a piece of the US picked up and dropped into Monrovia. We had a very enlightening discussion on the limitations of US aid in Liberia and the connections between our two countries. Afterwards we visited Imani House, a health clinic. Two of the younger AJWS travelers, Abe and Louis, played with the kids the whole time and were totally engaged with them, a real testament to the value of travel for young people. It warmed my heart. The kids loved them, and Abe and Louis looked like giants compared to the little kids. It was a little like traveling with our own carnival ride because all the kids wanted Abe to pick them up over his head. Later on we visited the health clinic, and seeing where women give birth was frightening. There is no electricity so it is just a metal bed and an old fashioned scale. It made me feel so privileged to have had all of the bells and whistles present when I gave birth. Then we went to a literacy center that was right off of the busy marketplace. It was the first Muslim place we had been, even though there was a Christ painting on the tower. The market was extremely chaotic: the garbage, the piles of shirts and jeans, the plastic covering the umbrellas, the people everywhere.
June 20: We had no electricity tonight. That means no fan, no light in the bathroom, no water, and certainly no air conditioning. It was so stuffy it was hard to sleep. Then we went and visited the women of West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) today. These women protested in the fish market with Leymah under the beating heat of the mid-day sun every day for years to stop the war that was killing and torturing them and their families. This realization makes it hard, or really impossible, to complain about not having a fan for one night. We also visited our first peace hut, a safe place where women can make complaints about their treatment and they are responded to officially. It is inspiring to see how women have been so important to the turnaround of Liberia, and how they continue to be a force to improve their own conditions. June 21: Today we visited Mano River Union Peace Network Liberia (MARWOPNET) which runs a community radio station, “The Voice of Women of Peace,” micro-enterprise programs, and literacy training. The highlight for me was the radio station. Many of us got to speak on the radio. AJWS tour member Aaron’s goal back in the US is to find a radio station to partner with the Liberians. If you can help, let us know. June 22: Our visit today was with Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), taking a look at land rights issues in a village in Medina. This was by far the poorest village we visited. Once they had enough food for three meals a day for everyone, but due to a land rights dispute their farm land was taken away and now they have barely enough food for one meal a day for their residents. In some cases the children here wore scraps of clothing: a ripped Boy Scout uniform, a tattered Hawaiian shirt, a tee-shirt with a saying or logo on it. But they were also the most excited to see us and to have their pictures taken. They would pose and jump up just to get into our pictures. One little boy carried a black plastic purse and a pair of luggage keys he had found somewhere. It was clear these were his prized possessions and he wanted to show them off because they made him cool. Eva noted that the children had reddish hair, which can be a sign of malnutrition. For me this was the most difficult village to leave, knowing what they are up against.
Liberia doesn’t have the African equivalent of an Angkor Wat to put it on the map and draw people in, but I left this amazing nation feeling that it was similar in that it was on the verge of something spectacular. In five years, I probably won’t recognize the Liberia I found on this trip. I can’t say that they are ready for constant tourism, as it is strictly defined, but it is ready for people to see what they have been up against and what they are doing every single day to overcome their circumstances. I believe there are great things ahead for Liberians. There is even world-renowned surfing three hours from Monrovia. Of all the trips I’ve taken with Absolute Travel, I found this trip truly gave me the gift of compassion and enriched my connection to Africa in a way I never experienced before. It was empowering and inspiring to work with AJWS and to have the privilege of contributing to their work on the ground. I will never forget it. Contact us to discuss a customized itinerary that includes Liberia, or for more information about upcoming study tours please contact our partner at AJWS, Rena Dascal, via e-mail (RDascal@ajws.org) or phone 212 792 2829. Leslie