“Land of the Free”

Liberia FlagSpending three days in Liberia just before the Fourth of July this year made me do some serious introspection about what it means to be an American and the rights and blessings that many US citizens take for granted.  I seriously wish I could take everyone I know, as well as a very long line of those who have very little positive to say about our country, on a tour of Liberia, to help them begin to put their own little world and their personal circumstances into a better perspective.

Michelle and I have now lived in Ghana for about ten months, traveled to various cities and towns around the country and out in the bush, visited parts of Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, but I hadn’t seen anything approaching the mile after mile of human squalor and seemingly hopeless living conditions that we found along the muddy roadsides in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital and only city of any substantial size

Liberia (very appropriately “Land of the Free” in Latin) has always had strong ties to America as it was selected in the very early 1800s as a homeland for freed African-American slaves. This effort was spearheaded by the American Colonialization Society (ACS), which was actually started by slave-owners hoping to get freed slaves out of the South to keep them from threatening the regions’ stability.  The effort was quickly taken over by those who supported the abolition of slavery and by 1867, the ACS had assisted with migration of over 13,000 African Americans to Liberia. The country declared its independence in 1847, and established a constitution based largely on the principles of the United States Constitution.  It is unique in Africa as the first and oldest republic and the as the only independent nation that never went through a colonial period or had to win its independence from another country.

The newly formed nation, created from its citizens’ hopes and dreams of replicating the their own “land of the free” back in their ancestral homeland, “where none will come to hurt or make afraid,” did not pan out as intended.  The new citizens had numerous run-ins with indigenous groups, lost numerous border disputes with bordering European-led colonies and struggled to secure international funding.

The US finally provided a needed investment boost in mid-20th century to support its military efforts in Europe and Africa during WW II.  Liberia’s economic growth period lasted about thirty years, ending abruptly in 1980, when the country plunged into a decades of civil uprisings, political corruption and infighting, capped off by the West African Ebola crisis in 2014-15.

In the wake of those fiascoes, Liberia today is often seen as a failed experiment, as witnessed by the following:

  • An average annual per capita income less than $500, putting it solidly among the very poorest nations in the world.
  • Unemployment rates that currently run in the neighborhood of 80-85 percent
  • Only 48 percent of Liberians over the age of fifteen are literate. The figure plummets to 33 percent for women.
  • The two civil wars over the past thirty years took over 200,000 lives, drove a million citizens into refugee camps and decimated the economy.
  • Two years ago, the Ebola virus outbreak took 4,800 Liberian lives, nearly half of the fatalities across West Africa. During August and September of 2014, when 300-400 new Liberian cases were discovered every week, the World Health Organization reported: “the capital city Monrovia was the setting for some of the most tragic scenes from West Africa’s outbreak: gates locked at overflowing treatment centres, patients dying on the hospital grounds, and bodies that were sometimes not collected for days.

With the Ebola scare finally put to rest last year and no eminent civil wars, the United Nations, which has maintained 14,000 peacekeepers and health providers assisting in the country for the past thirteen years, just announced they are pulling out 90 percent of their personnel and support.  That represents a huge loss to the local economy that will be very hard to replace.

On the bright side, after years of blood-thirsty, corrupt dictators, Liberia’s current president is a Yale-educated economist who won what was widely praised as the country’s first fair election.  Our visit this week to Liberia occurred just a couple of days following Michelle Obama’s stopover there to visit a leadership camp for teenage girls to encourage them to stay in school and a simultaneous announcement by USAid to invest $27M in Liberia for the Obama’s Let Girls Learn literacy initiative.

Like many other African countries, Liberia has also experienced increased investment lately from China, who recently agreed to make transportation and other infrastructure investments in Liberia, in exchange for partnership in specific mineral rights in the country. These agreements bring in needed foreign investment and expertise, but even that silver lining comes with its own worrisome cloud, as they are generally negotiated with politicians who are more focused on short-term objectives than on long-term sustainable development and protection of finite natural resources.  With China’s recent economic slowdown, the Chinese investment spigot has been turned back drastically and fears are growing in Liberia and other West African nations about project abandonment and stranded investment.

During our trip, we spent a day doing training with the mission president and the presidents and other leaders of the three districts in the country, representing the 10,000 members in 25 branches in that country.

I spent some time talking with the various Church leaders, who are very aware of the economic odds that are stacked against the country, but I came away amazed at the resourcefulness of the many of the locals.  One of the leaders there is a returned missionary who served in Nigeria, then returned home to Liberia after two years.  He had no family support, no income or assets, but started, as the locals call it “small-small,” selling individual snacks and other sundry items on the street, and through prudent living, has  improved his financial status to where he now is comfortably (by Liberian standards) supporting his family and serving in a major Church calling.

Gas station (2)Along the side of the roads, we saw countless examples of “small-small,” including improvised stalls where people sell gasoline in glass jars ranging from a gallon down to less than a pint, often to men who rent motorcycles by the hour to use as taxis, ferrying locals who need transportation but have no other means to get around. The drivers can only afford to buy the gas they use during their shift, and you often see them pushing the cycle down the road when they guess wrong.  Street hawkers sell gum by the stick and individual cigarettes, primarily because that is all that most buyers can afford in a single transaction.

Since Monrovia gets 180 inches of rain during the six-month rainy season (that is an average of an inch every single day), life goes on in as usual in the rain. With that type of constant deluges, roads are frequently underwater, but the local radio stations constantly broadcast tips and clues from drivers across the area on their cell phones passing along highway closures, blockages and workable detours.  When we arrived, the main road from the airport to the city was completely flooded, so our driver wound up taking a detour through Firestone’s rubber plantation, the largest one in the world.  It was fascinating to see mile after mile of tapped trees set up with latex catchment cups, similar to the way maple syrup is harvested in Maine.

CyclebrellaTo navigate in the rain, the omnipresent motorcycles are mostly equipped with extended umbrellas to keep the rider and passenger(s) somewhat dry.  The most people we saw on a motorcycle was four, but I have heard several stories of families of six disembarking from a single motorcycle when they arrive at church.

Not surprisingly, the Church is doing very well here.  Although the missionaries returned to Liberia only during the latter few months of 2015 because of Ebola, the number of Church members increased there last year from 9,000 to 10,000.  Speaking of the people of Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland commented that:  “Because they’ve had such a bloody, war-torn, brutal recent past, that’s one of the reasons the gospel is taking hold so dramatically. They’ve seen what life ought not to be, and now with the missionaries and the members testifying, they’ve seen what it can be. Heaven has been able to turn it into a blessing, and they’re lifting themselves out of political disarray and civil strife.”

Elder Donald Hallstrom, of the Presidency of the Seventy visited Liberia, along with Elder David A. Bednar last fall, shortly after the borders were reopened.  In April 2016 General Conference, he described his experience, attending a conference there in a rented facility that seated 3,500.  He said that every seat was filled and the final count was 4,100 (that’s over 40% of total members in the whole country in attendance).  He related – “Almost all who came had to travel by foot or some form of inconvenient public transportation; it was not easy for the Saints to gather. But they came. Most arrived several hours before the appointed meeting time. As we entered the hall, the spiritual atmosphere was electric! The Saints were prepared to be taught.”

After describing several touching moments in the conference, Elder Hallstrom concluded his conference address as follows: “In one of the most remarkable spiritual events of my life, I was taught a profound lesson that day. We live in a world that can cause us to forget who we really are. The more distractions that surround us, the easier it is to treat casually, then ignore, and then forget our connection with God. The Saints in Liberia have little materially, and yet they seem to have everything spiritually. What we witnessed that day in Monrovia was a group of sons and daughters of God who knew it!”

Elder Legrand Curtis, the Africa West Area President, who was also in attendance at that conference, commented to several of us later, that, while it was a very nice conference, it is something that we have the privilege of witnessing on a weekly basis here in West Africa.

So, yes, we missed out on the fireworks, the feasting and festivities during America’s Independence Day this week.  But visiting Liberia, I gained a much greater appreciation for the material blessings we have in the United States and much more importantly, I became an awe-inspired witness to the power of humility, sacrifice and spiritual blessings that are present in Liberia, a country that I now recognize as both “the land of the free,” and very much “the home of the brave.”

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