For some reason, it seemed like such a natural thing for me to do—travel to a remote jungle village in Lofa County, Liberia. Perhaps it is because I’ve been enthralled by the reality tv show ‘Tribal Wives’ and trekked alongside adventurers while watching National Geographic. Regardless, when the invitation came, it did not occur to me to not go.
Many immunizations later and with a suitcase packed with uncommon items like snake bite kits (do you know that snakebite is the leading cause of death in Liberia?!), peace flags, hundreds of Wet Ones and disinfectants, a lot of snack bars, twenty pounds of batteries and flashlights, three cameras and a recorder, and gifts for my ‘Sisters’ and I was ready to depart. Shuck...I was three pounds underweight! It is a long flight….seventeen hours on the airplane.
Immediately upon our arrival at Heart of Grace School (HOG) in Lower Johnsonville we were greeted with the most enthusiastic welcome I’ve ever received and, by a father with his five year old daughter I quickly realized that he was telling us that her mother had died and was asking us to take her home with us. This was the first of very many times when my reality would be shaken and my heart torn open.
After a few days spent at HOG we began the nine-hour journey into the heart of the jungle on dirt roads with potholes large enough to swallow a bus. We were told that those who break down often have to wait two weeks for help to arrive. Along the way we stopped to visit the sites of two additional CAN projects.
At one site, women had cleared the road in two weeks with axes and machetes. Notice that it goes uphill! When that job was finished they carried buckets of sand from the river to mix with mortar and mold into building tiles. Then they carried those on their heads to the site being cleared for the buildings.
I hardly noticed that it was 10:30pm and we were still traveling. Iron gates appeared out of nowhere, and Eric announced that this is where we would be staying for the night—the Pakistani Military Base! Well, last time I checked relations between Pakistan and U.S. weren’t too good! I didn’t have time to be scared, but the thought of being kidnapped did cross my mind! I wondered how much I would be worth and, I thought of how much I love my children. Once again, perceptions shattered. The men there couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious! We stayed for three nights, and left having made new friends and an expanded world view.
The next morning, we drove to Zuwulor Village. As we approached the village I got out of the vehicle and walked alone, across the river where women and children were doing the wash. It was the most sacred walk I have ever taken. It felt strangely familiar since I had studied photos from Eric’s trip many times.
Krubo (who I recognized from her photo) came running to me. During my first conversation with Yassah Ford, she gave me the African name, Krubo which means ‘leader’. My namesake was hugging and bringing me to her house. “What’s mine is yours,” she said in Loma dialect. After picture taking with her family, we continued walking until we found Yassah and other women. This was the moment I had long waited for. Hugs and squeals and then she put me on her back. The tradition is one of honoring. It means, “I will carry you anywhere. You are that important to me.” We exchanged a few gifts and then the dancing began!
Soon after, with a drummer and percussionists and more women joining, we danced our way to the open-air community building where I was greeted by the village chief and presented with the gourd and kola nuts, a tradition passed down from the ancestors, and the white chicken. It is a ritual of being honored and welcomed. Thankfully, my chicken was rather tame and had its feet tied! The celebration of drumming and dancing lasted for over six hours both days. This was the second celebration in the history of the village, the first being after the harvest of the peanut crops from our initial $700 investment.
Little known to me at the time, we are the first people who have come to help them since the fourteen year brutal war ended six years ago. Yes, it was a big celebration, and over six hundred people participated!
We presented Yassah’s Sisters with a palm oil press, cassava mill, three universal nut shellers, and thirty solar lanterns. This equipment will revolutionalize the processing of crops grown and substantially enhance their ability to cultivate sustainable livelihood.
We were gifted with beautiful gown of hand woven country cloth, indigenous to that region. What an honor that was! More gifts, more dancing, more drumming…I wanted to savor every moment of this incredible experience!
We received beautiful gown of hand woven country cloth
The African heat was intense as we toured the various headquarters where crops of peanuts, rice and palm oil are stored until they can be brought to market. The degree of organization, skill, and resilience of these women is profound! Each group prepared a lovely display of their produce, complete with the money they’ve made thus far. They are so very grateful for the assistance of their American friends, happy to be given the opportunity to work to feed their families. Our women walk two and a half hours to the farm every day and then back again. Back at the village they then take care of gathering wood and water, and serving the needs of their families.
To date we now have four groups of women and one group of men, totaling 110. We accepted more women from a neighboring village who have been waiting for over a year, with their initial start up money of $700. As with the original group of twenty five, these women will put in place a pay-it-forward program so that other women from their community can benefit.
An extraordinary gift from the village chief was a donation of fifteen acres of land for future development. Our plans will be to build a school and clinic, A Place for Women where they can gather and heal, and a regional market where the women can sell produce. We have already begun to build a storage facility for the equipment and produce with an attached house for Yassah. The women of Yassah’s Sisters have far exceeded our expectations and we are determined to exceed theirs!
Another group of women that we are assisting in Lower Johnsonville are the City View Women’s Group, eighty women all eager to learn and work hard. They are not part of the agricultural cooperative. Instead, they learn skills of tailoring, tie dying, soap making, and bead making.
This culture thrives on community spirit. Anything they have is shared, and decisions are made with the good of the community as the primary goal. Nestled in between the obvious differences I found what we all share in common. Like mothers everywhere, the women of Liberia dedicate their lives to their families; they want food and education for their children.
When it was time to leave the village we were escorted with ‘royal’ procession. It is tradition for dancers to block the vehicle and for its occupants to throw money to the dancers. In such a short time, we had come to love each other. Departing was bittersweet and already I long to return. It is easy to absorb that we are one world, one people, one heart beating to a synchronistic universal rhythm.
Repeatedly, I heard the phrase “TIA….This is Africa”. Yes, this is Africa, a land of contrasts of great joy in the midst of profound poverty, natural beauty in the midst of squalor….a place where time has no meaning and schedules are non-existent. The people in Liberia are gracious beyond description and even though their need for basic necessities of life is overwhelming, it is rare that one will ask for anything.
War has torn apart their families, destroyed every aspect of their country—infrastructure of roads and bridges, education, medical—to name a few. In most areas, illiteracy is ninety percent, unemployment almost as high, poverty is rampant and disease takes lives unnecessarily. But, all of these hardships have not broken their spirit. There is a determination to work tirelessly and selflessly to rebuild the country through education of its children, the future leaders of the country.
The women of Yassah’s sisters are strong, determined, resilient, passionate, bright, and hard-working beyond comprehension. It is the women who brought peace to this country and it is the women who will rebuild it. They are grateful for the sun, the rain, for those of us who come to be among them, and for the hope that is in their hearts for a better life for their children. Always, they send blessings to us and our families. And I, having experienced the beauty of their spirit and goodness return home grateful for clean running water and for the opportunity to know and walk with them.
To get involved with this all-important women development program and how you can help, please click here: http://canintl.org/our-programs/yassahs-sisters-program/