Sunday, 12 May 2013

Liberia: Religion and Rebels


After the evening in Ganta watching the Christian preaching show [link], I woke early the following morning to make the long journey along the messy, un-driveable road to Zwedru.  A jeep full of suited men and women stopped first for me.
"Are you a Peace Corps volunteer teacher?" said the most important looking man.
After being a traveller for so long, I've learnt how to always say the right thing to any person I come across.  So this time, I said; "Yes!"  A little white lie won't hurt anyone I thought.
"Oh good! Jump in then! I work for the Ministry of Education.'
So I had given the right answer.
We stopped for lunch along the way where I got talking to one woman named Deborah.  She worked for the Norwegian Refugee Council (the jeep was full of professionals from different organisations all connected in some way), and she was also a Reverend at her local church.  I took the opportunity to ask her opinion on the preachers crusade in Ganta that night.
"I don't like that he asks for money.  Nobody likes that.  People here don't have money to give."

After lunch, we reached their destination where they then helped me find a ride going further on towards Zwedru.
"She's a Peace Corps teacher" Deborah said to the UN officer who had stopped, importantly, for the white woman who was apparently in need of safe guarding.  He took me to the UN headquarters where he tried to find anybody who was driving to Zwedru that day.  Nobody was.
"It's ok, I'll just go to the road and wait for a car."
Ever paranoid as UN peace workers seem to be in Africa, he escorted me to the road and said to the guard;
"She's a Peace Corps volunteer, make sure she stays safe."
That meant that my little lie was carried on to my next ride with a woman from another branch of the UN, the UNHCR (whatever that is), thankfully enough because I had to fill out a waiver form for the vehicle and state which company I worked for.  Peace Corps it was!  I'm not proud of lying, I just think this story is funny, plus I'm not entirely sure I would have gotten anywhere that day if I had told them I was just a traveller.  Nobody even understands the word 'tourist' in Liberia... because there aren't any.

That ride took me all the way to Zwedru, where I met a friend of a friend, Frank, an American working for an organisation which organises refugee camps for those who had moved to Liberia during the civil wars in their own countries.

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Liberia imports all it's fuel, making it very expensive, therefore making traffic incredibly scarce especially in remote areas such as Nimba and Maryland.  Because of this, the following day, I waited around three hours for even one vehicle going anywhere near Harper.  I was lucky though, as I always seem to be, as a man stopped for me, apologised for not having air-conditioning, then drove for five hours all the way to the village just before Harper.

Once I arrived, I met a friend of a friend (again!), Tim, an American who is a Liberian history teacher at the local university.  He introduced me to his friend Lee who gave me a place to stay for two nights.  So he was a friend of a friend of a friend.  One my second day there, Tim held a presentation at the university on his current research project about a sacred rock situated just south of Harper.  For hundreds of years this large rock was believed to be sacred by everybody within its proximity.  There were traditions and rituals carried out in the name of the rock following the strong beliefs by the people.  When the country was founded in 1821 by freed African-American slaves, they brought with them Christianity and spread it through the country to the indigenous people.  The rock then became less and less important in the lives of these Liberians, till the point where now only the elders of surrounding villages remember and have stories to tell.  As with most religions, traditions, and beliefs of the world, if they are not documented in the 'western' way they are easily pushed aside and forgotten.  The rock, which was incorrectly translated to English as "Devil's Rock", had its stories passed down through generations by word of mouth.  Just as the rest of Africa, and Latin America to add, the traditional beliefs of the people of the land were nullified by Christianity.

Hearing this story from a professional historian, it confirmed to me my belief of how strong Christianity is.  I compared this to my recent memories from the Jesus Crusade in Ganta.  I questioned if it is Christianity which is saving these people.  Could their original religions do the same for them?

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Now if I thought that Zwedru was difficult to escape from, imagine my difficulty leaving Harper; the last and only town with an open border along the entire stretch of Ivory Coast!  Apparently rebels of Ivory Coast hide out along the border and cause trouble for anyone worth anything - like professionals, military personnel, or even Westerners if they have the chance.

I took a motorbike early in the morning but got stranded half way to the border when the tyre burst and needed changing.  We stopped in a tiny, isolated village whilst the driver got it fixed and I was offered a seat on a small block of wood outside the villages shop.  Some women came to sit with me, to keep me company I suppose.  Then a strong, fully-built deck chair was brought across the village especially for me.  I sat, looking around and realising the truth behind the fact that Liberia is the second poorest country in the world.  Almost everybody was skin and bones with huge, swollen bellies indicating malnutrition.  A young boy, I would guess around four years old from his height, was crying and moaning continuously.  He sat alone outside on the dirt floor in a tired, uncontrollable sob.  I asked a woman if he was ok.
"No.  He sick.  He got piles."
His extremely skinny limbs contrasted sharply with his huge belly.  He was so malnourished that his liver had swollen to the point of pushing his insides outwards.  He reached upwards with his small arms to pull himself to his feet.  His little legs quivered with weakness.  He tried to walk the few steps needed to reach his mothers side but fell down after two steps.  His mother picked him up and sat across from me with him on her lap.  I coughed away a few tears and swallowed hard to relieve the lump in the throat.  I felt sick with hurt.  I asked the woman if I could take a photo of her with the boy.  She smiled and said yes.  She didn't know my reason.

The motorbike was fixed and before we left I took one last look at the little boy who had no hope of living very much longer.

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We reached the border where I hastily got my visa checked and passport stamped, then jumped into the boat which would take me across the river to Ivory Coast.  The driver, or paddler should I say, told me a ridiculous price for the five minute journey.  I told him I would swim instead.  Everybody in the boat laughed then one woman blurted out; "I paid 150, it's 150!'  The driver snapped her an evil look, then sighed in disappointment as I handed him the 150.

Frantically searching through my collection of coins from around the world for some West African Franc which I might have left from Senegal, I realised I was stranded with no useful money in this remote border town.  Here, there were definitely no vehicles to hitch with.  The woman who helped me on the boat then offered to pay for my journey to the next big town where I could then pay her back.  Wow!  Where did this woman come from?!  Who was she?  She was Catherine and she was my saviour for the day.

We reached Tabou, where I managed to exchange some money, and where Catherine and I had decided to be friends for the next day.  She was heading to Abidjan the following morning on a bus, so I decided that was my plan too.  We got a hotel room between us for the night.  After lots of conversation, I got to know her story.  It was during the civil war that the rebels came to take her.  Her father protected her but they shot him in the foot to warn him of their power.  He handed her over to them.  She was raped multiple times by the gang of rebels.  She was fourteen years old.  Nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy.
"He lives with my parents.  If I look at him he reminds me of what happened."

It wasn't all doom and gloom conversation with her though.  She was actually a happy, cheerful, independent woman with a good life and a good job in Harper.  That night we got drunk on beer on the expense of a French white man who we met in a bar.

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What a lot to write for only five days of travel. Liberia really is a place full of people with incredible stories.  Tragic stories at that.  But also ones filled with hope and faith in God and in themselves, looking to a future whose only way is up.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Christian preaching in Liberia

I had seen the signs all over Liberia:
"Healing Jesus Crusade - Dag Heward-Mills"
I had no idea, though, that when I finally decided to leave Monrovia, I would, after six hours of hitchhiking, arrive in a town on its first night of the show.  I was told by the diver of my last ride that God must have organised it this way for me and therefore I must attend.  [I don't usually call this God, more a coincidence or fate... but what is an a word?]  I took his advise and decided to stay here for the night.

As I walked through the dark; dim-lit streets of Ganta, a man named Thomas decided he would accompany me to the show.  The open football field was filled with thousands of people, people who had come from remote villages from all over the Nimba region of Liberia, even people from neighbouring Guinea, all just for this special event.  Thomas told me the last time there was a large Christian crusade like this was in 1989; four years before the civil war began.




The show started with hymns being sung in the traditional African call-and-response way between the singers on stage and the thousands of spectators in the crowd.  I decided to join the big family behind me, mainly made up of children who had noticed the white woman and all had their turn to hug me, who were especially enthusiastic in their clapping, dancing and singing.





Then the preacher came on stage and ruined everything by asking for money.
"Who has $1000?"
"Probably nobody" I thought, disgusted.
"Who has $500?"
"Is this man even on this planet?!" I couldn't believe my ears.
"You can be part of this crusade you can be our brother or sister in spreading the message of God to the people of your country!  Be our partner and God will reward you!"
Some rich person chirped up with $100.  Then a few more did.  People in red shirts came out to the rest of us, shoving bags in faces encouraging people to give what cash they had.  I gave in to the pressure too; it was embarrassing not to.

After the cringe-worthy section was over, he got down to the real preaching.  The story telling.  The guilt-trip avenue.
"Let's talk about sins..."
"How many of you have lied before?"
Everybody put their hands up, laughing guiltily.
"How many of you have stolen before?"
Everybody put their hands up, laughing, chatting, admitting to each other.
"How many of you have fornicated before?"
This got the loudest laugh as most people put up a hand.
"How many of you have killed someone before?"
There was a striking cry of guilt as half of the crowd put their hands up.  My heart sank in momentary confusion.
"Yes, many of you were involved in the war; you were rebels or otherwise!"
He ended his speech with a long prayer for the crowd to repeat after he had spoken.  Not one person remained silent.  They spoke to God softly and with passion and love.  They spoke to Satan with anger and strength; "Satan! I am finished with you! I belong to God!"
The electric force of the cries of the thousands of people around me sent shivers through my body and jolts through my heart and tears to my eyes and an unbearable lump to my throat.

After my time so far in Africa, I have been coming round to the opinion that religion is actually good.  My self-important, "intellectual", "western" mind of thinking that religion, forced or otherwise, has so many negative effects has gradually become void.  After witnessing the reactions in this crusade, my mind has been changed entirely.  All these people who have terrible pasts filled with war and death and who are faced with guilt and heartbreak in their memories... How could you ever move on from that?  You can't, because you are still waking up every day struggling to feed your family because you live in one of the poorest countries in the world.  Until Africa is relieved of its poverty, religion and belief in God is the only answer for individuals.