by Helen Blakesley
I’m writing this from a hotel room in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. It’s raining cats and dogs, but that can’t drown out the sound of thousands of supporters, singing, dancing and shouting their political allegiance in the rallies going on outside.
I’m under strict instructions to “hibernate”—just in case. It’s the first round of the presidential elections this week, and, although Liberia has technically found peace, memories of the merciless 14-year civil war serve to remind that the situation here could well change in the blinking of an eye. The people I’ve spoken to are confident there won’t be trouble…but in reality, no one really knows.
All this urban excitement is a very different world from where I’ve spent the last few days. I made the 7-hour trip (over very “interesting” roads!) up to Nimba County, in the north of Liberia, to visit CRS’ projects that support Ivorian refugees escaping postelection violence in their own land and the host communities who’ve welcomed them.
After 3 years living in flat and (often) dusty Dakar, driving through the lush vegetation and hills was bliss. Jostling along in the CRS 4×4 with a warm-hearted team of fellow colleagues felt like such an adventure. I’d have moments of a surge of excitement in my chest, where my only thought was, “I can’t believe this is part of my job!” Driving past hamlets of straw-thatched mud huts, children delighted in giving us a wave. But the welcome when we reached our destination–the village of New Yourpea, near the Ivory Coast border—just blew me away.
We’d slowed the car down at the bottom of a hill, because at the top was a group of people holding a banner mounted on sticks, waving tree branches and singing. Thinking it was a political demo of some sort, we held back. But it soon dawned on us that this was our welcoming committee!
I got down to greet the people and was sung, smiled and danced up to the village for a good half hour, a rhythmic chant and slow advancing dance steps marking our progress. I held the hands of cute little kids on either side of me—partly to steady my own beating heart! An old chap in front of me held a pure white chicken aloft in his hands, thrusting it higher in time to the beat.
We were led to the communal meeting place, where the whole village was assembled to greet us. There were speeches of welcome and explanation on both sides, there was applause and there were gifts. Oh yes, that pure white chicken was for me! A symbol, I was told, of the open heart and pure intentions of the villagers’ welcome. We were told how grateful they were that CRS had come to help strengthen their resources so that they in turn could help their neighbors, the refugees.
(More gifts were to come—a goat and a cockerel later joined our number!)
All this got me thinking about the ties that bind us all together. Here we were, people from different sides of the world, coming together, sharing what we have to give. It was very humbling. It also put me in mind of that rousing hymn I learnt as a child: “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love” (I have fond memories of my sisters and I belting it out!)
Speaking of ties, on that intrepid trip north we stopped for lunch at a town called Gbarnga (pronounced “Banga”). It had been severely damaged during the war years, but was now a bustling place with street markets and a slight feel of the Wild West. Who’d have thought that this once was the sister town of Baltimore, Maryland—home to CRS headquarters?
And the CRS link even popped up as I changed planes in Accra, Ghana, on my way to Monrovia. I made my way to the immigration booth to have my passport checked (why does it always make me just that little bit nervous…even though I know I’m not clandestine?). The officer asked who I worked for. When he heard the reply, his face lit up. “CRS! They worked in the village where I’m from. They came to my school. It was CRS that fed me! God bless you.” The delight was mutual and I walked away with a new-found glow for my first trip to the field.
So as I look out from my hotel room at the bars on the windows and the rolls of barbed wire on the walls, I’m hoping that ties of love will be felt this week. That peace can prevail. That people will remember that we are, all of us, part of one human family.
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