Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Another Perspective on Liberia

By Heidi Baumgartner
Hunter College High School, New York

Leaving Roberts International Airport after a long flight from frigid New York City to Liberia, faint shadows of the landscape were all I could see of the new continent I had just landed on. It was a late hour of a humid February night when I arrived in West Africa with my teacher and one of his former students. For the next ten days I would be aiding them with humanitarian work, and exploring a place that was like nothing I had seen before. It was my first time in a third-world country and had no idea of what to expect in an area that only a few short years prior was a war zone.
An unexpected lack of running water and a broken generator awaited us at the house in Congo Town where we stayed that night. These conditions are commonplace to the majority of Liberians, but I admittedly was in a bit of a shock at having to grope my way through the darkness to the bed that the three of us had to share. Never having been deprived of running water, electricity and privacy, which as an American I had always considered essential resources that one could not live without, I was awakened to the fact that what I had always taken for granted could be considered a set of luxuries to others.

The closest previous contact I had with hardship was through my mother’s stories of growing up in impoverished Communist Poland after World War II. Her descriptions of the abject conditions she had to endure as a child were vivid in my mind as I thought about what I would find life to be like in this part of the world that was new to me, which was also still emerging from terrible civil conflict. But how similar could modern Liberia be to an Eastern European country fifty years ago?
My mother recollects much about the lasting effects of the war that ravaged the country. As has happened in Liberia, many buildings and roads in Poland were destroyed; centralized electricity and running water disappeared in many parts of the country. Water had to be carried from the bottom of the hill that my mother’s family lived on, up to the second floor of the building. The first floor was used as a schoolhouse, where seven large classes were fit into four rooms. Her father—my grandfather—was among the first group of college graduates in the country to receive a master’s degree after the war. He subsequently became a schoolteacher in an effort to contribute to the rebuilding of Poland. However, it was difficult. Several million Polish people had died in the war, the economy was destroyed, and the capital city was leveled to the ground in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising. There was no foreign aid and no U.N. assistance, leaving the ineffectual and corrupt Communist system imposed by the Soviet Union to cause far more harm than help. Soviet Communist propaganda was heard on the radio, newspapers were censored by the government, and political opponents were thrown into jail.

Under the Communist system, almost nothing was available in stores and there were few opportunities for employment, so my mother and her sister had to help their parents by picking mushrooms and berries and selling them in the market. Army trenches still scarred the land in Poland, and my mother remembers having to walk through them when she went to the forest. Fragments of grenades and land mines scattered the ground; reports about accidents caused by explosions of old undetonated mines were common. In the schoolhouse, one day a boy brought a grenade that he had found. To everyone’s horror, the teacher saw it was undetonated and called the police.

In Liberia I also saw remnants from the war, and problems obviating a system in need of improvement. The fa├žades of government buildings were still visibly scorched, and sadly the people on the streets of Monrovia seemed far too accustomed to the many burning heaps of trash to do anything about them. Over the next week I experienced firsthand the necessity to bribe every police or customs officer to proceed without trouble. I drove on the potholed dirt highway from Monrovia to Ganta, breathing in the nauseating fumes from overfilled trucks that were sold to Liberia because they no longer passed emission requirements in other countries. I saw the omnipresent markets, with children desperately selling the few small items they had in front of them rather than going to school. Yet in the same way that Poland was able to recover from its problems, Liberia will be able to repair itself too.

Perhaps some lessons from Poland’s recovery can be applied to Liberia. I ask my mother what she thinks was the main factor that contributed to the recovery of Poland. The hard work of every single person, she says. Polish people took it unto themselves to make life better, not being able to rely on the government. Thus each and every person rebuilt his own house and planted a garden to grow food and save for the winter. Education was made a priority, as it was known that schooling was the key to advancement. The spectacular rebuilding of Warsaw became a source of national pride, with songs about progress becoming popular (such as the well-known song Budujemy nowy dom, or “We’re building a new house”) and schoolchildren learning about the hard work and strong values of the Polish people. And it was precisely these qualities of determination and self-help that allowed individuals better their lives, rebuild their homes and reestablish infrastructure. With time, Polish people regained independence from the oppressive Soviet rule and returned to a free market system.

And with time, Liberia will rise again. The aspirations, hard work, and strong morals of each individual can assure this success. What has been achieved since the war has been very significant, and the momentum of the progress will be sustained. Reconstruction will continue, and I hope that soon the streets of Monrovia will be cleaned. Maybe more people will take advantage of the relatively fertile soil of the region to grow their own gardens and lessen the burden of food costs on the family. I saw that Liberian students are motivated and well-disciplined, but those children who do not go to school need to be pushed into the classroom. Undaunted by the hindrances of ineffectual leadership, indifferent to the empty promises of foreign aid, and embracing the diversity of culture in Liberia to foster a sense of nationalism and unity, the Liberian people will sustain a lasting peace and prosperity.

About the Author
Heidi Baumgartner from Hunter College High School traveled to Liberia in February 2009 with her teacher Asumana Jabateh Randolph and his former student David Bauer, who is now studying at City University of New York. The group conducted workshops for science teachers about inexpensive laboratory technology that can be incorporated into the classroom. More information about their I-HELP Liberia Project can be found at http://www.ihelpliberia.com. The trip was also sponsored by LIMANY, the Liberian Mandingo Association of New York.

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