The Tragedy of Liberia: Part IV… Peace Corps Returns

 Hopefully todays young people in Liberia  will not face the grim future my students shown here from 1967 faced.

Hopefully, today’s young people in Liberia will not have to face the grim future my students shown here from 1967 experienced.

Peace Corps exited Liberia in 1990 because of the danger to Volunteers created by the civil war. At the request of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, the organization returned in 2008.  Once again Volunteers are spreading throughout the country and joining with Liberian teachers in educating young people.  At this time, they are teaching math, science, and English– subjects the Liberian government has determined are critical to the development of the country. Of equal importance to their jobs is the sense of friendship and stability Peace Corps Volunteers bring to Liberia. They become part of their communities, live at the level of their peers, roll up their sleeves, and go to work. It’s how Peace Corps does business. It provides a powerful message.

As I follow blogs of Volunteers presently serving in Liberia, I am struck by the similarities of challenges we were faced with in the 60s, but I am struck even more by the differences. How could it be otherwise given the devastation the country has been through? We dealt with absenteeism, lack of supplies, corruption, and the daily challenges of living and functioning effectively in another culture. But our students and communities had never experienced the fear, psychotic behavior, and death the civil wars unleashed.  Neither were we overly concerned with our own security, as Volunteers must be now. (Although I must confess that when the soldiers came pounding on my door with their guns at 4 AM one morning in 1966, I was a wee bit concerned.)

Capacity building, helping people to help themselves, has always been a central goal of the Peace Corps. The Bosh Bosh project in Salala, Bong County provides an excellent example of what can happen when a talented and enthusiastic Peace Corps Volunteer is paired with a welcoming and supportive community. Charlene Espinoza from San Diego, California began her Peace Corps assignment in 2011. She has documented her experience on her blog. I highly recommend reading it for an insight into Peace Corps life.

Here’s the short version of the Bosh Bosh story. The community of Salala built a house for Peace Corps Volunteers– even though none had been assigned to the town. Dutifully impressed, Peace Corps posted Charlene, along with a roommate, Kristin Caspar, to teach junior high at the Martha Tubman Public School in Salala. The two were soon consumed with teaching, tutoring and building a library. A few months into their tour, they went on a brief vacation in Sierra Leone where Charlene came across a purse made out of brightly colored lappa scraps. (Lappa cloth is the fabric that West African women use as wrap around dresses and that tailors turn into shirts and other clothing.)

Inspiration struck! What if she went back to Salala and introduced the concept there. Young women could be taught how to sew and develop marketable products. In addition to learning valuable skills, the girls would also be increasing their self-confidence. The LapaScraps Project, later to become the Bosh Bosh Project, was born. Bosh Bosh is a Liberian word for different types of fabrics.

Charlene, working closely with her Liberian counterpart at school, reestablished a local but dormant Girl’s Club and recruited young women to sew lappa scrap bags.  The girls loved the work and the project soon acquired several sewing machines. A tailor was hired to come in and teach the girls more sophisticated sewing techniques. New market lines such as purses and E-reader covers were introduced. Regular seminars in everything from women’s rights to HIV Aids Awareness were also offered to the club members. As the products begin to sell, profits were put back into the project, providing the girls with full scholarships to meet their education costs.

What is most important about the Bosh Bosh Club is how it has changed the self-perception of the young women working on the project. They now believe they have a future; they have hope. And they are eager to make a difference in their country. Most have a perspective similar to Comfort Thomas who is 20 years old and has a six-year-old child:

“I decided to join the Salala Girls Club because I like the projects objective. I have learned a lot while being in the club. I have learned how to sew different things, and it has made me more aware of my own health through the workshops offered and has given me a better understanding of how to take care of myself and think about my future as well. When I graduate from high school, I want to attend the University of Liberia and major in Political Science so that I can work in the Ministry of Education, and help many indigent people in Liberia and around the world.”

You can go to the Bosh Bosh website and learn more about the organization, its products, and the participants.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Liberia are also working to help the country. I recently received a call from Judy Reed of Madison, Wisconsin. Judy served in Liberia Group IV (1964-66) with my friend Morris Carpenter. In 2007 she and a friend, Jane Scharer, visited Liberia and reconnected with 15 of her former students who are now adults in their 50s and 60s. She describes the experience as “bittersweet.” Many had barely survived the war years and had lost family members to the conflict. Life continued to be hard. Their children had few opportunities for education.

Judy and Jane returned to the US determined to help. They created a small non-profit organization called the Liberian Assistance Program and went to work. Former Peace Corps Volunteers, friends and community organizations jumped in and offered support. Today, as a result, a new school stands in the town of Cow Field with over 200 students and 15 employees. The principal is a former student of Judy’s. My wife Peggy and I have signed up to sponsor a student at the school for three years.

The most extensive Return Peace Corps Volunteer effort is being carried out by Friends of Liberia (FOL). FOL was originally created as an alumni group for returned Volunteers in 1986. By 1989 the organization was centrally involved in raising awareness in the US about the plight of Liberians involved in the civil conflict, and in seeking solutions to end the horrendous war, a role it continued to play up until the close of the conflict in 2003.

Today FOL is focused on encouraging early childhood education/teacher training, improving the skills of health care workers, and in fostering entrepreneurship. The latter involves helping identify, educate and provide startup capital to motivated Liberians who would like to build small businesses. The ultimate goal here is to support the development of a middle class, a move that is essential to the long-term stability and prosperity of the nation.

Peace Corps is only one of numerous private and government agencies that are offering aid to Liberia and other African nations. One of the most ambitious programs is being pursued by the Obama administration: providing 7 billion dollars for electrification in Sub-Sahara Africa. Obviously this program has the potential of making a significant difference in the lives of Africans, assuming it lives up to its promise of building internal capacity, balancing urban and rural needs, and using both traditional and renewable energy sources.

Liberia is blessed with natural resources. Historically, these resources have been exploited by outside economic interests such as Firestone and have served to make a small minority of Liberia’s population wealthy. Used to benefit the nation, these resources can provide the base for rebuilding the country. Continued investment by outside corporations is critical. Obviously such investments require a stable government and a promise of profits, but they also need to be accompanied with decent salaries, training for the workforce, focus on local development, and protection of the environment. Balance between meeting the needs of the investors and meeting the needs of the country is critical.

The tragedy of Liberia is a tragedy shared by most other African nations. The past history of colonialism and outside exploitation combined with Africa’s own unique challenges such as tribalism, minimal education and lack of economic development, have left these nations easy prey to outside forces and internal abuse. From slavery, to ivory trade, to blood diamonds, to rare woods and even rarer minerals, Africa has been viewed as a way to instant, illicit wealth regardless of its cost in human life and suffering. It has also been viewed as a battleground between powerful, opposing forces. Colonial nations, various religious groups, and dominant political blocks have all seen Africa as a means to some outside objective.

Liberia is still very fragile and must have continued support from the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and other countries. What is desired, however, is independence, not dependence. The country, with help, has the potential of standing on its own and becoming a model for the rest of war-torn Africa, not simply another tragedy in a long line of tragedies.

My students at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga from 1965 to 67 were as bright, caring, and ambitious as any group of young people. They were excited about their future. They saw their dreams dashed by greed, corruption and civil war. It is my hope that today’s youth, given guidance, education and opportunity, can become the backbone of a more prosperous, democratic, and peaceful nation.

24 comments on “The Tragedy of Liberia: Part IV… Peace Corps Returns

  1. I heartily second that wish. It is good to hear about specific countries and how they are progressing, it is all to easy to think of Africa as a country (a rather than an enormously varied continent). I have no real connection to any one African country and yet the difficulties many Africans face is often on my conscience. I think the education of girls will have the greatest influence for a better future, so we support Camfed among others. It is great to read about the Peace Corps and all the ongoing activities giving people hope of a better future. Thank you.

  2. The Bosh Bosh Club was an inspiration – it must be very rewarding to be in the Peace Corps and have a chance to make such a difference. Great to hear that you can carry on your involvement – sponsoring a student is a super thing to do!

  3. The Peace Corp has always had my respect and admiration. It’s people like yourself and many others that do leave footprints of hope in the lives of those struggling to find a place in this world.
    Salute’

  4. I, too, share your hopes, Curt. “It’s how Peace Corps does business.” If you, sir, are a “typical” example of a Peace Corps volunteer, great things are in store for struggling Liberia. Salala, LAP and FOL are just the beginning…

  5. Curt we are always surprised by the people we meet on line. Some who seem like every day folks, turn out to be the most spectacular hero’s to be sure!! You are one of those. You seem like a normal guy, yet you have the heart of a lion, a passion that is unmatched along with an understanding of what life could be!! If I may, I would love to quote back your brilliant words: “What is desired, however, is independence, not dependence. The country, with help, has the potential of standing on its own and becoming a model for the rest of war-torn Africa, not simply another tragedy in a long line of tragedies.”
    You my friend are a prime example of what humanity should strive to achieve by compassion. Excellent post and much needed lesson. Sharing this now!! 😉

  6. Curtis, what a surprise! I ran into your blog and saw that you wrote about Bosh Bosh. Thank you for your words, it really means a lot. I found your entry to be very enlightening and insightful. Thank you for sharing. Hope to be in touch 🙂 ~Charlene.

    • Hi Charlene… How delightful to hear from you. I have been so impressed with what you have done… and with your blog. I read all of your entries. Actually I turned it into a marathon.:) One of my goals later this week was to contact FOL, Liberia Assistance and you. A question I was going to ask you was whether the Bosh Bosh project needs more outlets. Beyond that, I was going to ask whether you would add anything to what I said about the project. Finally I also wanted your input on Liberia today. So I hope we can be in touch as well. In addition to my blog, my Email is cvmekemson@gmail.com. I am looking forward to hearing from you. –Curt

  7. Curt, your series on Liberia is truly an inspiration to past, present and future generations of Peace Corps Volunteers and others who seek to help struggling peoples and countries. Your dedication and follow through are admirable. I was so glad when you said, “What is desired, however, is independence, not dependence.” As one who also worked in Africa (Sudan) I feel you really captured the essence of the challenge in those words. Thanks so much for your insight, information and compassion. All the best, Terri

    • Thank you Terri. Africa has had more than its share of horrendous experiences. There has to be a way through the thicket, however, a way to end the insanity and move on to a brighter future. The Peace Corps had faltered at times, as all organizations must, but I truly believe in the philosophy of the organization and the dedication of the Volunteers. I also believe that both the Volunteers, and the US, have gotten far more out of the experience than we have ever been able to give. I sure did. –Curt

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