Bishop John Cafod Diary – Part 2, LiberiaMonday 5th November 2018
Bishop John is currently on a trip to Sierra Leone and Liberia. We will be sharing his diary in two parts. The second part of the diary published below shares his thoughts on his travels in Liberia.
You can read the first part of his journey in Sierra Leone here.
Cafod Trip to Liberia – October/ November 2018
The Republic of Liberia is on the West African coast. It is bordered by Sierra Leone to its west, Guinea to its north and Ivory Coast to its east, the Atlantic Ocean to its south. It covers an area of 111,369 square kilometres (compared with U.K’s 242,500 sq Km) and has a population of around 4,700,000 people. English is the official language and over 20 indigenous languages are spoken, representing the numerous ethnic groups who make up more than 95% of the population. The country’s capital and largest city is Monrovia.
Liberia was the first African republic to proclaim its independence, and is Africa’s first and oldest modern republic. Liberia retained its independence during the Scramble for Africa. During World War II, Liberia supported the United States war efforts against Germany and in turn, the U.S. invested in considerable infrastructure in Liberia to help its war effort, which also aided the country in modernising and improving its major air transportation facilities. In addition, President William Tubman encouraged economic changes. Internationally, Liberia was a founding member of the Leaugue of Nations, United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity.
1980 saw a military coup that marked the beginning of years-long political instability. Five years of military rule by the People’s Redemption Party and five years of civilian rule by the National Democratic Party of Liberia were followed by the First and Second Liberian Civil Wars. These resulted in the deaths of 250,000 people (about 8% of the population), the displacement of many more and shrunk Liberia’s economy by 90%. A peace agreement in 2003 led to democratic elections in 2005, in which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected President.
Recovery proceeds but about 85% of the population lives below the international poverty line. Liberia’s economic and political stability was threatened in the 2010s by an Ebola virus epidemic; it originated in Guinea in December 2013, entered Liberia in March 2014, and was declared officially ended on May 8, 2015
We were collected by Fr Denis and had a short drive to the convent. It is a community of four nuns but three of them are travelling so only Sr Audrey was there with a young man who lives at the convent and was ”adopted” by the sisters as a young orphan during the war. We had a simple Mass at 7am in a little chapel but I had to raise my voice all the time because of the noise of the heavy rain outside. Sister proved to be a very good drummer and kept the rhythm of our hymns. We had breakfast that sister had prepared. The Order, Sisters of the Holy Family, was founded in 1980 by a diocesan bishop in Kipalmas and all the sisters are from that Diocese but, to date, there are only fifteen of them, as fully professed. There are some novices and they are hopeful. But they are qualifying in crucial work. Sr Audrey has just qualified as a lecturer in nursing, two of the others in social work.
We went to our next meeting, via our hotel, to see the scope of the work of Caritas in Liberia. The CAFOD staff is just five, four women and a man. Two are Liberians, two Nigerians and a Kenyan. We were again given some of the stark realities of this country and its poverty. We were told:
Liberia is number 181 out of 189 on the poverty list. A country of 4.6 million, 60% under 25. The land is lush and fertile and is one of the wettest countries in the world but 80% of food is imported. There is a 64% poverty rate. While rich in minerals (gold, iron ore, timber etc.) the profit and wealth is taken abroad. The infrastructure is even worse than Sierra Leone. Only 25% have access to clean water. 3.7 million don’t have access to a toilet
The eleven year war set the country back in the modest progress that it had made, with 250,000 dead (8% of the population). Just about everyone lost family and friends, often in the most brutal ways. There is a great emphasis on reconciliation. Gender imbalance is poor and leaves Liberia at 150 out of 159. There is less than one doctor to 10,000 people
The Church is well respected and several leading politicians and lawyers are devout Catholics. The new government has four “pillar” principles for development. There is progress but it is slow.
Then we met with the Archbishop of Monrovia and a couple of other priests for lunch which was followed by another more formal meeting with them and a discussion about the relationship between the National Caritas Liberia and the individual diocesan Caritas organisations. There is no doubting that CAFOD has done, and is doing, good work. Everyone admits that progress is slow in recovering from the war and the Ebola crisis. The dismal infrastructure is hampering progress.
We then made our way to the British Embassy and had a very informative hour with the Ambassador. The Ambassador admitted that the UK’s involvement and investment in Liberia is much less that in Sierra Leone, for historical reasons, but there is clearly an interest in collaborating with others and encouraging development.
The rain has come in three heavy doses today. People are worried. They are well used to the rains in this one of the wettest countries in the world, but the seasons are clearly changing. Heavy storms like today’s are a month late and we should be experiencing the dry season. It throws the agriculture into confusion.
Our various meetings today have been in a variety of places so we have seen something of the city. It is built on a grid basis with parallel streets. That all sounds good but the state of the roads is as bad as Freetown, so many of them unpaved and potholed. There is a presence of at least a few government buildings gathered together in the centre of the city – but they are few and there is no sense of landscaping. Every significant building is surrounded by fencing and walls, with razor wire with security guards. There are signs of a very significant investment by the Chinese in the few government buildings. The rest of the city seems to be as poor and disorganised as Freetown and Bo. There are perhaps a few more houses and apartments but the great majority of housing, in this city of over a million, is shacks and huts. The heavy rain certainly disrupted the life of the city, especially with large and deep puddles appearing which were not draining away.
Amidst all that chaos, the children were still smartly uniformed and making their way to school and the bartering and trading going on in the numerous stalls and shops on every main road.
Tomorrow we begin our visit to partners in the rural areas. It all looks fascinating but it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer extent of poverty. The city we have seen is vibrant even though so many people must live with the constant uncertainty about tomorrow.
The sky looks a lot brighter and the road outside is generally dry but there are puddles on the sides that clearly have no drainage. I wonder what the roads outside the city will be like? We are travelling on one of the very few tarmac roads to Bong County, a three and a half hours drive. (Strange that here no-one talks about distance for a journey – always the time it should take).
We set off at 8am through some pretty awful and chaotic traffic. It is rush hour, of course, and the traffic coming into the city is more or less at a standstill. There are various 4×4 vehicles with flashing lights who seem to have priority and simply drive at speed on the wrong side of the road. The road is good and, remarkably, once outside the city, it is almost empty. There is not a sign of a cloud in the sky today. We pass through a half dozen market areas on the way but, apart from the business of these places, we actually only see any another vehicles every couple of miles or so. We are travelling more or less right across the country and in fact we see the bridge of the border into Guinea during the afternoon.
The first stop is a village called Kpein, in Nimba county, which I reckon must be at least 150 miles from Monrovia. We had the good road up until a final right turn onto a sand track and the last mile or two took a considerable amount of time through potholes and deep puddles. Kpein was actually a little more established than most of the villages that we have seen, with a large school. The houses are mainly of brick or concrete and the surrounds are tidy. We were taken into a covered space for a meeting with the members of two committees; one concerning the resolution of land disputes and the other concerning the education and implementation of new laws concerning women’s rights to property. We had an explanation of the new state laws concerning the registration of land and the establishing of property rights. This has not been done before and every community has been asked to make a first step in self-identification of their own property boundaries. The new law needs to be implemented quickly among the communities or the new law might just render itself redundant. Where there are disputes, the committee has been resolving the details rather than allowing things to go to costly court proceedings. It appears to be working well.
The other committee deals with new laws concerning the rights of women to have property. Until recently a woman paid a dowry at marriage and, should she be widowed, she had no right to her husband’s property. Nor could daughters inherit. The new laws have given good rights but these need to be properly understood by women at a local level. The meeting concluded with appreciation of CAFOD’s work in educating the community. Both committees have women as half the membership.
We had two very impressive visits after lunch. Both were in Ganta City. We went down a track to a series of huts which were little more than garden sheds. In one of them we met a young lady who has set up her own business, through CAFOD training, as a hairdresser and makeup artist. She had a customer when we arrived who had a child – perhaps six months old – with her. She was having her hair braided. The five visitors could barely get into the hut and it was stiflingly hot but we heard of all the success of this 20 year old who had sat at home doing nothing before the training was provided. As she graduated the various equipment she needed was provided. She now trains others in her skill.
We went from there to a market street crowded with people. We entered a large shed with about sixteen people at work on sewing machines. Again, it was stiflingly hot. All the people were young, and included a couple of men. We spoke to one young woman, Florence, who had sold oranges before she saw an advert offering training. She gave details of how she had trained and been given a sewing machine and come to work with this group. Next to her was a rather remarkable young lady who had not only trained as a seamstress but had then motivated her husband to train in cosmetic production. He had been unemployed and whatever money she provided had barely covered the cost of food for her two children. The life of the family had been transformed. She now is able to earn $160 a week. She has been able to put her children in a better school and provided for her ageing parents. She now has a reasonable income and can help her family. There was a young man ironing the new clothes. His iron was a metal box filled with burning charcoal. But it was effective.
We next had a half hour journey back to the city of Gbarnga (pronounced Banga) in Bong County. Again, it is one of the largest cities but has no plan. We are staying here for two nights and I think we were a little nervous as to our accommodation. We have electricity from 6pm to 7am only. The bathroom has a large tub of water for when the water supply fails. The rooms are clean and, as in modern hotels at home, we have a plastic swipe card for access.
The city is the home of the Diocese of Gbarnga and we will meet the bishop tomorrow – as he has returned from the Synod on Youth in Rome. I am to celebrate Mass, The Feast of All Saints, on Thursday in his cathedral.
As I write this, the electricity has come on and it is beginning the get dark outside. In the last couple of hours the blue sky has turned to dark clouds and I wonder if there will be rain to come.
There was some rain last evening but there is only a light cloud this morning as day breaks. I saw a bright orange sunrise from my window which overlooks a muddle of little houses all surrounded by thick vegetation and trees. People were emerging from doorways, so many of them putting large containers or bundles on their heads. Everywhere in both these countries men, women and even young children seem to opt for this way of transporting things. Workmen often have long planks or poles on their heads and we have seen some very heavy looking burdens which do not seem to trouble the carrier at all.
A couple of statistics came to light yesterday. Liberia has 85.65% Christians and 12.2% Moslems, quite the reverse to Sierra Leone. The Catholic population is small as most Christians belong to the evangelical churches. I must ask if the same level of acceptance and collaboration exists. 50.9% do not have basic food requirements and 75% of people between 15 and 35 years are unemployed. But there is peace and in early 2018 there was the first peaceful transfer of power in 74 years.
There are lovely names for churches, businesses ventures and schools. I noted a few in just one small town as we passed through. My Brother’s Keeper Academy, Heavenly Blessings Academy, Powerful Church, All God’s Children Irrigation Plant, Image of Christ Deliverance Church, Signed by God Business Centre, Smart Kids academy. Many of the vehicles have slogans or titles: “God smile on me”, “Divine Power”.
We set off at 8am for the roughest ride yet. As soon as we reached the city boundary we found ourselves on a road under construction. So far it is just a sand track with the forest cleared away on either side. It was a very bumpy hour and a quarter. But there was almost no traffic. I counted just five cars coming in the opposite direction over what must have been more than twenty miles. There were just twelve vehicles on the way back. We passed through various little townships which were effectively markets were people will bring produce from their farms. Some were very busy and there were some large schools which suggests that many pupils come some distance from isolated places.
We reached Belefanai Village at 9.15am. This is an open area of houses with 3,000 people. It is also the hub for 44 small surrounding communities, divided into four zones. The main activity is cultivating rice. Here we met members of the committee on land rights. We heard, as yesterday, about the new law and the need for self-identification of boundaries in order that they can be properly registered with central government. The difficulties here include the fact that some of the member communities are not accessible by road and are deep in the dense forests that we saw all the way along the road. Negotiating borders relies on oral history as nothing has been written before. But there seems to be a genuine desire to compete the work – but the law is requiring it to be done in 24 months. Every effort is being made to avoid the courts and the slow and expensive legal work.
We also discussed the new laws establishing the rights of women to own land and maintain that ownership in marriage. There has been a prevailing tradition here that the woman is the property of the husband and that is coming to an end. The main concern now is to ensure that everyone understands this law.
We went from there to Wainsue Village to visit a lady who has been trained in soap manufacture. We met a lady Chief of the village – there are almost no women chiefs in the whole of rural Liberia. The young woman explained the process but it was a little disappointing as she has had to wait to save enough money to buy the palm oil for the next batch. But she was pleased with her achievements and the Chief was very proud of her. As we spoke with her, over thirty curious small children came and stood silently around us.
From there we travelled back on the road we had come and stopped at Gbarney Village. This was off the unmade road, along a track but when we reached it the village was a very considerable size. There have been several projects here and we met initially with four ladies who had taken training in literacy, baking and hairdressing. But they were also the three key holders of the village credit union. We had seen this in Sierra Leone and I understood it better this time. The village start with no grant or gift but a group of thirty come together (in this case 29 women and one man) and they deposit their saving by buying shares in their little bank. They can buy more shares as money becomes available or they may ask for loans. Others may also ask for loans and repay with a small interest. The project seems to work well and provides security for people when various unforeseen needs arise. As before, we saw the box with the three locks and inside there was a considerable amount of money saved. Periodically the share-holders receive a dividend.
One of the women in the group, Martha, has used her membership of the bank to open a shop and we went to see it. There was quite a variety of drinks and snacks and some tinned goods. It has become a bit of a social centre in the evening.
We travelled back along that impossible road to Gbarnga (pronounced simply Banger). There was a change of plan and we could not visit the last planned project of the day. We went instead to a water project that we would have seen tomorrow. Being there today will give us more flexibility in our return to Monrovia. We were within the city boundary of Gbarnga in a small community which has no electricity. CAFOD provided a borehole earlier this year and it is working well but not really sufficient for the needs of the community since, though not a large number of people, they are spread over a wide area and many people have a distance to walk. We went from there to the local primary school which has 900 students! CAFOD has provided new toilets, which it must be said were indeed clean and serviceable but the shocking statistic is that there are just four toilets for 900 children! There is the additional problem that the school well is less than the prescribed 240ft from the toilets.
It has been a very hot day. I sense that we are all running out of energy. Tonight we have dinner with Bishop Anthony Borwah of the Diocese of Gbarnga and tomorrow the plan has changed. I have been asked to celebrate Mass in the seminary rather than in the Cathedral. It will be good to see the seminarians. I gather that they come to this seminary from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea but I shall know more in the morning.
The evening turned out to be quite a surprise. The electricity came on in the hotel at 6pm and I was able to send the email diary in the dining room. I returned to my room and suddenly there was a noisy rainstorm. It was as violent as the early morning storm in Monrovia with rain bouncing of the roofs and roads. The noise drowned out any other sound. There was a family cooking on an open fire below my window and they fled for cover – the fire was put out by the rain in seconds. It was a violent storm and lasted about half an hour but had reduced to light rain as we were driven to the Bishop’s residence which is in a compound with the Cathedral and the seminary. We were met by Bishop Anthony and a number of other clergy, including a nun and a Christian Brother and the rector of the seminary. The meal was ready and we settled to a range of dishes. I have generally avoided meat and tonight there was a buffet which included fish or goat soup, rice with chicken, beef and salads, all in generous quantities.
I sat next to the Bishop. Bishop Anthony was 44 when ordained bishop, seven years ago. He is from Fuja and was working as a priest in a parish in Monrovia, with responsibilities for the Media. He told us about his own sense of vocation and the momentous two years that he spent away from the seminary during his priestly training, teaching in a school. It was during the war and, while he had lost his own brother, he was also hearing terrible stories of what his pupils had witnessed and endured in the war. At one stage he recounted that a young man had told him that he (with other young boys) had been forced to sing and clap as men were executed in front of them. That had confirmed his vocation to service as a priest.
We had a very interesting evening talking about his large diocese. He has only 11 diocesan priests, working with six religious priests. He will have three new deacons next year. A very young looking priest was introduced to us as the Dean of the Cathedral – just one year ordained. He also has responsibility for the youth. We also spoke about the Synod on the Youth in Rome from which the bishop had just returned and he was warm in his praise for all that Pope Francis is achieving. In that he has my full endorsement.
We left about 9pm and were quickly back in the hotel. It will be an early start tomorrow with Mass at 7am in the seminary and then we hope to be on the road back to Monrovia.
Thursday morning… The Feast of All Saints. This also coincides this year with the national Thanksgiving Holiday, always on the first Thursday of November. It is not quite the Thanksgiving in the United States as this marks the thanksgiving for freedom from slavery in the States. The streets are definitely quieter but I doubt that anything would stop the markets here completely.
We have had a rather privileged visit to the seminary. The seminary is just a few hundred yards from the hotel and stands in a 50 acre compound which houses the cathedral, a large school, the bishop’s residence and a fine looking new pastoral centre. The buildings are among the best that we have seen in this city. The rest of the compound is used by the townspeople as a park and seems to be appreciated.
The 7am Mass included the distribution of white cassocks to three new seminarians who have had a couple of months initiation. It was rather like the clothing ceremony of a monastic order. The were presented with cassocks by me and then they went away to put them on and came back for a prayer and blessing. Then we had the candidacy of four of the more senior seminarians which is a moment of formal recognition that they are intending to complete their studies and be ordained. The singing of the twenty three seminarians was excellent, full of harmonies, with drums and organ. All were dressed in white cassocks and cottas. It was a lovely occasion.
We had a quick breakfast of bread and boiled eggs with the staff of the seminary. I spoke with the Spiritual Director, a priest from Nigeria and with the young vice rector. As with other priests who had studied during the war years, his studies were interrupted and seminary students moved from Liberia to Sierra Leone and then, because of the war there, to Gambia and Nigeria. He had lost his father and two uncles in the war at the time he was entering seminary. The seven staff were very good company.
I should correct something I wrote yesterday. The twenty three seminarians are all for Liberian dioceses with one student for the SMA fathers. It used to be that the seminarians had combined to have students from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea but that had ended, much as at the same time that the episcopal conference had divided. That might be something that they will re-think. Staffing a seminary requires more or less the same number of priests whether there are twenty students or eighty and suitable priests to teach and form students are in short supply.
The journey back to Monrovia was along a clear road – the best road, I am told, in Liberia. It is tarmac and without potholes. The traffic was lighter even than when we travelled the other way two days ago. The market towns along the way certainly had a lot of people but nothing like the crowds we had seen before. Again, there are children everywhere but no school uniforms to be seen on this national holiday.
For those of you who have read these diaries before, you will know that there is always a moment on these trips when I feel I have reached a point of turning back – that the elastic band has been stretched to its limit and I am now being pulled back and on my way home. I felt that had happened yesterday as we got into the car at the village of Gbarney (not the city named Gbarnga). We were in a very remote place, well off the established road. The remaining visits were on the way back to Monrovia and in the city of Monrovia itself. But we were in for a surprise today. We got back to Monrovia in just over three hours and had a break for lunch. By 1.30pm we were back in the cars and heading out of the city again. It was an hour’s drive, some of which was edging our way through impossible traffic on a real disaster of a road that not only serves the port of Monrovia, with the Port Authority, but is also the main road to Freetown – capital to capital. There was also an enormous market which seemed to be just as busy as ever. It not only stretched along the main road but on both sides there were streets and lanes stretching back – all loaded with staIls and goods and people.
Finally we were out of the city and on a fast road for about half an hour, entering a new county called Bomi and a district called Cheesemanburg before turning off onto the usual sandy, potholed track. After about a mile of careful negotiation of streams and steep hills, we reached a village called Queyondee. It was quite the tidiest and best ordered that we have seen, I think. We were meet by a group of village elders, including the local commissioner. He spoke so warmly about the progress that the village had made with the help of CAFOD. He had a lovely sense of humour and others joined in his joking manner. He was so pleased that he wanted to give us African names out of respect. We were to visit two of the projects that had been established.
It was back into the cars for a very rough ride along a path to a rice farm. Once out of the cars we had a walk through thick woodland to the farm .I have to forget the idea of a farm being a set of fields with a house and a barn. This was just a large patch of ground which had been cleared of the forest but was wildly overgrown with all sorts of vegetation. In one part there was a form of rice which I had not seen before, growing out of dry soil – which had dried after the rains. There were no paddy fields. The rice was being handpicked by the lady who owns the farm and a helper. There was a covered space nearby where another helper and her two children were peeling the rice from the stems. There were explanations about the different processes uses in this little space which prepares the rice for sale. The woman was also growing maize and peppers. It was a good little business, all organically done.
We drove back to the village and the walked some 400 yards, again through thick bush and forest to a fish farm, which was spectacular. Twenty women runs this business. They have five hand dug pools, each about twenty yards square. The pools have telapia fish at various stages of growth. Every two months or so the next pool is partly drained and the women gather the fish which is then sold immediately to the many women who have gathered by the pools. We saw a great deal of fish being sold in lots, many of them still wriggling about. This business is now being copied by two other groups nearby. Both the women sellers and the buyers seemed delighted with their market day. As we returned to the village we were shown a building equipped for the smoking of fish.
It was as we got back into the cars at this point that I felt that the return journey was beginning. This was a remote village, even though only an hour from the capital, but on a track that made it isolated and remote, deep inside the rain forest. I do not know why it seems important to sense the moment of turning back but it is then that I feel so privileged for all that I have been able to do and to see. The memories of this trip are loaded with the sadness of extreme poverty and, as in the trip to Rwanda, there has been much talk of the memories and experiences of war and disease, but there is always a sense of hope and purpose in the people that we have met. Their lives and changing and improving and, through their hard work, they are achieving great things for their families and communities.
Today should be just about tying up loose ends and being sure to get travel plans correct. We had a comparatively lazy start to the day with 8am breakfast and a departure at 9am to meet with the EU Head of Cooperation Theodorus Kaspers, (very new in post – just 20 days) and Vera Kellen, Programme Manager. We all expressed our uncertainty of the future after Brexit but agreed lots of goodwill based on very good relations with the CAFOD team and an openness to find the best way of collaborating in the future. On our way our of the building we were introduced to Hubert, a member of the EU Team. He said that he thought CAFOD brought a very helpful connection with the Catholic Church which he believed had been instrumental in developing the Lands Rights Legislation of which we have been hearing so much, and building an enthusiasm for it among the members of the legislature. I would be very pleased to think that might be true.
We made our way back to the hotel for a very positive de-brief. We have met bishops, an ambassador and a High Commissioner and leading members of the EU delegations. We have seen a good range of the projects and met with partners. I was pleased with the briefing notes that we had received before the trip and the assistance in preparing for the journey.
There are all sorts of little notes that I have made which have not been included in the diary. I think this is the time to add a few comments at random.
The traffic here has fallen into two very distinct categories. In the city it is, frankly, chaotic and pretty dangerous – especially for the pedestrians. There are no pavements anywhere. At best there is a painted line indicating the separation of road and pavement but that is to be ignored. Otherwise, the road equals the tarmac and any space claimed or needed. Pedestrians must be vigilant as cars, and particularly motorbikes and three wheel taxis will swerve to avoid other vehicles. We have been fortunate to have been ferried about in a 4×4 which has some authority – all smaller vehicles know to move out of the way. I have seen only two sets of traffic lights in Monrovia but they have been completely ignored. Drivers turn right or left as and when they can, nudging their way through the oncoming traffic. The rule on speed seems to be that you drive as fast as you can wherever possible and that includes rapid acceleration and hard braking in the main city streets. Once outside the cities, in both countries, the few roads have been eerily quiet and we have covered miles without sight of another vehicle. That seems to be a testament to the lack of confidence in any effective infrastructure. The busiest times seem to be in the very early mornings and late evenings when people are trying to get their produce to market and home again. The taxis are generally very ancient cars and all painted yellow. Most people seem to hire the three wheel motorbikes or simply sit as pillion passengers on a motorbike. When pointed out, I noticed a large proportion of cars with no number plates, quite illegal but the police do not seem to act.
Passing by the Port Authority yesterday was a clear example of lack of infrastructure. This is a main road between two capital cities and a main artery for the import and export of goods at the port. But there was about a mile of potholes and uneven surfaces that slowed everything to walking pace and the traffic weaved from one side of the road to the other, criss-crossing traffic coming in the opposite direction, all at walking pace.
We have seen a number of garbage mountains and, sadly, people foraging through them. Plastic is everywhere in the towns, all discarded around the many markets. It was so good to see at least some of the villages where there was no sign of any litter at all – and a sense of pride in the simplicity.
Football has been a fairly frequent source of conversation. The new President Weah was, apparently, a famous Milan player. There seems to be a great enthusiasm for various teams in the UK Premier League and mention of living in Manchester has often given me a bit more credibility! One moment saddened me. We were in that tiny shop run by Martha in the village and the whole interior “decoration” of the hut consisted of two wall posters. One had the pictures of about twenty of the world’s most famous soccer players; each pictured in front of their mansion with their elite car and accompanied by their glamorous wife/girlfriend. In the context of this poverty, I thought it depressing.
I continued to collect a few more names of evangelical churches that are everywhere. To name just a couple more: Amazing Facts Adventist Church, African Methodist Divine Ministries Church, Redemption Cathedral, Faith Redeemed Outreach Ministries, Sanctuary of Grace Church. Grace Filled Redeeming Church. Miracle Church. God’s Resurrection Army Church.None of them are more than huts.
I have noticed much more the use of mobile phones. They have been quietly increasing in number over the past few years but normally only the property of NGO workers. This still seemed to be the case in Sierra Leone but here in Liberia we have been in several meetings where the phones of the villagers have rung. To date, I have not seen a single child of school age with a mobile phone – long may their freedom from social media last!
I have hardly mentioned food. We have done well. The hotel breakfasts have produced bread and fruit and yoghurt. There has been no decaffeinated coffee but I can live without that! There is usually some type of fruit juice. The meals provided at meetings have been generally rice-based and there is always chicken and fish. The salads have looked very tasty but we have avoided them because of the dangers of the vegetables having been washed in unclean water. There have been no desserts, no ice cream anywhere – no great loss as far as I am concerned but I mention it just for the record. Dessert do not seen to be a part of the meal. We have had a couple of good meals in the hotels where there has been pasta and a range of Indian cuisine. And somewhere or other there is always a bowl of extremely hot and spicy sauce – excellent!
What will be my abiding memories? Poverty, certainly, a good bit of squalor. It is everywhere and indeed there are so few signs of any prosperity. The towns and cities lack any sense of coordinated planning and very few official buildings. Monrovia seems to stretch for miles along the coast in haphazard developments. Although obviously very poor, the villages have a sense of serenity, in comparison to the constant noise of the cities. We have been in one or two houses in villages but they are more or less empty shells with no decoration and little furniture. There are many derelict buildings and others unfinished but no longer necessarily under construction.
But there are the good memories of the beauty and dignity of the people and the majesty of the forests. The children have been everywhere, so often silent in their curiosity, and laughing in their games. They have crowded round us at every opportunity and, in the more rural areas, we have probably been the first white faces they have seen. Everywhere we have gone there have been families sitting together outside their homes. I have enjoyed the sight of so many babies being carried on their mothers’ backs, even sleeping soundly when the mother has been doing some stressful work like pounding rice or chopping up coconut shells. I have remarked on the number of people of every age group who carry loads on their heads. And everywhere there have been smiles and waves as we have passed by in our cars.
I learned that there are in fact some elephants in this country! However, they are apparently very shy and are hard to find in the wet forests of the extreme East of the country – a twelve to fifteen hour drive. So no sighting of elephants on this trip, sadly.
I will conclude this diary now. As usual, I have written far too much but it remains primarily my record to remind me of people and places, particularly if asked to give a talk. For however much you may have read, thank you for your interest in the work of CAFOD. I hope that what I have written at least gives a flavour of the wonderful impact CAFOD has on the lives of so many of the poorest people in our world. Lots of good work done – so much more to do!