About a decade ago, Dr. Ophelia Inez Weeks, Ph.D., then Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, gave a resounding speech to the African Studies Forum. Everything Dr. Weeks said, the most important one was the statement, “Liberia is not a poor country but a country that has been poorly managed,” Says Dr. Weeks. Is this statement true today?
THE AFRICAN STUDIES FORUM
29 SEPTEMBER 2006
LIBERIA: AN UNFORGETTABLE HOME, AN UNRECOGNIZABLE COUNTRY, A HOPEFUL PEOPLE
By: Ophelia Inez Weeks, Ph.D. Associate Professor
Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University
My talk with you today may be quite different from the usual in that I will be offering personal reflections on my recent May 18th-June 19th, 2006 trip home, to Liberia…not objective reflections, very subjective ones. But first, it is important for you to know a little more about my background to better appreciate my vantage point.
My Vantage Point
I was born in Washington D. C. in 1951 while my parents were students at Howard University. My parents had left Liberia in 1949 by ship for higher education in the United States: my mother to begin her undergraduate education, my father to study Law. They returned home in 1955 after my father had completed his Masters in Law at Cornell University. I was 3 years old. I was raised in Liberia where I received my formative education, including completing high school in Liberia. My university education began at the University of Liberia and after completing my first year there, in 1970, I was awarded a Liberian Government scholarship to further my education abroad. During that period (up to early 1980), I was very lucky to return home on an annual basis, which allowed me the opportunity to maintain very close ties with home.
When a coup d’état occurred in April of 1980, and the military government abruptly terminated government-sponsored scholarships of many students studying abroad, I had one semester left towards completing my Ph.D. Unlike many of my peers, I was lucky. Although I was in the USA as a Liberian Government-sponsored student with a Liberian passport, I had been born in the USA. I immediately procured a copy of my birth certificate and promptly applied for and was awarded a graduate fellowship, as a US citizen.
My next trip home was in 1986 to attend my father’s funeral (just a few weeks before my job interview at FIU), and again in 1989, to visit family and friends. The last visit was a few months before the even more brutal, bloody coup and civil war began. My recent return home was 17 years later.
Liberians have endured over two decades of unimaginable brutal turmoil, abuse, suffering and neglect. In 2005, after the peaceful election of a very abled, qualified individual in the person of Dr. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberians are slowly and hopefully exhaling, eager to rebuild Liberia. Yet in the shadows is a minority of people who for personal monetary gains want the pain, the suffering, and the chaos to continue.
GUIDE TO AN UNFORGETTABLE HOME
I remember Liberia as a beautiful country, the type of country, the type of home that one never forgets. I also remember the inequities between the privileged and the not so privileged, those with access and educational opportunities and those without.
So first, let me tell you a little about the geographical, cultural and historical landscape of Liberia as well as a few of the memories of Liberia, as home that will always be with me.
Liberia is situated on the west coast of Africa between Sierra Leone on the west, Guinea on the north, Cote d’Voire on the east, and the Atlantic Ocean on the south. It is 43,000 square miles with 360 miles of spectacularly beautiful Atlantic Ocean coastline. Liberia is about the size and shape of the state of Tennessee. Its terrain can be divided into three main areas: along the coast there are mangrove swamps and beautiful beaches; in the middle of the country there are wooded hills and deciduous shrub lands and in the interior lays dense tropical forests and plateaus. There is a dry season and a rainy season that lasts for about 4-6 months. It may surprise many of you to know that about 40% of West Africa’s rainforest is in Liberia!
With a tropical rainforest climate and an average temperature of about 90o F, you can imagine the potential for abundant natural resources including agricultural and industrial products. Liberia’s natural products include diamonds, gold, iron ore, rubber, tin and timber. The Ministry of Lands & Mines has reported that along Liberia’s Atlantic Coast are very large deposits of crude oil (could this be the reason for the renewed interest in Liberia?). Liberia’s major agricultural products include bananas, cassava, citrus, cocoa, coffee, corn, palm oil, pineapples, plantains, rice, sweet potatoes and sugarcane. With its abundance of sun and rain, any tropical fruit can grow in Liberia…. there are mangos, coconuts, breadfruit, you name it. During better days, Liberia’s industry largely consisted of agriculture, nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, construction, diamonds, forestry, gold, iron ore, and rubber. Exports consisted meanly of raw materials, while imports were mostly finished products including food, fuel, automobiles, machinery, pharmaceuticals and tobacco as well as live animals.
The Liberian people, a very hospitable and welcoming people personifying a “vive a joie” (even during the worst of times), consist of over 30 indigenous populations forming 16 major ethnic groups identified by language, spatial clustering, food preparation and customs, as well as descendants of freed American slaves, free African Americans and West Indians (largely from Barbados). The constitution of Liberia limits citizenship to individuals of Negro descent and by law; land ownership is restricted to citizens of Liberia.
During pre-war times, Liberia’s academic institutions were excellent, its cultural programs and its skilled artisans flourished. This little country with only about 3 million people with enormous talent and promise and an abundance of natural resources was on the brink of…. endless possibilities. No one ever imagined that one of those possibilities would be a bloody military coup d’état in 1980, followed by an even more uncivil, brutal, bloody, civil war from 1989-2003 that resulted in close to a quarter of a million-people dead, about a million persons displaced in refugee camps in nearby countries, and thousands more fleeing to more distant African, American, Asian, Canadian and European Countries. During this time, there were no living standards in Liberia. Liberia’s infrastructure, its educational system, its health care system were all destroyed! What happened? This is where a brief historical perspective may be helpful.
A Brief Historical Perspective
In the early 1800s and the mid 1800s (1821-1867), freed American slaves and free African Americans resettled in a part of West Africa that would become the Republic of Liberia under the sponsorship of a group of prominent white American abolitionists, clergymen, and slave owners. They were members of the American Colonization Society (ACS). 400 years earlier, the Portuguese had explored this part of West Africa and had named the region the Grain Coast because of the abundance of malegueta Peppers (also called grains of paradise). 200 years later the English set up trading posts that were demolished a year later by the Dutch. It would be another 200 years before re-settlers from the USA would arrive.
In 1847, this new republic gained its independence from the ACS, but indigenous Africans were denied citizenship. With limited skilled workers and craftsmen, a call was put out by the Liberian Government to people of Negro descent especially in the West Indies to come help build this fledging country. Responding to the call, re-settlers from Barbados landed in Liberia in 1865. My paternal grandfather’s mother and father were 8 and 7-year-old children traveling with their parents on that ship. The ship was called the “Cora” (I have a copy of the ship’s manifest). It was not until 1904 that indigenous Africans in Liberia were “afforded citizenship”.
Until the coup d’état of 1980, Liberia was a one-party state ruled by the True Whig Party whose membership consisted largely of descendants from the USA, referred to as Americo-Liberian.
Besides my wonderful unforgettable memories of Liberia, there are memories of prevailing shameful, exclusionary, and discriminatory attitudes toward indigenous Liberians. Practices which excluded them from social & political activities that included participating in celebrations and access to opportunities, in short relegating indigenous Liberians to second class citizenship. In a recent conversion with one of my brothers, he reminded me about an amusement park opening where only privileged kids and the societally appointed “entitled” kids were invited. On the day of the opening, when the uninvited kids were denied entry, they rushed the gates, threw sand in the faces of kids as they entered…if they were going to be denied entry they were going to make sure that no kids attended (the park did not open!) …an example of small glimpses of what was to come.
Liberia’s 20th president, William Richard Tolbert in 1971, with speedy efficiency showed signs of inclusiveness in his policies to improve the living conditions of most Liberians. Many Liberians welcomed his ‘Total Involvement for Higher Heights’, ‘Rally Time’, ‘From Mat to Mattresses’ policies which were all geared towards creating ‘A Wholesome Functioning Society’ and winning the ‘War against Ignorance, Disease and Poverty’. These were all slogans used by the Tolbert administration. But the privileged minority was not too pleased that their power base was being diluted.
The 1st four years of President Tolbert’s constitutionally inherited presidency (the 19th president William V. S. Tubman had died in office and Tolbert at the time was serving his 5th term as Vice President) were exciting times for the Liberian people. Liberia reaped the benefits of relations with both communist and capitalist countries, and investment contracts were re-negotiated to more fairly benefit Liberia. Liberians were energized, Liberia was flourishing. However, during the next five years of his presidency, as the Tolbert administration weaved a promising future for Liberia, signs of corruption, nepotism, and privilege for an even smaller few, began to emerge.
In early 1980, the 1st indigenous Liberian (Krahn) in the person of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe (Peoples’ Redemption Council-PRC), a US trained Green Beret, came to power via a bloody coup d’état of the Tolbert government. (Who backed Doe? Did Tolbert’s relations with communist countries have anything to do with the coup? Was it simply an attempt to try and right the promise of a country that had gone ire …”Liberia, Land of the Free”?) It is interesting to note that during the ten years of this Doe period of ineptness the US government poured more money into the Doe administration than to the entire previous administrations of Liberia!
An unsuccessful attempt by a member of another indigenous ethnic group (Mano/Gio) to overthrow Doe led his administration to levy brutal retaliations against Mano/Gio civilians.
Charles Taylor’s (National Patriotic Front of Liberia-NPFL) invasion of Liberia through Cote d’Voire in December of 1989 was the beginning of one of the bloodiest civil wars in Africa. Even though ECOWAS prevented him from entering the capital, Monrovia in 1990, break-away members of his group led by Prince Johnson (Independent National Patriotic Front-INPFL) was successful in capturing and killing President Doe in September 1990. Meanwhile another insurgent group (United Liberation Movement of Liberia-ULIMO) formed from ex-Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) soldiers was fighting Taylor’s group. With the assistance of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) an interim government for Liberia was formed with Dr. Amos Sawyer, a Political Scientist at the helm. But the fighting factions would have none of that and continued fighting through many peace accords that were ignored until a five-man transitional government was formed in preparation for a special election.
Charles Taylor (National Patriotic Party-NPP) stole…I mean “won” the special elections in July 1997, but Liberia and the Liberian people suffered losses beyond measure. During his 6-year administration, nothing was done to better the living standards in Liberia. There is no evidence that attempts were made to rebuild the infrastructure of the country, no evidence of attempts to better the health care system, no evidence of attempts to better the educational system, no evidence of attempts to better the unemployment situation, no evidence of attempts for reestablishing functioning utilities in the country. Instead, President Taylor was a key architect in the brutal destruction of nearby Sierra Leone. And so, the fighting resumed with the formation of additional armed groups like Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), Liberians United for Reconciliation and Development (LURD), and two ULIMO factions.
ECOWAS organized peace talks in June 2003 among the Liberian Government, MODEL, LURD, voluntary civic and social societies and institutions (civil society) in Liberia. In July, another cease-fire accord was signed but promptly ignored by the fighting groups. Brutal fighting resumed and reached downtown Monrovia in July and continued until mid-August when President Taylor was forced to resign from office and exiled to Nigeria, under international pressure (I still wonder, if Taylor could be forced to resign office by international pressure, why did it have to take this long? Why did a quarter of a million people should die?) Following this period, order was maintained in Liberia by a 3600-strong ECOWAS’ peace-keeping force (ECOMIL).
A comprehensive peace agreement was signed by all the major rebel groups, civil society, the Liberian Government and political parties on August 18, 2003. The agreement helped lay the foundation for developing a 2-year National Transitional Government of Liberia (that proved to have limited effectiveness), and Gyude Bryant, a businessman was selected as the leader of this transitional government. This time, order and security were maintained by a 15,000 strong UN force that included the ECOMIL peace keepers.
In 2005, after the peaceful election of a very abled qualified individual in the person of Dr. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberians are hopeful that Liberia will rise again.
AN UNRECOGNIZABLE COUNTRY
When I arrived in Monrovia, I was heartbroken when I saw, heard, and felt the reality of what two decades of war and neglect can do to a country and its people. I thought I had a sense of what to expect, I had kept-up with reports through the media, I had seen pictures, but the reality of it all was something else! Scars of war and neglect are evident in every aspect of life and living in Liberia today. But Liberians are resilient and Liberians are hopeful for a better Liberia.
The next couple of images that I will project are images of what Monrovia and its immediate surroundings look like today. These images are concentrated in the Monrovia area, because most of my time was spent in Monrovia. I would like to continue by focusing on education, with emphasis on medical and other allied health education.
All my life has been spent in an academic environment in some way shape or form. From the age of 8 years old, I lived with my parents on a university campus, until it was time to begin my university education. It is not surprising then that during my return visit home that a good part of my time was spent talking with educators in and around Monrovia, the capital city and seeing where they worked. I wanted to hear what my sisters and brothers (most of who had stayed at home through it all); I wanted to know what they had to say. I wanted them to show me where they worked, the conditions under which they had to work. I wanted to know what their needs were. I wanted to hear from them how we in the Diaspora could help. All too often “helpers” barge into a community, unilaterally determine what the community’s needs are, and determine how the needs will be met, without conversing, listening and hearing what the actual needs are.
I spoke with students, educators and administrators (including the University President) at the University of Liberia (LU); spoke with students, instructors and administrators (including the Dean) at the medical school (A.M. Dogliotti School of Medicine); spoke with students and instructors at LU’s Fendall Campus, where the agriculture students are and where the main campus will be relocated in the not too distant future; spoke with students, teachers and administrators at the Tubman National Institute of Medical Arts (TNIMA) which houses the School of Environmental Health, School of Physician Assistants and School of Nursing & Midwifery, as well as with students, teachers and administrators, of my high school, the College of West Africa. Believe me;
I cannot adequately describe the conditions under which teachers should teach. But more importantly, the conditions under which students are expected to learn are even more heart wrenching! Each time I asked, ‘what do you need’, the answer was always a resounding “everything”!!
The day that I met with the Dean of the Medical School, during our conversation when he found out that I was a neuroanatomist, he invited me to give lectures to the first-year medical students. I was on a personal fact-finding mission, I had not planned on giving lectures, but how could I refuse. So, I spent a few days preparing, and did just that, give three 2-hour lectures that provided the 1st year medical students with a framework and foundation that I hope threw some light on understanding the human nervous system, paving the way for future lectures. On another occasion during a casual, social chat with the Chief Medical Officer, when he found out that I had been teaching a Biology of AIDS course for close to a decade, he invited me to give a talk on HIV/AIDS during grand rounds at the JFK Medical Center. How could I say no (even though I did initially)? Ultimately, I accepted the invitation and gave a talk on HIV/Prevention and Considerations for Developing Effective Prevention Programs.
A HOPEFUL PEOPLE & A PERSONAL RESOLVE
After over 2 decades of violence, destruction, pillaging of natural resources, enormous violations of human rights, after a decade and a half of civil war, the hopes and dreams of Liberians are very simple: a secure and peaceful life, a good education and the ability to earn a living to support their families. Most Liberians believe that President Sirleaf is up to the task of taking the lead in making these hopes a reality, with the help and cooperation of Liberians at home, Liberians in the diaspora, and from the international community. With Liberia’s natural resources, with its “Open Door” policy for foreign investments, with mutual benefits, opportunities abound.
President Sirleaf has outlined her 4 Pillars of reconstruction & development which she hopes will largely contribute to poverty reduction in Liberia. They include:
1. Enhancing security and peace in Liberia
2. Revitalizing the economy
3. Improving democratic governance
4. Revitalizing the social and physical infrastructure of Liberia
Based on the Sirleaf administration report to the Liberian people that 70% of its 150-day deliverables goals for these four pillars had been achieved, the future does indeed look good. In recent visits to Universities in the USA, to large corporations in the USA, to the UN and to the European Parliament, Dr. Sirleaf has emphasized the need to work together with both strong planning, and rapid and effective implementation.
Many Liberian do indeed believe the future looks promising even amid complaints from former members of the Armed Forces of Liberia over salary arrears, dissatisfied former civil servants who were directly affected by the Johnson-Sirleaf administration’s rightsizing-downsizing policy, and the recent vigilante killings (Isakaba boys). There is no denying that Liberia is still a very fragile state.
On the very long flight back to Miami, I had many hours to think about the students at the medical school. There was no question in my mind of my obligation to the 36 1st year medical students that I had had the pleasure of interacting with, as well as my obligation to future medical students in Liberia. My resolve was to find the necessary means for organizing (I even came up with a name for the organization) an Alliance of Biomedical Educators for Liberia’s Empowerment (ABLE) who would on a regular basis travel to Liberia to teach the basic sciences courses whenever there was a void in local expertise.
The second idea is to directly involve the medical students. My idea is to get medical students in Liberia (starting with the 36 1st year medical students) teamed-up with medical students in the US and through email/electronic means, share ideas, thoughts, notes, images, and the like. It would be left up to the students to foster this academic relationship. These relationships could provide the seeds for future collaborative efforts. After all, we do live in a global village today.
When I returned to Miami, and excitedly called friends to bounce-off these ideas, I learned about efforts and activities of the Liberia Medical Association -USA (LMA-USA). This registered non-profit organization of Liberian and non-Liberian Physicians and Health Care Professionals, promotes and supports medical education in Liberia. The organization’s activities have included:
a) Sending stacks of medical textbooks and journals to Liberia.b) Sending visiting professors (via its Visiting Professorship Program which was started about one year ago) from the U.S. to Liberia to teach at the medical school in disciplines where there are no local expertise
c) Conducting health-related capacity building training workshops and technical assistance
d) Providing some computer-related resources.
Members of this association meet bi-annually to review activities of the previous six months and chart activities for the next six months. Bi-annual meetings are usually held on a rotational basis, hosted by a volunteering member.
There is absolutely, no denying the reality that those two decades of war and neglect destroyed Liberia’s infrastructure. As such, “we need everything” means committing to infrastructure development. We need to:
a) Acquire funds to obtain, install and maintain computers, computer labs and internet services.
b) Foster and facilitate technology transfer by transferring knowledge & skills to Liberia. Such could be though a well-structured visiting professorship program like that of the LMA-USA and the proposed ABLE.
c) Develop & implement grant-supported capacity building activities like onsite training workshops in Liberia, and short-term courses where Liberians will travel abroad to attend.
These are just a few examples of models that should help strengthen Liberia’s human resource development and help prepare Liberians to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As well, in their respective disciplines, Liberians would be better prepared to compete globally.
I think that it is appropriate to end with a quote of President Sirleaf on her recent visit on September 26th to the European Parliament. She said, and I quote.
“We are glad that our nation has been blessed. Liberia is not a poor country but a country that has been poorly managed. We are committed to change this; to pursue those goals that will move us from the crisis of the past to the opportunity of the present. We are committed, as a people, to build a new Liberia from the ashes of an old turbulent past to a future of hope and promise. We are committed to strategic partnerships based upon mutuality of respect and benefits.”
Note: Dr. Weeks is currently the president of the University of Liberia based in Liberia