I almost forget how beautiful Paris is until I’m there. Even if it’s a work trip it almost doesn’t matter because experiencing the sublime beauty of that city can make it worth it. After four days there, I took a flight to Brussels and then on to Monrovia, Liberia.
I’d left Paris at 8:30 am on Thursday, January 18 and arrived in Monrovia at about 8:30pm on Friday, January 19. The change was as abrupt as the temperature had been – from below freezing in Paris to 90 degrees in Liberia. From a majestic capital to a poor one devastated by civil war.
During the 45-minute drive from the airport to our hotel in Monrovia, I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black. No electricity. When we reached the outskirts of the capital, there were lights finally – but even there not everyone has electricity. The roads are a bit of a wreck as well and bouncing vigorously in the back seat of the van did absolutely nothing for my raging sciatica!
The devastations of the war are everywhere but since I’d never been to the country before I couldn’t compare – nor could I imagine – what Monrovia might have been like before the war broke out in December 1989 when Charles Taylor and his rebels entered Liberia from Cote D’Ivoire.
Most of the delegation had arrived the day before me so I didn’t see them until the orientation session the next morning. There are four of us Nobel Laureates on this trip: Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Mairead Maguire from Northern Ireland, me and Leymah Gbowee, who is hosting us here in her country. Our group also includes women who have supported the Nobel Women’s Initiative for years, others who are new to our work, a journalist making a documentary about rape in conflict, a videographer – who has documented several of our delegations, and a photographer. There are also Nobel Women’s Initiative staff – Lesley Hoyles whose magic with logistics makes all of our trips and conferences run amazingly smoothly no matter how difficult the circumstances might be; Rachel Vincent, our media and communications maven; and of course, Liz Bernstein, our Executive Director – and my friend and colleague in grassroots activism for almost two decades. We are a formidable group!
After the orientation, we took off for the half hour drive to the Rockhill Community. As we arrived we were met by a parade of motorcycles that led us to the site of the community meeting we would be having. As we got out of our bus, we were hugged multiple times by the women lining the road and who led us to the site of the meeting, where we were met with music and dancing women. More people – men and women – were sitting in chairs that had been put on the ground under temporary shelter from the hot sun – four poles in the ground holding up large pieces of cloth over people’s heads. Children of all ages were running around the edges of the group. There was also a young guy acting as DJ and he injected exuberant sound effects throughout the afternoon – sometimes loud enough to set one’s nerves on edge!
The core message, among others, of our three hours with the people of Rockhill Community was about the critical need of the community for clean drinking water. And it was the women of the community who had organized themselves to make sure that water would come to Rockhill – and not on the heads of their daughters who had to get up around 3:00am to walk down the rocky hill to near the junction of the main road to fill very large plastic jugs with water and carry it back up the hill resting on their heads. This task, which the girls have to carry out twice a day, seven days a week, is not only time-consuming and tedious but it is also dangerous. The girls are subjected to sexual harassment and to rape.
Tired of trying to cope with this horrendous situation, the women have organized to raise the $22,000 necessary to buy a strong water pump that will carry the water from the municipal water system up that rocky hill to the community. In addition to the pump, they have to buy the pipes needed to build the pipeline from the pump to the community.
They explained the situation to us through words, song, and a skit designed to demonstrate the dangers to the girls who go to get the water. Four women acted in the skit – two as mothers and one as a girl fetching water and another as a boy harassing the girl. In short, one mother would send her daughter to go for water and the girl would get to the water source only to be sexually harassed by the boy. The girl playing the role of the boy was extremely funny, strutting, grabbing constantly at her crotch, as he kept touching the girl’s body and while she tried to defend herself while yelling at him not to “touch my titties.” Ultimately, the boy rapes the girl who, of course, becomes pregnant. The drama concludes with the mothers yelling at their kids, then at each other as each defends her own.
The women work to raise the money for the pump and pipes. They make and sell food; they make and sell aprons and beautiful cloth – which they can also fashion into a skirt or dress for the buyers. Before our delegation got back on the bus to return to our hotel, many of us bought aprons (I have a very beautiful one, that comes with a square potholder as well as a mitt potholder – all for $25.00) and/or cloth. All of us wished we had the time to have the women turn the cloth into clothes for us. Maybe on another trip?
There was also more hugging, more singing and lots of photographs as we departed, arriving hot, sweaty and a bit spent back at our hotel where we had a couple of hours before the welcome dinner prepared for us by Leymah and her foundation.
It was a terrific evening. We cleaned up pretty nice for the dinner! Thankfully, because Liberian women have fantastic dresses, skirts, tops made from the beautiful and colorful cloth here and many wore matching head wraps and heels so tall that I know if I tried to wear them I would immediately topple over! Leymah had invited women legislators, a woman who had been in the police for two decades before finishing law school; the US Ambassador was there, as well as UN representatives and NGOs – national and international.
We got to meet Leymah’s parents too. I wished we’d had the chance to sit and talk with them about their lives and experiences – and maybe we’d have learned some fun things about their famous daughter too!
At the dinner, we all were treated to singing by two Liberian women and a man. One of women sang pop and a song dedicated to Liberia; later the second woman sang gospel with a voice that made the spirit soar. The gentleman was also a pop singer and had us wiggling in our seats, which primed us all for the DJ whose music soon had people dancing. The first on the floor was Leymah who strutted over to her father and pulled him up to dance. It was fun to watch. After one long dance, I made my way back to the hotel and bed – I knew if I danced more than once, I’d be closing down the house. And since our days start early and go late, that would not have been a wise move on my part. To be continued……..
For more, visit our blog – Women Forging Peace: Delegation to Liberia, 2013