Mercy Ships visit to Liberia finds warmth, peace among ruins, poverty
Rye resident relates experiences visiting orphanages, school in war-ravaged West African country
Story, photos by Lani Fortier
Liberians greet Mercy Ship Anastasis with music, dance on the pier.
My home the last three months has been a 15-by-6-foot cabin for four, aboard the M/V Anastasis, one of three hospital ships in the Mercy Ships fleet. Originally an Italian cruise liner, she was saved from the scrap yard, refurbished and for the last 27 years has been sailing to developing nations around the world, providing free surgery, and medical and dental care.
The entire ship is operated by volunteers, some of whom have lived aboard for more than ten years and pay monthly crew fees for the privilege of serving aboard the Anastasis. To meet the needs and operating costs not covered by the crew fees, Mercy Ships depends completely on material donations and financial gifts. Of the 350 on board, some provide medical services including surgery on the ship, others provide construction and social services in the community, and others, like me, provide support services, such as galley work or family assistance. The fact that Mercy Ships has been able to operate in this manner for almost three decades is a testament to how unique an organization it is.
I joined the Anastasis in Cape Town, South Africa, and then sailed with her up the coast of Africa. The Cape Town visit and the trip up the African coast were incredible experiences, but the part of the last three months I am most grateful for is undoubtedly the time I spent in Liberia.
West Africa has been the destination for the Anastasis for the past several years, and, before I even set foot on land, I knew it was going to be a place unlike any I had ever seen. Our arrival in Monrovia, Liberia's capital city, was right on schedule, but we were forced to sail around the harbor while an "obstruction" was cleared from the dock.
Many ships are buried in harbor; this one is dead in the water.
When we finally pulled in, about two hours late, it became obvious just how different Liberia really was. There were partially sunken ships scattered about the berths, and the pier was rusted and falling apart.
A miscommunication with those handling the ropes on the dock caused us to bump a mooring station harder than expected, and a large chunk of it just crumbled into the water. The pipeline that was meant to supply our water hadn't been used in 14 years, and the trickle of liquid coming out of it did not look good.
There were United Nations soldiers standing along the pier, and in the guard towers that flank the barbed wire topped gate at the end of our dock. I was not in the U.S. any more. I wasn't even in southern Africa any more.
West Africa has been ravaged by disease, war and political instability to a degree few regions can match, and Liberia seems to have borne the brunt of it. My first thought was that this must be how a nation looks after fourteen years of civil war--neglected, but I guess when there are no jobs, no food, no schools, no hospitals, and a constant threat of fighting, maintenance of the harbor, understandably, just isn't high on the priority list.
Anastasis tied up to this rusted-out mooring.
Bullet holes marked building walls everywhere.
The port where the Anastasis is docked is where the Lurd - the rebel forces that fought against former president Charles Taylor's government - mounted their last offensives on Monrovia in 2003 (Elections finally took place last month). Everything is rusty and dirty and broken. There are bullet holes, abandoned buildings, huge chunks blown out of the cement, and only about three berths remain usable. At the end of our dock, 300 yards from the ship, is a field that we were told served as a mass grave for around 3000 Lurd fighters. Although you could never tell what it was from looking at it, there is an unsettling feeling that comes from knowing what's buried out there.
Things did not improve once I got outside of the port area; the city was in a state of ruin that I never could have imagined. The roads are pockmarked with holes left by bombs, everything is filthy, there is no electricity, plumbing or phone lines, and a smell that I can only describe as decay fills the air. We were directly in the heart of where the last Lurd offensive took place, so most of the buildings don't have windows or doors, are full of holes, and are full of squatters.
Nothing was untouched by the war. Every single building and lamppost and home was riddled with bullet holes. The "gas stations" were people sitting on the side of the road with funnels and bottles filled with various shades of liquids I was told were gasoline. Many of the cars that were running are missing seats, windshields and doors, and the ones that aren't running are abandoned and rusting on the sides of the road.
Gas stations were stands with bottles of gas.
Retail business is done on street.
Monrovia truly was worse then anything I could have ever imagined. However, despite the physical appearance and the danger of violence Liberians live with every day, the people were extraordinarily welcoming and possessed an overwhelming sense of optimism. I found that I walked the streets--during daylight at least--with no sense of fear or intimidation.
Children wave as volunteers arrive at ophanage.
Inside orphanage was barely livable.
While in Liberia I got an opportunity to visit a couple of orphanages and a school in the areas outside of Monrovia. They were in locations where crew members had done projects during the previous year's outreach, and we went back to reestablish some relationships. By virtue of the fact that these children had a roof over their heads and food to eat, they were well off by Liberian standards. The manner in which they were living was very basic. Both orphanages were home to between 70 and 100 kids in cinder-block buildings with corrugated metal roofs and dirt or cement floors. Each room housed 10 to 20 children who slept on the floors with a couple of blankets. One orphanage had latrines, but the other one had nothing by way of bathrooms. Both had wells, a luxury there, and outdoor fire pits for kitchens.
One couple who ran an orphanage showed us their bedroom. At first glance it was decent--they had a real bed and a dresser--then they informed us they shared the room with 16 orphans. Maybe that is the way a nation without health care ensures birth control!
The school we visited was run by one of the couples who also operated an orphanage. The whole building was a little bigger than a three-car garage and held 535 K-12 students. There were no rooms, just areas divided by screens made of palm fronds. The children were literally sitting on top of each other, and it was so loud I have no idea how the students could hear the teachers, let alone pay attention to them.
A total of 535 students are taught in this tiny building.
The thing I found most upsetting about the schools was not the poor conditions for those who attended them, it was the realization that they were the lucky ones. There were children all around who could not afford to go to school just following our Land Rover as we drove through the village. There is no public school system and, given that the unemployment rate is around 85% and many young people have been fighting, not working, for the last 14 years, money to send kids to school is unavailable.
Despite the incredible state of ruin that the country is in physically, politically and economically, the Liberian people were amazingly warm and friendly. We were not swarmed by people begging for money. Most of them didn't even ask. They were just excited to talk to us, to tell us about their lives and thank us for coming.
I am proud to have had the chance to be a part of what Mercy Ships is doing in Liberia and am excited to watch as the nation begins to put itself back together. It is amazing that these people are living together when two years ago they were killing each other. The fact that they are, gives me hope that they will find peace and reconciliation in their future. I think there must come a point when no matter how much you believe in your cause, you are not willing to fight any more. It seems as though they have reached that point in Liberia.
At typical street scene with its bright colors in Monrovia
For further information on the organization go to: http://www.mercyships.org
The author, who lives in Rye and is an alumna of Portsmouth High School, recently graduated from the University of Connecticut.
December 1, 2005
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