Liberian Journal No 11
August 18th to November 4th, 2009
by Fr. Ted Hayden, SMA
August 18th – Why bother with keeping a journal? I often ask myself this question. To me, my daily life is rather mundane and often boring. Progress seems very slow. It’s three steps forward and two backward or sometimes three steps backward and two forward. Yet, somehow I want to give family and friends some insight into the daily life of one missionary, so I keep this journal.
Liberia is slowly emerging from the devastating results of a thirteen year civil war. The Government of Liberia faces near impossible challenges. The economy is in shambles and has 85% unemployment. The health and education sectors are overwhelmed by those seeking services. Food is scarce and farming is reduced to the technology available a hundred years ago. Yet the people, especially the youth exude hope. One sign of hope is the commitment of the Church to struggle with the people. The Church is second only to the government in the number of students under instruction. Health services include a major full service hospital, more than 25 clinics, aid and housing by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity to those dying of TB or AIDS as well as daily service to mothers with undernourished children. The presence of SMA and other missionaries attest that the outside world has not forgotten Liberia. My presence indicates that the American Church has not forgotten Liberia and the USA is still the favorite foreign friend of Liberians.
My journal entries illustrate how I try to accompany some of the Liberian people as they struggle to rebuild their lives and their communities. Perhaps the musings of this journal will give readers some insight into the labors of at least one missionary.
August 19th – There was a large crowd at Sunday Mass to greet me. Fr. Joseph Marwa, SMA from Tanzania was the main celebrant. He does a first class job in presiding at the liturgy. He is young, has an engaging smile and an extrovert personality. His faith is evident as he solemnly begins the liturgy. At the beginning of Mass a young mother proceeds down the aisle and presents herself and her new born daughter for a blessing. The mother is dressed in a midnight blue long dress with a matching head tie. Her daughter is dressed in similar clothing. It is a simple but moving witness to the Faith of the mother.
August 22nd – Meeting with Bishop Dalieh. The 11 mile trip to Cape Palmas takes 50 minutes. The rainy season is in full swing and the roads are deteriorating very quickly. Bishop Dalieh and I are friends of more than 40 years. As a young priest in 1965 he worked with me when I was pastor of the Cathedral Parish. He is now 74 years old and in poor health. Trying to administer a diocese in the midst of a civil war proved very difficult. Along with 300,000 other Liberians he spent five years living as a refugee in Ivory Coast. His rectories and churches were either looted or completely destroyed. Thousands of civilians from his diocese were arbitrarily slaughtered. Bishop Dalieh is now 74 years old and is looking forward to his 75th birthday when, according to Church law he will turn in his resignation as bishop. He looks forward to that day. In the meantime he is busy reopening the parishes which were closed during the civil war.
August 26th – Blessing Holy Water. The use of water in religious ceremonies is an ancient practice in many religions. Here in Liberia some people like to keep holy water in their homes. They bless themselves with the water and sprinkle their homes. While we in the west have little credulity in evil spirits many of the people of Liberia have strong beliefs in evil spirits. I always give an instruction when I bless water for people to carry home telling them that if they have faith no spirit is ever stronger than God so they should not fear. It was not too long ago that we hung witches in Salem. A recent issue of Forbes Magazines listed cases of people in the USA convicted of fraud in relation to evil spirits. One man charged $20,000 to remove a curse from another man. With this in mind I take a cautious course when condemning those here in Liberia who believe in evil spirits and witchcraft.
September 2nd – Inspection of the rubber farm. Fr. Marwa took responsibility for developing the rubber farm. He and a team of workers cleared 14 acres of forest and dug 2565 holes which are destined to receive bud grafted small rubber trees. I walked into the farm to observe what they were doing. The work was impressive. Even to get to the farm we had to cross a stream that zigzags across the whole width of the farm. We cross the same stream four times. Makeshift bridges have been constructed. Large felled trees cross the stream. Small trees provide railings. The task which faces us now is to find a good source of bud-grafted rubber stumps. We have promises from two nurseries.
September 4th – Dire hunger is pervasive. Hardly a day goes by when students don’t come to the mission seeking food. Most are in their late teens or early twenties. They are high school students. They are older because many of them lost five or more years of school while they hid in the forest from rebel soldiers or lived in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Now they live independently in rented rooms in Cape Palmas while they attend school. They come seeking rice, sardines, tomato paste, sugar. washing soap, bathing soap and toilet tissue. Most eat only once a day. They cook for themselves or join together to cook a common meal I am able to help some but not all. It pains me to see them go away hungry. Usually I have bread and sardines and they are happy to have something to eat before they begin their journey back to Cape Palmas. I generally help them with their transportation because most of them have walked 11 miles to make their plea for food.
Families suffer also. The civil war destroyed many of the farms. The farm-to-market road is impassable for six months of the year. Farmers see no sense in growing food when there is no way to get it to market. The government of Liberia is trying to respond to the problem but progress is slow. A seven month rainy season dumps about 200 inches of rain each year. This causes havoc on the roads.
Also, farming is at very low technological pace. There are no tractors, fertilizer, insecticides or other aids to help farmers become more productive.
September 4th – The Parish sends a young man to the seminary. Gabriel Kragbe, a high school graduate left Barreken to enter the preparatory seminary in Monrovia. Gabriel comes from a strong Catholic family. They are all active in the parish. Gabriel has talked for more than five years about wanting to be a priest. This is the first seminarian from the parish and the parishioners pray that God will continue to bless Gabriel.
September 5th – A baby is born in the pickup. We had a request from the Barreken clinic to take a woman in child birth to the hospital. The woman lay in the back seat of the pickup with her head on the lap of a nurse. Another nurse helped the woman in the birthing process. Just as the pickup was entering the hospital compound the woman gave birth to a baby boy. Both mother and child survived in good health. I never did inquire from the doctor at the clinic why he wanted the woman to be taken to the hospital rather than have her give birth at the clinic. I just trusted his judgment. It is only about once or twice a month that the doctor asks us to carry a patient to the hospital so I always comply with the request.
September 13th – The Pickup is on fire. This is the cry I heard from Fr. Marwa at 5:30 this morning. Both of us went out and saw flames jutting out from the dashboard and around steering wheel. We doused the fire and were presented with a melted plastic dashboard and steering wheel housing. I was convinced that the vehicle was finished. However, my driver/mechanic, Romano stated that he would bring an electrician from nearby Pleebo to fix it. They managed to get it started and drove it the 8 miles to Pleebo. After two days it was in running condition. The signal lights were transferred to the driver’s door. The pickup is working well but I am afraid that it will soon have to go into retirement.
September 15th – Children are dancing and I am embarrassed. Children between six and ten come to the mission very early each day to collect a wheelbarrow and go for food for the rabbits. Then they go home to bathe and prepare for school. Generally I try to give them some bread with mayonnaise. Today I gave them each a loaf of bread stuffed with sardines and sent them on their way. A short time later I went out into the yard to check on the chickens and ducks and saw the children dancing as they were eating their bread and sardines. They had wide smiles and were very pleased. I was embarrassed because the right of a child to a piece of bread is so obvious and I realized that no child in the USA would ever dance up and down over receiving a piece of bread. Yet, here in Liberia a decent breakfast or morning meal eludes most children.
September 17th – Schools open. Schools are packed to the hilt as more and more children enroll. The Liberian government is insisting that all school age children be enrolled in school. It has cancelled all school fees for elementary school students and reduced the fees of junior and senior high students. It is having an effect. Three years ago the Barreken government school had an enrollment of 240 students. Last year in was 290. This year it is 370. The difficulty is that there are no additional classrooms or teachers.
At the high school level in Cape Palmas the average classroom size is 60 with some of the junior and senior classes reaching as many as 75 students. There are no text books. Trained teachers, especially in the sciences are in short supply. The last junior high built in Cape Palmas was in 1964. The last high school was built in the mid 1950s.
The Liberian government is tackling the problem but it will be decades before enough classrooms are built, qualified teachers are prepared and sufficient textbooks are available.
One of the results of the civil war is that Liberian educational standards are significantly lower than they were in 1960. Yet progress is being made. More than 90% of the 12th grade students in Cape Palmas passed a common West African Examination which is administered in Ghana, Nigeria and other English speaking countries.
Finding employment for high school students is a formidable task. To the best of my knowledge none of last year’s graduates have been able to find full time employment.
September 18th – School problems in Monrovia. Sponsoring a student in Monrovia is expensive. At Our Lady of Fatima high school in Cape Palmas the yearly cost of tuition and other fees is about US$ 70. In Monrovia it is $150. In Cape Palmas all students walk to school. In Monrovia most children have to pay to ride on mini busses to school.
Catholic schools face a dilemma. The church wants all Catholic children to have a chance to go to a Catholic school. But the only way the schools can stay open is if the tuition collected can pay the teachers salaries. Teachers average $160 a month. This is more than double the amount offered to government school teachers. The result is that in the Catholic school system the classes are smaller, teachers show up every day and are reasonably well qualified. However, the result of the high school fees is that Catholic students from poor families cannot attend Catholic schools.
With the help of SMA, family and friends I am able to help over 300 of these students to attend school but that is just a drop in the bucket.
September 25th -The Baptism of Mary Louise. Wleh is an 89 year old woman who has been attending Sunday Mass for over ten years. She tried to attend the two year instruction period which is required for adults who want to be baptized but age and illness prevented this.
Finally, the catechist gave her private instructions. Today, her daughter brought her to daily Mass and she was baptized. I gave her the name of Mary Louise, the name of my own mother. After Mass Mary Louise took her walking stick and with both hands on the stick made a very slow trip back to her daughter’s house where she lives.
September 28th – A visit to a school in chocolate city. I visit the Francis Freeman elementary school in chocolate city. Monrovia has several neighborhoods which have acquired their own informal names. For example. in the 1 980s Liberia opened an industrial free zone near the port of Monrovia. Several factories were opened but were burned and looted during the civil war.
But the residences which grew up in that area are known by the name of the enterprise. People will state that they live in biscuit factory, iron factory, match factory, and shoe factory.
Chocolate city gets its name from the thick chocolate colored mud roads which are evident during the rainy season.
Francis Freeman has a school of about three hundred students. He built it himself. I have known Francis for over thirty years and try to visit his school while I am in Monrovia. Today I visited the cement wall enclosed compound. I visited all the classrooms and was pleasantly surprised at the decorum of the students and teachers. In the kindergarten class the numbers of 1-100 were written neatly on the board. They were very clear and as perfect as you would see on any printed page. I pointed to several numbers and the children quickly identified the correct number.
The annual fees at this school are $US 20. That is less than one fifth of what the Catholic schools charge. Francis manages by hiring university students part time and employing the mothers of students in non teaching jobs. Francis teaches and his office is a room four feet by six feet. I am not qualified to make a professional evaluation but I was very impressed with what I saw.
October 1st – An educational dilemma. The Ministry of Education has mandated that all school age-children must be in school. The Ministry frowns on children selling water donuts, candies and other items on the road side while schools are in session. Some of the children go to afternoon sessions of schools. With unemployment at 85% often the proceeds from the items sold by children are the only means of providing daily food for the families. In addition, the schools are so overcrowded that all the children who want to go to school can not find an open space. The intention of the Ministry of Education is commendable but the many problems which face it will take years to overcome.
October 2nd – The annual SMA meeting. There were 12 SMAs at our annual meeting. In the 1980s there were more than fifty SMAs in Liberia. When I first came to Liberia in 1959 there was only one Liberian diocesan priest. Now there are three bishops and fifty diocesan priests. While there is still a great deal of missionary work to be done the groundwork of establishing the Church has been accomplished and the Church is under local leadership. At the SMA meeting we elected Fr. Mario Abi, SMA from Nigeria as our Regional Superior. He will handle all the policy issues as well as the administrative work involving SMA presence in Liberia.
October 6th – Return to Barreken on the WFP plane. An uneventful 90 minute flight saved me from a harrowing trip by road. It was good to get pack to the peaceful surroundings of Barreken. I didn’t enjoy the heat, noise, and traffic jams in Monrovia.
October 7th – The death and funeral of “Money in the Bush”. Alexander Brewer, a member of prominent family in Cape Palmas was a rubber farmer. Some owners of farms stay in Cape Palmas and hire managers for their farms. Alexander lived on the farm. When asked why, his response was “Money is in the bush”. The name stuck and he was proud of it. Money in the Bush had a big funeral at the Episcopal church in Cape Palmas. The majority of the mourners were rubber tappers. He paid them well and treated them fairly. Tappers are up at the crack of dawn and tap 500 trees. That means opening the trees and later coming back to collect the rubber latex which has dripped into cups. Money in the Bush set a good example for other managers and owners of rubber farms.
October 18th – A six day road journey from Monrovia. Quesna, a pre-medical student at the University of Liberia came to stay with me during his two month vacation. His father works for the SMA parish in Monrovia. I have been helping Quesna with his university fees. Earlier this year he had typhoid fever. Already a very slim young man he lost a lot of weight while he was sick. I invited him to come for his vacation to rest and eat. He helps by tutoring students in biology and chemistry. It took him 6 days to travel the 470 miles from Monrovia to Barreken. The transport vehicles he used kept breaking down or getting stuck in the mud.
October 22nd – A mentally ill woman visits the parish compound. For the past week woman in her mid thirties has been visiting the compound daily during the daylight hours. She speaks English very well but her speech is incomprehensible. She talks to the ducks, sits on the ground and communicates with the chickens. She collects trash such as pieces of paper and deposits them in the trash can. Just before dark she returns to her family home.
Liberians are very reluctant to place their loved ones in a mental hospital. As long as they are not violent they can live in the community. In southeastern Liberia which is larger than New Jersey there is not a single mental hospital. Somehow Liberians are able to take care of their own mentally ill.
October 27th – Parishioners clean the church compound. Several years ago the members of the parish assumed responsibility of caring for the church compound. They cut the grass, weed the flowers and trim the hedges. Generally about thirty people show up for work and in two or three hours the compound looks first class. It is remarkable to see young women carrying babies on their back stooping to cut the grass or trim the hedges. The Parishioners also maintain a five acre palm-nut, banana and plantain farm.
October 29th – An abundance of bananas and plantain from the parish farm. One of the parishioners delivers a wheelbarrow full of bananas and plantain from the trees on the parish farm. There are more than 100 bananas. In the future these can be sold in the market. At the present time they are consumed by small children who use them as a school recess snack.
October 30th – Mother and child bonding – a theory. In Liberia there seems to be a very close bonding between mothers and their children. A theory which certainly has many exceptions states that children have a close bond with their mothers because they are carried on their mother’s back during their first year of life. Whether the woman is going to market, work on the farm or visit friends she carries her child on her back. The skin to skin contact, the heat from the mother’s body, and the sound from her heart engender a feeling of security not to far distant from the final few months in the mother’s womb. Thus the child bonds with its mother nine months in the womb and a year on her back.
November 2nd – All Souls Day. Today the members of the parish remembered their friends and relatives who died. Each person at Mass was given a chance to mention aloud those who they wanted remembered. Reverence for ancestors is an integral part of most African cultures so the priest does not have to give a lengthy explanation of the importance of remembering and praying for the dead.
As I continue to get older the list of those who have gone before with the sign of Faith rapidly increases. Today I remembered my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles. Now my generation begins to be included with cousins Joe and Joan Henaghan, Paul, Tom and Bob Morris. At Mass as I was recalling names, I mentioned Bob and Pat Morris. Then I said: “Oops, God, I made a mistake, take Pat from that list. She is still with us”. My cousin, Bob Morris was married to Pat for more than 50 years and in talking about them or remembering them the names of Bob and Pat were inseparable.
I also prayed for the many benefactors of SMA. Without their continual prayers and financial help my work here and the work of other SMA missionaries would not be possible. In a particular way I prayed for Frank Neuwirth who died in December 2005 and was a great help to me in my work here in Barreken.
I remembered my father, Joseph who died at 39 and my mother Mary who died at 96 as well as my sisters, Dorothy Ann, 9 months, JoAnne 26, Patricia 22 and Loeman 39. Moe than half of my own siblings have gone before me. To non believers such memories would seem useless and archaic but for those of us who have the privilege of Faith can take solace in the biblical saying: “It is a good and healthy thing to pray for the dead”.
November 3rd – Nothing for nothing. This is a Liberian expression which has the same meaning as our saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Students know that if they need money to buy their school uniforms or copy books they have to work for the money. With a large compound and a big farm there is always plenty of work available. This week, Otis, the son of the Pastor of the Healing Church needed money for his school uniform so for two days he worked cutting grass and weeding around the orange trees. I have never met a student who was not willing to work for the money he needs.
November 4th – Graduation at Our Lady of Fatima High School. Today 32 students graduated from OLF. Nine of them were sponsored by friends of SMA. All have passed the West African Examination Council exams which are given in the English speaking countries of West Africa.
The graduates are eligible to enter one of the universities in Liberia. Less than a quarter of these students will be able to enter a university. Lack of financial support is always the given reason.
The graduates will enter the army of the 85% of unemployed Liberians. They will pound the pavement week after week seeking jobs which do not exist. However, there is a little bit of hope on the horizon. Foreign investors are coming. Matel, an Indian steel conglomerate has committed 100 million dollars to reopen a large iron ore mine. Work on this project has already begun. In southern Liberia where I live investors have offered to invest 100 million dollars in a palm tree oil plantation and another set of investor are prepared to revitalize and expand a rubber plantation which formerly belonged to the Firestone Tire Company. These investors will hire thousands of Liberians and help get some money flowing through the economic system. At the present time in Southeastern Liberia the economy is dead in the water.
Fr. Ted Hayden, SMA
SMA Fathers 23 Bliss Ave
Tenafly, NJ 07670
Telephone: 201 5670450