Currently, I am in the process of finishing my second book which is a memoir of my first visit to Liberia, West Africa in 2007.
This small country used to be prosperous, but a devastating 14-year civil war absolutely decimated it. Infrastructure such as electricity and running water is only now starting to come back to better standards but mainly only in places like the capital of Monrovia. Traveling outside of Monrovia will find badly damaged unpaved roads that are almost impassable during the rainy season.
Villages and towns across the vast majority of Liberia still have no electricity or running water. Many villages have wells provided by a variety of NGOs (non-government organizations), but the jobs were not finished. I have personally seen and stayed in villages where the well was dug but the proper equipment to procure the water at the surface was non-existent.
The 14-year civil war killed an estimated 10% of the population and left thousands of children as orphans. The war caused a massive drop in the economy by over 90% and made it the 4th poorest country in the world in 2007. Those able to gain employment made an average of $1 per day.
Many still do not work and a published rate of literacy at 60% means that many have no ability do not have the necessary skills to do more than farm. Education is compulsory for children up to 16, but this is rarely enforced. More times than not, teachers are not available outside of Monrovia and the students who get passed to the next grade do so because the parents can bribe the system.
It was to this country that I took my first trip in January 2007. I visited parts of the country under the control of the United Nations, which is probably one of the most corrupt organizations in the world. Soldiers were often left to their own devices. Theft and sexual abuse of the locals was common. None of those involved in these crimes were ever punished. Any crime by the UN would be overlooked as long as a bribe was easily forthcoming.
When I arrived on one of two commercial flights in and out of the country per week, I learned within three hours that I had been duped. Scammed into leaving the comforts of my home in England, I simply wanted to get back on a plane and get out of the steaming jungles of this country for which I had no love.
Over the course of the next two weeks, my heart and mind changed. To this day, I still have a great love for the people of Liberia despite what occurred both on that trip, subsequent trips, and later a move that almost cost the lives of my oldest daughter and myself due to multiple cases of typhoid and malaria.
During my trip, I had the privilege of visiting a few marketplaces where I saw some of the incredible workmanship that goes into West African national costumes. Most of them were out of my budget, but I managed to have enough to purchase gifts for my wife and my children.
The final few days were a flurry of activity as I preached and taught in several locations. Preaching while standing in buildings with metal roofs, the temperatures soared well above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In one location, I taught while just around the corner children as young as three or four scrounged in a trash dump looking for scraps of food or something to try and salvage.
My first trip to Liberia made me realize that I was rich. I could not keep up with the expatriates who had companies footing the bill. My role there was a teacher and I had paid my own way to and from the country. However, I was blessed by the richness that I found in the hearts of the people.
My showers were done with one scoop at a time out of a large 55 gallon water bucket. In a land where many were happy to get one meal a day, I learned to appreciate oatmeal every morning for breakfast with a cup of strong coffee. In the evening, one of the local pastors and his family prepared a lovely Liberian meal. It was only towards the end of my visit that I realized that they had provided meat for me at the expense of not getting any themselves.
In one of my last preaching opportunities, the people had prepared a wonderful smelling meal. It tasted really good and each person kept insisting that I get some of the meat in the pot. By now, I understood what they were doing and with my stomach already giving me problems, I was able to encourage them to share.
At the end of the meeting, they asked me to step to the front for a “robing.” Imagine my surprise when the leaders of the church pulled out one of the most exquisite outfits I had ever seen. It was fit for a king or a tribal chief, yet, they were giving it to me.
In my heart, I did not deserve such respect. I had only sought to teach them the Bible, but they were honoring me. It was not until my second trip back to Liberia that I understood what that gift had cost that small congregation. They had given sacrificially in so many ways in order to give the absolute best that they could.
That outfit has traveled with me everywhere I have gone for the last twelve years. It holds a special place in my heart, but not because of the material nor because of the amount of money that Liberian outfit cost. The garments are special because they were given from a heart of love and out of appreciation for what they had learned.
Today, I am in constant contact with some of the people I was able to train. They have never asked me for one single dollar, even though this is common in many parts of West Africa. Each email or phone call always concludes with them telling me thank you again for going to Liberia.