Ten Years of Peace: Dispatches from Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia – In a recent conversation with an Argentine-American friend of mine, she described the look of horror on a group of young Liberian children one day as their football made it onto a busy street and was subsequently crushed by a passing vehicle. The vehicle did not stop, but the children did stop playing. That football was everything to them; it was all they had to play with to pass time during Liberia’s muggy rainy season. The cost of replacing it was beyond serious consideration given that a football in Monrovia nowadays costs between $10 and $15 and most ordinary Liberian families struggle just to make $1 as a daily wage.
Typical of most children in Liberia, a football serves as the primary source for what we in the west would call children’s “play” activities. Liberian children do not judge or bully each other over who has the latest edition of the iPhone or what kind of vehicle their parents drive them to school in. Here, a simple football literally makes a world of difference. So, “for want of a football” can aptly describe life as a Liberian child ten years after the end of the country’s brutal civil war.
As it has been throughout history, those who ultimately end up suffering most after conflict are children. Liberia is no different but is somewhat unique in that the United Nation’s Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has been in the country for nearly ten years assisting in recovery efforts. The type of support provided by UNMIL includes security reform through military forces and the UN Police (UNPOL), as well as relief and humanitarian assistance by other UN agencies such as UNDP, WFP, and UNICEF. These agencies, among others, care for returning refugee and internally displaced populations. Moreover, there are numerous NGOs, INGOs, and many private citizens that have exhibited a caring compassion for improving the lot of Liberian citizens. The sheer amount of support and goodwill has been staggering in terms of time and funding. Considering the sheer amount of organizations actively providing support for a country as tiny as Liberia, it is truly sad that so many of the children still suffer from a lack of basic needs that we in developed countries tend to take for granted.
In the backdrop of all this suffering, however, comes hope in some shining examples of fortitude and strength. Even in a recovering post-conflict country such as Liberia, where physical threats to life in the form of disease and insecurity are still the norm, there are children that provide crystal clear examples of resilience. One child in particular is Jerry, a 13 year-old boy in search of a better life.
Jerry is a self-described “business man” who sells fruit and trinkets outside the gate of an UNMIL apartment complex in Monrovia. You need only spend one minute with Jerry and you’ll quickly be inspired by his energy and motivated by his plans for a better life. After you get to know him better, you actually begin to feel proud of him, even for what we would normally regard as miniscule accomplishments. For Jerry, life is purely a battle for daily survival, so every little accomplishment counts. He rarely sees his mother and lives with his aunt who seems to be out of town most of the time. His father was killed in the waning days of the brutal civil war when Jerry was only a baby.
Jerry is quick to tell you that he “works for his money” and that he will never “be a beggar” like those men outside of the nearby grocery stores. He is consistent, honest, and very hard working. Jerry has, to a degree, been “adopted” by some of the UNMIL residents solely because of his attitude and honesty. Think about that for a minute: Here is a Liberian child that is actually an inspiration to an international group of senior military officers who are there to serve his nation!
Jerry once told me that he needed new shoes. After peering at his worn out rubber sandals, I offered to just buy him a new pair. I soon learned that this was the wrong approach with Jerry. He said that he would not accept a “hand-out” from anyone and passionately went on to explain that if he washed my truck and if he did a “good job,” then I could reward him for his work and he would then buy his own sandals. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought of being in his situation and wondered whether I could have resisted a free offer of anything given the absolute necessities so many Liberian children face and the destitute poverty they live in. I realized then what a truly exceptional person Jerry is. All he was asking for was the opportunity to earn his own pair of sandals.
Jerry is extremely proud that he attends school and he aspires to be an electrician someday. Lofty goals for any child, especially for a child living in extreme poverty and who essentially fends for himself on a daily basis. Just the other day, he offered to carry some extra bags up to my apartment. I asked him what he planned to do during the day, since there was a school break. Jerry again, in his usual manner, explained that business “was good” that day and he’d made 90 Liberian Dollars. In terms of US dollars, that’s just over a single dollar, but he was proud of his business acumen and excited that he would now be able to have something to eat. When he mentioned this, it prompted me to ask how much he’d already eaten that day. With a nonchalant and matter-of-fact manner, he said that he’d had nothing to eat since his aunt was out of town. Again, think about that for a minute: Jerry had just finished carrying up bags of food to my apartment that cost more than what he had probably made during the last year or, let alone, eaten during the last month. And, yet, he had done this without asking for a single thing. Needless to say, I had to convince him to come back moments later so that I could prepare him a fresh bowl of rice and stew. He thanked me profusely, telling me that, “God will bless you.”
The only thing that Jerry has ever asked for is a football. Jerry explained that, while he does play football with some other boys down the street, they only have one old ball and no net. To add to matters, the boy that has the highly prized ball is a bit older and sometimes doesn’t let him play. Jerry dreams of having a “real” football made of leather along with a Liberian National Team jersey. This way, Jerry reasons, he could play whenever he wants and start his “own team of businessmen.”
For “want of a football.” For the want of a better life. This is the story of the Liberian child.
James Mosser was a US Army Lieutenant Colonel who recently served in Liberia as the UN’s Chief of Civil Military Coordination.