On my first night in Liberia I stayed with Father Adrian, an old friend of mine. He now lives in a parish called St Gabriel’s on the outskirts of Monrovia, halfway between the airport and our base in Tubmanburg.
Fourteen years ago, on my first ever visit to Liberia, I helped unload a container of aid sent from Scotland to St Gabriel’s. At that time over half the population of Liberia had been forced to flee their homes because of the brutal civil war and tens of thousands of suffering people were living in camps all around this little compound.
My memory is of desperate crowds pressing around us as we moved the gifts from Scotland – food, clothing, medicine etc – from the container to the storage space at the back of the church.
Today the camps have long since gone, but the little container is still here, now converted into a shop on the edge of the main road that leads out of the city to Bomi County. It was that same road that many took at the end of the war as they returned to their villages in places like Bomi County. We went with them, shifting our support from emergency aid in the camps, to helping the people rebuild their lives in their war ravished villages.
Before leaving St Gabriels, the dozen or so young men living and working with Fr Adrian tell me their stories over breakfast. I hear how they have suffered and of their future plans. As a departing gift they sing me two heartfelt songs. ‘His Delay is not His Denial’ and ‘I Don’t want to go Back to Egypt’ are songs of their sorrow, their faith and their irrepressible hope.
Those songs resonate in my heart as we travel to our base in Tubmanburg. The army checkpoints have gone, new houses are being built and little businesses are springing up. On arrival at our base I am taken straight to the newly built Mary’s Meals warehouse where thousands of sacks of rice are stacked neatly.
Some of our team laugh and joke as they load one of the trucks and head off to deliver a month’s supply to one of the village schools. Today, in this area of Liberia, over 24 000 children receive Mary’s Meals every day.
Beside the warehouse, the deaf children at our Oscar Romero School play with an enormous ball that someone has given them. They pile on it and role over and land in a heap, shrieking and shouting. At lunch time we sit outside with Father Garry, the English priest who first invited us here to help all those years ago and who has lived here for 35 years.
Many old friends join us. Moses, a tall, dignified physician who heads up the health clinic is there and as always is wearing his white uniform with a stethoscope round his neck. Once, at the end of the war, I was talking to Moses about some problems relating to the disarmament programme which saw former fighters exchange weapons for money and he said something that sticks in my memory. “It isn’t so much about guns. We in this country need to disarm our hearts,” he told me.
Mambu, a local entrepreneur is also here and we chat about his fish farming project. But seeing Zinnah is the biggest surprise. He was with me that day in 1997 when we unloaded the container back at St Gabriels but later had to flee the country and make a new life with his family in Norway. He is making his first visit here since then with some Norwegian friends and has just been back to his village to see his mother and to make plans to build a school there. It is so strange to hear him speak Norse with his friends!
Walking back to our office afterwards I have another surprise encounter with Paul another person I met first in1997. He had been one of a group of men, we had driven from the camps (where they had been living for three years) back to their home village at the near the end of the war. They wanted to go back to begin clearing the land and rebuilding their houses so that they could bring the women and children of the village home.
After a long, nervous drive deep into the forest we found their broken, overgrown houses daubed in graffiti by the fighters who had forced them out. There were two skulls on the ground. Before they began work we walked around their village while they sang ‘Jesus Come, Devil Go.’
I remember watching them attack the encroaching forest with their machetes and being humbled by their courage. Paul was perhaps the youngest of that group we left there that day.
And here he was today standing on the road beside our compound in Tubmanburg with a big smile on his face. He explains that he is building a new home here, that he will be our next door neighbour.
While one of his small children tugs at his leg, he shows me around his nearly complete, mud- wattle four room house. That afternoon I sit with the team in our office to plan the expansion of Mary’s Meals to more hungry children in this area. The need is huge and we want reach another 10,000 children during the coming months.
Every now and then I cannot resist wandering from our meeting table, so I can see down the hill to where Paul is working on his new home with his children beside him.
But people here are worried about what is happening in neighbouring Ivory Coast. The arrival in Liberia of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict has re-awakened many painful memories here and, in this election year, has heightened people’s sense of anxiety about the future.
Meanwhile the outcome of the trial of Charles Taylor, former Liberian warlord and dictator, also hangs in the balance. There are many reasons to be apprehensive about Liberia’s future but also lots of reasons to be hopeful. And for parents in Bomi County at least one thing that is predictable. Their children will not go hungry at school.