Lessons from Liberia

Friday, June 3, 2016

I recently had the opportunity to visit Liberia. Myself and Tim Woodall, the Chair of our Board, were visiting a community with whom we hope to soon be working. We had a fantastic time full of adventure and some mishaps, we met extraordinary people and ate some of the best food I’ve ever had. I hope that we’ll soon be able to share more of our stories and of course plans for the future; for now, I’d like to share three lessons I learnt during my brief visit.

  1. Barefoot football is a noncontact sport. An hour after Tim firmly planted his foot on a sea urchin we were playing barefoot football – Tim having had the worst (but by no means all) spikes removed. The standard wasn’t as high as our elaborate retellings might have you believe; I essentially crashed into Tim. There was an audible crunch. I looked down at my foot and was surprised to see that one of my toes had decided to go it alone, taking a new direction; clearly broken. For such a small injury it’s a huge inconvenience. The hero of our story is Andy who arranged and organised the trip. Whilst Tim and I hobbled around he was our guide, nurse, chef and domestique. So perhaps there are two lessons here, the second being ‘find an Andy’.
  2. Be a cultural chameleon. Tim lived in Kenya for four years and so I told myself had an advantage, he seemed to understand and be at home with bits of African culture that are still strange to me. But the more I watched the more I realised that Tim wasn’t reverting back to old habits; he has a willingness to throw himself into new experiences and an openness to do so without the restraints that we usually wear. This was evidenced in Tim’s willingness to go surfing despite so clearly being a land lubber – hence the sea urchin. And his dancing showed less restraint than it should have. But, we hadn’t been in Liberia for more than an hour before our hosts declared Tim an honouree Liberian. So lesson two, relax, grasp the opportunity to leave behind the British reserve and go after the full experience.
  3. Forgiveness sets you free. Liberia has endured a tragic recent history. Two civil wars (1989-1996 & 1999-2003) devastated the country and then more recently the Ebola crisis (2014-15) reached to the heart of Liberian culture. To qualify, Liberians are very hospitable, social and tactile but during the Ebola crisis were advised to accept no visitors and avoid physical contact. Sparing gruesome details, the civil wars were brutal. They claimed in the region of 500,000 lives and pushed the country back decades.

    Our guides where incredibly open to questions and shared some of their personal tragedies. I found it surprising that there were few, if any, signs of remaining tensions and asked what happened to the soldiers after the war. The answer was quite remarkable. ‘They we sent to school’. Without talk of retribution or punishment there was a collective agreement to forgive, to draw a line under all that had happened and together move forward.

    I was reminded of The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. It’s a great book and discussion that explores ‘the possibilities and limits of forgiveness’ prompted by the author’s wartime experiences. Famous leaders and people from a plethora of cultures and persuasions offer short responses. To all of the academic and intelligent reasons for not being generous with forgiveness, Liberia is a challenge.

    Simon Wiesenthal’s decision not to forgive held him captive far longer than the soldier who asked for his forgiveness. Conversely, Liberia has left behind the hate that tore her apart and is moving forward with all her people. It is strangely fitting that Liberia means ‘Land of the Free’.

    So the final lesson or challenge that I brought home is to be more forgiving. Life is too short to carry the mistakes of others.

And if I may, one lesson from me. Visit Liberia; it’s a beautiful country with amazing people and great food.

Dan Chalke