Thursday, July 19, 2007

We Have Work to Do!

Last week I got to visit an orphanage in Gbarnga. My students and I are working on developing ten pilot Moringa orchards in communities near Cuttington. Once I am gone, the students will continue to monitor the orchards and advise the communities on the cultivation and use of Moringa to treat malnutrition, internal parasites, and much much more.

Last week we were planting at Felleta Children’s Village. There is no car road to their home, but when our truck pulled up half a mile away, the children saw us. Their happy voices echoed up to us from across the swamp, and they ran down the hill and across the rice paddies to greet us. They helped me carry the seedlings back up to the orphanage. The girls cradling them in their arms like a doll. One boy balanced his on top of his head with the biggest grin on his face. As we made our way across the planks which serve as bridges in the rice paddy, and up the hill I could hear the small girls talking behind me, “This is my tree, I’m gonna take care of it. I’m gonna give it water every day.” And a boy was saying, “We’ll be eating it, and climbing it!” I taught them how to plant the trees, and before I knew it, they were digging holes and planting trees like crazy. I was amazed to see even the small children join in like it was a fun game. They are such joyful children. It’s clear that their caretaker Samuel, who is a gentle soul, has had a very good influence on them. I wished I could spend more time with them, just being around them rubbed a lot of joy off on me.

I hesitated to tell you this story, happy orphans living in a mud brick house with dirt floors. Though it’s true, it certainly isn’t the bulk of my experience in Liberia. Just like every other place in the world, Liberia is a land of juxtaposition: joy and sorrow, wealth and poverty, frustration and elation. A few weeks ago I had to tell a student multiple times to put away his i-pod while we were doing a Moringa site assessment in a village. Last week I lost my temper with a student who was demanding I buy him books. I have been frustrated by corruption, disgusted by the common instances of what in the states we would call abuse and enslavement of women and children, and exasperated by the lack of justice. And at the same time I have been touched by the displays of affection between friends, impressed by the hospitality, dazzled by the bright colors and elaborate styles both in clothing and nature, amazed at the will and work by which people survive, and elated to find joy in the most unexpected places.

As I left the orphanage, I couldn’t help wondering what will become of the children. Will there be money to send them to high school? Family plays such an important role in this culture, will the other children and Samuel be as a family to them in the future? I don’t know, but what I do know is there is a lot of love in that mud brick house on the hill.

Orphanages are a relatively new phenomenon in Liberia. Before the war, orphaned children were mostly taken in by other family members, but the war left too many broken families, too many orphaned children, and too many people in dire need.

Everyone has a story about the war. My students have told me some of theirs: fleeing to live in a refugee camp in Guinea, walking for two weeks with no food, living for years in an internally displaced persons camp, working as security for the warlord Charles Taylor, seeing family members killed, and always narrowly escaping death.

It all sounds so foreign to our western ears, and yet, so much of the world has lived through coups and wars in this generation, a third of the world lives in abject poverty with no access to clean drinking water. Should we think of these things and feel guilty or blessed? Both attitudes just separate us from the suffering of the world. Both attitudes cause us to fear, and pray that such tragedy never befalls us. I know these attitudes because they have been my own in the past. But living in Liberia, and doing hurricane Katrina relief work has taught me that when the worst thing imaginable happens to people, when their deepest fears are realized, life still goes on, the community still exists, there is laughter and tears, there is work to do, an education to be had, food to cook, a house to build. Life goes on, and most importantly, Love abides. Just because our country is sheltered from much of the suffering of the world, does not mean that we escape it. If we can embrace that which we fear, reach out a hand, shed a tear, share a laugh… wouldn’t the world be a better place? Wouldn’t our lives be richer?

The other day I brushed the cobwebs off my bible, and opened it to James. “I by my works will show you my faith.” I don’t think doing good works is about getting into heaven, I think it’s about living into the best version of who we want to be, by letting go of fear to do, go, become, love!

It is up to all of us to change the world, there is no one else! In the words of my wise friend John, “Stop being afraid, we have work to do!”