Friday, May 17, 2013

Liberia- Land of the Free

Liberia- Land of the Free!

Many times in the US have I heard that phrase “Land of the Free”, yet when my friend and work colleague told me in a very proud and serious voice that “Here in Liberia we are Free” I didn’t recognize it. She proclaimed it in a way that you would, only by knowing what it is to have your freedom taken away. For years during the war, she, like many others were forced to live outside of Liberia, away from her family, in neighboring Ivory Coast in a small crowded refugee camp. Now that the war is over it is obvious that she will never take her freedom for granted, and neither will the rest of the population that have spent 23 years of their lives in fear of rebel forces, corrupt government and a violent military.

I know I will never understand what it means to be free as my Liberian friend does, but she has given me a new appreciation for the word and I’m reminded of it often here in Liberia! 
Almost four months into my stay in Liberia and time is going by very fast! 
I used to get stares from skeptical Liberians as I walked though the community and up to my apartment, now I get a chorus of "Aunt  Kayla Hello!" from children playing and "How da day-o?" from friendly neighbors. I used to get nervous when a police officer would wave my car over to the side of the road. Now I just smile and crack a joke and only rarely do I have to negotiate my release with a small 'gift' to the officer. I used to set my mouth on fire every time I ate rice and soup from a local restaurant, now I add plenty hot pepper to my own cooking at home. I used to listen helplessly to Liberians as they spoke to each other or me in Liberian English. Now I can pick out a few words here and there...

Ducor Hotel up the hill from my apartment
My apartment/neighborhood has been one of the greatest blessings while living here. My neighbors are very friendly, I feel safe and I'm close to downtown the market and the beach. I'm situated on a hill just below the remains of what was once the most elegant hotel in West Africa and above the noise and heat in the city center downhill. My electricity is provided at the whim of the Liberian Electric Company (LEC), but it's fairly reliable until it goes out without explanation for anywhere from a few hours to a whole day. Water is provided by an electric pump attached to a reservoir  at my land lords house. Since the water here is not safe to drink, I buy my drinking water from a business called "Sparkling Water" a few blocks away, who fills up my 20L jug as needed for $1 (or 70 Liberian Dollars).

Partners Worldwide, Partnership Manager- Liberia
In October 2012 I accepted an offer from Partners Worldwide for the position of Partnership Manager in Liberia. As such I am working with a local non-profit microfinance organization called LEAD Inc. (Liberian Entrepreneur and Asset Development, In the Name of Christ) to facilitate their relationship with a group of businesspersons supporting them in Grand Rapids, MI and another group of agriculturalists in the Midwest. These partnerships help to support LEAD as they continue to grow and engage in new strategies to empower businesses in Liberia! 

Since I arrived there has been no shortage of activity or excitement at LEAD. I'm learning as I go, and what better way to learn than being a part of the action? Here are a few things that have been occupying my time since I arrived:

LEAD Agriculture Program: Liberia is well suited for Agriculture, blest with rich soil and an abundance of water. Despite this the country is using only about 10% of it's available farm land for agriculture. Lack of education about farming practices and unavailable equipment and financing has made farming an unattractive sector, and as a result the majority of food that could be grown locally is imported from other countries and expensive. LEAD has made empowering farmers to grow one of their main objectives and they have been blest to have several enthusiastic farmers from the Midwest who have committed their time and skills to LEAD's Agriculture Program!  To learn more about how agriculturalist/farmers from the midwest have been partnering with Liberian Farmers read the document in the attached documents (right) called "Amos the Farmer". 

Cheers of joy as Larry uproots a
healthy potato seed sprouting roots!

  • Potato Farming in Liberia: The same day I arrived in Liberia by plane, 720 25kg bags of potato seeds and 80 bags of fertilizer arrived by sea. In 2012, Larry Alsum (Alsum Farms, WI), came to Liberia to visit farmers. As one of the largest Potato distributers in the US, Larry was shocked to see that there was not even one potato growing in Liberia! In the local market, Irish potatoes are in high demand, but sold at a high price as they come all the way from Holland. Despite the perception from Liberians that Potatoes can't grow in Liberia, Larry saw no reason why the soil conditions and weather wouldn't allow it. To pilot the farming of potatoes, Larry donated the container of Potatoes to give to a cross-section of interested farmers in Liberia. One month later, Larry came to visit and give some training to the farmers as they began planting and saw already that the plants were sprouting roots! The farmers are located in Nimba and Bong Counties (north of Monrovia about 7 hours drive) so since I arrived I've been able to travel to the countryside a few times to check in on this project. 
  • Agriculture Empowerment Initiative (AEI): This is LEAD's newest lending program designed specifically for farmers. LEAD had already been giving loans to micro and small businesses for 
    Amos (farmer) showing us his
    rice nursery.
    years when they identified an new category of potential businesspersons without access to loans; Farmers. LEAD is now the only institution giving loans to farmers  nd the results have been inspirational! Farmers have always been  etting by producing enough to feed their  amilies, but without an infusion of cash to buy seeds and equipment at the beginning of the season, they have no way of improving their crop. Now farmers are empowered to grow and cultivate their land by receiving a loan before planting and then repaying when they harvest their crops (normally 4 months later). Meeting with a young farmer, Amos, I learned what a difference a small loan can make!  

  • Research Farm: In 2010 LEAD bought 25 acres of land to start a research farm, dedicated to trying new crops and farming methods and teaching farmers based on their findings. The farm is currently raising Pigs, growing some small vegetables inside a hoop-house, planting Moringa (Neverdie) trees and managing five bee hives. 
LEAD new office Dedication: My first month in Liberia was pretty much dominated by LEAD's recent purchase of a property for their new office in Monrovia. It was an exciting time as the staff of LEAD had long outgrown their current office in a small space inside the Providence Baptist Church. The property purchased was thanks to the generosity of LEAD's donors who participated in the Capital campaign and it offers not only space for LEAD's office, but also a second building on the lot which will be rented out to another organization for generating income to sustain LEADs activities. The dedication ceremony on February 23rd was a complete success as friends and family of LEAD joined together in joyful celebration. By the second week of March, LEAD was completely moved in to their new office and very much enjoying the new space!

LEAD Lending Program: Since 2005 LEAD has served over 3500 businesspersons with loans to help expand their business! They have six branches, in 6 of the 15 counties in Liberia, and lend from $400 to $5000 US! The most impressive stories are of course those clients that started at the $400 level and have now grown to receive $5000 loans. Even more impressive is the impact that these businesses are having on their communities, creating jobs, providing services and producing new products. In Bong County I met a man and his wife who started with a small pharmacy booth and are now running a medical clinic for pregnant mothers and children's health. In Grand Bassa County Nathaniel, who started off selling soap, now has 25 employees and is producing up to 8000 cement bricks a day for new homes of families in the growing town of Buchanan. The list goes on and I'll be happy to share more stories with you as time goes on! You can find stories on LEAD's website: under stories. 

As you can see I've been fairly busy these first few months and I didn't even mention yet my visits to Nairobi, Kenya and Accra, Ghana! My apologies for taking so long to write- I guess I'm paying for it now by having to sit down and write this very long post :) You can expect more frequent updates from me from now on!

Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers as I start on this new adventure. I thank God for the incredible diversity and wonder of His creation to which my eyes are opened more each day!