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Liberian Journey Continues

Thank you, readers, for the many encouraging responses to pieces on recent West African travel and our progress with the Applied Scholastics African Literacy Campaign (3/23 – 4/3/23). Letter from Liberia (March 24, 2023) and The Wrong Thing to Do: Nothing(March 25, 2023) More from those days? Sure, my pleasure.  …


Recovery always seems inevitable … looking back.  But not so much when trapped in the middle of surging somatic unpleasantness.

While Liberians have welcomed me warmly on return, certain microscopic elements have again sought to slow if not submerge my advance.

By Sat. night (3/25), two days in, the little throat tickle and cough I picked up over the Atlantic have morphed on down to a meaty bronchial invasion, credit and thanks at least partly to the airborne onslaught of road dust, exhaust and other encroaching unhealthinesses.

Since even mild misery loves company, why not have this phlegm-a-thon join with my perennial Liberian nemesis, the angry splotchy rash that starts promptly about the legs and arms, lays down a spectacularly colorful cacophony of pain and itch for a few days, and then relents, no doubt off to torment some other sitting-duck arrival in the tropics.

Hence, long before light Mon. I lay there embattled inside and out. Up to ingest another antibiotic, wash down the limbs, apply ice, elixirs (lavender oil) and ointments; then back under the covers, not to sleep (that’s impossible) but to paint musings up there among the ceiling patterns …

I travel back to Ghana, July, 2005.  Jay asked a simple question in that first week together: “Will you help me?” “Yes,” I said.  Neither of us had any idea what that meant, whether or how it would roll out.

But roll out it has.  First was the Youth for Human Rights International “African Human Rights Leadership Campaign.” From 2006, the initiative grew annually across Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone, activating thousands of young people as human rights educators, teaching by example and deed. Many of the high schoolers who took part are now professionals, doctors, lawyers, educators, administrators, making their way to senior leadership.

With the astonishing 2013 failure of all 17,000 high school graduates to pass the University of Liberia entrance exam and Ebola’s devastation (2014-2016), we have since directed full attention to illiteracy as the emanating human rights violation.  Thus came our partnership with Applied Scholastics, with Mr. Hubbard’s Study Tech to enable actual learning for competence over the prevailing “memorize for the test” mass education mindset.

I wander over our ensuing and most recent seven years – dubbed the African Literacy Campaign, working with local youth leaders and a series of accomplished American and South African educators – introducing Study Tech to Liberia’s, and of late Ghana’s, ministries, policymakers, teachers and students.  ALC programs have included ● repeated  teacher and student trainings in greater Monrovia and  regional Liberian capitals Kakata and Tubmanburg;  ● three years of delivery (2017-2019) through AMEU Monrovia’s “Vacation Bridge” high school-college transition program; ● training the majority of instructors/professors at Cuttington University’s Suakoko main campus; and ● the inevitable briefings to top government leaders and policymakers.

Body hemmed in and still taking pre-dawn fire by microbial special forces, I reach beyond these hotel room walls to the populations about to stir out there in the pre-dawn calm.  Yes, all our work is commendable but at this rate and scope, it’s a pebble to be buried under the molasses creep  of millions without the ability to actually learn and the 40,000-plus teachers across this country with little clue on how to stem this tide.

Yet, now three mornings later (Wed.), bodily imprisonment is over, at last. Life is patient.

The “Counsellor,” Kofi Woods, joins us for breakfast. He was a co-refugee  in Sierra Leone with Jay, twin Steve and  dad James during the 1990s Taylor days of terror. Kofi has been Jay’s mentor ever since, going on some 30 years. I met him on my first trip here, when he was Ellen Johnson’s Labor Minister, Jay his “special assistant.”

Kofi greets but doesn’t welcome me back. After my near-countless times here, there’s very little need to remark that I went and returned.

As he tells it (reprinted in Speak Truth to Power, Human Rights Defenders Who are Changing Our World, K. Cuomo (Crown, 2000)):

“I was born in a zinc shack in Bushrod Island, a suburb of Monrovia. It is a place of squalor as a result of migrants from the rural areas coming to seek job opportunities.  I was one of twenty or so children of my father – that alone created difficulties – no educational opportunities, no housing. And those conditions impressed upon me a perception of the world – the perpetual conflict between good and evil as expressed through political, social and economic systems …

“[On the repression of the Doe Administration],  I personally participated in an number of demonstrations between 1981 and 1985, until I was elected student president for the university and a leader of the national student organization in 1986. I was hunted on many occasions for my position on national issues. I went into hiding many times for my life …

“Everyone was afraid. I was compelled to enroll in law school with the intent to defend those who would face [such repression]. In March of 1986, I got arrested and went to prison.  That experience opened my eyes to the horrible situation … people who were detained illegally, without charge, without due process, without the right to lawyers, with nobody to represent them. When I got out, I went straight to law school …

“You are not motivated because you are a decent person, no.  Sometimes it is a calling.  And when there is a calling, there is no explanation for what motivates you … Whether I like it or not God intended to use me in society in this way.  I hold no malice against anyone.  I believe hatred blurs the human sensibilities and diminishes the spirit.  Those who hate me, criticize me, and vilify me purify my conviction and strengthen my courage.

“We all live in different societies … But we must find our common ground.  We must work together.  And I think we can make this world a better place. When I attend funeral ceremonies and have to say anything, this is my favorite quote by Etienne de Grellet: ‘I know I shall pass this way but once. And if there is anything I can do, any kindness I can show, any good thing I can do, let me do it now, for I shall not pass this way again.’”

Why would I keep coming back fated to again run the gauntlet of a multi-day Burning Man fungus-rage party on my legs and arms? Aren’t I too old for that crap?  Whatever “enough” means, haven’t I done enough?  Is this really worth the risk of malaria or God knows whatever African-strength affliction?

Returning, persevering are for moments like this, hanging with the good ones – Kofi and Jay – laughing flat out over the audacity of any hope to  reverse the crushing chaos out there.  But dare we might; and what a sublime exhilaration surrounds the prospect. I come back because these are Humanity’s frontlines and there is no other more ecstatic immersion.

Tim Bowles
Paynesville, Liberia
Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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