We landed at Robertsfield after a game of cards in the plane-ride which takes 2 hours. Air Ivoire supposedly only takes one hour, so if people are in a hurry, that’s the one to take. The airfield is huge, with a really long, well-built runway, and some troops camping under a lean-to as they watch the plane land. Two fighter jets sit at one end of the parking tarmac, but the main terminal is a burned-out shell of concrete pillars and metal frames. The temporary arrival hall has two small rooms, one with passport control and health card check and the other with the luggage retrieval/customs setup. If you have forgotten to get your Yellow Fever shot, don’t panic, they’ll give you one right on the spot. “Just step around the desk and roll up your sleeve, please. We’ll even sign your yellow book for you.”

David Ward met us at the airport (we were so relieved to see a familiar face) and sent a Liberian in to help us through the passport check. This meant that Bill slipped the official a wad of Liberian dollars, instead of us doing it. This seems the norm, and it has been explained to us that a Liberian paying a bribe spends less money than a foreigner. (Proba-bly because the Liberian knows the lowest amount he can get away with.)

At customs the lady briefly looked through our bags, but we didn’t have to pay any bribes there. One other Australian man entered when we did, so I asked him about registering and he referred us to the British Consulate. We have yet to do that, though, as the first time we rang up there was no answer.

We rode from Robertsfield to Monrovia in the back of a white Toyota ute so all three of us could sit together and talk. At various points along the road, brightly painted Ecomog blockades were set up, but they wave everyone through. The road was in pretty good shape until we reached Monrovia. Along the way, many large buildings were burnt and ruined, and the roofs had been lifted off oth-ers while the structure was still intact. It wouldn’t be too difficult to just replace a roof on one of these houses, but there were little signs of ameliorating the ruins.

Instead of walls on houses, woven palm-leaf mat was used. This mat is woven in strands of five or six, resulting in very wide bands. Much public property has been looted along with the private homes. The lights from the streets, the wires off the telephone and electricity poles; it is all gone. Apparently the soldiers looted every house systematically, bringing in heavy trucks and lifting everything from the homes. They ruined was what left, which means that even the nice apartment buildings that weren’t burned have all their windows broken. Many houses were burned down by the soldiers, and they would also pile furniture and papers into bonfires, just so they wouldn’t leave the occupants with anything valuable. In spite of these grave injustices, very little is said against Charles Taylor or his troops. In fact, the war is rarely mentioned in specific terms, and I’ve had to ask detailed questions to merit a direct answer.

We are staying at a compound headquartered by a church with several private dwellings and a school located on the same premises. The ACFI (African Christian Fellowship International) is a non-denominational organization which receives an enormous sum of money from a mainly Mennon-ite group in the U.S.: at least $15,000 each month. ACFI has several orphanages under its umbrella, with a total of 600 children. It also manages many sister churches, a blind home, and various other benevolent operations such as a medical clinic.

The compound is right next to the beach, which serves as the public toilets, but closer to the water the sand is clean. We don’t have running water or electricity save for a generator that goes on at 7pm. The electricity is off throughout most of the town, as the hydroelectric generators were bombed and the present regime lacks the funds or the benevolence to replace them. Many people have small generators to create electricity, and some even buy current from their neighbors. These small generators run very cheaply on “gas” which is sold at US$1.50 per gallon (3.7 litters).

The guesthouse is a poorly-constructed building with vari-ous additions leeching onto it and electrical work clearly visible. The workmanship is generally very poor with an excess of nails visible in the carpentry and the paneled front door’s panels lacking right angles. The bathroom is missing a sink, which may have been stolen by the soldiers, and the shower recess is a knee-high cement wall across the 1.5m-wide chamber with a drain in it. A plastic barrel holds wa-ter drawn from the well, and a large can is used for bathing and flushing the toilet.

There’s quite a knack to flushing a toilet with a can of water. One must drop the water in from a great height at exactly the right spot in the bowl. If one doesn’t get it right, the water level rises to alarming levels. Also, leave the toilet seat down while “flushing” or the water all splashes out. Gross! David has the knack but I fail miserably and have been soaked for my efforts. We can’t fill the reservoir above the bowl since it leaks, and plus it takes five times as much wa-ter to flush.

David’s and my room is painted Barbie pink in gloss, with matt touch-ups. A recessed closet without doors sits in the far corner of the room. Two double mattress, one on top of the other, serves as our comfortable bed. We also have a fan to run when the generator comes on. By the way, the volt-age regulator has long perished on this generator, so the lights are incredibly bright and the fan creates a gale! We had two school desks and a chair in our room when we ar-rived, but I’ve since moved two more desks in, so our stuff is quite comfortably and methodically arranged. In a recent container from the States, someone included a roll of white, good-quality carpet, so this is also on the floor of our room. The edges are poorly-matched, and strips of carpet fill the gap. An arc is cut out of the carpet in the doorway so the door opens without trouble.

Our room is at the front of the houses, which means a lot of noise from the veranda outside, but the windows are above head-height from the outside’s level. Dirty louvers, rusting plain bars and tattered fly-screen keep the view limited. We can hear the surf crashing when the vocal level outside drops several decibels. Our door bolts from the inside and can be locked from the outside, so we feel that it’s relatively secure.

The “guesthouse” has three other bedrooms, one reasonably-sized but overlooking the low-built high school classrooms, and two tiny closets that we’ve converted, one into a store-room (since it can be locked) and the other into an office (for the computer and electrical equipment). A dining room with a long table in it and a tiny kitchen which spills outside where the cooking is done over coals completes the build-ing. Two other rooms have been built onto the main struc-ture, but without doors into it. One room serves as an office for Tom Wesseh, who serves as a general administrator, and the other is the principal’s office for the school. A C-shape of really low-built pink-painted, plywood/chipboard school rooms also meets up with the main structure on the far side of the building, where David’s room and the kitchen are. The courtyard in the center of this “C” is poured cement, which is not very thick and not liable to last very
long.

Outside, the compound has been covered with an ashy ocean-sand, which saves on the gardening, I suppose. We are housed directly opposite from the chipboard, tin-roofed church. The wood was laid perpendicular to the ground first, then the cement was poured inside it. Terrific way to build. The church is also painted pink; there must have been a super savings on pink paint the day they went to market. Another plywood structure serves as the primary school and two houses contain the pastor’s family and the Ed Kofi’s family. Three round paillotes constructed with bamboo are at the back of the compound, just by the fence overlooking the beach. These were built to accommodate the meetings of an American team that came out several months ago. ACFI is expected another team to come in the summer months, and they are constructing another room on the guesthouse. This is to be the dining room for the Ameri-cans. Much of the money they spend is on impressing the Americans.

When we arrived, we were served meals that would satisfy seven people. Each plate of food was covered with foil, even the plate of cheese balls and the bowl of fruit! We had so much excess food left over, but that wasn’t really a prob-lem since we knew the women ate it after us. However, we have since talked to the head woman, Patricia, and told her that tinfoil is pretty expensive, and we don’t need our food covered.

The first time David tried to communicate this message with another woman, Mary, the next meal was all covered with plastic wrap. Patricia has also cut back on the amount of food she cooks for us, which we are thankful for, because it doesn’t make us feel so bad. The amount of money spent on it has also diminished, so now we are eating more African-style, which suits us fine. We have fruit at every meal: freshly cut pineapple, papaw and bananas. Rice is also a staple, but we get very few vegetables. Still, we are not hungry, and have not used any of the food we brought. We are still debating whether to give it to the orphanages, or use it to supplement our diet here and save on the costs.

The ACFI is headed by one Liberian man: Ed Kofi. This man is the pastor/”visionary” who spends his time flying between the States and here. He raises money to supplement what he also receives. On top of the monetary contributions, the Mennonites send containers to Liberia every month. Each container contains bags and cartons of food, mattress, books, and miscellaneous items. The plush white carpet, a plethora of filled toolboxes and a solar power system arrived in the most recent container. ACFI is not lacking in funds or equipment, but we see the problem as just poor manage-ment. The buildings are poorly built without any decent plans for the long-term. What’s here now will suffice, but it won’t last two years. The whole compound lacks toilet fa-cilities for the church and school attendees, but this is not a priority item when the beach is so close. We’ve even found out that the sewer pipe runs directly under the compound, and tapping into it would not pose a problem, but the excuse is “der’s no money-o”.

Liberian names are so difficult to understand, even common biblical ones like Daniel. The Liberians also add their own native variations to the names; Deborah becomes “Dee-bor-ee-ah”. If you meet a Liberian for the first time, they may shake your hand and say “Esser” without a prelude. The common thing to reply would be “Lauren”, but only if that was your name. I was at first thrown off by this off-the-cuff way of introducing oneself, but after meeting Esther, I got the hang of it.

Jackson is the pastor of this ACFI Headquarters church, and he and his wife Victoria make a delightful couple. Their four-year-old daughter, Peace, has been around many white people and sees them as her personal property. Victoria dances a mean boogie in the worship services, and Jackson doesn’t do too badly himself. I enjoy the time I spend with them.

One of ACFI’s orphanages, the Monrovia Home is located 500 meters up the way from our compound. This orphanage houses 70 girls and about 100 guys. Two old, two-story colonial buildings serve as the girls’ and guys’ dorm, with a bamboo structure the dining hall. Most of the littler chil-dren’s bedrooms have a bed for a “mother” who looks after them. There’s a pretty good ration of mothers to children, and the women who work there are very dedicated. The kids share beds, of course, but they all have mattress and coverings, donated by the people in the States.

They get bags of rice, beans, flour, oil, mattresses and cover-ings from the containers and a small amount of money to buy other food and coal. I imagine that the women get a small salary, but judging from the primary school teacher’s wage of US$12 per month, I don’t think the orphanage women would get more. In reality $12 is not enough to live on here. US$1 equals $40 Liberian, but that doesn’t get you far. I talked to one teenager who spent L$600 getting her hair done nicely. Those teachers get L$500 a month! L$5 is the only denomination note around, and it’s equal to almost 17 cents. L$10 will pay for a taxi ride into town.

For the money they get, ACFI is not spending it well. Even the items that come on the container often don’t reach those in need. The members of the church are well looked-after, and hardly anyone actually has a job. Who needs a job, anyway? Rice is freely given, and if you ask Ed Kofi nicely enough, you’ll get some meat money. Each day, the com-pound is full of adults lounging around, rarely lifting a fin-ger except to wave away some flies or shake a friend’s hand. Talk about a chatty society! These folks will work if forced into it, but anything can serve as a distraction good enough to stop them, even the arrival of the ute back to the com-pound!

Two utes have been given to ACFI by the good Christian folk back in the ol’ U.S. Unfortunately, these have not been well maintained, especially the clutch and the radiators, and they won’t last past their warranty date. This is again an example of the Liberian mentality. If the radiator needs, filling, I’ll use water because coolant is too expensive. Never you mind the fact that in four months a new radiator will cost several hundred dollars! It’s driving us bystanders berserk!

Downtown, few buildings have even cleaned up or re-painted. Some bullet holes have been patched over, but many buildings still bear the pockmarks of gun-happy teen-agers with everlasting ammo. The people are well-dressed, fed, and smiling, but Monrovia is in ruins. I expect that the aid coming in from the U.S. has more than met the needs of the people, but the country’s infrastructure is blown to bits.

Charles Taylor’s troops have beautiful new Korean Ssan-gYon 4WD, and the president’s Mercedes is an important black. Whenever he parades about the town, the roads are cordoned off, and he is preceded by a dozen police cars and army trucks with uniformed men hanging out, clutching their machine guns. The people say little about him, though. However, to many the war has not yet ended even though there is little fighting. I’ve asked someone how they can tolerate having C.T. as president, when it was his troops who raided their homes and killed some people. The fellow I asked just shrugged. He voted for Taylor in the September elections even though his home was burned in the April fighting. C.T. is in the presidency for six years; unless he starts making some positive changes soon, I doubt he’ll last that long!

Sunday’s service had an awfully long collection period. The church wants to raise L$50,000 to decorate the interior of the church; about US$1200. David gave the sermon, but his was the last item on the menu. We started at 11.30 and didn’t end until 3pm. That was a marathon service. The majority of the time was spent in the collections because church members had been given envelopes to fill and they went through all these, reading out the names of the givers. I was disappointed in this, but the music is good. Having the songs in English means that it’s easier to learn them and sing along, so I feel more involved than with other indige-nous churches.

We are searching out projects to keep us occupied as the Africans don’t seem to assign tasks to us. Whatever we’ve tried to do has taken so long as the infamous African sense of urgency prevails. David installed a solar power system with help from Dave and several Africans, but that took two and half days. I have been eager to compile records on the computer and train someone to input them, but so far, only one set of records has showed up and I don’t have anyone to train.

Honestly, we are frustrated because we don’t see ourselves as doing anything worthwhile. David and I played with the orphanage kids on the beach one afternoon. We built a vil-lage of several huts with thatched roofs, a well, two animal pens, roads, and a wall around it. The kids are creative with a little prompting. However that afternoon ended on a sour note because some kids went into the water (well, a lot of kids) and we got in trouble for encouraging them. I loved seeing them enjoying themselves so freely, and David and I were watching, so there was no great danger, but we won’t be able to do that again. Perhaps we should make contact with some other missionaries here and offer our willing hands to them. We are eager to work but have not been able to make much happen. Continue to pray for us. I know we are supposed to be here, I just don’t understand why.

As I finish this letter this morning, on Thursday, David’s just finished a dose of Halfan. He was pretty sick last night, but because we started the Halfan early, this time hasn’t been too bad. I have been working with a young woman, input-ting records on the computer, and she’s used computers be-fore—-a real asset to thank the Lord for! This is a different place from any other nation in West Africa. I am so glad to have been on this trip, to have learned even more about the part of the world I love the most. Liberia is an awful nation, not just because of the Civil War which has torn the country apart since 1989, but also because of the short-term mental-ity of the nationals.