The Ducor: A Symbol of Devastation or of Hope?

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As I climbed the gray speckled marble steps up yet another floor, I clung closer to the damp concrete wall beside me, always keeping one hand flat up against the cold surface. The stairs were slippery from the rain water that had fallen earlier that morning and there was no railing for me to hold onto, it had disappeared long ago. Every now and then I looked to my left and saw the hollowed out elevator shaft that had once carried people from floor to floor with ease. Light was shining down from somewhere up above and moss grew in the holes where the buttons once were mounted. Its very presence mocked my fellow AgriCorps members and I as we continued to climb.

The staircase was dark and musty but we kept moving up slowly and with each new floor that we reached I stopped and stood on the landing, peeking out down the long hallway of abandoned rooms. The floor was cracked and uneven, walls were missing between the rooms, paint was chipping or nearly gone on the walls that did remain, and water dripped quietly from the holes in the ceiling above. The place was silent and it was eerie. I felt like I did not belong, like I was trespassing on a very intimate part of this country’s history, a country I had only been in for 2 short weeks.

The fact that this once majestic hotel had been reduced to this was hard to comprehend. I caught myself wondering what had it looked like back when it had opened in 1959. Would there have been chandeliers hanging right above me brightening up this lobby? Was there music playing? How ornate were the decorations in these rooms? Who had wandered these halls before me? Who had vacationed in these rooms and what did they talk about as they lay in bed each night? How did it come to this?

Back in 1959 when the iconic Ducor hotel was built, it was the premier hotel in all of West Africa. In fact it was the only five star hotel in the region and people came from near and far to witness the grand opening. This new hotel represented wealth and power. It represented a rapidly expanding economy full of growth and potential. To the outside world, Liberia was flourishing and this hotel was just an outward symbol of all that they had accomplished. But underneath this façade, there were great inequalities leading to great turmoil between the socioeconomic classes which eventually erupted into one of the bloodiest and most devastating civil wars in Africa’s history.

Massive amounts of infrastructure were destroyed in the war. Some of the destruction was caused by the rebel forces as they plundered through the city targeting everything in sight, but a lot of the destruction came as a result of people just trying to survive. People had been displaced from their homes and farms, they had no food and no source of income and so they stole whatever they could find and sold it on the streets just to make a little money. From the Ducor, I imagine the first things to go were the obvious things like couches, tables, chairs, beds, mirrors, and paintings. After that, people began opening up the walls and stealing the plumbing and electrical wires until not a single thing of value was left in the entire structure. It had been skinned to the bones, completely devetated. The Ducor, once a shining light upon a hill in the city, was now just an empty concrete skeleton that served as a bitter reminder of the past.

I felt overwhelmed as I looked at all the destruction around me. So many things in this country are broken. So much corruption. So much hurt and so much pain. So many devastating stories that make my stomach twist and turn. Will it ever really get better? Why did I come here? How could I come here thinking that I could help make a difference?

And yet, somehow amidst all the destruction around me, as I stood there on the roof of the Ducor I began to feel hope welling up inside of me. Hope as I looked out on the colorful and bustling city below me, it was a beauty I had not yet appreciated from the ground level. Hope as I looked at the multitude of tropical plants creeping up through every single crack and crevice, their vibrant greens brightening up the dull gray of the concrete and their downright perseverance to survive anywhere bringing a smile to my face. Hope because I know that even in a place like this, a post-conflict country devastated by war, God is still here…He never left. Hope because my God is a God of restoration who is in the business of making beauty from ashes. Hope because of all the people I have already met in Liberia that have bright visions for what the future of their country could look like. Hope because I believe in the mission that I signed up for when I joined AgriCorps, that education and empowerment of youth can and will make a difference in the long run.

August Update

Wow! Where to start?? It has been 27 days since we left our home sweet home in Maryland and began our travels. Our first 11 days were spent in Ardmore, Oklahoma doing lots of initial training with AgriCorps. During those 11 days we met the nine other AgriCorps Fellows who we are serving with this year. Eight of them are going to work in Ghana (sad face) and one (Melissa) is coming to Liberia with us and serving as our Chief of Party. During training we were going going going from 6am to about 6pm each day. We had sessions about lesson planning, development work, classroom management, experiential learning, agricultural science curriculum, internal development, and effective communication strategies. It was A LOT to take in all at once but it was all definitely needed. We also got the chance to talk with a few of the alumni AgriCorps Fellows about their experiences and it was super reassuring and helpful to have many of my questions answered and worries addressed.

On Aug 11 we flew out of Dallas airport and began our 20 some hour journey here to Liberia. We landed in Liberia around 7pm and it took at least an hour to get all our bags and paperwork. As we drove through the dark to the city of Monrovia, we got the chance to talk with Umuru Sherrif who is the Executive Director for 4-H Liberia (more on how cool he is later). He pointed out military barracks from the civil war, former Ebola treatment clinics, and mass graveyards for Ebola victims. He talked about children soldiers being used for such terrible evils and how he was able to escape to Sierra Leone during the civil war. And although he didn’t go terribly deep into any of his stories, it was still quite the introduction to Liberia. Yes, I read about the war and I had read endlessly about the Ebola endemic but now here it all was right before me. It was no longer words on a page or pictures on a screen, it was real and I was right in the middle of where it had all happened sitting next to a man who had experienced it himself. I’m sure the longer I stay the more stories I will hear and the more real it will become.

The first few days in Monrovia were spent getting to know the city, learning about the history of Liberia, and running errands. No matter what city I go to in whatever country I travel to it always takes me a little while to get used to all the hubbub, noises, smells, and mass amounts of people surrounding me. I like the rural life….what can I say?? Luckily on day five of being in Liberia we had the chance to travel out to a village for a home-stay experience. The village that we traveled to was called Kamada Town and it was located about 2 hours outside of Monrovia. The drive out there was smooth sailing for the first hour and a half…a paved road had recently been repaired! Finally we were able to get outside of the city and see the countryside and boy was it beautiful. Everywhere you looked there was a new shade of green…palm trees, rice fields, rubber trees, timber trees, tropical grasses, citrus trees, vegetable plants, cassava fields, and swamps with  lily pads. Contrasting the bright array of greens was black from the bags and bags of charcoal moving down the road in trucks and the burnt palm trunks still in the fields, deep red soil lining the roadways and filling the puddles on the side of the road, and grayish blue skies for miles and miles ahead. It was breathtaking.

Once we reached the village, we settled in with Chief John and his family and took a small tour of the village. The village had about 20-30 houses (built from mud and concrete with palm and tin roofs) and it had two wells and two latrines for the entire village to share. On the edge of town there was an elementary school with three classrooms and there was a church with a propane tank hanging from a wooden stand to serve as a bell to welcome worshippers on Sunday. While in the village we had a chance to socialize with the nearby families, interview farmers and visit their fields, try the local foods, attempt to learn the local language, and run a one day 4-H camp for the kids. It was a great place for us to also practice listening to “Liberian English” which is not quite as easy to understand as I had anticipated. Liberian English started out as a pidgin language but has since become more of a creole language as it now has characteristics similar to the tribal languages here in West Africa. The first few days as people are speaking to me I don’t even know if they are speaking a tribal language or Liberian English…it sounds that different. Here is a youtube video of people speaking Liberian English:

It is getting a little easier to understand the more time I spend listening to it, but it is still a long way to go. Thankfully, many of the people in cities (like the one Nathan and I will be living in) also speak “standard English” which is much easier for my Western ears to understand.

After the home-stay, we traveled back into Monrovia for one day and then it was back on the road again to an area called Suakoko, about three hours outside of the city. The Central Agricultural Research Institution (CARI) is located in this town and while there we had the opportunity to visit with researchers from the various departments (animal science, aquaculture, vegetables, roots and tubers, rice, tree crops, and agronomy). We visited test plots, talked with researchers about their studies and the problems that face farmers face, and we learned so much about the processes of planting, maintaining, and harvesting tropical crops. Nathan and I hope to establish a partnership between CARI and the school we will be teaching at (BWI) so that our students can learn from the amazing researchers and get real hands-on experience in the field of agriculture that they are studying. Luckily our school is only 1 hour away from CARI…can you say field trip?!?!

Pheww…sorry for the month worth of updates all in one post! I feel like a vagabond living out of a suitcase and traveling to a different city each week. Next week though we will finally be moving into our home and settling in. I can’t wait!

Here are a few pictures from our home-stay in Kamada Town.

Today’s the Day!!!!!

The day has finally come! Today is the day we are leaving the US and flying to Liberia!!! We fly out of Dallas at 12:00pm, out of DC at 5:00 tonight, out of Brussels tomorrow at 7:00am, and then finally land in Liberia around 7:00pm local time.  Our week and a half of training in Oklahoma was challenging but also amazing and we loved getting to know the other 9 AgriCorps Fellows traveling with us to West Africa.

For now, please keep us in your prayers as we start out our travel. Please pray for our safety, good weather, smooth connections, and no lost luggage!! Can’t wait to update you from our new home soon 🙂