It was our third morning in Liberia and I was in the kitchen making breakfast when our friend Mark walks into the house and starts talking about the list of things we need to do today like “go to the bank, go to the market, get laundry soap, and oh by the way, we need to buy more wood chips…the president is coming to visit.” Being still a little sleepy, and not sure I heard him right, I asked him to repeat that….”What do you mean president? The president of the University? I just saw him and his wife last night, what are you talking about….” Surely he can’t be talking about the president of Liberia….
Nope, surely he was. Ma Ellen, as we and Liberians affectionately call the president, was on her way and set to arrive around 9:30am, just one hour from now. Having been away from Liberia (and Liberian time) for a couple months now, I started getting ready immediately…. Haha…haha….. We popped our heads out of the house all day, trying to get other things done as we waited. At around 5:00pm her security patrol, who comes in advance of the president’s arrival, had arrived on campus. It was almost go time!
We went out to meet with the guys who help manage and work the school farm to wait with them and talk. We admitted to them we were nervous….we had only been living at this new school for TWO days, what could I even possibly say?? Yes, we had visited the school plenty of times and learned a lot about it, but it’s a whole other thing to give a tour to someone, let alone a president! We tried to work with the guys and come up with an exact game plan and go over who would say what and at one point. We mistakenly and probably a little arrogantly felt the burden to try and organize and plan everything ourselves and do it our way…..
When Ma Ellen arrived, I was asked by the president of the university to make sure I took plenty of pictures, this meant my plan of trying guide the tour was no more and I slipped off to the side of the group so I could get my shots. The farm crew confidently walked with Ma Ellen around the Agricultural Research Center and showed her the demonstration farms, where farmers could come and see with their own eyes how making small changes in their farming practices could make big differences in plant health and crop yield. They also showed her some of the experiments they are doing in order to try and help farmers in the future with new ideas like aquaponics system (using fish waste to fertilize plants), growing new varieties of tomatoes with mulch, improved chicken genetics, and improved facilities for goats. She was most fascinated with the work the farm is doing with the tomatoes, Liberia has long struggled in this area due to presence of soil borne bacteria that kill the tomatoes without fail at about 4-5 weeks old. But tomatoes have the potential to be a huge part of the local economy here. People use tomato paste in 50% of their soups that they cook to serve with rice each day, and all that tomato paste is imported!!! Well it’s all imported for now at least…..
After Ma Ellen had left we celebrated with the staff how well the visit went and everything they had done to prepare. They were of course proud of the farm and it showed. Later that evening, Nathan was walking back towards the house and saw one of the farm crew staff still out in the field, it was dark and nearly 8 o’clock at night. Nathan approached him and said “Wow, you’re still here. You are working late.” He just shrugged and said “well, we feel like this place, this farm was a gift to us, and now this is our farm, we need to take care of it. It’s up to us to improve it, it’s up to us to show others these new ideas and help them. And so, I don’t mind the time.”
Our Farm. Yes, this is their farm. This is the ARC staff’s farm, this is LICC’s farm, this is Liberia’s farm. It may have been started with some help, ideas, money, prayers, blood, sweat, and tears from someone else, but it was always theirs and now they know it. Ownership. This is the goal. The goal is not for us to start humanitarian programs and then appoint ourselves the owners. We don’t want to make ourselves responsible for all creative contributions and management operations for the rest of our lives. No, this would create some sort of system where the impoverished and oppressed really never breaks free, they just get put under a new version of oppression, disguised as charity. This is unfortunately what we see happening in so much of development work today in Liberia and around the world. The goal is to work ourselves out of a job and to work someone else into it. The goal is come alongside people, people who already have a passion and a desire to see their country change, more so than we possibly could as outsiders. The goal is to listen to their dreams, learn about their challenges from their perspective, discuss ideas together, start a project together, and then enable and empower them to take off clinging to it as their own, because it is their own.
This ownership doesn’t happen overnight though, I know from talking to Gina and Travis, the founders of Hope in the Harvest and of this ARC, that for years they struggled with getting people to understand this farm wasn’t something they were doing for them, it was something they wanted to do with them for good of the entire country. In Liberia, like in other developing countries I have been to, people are given gifts by foreign NGOs or governments all the time, but not often are they given the gift of ownership. They aren’t given a chance to be heard or recognized for their ideas and talents. Instead, they are often bulldozed over with ideas and projects that are “bigger and better” or “more tested and proven” that are sure to make the difference and solve the problem. Imagine what this does to a peoples’ spirit…it kills it and even worse, it casts them into a brutal cycle of dependency, hard to escape.
That’s what we usually see in Liberia. To see this, to hear our friend say “this is our farm” was more invigorating and refreshing to me than the cool breeze that was blowing that evening after what had been a brutally hot and stressful day. It was a reminder to me of why I am here, why I came back. Not for me to lead or to try to come up with some magical ideas to end poverty, but to enable other people to step up with confidence and lead with their own ideas and eventually be able to truly believe that “this is our farm.”
We were all honored to have Ma Ellen visit us, here are a few pictures from the day!