Phil is in Liberia documenting the work of Foundation for Women (FFW), an organization that strives to continually support and encourage impoverished women, both globally and locally, by funding and creating microcredit programs. A longtime supporter of Phil and his work, Kevin Castner is traveling with him and reporting back to us from the field. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “Women’s Leadership Conference” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.
We picked up Katie Meyler, founder of More than Me, and drive around Mamba Point and past the heavily protected U.S. Embassy to West Point. Katie had already been 6 hours in a car today, driving friends up to the Guinea border. As we bounce along the streets she eats bread rolls and cheese. She talks about all the border checks on the way. Sounds like a nightmare.
From the first step out of the car in West Point, it feels like we’re in one, too. The air here is rank, the warm wind wafting odors of urine and smoking fish mixed with heat and sweat and feces. Flies are everywhere. My eyes burn. My nose is assaulted. Nothing I’ve experienced in Liberia prepared me for this. Nothing else stunk.
A line in Jurassic Park comes to mind, the character Ian Malcolm explains chaos theory with the comment, “Life finds a way.”. Somehow it finds a way in West Point. West Point is vibrant, crowded, pulsing. People run small businesses; smoke fish in tiers over charcoal-fired metal drums. There is a community here with families, and clothes drying along the metal walls. People live here. Somehow.
A recently paved road snakes into the slum. On either side and further in, it is all dirt and sand. And close; the length of my outspread arms is close to the width of a major thoroughfare here. Just to one side a pot simmers over a small charcoal fire in the dirt. A bit further on you can buy some in little blue plastic bags; which will soon be litter. People sit outside huts or storefronts in plastic lawn chairs or in the dirt. They pull water up from a well. We inch by, touching everyone. Somehow, even motorcycles find a way in here.
We ask to take pictures. Often we’re asked for money and told no when we don’t produce it. I can’t blame them if they’re angry. Some wannabe photojournalist shows up and wants to snap away for their blog or magazine. They say their work will bring change. But has the person sitting in the dirt ever seen any change? From what I see with every step – they haven’t so far.
My normal greeting at home is ‘Hey, how ya doing?’. That seems beyond inappropriate here. I can see how they’re doing. They are barely surviving.
We negotiate the dirt paths and find ourselves in an open square maybe an acre in size. A mix of dirt and sand with hovels on three sides. On the fourth, the ocean. Fishing boats at the ready. They say they go 40 miles out with a small outboard motor. The fish look good. On the way there are groundnuts (peanuts to us) lying on bed sheets, drying in the sun. People mill in all directions. There are stalls, mostly selling food items, along the sides of the square. A horde of children follow us, talking, pulling at our hands, wanting to have their pictures taken and see themselves in the camera; some are clothed, some not. And everywhere, mixed with the dirt and sand, garbage and excrement. Even the wind off the ocean can’t blow away the smell.
Some people thrive in this environment; it energizes them, pulls at them. Our guides through West Point are Katie Meyler and Mackintosh Johnson. Katie gets girls off the street and away from prostitution any way she can while Macintosh is a social worker and helps kids (boys and girls) get scholarships. They coordinate many of their activities through an organization Katie set up called More than Me. Mackintosh grew up in West Point. He shares the view that the way out is through education. Katie found her way here somehow, and the children pulled at her and never let go. My respect and admiration for them is unbounded. Please take a moment to visit morethanme.org and support them, if you are able.
We pass a woman breast-feeding in the dirt. We pass happy people. Sad people. Angry young men. We see kids playing pickup soccer with a half-deflated ball in the sand and garbage. We pass more little stores. See palm nuts drying. End up at the spit at the end of West Point. Wooden boats lay here, their holes and broken bows lifted to the sun. They are surrounded by shit. This whole area is an open toilet. I don’t gag easily but I think about it. It is hard to avoid to stepping in shit. It is everywhere on the sand. Of course covered in flies. Children squat in our midst and have diarrhea, stand up and leave. They don’t have anything to wipe with so they don’t.
We finally leave and go back to our cushy resort. I have a multitude of thoughts and emotions coursing through me. I take off all my clothes and put them in a plastic laundry bag. They won’t see the light of day until they’re sitting next to a German washing machine. The next thing I do is something nobody in West Point will do tonight. I take a hot shower.
Only a few more FFW posts to go!