We have arrived in Liberia! Late on Sunday to the Roberts International Airport. Literally late, due to being delayed thrice – once in Amsterdam while looking for a lost passenger and twice waiting for the runway lights at the airport in Liberia to turn back on. Two hours behind schedule and dozens lost in the unreal world of airport-space, zombies strung out on Amsterdam-Schiphol couches, time lost but not passing. Melinda and Aeriel, L-SWE SUCCESS camp alums with five years of experience combined, greeted the UM SWE team outside of the airport. Let’s talk a bit about acronyms: L-SWE is Liberia Society of Women Engineers and SUCCESS is Setting Up Collegiates for Careers in Engineering through Social Support. The history of the partnership between UM SWE and L-SWE is vibrant and weaving, colorful and evolving. For more information, I point you to: https://gradsweatum.wordpress.com/about-l-swe/, but for now, I’m consumed with the present.
Moses, our driver from the airport and friend of a family member of a L-SWE member, turns the hazards on in his Toyota Highlander. It doesn’t feel like night or day, but only like rain. Rain and rain and rain. A few drops start from the top of the door, hitting my forearm and grounding me in that moment. My head aches from being awake, but I’m locked in step with time, synchronized by the drip on my arm. The radio is on, but I only realize that after we’ve passed through the rain into the dark night. Up to that moment, our Highlander, our only force against that outside world, was filled with a roar, a cheering crowd, an amplifier’s scream, hundreds of rain drops crashing down onto the roof, every so often one fulfilling its mission to land on my arm. The silence is deafening when we cross out of the storm. Welcome to Liberia – rain and calm, separated by the finest line.
When I wake up, it takes me a while to remember where I am. I have the faintest memory of arriving to Fendell Campus on the University of Liberia the night before, well past midnight. We listened to a call-in radio show, Liberians seeking advice on love, after the deafening rainfall. We raced through the night, glimpses of outdoor parties still full of dancing Liberians, deserted roadside stands, billboards, the occasional street light. Every now and then just a breath of the air – damp with the past, heavy with the future. It is rainy season in August, so each reprieve from the rain feels especially sweet. We tour Fendell campus with just a slight drizzle in the air. It barely falls, hanging in the air like a cobweb. The graduate students from UM are staying in apartments reserved for visiting scholars and professors, and the undergraduate students from UM, along with L-SWE camp participants, are staying in dormitories. We see the UL clock tower stark against the grey sky, and I can’t help but briefly be pulled back to Michigan’s Central Campus clock tower. Many UL students are still milling about campus, finishing out their final days of exams. We eat lunch in the UL cafeteria, and the rain picks up. Low-lying areas swell with the water. The bottoms of T-shirts, strung across a shallow valley this morning to dry, now hang several inches into a pool that has formed. I see a Liberian woman wade through the knee-deep water to collect them.
Later in the evening, the L-SWE campers arrive at Fendell, and I walk over to the dorms with Aeriel to meet some of them. I can’t help but feel drawn in by their overflowing warmth. They laugh. They shout. There is such an excitement, like the eve of a big holiday. Old friends cry out down the hallway to one another. I can hardly keep up, forgetting names as soon as I’ve heard them. It is overwhelming in many ways, but in some ways it feels deeply wonderful. I feel terrifically off balance, like I’ve walked into someone else’s family reunion, only to be welcomed with profound kindness. And it’s only Monday.