A large blue suitcase, gently rocking in the seats beside me, presses against my shoulder with varying amounts of its weight depending on the current road condition. A little more on an uneven side road, a little less on a paved main street. Always as a friendly reminder that it is still there beside me. I’m neatly packed into the backseat of the car along with half of our luggage, on our way to downtown Monrovia from Fendell campus for our final few nights in country. The rest of the UM team fit into the first car, and seeking some moments for thought, I volunteered to travel with the rest of our belongings in the second car. Which is how I found myself situated between Edith and our driver, Thomas, both seated in the front, suitcases and ActionPacker tubbies stacked to the interior roof in the trunk and to my immediate left. On my right, a view of Monrovia through a window streaked with dirt.
Camp had concluded in the two days prior. Thursday was Flag Day, a holiday in Liberia to commemorate approving the flag’s design and establishing the republic. Thursday was also our last full day of camp activities. The morning contained two final engineering demos, recreating a coastal oil seep in a plastic cup and combining various materials to form reinforced concrete “hockey pucks”. It was a mess of fun – sand, soil, concrete mixed in white paper bowls.
The afternoon, melting into the evening, was one extended celebration. To begin, we were split into three teams: red, blue, and white. We assembled on the soccer field, below our feet the deep crimson earth rich in iron. Two lines drawn in the dirt, separated by fifteen yards. A series of small competitions between the teams ensued. It was a field day, a sports day, a play day, an end-of-camp jamboree. The first clash was a race to one side of the line and back. The catch: coming back, you had to be hopping, both feet inside a sack. I was chosen as the representative for the white team. Jackie and Maria lined up next to me from the red and blue teams. We were even at the far line, the halfway point. I struggled to stuff my size nines into the small sack. I looked ahead and saw Jackie with a lead, so I began jumping like mad. The race tightened. With a few feet to go, the line in the dirt rapidly approaching, I took a final leap. Hanging in the air before falling fast to the ground, sliding headfirst with my feet still secured inside the sack. I rolled over to look up at my teammates. The dive had earned me the win. Two colors of red mingling on my left knee, a worthy battle wound.
After supper, we all met back in the dining hall for a more formal Flag Day celebration, followed by a T-shirt signing party. We said the Pledge of Allegiance of Liberia, sang the national anthem. Awaakeh described the symbolism of the Liberian flag. Then armed with permanent markers and bearing plain white T’s, we embarked on another journey. Someone turned the music way up. Dancing began. Innocent photos of two campers turned into strained selfies with dozens of people. My ears were ringing on the walk back to the apartment.
Back in the car, snapshots, small moments, pieces of conversations from the camp floated just above my head as the road took me farther away from Fendell. I had asked the campers to complete post-camp surveys on Thursday, but I hadn’t had my own opportunity to do the same until now. Reflections from camp mixed with a stream of glimpses from the outside, inseparable and difficult to process. Raw chicken thighs for sale at a roadside stand. The word “REMOVE” spray-painted on the side of a building. The smell of exhaust and earth and mildew. Boys napping on wooden benches. Edith and Thomas having a lively conversation about the upcoming election. I only catch snippets – a politician’s name, a mention of a rally. Large patches of standing water. Items for sale displayed on the side of the road as the rain starts to fall – wooden bed frames, metal doors, plastic sunglasses.
We pull to the side of the road to pick up Yamah from her house. I wasn’t aware this was a part of the plan, but I’m not jarred. Maybe when I’d first arrived, high strung from a minced, scheduled life in the US, but not now. We readjust the blue suitcase to sit solely in the middle seat. Yamah claims another, rather small, window spot. I can’t see her because of my oversized neighbor, but I know she’s there. In Liberia, it seems there is constant change. Not in an upheaving way – small adjustments, plans made and remade. Discussing and confirming and discussing and reconfirming. Squeezing another passenger into the backseat. Waiting for one more person to get ready.
There is this deep sense of compassion here, pervasive in each interaction. Sharing food, charging cords, notebooks, pens, clothes. Making room for one more, two more, five more. Repeated patterns of impassioned debate, even outright arguing, followed by forgiveness. Liberia has been dealt many challenging hands – brutal civil wars and the Ebola outbreak to name only two. Many Liberians carry scars still fresh from losing family members. In the face of all of this, the kindness and the closeness is remarkable. Friends holding hands, linking arms, hugging tightly. The loss of personal space was somewhat uncomfortable for me when I first arrived. I wasn’t used to someone approaching me and enveloping my hands with their own, embracing me warmly. But later I found myself yearning for it, thinking back on the place I came from seeming now a little colder.
We lurch over a speed bump. Campaign signs plastered over walls, on cars and on storefront doors. Yamah has now been integrated into the election conversation, and every so often, she implores me to understand her side. There seems to be an unrest about the future elections, a wish for peaceful transition of power. The hope of many Liberian women I have met. These dreams for their country are often blended intimately with their personal goals. Many of the women at camp have expressed interest in graduate school in the US, Europe, other countries in Africa. Many of these same women then mention returning to Liberia afterward, desires to bring their skills and education back to lift up their communities, their home.
Stopped at a light, men and women pass by the car window with food items for sale – chocolates, water in bags, wrapped pillow bread. Edith offers me local almonds roasted on a stick. Pedestrians weave through slow moving traffic to cross wide streets. A giant billboard in the distance advertising a local beer. We reach our apartment, and a security guard opens the gate to let us pass through. Thomas turns the car off. Yamah is saying something to me from around the suitcase. I lean forward and turn to her. I reach out and grab her hand in mine. A visceral meld of compassion, hope, and closeness so beautiful it pulls you in without asking permission. A newfound intimacy with people. An accommodating, forgiving, adjusting way of life. A peace and a pace aware of an existence that includes work and play and dance. An enthusiasm to learn. This is my post-camp survey. This is Liberia. For it all – the UM SWE team, the L-SWE team, the SUCCESS camp, all of the Liberian people and experiences of the past two weeks – I’m grateful.