After a pretty intense journey crammed into the back of the Landcruiser, and being thrust into the baking sun for lunch at a restaurant on the high street, it was hard to know what to make of Kakata at first. I couldn’t see beyond the big, dusty main street, and it looked like that was as big as it got. How could this be a city? It felt a little like the middle of nowhere, and I was slightly anxious with the prospect of 9 weeks here ahead of me. That turned into great anxiety when a man started to shout at the group, and particularly me, about something unintelligible whilst we were eating. He was quite aggressive, pulling his shirt down to show an old war-wound on his shoulder. Unsure how to respond I asked a nervous question of Emmanuel, our incredible volunteer supervisor, and he just told me to ignore him. So I did, and he eventually went away. I later learned that he had mental issues of some description, probably stemming from his time during the wars. In hindsight, this could have happened anywhere in the UK, let alone Liberia. Even so, Kakata was off to a less-than-auspicious start.
We bundled back into the Toyota, as we set off on a mercifcully short joruney to our temporary accomodation. I started to get a feel for the size of Kakata, and I decided that all was not lost. We arrived at the secure compound that was to be our home for the first few nights, and I was amazed at the size of the rooms. I hadn’t expected a whole room to myself, let alone one with a double bed, and effectively an apartment for two! I looked out of the window and saw two tiny little finches, with a gorgeous marbled black and white plumage. This was an inkling that perhaps the birdlife might be better than I had hoped, and it was confirmed when I saw flocks of golden-yellow weavers in the trees overhead, and even more so when a beautful pale white and blue kingfisher landed atop some jagged glass on the compound walls. This was a pretty good start, though I doubt I’ll ever know what those intricate little finches were, but that’s a happy mystery, perhaps.
Pretty soon afterwards, someone pointed out a huge beetle crawling about, easily the biggest I’d ever seen. I dislike bugs with a passion, but having witnessed it apparently attempt suicide by flying full-pelt into a building, I realised that they were only a threat to themselves. I was genuinely amazed to see a Rhinocerous beetle though, the king of the insect world for me. Huge beetles with a dark ‘tusk’ at the front, these were the beasts of wildlife books of my childhood, when I was even smaller than I am now (which is not a scientific impossbility, as many of my friends would have you believe). It was thus brilliant to see one up close. All in all, that’s not a bad list for a concrete fortress of a compound, lined with barbed wire, big lizards and huge shards of glass!
A short while later I heard a shout that the ICVs, our Liberian counterparts had arrived, and I instantly felt a knot in my stomach. I was quite nervous about meeting them, simply because to not get on with my counterpart could be a disaster for my time here! I didn’t know what to expect, but I was met by the friendliest people I’ve ever met. You cannot understand the definition of friendly until you’ve met Liberians! They swiftly taught us the Liberian handshake, and we were soon making friends as the evening drew in around us. Some icebreakers got everyone going, and we learned who each of our 7 counterparts were. I was paired with the wonderful Safi, who is great fun and has been looking after me ever since. She seems to know everyone in Kakata, and is fantastic at putting me right when I make mistakes in the community. She’s taught me plenty already, but mainly that in residential areas you MUST say hello and shake hands with everyone you meet, which is very different to the UK, detached and ‘cold’ way of life. Safi has a big personality and has confessed to being someone who knows how to party, so have that to look forward to also! Our counterparts seem to have plenty of volunteering experience, through chruch, the YMCA and education, so we should be in every capable hands.
The next day was a Sunday, and Safi arrived early to take me to a Liberian church for the first time. We took April, another UK volunteer, with us too, and headed to St. Christopher’s, a catholic church a short distance away. The walk itself was exciting, dodging motorobikes on narrow dirt roads before I spied my first evidence of the heavy fighting that took place in Kakata during the civil wars, in the form of a bullet-riddled building.
All these thoughts were eviscerated by the incredible experience that is a Liberian church service. It was literally everything I wanted it to be, complete with music, gospel singing and dancing! It was a long service, but the energy, happiness and relaxation in the room was palpable. The stress and hardship of the week were forgotten in full, for here was the the world of God and worship, and nothing less. Everybody went to the front of church to gift a small financial offering amidst a buzzing clamour of excitement, singing and dancing. I had a fairly christian schooling, so many passages of text and songs were familiar, but the Liberian English lexicon and dialect gave the bible a distinctly African flavour.
I had to stand to introduce myself to the church, and had to state that my friend Safi had invited me. A Ghanaian woman also introduced herself, and we were then given a beautiful welcome by the congregation in the form of a song and the waving of hands. This was a special moment. In that church, you could forget everything, and be at peace. At the end, everybody wanted to shake our hands, and to welcome us personally to the chuch. I thus had ample opportunity to trial my newly-acquired Liberian handshake, and I’ve never quite felt so welcomed by a group of complete strangers. I’ve also never felt so relaxed, in such a foreign yet inherently familiar setting. Beautiful gospel singing still ringing in my ears, we headed away from the church, onto the road home.
A street away, a tiny little girl that could barely walk was squatted amidst a steaming pile of stinking garbage, struggling to defecate in a plastic bag, naked to the world.
If an image or a moment could be etched in your memory, then this was one of them, and believe me, it is seared on my mind. Amidst the happiness and the joy of chucrch, it was all too easy forget the realities just outside those holy gates. Whilst we were celebrating, she was barely surviving.
I must not forget that.