This first day in Liberia was exciting, hectic, emotional, crazy and confusing. I don't know what I was expecting, but I definitely felt twisted, turned and jostled a bit today.
We started the morning off at the National Right To Play office here in Monrovia. Natasha, a Vancouverite who is the program manager, introduced us to all of the amazing staff and we got our bearings. She then explained the specific Liberian regions and the work that is being done. It was really cool to hear stories about the direct impact Right To Play has had here. She told us one story about a girl who was 19 years old and had dropped out of high school because she failed grade 11 twice - a common occurrence here. She then started to help facilitate the Right To Play programs in her community and it gave her the sense of purpose and self worth that she needed to continue on a positive path. After volunteering with Right To Play for a couple of years, she decided to go back to school and finish her high school diploma. RTP changed the course of her life.
After hanging out at the office for a while, we heading off to the most disadvantaged part of Liberia - an area called West Point.
I've seen Slum Dog Millionaire and photos of "slums". Clearly I'm an expert on the topic, right? Wrong! Holy crap. The conditions were almost impossible to comprehend. The beach was stacked 10 meters high with garbage. Homes were made of scraps and cement. The smell was almost too much to take. I wanted to take photos, but I felt like it was being too inconsiderate. "Here, let me take a photo of you with my Sony camera while you are struggling to survive". I don't want to be that guy.
We went to a community school and met some of the kids. They were CRAZY when we went in. They were screaming and yelling and so excited that we were there. They had no idea who we were or what sports we participated in. They didn't care. They were mostly excited that both Kaillie and I had blonde hair and white skin. I have never had my skin touched and my hair pulled so much in my life! I heard that many of them had never seen a real 'white man' before.
We then went to another couple of schools in the same area and got to experience some Right To Play Games in action. There was joy, there was community and there were smiles. It was quite magical and yet I felt like something was missing for me. I was very uneasy and felt completely out of my element.
After playing and making a fool of ourselves dancing, we sat down with about 30 of the coaches and animators in a circle of sharing to learn more about their experiences as coaches.
There were a lot of messages that came across during this open opportunity to share. We heard about some of their challenges and victories. The biggest challenge is the lack of salary. All coaches are volunteers because there are just simply not enough funds to pay every coach involved. Many communities have upwards of 30 coaches. To create a sense of motivation and appreciation, RTP provides the most willing and dedicated leaders with small incentives like pins, tshirts, bags of rice, public recognition ceremonies…little things that make a big difference here. The biggest victory I felt we heard of was about how the children feel a better sense of self-confidence and they have learned to have more respect for their elders and peers. *On a side note, I have to say that Liberian english is really hard to understand! I was tired from just trying to listen!*
Westside is not a place for the faint of heart. It is a tough and dangerous community in Liberia. Drugs and disease and are rampant. Intense poverty is the reality here and survival is literally the dream at the beginning of the day for most.
I was completely out of my element and felt super confused and vulnerable when we left. I had never experienced devastation at that level before and it was intensely shocking.
In the afternoon we visited a couple more communities and saw the Right To Play programs in action. It became a whirlwind of quick stops that culminated with a very unexpected experience.
One of the leaders in the final community that we visited completely broke the law of respect and trust within the RTP model. To make a long and complicated story short, one of the leaders had been very severely injured by her husband (essentially she had made him mad and he put a burning hot piece of metal down her throat). He was now in jail and she was close to death. The community desperately wanted us, the White Man, to see her. They asked our guide for the day, Kaefalla, if it was possible. He told them NO. He said that we were here to see the children play and we were not here to throw money at the unfortunate incident that occurred. Well, after the play session we went to have a meeting with the communities RTP leaders to talk about their challenges and victories and low and behold, they brought us right to the front door of the injured woman. Kaefalla was furious and embarrassed. He could not believe the disrespect that this community was showing us. You could tell he was on the verge of completely ripping them a new one (you know what I mean) and yet he remained calm and presented his arguments about why we would NOT be seeing her. Then he expressed his disappointment in the community and shamed them for embarrassing Right To Play and themselves.
It was very intense and awkward. And to make it even more weird, there were about 50 random villagers just standing around and listening in on the happenings. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was a long day and I was donesville.
When we got back to the hotel, I was really confused and upset. I had seen the beauty of play sessions and their ability to bring a community together, but I had also seen total poverty and disrespect in those same communities. How could this dichotomy occur…wasn’t Right To Play the cure all magic potion that led to white picket fences and impossible dreams come true?
After some intense reflection, I came to the conclusion that I entered into this adventure with extremely rose coloured glasses. Perhaps I had the false impression that Right To Play communities were going to be instantly transformed into pristine examples of shiny optimism for the rest of the country to follow. I had this hope inside that we would see a very noticeable difference on the surface. In my heart, I really hoped for this. But I realized that I was naïve to believe that Right To Play activities were going to completely change the cycle and beliefs of an entire country in a short period of time. You just can’t make a third world country a first world one overnight. The reality and true message that Right To Play is promoting is that sport is a powerful tool for change, but change takes time. Liberia is a country that is rebuilding after 15 years of devastating war and the simple introduction of sport and play programs are not going to give the country an instantaneous facelift. It just doesn’t happen that way – it takes an immense amount of resources to instigate change.
Change, however, is rooted in a willing attitude and I observed that powerful positive numerous times today. Firstly, I saw inspiring leaders stepping up and committing to change. Secondly, I saw smiles and joy emitting from the youth who had the opportunities to play. All participants are willing and that is the most important step.
While immersed in the overwhelming hecticness of the days events, it was difficult for me to pinpoint the real tangibles because of the shocking reality of the way life is here. I wasn’t prepared.
So, I have decided that tomorrow I will face the day with optimism, but a more realistic optimism. I am going to take what I saw today, potentially the worst of the worst, and use it as my gauge for the rest of our visits. Smiles and joy are valuable, but I know that sport for development is about much more than that. It’s about sustainability, respect, fair play, dedication, inclusion, disease prevention, health promotion…and many many more measurables. Tomorrow, I am committed to having an open heart and keeping a keen eye ready to observe those benefits taking form.
Ps- The shake and snap is the Liberian handshake. Take a look at the link for more info.