FAQ on Liberia trip from questions asked at an Indiana Tech Sociology class

On Monday, I was given the opportunity to share my experience traveling to Liberia with a sociology class at Indiana Tech. They were not able to ask all of their questions. Here is a brief FAQ with me answering their questions.

I was excited by their zeal. But zeal will not be enough. Liberia needs a helping hand up, not just a hand out.

• Why can’t you take pictures of the executive mansion if no one lives there?

The government is real sensitive against photography. I would assume that this is due to attacks. If someone were to plan an attack, taking pictures to plan one's route of attack would be useful.

The field where the women prayed.
 • Whats the book/movie about the woman praying in the field? (This is in reference to the women, both Muslim and Christian, who gathered together to pray for an end to the Civil War at the risk of their lives in a field in the middle of Monrovia.)

The book is Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leyman Gbowee. The movie is Pray The Devil Back To Hell.

If you are interested in reading another book on Liberia, the autobiography of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is also interesting: This Child Will Be Great by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It is an entertaining yet educational read.

• How did they get to school? How much did it cost the families? How old are school aged children? Average IQ?

It's not easy to get to school. For some in Monrovia, the school is just around the corner and they can just walk to school. For others it's a journey. If your family is only making $300/year, you cannot afford the trip to and from school. Also, many of the districts in the backwoods (or "bush" as they call it) do not even have public schools.

President Johnson-Sirleaf has noble dreams of providing free schooling for all. Being a woman, she is also concerned about the education of girls. The enrollment rate according to a 2010 article was only 5%. This is unfortunate because the future of any society depends upon an adequate education. When I was there, I saw the immediate needs being proper medical care and safe water. But the ability of Liberia to become self-sufficient relies upon education. Without that help, any help we give is just a hand out, no matter how necessary, and not a hand up. We must train them to help themselves.

The family we were staying with had issues with their school uniforms the week we were there. The school issued too large of uniforms for the kids in the family. The mom lovingly and industriously altered them to make them fit better. The school did not like the alterations and kicked the kids out of school until they could buy a new set of appropriate uniforms.

So school is free for all, but free is expensive in that the families have to get their kids to school and pay for uniforms in some instances. According to the US Department of State, the literacy rate in 2008 was only 58%. Some have the resources to send their kids to private school.

A computer lab in one of the more impressive
Liberian schools.
I was delighted to see a few functioning, wonderful schools. Hope 2 Liberia also plans to start schools at their Hope Centers.

IQ is a natural in-born trait, so I would assume that their IQs are equal to what ours are. I saw many bright and industrious people. Unfortunately, most of them lack the skills and knowledge to reach their potential. When that happens, in any society, the whole society loses out.

We take so much for granted in our society. We hear the phrase "common sense" thrown around failing to realize that the "common sense" we have is only common because most people were given those values by their parents. What we think is common isn't really common; it's taught. Without someone to teach us what is common, we would not know that which we consider common.

• You say there is hope for Liberia, but you say things contradictory to that statement. Is there really hope? And if so, how?


The hope was in their hearts. I was humbled by the spirit of the Liberian people. They don't have much, but they strive, they build, they yearn for a better future.

The buildings being constructed show me hope.

The parents who sacrifice to send their children to school show me hope.

Everyone working however they can to make ends meet show hope.

The churches loving their communities to the best of their abilities gave me hope.

The zeal of the believers for Jesus gave me hope.

With that said, they do need a little help from those of us who have plenty. Hope 2 Liberia isn't the only organization over there trying to help. Many, especially other churches, are over their doing what they can to help.

I was at a meeting here in Antwerp where an investment-minded person commented that Liberia is too instable to invest in. That is where the church comes in. We go where instability permeates and share the message and bring help that will foster stability. The church doesn't invest for a profit. We invest because we love because we have been loved with the hope that people will see God. With each water system, we hope to give away the Living Water who will make a difference in the long term in a society that is struggling.

So the situation was dire. No doubt about it. But the resiliency of the human spirit was inspiring. Hope was there.

Hope is only really necessary when circumstances are dire. Who needs hope when things are running smoothly? So you are right in saying that I saw many things that would appear hopeless, and my presentation contained those things. But if the human spirit does not despair amidst terrible circumstances, the future can be bright.

This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip.
Around forty-five people live in this house, and they
were extremely happy to get a water system. Photo
taken by Jon Bennett.
• How did it make you feel to help?

I experienced a range of emotions.

I was heartbroken giving a water system to a family or village where I already saw children who would die from the illness or parasites already in their guts from unsafe water, which was the case in many of the instances where we gave away water systems. Our was a little too late for some.

I was humbled that I could be used by God to give a water system that will actually save lives. It was a great feeling. But bittersweet combined with the previous emotion.

• What caused the 2nd Civil War?

You can read the entry on Wikipedia of the Second Liberian Civil War if you are interested.

The cliff note version. Most wars are started by people who are greedy and want power. The Second Civil Ware doesn't appear any different.

• How is the church so nice, when the surroundings are not?

The church in Monrovia that we were at is a Hope 2 Liberia Hope Center. It needs to be nice because it is the home of a church, a future school, and a common place for the community to receive water. I wouldn't call the church immaculate, just taken care of.  Obviously, money is coming from the States to build the facility. But the facility is to be a tool to be a blessing to the community around it with the hope of lifting them all up out of poverty.

Here is a guy and his pharmacy. Everyone is doing what
they can to feed their families and improve their lives.
• What jobs do they have in Liberia?

The unemployment rate is high. In 2003, it was 85%. It is probably less now, but it is still substantial. However, that doesn't mean what it means in America. The unemployed are not collecting unemployment. Everyone is still trying to get by. Some will open up a shop. They might make charcoal from wood and sell that. Others make dirt to eat. I was amazed at the industriousness. So they might not be employed, but without any sort of social safety net, they are all doing what they can to survive.

They have many of the jobs we have, but they really need more. These will come as education happens and the government properly manages the nation's natural resources.

The restroom the men used to urinate
in was out in the open.
• Did you also have to poopoo in the open?

Thankfully, I did not have to. They had a toilet for that. Without running water, it did have to be flushed with a bucket even at the house we were staying at.

• What is the difference between clean and safe drinking water?

The distinction is just in the way we use the words. "Clean" appears clear, but that does not mean it is "safe." "Safe" means that it won't harm you to drink it. It is like the sandbag filtration system (picture below). The sandbag filtration system makes dirty water appear clean but it is still not safe. The Sawyer Water Filtration System makes the water both clean and safe.

• Whats the use of government? They do not regulate anything or have programs to help their citizens. They have no laws because everyone results to their own forms of punishments

We overestimate the benefits of the infrastructure and knowledge that has been passed down to us by our parents and their parents and their parents, etc.

These attempts at water purification can
be seen in many yards. They pour dirty water
into a bag of sand and it comes out at the
bottom as clean water. However, the water
appearing clean does not mean that it is
safe to drink.
Here is an excerpt from an article: Liberia: Budget Exceeds Half Billion.

"The Ministry of Finance has announced Liberia's Fiscal Budget for 2011/2012 in the tone of 516.4.Million United States Dollars or half billion U.S. dollars.

Finance Minister Augustine K. Ngafuan [who I had the privilege to eat lunch with - note by Regan], revealed that that the country's budget has exceeded half billion and will soon pass the previous budgets of the 70s and 80's when the government operated a budget above 600 millions."

So they are starting at ground zero with infrastructure. Their hope is to have electricity in place by 2014. From there they will work on a public water system. But while they are spending money on these giant programs, they also have to keep the wheels of government going. This isn't as cheap or as easy as we might think.

We can afford to worry about building an expressway between Toledo and Ft. Wayne because we already have the basic infrastructure in place to worry about advanced infrastructure. They do not.

We are blessed to not have to start our infrastructure from scratch. If we had to, we would also realize what a long and tedious process it would be.

So the Liberian government is working to provide the basic protections and infrastructure a government should provide. It just takes time to develop from the starting point they find themselves in.

Here is an example of one of the water systems ready to
be handed out. A Sawyer Water System can handle
1,000,000 gallons before the filter goes bad. It should
last any of the people that we gave them to a lifetime.
• How did you clean the water?

The Hope Centers have larger filtration systems. The smaller personal systems that we distributed are Sawyer Water Systems. We brought the systems with us. Once there, we bought and prepared the whole system to give away to schools, churches, and households.

• What would be the next place you would pick for a mission trip?

Probably Liberia again. I'm not one looking for experiences but to make an impact. The more I go back to the same place, the more of an impact I can make. I like what Hope 2 Liberia is doing. They have been there since 2005, have a great partnership going with the church their in Monrovia, and are reaching the point where they can make an even greater impact.

The kid holding the stick and hubcap in the front row was
so full of life. He would run around having fun with the
hubcap. But he will be dead because his belly is swelling.
He's not starving as he is well-fed. His family has a garden,
raises chickens, and harvests food from the woods to eat,
but his drinking water is not safe. One out of four children
 in Liberia do not live to see their sixth birthday. Sadly, he
will be one of them because he will not receive the
medical care that he needs. Safe water is already too late. :(
• What shocked you the most?

How well fed they were. Despite being well fed, they were still dying from bad water. Really confusing to me.

• Did you ever feel really unsafe?

Only once. I was handing out toys to children in a house when word must have spread throughout the community that a white man was handing out toys. I didn't have enough toys for every Liberian child. Wish I did. Eventually, I was surrounded by sixty to seventy kids all trying to get a toy. I was like the center of a rabid mob. It was both heartbreaking and terrifying as they were all clamoring for a toy. One of the saddest and scariest moments of the trip. I wanted to weep. Yet I was also in shock. Weird experience.

• What made you want to go and help Liberia?

It all started with a music festival I put on last summer. I wanted to mobilize the small, country town I live in to think beyond themselves and work together to raise funds to provide water for those who need it. Sadly, the festival revealed to me how self-centered the town I live in is. Many made comments like, "Why help those overseas, when there are people that need help here?" This fails to recognize that the type of poverty overseas is much more severe than the poverty here. So, I realize I have a lot of ministry to do in this town helping people to see beyond themselves and their wants.

In the process of planning the music festival, I looked around for an organization that I could get behind and support. This led me to Sam and Dave at Hope 2 Liberia. After spending a day with them and learning about their ministry in Liberia, they were the group that I decided to support with our music festival.

From there, we raised funds to support them. When they were planning this teaching/water trip, they asked me to be one of the teachers. I was honored and jumped at the opportunity.

This is the side of the Hope Center in Monrovia. You can
see the barbed wire along the top of the fence.
• Why is there barbed wire around the church and school?

Theft is a significant issue in Liberia. We can be judgmental about this or just recognize the fact that when people are desperate (as in needing food to feed their family), they will do desperate things. So the church, schools, businesses, and houses often have barbed wire and security people. This is just to prevent theft.

• How do the rich people live in the red light district?

I don't know if there are rich people in Red Light.  It is more of a marketplace.

• How do you feel about what is going on in Uganda?

If you are meaning Kony, I really am not informed enough to make an educated opinion.

• Do you believe that your organization will be able to reach other issues going on with Liberia (electricity, clean water, clothes, medical?)

I was just a volunteer with Hope 2 Liberia. But I will try to answer for them anyway. Hope 2 Liberia is focused on water, education and meeting spiritual needs with their Hope Centers. They have provided clothing. They have also done some medical trips. But their primary focus at this time is providing Liberians with safe water. This allows to keep focused and get the job done.

As for what I will do in the future, I am praying and seeking God's will.

• What is the average income?

The average income is around $500/year. But this is an average that includes big incomes. I would say that the typical income of many of the people I encountered was around $150-300/year.

• Why choose Liberia and not elsewhere?

I don't think there is anything special about choosing Liberia. I just think people need to be helping others somewhere. That can be the neighbor next door or people in some nation halfway around the world. But it's not an either/or. We can do both. In Liberia, the poverty is extreme and people need immediate help just to survive.

It is this way in other nations. But don't let the indecisiveness of where to help prevent you from helping. Choose somewhere to help and use your abundant resources to help. Because your resources are abundant whether you realize it or not.

• What is the relationship between American Liberians and Native Liberians?

There seems to still be some animosity between the two. When President Johnson-Sirleaf ran for President, she had to make it clear that she wasn't a descendant of the American Liberians.

• What kind of government do they operate and who is the current president?

It is a democracy. And the current President is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The first female President in all of Africa.

• What is the average distance to travel for water?

The dilemma is not distance. Many have wells in their back yard. The dilemma is safe water. The water is easily accessible. The problem is that it is contaminated.

Although there were a few gas stations as
we would recognize them. Many gas stations
were like this one and sold gas by the
pickle jar (in their case mayonnaise jar).
• How much is gas?

When were there, it cost the same as it does in the States. However, they don't make as much money as those in the States, so the cost of gas is extremely expensive for the typical Liberian.

• What do they use for power?

Those who have money and can afford gas will purchase generators.

• What happened to stop the power?

The Civil Wars destroyed the infrastructure of the Liberian society.

• How many water systems did you provide?

We provided twenty-four Sawyer Water Systems and got the water system at the Hope Center in Monrovia up and running.

• Do they have working showers in Liberia?

I'm sure they do at places. But where we stayed, it was sponge baths all week long.

• Did you witness any violence or fighting?

I actually saw two fights along the street. But that is not really all that much violence considering that we were driving a lot. Monrovia has 1.3 million people packed in such a small area.

• Do most children go to school?

It is required by the state but they do not.

• How did you fundraise for your trip?

I sent out letters to friends. If you need help with this on a trip, I will gladly give you a copy of that letter.

• Are there also rebel groups there?

I heard that there are still rebels. But I never encountered any. The rebels are frowned upon. The Liberian people do not want the war to start back up. In most wars, the people are just victims caught between two groups fighting for power and money.

An abandoned gas station. These are everywhere and are
an emblem of what Liberia once was and what it has
become due to the destruction of the Civil Wars.
• What is a “fourth world” country?

Wikipedia has a good entry on it. Fourth World. A better listing that describes it is the one for Least Developed Country.
Least developed country (LDC) is the name given to a country which, according to the United Nations, exhibits the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development, with the lowest Human Development Index ratings of all countries in the world. The concept of LDCs originated in the late 1960s and the first group of LDCs was listed by the UN in its resolution 2768 (XXVI) of 18 November 1971. A country is classified as a Least Developed Country if it meets three criteria:
- Low-income (three-year average GNI per capita of less than US $905, which must exceed $1,086 to leave the list)
- Human resource weakness (based on indicators of nutrition, health, education and adult literacy) and
- Economic vulnerability (based on instability of agricultural production, instability of exports of goods and services, economic importance of non-traditional activities, merchandise export concentration, handicap of economic smallness, and the percentage of population displaced by natural disasters)

• Why aren't more people helping?

We have a tendency to ignore the plight of others. If we really saw their plight and acknowledged that we could do something about, we would be required to do something about it or acknowledge that we are really evil people. It is easier to pretend that the problem doesn't exist.

As I talk in my article, Who Will Be God's Ambassadors?, about Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Liberia, we are more concerned with homosexual rights than we are with the plight of the struggling masses in Liberia.

Now that you see the problem, I pray that you will join in in doing something about it.

• What can I do to help?

The most basic thing would be giving money to organizations that are helping. I know Hope 2 Liberia would use your money to be a blessing to the Liberian people as I have seen their work on the ground in Liberia. You can donate at their website.

If you want to be more involved by going on a trip, contact them or some other organization. Hope 2 Liberia is based out of Muncie, Indiana, so they would be easy to get connected with. Don't let your desire to help those in need dwindle before you do something.

• What did they sell in the red light district?

The Red Light district is the market area of Monrovia. It is called Red Light because it used to have a red stop light. The only stop light in Monrovia. The stop light is long gone, but the place has kept its name. When we visited Red Light, we estimated that there were 200,000 people in a 4x4 block area. It was insane. Below is a video taken on a rainy day a few years back in Red Light. It doesn't really do the busyness of the area justice.

Everything is for sale in Red Light. From suitcases to food. From clothes to lighters. I even saw cell phones.

• Were there dead bodies laying around?

None where I could see. But I did hear that bodies will float down the river around once a week. The Liberian people still take care of dead bodies.

The home where I stayed in Liberia.
• Were you afraid of having your home broken into?

I felt comfortable where we were staying. We had security people there all day and all night long.

• What did the guards use to protect your home?

I don't know if they had knives or anything. But their presence was enough. Most Liberians do not have guns as the United Nations bought the guns from Liberians after the Civil War for $300 each. See Analysis: How best to remove guns from post-conflict zones?

• Were the people friendly in Liberia?

Extremely. But I was a white man and they love Americans. But the feeling I got was that the Liberian people are generally a good-hearted, friendly people.

This is part of a series that I wrote showing the mission trip I took to Liberia.
I divided the subjects into individual pages, for ease of use.

Here are a few articles that I wrote upon my return:
One Drop