Returning to Liberia after 35 years
Country of Service:
Years of Service:
I had to look at someone’s face and subtract 35 years and see if I could figure out who they were.
My name is Vince Costello and I lived in Liberia as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1978-1980 and I’ve always wanted to go back. There was civil war there from 1989-2003 that precluded any visit then. This year with Ebola, Liberia was in the news a lot. I had enough vacation time that I didn’t need to work in December and was fortunate to connect with Franciscan Works which runs the Liberia Mission school. They have 75 students who live on the campus.
I arrived in the capital city of Monrovia at 3 AM. The mission staff had emailed me telling me that because of the 9 PM to 6 AM curfew they wouldn’t be able to get to me until 7 AM; I didn’t have a computer or cell phone with me so never got their message. Everyone else on the plane collected their luggage, met their drivers and departed. Local drivers were approaching me and inquiring if they could help me. Having read books about what went on during the civil war I was especially cautious and even felt some trepidation being approached by so many strangers. One guy offered his cell phone to contact my ride and we tried to call but there was no answer. Being the last traveler curbside I sat quietly with my baggage. A half hour later the same guy came back and handed me his phone and told me that my driver was on the line. What a kind and unexpected gesture. The arrival area became a ghost town and I waited alone three more hours for my ride. During my stay whenever I felt I was in a potentially dangerous situation where somebody just might take advantage of me – that never happened. Liberians are very friendly, welcoming and helpful and as time went on I came to realize that peoples’ behaviors hadn’t changed all that much despite the atrocities of war.
Because of Ebola schools have been closed for seven months. During the worst of the outbreak groups of people were forbidden to meet. Students who board at the mission weren’t even permitted to play soccer. I tutored students in reading, juggling, headstands and spinning a basketball on your finger. Teachers aren’t allowed to teach but are still paid 75% of their salaries. They are trying to get the numbers of Ebola cases near zero before reopening schools, possibly early this year. I even got to meet President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she came to tour the mission on December 23. She’s in the photo accepting the chocolate covered macadamia nuts. She seems a very honest, down-to-earth and humble leader – just what you’d expect from a Harvard grad.
Cultural practices have had to change. People do not touch – not even handshaking. Hand washing stations are everywhere. When visitors came to the mission their temperature was taken before entering. In church there is no Kiss of Peace nor drinking of wine.
After three weeks of tutoring, Ebola seemed on the decline and I’d heard that my old village was Ebola-free so it seemed safe to travel to Zahn Zayee by bus, cars and motorcycle for 11 hours; they didn’t know I was coming. Getting out in Zahn was the absolute strangest feeling – like someone had called time out and one moment I was saying goodbye as a 27 year-old and life had fast-forwarded 35 years and now I was saying hello as a 62 year-old. I was covered with goose bumps and couldn’t breathe normally but rather could only take short gasps, gritting my teeth fighting back tears I looked around and saw small children, teenagers, some 20 and 30 year olds. I had never felt like this before and never expect to ever again. I don’t know what it would be like to come back from the dead but surely for the time I’d been gone it was like I had been dead to this town and never expected to return. Not back from the dead, but back from the past – way back. I figured I needed to find someone who was at least 40+ years old to remember me. I was surrounded by young people who just stared back at me. Finally I saw one old ma and I said, “Oh um see Zawalo” (which is my village name meaning fifth born of my mother). She in turn exclaimed, “Eh, Zawalo!” And then an old man said, “Zawalo!!” Then people whom I actually knew started coming and I had to play the guessing game since everyone knew who I was whereas I had to look at someone’s face and subtract 35 years and see if I could figure out who they were. The town chief came and welcomed me. I was carrying a new soccer ball for the town team and presented it to the chief.
There were some improvements for the town: they now have four working water pumps whereas back in the old days we drank water from streams (which I boiled and filtered) so less diarrhea now; they have more toilets in use now whereas I had the only example back then; a new school building; more people using mosquito nets so less malaria. On the bad news side the village was attacked by rebels on three occasions during the war. The LPC (Liberia Peace Council) might sound like a docile group but they fought against Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) and murdered some of my friends, including the clan chief, destroyed many homes and burned the health clinic. The town has been without a clinic for 20 years. So my village had really suffered during the war when they had to run into the bush for a month at a time when rebels took over but fortunately they have not had any Ebola there.
I arrived back home on New Year’s Eve and am self-monitoring my health for 21 days. I stayed very healthy while in Liberia and have not had any rise in temperature for the past month. I am required to take my temperature twice a day and report it to the local Department of Health. I’m just not allowed to come too close to my wife (who is a nurse)…other than that, I feel very fortunate to have been able to make the return visit.