Victorian takes trip to promote women, peace in Liberia

Children bring water back to their homes for cooking and cleaning.

Liberia is America's one and only attempt at a form of "colonization." After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the country was founded by African-Americans emigrating from the United States, most of whom were freed slaves.

So much of Liberia mimics America: its flag, its constitution and even its two-tiered social status system that favored the "settlers" or "Congo" over the natives. Liberians think of themselves the 51st state of America, yet most Americans know very little about the country and its history.

This social stratification endured until a bloody coup in 1980 led by Sgt. Samuel Doe. President William Tolbert and 13 of his aides were executed. Civil war erupted and continued until 1997, when Charles Taylor was elected president.

Taylor's rule was brutal, and a second war broke out in 1999, lasting until 2003, when Taylor was exiled to Nigeria until his arrest in 2006 for aiding war criminals in neighboring Sierra Leone. Shortly after, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president and became the first female president of an African nation.

The country has had seven years of peace under her leadership, but there is still a long way to go for Liberia. Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with the majority of its people living on less than a dollar a day. The United Nations is the only real peacekeeping presence in the country. In spite of this reality, Liberians seem to have a real strength and happiness in them.

The Women Donors Network organized a trip to Liberia in coordination with The Foundation for Women to learn more about how to empower their women and give in a way that was meaningful and sustaining. The dates were picked to coincide with the third annual All Liberian Women's Summit, funded by Foundation for Women and Women NGOs Secretariat of Liberia.

Straight from the airport, we met some of the women from a microcredit group. The Foundation for Women provides microloans starting at $100 to encourage entrepreneurship and create an economic base. We were greeted with jubilant dancing and singing.

Later that day, we went into several communities to meet with more women who had received microloans. We heard their stories about how even the smallest loans had changed their lives and allowed them to feed their families and send their children to school.

We met a woman named Felicia and her husband, Arthur. With the assistance of a microloan, they were able to start a school on Peace Island. Many of the students are unable to pay tuition, but they are making ends meet and fulfilling a real need in the community. They have adopted many of their students. We were honored when Felicia's mother gave us a tour of her home and showed us her recent improvements.

The last stop of our second day was to meet "Amazing Grace," a woman who is legendary for bringing the lost art of glass bead making back to Liberia.

We all loaded up on her jewelry.

We learned from Grace that our host, Deborah Lindholm, founder of Foundation for Women, is known as "Fabulous" to many in Liberia. For years as she learned all the ingenious things the women of Liberia were doing, her common response was an enthusiastic "fabulous," and the name stuck.

A man that works for the Foundation for Women said many of his friends and family wondered why he quit his engineering job to work for a women's group. He said it was the women of Liberia who paid the dearest price during the war, and it is the women who are investing the most in Liberia's future.

We woke the next morning to the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away. It was particularly moving to be in Africa at that time. People were huddled around the television set in our hotel watching the world's reaction to the loss of a truly great man.

On our third day, we attended the All Liberian Women's Summit. As per the obvious protocol, the meeting began with more singing and dancing. More than 300 women dressed in elaborate local fabrics filled the hall.



The purpose of the meeting is to give all women of Liberia a voice in the future of their country and to help them come together in their effort to further the progress of Liberia.

The focus of this year's conference was women's reproductive health. The conference brought some of the most powerful women in the government and women from some of the most marginalized areas in the country to the same table.

But there is something about their sing-song way of speaking that fills you with happiness. There is a real joy we saw in all the people of Liberia. Women of every age would break into song and dance at the most unexpected moments.

There is a level of grumpiness or rigidness we expect with age in the U.S., but I didn't see that in Liberia. In a country where the majority of the people are living on less than a dollar a day, they seem to have a joy for life that is rare in the U.S.

At the conference, we met Sen. Jewel Taylor. We were all shocked to realize she had been married to Charles Taylor, the notorious president of Liberia who led one of the most gruesome civil wars in history. They are divorced now, but she was married to him until after the war ended.

During the summit, the women were able to bring forward issues that need to be addressed by the government. One of the issues addressed was the importance for women to own property.

Liberia has a large number of young girls having children as early as 10 years old. It is a very common practice for girls between the ages of 15 and 20 to have sex in exchange for gifts or money.

This is far outside of the sex trade industry; this is just another painful reality of the level of poverty in Liberia. There is a great need for education about reproductive health and life skills at an early age.

All these issues can seem overwhelming at times, but with the resiliency and resourcefulness of the women of Liberia, anything is possible.

A few days after the summit, we drove out to Bong County to meet Ma Annie, the leader of Women in Peacebuilding Program, an organization founded by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee. She showed us her community's palava hut, also known as a peace hut. When a man in their village commits an act of violence against a woman, the women of the peace hut bring him there and tie him to a pole in the center of the hut.

He must show remorse and a desire to do better before he is released. In criminal cases, the police are called to arrest the man. Ma Annie said there are now consequences for violence in their community. The men know to fear the women of the peace hut because they will come in mass to literally drag a man to justice.

The goal of this trip was to learn more about Liberia and how we can have the most significant positive influence on the rebuilding of the country and its people. Liberia is a beautiful country, with a lush, tropical landscape and the kind of beaches and oceanfronts people seek out around the world.

It is not hard to imagine it turning into a vacation destination some day. But there is a lot of work to be done to stabilize the economy, rebuild the infrastructure and offer its citizens an education, health care and job opportunities.

We learned that while a significant amount of financial aid has been given to Liberia, little of that money ever makes it down to those most in need. The biggest takeaway was the need to give in a way that empowers the poorest women in a very direct way. Foundation for Women has been very successful in doing that through its microcredit program.

In the end, we all learned a lot about the devastation of war and the scars it leaves on a country and its people. We learned about the resilience of mankind and the powerful spirit of the Liberian people.

Susannah Porr is the executive director of the National Association of Steel Pipe Distributors. Her philanthropic work in Liberia has her working with Victoria TX Independent Film Festival director Anthony Pedone and filmmaker Seema Mathur on a 2014 documentary called "Camp 72." She can be reached at Susannah@napsd.com.