The road to recovery in Liberia may involve a treadmill
One of the reasons why I love running so much is because it allows me to stop the clock… I have a tendency, like many of us I suppose, to get so caught up in the ‘to do’ items for tomorrow that I rarely take the time to reflect on the ‘have done’ matters from yesterday and the ‘am doing’ events of today. Running allows me to simply be present. The faster my legs move, the slower my mind reels. I listen to my breathing and notice how it naturally matches the timing of my feet striking the pavement: in for two counts, out for one. I see my surroundings as if for the first time, noticing things that would not catch the attention of my busied brain otherwise.
What does this have to do with my trip to Liberia, you ask?
Liberia is often referred to as Africa’s oldest democracy – a true claim to fame in which Liberians take great pride. It is one of the few countries on the African continent, and the only one in West Africa, that hasn’t suffered from a history of European dominance and colonial control. Liberia was created in the 1820s by the American Colonization Society as a place for freed slaves in the United States to settle. In 1847, these Americo-Liberians, who formed an elite group in Liberian society, founded the Republic of Liberia. The indigenous Liberians were not afforded citizenship in the new Republic until 1904. The government and Constitution was modeled on that of the United States. Liberia’s ties to the US are still evident today in the name of the capital city itself – Monrovia, after US President James Monroe.
Fast-forward to 1980 when a military-led coup overthrew the then-president William Tolbert, which marked the beginning of a steep decline in the country’s political situation. In late 1989, the first civil war ensued… Militia from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor took control over most of the countryside and entered the capital in 1990. A peace agreement was brokered by the ECOWAS in 1993 and Taylor was “elected” as President in 1997. However, his brutal regime and ineffective leadership sparked the second civil war in 1999, which lasted until the ceasefire in 2003. More than 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict. The effects of these civil wars are long-lasting – the country suffered a complete breakdown of law and order…. The use of child soldiers has created a population of unskilled ex-combatants… The country’s economy and infrastructure was destroyed… I could go on.
Anyhow, by 2006 the security situation in Liberia was still not fully under control. I never felt truly unsafe while I was there, I must admit. I longed to just sneak out of my hotel for a morning jog… or maybe even just go for an afternoon walk with a friend… but I was strongly advised — warned — not to take the chance. A representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross had been gang raped in the middle of the afternoon just a couple weeks prior to my arrival, which was enough to keep me (unhappily) caged inside.
I found ways to get exercise in though. The building across the road housed PAE, one of the US government’s private security organizations, which had a “gym” with two treadmills that may or may not have been relics of the pre-war days. Every morning, I made my way across the street (which was usually covered in fast-flowing water) and past the security guards into the compound for an uninspiring workout. I eventually made friends with a British guy who worked for another private security organization and forced him to be my running partner. Once or twice a week he would come to pick me up in his 4×4 and take me back to the private compound, where we could run loops of a 1.5 km track. It was certainly better than the treadmill, but I never got that feeling of release that I normally crave on my runs. Something about the barbed wire and security guards with machine guns ruined it for me (strange, eh?).
Returning to Liberia last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wondered how much the country had progressed in the two and a half years since I had been there last. Would there be running water throughout the city? Has electricity been restored, at least in the capital? Would I be able to run outside? ALONE?
From the moment I landed, I noticed a distinct change… Maybe it was the fact that I was returning to a place that was familiar or maybe I just wanted to see an improvement so badly that I created it in my mind… But I definitely felt that something was different. It is hard for me to put my finger on what exactly changed… I’m not even sure I could pick out a specific example of something I witnessed that made me form this opinion. It was simply a feeling that people in general were more relaxed. Relations between foreigners and Liberians appeared to be less strained. I heard more laughter and less yelling.
And no one gave me a single warning about walking around on my own.
YES! Okay, beyond the fact that this meant I could go running, as an eternal optimist I was ecstatic to see that things had improved. It was an intangible triumph that renewed hope for Liberia and the friends I have made there. But that’s a story for another time, hmm?
Now that I had been granted the privilege of being able to run outside, can anyone guess how that turned out? Quite laughably, when I went out for my first early morning jog I lasted literally 23 minutes in the oppressive heat before retreating to the treadmill in my hotel’s air conditioned fitness centre. Go figure.