Nick Benson

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Bishop John Arnold – Diaries from Liberia

The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, who is also Chair of Trustees at CAFOD, recently visited Liberia. Here are his diary entries from the trip:

Monday 29th October

This West African country is one of the wettest in the world, and we wake to the sound of heavy rain. The land is lush and fertile, but in our meeting with CAFOD’s staff – four women and a man, two of whom are Liberians, two Nigerians and a Kenyan – we learn some stark realities.

Liberia is number 181 out of 189 on the poverty list. Of its 4.6 million people, 60 per cent are under 25. Though rich in resources such as gold, iron ore and timber, and high in agricultural potential, profits go abroad, while 80 per cent of food is imported. Only a quarter of Liberians have clean water, and 3.7 million don’t have access to a toilet.

Eleven years of civil war ended in 2003. A quarter of a million people (8 per cent of the population) died, and nine tenths of the economy was destroyed. There was progress under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman president. This year she was succeeded by George Weah, internationally famous as a former footballer in France, Italy and the Premier League, where he played for Chelsea and Manchester City.

Over four-fifths of Liberians are Christian, mainly members of evangelical churches. Though small, the Catholic Church is well respected, and several leading politicians and lawyers are devout Catholics. The new government has four “pillar” principles for development, but progress has been hampered by Ebola and poor infrastructure.

We see this around the capital, Monrovia. Most roads are unpaved and potholed, and most in this city of over a million people live in shacks and huts.

Tuesday 30th October

We travel right across the country to a to Kpein Township, in Nimba County. We meet members of two committees; the Community Land Dispute committee (CLDC) and the Advocacy committee, both of which developed under the EU-funded Land Rights for Liberia project. These committees work to understand the new laws on registering land titles and women’s property rights which, we are later told, the Church helped to draw up. Every community has been asked to begin identifying their own property boundaries, and one committee, the CLDC, has been resolving any disputes, avoiding costly court proceedings. It appears to be working well.

Until recently a woman paid dowry before marriage and, if widowed, had no right to her husband’s property. Nor could daughters inherit. The new laws change this, but need to be properly understood at a local level. This is the role of the other committee, and CAFOD’s assistance is appreciated. Half the members of both committees are women.

In Ganta City we meet a young lady of 20, Ms. Victoria Mantor. Victoria was unemployed and sat at her parent’s home until she was introduced to the CAFOD provided training as a hairdresser and makeup artist. After the three months training programme, she graduated with a certificate. The programme also supported Victoria with some initial hair products and equipment she needed to start up. CAFOD’s training opened up a new opportunity for Victoria as, because of her basic skills, she could go on to benefit from business skills training supported by Mercy Corps. She now has her own business and trains other young girls in plaiting. Victoria now uses the money she gets to pay for her education and is also making contributions to support her family at home.

In a stiflingly hot shed where people operated sewing machines, we meet Florence Barseh, who sold oranges before she saw an advert offering training and was given a sewing machine on completion. Next to her is a young lady who not only trained as a seamstress but encouraged and financially supported her unemployed husband to train in cosmetic production, transforming the lives of the family. Ms. Lucelia, who is 28 years old and has 3 children, is now able to earn $160 a week, and has put their two children in a better school and provided for her ageing parents.

Wednesday 31st October

In Wainsue, we visit a woman trained in soap-making, and Mrs Kokot Togba, one of the few women village chiefs in the whole of rural Liberia; who is 55 years old. The younger woman explains that she has to save enough money to buy the palm oil and caustic soda for each batch (palm oil is the most easily accessible oil within these rural communities given the abundance of palm trees, the harvesting is done sustainably), but she was pleased with her achievements. Despite the slow rate of soap production, she has diversified to selling charcoal. From this, she is able to pay school fees, and provide uniform for her children as well as sustain her family. The chief was very proud of her and commended CAFOD for their support.

Thursday 1st November 2018

On the Feast of All Saints we reach a village called Queyondee, quite the tidiest and best ordered we have seen. The local commissioner, Thomas Cassell, speaks warmly about the progress the village had made with the help of CAFOD.

One of the projects is a farm cultivating a form of rice I had not seen before. There are no paddy fields – the rice grows out of dry soil. Nearby is a fish farm, where 20 women have five hand-dug pools, each about 20 yards square, with tilapia fish at various stages of growth. Every two months or so a pool is partly drained, and the women gather the fish to be sold. This business is now being copied by two other local groups, and we are also shown a building equipped for smoking fish.

Friday 2nd November 2018

On our final day a member of the EU team in Monrovia tells us that he thought CAFOD brought a very helpful connection with the Catholic Church, which he believed had been instrumental in developing the lands rights legislation of which we have been hearing so much, and building support for it in the legislature. I would be very pleased to think that might be true.

What will be my abiding memories? Poverty, certainly, and squalid daily living conditions. But there are the good memories of the beauty and dignity of the people and the majesty of the forests. Although obviously very poor, the villages have a sense of serenity, in comparison to the constant noise of the cities.

I hope that I have given at least a flavour of the wonderful impact CAFOD has on the lives of so many of the poorest people in our world. Lots of good work done – so much more to do!

Picture: Hairdresser Victoria with Bishop John Arnold in Liberia. (CAFOD).

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