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These children play with nothing, anything, everything

Liberia, November 14, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    An old cassava grater, re-imagined by local children as a tiny toy car. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps

Today the palaver (meeting) hut was full of children as we began our visit to Parker Town, Gbarpolu County, Liberia. In fact, I think there were more children than adults. They followed us around as we toured the village, by turns curious and boisterous and cranky and shy, just like children everywhere. The little boy in this photo that I've posted here kept catching my eye and grinning. A couple of times he ducked behind the post, then popped out with his huge sparkling grin, delighted with that small bit of peek-a-boo.

What makes these children smile? One of the few "toys" I saw was an old, retired cassava grater that had been reimagined as a tiny car. With a bit of string, this tin can has managed to fire a small child's imagination.

What does it take to fire ours? I watch these children who have so little, and I'm amazed again and again at the ease of their smiles. Just a little shy at first, they glom onto me as soon as I reach out my hand or crouch down to say hello. Each one offers a handshake, a grin, or a tummy awaiting a tickle. They touch my hair, my arm, my camera bag, my pants. They jostle to get closer.

I want people to know about Liberia and, more important, to care about Liberia. The women and men I have met are warm and friendly. Greetings are important: each person takes the time to shake hands, offer the traditional "How da body?" or its local dialect equivalent, to look me in the eyes and smile and say, "You are welcome here."

It's a more sincere connection than I often encounter back home, and I'm struck that we could learn a thing or two about courtesy and respect from the Liberian people.

The land itself is lush and green. The coconuts and bananas and papayas and "pam" (palm) nuts evidence a natural abundance that could help transform people's lives. Here, amid grinding poverty, the women and men are working hard to learn new and better ways of supporting themselves through farming, business skills and education.

Bit by bit, they're getting stronger. But they desperately need our help. My notebook is full of sights, sounds and impressions, and I'm eager to share them with you in hopes that you'll begin to care about these lively, lovely people.

But when I saw this boy's smile, I wanted to do everything I can to help.