Redefining success: My journey to Liberia


March 17, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps  </span>
    I was fortunate enough to meet dozens of remarkable, incredibly capable people during my visit to Liberia — particularly strong Liberian women who are determined to improve their lives, their families' fortunes and their communities' futures. Photo: Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “We are plenty," says Angie Summerville, pictured here with her daughter. "If one lady learns a new thing, everybody learns it, because we teach it to her.” Photo: Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps

Glance down a deeply rutted Monrovia side street and you may see, at the end of the block, a glimpse of palm trees, sandy coastline and the rolling ocean. Blink, and you may briefly imagine you’re in Mexico or another beachy getaway. Blink again, and you’ve unmistakably returned to one of the very poorest countries on earth. Because while Liberia has lush tropical rainforests, and fruits like coconut and papaya that suggest easy abundance, life in this West African country is anything but.

Liberia was brutalized by 14 years of conflict, and even now — seven years after the peace agreement and four years after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman elected head of state in Africa — its leaders and people are struggling mightily to meet the most basic needs: food, water, electricity, roads, schools.

Since 2002, Mercy Corps has been helping the hardworking farmers of Liberia increase their harvests and diversify the foods they grow in fields and kitchen gardens. Our agriculture programs are helping Liberians eat more nutritiously, protect against future scarcity and earn added income by selling surplus crops.

Mercy Corps is also teaching Liberians basic literacy and numeracy, health and hygiene, and how to mediate village disputes. We’re helping women form savings associations so they can start their own businesses. And we’re helping people practice the skills they need to become leaders in their communities.

The Liberian people I met are able and eager to improve their own lives. With just a bit of help, they’re off and running.

Take farmer Jeanette Koleh, 36, who received training and technical assistance from Mercy Corps to improve the quality and quantity of her crops. “We thank you for bringing us these ideas,” says Jeanette. “We used to not have the idea to do it. Now we are planting a mixed crop and we know it can be a business. We are getting money from it, and we are able to send our children to school. We can care for ourselves.”

Or take livestock breeder Victoria Dannies, 33, who learned from Mercy Corps how to raise goats and is now proving her talent in animal husbandry. With the money she’s earning, her two older children can go to school. Says Victoria proudly: “I pay their school fees, I buy their clothes, and I can take them to the hospital if I need to.”

Just listen to Angie Summerville, 30, who is not only learning about gardening, child care and hygiene from Mercy Corps – she’s also sharing her new knowledge. “We did not have enough food,” says Angie, “and I was only able to feed my children once a day. “But then I learned some gardening from Mercy Corps, and now I can feed them three times a day.” Adds Angie: “We are plenty. If one lady learns a new thing, everybody learns it, because we teach it to her.”

Spending time talking to the people we serve in Liberia has made me think differently about what it means to be successful. After hearing villagers sing a song about how “cocoa will make you rich,” I asked one farmer what it means to be rich.

“Rich is having your household fed,” he said firmly. “It’s keeping money in your home, so you don’t have to live off another person. It’s when people can come to you for some little thing – some cocoa seeds, a chicken – and you are able to give it to them. It’s being able to take your kids to the clinic, to buy them medicine if they are sick. It’s when people come and want to work for you, and you can afford to hire them, so they can feed themselves. That is rich.”

I invite you to meet a few of the resilient and capable people I met during my travels in Liberia.