What reasons do you need to live?

I wrote this article a few years ago about volunteering in Liberia in 1992, but started thinking about it again with the release of Band Aid 30. If I was writing this now, I’d change it, but for now, let it stand. Originally published here.

I’m a child of the Live Aid generation. Live Aid is the shared defining moment for people of my age.

It started with the release of the Band Aid single at Christmas 1984 – just after I’d turned 18 – and it went on until the following Christmas, when the record was released again and was a big hit for a second time. And in between, we had the actual Live Aid concert.

I'm on this photo somewhere. See if you can spot me.

I’m on this photo somewhere. See if you can spot me.

It clashed with the local primary school’s summer fair, but they’d got a telly from somewhere and in between throwing ping-pong balls into fishbowls to win a gold fish and rolling pennies across a wooden board trying to get the to fall within a square without touching the lines, I remember watching the Boomtown Rats singing Don’t Like Mondays, and being startled by the moment at the line “What reason do you need to die?” when Bob Geldof stood with his fist in the air and the band stopped playing for a few seconds that seemed to last an age. This was THE global concert, we kept being told, so this was a moment when the whole world seemed to have stood still and paid attention.

But still, I don’t remember doing much about it. There were local concerts and whip-rounds. A couple of my mates got a collecting tin one Friday night, and drank and badgered their way round the pubs. I remember one of them banging the tin on the counter of the burger van at about half-eleven, saying “Feed the World!” every time the man asked him what he wanted.

But none of this stuff got under my skin. Like Blue Peter collections and bring and buy sales, it didn’t speak to me somehow. I couldn’t relate to it personally. I didn’t have much money and so I didn’t spend much money, so if it was about cash, I didn’t have much to give.

A few years later, I’d left University and was looking for work as a journalist and failing to find it. I’d written to the local papers, but they said you couldn’t get a job without experience. I wrote for work experience, but they said you couldn’t get work experience if you hadn’t done some journalism before.

In the midst of rejection letters from newspapers and radio stations, and copies of the Guardian’s Media Section jobs pages, came a letter from Liberia. It was 1991, and Fr Joe Brown was writing to say the Salesians were back in Liberia after the war and looking to begin the rebuilding process. In a couple of hand-written lines he added that they could do with any help anyone had to offer to join them in the task.

I was sure the note was aimed at one of my uncles, a teacher who had done two years in Cameroon with the Mill Hill Missionaries in the 70s. He had taught with Fr Brown at my old school, so that seemed logical. It couldn’t mean me, surely?

For about three months, I didn’t mention anything to anyone. But the idea of volunteering to work in Liberia wouldn’t go away, so I got in touch with Fr Michael Winstanley and he came round to see me one afternoon. I suppose it was a kind of interview, but I didn’t feel like I was being grilled. If I was still keen, there was a five-week preparation course offered by the Volunteer Missionary Movement I could go on. No sweat!

I got my jabs, had my farewell parties (plural) and headed out to the dark continent on January 15, 1992. I can still remember the image I had in my mind of the Don Bosco compound before I went, with neat white landrovers lined up in rows in a tarmacked yard. Like a school playground, it probably had netball courts marked on it. Modern and efficient.

I was very wrong. How can you imagine the perpetual sticky heat of Monrovia, when you come from Consett, County Durham? The heat when the door of the plane opened was like putting my face into an oven. I thought my eyebrows would singe. Everything was large and colourful and full of life. Bananas grew in the backyard, lizards crawled along my window sill, cockroaches, mice and mosquitoes were waiting in every corner. Later on, there were rocket-powered grenades and AK47s. Somehow I managed to get stuck in and stay one step ahead of the culture shock that hovered at my elbow every time I did something new.

I remember one of only two trips I made outside of Monrovia that year, with an Irish aid worker. We went through half a dozen armed checkpoints as the road got worse and worse, from potholed concrete at the beginning to ploughed tracks only half-visible. I saw three girls in the bushes watching the car go past– naked and painted white from the waist up – and a boy with a swollen head who looked like a hippo. At the end of the track, we got out of the car and walked to a river, and then we crossed the river in a home-made dugout canoe. There would probably be a rope bridge and creepers to swing on creepers next. The boy soldiers at the checkpoints seemed like civilisation in comparison. That was the nearest I came to overload.

I don’t think I was particularly effective in the year I spent in Liberia, but I tried to do as little damage as possible. I learnt a lot. I saw, heard and smelt some horrible things, but I remained unscathed on the surface. Inside I felt deeply uneasy about wanting to make a difference, but not having enough to give. Why hadn’t I learnt engineering, car mechanics or medicine? But I came home knowing that I wanted to be involved in aid work, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

I met some impressive people that year whose influence still affects me. Sean Devereux set up a track and field club at the Matadi Youth Center while I was in charge. He paced out a 100m and 400m track outside the Center’s walls. He dug a long jump pit and filled it with sand. He produced javelins and a discus that he’d brought from England and a high jump set that he’d liberated from the national stadium – the mat doubled as the spare bed I slept on if I stayed at his house. For a few weeks, he coached the local kids in track and field. Suddenly, they all had discovered new talents: Chu-chu Sirleaf was the champion high jumper and Sylvester Mooney ran 100m in ten seconds in a pair of borrowed leather slip-ons, from a standing start. I’ll never forget them.

Back in the UK, I got into one of the local papers, but Liberia wouldn’t leave me alone. I started working for CAFOD’s press office, and wangled a trip back to Liberia in 1997, and again in 1998. In 1999, we worked in collaboration with Joe Glackin in Monrovia to bring the Millennium Stars football team for a three-week tour. Joe Glackin didn’t even like football, but his passion to work for the children of Liberia meant he had his eyes open to anything that would be of benefit.

The number of interweaving schemes he had put into operation in Monrovia was breathtaking – the Catholic high schools had conflict resolution programmes run by the students themselves dubbed ‘palaver management’; each year group had two junior counsellors; the junior counsellors worked with the Catholic Secretariat to run retreats; the retreats were offered to children about to move up to high school; the palaver management and junior counsellors roles overlapped with Don Bosco Homes, a Salesian ‘NGO’, run entirely by Liberians.

Don Bosco Homes kept an eye out for street children, ran shelters for those who wouldn’t leave the streets, ran hostels for those who would, before they could be reunited with their families, and did all this again and more with thousands of ex-child soldiers.

The Millennium Stars played five games in three weeks in England, Scotland and Wales and won them all. They took part in a number of tournaments, including one in Scotland, where they mesmerised Celtic juniors and narrowly lost 1-0 after their goalie had his finger broken in a rash challenge from a lumbering opponent.

Football was something I knew well, and maybe this could be the substitute for the Engineering degree I never studied for.

I recently got an email from one of the kids who lived in the first ever Don Bosco hostel, where I worked in 1992 for a while. He’s working for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission now and has published a book with two colleagues about Liberia’s troubles over the last two decades. I was privileged to read a draft last year. The book is well-written, sad and funny, and tells the story from a Liberia perspective. I had no hand in producing it, but I taught this lad a few chords on the guitar 16 years ago and we’re still in touch, so maybe that means something.

There are dozens more stories I could tell about dozens of people I met then, or since then, who are in some way connected with the Salesians and Liberia, but I can only be certain that one life changed as a result of my year in Liberia in 1992, and that was mine. And it’s still changing.

“What reason do you need to die?” asked Bob Geldof, at Wembley in 1985. All I know is that my year as a volunteer with the Salesians gave me the chance to live.

Article originally posted here: http://www.boscovolunteeraction.co.uk/616/

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