Arielle with mob of kids

Harvesting Hearts in Liberia:
How Psychology Can Halt War

Arielle with mob of kids

“Is that why your nickname is General Buttnaked?”
“Yes Because I was naked. Because I fought naked.”
“A lot of people would drink and do drugs before fighting?”
“A lot of my boys would drain the blood of an innocent child and then drink it before battle.”
The two men wade through swampy water.
Cut to WW III.
Children carry AK 47s. A young soldier holds up a freshly harvested heart.
The drums beat. Harder. Harder.
A radio blares. “ We will fight to the last man”

From the eight-part series The Vice Guide to Liberia

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Bullets fly. I shield myself by shutting down my laptop for the first time in four hours. I’m sitting at the kitchen table in a quiet, suburban Connecticut home. I am preparing for a trip to Liberia by watching The Vice Guide to Liberia and assuring my parents, “It’s totally safe—just a little summer va-cay.”

How did two Americans living a series of non-events, find themselves jumping into a political, ideological, and spiritual crisis halfway around the world?

The guy I was dating at the time proposed that we go someplace crazy, totally out of our comfort zones. We lacked appreciation for small miracles and were eager to trade our lives for adrenaline and change. How could we do this without being exploitative voyeurs, unaware of our own privilege?

Hidden in the cracks between leaving and running away rest our secret motivations for entering the unknown; our wish to examine the links between humanity and understand a foreign psyche when we remain enigmas to ourselves.

Many nonprofits operating in foreign countries offered to host us. It was tempting to do arts and crafts with foreign children and pet injured lions, but these stories are pervasive and digestible. We sought a place unattractive to “tourists.” We believed less shiny issues deserve acknowledgment and didn’t know if we would ever get another chance travel abroad.

I received an email from Jana, a Brazilian psychologist who was in New York for a few hours and wanted to talk with me about traveling to Liberia. In a crowded Times Square Au Bon Pain she told me about Second Chance Africa, an organization that offers free psychological services to former child soldiers and trauma survivors in Liberia. Times Square went mute as she recalled the genesis of Second Chance Africa.

Liberia has endured two civil wars brought about by oppression, economic disparity, unregulated foreign dollars, and culture clashes. A generation raised on gunpowder and violence fends for itself. The first civil war, from 1989-1996, ended in a ceasefire brought about after pressure from outside forces. Bloodshed slowed enough for refugees to reenter the country. Many were damaged, homeless, jobless and vulnerable to be led back into battle. Three years later the second civil war erupted. In 2003, three thousand Liberian woman banned together in a nonviolent protest that ended fourteen years of brutality.

Liberia now has the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world, helping to disarm the country and providing desperately needed food and water. Yet, as Jana explained, even these efforts will not lead to a long-lasting peace.

Jana told me: People cannot go to school if they are addicted to drugs or have nightmares. Parents cannot take care of children when they have never seen proper parenting. Teachers cannot be expected to teach things they do not know themselves. Former combatants cannot reintegrate into a society that will not accept them.

Seeking a solution, Jana traveled to a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana that was set up after the second civil war. She saw frightened people, living in a hostile country with no hope of rehabilitation.

Jana is not Liberian, a civil war survivor, nor was she related to any of the refugees, who could have harmed her out of fear or anger. She used her training in trauma counseling and her conviction in rehabilitation to earn the refugees’ trust. She led therapy groups that emphasized mediation, anger management, parenting skills, resiliency, literacy and stress reduction.

She gained a large following in the camp and wanted to bring them back to Liberia. Many refugees were afraid to return to their scorched homeland. Jana trained four of the refugees about mental health diagnoses and trauma so that they may develop their own support groups and psycho-educational workshops. She repatriated them back to Liberia. She rented office space, taught them critical business skills, and empowered them to run what would be known as Second Chance Africa.

Jana explained that psychological services are sorely needed in Liberia, yet such programs are poorly understood. Thus the challenge to raise funds for Second Chance Africa. Jana’s trip to New York was, in part, to meet potential donors.

She assured me that the Liberian team would be thrilled to host us. Without an iota of hesitation—or a vote from my travel companion—I agreed that we would go to Liberia and stay with Second Chance Africa.

At the time I couldn’t locate Liberia on a map and my travel companion kept saying that we were going to Libya. There are no exclusive travel books on Liberia, but I managed to pull together factoids from Lonely Planet and Wikipedia.

Research honed our reasons for going. It was important for us to reach for more than perspective and adventure: Letting people on the other side of the earth know that we care, learning about a new culture, bringing their stories back, understanding a different life. Most important, collecting motivation for us to succeed in our own lives so that someday we can be in a position to make an impact.

The night we were set to leave, Hurricane Irene descended on New York. I packed amidst the fury of a million urbanites who were stocking up on candles, batteries, water, and soup before the lights went out. I elbowed my way into a cab and caught the last flight out of New York before the airport shut down.

We soon realized that all our research failed to prepare us for what we were about to encounter. As we deplaned, stoic men used large pistols to direct us into line with researchers who discussed their next projects, doctors who lamented being back, and militiamen gearing up to face whatever this voyage would throw at them. Everyone was returning. Everyone had a clear purpose, a support system and a body of knowledge to protect him or her.

Men dressed in camouflage asked us our purpose for coming to Liberia. We were like alien invaders convincing a host planet of our peaceful intentions. We mentioned Second Chance Africa, and, recognizing the name, they led us through a mysterious room and into Liberia.

The four members of the Second Chance Africa team interrupted a violent rainfall with umbrellas and greetings. We piled into a Ford car with questionable breaks and no seat belts

The drive to SCA headquarters allowed for a survey of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. Homes seemed to be constructed with paper and glue. As we got closer to the center of the city, we saw once prominent buildings in different stages of destruction. Bullet holes adorned windows; children played with tires and sticks. Clothes hung everywhere. Old cars with missing parts banter through bleating horns. Every once in awhile a U.N. vehicle blasts down a dirt road in the wrong direction- reminding us that this is just another day for the inhabitants of Monrovia.

Darkness fell, but we were eager to explore the city. There is no power grid in Monrovia. When the sun set, flashlights prevented our falls into random holes in the ground.

We learned about the SCA team—Sumo Kupe’s unique leadership, William Siah’s subtle wisdom, Kaba Moore’s trail blazing methods, and Augustine Lekepeeye’s relatable teachings.

The next day we made it through the chaotic streets and headed to the Second Chance Africa office where we were handed a detailed schedule for the next week. Since the logistics were discussed in “Liberian English,” we found it easier to smile and nod, then figure out later where we were going.

On our third day, we visited the capital’s prison, where a break occurred only months before. I was reticent to step behind bars in my Victoria’s Secret “Live Pink” shirt (note for the future: pack more carefully!) to converse with murderers and rapists. Yet, trusting the SCA team, I adjusted my outfit, tuned out the rattling chains and guttural yells, and walked through the gates. The inmates we met credited Jana and SCA with motivating them to learn skills, manage their anger, and plan for a productive future.

Our next stop was in the countryside where a 17 year old who made her own Western style clothes, shut her eyes, and spoke of being kidnapped at age six. “The army came and I ran one way and my parents ran another. I woke up in the army camp. The general made me shoot a little girl, just three years old. He said if I didn’t do it, he would kill me. A month later, when we were attacked, I ran and ran and hid near a river in a village I did not know. An old lady found me and let me live in her house until she could bring me to an orphanage. Now I am learning how to read. I want to be an actress and tell my story.”

We met with the Ministry of Health where officers demonstrated how SCA was bolstering public health education. For example, seizures are relatively common in Liberia and are often attributed to witchcraft. A component of Second Chance Africa is working on destigmatizing mental health issues and symptoms in the general population in Liberia.

The most heartwarming and soul crushing part of the trip was the orphanage. Most of the drive was off road and it was starting to rain. Our car’s thin tires struggled against slippery mud. With no cell service, nearby gas stations or spare tires, it would take days for someone to find us. We rolled up to a damp half-building in a forgotten valley. Suddenly any risk was worth the experience of seeing the children who lit up at the sight of new visitors.

They waved to us from the side of the road with enough enthusiasm to fill Yankee stadium. They flew into our arms, seeing us as a symbol of safety and fun. They sang us the alphabet and the Liberian national anthem. Playtime was cut short when the three people who take care of the abandoned children lectured us on how SCA developed a curriculum centered on building resiliency through therapeutic games for children and psycho-educational workshops for caregivers.

The pockets of our trip contain tales of fire ants, a surfer’s paradise, precocious children, ignorant foreign aid workers, smoky dance halls, underground casinos, food poisoning and a car accident. All important to a holistic understanding of Liberia, but reserved for another time. This is the story of the transformative powers of therapy.

When people lack basic resources, when they have survived war, why is it okay to bring up dusty theories and analysis?

While attempting to understand the mechanics of SCA, I spoke with one of its board members, Dina Solomon, a licensed social worker. “SCA is the only NGO (non-governmental organization)that we know of focused on working with trauma and its multifaceted expressions,” she explained. “A trauma-informed program is different and specific—it has to do with attuning to people, building attachments and the capacity to attach. The fact that our workers are reflections of our participants is a huge factor in their ability to connect with people and facilitate healing.”

Second Chance Africa’s approach is: The earth looks barren when there is 85 percent unemployment. But we have our spirit, our mind and the ability to control our actions. If we are equipped with the tools to make choices that make sense for us we can make progress.

SCA countered deeply engrained helplessness by teaching people that they can reach inside themselves, pull out the best parts, and fight to be more.

One day driving through the brush to get to an orphanage, our driver got into a tussle with another driver. Bitter words were exchanged and Sumo Kupe said something along these lines: How can you be so hostile when we are in fragile peace? Over a driving miscommunication?

Liberia experienced the apocalypse. If children taught to kill isn’t the end of the world and the lifting of the veil of humanity, then what is? In Liberia there is a new respect for life, for human connection for catharsis.

The rain on our last day bookended the trip. We sat in the Second Chance office and interviewed the team about how they became counselors.

Augustine joined the army as a child and became a general at age 16. William hid in the bush. Kaba trekked to the Ivory Coast with a bullet wound. Kupe lived with refugees. Each doubted his ability to transform, yet Jana saw their potential for leadership and change. They were her protégés and are now the lifeblood of the organization. They understand trauma. They know what it is like to have committed crimes, to be addicted, to be shot, and to be kept up by paranoid thoughts and surging adrenaline. They also know what it is like to experience a shift in consciousness—to transfer their ability to lead an army into teaching their peers how to live peacefully. Second Chance Africa has the potential to help solidify a capable and stable workforce that can make use of Liberia’s abundant natural resources and labor.

Since the trip Liberia had its much-anticipated elections. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president, won the Nobel Peace Prize. A team of four with little resources earned NGO status.

Reflecting on the chaos in the world and our role in it is overwhelming. SCA breaks down a crisis into its essential elements to begin the healing process—something we can all apply to our own lives.

This story is a small slice of one person’s experiences, a microscopic particle of the whole story. The Second Chance Africa team members have their own colorful voices. To inquire about case studies, learn more about Second Chance Africa, or donate please visit the Second Chance Africa website.

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