Every day in Liberia began with waiting to be picked up by Pappie Jones at the Christian guesthouse where we were staying for the two weeks. We quickly learned that it was hard to plan the exact time and date of our program, meetings with officials and trainings. In order to get anywhere in Liberia we normally walked, rode in a taxi with four other guests and then jumped on the back of a motorbike. I understood that transportation robbed the majority of one’s day, however, it also offered Jaren and I an opportunity to see many of the communities in Monrovia. Aside from working with the coaches and players, it was my favorite part of the day- walking behind Pappie, smiling to people, saying hello to young children who often said “footballers” as we walked by.
Nancy Sheppard who ran the Christian guesthouse where she and her family lived, welcomed us graciously on the first day and we soon noted that it would be hard to get her undivided attention, as she was either preoccupied by guests or her recently adopted and amazingly energetic Liberian son. As a departing gift, she gave us a book that she wrote about her and her family’s life while living as missionaries in Liberia and in Ivory Coast. Still trying to take in as much information as I could grasp about Liberia, I literally engulfed the words of the book and little by little was gaining a clearer picture of Liberia’s recent history, the majority of which were years of war and mass killings and recent years of rebuilding. It was also very interesting for me because it touched on the Christian faith that manifest in the thousands of churchesin Monrovia.
Everywhere we went people spoke about the Civil War- from football coaches to church leaders to the security guard who watched the compound. Everyone seemed to have their own opinions about the past and to my surprise many seemed to share and express a common vision for moving forward that hinged on peace, progress and development. Having a woman president who has focused on improving the lives of women in her country and who has heavily relied on the support of the many women’s groups, it became commonplace to hear on the radio words of encouragement for women to get involved and stand up for themselves, as well as signs everywhere that reminded citizens that women are important contributing members of the Liberian society.
Despite all the apparent support for women, the only female team that we trained relayed to us their frustrations about the lack of support- financial and emotional- that they were receiving from the country. Many of the players were on the Liberian national team and yet despite reaching these heights, were forced to pay for their own expenses to get to trainings and rarely received any compensation. It was difficult to conjure a response when the footballers asked me my opinion about what they could do to procure more support. My response was to encourage them to continue to play and if they have the passion for the sport, it will shine through to their communities. They needed to think about the many young female footballers that were looking up to them to show them the way. Jaren and I often spoke about the recent research that shows that female athletes have healthier bodies, perform better in work and have better salaries. In terms of their families, female athletes normally have healthier children. Although that research focuses mainly on the western countries, I believe that it will eventually be shown in all countries where girls and women are allowed to play.
Apart from this training we also ventured a little further outside of Monrovia to bring our CAC games to children at an orphanage where Pappie often volunteers. Many of these children have lost parents due to the civil war, or have parents that are alive but unable to provide for their children. It was amazing to see the smiles on these children’s faces when after changing into their uniforms- many were more like dresses- they were ready to play. The youth ranged from 4-16 year olds and it was inspiring to see the older kids act as natural leaders among the groups. In comparison to the trainings at the schools, I was amazed at the calmness of the group, and some children moved very timidly through the motions. I can’t even imagine the hardships that these children have already endured at such a young age.
Normally, upon return to the house, Pappie sat around with Jaren and I before he returned home. One of these nights, Pappie opened up to us and answered many of my questions that were floating unanswered in my head. He explained to us about his situation in the war, staying with some of his family near the American Embassy, the countless days of surviving only on water, the many deaths he witnessed and the process of rebuilding the country after the war. As part of rebuilding the country, guns had to be turned in by former soldiers, and youth who were involved in the war had to be reintegrated into society. These stories of reintegration are what personally shocked me the most. He explained how even if someone had been a soldier and had killed countless people during the war, he still had to be reunited into the community, or else there was no way that the country could move forward. He bluntly affirmed that Liberians have an incredible ability to forgive one for their actions in the past, and to keep the past behind them in order to move forward. He explained that when younger people today even mention violence or the idea of another civil war, any Liberian in earshot immediately shuts them down. Nobody wants to go through a civil war again, nobody. Pappie is working daily to rebuild the youth of his country and uses soccer and religion to reach youth, unite them and teach them life skills that will enable them to move forward. He is a coach in many senses of the word, not just on the pitch, but also in the church, in the classroom and in the streets of his communities.