From our expat house in Congo Town, eastern Monrovia, it’s possible to see the sea from the first floor terrace, and to hear the waves crashing on the sand. The beach can be accessed on foot in a couple of minutes, and according to our security rules we are allowed to reach as far as the Chinese Embassy – a large, modern complex which looks incongruous in the surroundings and at night is lit up like a football stadium. This evening I jogged to the Embassy & back with 2 colleagues. It was a beautiful evening and the beach was flat and smooth which was perfect for the occasion. On nearing the Embassy, I saw a man sitting in a squatting position in the sand. I blinked twice: was he defecating? When I returned in the other direction, I discreetly had another look. He was definitely defecating, and he didn’t seem to mind that people could see him. A colleague had warned me that the beach near our house wasn’t clean, but I thought he was exaggerating when he said that people actually defecate on the beach. Clearly he wasn’t. Despite this, I was so hot at the end of my jog that I still ran straight into the sea and splashed around for a few minutes. On emerging, I saw not one but two more people defecating on the sand. One of them was a young lad in his early 20s who had taken a quick break from a game of football which was engaging around ten Liberians and now also my colleague Oriol. He was beaming at me, so I couldn’t resist.
‘Why do you make pupu on the beach?’
5 minutes and an amusing conversation later, I learnt that people pupu on the beach because the government doesn’t provide any facilities on the beach. The lad, who is currently enrolled at university in Monrovia, knows that defecating on the beach is not nice behaviour, but there are no latrines at the beach, and he had a natural urge, so what else can he do?
He has a point, however I don’t think I’ll be joining him next time I need the toilet at the beach.
Of course pupu on the beach is nothing. Liberia is recovering from 14 years of civil war, which left a broken society and the country on its knees. My days are full of contrast. One minute I am relishing every moment of being back in west Africa (I spent 18 months in Sierra Leone in 2005-6) – the colours, the music, the natural openness and fun of Liberian people. But the next I feel like pulling my hair out when something happens which makes me wonder how and when Liberian society will manage to rally together and rebuild its land. Children under the age of 10 are regularly brought into MSF facilities in Monrovia for medical attention and counselling after being raped. In my first week we received a 5-year old rape victim, who was so ashamed of what had happened to her that she told the doctor that she had fallen off a seesaw. On Friday, I was alerted that we had an abandoned infant on our hands; a girl aged 1 ½ who was malnourished & suffering from malaria. Her mother had left on Thursday afternoon and had not reappeared. The frightened child started to cry every time someone went near her. The mother reappeared briefly on Sunday, but left again, so when she turned up on Monday I asked to talk to her. She was very young and looked afraid as she explained that she had a small baby from a different father at home. The father of the second child didn’t care for the first child; therefore it was difficult for her to stay at the hospital. We asked her to bring her baby to the hospital so she could be with both of her children, she agreed but it’s very possible she will not return. Abandoned babies and children are by no means common, but they are common enough that we have a procedure in place for dealing with these types of situations.
The war lives on in the minds of the people, and the impact of the war undoubtedly affects our everyday activities: which patients come, why they come, how they react to new life, death and everything in-between. I know already that my experience in Liberia will be very different to the time I spent in Sierra Leone – Liberia’s neighbour & also a very poor country recovering from a long and brutal conflict. I was not working for MSF in Sierra Leone but a development-oriented organization running projects in agriculture and construction. While the physical scars of the war were visible for all to see, my day-to-day activities and experiences were not a constant reminder of the less tangible consequences – those inherited by the people who experienced a generation of brutality.