“Help me”

That’s what “Malaya” means in Kisii, one of the 16 languages spoken in Liberia, and is also the name of the organization which The Niapele Project sources crops from for the School Nutrition Initiative. I spent a couple days up in the Bong Mines area, where Malaya is located, to learn more about their group, how they function, as well as the broader community. Megan visited them a couple of times over the last 6 months, and everything I heard from her and from Henry, the Niapele program manager, about Malaya and Bong Mines community sparked my curiosity.

So Clem, Henry and I left Monrovia early Saturday morning and began the three hour journey that separates Bong Mines from the capital. I’m not exactly sure how many miles there are between the two places, but I’m fairly confident that the whole trip would take maybe no more than an hour and a half if the roads were in better condition. At some point, about an hour outside Monrovia, there is a turn-off from the main road onto the “Bong Mines road”. It’s not so much a road as a treacherous muddy path.

One of the better parts of the road

Once we reached Bong Mines, Henry started telling us about how beautiful, lively and rich the town was. He points in various directions: “these were roads”, “these were big houses”, “there was the church”. All we saw, however was this:

Nothing

We met up with the leadership of Malaya and were almost immediately back in the car to go visit some of their farming sites. Now, when I think “farm”, I imagine a relatively well-defined piece of land, recognizable as a a place where crops are growing and in some sort of organized manner. We drove through the bush, on tiny, beat up trails for about half an hour, passing some rice fields dotted with all sorts of trees and other random plants growing amongst them. We stopped in the middle of a trail, and walked the rest of the way to “Joe David’s Farm”, where Malaya was given 5 acres to exploit. There, we met with some of Malaya’s farmers and an agronomist who walked us through their newly acquired land to show us their seed multiplication activities, their vegetable farm nursery and a rice field. The latter two did not exist 6 weeks ago: (unfortunately) Malaya farmers used the “slash and burn” technique to clear this piece of jungle to make it exploitable for their farming activities. Hard to blame them for using slash and burn, given that it’s the most cost and time efficient way to make land available to grow crops. Anyway, I was really excited to hear that the Malaya farmers had been in touch with the nutritionist from the University of Liberia we contracted for the School Nutrition Initiative, and had been advised by her to diversify their vegetable crops. Samuel, Malaya’s senior technician, was explaining the nutritional benefits of the various vegetables they were beginning to grow. All the farmers agreed emphatically that it was important for them to include more fruits and vegetables in their diets – even if it’s not really part of traditional Liberian fare, even though it’s more expensive to purchase than rice/beans and the like. The general feeling was that Liberian children would grow stronger and people would fall ill less regularly if they included more vitamins and nutrients found in this type of produce in their diets.

Vegetable nursery

While Malaya began in 2007 as an organization focused on women, the scope of its mission and its activities have expanded over time. At first, Malaya’s main activity was to organize “susu”, which is essentially a community-based savings system. Each week, 72 women contributed a sum of money (ranging from less than 1 USD to 4 USD), and one of them would take the entire pot home – this allows the women to have access to enough money to pay for their children’s school fees, pay outstanding bills or start up a micro (micromicromicro) business venture. In fact, during the first round of susu, each woman contributed money and a bar or a carton of soap each week – soap which was then resold by whoever took the pot of money/soap home that week. So thus began Malaya. Henry found out about this community through his work with WFP a few years back, and when Megan and him investigated the possibility of sourcing crops for the School Nutrition Initiative from there, we became Malaya’s first business opportunity.

Aside from susu, Malaya had also been hoping to generate funding from the sale of cash crops, but had only been able to sell a small portion of their production to market women in Monrovia – not exactly a sustainable or reliable market for these farmers. The challenge for Malaya is to generate enough profit for the community-based organization to realize its vision of rebuilding their community. And the Bong Mines community, once rich and vibrant, is in need of serious reconstruction.

After visiting Malaya’s rice/vegetable farm, we drove around the former town of Bong Mines, towards the communal rice fields. Thanks to our spacious Land Cruiser, we were able to visit the community with several older gentlemen who regaled us with stories of what used to be Bong Mines.

“This used to be the golf course”

“This used to be the shooting club/cricket club/ so-and-so’s house/such-and-such business, etc.”

Again, all there was to see were skeletons of former buildings, peeking through a dense jungle. The men were telling us about how the community would be a place for expats and rich executives to come spend their weekends or vacations, about how wonderful and happy life was at the time. The older men we were with were working for the Bong Mines Company, a German firm which was mining iron ore – they were not miners, however, but held various mid-level managerial positions. As we were driving through memory lane, I was reminded of trips I’ve taken to South East Asia or Egypt, where I visited old ruins of ancient civilizations, swallowed by conflict and time. It felt as though we were bearing witness to some lost golden age – but instead of decades or even centuries, the destruction was total within just a few years.

Stretching the imagination to visualize what was...

We finally emerged into this huge plain of rice fields, which are shared by the Bong Mines community. Individual members of Malaya are able to exploit pieces of this land, and Malaya itself has some rice in these fields which seem to extend beyond the horizon. We reached what was apparently the end of the road, where the plantain farm is located. Again, I was trying to understand what they meant by “farm”, because really all I saw were a bunch of plantain trees haphazardly dotted across the landscape – dense in some places, scarce in others.

Communal rice fields

We ended the day by driving through what used to be the heart of the Bong Mines Company operation – the actual mining sites, as well as where the company’s offices, warehouses and other infrastructure was located. I think, here, the pictures speak for themselves:

It was surreal to drive through what clearly had been a properous, dynamic area, and is now a complete wasteland. In one of the photos above, you see some men near one of the fallen structures. They are scrappers, who are slowly taking apart the giant steel structures and selling these scraps to companies or on Monrovia markets. It reminded me of the stories of young Bangladeshis whose job is to take apart the carcasses of massive derelict ships. According to our guides, scrapping is one of the main economic drivers of the Bong Mines community nowadays – and, indeed, most of the trucks we saw overturned on the road leading from Bong Mines to the main road linking to Monrovia were apparently carrying these scraps. Coincidentally, as of last week, the Bong legislative caucus placed a moratorium on scrapping activities – a decision which is apparently not very well accepted at the local level.

With some googling around, I was able to find a few images of what Bong Mines used to look like. These photos are really a testament to how much was lost during the conflict.

Some time before 1990
Some time before 1990

Aerial view (1978)

In December 2008, China Union, a Chinese mining company, was awarded a $2.6 billion contract from the Liberian government to rehabilitate and operate the site. At this time, though, the firm has not fulfilled its financial obligation and has yet to make its first payment to the Liberian government (who had been counting on this particular revenue stream for its budget.) In addition to the obvious benefits to the Liberian economy, the 1 million ton a year project has the potential to lift this community out of poverty – however, given Chinese companies relatively disastrous track record in human rights, I wonder what will happen to the people of Bong Mines. The 3,000 jobs slated to created will be a real boon for the area, as there are so few economic opportunities today. I hope the Liberian government will hold China Union to strict standards of operation – from what I’m told, though, the government seems to have very little pull with this firm.

At some point during our drive through space and time, when we were going through a vast, empty field towards yet another part of the plantain farm, one of the men in the car with us noted that we were driving through a mass grave site. I didn’t hear this – Clem did – and no one commented on it. Every other utterance during the whole day had been emphasized and re-emphasized, told in various different ways, but this one fact was muttered and almost went unnoticed. Here are Henry and Anthony, smiling in this very field:

All smiles

What a reality check.

We continued our drive through the mining area, and again, reached the site of a plantain farm. We were in the middle of nowhere in the bush, surrounded by wild vegetation. Sure, we could see plantain trees here and there, but nothing that even remotely looked like a farm. I asked Anthony how the farmers even knew which trees belonged to them, and how did they keep track? He explained that during the war, people in Bong Mines were planting crops haphazardly in the hills around the town – instead of having a concentration of crops in one place, which would have become an easy target for rebels. To this day, most of what the Malaya farmers refer to as their “farms” are these wild, jungle farms, which span an unknown amount of land and comprise an unknown number of crops.

Later in the evening, sitting down with the Malaya leadership in a guest house near the clinic built by a German NGO, we went over the organization’s structure, its systems and tried to understand how they operated. After the conflict was over, Malaya’s founder, Finda Francis, saw an urgent need for the community to organize and begin a “war on poverty” (the organization’s motto). With not much more than a huge amount of compassion and generosity, and a talent for bringing people together, Finda, along with Anthony and a few other community members, created Malaya in 2007. The susu scheme was successful for a couple of years, and Finda intends to do another round of susu in the near future (each round lasts about as many weeks as the number of people participating, since each needs to have a turn in taking money home). She explained that while Malaya started with 72 members, currently, the organization has about 40 to 50 active members – women who take part in the susu scheme and also contribute to the farming activity for Malaya.

Finda and Anthony explained that when The Niapele Project first came to Bong Mines, some of the women of Malaya had hoped that we would bring money, that we would give things to the community – but that’s not what we’re doing. Instead, the best we can offer as a small NGO ourselves, is to provide them with a sustainable market for their crops (we’re buying about $1,000 worth of food from them monthly.) For a couple dozen women, though, they felt that as war survivors they deserved to be given charitable handouts. While I’m sure that the community and Malaya would benefit from material and financial donations, I’m also really convinced that they have the power to make it all happen for themselves. They don’t need “help” – they just need encouragement and support, and the confidence that they can help themselves better than anyone or any organization can help them. Moving forward, we’ll most likely expand the scope of our work with Malaya in this spirit – helping them connect with new markets, assisting them in strengthening their financial management systems, particularly with regards to how they track their expenses, how to effectively manage their profits, etc.

Malaya has an incredible amount of potential – its leaders are smart, educated and have an endless reserve of energy and drive. Its members are committed to lifting their community out of poverty, and creating the foundations for a bright future for their children. I left Bong Mines genuinely humbled by the community’s resilience and strength, and I’m looking forward to my next trip there.

2 thoughts on ““Help me”

  1. What an amazing blog post; you’ve really opened my eyes to what life and the landscape is like in parts of Liberia, which I never could have imagined or envisioned myself. It sounds like a fascinating and amazing journey you are having, and while it’s difficult to see the poverty and underdevelopment that you are seeing, it is also wonderful that you & Niapele are able to do something about it. Keep us in the U.S. updated on your journeys and all that you learn!

  2. Fantastic post. I loved that you wrote about the history of the Bong Mines area. Sometimes you don’t realize just how much was lost. It’s also wonderful to hear about organizations such as Malaya, truly inspiring. Thank you for writing.

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