It seemed almost an accident that I found myself high in the air en route to Liberia. It’s rare I dread getting on flights like yesterday. Only 36 hours before I had landed in Florida from California. Ended up in tourist hell after a week of bike touring heaven. After 3 hours to New York, seven hours to Paris, Seven plus hours to Guinea and then the last leg of an hour and a half or so to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, I finally touched ground I’d stay on for a week.
An accident because I’d just been to Africa three months before. That was my fifth time in the field with Right To Play. Rwanda and Uganda were the places visited. Too many small faces and smiles to count remain etched in my memory bank of photos. Images that fill and break my heart all at once. That I can’t forget even one of those little faces is what keeps me pushing forward to contribute to Right To Play. The goal as always is to help reach even more of the children in these often desperate places. Give them the chance to be empowered by play. Provide the opportunity and outlet to learn, grow and be inspired when engaged in the phenomenal Right To Play programming run by country staff in over twenty locals worldwide.
This final flight marks my sixth visit to Africa and first trip to Liberia. I’m here to be part of the Level The Field initiative that succeeded in raising awareness for Right To Play Canada. I was one of the athlete ambassadors paired with a mommy/daddy blogger. People voted in and a winning pair was announced shortly after. I didn’t even make the podium. It’s all good, I’ve had enough success in life to not really care. Most important was that over ten thousand new Canadians learned about the power of play that Right To Play embodies and allows for to over a million children worldwide. On a regular basis.
So as a sort of consolation prize I was offered a spot to come here. Five years before RTP’s inception in 2006, countless volunteer Liberian leaders in camps spanning Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Benin and Ghana ensured the impact of PLAY programs with the displaced youth. When repatriation began in 2005, many of these skilled and uber motivated leaders returned to Liberia. They were a huge part in making RTP Liberia an example of sustainability and local ownership. RTP Liberia boasts the largest network of community based volunteers of any international entity in the country.
Imagine that, volunteers in a country where the average life expectancy is 57 years. A country which ranks 165 out of the 172 countries related to the United Nations Human Development Index. A place where 85% of the population lives on about $500 USD per year. Yes, there are volunteers, about 5000 of them here.
So when I arrived and realized my bag did not make the 18-hour long, 4 flight trip with me, I had to shrug. How could that be of concern coming to a place where the contents of my suitcase could easily equal a decade of toil for a citizen. Not to mention the array of UN planes and helicopters littering the airport tarmac.
And then there was the drive to the hotel with Robert. He’s one of the RTP full-time staff. Robert and I chatted about this and that. Then he casually mentioned he lost his mother and father in the war. The former killed by a stray bullet from a rebel and the latter by sickness when fleeing the conflict in the bush. Not to mention his older sister who was killed as well. Robert left Liberia for a refugee camp when he was about 5 years old. Coming back he said it feels good to be home. That his country is improving. He spoke of the President of Liberia by her first name, Ellen, as many nationals do. He said she is making things better. That there are no political prisoners under her leadership. But there is poverty and it’s slow to change.
I can only hope for the people I will come to know this week in this foreign land that things improve. You cannot have this level of poverty and peace prevail for too long. It’s too fragile a state to maintain when so many are barely scraping by. I was in Mali months before the uprising in 2011 and it was dire there, not a surprise that things imploded.
But I can say after day one that hope is alive and well. Hope that I see in the kids when they are engaged in the RTP programs. Hope in the leaders and coaches who take pride in the little differences they make in the kids life, week in and week out.
My favorite thing this first day was when the kids I did a play day session with were asked how one of the games we played made them feel, one of the boys said ‘it makes me feel sweet. And that feels good. I feel sweet when I play the games and I like this.’
And me? I am so grateful to have the gift of witnessing the fruits of all this labor. It’s a gift to have been invited and share this experience with some new members of the Right To Play family. As always, the play has brought us all together, the Canadians and the Liberians, our own group as mostly strangers before the trip and a nation filled with so many kids that benefit so greatly from structured play.
Big kids and small, we all felt the sweet joy of playing today.