Thursday, March 10, 2005

Decoration Day (Photos)

Miss Joanna with her daughter and grandaughter.
Decoration Day is a family affair.

Whitewash boy. 50 Liberian Dollars per grave.

Yes, this was "Decoration Day"

Dancing on the Graves

Decoration Day, to put it mildly, is not what it used to be. The day set aside to honor loved ones, relatives, friends, and public servants who have passed away, has now become a carnival of sorts. I don’t know how long it has been this way, but I first saw the new Decoration Day five years ago—back when there was not yet a memorial set up at the Palm Grove Cemetery for President Tolbert and the other civil servants who lost their lives during the 1980 coup.

Today, as has become the custom on the second Wednesday of March, thousands of people throng to the cemetery on Center Street early in the morning to eat, drink and be merry. They will be entertained by musicians and comedians, stirred up by preachers of the gospel, and fed by vendors who are there to sell liquor, frozen Kool-Aid, roasted meat, and a variety of snacks.

Only a small fraction of the crowd is actually here to clean graves, pay their respects, and lay wreaths or flowers. Among this group are small parties of young people who have lost friends. They wear uniform T-shirts that say things like “We miss you” and “Why so soon?” But these young people are not here to be solemn; they are here to dance on the graves of their buddies, commemorate the good times they had together, and celebrate their own volatile lives. To an outsider, or to the old conservative families who bought the first plots at Palm Grove, the whole atmosphere might seem charged with unruliness and disrespect. But life is short, and the dead are in a much better place. Who are we to tell anyone not to rejoice in the face of death?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Madina: Portrait of a Liberian Village

My family and I spent half the day here in Madina, a Vai village in Garwula District, Grand Cape Mount County. We came to be with our friend Kadalla, who recently lost his sister. Today is the seventh day since her burial—and, the people here believe, the day her soul loses its ability to see what is happening in the world of the living. The entire village is partaking of the traditional rituals—sharing a meal, presenting monetary gifts to the family, and remembering the young woman who grew up in their midst. It is not a sad occasion, and we are happy to be far away from the hustle and bustle of Monrovia.

Kadalla tells us only about 40% of Madina’s population remains here, on their ancestral land. Some of the people have become refugees from the civil war. (Klay, which was the site of several battles, is less than ten minutes away from where we are). Others have moved to the city in search of jobs and higher education. There is a beautiful school here, at the end of a long uphill path lined with evenly spaced palm trees on each side. But the school only goes up to 9th grade, and most Madina girls and boys end their formal education here. Kadalla says there is not one Madina girl yet who has graduated from high school. Kadalla was one of the lucky ones; he was educated by Peace Corps volunteers, won a scholarship to St. John’s High School in Robertsport, and eventually graduated from the University of Liberia. He is also one of the rare ones—a village son who has never forgotten or deserted his roots.

I like Madina with its close-knit families, outdoor kitchens, and solid mud houses—some of them decorated with patterns and handprints. There are a few small convenience stores around, a large market close by, and a clinic run by World Vision, an international NGO. The residents who show us around keep apologizing for the rocky hills we have to climb and descend, but to me, the rocky hills are a major part of what makes the place so appealing. There are houses on the hills, fruit trees and lush green vegetation all around, and, in the valley, a large creek that has been fed by the Lofa River “since time immemorial” as we like to say here. There’s no running water in Madina, so the creek is vital to the lives of the people who live here. Typical of the organization evident everywhere in the village, one side of the creek is reserved for women and children, and another side for men. Today the creek is less than half its Rainy Season depth, and the children of Madina are frolicking in it as their parents and grandparents did before them. Many of them will leave this idyllic setting someday, in search of something better. But today, for them and for me, Madina is the best place to be.