Trip to Liberia eye-opener for local woman

By Steve Reeves
Birmingham Post-Herald
July 11, 2000

Web editor's note: Susan Reynolds, senior editor and Farm Safety Day Camp program director of Progressive Farmer magazine, went to teach home economics at the Ganta United Methodist Mission in Liberia recently. She gave the following background to her trip -

I was originally asked to go to Liberia by International Home Economics Services, Inc. This U.S. based group has worked with both University of Liberia and Liberian Ministry of Agriculture Home Economists since many of them were in refugee camps during the war. I was a member of the third team of home economists sent to Liberia to help Liberian home economists look at resources available and set priorities for their work with the people of that country.

My role was to provide expertise in the areas I work in with Progressive Farmer Magazine - food preparation, food preservation, food safety, farm safety and program planning and development. However, having never traveled in Africa, I felt unprepared to guide the home economists without some first-hand knowledge of post-war living conditions and issues. When I realized that neither of the groups I was to work with had the personnel or resources to help me visit in local communities, I immediately thought of the United Methodist Church.

Though not currently a member of a church here in Birmingham, I had previously been very active in United Methodist churches in Auburn, AL and Athens, GA. In the Ď80s, I worked with the SEJ UMVIM (Southeastern Jurisdiction United Methodist Volunteers in Mission) Office to take a work team to Costa Rica. When I called their office to see if there was anything that I could do in Liberia to help the people and at the same time see their living conditions, the staff in Atlanta immediately put me in touch with Janice McLain and Mary Zigbou in Liberia. They requested that I travel to Ganta to work with Home Economics and Agriculture staff to also help them establish priorities.

The experiences that I had in Liberia were life-changing. As a result, I am now trying to find other opportunities to put my talents to use, while learning more about the people of other countries.

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The following article is copyrighted material posted with permission of the Birmingham Post-Herald.

Susan Reynolds offered a blunt opinion on why all the children are smiling and laughing in the photographs she brought back from a recent trip to Liberia.

"Of course they're happy," she said. "They don't have to worry anymore about someone killing them with a machete. All they've ever known before now is war."

Reynolds spent 15 days in Liberia in March helping teach Liberians the basics of home economics at a Methodist school.

"I've always wanted to go to Africa," said Reynolds, a senior editor for Birmingham's Progressive Farmer magazine. "I knew there was a need."

She was shocked by what she saw in the west African nation. Liberia's bloody civil war ended in 1996 but it left that nation in perilous shape.

"Many people die in Liberia because they canít afford to go to the hospital.
We have so much wealth here that we donít realize how others live.
They have no hope in Liberia."    - Susan Reynolds

About 80 percent of its residents live in poverty. Most find it difficult to feed themselves. Adequate health care is hard to find, and many children are too poor to go to school.

Farming is largely handled by women because so many men died in the war. Even animals are scarce.

"I saw one pig in the whole country," Reynolds said. Even basic services most Americans take for granted simply don't exist in a nation struggling to rebound from years of war. Garbage is piled up and getting a letter delivered is next to impossible.

"Many people die in Liberia because they can't afford to go to the hospital," Reynolds said. "We have so much wealth here that we don't realize how others live. They have no hope in Liberia."

Because Liberia was founded by former American slaves, most of them from the South, Reynolds said much of the nation's dress, customs, food and speech reflect a Southern heritage. "I felt closer to them because of their ties to the South," she said. "And they feel those ties as well. They feel like we neglected them during the war."

Because Liberia has been so devastated, Reynolds said it's hard to know where to begin the rebuilding process. But she said it's encouraging to see that the spirit of the people has not been diminished by years of violence.

"They're such wonderful people, you can't help but want to help them rebuild."

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Elementary school students from the Ganta United Methodist
Mission School in Ganta, Liberia, pose for Susan Reynolds,
who helped teach home economics at the school in March