Feeding Liberia's "greatest generation"

by Lane Hartill

MONROVIA, Liberia - Every Tuesday at 2:30, David Brown puts on his fraying sandals and shuffles down to Tubman Boulevard to stand in line.

He waits there with other seniors, patiently looking straight ahead. Many wear their Sunday best - Henry has on his dapper fedora; Elizabeth, her shimmering earrings. All of them ignore the stares from pedestrians.

At 76, David comes here, to the Missionaries of Charity, for his weekly groceries. He and other elderly people have been picking up food here since 1998. But before the war, he never imagined he'd turn to handouts.

David's life follows the arc of Liberia's history - from prosperity to ruin. This once-urbane gentleman worked in the glitz of downtown Manhattan and drove distinguished Americans around Monrovia. But in the 1980s, he slid into poverty along with his country. Things hit bottom in the 1990s as rebels advanced through the country. They captured David and forced him into service.

He now relies on the six sisters from Mother Teresa's order for help. Five days a week, the sisters fan out around Monrovia, walking the dusty backstreets, looking for elderly Liberians who have no one to support them. The sisters visit their homes to verify that they are truly in need. If they are, they get a food voucher and are told to show up on Tuesday.

Today, as the sun bears down, David and 250 other seniors wait outside the Missionaries of Charity, as orderly and calm as honor-roll students. They wait for their rations of salt, sugar, bulgur, yellow peas, vegetable oil and corn-soy blend - a powder that Liberians mix with sugar and milk or water and eat as porridge.

This food is feeding part of Monrovia's "greatest generation," those who didn't flee to the United States or neighboring countries during the war, but hid for months as Liberia melted under 14 years of fighting. These Liberians are lucky to reach old age in a country where the life expectancy is less than 41 years.

Senior citizens in West Africa are traditionally cared for by family members. But in Liberia, families have been scattered by war. And consideration of the plight of the elderly has been trumped by the problems of a more volatile younger generation. In Liberia, the ex-combatant still rules when it comes to international attention.

Thousands of ex-combatants are now looking for work. But with unemployment hovering around 85 percent, jobs are scarce. Some make a living treading the streets with wheelbarrows full of imported toothpaste. Others sell fake Nikes in the market.

Millions have been spent on disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating these young men. But as this happens, feeding the country's elderly seems to have fallen through the cracks. Catholic Relief Services is helping to alleviate their hunger. And many of CRS Liberia's national staff - most of whom stayed through the war - know firsthand what it's like to go hungry.

One of them is Roland Dennis, a CRS employee who knows hunger all too well. In 1990, when rebels were shelling Monrovia's port, Roland survived for three weeks on Lipton tea. At one point, he says, he walked 25 miles for a cup of rice. Even though more than 15 years have gone by, he still remembers what raw hunger feels like.

"You feel hollow inside. You feel numb," he says. "You are not gratified no matter how much you eat. When you get very hungry, your head starts to spin. [During the war] people would fall down and just not get up."

Roland points to an elderly woman who just received her food rations. She tries to corral a plastic bottle with her walking stick while balancing a bulging black plastic bag of food on her head.

"Look at this woman," Roland says, strains of disgust in his voice. "She's about 75 or so. She is carrying food on her head! She can barely walk. Why is this happening?"

The lady's eyes are clouded, the color of oysters. She totters like a top and her flip-flops are paper-thin. Roland quickly walks over to her, helps her to the door and recruits a young man to escort her across the street. She smiles at Roland through brown teeth.

"As an elderly person at this stage of her life, she should have some comfort," he says.

Liberia's Golden Era

Comfort is what many of these Liberians remember. They remember their country during its salad days, when tourists thrilled to Liberia's sugary beaches and five-star hotels. At the time, Liberia took its cues from the United States, with stately mansions straight out of Faulkner's Mississippi. Liberians waltzed at black-tie balls and gazed at Jack Lord and Lee Marvin on the silver screen in air-conditioned cinemas.

This is the world David Brown grew up in. In 1943, the same year David moved to Monrovia, Teddy Roosevelt made a state visit to the capital. David soon got a job as a driver and moved his way up to professional chauffeur, working for the U.S. Embassy. He secured a visa to the United States, moving in 1956 to New York, where he worked for the Liberian consul general.

In the Big Apple, David says proudly, he made $438 a month. "I bought a good car for myself - a Pontiac convertible!" he booms, his hearing all but gone.

He returned to Liberia two years later and drove stately U.S. diplomats around Monrovia for the U.S. Embassy.

But in 1980, things fell apart. The president was killed and 13 government officials were stripped to their underwear, marched to the beach, and shot. In two decades, Liberia - that slice of America in Africa - went from an oasis of calm to a gruesome nightmare.

A Life Spared

David, who has liquid brown eyes and bears a passing resemblance to Morgan Freeman, remembers the day the war found him. He was farming cassava outside of Monrovia when the rebels came calling.

"Rebels ran us out of where I was farming for the last five years," he says. "They ran us out at gunpoint." He didn't even have time to change. "I left there in my working clothes."

"Everybody ran," he shouts, the memories rushing back to him. But in the chaos, he ran into a rebel camp.

"They said: 'You finished, old man! You die today!' I say, 'OK, if I die my trouble is finished.' "

But the rebels let him live. In exchange, they forced him to cook and wash their clothes for the next two years.

"I think God gave me a favor," he says.

Now, more than a decade later, David scrapes by. But he's thankful for CRS and the food they help provide to the Missionaries of Charity.

"America is more powerful than any country," says David. "Why are they so powerful? Because they are willing to help."

Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He has visited CRS programs in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Lane is based in Baltimore.