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Everyone’s Need or Everyone’s Greed?

July 28, 2014
Baccalaureate Sanni

The prospective graduates line up outside the church.

At the end of June I went to Sanniquellie for the first time in almost a year. The last group of students I taught were graduating from Central High and I also needed to speak to the boys’ families before they left for Arizona State.

You know how they say you can never go back? I was terrified.

I left my house around 10:00am and by 1:00pm I was checked into my guesthouse in Sanniquellie. Krista, you would not believe the coal tar road the Chinese are working on. Remember those three hour Mario Kart rides dodging holes between Gbarnga and Ganta? One hour now. It happened so fast I was sure I’d fallen asleep when we pulled up to the checkpoint.

It all kind of caught me off guard. No one saw me get out of the taxi and, sitting on the edge of my bed, I thought about turning around and going right back. There were so many phone calls I never returned. So many people I forgot to bring gifts for. Would I be a friend or a foe? Would anyone remember me? And if they did would they want to talk to me?

So I took a deep breath and called one of my sons. “I’m here,” I said, “What should I do? Who should I speak to first?” He agreed to escort me around town so I pulled myself together and walked out to meet him on the road. Without batting an eye or showing the slightest surprise children started greeting me like I just saw them yesterday.

“RB! RB!”

Then, as we walked around campus I started to hear shrieks and students and administrators danced over to hug me. “You remembered us! You remembered us! Thank you!”

Are you kidding? How could I ever forget?

I made surprise visits to a few of my closest students and sat with their families before ending up at my old ‘office’ to drink soft drinks and lecture. The longer I sat the more people materialized and there was none of the anger or bitterness I feared.

In the end I was enough.

Many of my former students are now working for the mining company. I grilled them about it—they could all do better—and I immediately started getting angry. A new Indian company has been brought in as some sort of sub-contractor and the kids are working twelve hour days six days a week. They get up around 4:30am to eat and walk into town where they’re loaded on retired school buses and driven to the mine in Tokedeh, midway between Yekepa and Sanniquellie. They stay there all day and come back on the buses around 7:00pm. (These buses tear through town without regard for the children, animals, and general business of the main street.)

In return they get paid around $300 a month. Yes, this is good money in Liberia but they are receiving little formal training and there is little hope for advancement or education: this is it. These were my brightest students but they’re doing grunt jobs and serving as ‘helpers’ just watching the Indian people work. As part of the concession agreement I know the company has to provide jobs to Liberians, but this does not seem like what the government officials had in mind. Liberians want to be trained to do the mining themselves… but that is bad business for the company.

To throw fuel on my fire about a week before my trip I found a promotional video from Arcelor Mittal, the primary mining company and the largest steel manufacturing company in the world, on YouTube. It was published in 2012 and talks about all the wonderful work they’re doing for Nimba County.

It misrepresents the entire situation.

They say they’ve restored the railroad to the Buchanan port.

Their train runs a dozen times a day but no one else is allowed to use it. The local people get no direct benefit and, in fact, Sanniquellie wants to relocate the hospital because of the noise. People and valuable livestock are often killed by the train.

 

They say they’re repairing farm-to-market roads and the Ganta-Yekepa highway.

This is a photo of that highway I took one month before this video was posted. What should have been a one-hour trip to Ganta took me six hours in three different cars. According to a corporate magazine published in 2013 work started last dry season. Really?

Total Truck Flipped on the Ganta Road

 

They say they’re providing jobs.

As helpers and unskilled laborers because Liberians are hungry and are cheap to hire.

 

Did you see that school bus?

It takes the workers to the mine. Only a few operate in Yekepa to carry students to the company schools.

 

Production of saleable iron ore in Liberia was 4.1 million tonnes last year according to the 2013 Annual Report on the company’s web site (page 211). This was sold and according to the Mineral Development Agreement the Liberian Government received a 4.5% royalty. Who gets the other 95.5%?

In the video you see community members expressing hope and excitement that mining is returning. That’s because before the war the area was a LAMCO concession and there were heavy investments in infrastructure and development. (In a future post I’ll write about visiting the old mine with some of my students during this same trip to Nimba.) LAMCO built houses and roads and treated it like a place they lived. Arcelor Mittal has recently come under fire for bringing in temporary housing units instead of rehabilitating the old structures.

While I was in Nimba people expressed a lot of frustration with the situation but that wasn’t new. People have been shaking their heads since I got there in 2011. But things are getting more serious than I realized. The day after I left and returned to Cuttington a peaceful demonstration at the Tokedeh mine turned violent when the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) fired tear gas on protestors. Guns appeared out of homes—after the war Liberians were paid if they turned over their guns but they weren’t forced to—and things got heated. Several pieces of machinery were damaged and the highway ‘bridge’ (actually just boards) linking Sanniquellie to Yekepa was burned.

I learned of all of this by word of mouth phone calls after arriving back at Cuttington but it was later confirmed on the radio and AllAfrica. The reaction in Bong County was disappointing. People said Nimbanians love violence. That the Mano and Gio people are trying to start another war. That they don’t know how to be grateful for the jobs and education their children are receiving.

No matter where I go I will always be a Nimbanian at heart. I have hundreds of Mano and Gio children and I know they fear nothing more than another war. They just want justice and none of their ‘big people’ are listening.  The protest was peaceful until the police fired the tear gas.  The company isn’t the only one at fault here–the government bears its own share of responsibility–but it sure isn’t the fault of the Nimba citizen.

My students all have smart phones (something I never expected to see) and back in our gathering on the road they whipped them out to show me photos of each other at work in their blue jumpsuits and orange vests.

“But don’t worry, Ms. RB,” one of them said soberly, “we are just using them like they’re using us. We’re going to take their money and find a way to go to school. We know this isn’t what you want us to do. Remember? What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.” Then one of them pressed $20US into my hand. “This is from all of us to help with your transport here and to thank you for what you’ve done for us.” I refused up and down but they insisted. “This is Africa and we have to appreciate you.”

What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.

If they only remember one thing from all my math classes, damn it, I’m glad it’s that.

Someday, in a more just world, I hope they’ll be the ones conducting the train, supervising the mine, and using their resources to actually develop the community. It’s going to be a challenge but I’ve never stopped believing that they can.

The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.

            – Mahatma Gandhi

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