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The Grass is Greener

July 30, 2014

Saye Yekepa Blue Lake

If you ask a Liberian what they think America is like they’ll say something along the lines of “No one has problems” or “It’s heaven.” Their country and their culture are beautiful but, like everyone everywhere, they struggle to see past the daily drudgery to the good around them.

The grass is always greener.

With two of my students packing for study in America I wanted to take them away from some of that daily drudgery to see the beauty and potential in their own backyard. A big part of the Mastercard Foundation’s mission is to prepare students to “go back and give back.” Scholarship recipients are expected to return to their home country after graduation and become active change makers. To help cement this in the boys’ minds I planned a trip to Yekepa, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and something that happens to be right in our ‘backyard.’

George has been teaching in Yekepa for the past year and Saye has been 45 minutes away in Sanniquellie his whole life but neither of them had ever been up the mountain. “It’s here with us everyday but, no, we’ve never been there.”  Yekepa was a concession area for LAMCO, a Swedish-American-Liberian mining company, from the 1950s until the early 1990s. They developed the city into what I’ve heard described as a small America tucked inside the Nimba range. “Europeans even came here for vacation,” people tell me proudly.

But in 1989 war broke out and before long the company was forced to abandon operations. The legacy they left behind is pretty unbelievable and I wanted the boys to have an idea of what their country was and start to imagine what it will be again.

I also wanted them to have a fun day with a few of their closest friends.

So the day after Central High graduation six of us chartered a pick-up and headed out of town, dark clouds hanging low and ominous but not yet threatening. Once in Yekepa it became apparent the driver did not actually know how to get where we wanted to go. We asked some small kids on the side of the road and finally got directions to “the blue water.”

But when we found the road the driver was not happy. “What is this? I’m not going!” But he needed my money and I still had half of it in my pocket so we continued on down what was a footpath more than a road. Just as I could tell he was about to turn back we came across two boys fishing and asked directions again.

The shorter boy pointed the direction we were going, “Yes, it’s there. Keep going and you’ll see the coal tar.” The driver and I stared at each other then started laughing. Did he just say coal tar? What kind of jokes are these people playing?

But two minutes later we rounded a bend and there it was. Heavily overgrown but in perfect condition, a two-lane asphalt road wound its way right up the side of the mountain. We couldn’t believe it. Here in the middle of the bush was a nicer road than could be found near any of our cities!

After fifteen minutes we emerged at the top of the mountain and climbed out to see what used to be.

I think the pictures will speak for themselves. If this is what they abandoned and left behind, what else used to be here?

We spent a few hours exploring, chunking rocks, and testing the validity of stories the security guard told us. “The water is protected. No rock you throw can enter, even if you go right up to it.”

Prince, my young geologist, proved that one wrong! Watch his results here:


Finally it was time to go. We drove back to town to meet George’s family and take pictures with his friends around Yekepa. We ate fried okra and GB at a cook shop and headed back to Sanniquellie just as the torrential rain broke.

It was a perfect day but back at the guesthouse I was melancholy. For about $60 I’d taken them on one of the first field trips of their lives and shown them things that had previously been mere rumors and here say. If Central High even once got the money it is allotted in each national budget maybe students could actually go on field trips and they’d have more pride in who they are, where they are, and what the future might hold.

“Thank you,” one of my students texted me later that night, “today changed my life.  I will never forget what we’ve done and what I’ve seen.”

The grass is greener where you water.

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