BY JENNIFER MAJER
Flying into Liberia at the end of May, I was immediately struck by the absence of lights on the ground and by the hopelessly dilapidated airport. This small West African country of 4.1 million is still rebuilding following a decades-long civil war that has left 64 percent of the population living in poverty today.
I spent my summer based in the capital of Monrovia, where I interned with Mercy Corps on an agriculture market development project called GROW Liberia. I worked with GROW’s monitoring and evaluation team to conduct research and develop the tools necessary to measure the project’s progress. I also traveled with the team to Liberia’s rural counties, where farmers received trainings to increase their vegetable yields. Outside of working hours, friends and I spent a majority of time at the beach (where we ate barracuda and tried surfing for the first time), exploring Monrovia, or cooking together and enjoying good company.
This is how I choose to remember Liberia – for the hugely rewarding work experience, the friendships, the beaches, the deliciously spicy food (my favorites were the potato green stew, cassava leaf, and fried plantains), the friendly people, and the colorful culture.
Unsurprisingly, though, most people will know of Liberia from headlines about the Ebola outbreak, which is now the largest in history. At the end of July, a low level of concern gave way to some panic in Monrovia after the first two American health workers were infected and expatriates began to evacuate.
Ebola quickly consumed most aspects of daily life, causing blockades, flight cancellations, and travel warnings. Public outreach campaigns, including signs proclaiming “Ebola is Real!” and a popular song with the refrain “Ebola in Town!” tried to educate Liberians on how to protect themselves. By mid-August, the country was operating under a state of emergency. Observing the deteriorating conditions in Liberia, I decided to return to the U.S. a few weeks early. I think and worry often about those still in the region as they try to cope with the outbreak and its human, social, and economic consequences.
The first question people ask about my summer is always, “How was it there?” I still haven’t come up with a succinct answer. Good? Bad? Exciting? Interesting? Tragic? Horrifying? It’s all of the above. My summer was full of truly remarkable and memorable experiences – both highs and lows. Even as I re-adjust to life in Washington as a SAIS student, Liberia is regularly on my mind. I hope to return in the future to help the nation rebuild following this major setback in its development.
(Jennifer is in her second year of the IDEV program. Her internship was fully funded by SAIS Career Services as part of the Nonprofit Leadership Development Initiative (NLDI) for which she was selected last year.)