My trip to Liberia for the month of January was a life dream and the culmination of years of preparation and hard work by me and my team of supporters. The moment I set foot in Liberia was one of intense joy. My excitement at the prospect of taking first steps to help change my little corner of the world for the better made me feel like opening night on a Broadway production - lots of anxiety but also high hopes.
As some may recall, a focus of my program was to better prepare young girls to deal with the approaches of sexual predators, and involve young boys and fathers as well as mothers in that effort and understand the importance of changing such thinking and behaviors at a young age. I honestly expected to do a single program with 12-15 children in the age group 7-12, so imagine my surprise when it ended up being four programs with almost 130 children as the word spread. I hardly had a moment to sleep, but everything about the trip exceeded every bit of my expectations. And a few other surprises as well, which I’ll get to a bit later.
I was bringing to West Africa the first program of its kind, which uses new science to discover root causes of human problems. It gets families and schools working toward a common goal of addressing those root causes in a positive way before the problem shows up in bad behavior. In a nation still recovering from the effects of a brutal civil war and youth still suffering from PTSD, this program can be seen as planting the seeds of nation-building, or let’s say nation re-building.
After a long and tedious 28-hour journey with stops in Belgium and Sierra Leone, I finally arrived in Liberia the night of December 30th. I was exhausted but could not wait to start my adventure and the dream of many years.
In my last previous family visit to Liberia in 2016, I discovered many things had changed. As I celebrated Christmas and New Year’s with women and children and the snacks and little gifts I hoped would boost their spirits, I was thinking of how these holidays had been celebrated when I was little girl in Liberia. After 14 years of brutal civil war, however, I realized how much Liberia had lost of its cultural traditions and values.
Christmas and other holidays were no longer celebrated; kids had neither food to eat nor pretty clothes or shoes to wear so they could parade the streets in the traditional Jubilee celebration. New generations of children born after 1990 missed all such traditions and now were having children of their own and could not pass such cultural elements down to their own kids.
After that 2016 trip, I returned to the States and started to plan a bigger program to help children and women of Liberia to restore some of the most basic and positive cultural values and human dignity. That was the birth of the Girl Uplift program to USA & Liberia.
I thought long and hard about how exactly to start changing the mindset of children so they could have greater self-confidence and truly become the future leaders of a new Liberia. I made a huge decision among those who wanted to help, by partnering with a unique non-profit, Coflict LLC, which had not only a strong background in these latest scientific methods (their System Dynamics approach is even being used extensively to predict and help prevent the spread of Covid-19), but also had long experience living and working in West Africa and could relate to the culture.
Together as a team, we worked over the course of months to adapt Coflict programs addressing such things as adult dysfunction, gender relationships, and corporate team-building to the needs of parents and children of West Africa. The objectives were not to lecture or simply give speeches, but actually engage young girls and boys in activities that would be fun, but also would teach them the necessary skills to change mindsets, build confidence, improve empathy and self-esteem, enhance critical thinking and teamwork, and ensure that when I left, the methods would become sustainable and expand with the people of Liberia.
As one example of the blending of new science with traditional values to great effect, we restored the West African concept of the Poro (pre-puberty boys) and Bundu (pre-puberty girls) in some of the activities. Historically in West Africa, girls had been taken into the bush for six months to learn how to become young women and how to engage with boys and men under the tutelage of the elder women known as Zo’s, while the boys were similarly taken into the bush under the tutelage of male village elders to learn what it was to be a man and how to engage with girls and women.
In our updated version, we eliminated the stereotype roles and taught young boys and girls how to communicate as equal partners and enjoy working together toward common objectives. The task of engaging boys and girls in learning gender inter-cultural communication and role-playing was met with suspicion, but once the activities (which we always referred to as “games”) proceeded, the light bulbs started going off and you could see a more joyful expression start to shine on their faces, both boys and girls.
The workshops took place at four different locations around Montserrado County in Liberia, although original expectations were for a single program. One was a local private school for young children, two others were community outreach programs for those in the city, and the last was a volunteer class from a large high school in central Monrovia.
Before each workshop, I required a training section with adults, parents and volunteer moderators which I recruited in Liberia on the second day of my arrival. This was to set expectations, define roles, reassure parents that this new approach would be a net benefit, and demonstrate how both they and their children would see actual positive behavioral changes.
Everything from this point went so fast it became a blur as my trip was only for three weeks. All workshops were 6-plus hours total including the adults/volunteers training and kids workshops. Each program was structured as either a whole day for 7-8 hours which included a meal or 2 sections of 3 hours a day on separate days.
Although I had only planned on a single workshop given the limited time to get everything organized, I had taken enough materials for three programs just in case. It’s always good to have a Plan B, especially as things turned out!
As nerve racking as it was being my first time doing such a program and without knowing how these new ideas would be accepted, and sometimes at the point of physical collapse from the stress, I wasn’t left with enough time to even think about failure, so I plunged in. I was even adjusting parts of the program on my way to JFK airport and as I was disembarking at Roberts Field in Liberia. As it turned out, doing the programs in four separate locations with three different age groups and parents of different socio-economic status turned out to be a much better learning experience in discovering their expectation gaps and needs.
After reading and practicing the various games during the adults/parents training, I got help from smart, talented young volunteers to research games in case we got stuck, which really helped. The game of Student Swap, intended to teach negotiation, emotional control, and empathy, was a favorite of all age groups. We had taken a large container of small wrapped toys for the students to select and swap and although some initial bad feelings were expected and encountered, the game had its intended effect and much was learned about values and relationships.
Other games, such as the traditional Telephone (communications), Pepper Bird (not only Liberia’s national bird, but also the game modified from the common corporate team-building and leadership activity of a Lego blocks project), the Human Knot (another game adopted from psychology and team problem-solving) and Empathy (gender culture communications and understanding) were big hits and opened many eyes.