Farmer at the Community Youth Network Program in Bensonville, Liberia. Jonx Pillemer/(RED).
LIBERIA - “She’ll be President one day,” said Deborah Dugan, CEO of (RED), as we were reflecting on what we had just witnessed in the town of Bensonville, Liberia. A young girl of perhaps ten, dressed in local ceremonial attire, her hair intricately braided, had just boldly led a troop of some 20 children, all in identical costume, with a joyful welcome song and dance. When our delegation arrived, this mesmerizing child marched forward, the other children clapping and singing behind her as her voice rang out in a clear and resonant solo. I cannot imagine a child of similar age in the States standing tall, proud and confident, in front of strangers, leading her young peers through verse after verse of “We have peace, no more war.” Then again, I cannot imagine one of our children enduring the conditions to which we have borne witness here. We are very lucky indeed.
It was the first day of a week-long listening and learning trip with (RED), the organization founded in 2006 by Bono and Bobby Shriver generate private sector money for AIDS programs financed by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Sotheby’s have been long time supporters of (RED) and the fight against AIDS, and I was thrilled to be able to see some of the challenges and success first hand.
We started our trip in Liberia, a country ravaged beyond fathom by a 14 year civil war leaving utter devastation in its wake. And, over a decade later, here are some of the things I learned in a day. Liberia is a country of four million people, two percent of whom have electricity. These four million people are dependent for survival on a network of only 100 doctors. Forty-two percent of the population under five years of age is malnourished. Two thirds of the population is under the age of thirty five. Joblessness prevails. And while HIV/AIDS is purportedly not as big an issue here as in many other African nations, there exists an enormous stigma in such a confession, and as such, the numbers are considered to be potentially under-reported.
Despite these statistics and the visual shock of extreme poverty, I witnessed signals of optimism as well. In Monrovia there is construction. There is commerce. In this nation which has seen years of trauma, there is a dedicated, respected leader in the form of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who is committed to bringing better lives to her people.
Young girl dancing at the Community Youth Network Program in Bensonville, Liberia. Jonx Pillemer/(RED).
And there is Community Youth Network Program (CYNP), a local farm that was started by Junior Toe, a child of 14 when he was plucked off the street on his way to school and forced to live a life of unspeakable violence on the war front. Junior Toe was a child solider, handed a weapon without training and like countless other boys was told the stark and simple fact - kill or be killed, leave and be killed, leave and watch your family be killed, assuming they are not dead already. The horror in this is so ugly, unwieldy and gigantic it is almost impossible to contemplate. When the war ended, Junior Toe attended a program for re-habilitation and re-integration and as a result of this was able to go to back to school. He studied farming and won grants, and now operates a network of sustainable farms. Somehow, he found the grace to channel his past into a future of possibility and hope – not just for himself but for so many others too.
Farms like this are essential to communities like the one we visited in Bensonville. For violence to remain in the past, people need lucrative employment. For kids to go to school, parents need income. And while all people need healthy food, it’s essential for anyone on lifesaving ARV treatment to also be eating regular, nutritional meals for the medicine to work. While poverty and disease can seem never ending, smart interventions can like this can help break the cycle. It is all integrated and we saw this on day one first-hand.