BUDUBURAM Refugee Camp & My Journey Home to Liberia:The Past Still Holds On to the Present Despite the Untold Stories of Ruin and Hope

Visiting One’s Original Homeland for Research is Not Easy: Part I- Buduburam & Accra, Ghana

MY Journey back home to Liberia began on June 14. I arrived in Accra, Ghana on June 15, 2011, where I revisited the infamous Liberian Buduburam Refugee Camp, now with only an estimated 11,000 refugees still living. Three years ago, I visited the Buduburam camp and interviewed Liberian women. This year, I interviewed women and was fortunate when the UN Manager of Settlement, Mr. Gavivina Yao Tamakloe granted me a lengthy interview on the state of the refugees and the camp. His generous decision to allow me into his office and to be interviewed on his perspectives about working with Liberian and other African refugees and the camp has contributed immensely to my on-going research.

(Left: Liberian refugee lady who has been in exile since 1990, lost to her children until recently. She told me she’s all set to return home, and was negotiating assistance with the UN refugee office.)

LIBERIA stands once more at the crossroads as the Presidential elections campaign begins, and if you’re not paying attention, please begin to. As I write, there are still thousands of Liberian refugees in camps in Ghana, in Nigeria, and in other parts of the world, who still need to return home. But Monrovia has become Liberia, exploding with people who have no reason to live in the overwhelming city.

Buduburam:

Human beings are not animals that are kept in a cage until we can end our wars. This is why keeping people or allowing human beings to remain in a refugee camp for five, ten, twenty years is not good.

Two Women-Two Directions and Decisions: Comfort Roberts (L) undecided about returning to Liberia while Marie Mapu Gpabo ( R) showed me her papers for her return home to Liberia by the end of the month. She is excited to hopefully reunite with her lost children she has not seen for more than 20 years while Comfort, originally from Maryland County, Liberia, a woman who still knows Grebo will remain with grandchild and one daughter, working with the UN office. She introduced me to the Camp Manager and helped me get a an audio/video interview with the manager. These women do not only need their stories heard. They need the UN to change its policy on the kind of assistance refugees are given in the repatriation process and how they are received in Liberian upon arrival.

According to them, the UN gives each family a hundred dollars, no pots or pans, nothing for resettling back home. The United Nations has to do more in order to encourage refugees to return home.  As for Liberians who  have been in Buduburam and other smaller camps in Ghana for many years, the need to return home or be returned home should be the priority of both the United Nations and the Liberian government. These women above have lived at Buduburam for at least fifteen years each. The lady in the blue, Ms. Comfort Roberts, fled to Ghana in the heat of the war when her husband and two daughters were killed. He story is too graphic to tell. Now with one grandchild, she works in the UN office at the camp. She does not know when she will ever return home or if there is something to return home to.

Above are photos of the Buduburam Refugee camp that thousands of Liberian refugees have lived in for up to 15 or more years. Many have died naturally in this camp, had children and grandchildren, yet others have returned home over the past five years. My sister-in-law, Ora Wesley, a lovely and hardworking young woman died here in Buduburam in July of 2008. This time around, I walked around trying to find someone who remembered her, but found none. That is how sad the life of a refugees is. Refugees are people without a home, and often, forgotten as soon as they die.

Over the years, there have been numerous incidents with Liberian refugees in Ghana. Most recently, a few months ago, there was an incident of rioting and a police raid by the Ghanaian government, and it was alleged that several Liberians were killed by the government crackdown. My question on this research mission to refugees I spoke to, both men and women was: Why can’t you just return home to Liberia?    

Liberian Attitude and the Liberian Refugee:

After my five day research trip in Ghana, I boarded the Delta flight to Monrovia, Liberia, on June 19, 2011. The plane had just arrived with hundreds of Africans from the United States. As I made my way to my seat that afternoon, a Liberian man, about my age or older looked at me as I struggled to fit my overnight baggage into the overhead bin. Instead of assisting me as any gentleman would, he wanted to know what I had been doing in Accra, whether I was leaving the refugee camp or whether I had simply stopped over from America for a short visit. I did not answer him until I was seated. Then I told him that I had stopped over to visit Buduburam Camp. He quickly began to laugh at me, looking at me with the kind of cynicism one would to put another down. “So, you living in America and keeping you children in the camp eh?” He asked, laughing. “You people sit in America and keep your children in the camp?” At first, I did not know what he was saying, but when it sank in, I was shocked. I was hurt. Did he think I was the kind of mother who would live in America and keep my children in a refugee camp? Did others do such a thing? And even if I was, why would he speak to me like this? I did not respond to his inquiry. I simply dismissed him because I felt too insulted for words, and if I said something to him on the plane as it lifted off the ground, they would have had to take me off that plane or throw me out the window.( Photos below are of my son and his friends at the party he held at the company house for me in Accra.)

Liberian attitude must change.


What the gentleman on the plane did not know is that I do have a son in Ghana, but my son is living and working as a computer consultant with a reputable company, independent, a young man who fell in love with Africa and moved to Accra on his own. In fact, it was his technical expertise that I depended on during my research trip. Above are photos taken at a welcome party my son, Mlen-Too Wesley II held for me, about forty of his friends in attendance that day. That was one day after he and I visited Buduburam, after we survived having our taxi cab taken off the road by police, taken to the police station in the scorching heat, waiting until the driver was clear. At Buduburam, my son, who was not a refugee,  recorded hours of video taping, took photos and helped me since of course, I am very unfamiliar with Accra.

(L-R- Aggie, Me, and Patricia, my son’s friends, posing with me.)

LIBERIAN ATTITUDE MUST CHANGE:

Liberian attitude to being a refugee, to refugees, to their homeland or returning home, and to what it means to move on after the war must be changed if we as a people will survive. During my one hour plus interviewing Mr. Gavivina Yao Tamakloe, the UN Manager of Buduburam, he said several things which support my belief. He indicated that his experience at the camp has taught him that Liberian women are some of the most hard working, dynamic and self initiative taking people in the world. He said that seven of the organizations on the camp were started and controlled by women. They are the care givers, the supporters of the families and that the men on the camp sit around all day and waste time. This attitude in the men must change. If they are refugees in such a horribly dirty camp, then how bad do they want life to be for them to get up and do something?

Another thing that must change is refugee refusal to return home to their own country even though many of them would be better off if they did. Those who do not want to return home also do not want to assimilate or become part of the Ghanaian society. They want to remain the camps or remain refugee all their lives unless they get a ticket to come to the United States. They know that there is no longer any resettlement of refugees to the western world, so many just want to remain in a camp and let life pass them by. There is nothing better than living in your own country if the alternative is living in the sort of refugee camp that I photographed above. Liberians who returned home have unfortunately settled in Monrovia, overcrowding the city while most of the countryside is empty, but that can change if refugees return to their original homelands where they were before the war.

More Photos of my better experience in Accra: My son’s friends.

The Liberian story of suffering and hardship is unending and must be told. One of the things that struck me about life in Buduburam or in any other refugee camp is that those who arrived in the camp nearly 20 years ago went on to have children who in turn had children. I wondered and was saddened by that. How can a refugee whose country is no longer at war explain passing on to their children the gift of a refugee status? That is what the refugees at Buduburam are doing to their children. They are leaving an inheritance of the status of refugee with their children. Why is this so? Is it because their home country does not have the suitable facilities the Buduburam camp provides?

I have documented Liberian women’s stories, collecting them for an anthology that I hope to publish someday. This quest to tell the Liberian woman’s trauma stories from the war has allowed me to interview dozens of women over five years, in Africa and in the US since 2006. Much of that research was supported by my university, the Pennsylvania State University. This year, the research mission to Africa was supported by two grants: Penn State’s AESADE grant, a collaborative grant that two of my colleagues, Dr. Lee Ann De Reus, Dr. Julia Hudson-Richards and I were awarded. I then applied for supplementary funding to augment the AESADE grant from the Penn State University’s Africana Research Center’s Faculty Grant, and obtained that grant. These two grants made it possible for me to travel to Ghana and to Liberia, where I conducted several workshops, trained teachers, recorded women’s stories and did radio and tv interviews and poetry readings. I am grateful to my university for this great opportunity to follow the stories of Liberian women and to be at Buduburam this year.

As I conclude this blog post, let me say that I know there are some who think I should go into refugee camps with gifts for refugees as my service to my country. But there are many who are already doing that, and our people are still stuck in that ugly camp after twenty years. Free handouts are not the solution to helping people recover. I believe that if someone is inspired by words and encouragement, by teaching and education, they can do everything they want to do for themselves. There was one objective I had besides collecting whatever stories I could get, and that was to inspire at least one woman about her worth. I wanted them to know that they can return home and live a better life. During my visit I did that. I walked them through my belief in them as the masters of their destiny. I was so glad when one of the women insisted on taking me to her shack to show me her papers and promised me she was returning home soon. Another woman told me that when she arrived at the camp, she was a young girl, and now, she’s old and needs to return home.

There was one young girl in her teens who had just returned to the camp from boarding school. I was saddened to see a child who went to boarding school where no one really feels like home and returned to the camp where not even her parents live. She, not photographed, came to me for advice. I told her that if she went to school and continued and obtained a good education, she would someday never live in a camp like this. Our people need the courage to move on, not condemnation. They need to return home, but the United Nations cannot give them $100.00 to return home to a land they may never have known or to a land they’ve lost.

My trip ended and I moved on to Liberia. Within a few days, I’ll be posting the stories of my time in Liberia. Come back and visit.

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Fall for the Book Festival-2009—My Friend, Gabeba Baderoon and I, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley Read at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on September 19, 2009 at 2 pm

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Fall for the Book Festival Reading: Gabeba Baderoon and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley- Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009, at 2 pm. The reading takes place at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on 950 Independence Ave. You are invited, and please, bring all of your friends.

THE FESTIVAL

Fall for the Book Festival 2009 began on September 6, 2009 with preview events, and will continue throughout the DC, Virginia and Maryland areas this month. Many great readers will bring their works to literary audiences through readings, discussions, and other festivities in libraries, institutions and other locations throughout the Washington DC area. This year, the festival is significant to me because my friend, Gabeha Baderoon, a poet, originally from South Africa and I will be participating in the readings as featured authors. Our reading takes place during one of the many preview events of the Festival. I would like to take this time to invite you to come and hear us read from our books of poetry, and enjoy the diverse cultures of Africa through our works. Our work will also surprise you because when you come to the reading, you will see that we do not only write about the great continent of Africa, but we also write about our experiences as  Americans and immigrants from another world, living in a new world, exploring all of the images both of our homelands and our new found home of America.

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GABEBA BADAROON– POET

Our Published Books:

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Gabeba Baderoon, here presenting at a previous occasion, will be reading from her collections of poetry, including  “The Dream in the Next Body” “A Hundred Silences,” among others. I believe Gabeba will also read a poem or two from newer poetry. Gabeba is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Women’s Studies at Penn State University. She is particularly dear to me because she is my friend and colleague. Over the last two years since I first met her, Gabeba and I have collaborated on various projects, including presenting on a panel on African Women’s Literature at the African Literature Association, visiting one another’s African Literature classes at Penn State talking on issues to our scholarship, reading together at other poetry events, among others. This fall, she and I will be part of a discussion on a panel with the African author and friend of ours, Binyavanga Wainaina, when we will discuss the topic, “Who Owns African Literature.” In November, I will be visiting Gabeba’s Comparative to read from my new book, “The River is Rising,” for the benefit of her students who are currently reading the book. Gabeba and I usually compliment each other in our readings, if you ask me. This is because my own poems and poetry reading complement the silences in Gabeba’s images, the beauty of softness of her language and the vividness of feelings her work brings to the reader. Where my images can be brutal in its portrayal of war and ruin, Gabeba can bring the softness, and where my poetry may often burst out with humor, she can bring calm and seriousness. All of this is from my own observation, but you will have to speak to Gabeba yourself or hear us read to know. I have read all of her books not because she is my friend, but mainly because her voice as a writer originally from South Africa is a necessary voice in this contemporary day of poetry, and because I believe poets have a lot to learn from each other.

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Patricia Jabbeh Wesley performing at the City of Asylum Poetry-Jazz Festival 2008

Our Published Books:

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Here I am  above, reading at another occasion. My books above include, “The River is Rising,” “Becoming Ebony,” and “Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa.” I will also read from a new manuscript. I am shamelessly inviting you and your friends to attend our reading on September 19,2009 because unless you come, Gabeba and I will have to collaborate again this time by reading to each other.  I don’t want to say anything about myself because when you attend the reading, you will get to know my poetry and about me. The one thing, I’d say is that I am also a professor at Penn State, but I teach Creative Writing and English mainly, specializing in poetry writing. When you explore the rest of my blogging, you will get to know me. We are both fortunate to be among 130 writers from across the US who will participate in this important occasion, and it will be our honor to come hear us at the Smithsonian. Sherman Alexie is the main reader, I think. Don’t take my word for it. Visit the Festival site at:

http://www.fallforthebook.org/participants.php

http://www.fallforthebook.org/2009_FFTB_program.pd

———————-POETRY FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT———————————————————-

The Sound of My Name

————-              By Gabeba Baderoon

To step into another language
direct the breath
swell the mouth with vowels
feel the jaw configure itself around the word
write another script on the tongue

Russian
A woman learning Russian describes
the new inclination of her head,
her chest, her hands,
the muscular changes in the tongue
the way sibilance tightens
the upper lip
like bee stings around the jaw
the movement of air over her throat
a subtle invasion
taking possession of her mouth

Arabic
I teach you to say the first letter of my name,
a sound between g and h,
for which there is no letter in English.

Breathe in,
take a sip of water,
make a flat oval of the lips,
breathe out.
Remember the sound of the exhalation.

Clear the throat.

Between the two is the start of my name.

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The River Is Rising

————————Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

a song for Liberian women

The river is rising, and this is not a flood.
After years of drought, the ground, hardened

and caked in blood, in dry places, here we are, today.

River banks are swelling with the incoming tide,
coming in from the Atlantic just beyond the ridge

of rolling hills and rocks in Monrovia.

Finally, here we stand at the banks!
Finally, here we are, see how swiftly

the tide rushes in to fill the land with salt.

Fish and crabs and the huge clams and shrimps-
all the river’s creatures are coming in with the tide.

The river is rising, but this is not a flood.

Do not let your eye wander away from this scene.
Yes, all the bones below the Mesurado or the St. Paul

or Sinoe or the Loffa River will be brought up
to land so all the overwhelming questions
can once more overwhelm us.

But they are bringing in our lost sister
on a high stool, and there she stands, waving at those

who in refusing to die, simply refused to die.

This is not a song just for Ellen. This is a song for Mapue
and Tenneh and all the Ellens there are.

This is a song for Kema and Musu and Massa.

This is for Nyeneplue and Nyenoweh, for Kou and Glayee
and Korto, for the once solitary woman of war.

This is a song so Wani will also dance.

This is a song for that small girl child who came out
just this morning. They are still seeking a name

to call her- a river name, a name from the water
and from the fire too. That solitary mother in flight

will no longer birth her child by the roadside
where shells were her baby’s first bed.

Let the womb quiver!
Let church bells jingle!
Let hundreds of drums pound, Klan-klan-teh!
Let men bring out old trumpets
so the wind will take flight!

Let that small pepper bird on the tree branch cry
and sing no more the solitary song.

Let the Mesurado behind my home or what was my home
or still is or maybe, maybe, who cares?

The river is rising, but this is not a flood.

Let no man stand between us
and the river again!

George Bush on His Way to Liberia, Obama, Here, Making Us Cry Tears of Amazemnt, and Me, Not So Significant, Doing My Usual Thing As I Drive Out to Read Poetry at Penn State York: God Is So Good, We Used to Sing, God is So Good to Me!

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“You know one thing I’ve learned, and I suspect the people of Liberia have learned, is it’s easier to tear a country down than it is to rebuild a country,” Bush said on the final stop of his five-nation tour of Africa. “And the people of this good country must understand the United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country.”

—George Bush says in Liberia.

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Something is happening, and I think you should know:

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US President George Bush and Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Monrovia today, Feb. 21, 2008. Bush pledges support for Liberia.

God moves in mysterious ways. History can redeem us or betray us, but history-making is real and alive today in the US and in the world. I always believe that a writer should see herself as being in the center of history, to write within the making of history, that a poet should always be aware of where she is standing, both in place, time, and in circumstances, where she is when history is being made. That other eye, that ability to place oneself in the midst of things as they are stirred up, shaken, or calmed is important if a writer is to become a great writer. A writer must be socially engaged with her world. This is where I come in. I have no strong arguments about why the US President should have or should not have visited Africa, and particularly, my original homeland. It is a great thing for all of us. I only pray and hope that Liberia will come out better off by Bush’s short stop in Monrovia.

And yet, here I am on my way to Penn State York, to the historical town of York, Pennsylvania where my poetry reading schedule isn’t any different from other poetry reading schedules that I have had these few weeks. But I must stop to pause here to remember because I am going to read for Black History Month, me an African, now becoming part of the history of these great African Americans who have shaped my life long before I came. I pause to wonder how all of the histories being made around me are significant to poetry reading, which of course, others will say is insignificant.

As I pause, I must admit that last night as with other nights of the US Primaries and Caucuses, I stopped my very hectic schedules of house work, paper grading, reading, writing, etc. to watch history happen around me as Barack Obama won his tenth consecutive primary. To be here and experience this new kind of history while at the same time the US President is visiting my original homeland of Liberia to speak to the first female President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and to visit the war ravaged remains of a country where everyone has lost almost everything, and to be here and be a poet with the power to write whatever I want from my unique perspective, to me is a blessing. God has been good to many of us not because of circumstances, but because we can take the circumstances around us and make them work for us. I believe this is where I come in. So despite all of the great things happening, I see myself as a significant part of everything because I am a human being with a mind.

I’m glad to be alive to see history, but I am glad to be alive to do what I know how to do in my own way. As a Liberian woman who was in college during the visit of the only other American sitting President, Jimmy Carter, visited Monrovia just for a few hours in 1978, I am again curious to see what this visit of another US President will bring for a country that was beaten down and hammered by war for fourteen years, what President Bush will bring to this new Liberia, coming out of misery, and how his visit will be more beneficial to our people than Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1978.

But in the midst of this history is another major one: Barack Obama. And all I have to say is that it brings tears to my eyes to see that there is a power larger than power that is moving, and I, a mother, a wife, a believer in the love and power of God, a teacher of college folks, a writer, and woman from Africa, a black and an immigrant who came to the great United States having lost all due to the ugliness of politics and greed can be here to see this history– I say, I can only pause and be thankful to God.

I have seen many US elections over the years, but this, the first black man who is able to bring America together, both whites and blacks, brings tears to my eyes. I always believed in America, the first time I met America on a Pan American Airliner 747 in 1981, young and newly married, on my way with my husband to Nigeria, there, on that airliner were Asians, Indians, whites, blacks, people of all shades, sitting side by side on a plane, about three hundred just out of New York City, traveling to various African destinations. I was dumbfounded to tears. I had never seen anything like this in my life in my own country before or then, in 1981, and so as a young poet, not much published yet then, I wondered, “Is this America?”

I have searched for that America for years, but to my eyes, the fact that people can come together like this in this great country recalls that sweet memory. I am not saying this to make you to vote for any particular candidate. I am saying this because there is a power somewhere that is bringing people together, and that power of Obama to make us all cry no matter who we are is only from above. It takes God to make the history that we are seeing.

It is a good thing that President Bush is going to Liberia tomorrow, the 21st of February. Wish he’d invited me along and given me a ticket on his plane so I would take him to my damaged village, but I guess I’ll have to wait for the next President. I know the way to that village still, you know. It is a good thing however, that America is making history with Hillary running, the first serious female candidate, the first former First Lady, and it is a good thing that Barack, the first black man, the first son of a white and black union is winning big. It is a good thing that I am alive to see all of this and it is a good thing that you are reading this and you too, are alive to record this for your children.