Our great, but small nation under God’s command takes overwhelming pride in welcoming U.S First Lady Michelle Obama, her two daughters and her entire entourage to this sweet land of liberty. There is something profound about Liberia. We are a beautiful and green country with 43 percent of the remaining rainforest in West Africa. Liberia is nothing short of a fascinating, amazing and exciting country with deep friendships that make further progress possible.
Everyday most of our people come face to face with human suffering and extreme poverty, but their smiles and resilience seem unmatched. The Liberian spirit is strong, but it is often conflicted. Our people also have a deep sense of inadequacy and reliance on others to right the wrongs of the past and fix their future. There is a national feeling of uncertainty of the future, confusion about our collective past, and a shame for suffering fourteen years of a horrible intermittent civil war that overshadows everything.
Africa’s oldest republic is ground zero for everything that makes humanity beautiful and terrifying all at once. For over 200 years, Liberia has been the epicenter of some of humanities worst moments in history. War, poverty, slavery, disease, and environmental destruction dominate the public perception of the country, which served as the cradle and citadel of liberation, emancipation, and redemption in Africa after years of colonial rule.
In spite of the bitter pill Liberia has swallowed, like many other countries, we are richly endowed with mineral resources, abundant water, tropical rainforest and a climatic condition that is favorable for agricultural activities. Liberia is home to some of the finest, natural and most beautiful landscapes and animals the world has ever known; many of whom are yet to be discovered. The stunning beaches, amazing creatures, fascinating inland waterways, admirable marshlands with mangroves, charming plateaus and mountains full of all sorts of minerals, attract people from all walks of life. Yet, the reality of life in Liberia for Liberians presents a drastic contrast to the beautiful aforementioned images.
U.S First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit further cements the cordial and mutual relationship that has existed for more than a century and the half between the United States of America and Liberia. It reawakens the conscience of all Liberians to respect the dignity and worth of every man, woman and child in achieving their full measure of happiness and actualizing their potential. It reinvigorates our commitment to lasting peace, which we have struggled to preserve and sustain for over 10 years plus and are continuing to do so even on the verge of the departure of the United Nations Mission in Liberia. It renews our strong determination to inspire, inform, and involve women and girls in acquiring the needed education to solve today’s problems and resolve the critical and pressing challenges that lie ahead. Moreover, it rejuvenates our quest for a better future and presents a unique platform alongside brand new opportunities to reexamine ourselves with a deep reflection that progress comes through suffering.
As a history buff, it is important to note that the United States is far from perfect. The world’s most powerful and prosperous nation has had its own terrifying past. However, this wonderful country managed to emerge stronger and more united to forge ahead and become the world’s only super power. We too can learn from the American Civil War in which millions of Americans suffered and died on American battlefields, on American soil. Without this conflict, the United States would not have been the country it is today. Liberians can still take a retrospective look in the pages of history from 1865 to 1965, which is filled with struggles, civil rights protests, and most importantly a national crisis of making good on the promises of equality made by their founding fathers. We must take a mental flight to see civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and what seemed impossible for some, became a reality to all in 2008 when Barrack Obama walked into the White House as the most powerful leader of the free world.
In fact, the story of Michelle Obama as the first African-American First Lady of the United States of America further demonstrates endless possibilities in the midst of challenges. From a humble upbringing to becoming a lawyer, writer, public servant, orator, mother, role model and fearless advocate, the First Lady teaches us that wisdom is better than strength and a “New Liberia” is possible through our own imagination, creativity, culture and national pride.
The extraordinary accomplishments of First Lady Michelle Obama, fueled by unwavering beliefs and unrelenting passion, are products of innovative initiatives that continue to yield tremendous results for healthy families, service members and their families, higher education and international adolescent girls’ education.
Here in Liberia, where she will soon set foot for the first time, the expectations are very high. In every nook and cranny of the country, people are discussing the First Lady’s visit translating into tangible outcomes. While many Liberians are of the strongest conviction that her visit would transform the country to become better than what it is now. Still, there are some who think that the First Lady’s visit could bring an end to entrenched corruption, abject poverty, a messy education system, huge unemployment, a deplorable healthcare delivery system, appalling farm to market roads alongside other awful conditions that continue to rise in Liberia. However, there are a few who believe that the First Lady’s motivational speeches and interactions with young Liberian girls would go a long way to inspire girls to enroll in school, remain in school and graduate to earn a degree or other professional qualifications in order to compete with their male counterparts or complement efforts in the areas of science, technology, arts, engineering and mathematics.
The First Lady’s visit comes at a critical juncture in Liberia’s history, when the United Nations Mission in Liberia’s drawdown is on the verge of being completed and the security of the state is being transferred to Liberian owned state security institutions. It comes when Liberians prepare to participate in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections that would see for the first time in more than 50 years the transfer of power from a living democratically elected president to the next. It comes when the relics of the Ebola virus disease still affects thousands of people. It comes at a time when coastal erosion is taking away the homes of poverty-stricken people, and climate change is becoming burdensome for most women and children. And, it comes when traditional and cultural barriers are preventing women and girls from attaining their full potential.
Howbeit, let us make no mistake that the problems we face today can neither be solved by one country, no matter how wealthy and powerful that country is, nor through a visit by one of the world’s most influential women. It would rather depend on us Liberians to steer our own course of action toward a more prosperous future and begin to dust ourselves off, wakeup, shakeup and standup for our country.
The visit of First Lady Michelle Obama and the unceasing support from the United States of America will forever remain commendable, notwithstanding that the task before this country goes beyond handouts or bailouts or dependency syndrome. It requires us to rethink our future and equip our younger generation with the necessary knowledge, skills and tools needed to succeed in this competitive world. Our younger generation most especially girls need to be prepared to solve the problems we are faced with now, and future challenges that lie ahead. They should and must not be left behind because of hiking tuition and other fees in our schools, or cultural and traditional barriers that so often hinder girls from pressing forward with their education. We cannot have a country where the older generation is more educated than the younger generation simply because most young people cannot afford the exorbitant increment of school fees at all levels.
As a country, we just cannot continue to beg, sit, and wait; we must believe in ourselves and take our destiny in our hands, and put aside petty jealousy, recrimination, tribalism, favoritism and other divisive mentalities to carry forward the determination and dream of our founding fathers for a more peaceful, cohesive and prosperous society. It is time to put our differences aside and find the true meaning of embracing unity in diversity. It is only through mutual respect in a diverse and multicultural society that we will succeed and rewrite our history.
Let the First Lady’s visit teach us to support our women and girls in acquiring quality education. We can no longer afford to keep our women and girls mainly as breadwinners, dish washers, cooks, secretaries, and other odd jobs. We should treat women and girls with dignity and honor.
The Women’s Legislative Caucus of Liberia should now begin to divert their attention from consistent and persistent advocacy for affirmative action to introducing and lobbying for the enactment of a piece of legislation that calls for free and compulsory education for girls across the country. This will pave the way for more educated girls and women who will take on the mantle of leadership not just as politicians, but top-class engineers to build infrastructural facilities, agriculturists to produce more food, doctors to care for the sick, entrepreneurs to establish businesses and even become chief executive officers of multinational corporations, the next Secretary General of the United Nations, President of the World Bank, as well as other prestigious international portfolios. Together with First Lady Michelle Obama and the government and people of the United States of America, we must work to ensure women and girls are treated fairly and equally. Even civil society organizations, faith-based institutions and advocacy groups must turn the tide to end all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls, which have existed for far too long.
Thanks ever so much, Madam First Lady, for your visit to our dear mama Liberia. We truly hope you and your delegation enjoy our sincere hospitality. Even though most people would not have the opportunity to physically see you and your daughters, we would still line up the streets to express our heartfelt gratitude.
About the author: Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder & Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES), a passionate, non-profit and voluntary grassroots youth-led development organization. For more information about YES’ work in Liberia, please visit http://www.liberiayes.org. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent YES.