After being in Liberia for two days, I know the answer to my blog’s title — “Do they know it’s Christmas?” — is yes. There are modest Christmas decorations throughout the city: garland on the gates of the presidential palace, Christmas lights roped through the barbed wire surrounding the Salvation Army building, pre-assembled artificial Christmas trees in the grocery store. Below, you can even see “Merry X-mas” chalked on the road outside MacDella’s apartment. (That’s a photo booth; you’ll see little booths like these on the street offering photo, cell phone, and beauty services).
But when it really hit me that Christmas is a recognizable, big deal in Liberia is when we were leaving a beachfront restaurant, where MacDella, the girls, Genevieve and I had lunch.
As we were leaving and driving down the dirt path, street children to the left and right of our SUV were waving and saying, “Merry Christmas!” with big smiles. One held a tattered cardboard sign with “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” scribbled in lopsided letters. In an amazingly symbolic way, now that I look back on it, a Gloria Estefan Christmas classic, “Christmas Through Your Eyes,” was playing on the radio.
So to answer Band Aid’s song, yes, they do know it’s Christmas in Africa. But I think Christmas means something different here. It’s obviously not driven by presents and fancy meals, at least among the families who live in shacks. It’s not about fighting to get your kid the hottest “it” toy, or leaving cookies for Santa, or wishing for snow. Maybe it’s about hope. Because I do see a lot of hope in Liberia, especially through MacDella’s eyes. Even with all the obstacles she faces (orphanage directors who won’t distribute her donations, customs officers who rip apart her shipments of donated shoes and book bags), she perseveres because she sees what Liberian children could be like through the success of Belle, Leila, Hajal, and Marcie. I see hope in the hotels and restaurants where we are fortunate enough to eat and use the Internet — the insides are air-conditioned and entirely Westernized in décor. This could become the standard with the right economy. And I see hope in the billboards that line the poverty-stricken streets. Billboards say “Rape is a crime,” “Stop mob violence,” and “Protect yourself against HIV/AIDS.” My favorite pictures a woman wearing a stethoscope around her neck. The caption reads, “This could be you with an education.”
At night, we spent 2 hours packing backpacks with shoes to give to the kids on Christmas Day at the party. You’ll hear more about that later, because MacDella’s foundation is correct in believing education is the way out for these kids…because they’ll ultimately be rebuilding the economy when they’re grown up. More sponsorships are necessary, and tomorrow, on Christmas Day, I’m going to try to spotlight the kids who need our support most of all. Expect LOTS of great pictures next time!