Buduburam Refugee Camp
We drove along the main road linking Accra to Takoradi and the Cote D'Ivoire border, heading towards the Liberian refugee camp in the town of Buduburam. Traffic was busy, but far from gridlock, and generally we made good time along the way. We'd probably arrive at the camp in about an hour. Much of the second half of the trip left us caught in a cloud of gravel and dust, as the road was being repaved, forcing us to follow a dirt track while construction continued.
Approaching 2pm, we found ourselves in a stretch of road lined with tightly packed stalls selling goods of all imaginable shapes and sizes. Vendors on foot went from car to car, hawking cases of toilet paper, freshly peeled pineapples and a spectrum of snacks. David pulled over for a moment and motioned to one young woman, who was balancing a pyramid of cookie boxes and peanut bags in a wide metal tray on her head. David placed his order, speaking to her in Akan, and she nonchalantly tipped her head, almost as if to make a facial gesture; a single pack of peanuts tumbled from the tray. She didn't even break eye contact with David; the peanuts landed right in her hand, ready to pass it through the window for a couple of crumpled cedi notes.
A few minutes later we arrived at the entrance to the camp. From the outside, it looked almost like we were entering the same neighborhood as my guesthouse. There was a dirt road sloping up a small hill, past several rows of cement huts and shops. Two UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) vehicles left the entrance as we pulled in; David parked outside the UNHCR office so we could figure out where to go next.
A young African man in a UNHCR t-shirt came up to us to see if we needed any help. I told him we were there to meet a group of volunteers and Liberian NGO workers for a tour of the camp. At first he seemed to have no idea whom we were looking for, but eventually he offered to jump in the back of the truck and lead us to the right place.
We drove deeper and deeper into the camp. The further we went, the more surprised I became. To be honest, I had no particular expectation of what the camp would look like. What I found was a hotbed of human commotion – countless shops, children playing soccer, young men playing backgammon, women getting their hair done. This was a vibrant and surprisingly cheerful place. I wondered what other surprises might be around the corner.
Soon we reached a building with a small sign marking it as the volunteer headquarters. I went inside and introduced myself to an international group of young people, none of whom seemed to be expecting me. I then pulled out the only name I could recall from the flutter of emails over the last week.
Jeremiah, one of my hosts at the refugee camp
“Is Jeremiah here?” I asked. “He should be expecting me.”
“Sure, he's in the back,” an Asian American woman said. “You'll be able to find him there.”
I stepped into the room and found a young Liberian man hunched over a laptop. He was wearing a bright, white polo shirt, sporting closely cropped hair and a goatee.
“Andy!” Jeremiah greeted me, warmly. He shook my hand and gave me a hug, like an old friend. We talked for a moment about the drive from Accra, then planned our itinerary for the afternoon.
“How much time do you have?” he asked. “You must be very busy; if you can only spare 15 minutes….”
“I have as much time as you need,” I replied. “Even if it's an hour or more, whatever is best for you. David and I are not in a rush to return to Accra as I'm done with my appointments for the day.”
“Wonderful!” he replied. “Let's go outside and wait for Hisenburg to come, then we can walk around the camp.” Jeremiah was referring to Hisenberg Togba, founder of Movement for the Promotion of Gender Equality in Liberia (MOPGEL) and one of the camp's computer literacy coordinators. “I know Karl William would like to join us but he isn't available now – maybe we'll find him before you leave.”
Outside, Jeremiah introduced himself to David while I strolled around the block. A few buildings to the left, in a small courtyard, a group of children played a game reminiscent of marbles. At first I was hesitant to take their pictures, as I had been warned that the refugees were often not comfortable in front of the camera.
Liberian Kung Fu Masters
Soon, though, the kids made out my intentions, and immediately started to pose for pictures, striking the international pose of young boys everywhere — the kung fu pose. One of the boys started making karate-chop noises while repeating the word “Obruni! Obruni!” which means, to no surprise, “white man.” It seemed their little game was “let's attack the white boy,” but it was all in good fun, as I took pictures and called them Kung Fu Masters. Meanwhile, Hisenburg joined the group. He was wearing a beige gown reminiscent of the dishdashas I saw all over Oman, with a single pen in his left breast pocket.
The four of us began exploring the camp, Jeremiah taking the lead. I kept falling behind, eager to pause and snap pictures in every direction. There was so much activity: tight little alleyways leading past telephone centers, homes, snack shops, shoe stores. The wider avenues were busy with pedestrian traffic, as well as numerous bicycles and the occasional car.
When I caught up with the group, Jeremiah turned to me and said softly, “You probably know this, but some people are not comfortable having their picture taking. It makes them nervous.”
“Don't worry,” I said,” “I'll maintain my distance. And if I want to get a shot of a particular person, we'll ask them first. If they say no, then they say no.”
We reached another avenue and turned right, heading to another neighborhood. “So how many people live here?” I asked.
“More than 40,000,” Jeremiah explained. “It's about 42,000, to be precise…. The first group that came here was like 5,000 persons, and finally it just moved onto much bigger numbers. And it keeps growing.”
“And that was in 1990?” I asked,
“1990, yeah, the first batch, the first group,” he replied. “As the war continued in Liberia, more and more started coming to Ghana — and they are still coming.”
We reached a neighborhood that featured several churches. Each neighborhood, actually, seemed packed with churches, as well as shops and learning centers of various types. Before coming, I'd expected to see temporary shelters with corrugated roofs; instead, we found acre upon acre of cement and brick buildings, painted and well maintained.
“I'm really struck as we walk through here at how well established it is as a community, with the number of shops and businesses,” I remarked.
“The thing is that they have to make it on their own,” Jeremiah said. “All these things are done by themselves. The UNHCR could not help them — they had to take up their own thing, their own initiative. Many of these people rely on their own self-struggle. Some relatives in America and other parts of the world tend to chip in a bit, but that's not sufficient. So they rely on their initiative to really make it.”
We began talking about some of the education programs available in the camp. Some of the Liberians here are highly skilled workers, but are unable to get jobs in their fields outside of the camp as long as there are equally-skilled Ghanaians applying for the same job. Meanwhile, thousands of others in the camp have very limited skills, so they're often quite eager to enroll in courses ranging from basic literacy to computer training.
“What I'm saying is that we want literacy skills around to empower them, to do their own thing,” Jeremiah said. “Self businesses. Give them skills. And of course they can help themselves. Liberians are not really looking out for handouts. No – that's one thing I can tell everybody. They don't want handouts – they only want a push.”
“So they want to be self-sufficient,” I added.
“Self-sufficient,” Jeremiah repeated, gesturing to some of the buildings around us. “Extremely self-sufficient. And that's why you can see from these structures that these are people who are not just beggars. They're not just beggars. They want to do a lot of things. Everything you see – they did it on their own. Nobody helped them; they did it own their own.”
“And they're not prepared to beg,” Jeremiah reiterated, emotion building in his voice. “They're not prepared to beg, not at all…. Not prepared to beg….”
The four of us continued to stroll through the village, dodging children and puppies and chickens while the local adults went on with their daily business. I asked Jeremiah if he thought the situation was improving enough for people to consider going home.
“In Liberia it's still not ready for them to go home,” he explained. “I was in Liberia about a month ago, and there are still arms there. Why would these people go to Liberia when there are still arms there? Why would they go when they'd have nowhere to stay, no water for them? You can't let these guys go; they wouldn't go. And that's why the UNHCR voluntary repatriation process failed.”
“But I believe that only if we can empower them, they can do better when they go home,” he added. “All we need to do is empower them. They are absolutely not prepared to beg. They may be here in tattered clothes, but they are proud people, and they want to do it on their own. If only they can get a push, then they can perform wonders.”
We reached an open field in the middle of the camp that served as the main soccer field; to the right, one of the high schools was teaming with students.
“How many students go to school here in the camp?”
“More than 11,000,” Hisenburg said.
“11,000,” I repeated. “That's like some U.S. school districts.”
“Yes, there are many students here,” Hisenburg continued.
“And you're involved with computer training?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “What we are doing now – you see, computers in Liberia, about 95% of the country isn't literate in terms of the computer. So what we're doing is training a group of volunteers who will go back to Liberia, and train others how to use them.”
“So it sounds like you're focusing not only on training people here, but making sure that people back home will have these skills as well,” I replied.
“Yes, so they'll be able to get a job in the market,” he said. “Today, if you don't have computer skills, it's difficult for you to get a job. So that's why our focus is to train Liberian refugees before returning back.”
A student completes a Powerpoint Course at the refugee camp's computer center
A few minutes later we reached the home of the Liberia IT and Computer Skills Enhancement Campaign, home to Hisenburg's training program. Inside, we found an unlit room with two rows of computers. On the left side of the room, several young Liberians worked hard on completing a PowerPoint training course. On the right side, a row of computers sat idle.
“We started here, we had 16 computers, at our own initiative,” Hisenburg explained. “As you can see, these ones are down. We started with programs Monday through Thursday, then Friday and Saturday were for the disabled and children ages 10 through 17. But because of the number of computers we have now – we have just eight that work – so we had to reduce the Friday and Saturday for the disabled and children to only Saturday. We started with two hours, but now because of the number of computers, we only offer one hour in order to accommodate all of those wanting to take classes.”
“Are you currently searching for donations?”
“Yes, we are looking for donations, contacting people for donations, but we have yet to find any donations. We have a lot of refugees who want to do the computer training.”
Leaving the training facility, we were approached by a young man with a large 35mm camera slung around his neck. He was waving around a pair of photos blown up to around 6×8 inches. At first I was very confused by the photos; the first one appeared to show a large pile of animal intestines. For a moment my mind flashed to images of witch doctors auguring the future by examining entrails, but I couldn't imagine that practices like that took place here.
Then I saw the second photo and realized in absolute horror what I was looking at. The entrails were not from an animal; it was a man who had been completely disemboweled and mutilated, his face hacked with a machete. Before I could recoil in disgust, the photographer waived the photos in someone else's face.
He was speaking in English, but very quickly – so quickly that I had a hard time making out what he was saying. Jeremiah, Hisenburg and David huddled around him to discuss the situation as a small crowed gathered – young and old eager to peer at this two-dimensional horror show. The photographer gave the photos to Jeremiah in a large envelope.
“My God, what was that all about?” I asked. “Did that have to do with war crimes in Liberia?”
“No, that was here, this week,” Jeremiah sighed. “They found him like that and don't know who he is. They are trying to identify him and the photographer wants to sell the photos.”
“Why was he mutilated?” I asked, bracing for an answer for which I might not be prepared.
“Who knows these things,” Jeremiah continued, eager to think about something else.
We continued through the camp, but the images plagued me with each block, each turn. I have a high tolerance for Hollywood violence, as it were, but don't handle depictions of real violence quite well, particularly when exposure to it is unexpected.
Just the night before, because of an ongoing bout of jetlag, I found myself re-reading Ryszard Kapuscinski's brilliant war journal, The Soccer War, which documents his perilous war correspondent adventures covering two dozen conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. On the final pages I read last night, Kapuscinski presented a brief interlude in which he pondered the idea of writing “a dictionary of various phrases that take on different meanings according to the degree of geographical latitude.” He offered examples of several words that might be suitable for such a dictionary, one of which was the word Spirits.
[The] act of destroying the corpse results from the conviction that a human being consists of not only a body but also the spirits that fill it. Many white people believe in a body and a soul, but their faith in one soul is merely a primitive simplification of a complicated feature of human existence: in reality a person's body is filled by many spirits proper to the various parts of the human organism. It would be naïve to believe that this complicated world of spirits, alive in the recesses of the human body, can be liquidated by a single bullet. [Or machete, apparently.] The body is only one element of a person's death: full death occurs only after the spirits have been destroyed or expelled…. Hence the necessity of destroying the corpse, particularly if the corpse belonged to an enemy whose spirits can later avenge him. There is no cruelty in this — for someone who is forced to fight against the dangerous and omnipresent world of spirits, which may be invisible but are hot on the heels of the living, it is simple self-defense.
Upon reading that passage last night, I recalled that he was writing much of this 40 years ago, and thought it was obvious Kapuscinski was obsessing over his experiences in the Belgian Congo and elsewhere. Back then, of course. Not today. Not now.
Perhaps I was wrong.
I was rescued from my spiritual torpor by a beautiful little girl with braided hair.
We were walking through a residential neighborhood, with lots of children and adults milling about. Suddenly I looked ahead and saw this little girl, jumping up and down as if she were on a magical pogo stick, chanting an adorable mantra of “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Before I knew it, she jumped off the invisible pogo and darted towards me, locked my shins in an enormous bear hug, then scurried away. The tortured spirits of that corpse, plaguing me for Lord knows how long — time passes strangely when haunted by spirits — vanished without a trace.
Other children, none more than seven or eight years old, began to follow her lead. They approached me one at a time to shake my hand and say hello. I could barely keep up with them.
“Hello, how are you?” I asked them, adding, “I must be very popular!” I asked if I could take their pictures; before I could complete the question, eight or 10 of them jammed into a Napoleonic formation, row after row. They lacked true military discipline, though; rather than maintaining their lines, the children would dart ahead each other to appear at the front of the photograph, breaking all commonly accepted codes of conduct regarding picture-taking formations arranged according to height. Fortunately, they were in no rush for me to complete my assignment, so I let them weave among themselves while I snapped away, happy as can be.
My hosts, meanwhile, had wandered to the next neighborhood, so it was time for me to say goodbye. Many of the children followed me for an entire block, running and waving and shouting “bye bye!” to me. I was filled with warmth.
On the far side of the football pitch, we meandered down an uneven path, dammed with sandbags labeled UNHCR in black lettering. While chatting with Hisenburg, I was approached by a pretty teenage girl in a long white t-shirt and large hoop earrings.
“Hello, how are you?” she asked confidently.
“Fine, thank you,” I replied. “And how are you?”
“I am well, thank you. What are you doing here?”
“I'm visiting from the United States, and I was invited to come to the camp,” I said. “We've just been walking around for a while, meeting people, getting to know the camp a bit. How long have you lived in the camp?”
“Two weeks,” she replied, to my surprise.
“So you just came from Liberia, then?”
“Yeah, I am just visiting.”
“Do you have many family here?”
“Yeah, lots of people here.”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“Maybe two weeks. We'll see. Bye….”
“Bye,” I replied, the conversation ending as suddenly as it began.
I now realized we were far from the center of the camp, in a rural area with small farm plots. Further ahead there appeared to be another complex of buildings.
“We have actually left the camp boundaries,” Jeremiah explained. “But there are so many refugees they have to rent the surrounding land from Ghanaian families.”
A teacher leads a group of Liberian women in an adult literacy class
We reached the buildings, organized around a courtyard with several trees. A group of Liberian women were standing in the courtyard around a circle of desks, clapping slowly, while another woman stood in the center. Soon she started to speak in English, but I was too far away to make out what she was saying. Slowly, women got up from their desks, entered the circle, and began sketching patterns in the ground with a long stick.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“It's a women's literacy program,” Jeremiah said. “One of the first parts of learning to read and write is learning how to form basic letters. It is a motivational way to learn each stroke of each character, while getting support from the others.”
Before I knew it, Jeremiah was getting permission from the group for me to enter the circle and take pictures. The entire group chanted “Yes, please” in unison when asked. I climbed between the desks and did my best to be unobtrusive — or, at least as unobtrusive as realistically possible, being a white man standing in a circle of African women in a field.
On the perimeter of the courtyard, Jeremiah took us to a series of classrooms, each filled with more adult literacy students. We were invited into each room; the classes would stand up and clap rhythmically to greet us. One classroom was using a fascinating technique to teach reading and writing: students had drawn a map of the camp, identifying its major features. Then they were asked to identify problems in the camp: sanitation problems, inadequate lighting and the like. The students were then challenged to debate the problems, prioritize them, and work together to draft language explaining their concerns, in the hope of working with NGOs to improve local conditions. You could see the pride in the face of the instructor and his students, most of whom were in their forties and older. They knew they were bettering themselves, and were glad that I could witness it, even if just for a moment.
After walking around the camp's school for the deaf — I was amazed they were in a position to build one — we looped our way back to the center of the camp, by way of the high school and football pitch. It was almost 4pm – we had been here for two hours. I could hardly believe how fast time had passed here in Buduburam. Then again, I was just a visitor, not a resident. Fourteen years must feel like an eternity.
Before leaving, though, I had two final assignments. First, I presented a copy of a National Geographic atlas that Susanne and I wanted to donate to the camp; the oversized reference book that nearly broke my back on the trip from America would be added to their community library. Then, we stopped for a few moments to say hello to Karl William, a charismatic young Ghanaian who worked in the camp. We'd hoped to connect earlier but he'd been busy.
We talked for a few minutes before getting ready to leave; he reached out to shake my hand, which I erroneously did in the usually white and western way – just an ordinary, firm handshake. I did try to slip him some skin, as they might have said in the 70s, by sliding out my fingers along his palm as I let go of his hand; I'd noticed several Ghanaians do this to me already this week.
“No, no, no, man, you've got it all wrong,” Karl said, laughing. He grabbed my hand and tried to show me the proper way to do it — first a normal handshake, then shifting your hands so your wrists pointed upwards, then your fingers curled like two interlocking C's. No problem – we used to do that one when I was a kid. Then came the hard part — releasing your fingers in such a way that both of you snapped your fingers upon exit. He snapped; I fumbled; the crowd laughed.
“This is humiliating,” I said. “I'm just a poor white boy from Boston. And each day people keep changing the secret handshake on me, like it's a conspiracy! You know there's no way I'll get this right.”
“You're staying until you practice,” he said. “One, two, three — snap. Again. One, two, three — snap. Now, that's better.”
No, it wasn't. I was pathetic. But I was happy to provide some comic relief. Meanwhile, two of the others demonstrated it for me, even having me shoot some video of it.
“Okay, did everyone get that?” I asked as they completed their shake.
With that, it was time to leave the refugee camp and return to Accra. David and I drove back to the city listening to the radio, the sun setting behind us. He quietly sang along to one of the songs on the radio. And I sat there marveling at how my life had changed in one short afternoon.