PHILADELPHIA (WOMENSENEWS)–When Jasoe Sharpe attended a girls’ Catholic school in Liberia’s capital city Monrovia during the 1980s, stray bullets and fighting would often shut down class.
She left the country in 1996 in what she calls the "heat of war," doubting she would ever have any reason to return.
Now the 34-year-old mother of two teaches first grade in Atlanta. Her life has moved on, but at the same time it seems to be circling back.
Because of the persistent problems facing Liberia–a country where maternal mortality has risen in recent years–many Liberian women in the United States are encouraging each other to take a trip back home and see their former homes firsthand, even when it means painfully reopening the past.
Sharpe decided to face her memories in 2008, when she spent a month there.
"I was scared the entire trip," she told Women’s eNews. "When the plane landed–oh my goodness! I went walking and I was in tears, remembering 12 years ago…that this used to be me. Kids are still selling food at the market and walking barefoot."
That same year, 17 of Sharpe’s classmates from Monrovia’s St. Theresa’s Convent tracked each other down through the Liberian embassy in the United States. That led to a reunion in August 2009 outside Washington, D.C., and another one last month, in what the group hopes will be an annual tradition.
Friskies Fest Hits Philadelphia
For the recent gathering they chose Philadelphia, home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the United States, and called the event the Friskies Fest. (Sharpe says frisky means "sassy, independent, intelligent" and that "we were always the highly intelligent girls.")
This time the gathering, held Aug. 6-8, went beyond catching up and reminiscing about old times.
Organizers shared the event with hundreds of Liberians, who came from a large cross-section of a national community that the Philadelphia-based Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas estimates at about 300,000.
The Friskies drew business owners, star athletes and local nonprofit organizations to a fundraiser for their old school, hoping to bring it up to the standards set by the West African Education Council, a Ghana-based testing authority recognized across former British colonies in West Africa.
The council’s science exam includes a practical test based on a student’s laboratory experience and cash-strapped St. Theresa’s has never been able to provide that kind of preparation.
The Friskies hope to raise $12,000 to build a laboratory for the school. They are also trying to gather donated equipment, textbooks and other science supplies.
"A lot of us in high school, we didn’t have the luxury of seeing science experiments come to life," said 28-year-old Friskies’ member Edwina Vinton, who has been in the United States for seven years. The students need "something as simple as litmus paper, so they can compete globally."
Sirleaf an ‘Inspiration’
Some of those attending the Friskies event said their homeland ties are bolstered by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s only female head of state.
"She’s an inspiration for Liberian and African women," said 43-year-old Gracie-Ann Dinkins, who represented Liberia in the 1996 Olympics and attended last month’s Friskies Fest fundraiser. "As a nation, we’ve made great strides in promoting women in our community. Women are the matrix of our society."
When Sirleaf ran for office in 2005, she said she would step down after her first term.
But frustrated with the pace of the country’s recovery from the civil war, she’s running for re-election in 2011, hoping a second term will give her more time to rebuild the country. "Just five years ago, this country was little more than a shell, devastated by war, an economy in ruins," she told Liberian legislators in Monrovia.
Liberians for Ellen, a diaspora group based in Drexel Hill, Penn., sends delegations back to Liberia to do what they can to support the president.
Although the International Monetary Fund reported that Liberia’s overall economic output grew 4.1 percent in 2009, almost 60 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The country’s hard times are told in terms of a maternal mortality statistic that has actually risen. The chance of a woman dying from childbirth-related complications rose to a level of 994 for every 100,000 births, up from 578 in 2000. This number climbed even higher in 2008, to 1,200 deaths, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s advocacy.
Emigres such as Sharpe, all too aware of the troubles in their homeland, say they will keep doing what they can to help the country recover from its long, destructive civil war.
"It will be a long process, but our community can speed it up," Sharpe said. "We love our country."
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Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist in New York. She runs a news site for Ugandan immigrants at www.ugandansabroad.org. She also works for the New York Post’s city desk. You can follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/rebeccaugust.
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