Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Place That Was Home

I was wrenched from my home at age 13.  Of course, I say that figuratively, as we were in the States on home assignment when the war started in Liberia.  However, many of my friends were literally wrenched away, on emergency evacuation planes.  

We kept hoping that the whole thing would blow over, but as the war progressed, our mission made the decision to relocate us to Ethiopia.  I cried that day like I never had before.  The plan had been for us to spend the next four years in Liberia--which would have been all of high school for me.  Instead, the course of my life changed dramatically.

I never had closure with Liberia.  My roots were pulled up without my permission, suddenly and unexpectedly, and in the course of just a couple of months, deposited in another country.  When you yank off a band-aid really quickly, it hurts pretty bad.  

"For many of us [TCK's], the only thing we feel we have left are our memories.  We cannot go back to the place that was home."  (Marilyn Gardner)

It was the days before digital photography, when photos were sparse and treasured.  And on top of that, we lost many of the photos we did have to the war.  So for a long time, most of what I knew of Liberia was left only to my memories.  

That is, until the recent years of social media.  Those of us who grew up in the idyllic paradise that was the ELWA compound started networking.  Maybe we only had a few photos each, but we started sharing them.  A few people went back to Liberia, and took new pictures.  And I saw before my eyes my childhood being recreated in pictures.  Places that had only existed in my memories began to reappear in actual images.  It's been incredibly meaningful.

So today, you get to see my childhood too.

I should note that I don't know who took many of these pictures, as they were shared on ELWA sites without names.  But I am exceedingly grateful to whoever did.

This was my home.  ELWA compound was established in the 50's mainly as a radio station but grew into a hospital and school as well.  The compound was a square mile in size and housed up to 70 missionary families at it's height, as well as many Liberian families.  For a few months during the war in 1990, it sheltered something like 30,000 people--until the bombs started falling there too.  

The above picture was taken from one of the radio station towers--which used to broadcast all over West Africa.

As kids, we had free reign of this compound.  We rode our bikes everywhere and our moms didn't worry. All the families had motorcycles, and my dad would often take me in the evenings to collect the mail, riding backwards and barefoot as the sun set over the ocean.  The center of the compound was still untamed jungle, and many a young boy (and sometimes the girls) would tromp through it on daring adventures.  

The beach was our backdrop on weekdays and our playground on Saturdays.  Many of the houses were built only fifty feet from the water.  In this first picture, the house in the distance was directly across the road from our house.  

The picture below was our house.  This is fairly recent picture, taken by a school friend who visited a couple of years ago.  The picture makes me sad, because the house looks so tired and worn out now, when it was such a place of joy for me.  It used to be surrounded by palm trees and all kinds of vegetation, all of which were cut down during the war.  When I was a child, the thick jungle in the back of our house was much wilder, bringing in the occasional green mamba.

photo credit:  Ghada Abouchacra Tajeddine

This is one of the few pictures I have of me in that house.  I've got my red-checked sewing bag next to me, which I made in second grade and used until seventh grade.  Lost in the war.

Did you see that big porch?  We had a hammock on that porch, and I would sit in it for hours.  

And this?  This was the view from that hammock on that porch.  Whoever took this picture must have been standing in our yard.  Sometimes, when it was raining, I would sit here and watch the lightning hit the water.  We regularly got 200 inches of rain every year.  

One time in that lagoon, millions of minuscule baby crabs hatched, covering every available surface.  

This swamp was directly next to our house and across from the lagoon.  Back when I lived there, it was covered with lily pads.  Sometimes we would take a canoe out onto this swamp and walk around on the mangroves.  

photo credit:  Robin Shea McGee

This was the road heading away from our house, towards dozens of other missionary houses and my school.  This is a recent picture, so the coconut trees are smaller than they were in my day.  They are the replacements from all those cut down during the war.

photo credit:  Robin Shea McGee

About twice every year during the rainy season, the lagoon would fill up so much that the sand barrier between it and the ocean would break open, creating a crazy crazy water slide which would only last for a day or so.  Everyone always greatly anticipated this event.  After just a few hours, it would slow down to the trickle you see in the picture below, but until then, we rode the rapids.

photo credit:  Bethany Fankhauser

My brother and I in front of the lagoon.  

A despised event was the time every year when all the Portuguese-men-of-war would wash up on the shore, thousands of them.  You couldn't swim that day; their stings were legendary.

Every morning, we walked along the beach road until we got to this path.  There was a shortcut through those trees which led to school.  

photo credit (and the next two):  Robin Shea McGee 

And this was that path.

This is a recent picture of the wall surrounding ELWA Academy, which was white when I was a kid.

To the right of this picture are school buildings, and on the left is the gym, which also functioned as our church and meeting hall.

Photo credit:  Robin Shea McGee

photo credit:  Matthew Molenhouse

There are still missionaries in Liberia, and the ELWA Hospital was the central point of the Ebola fight two years ago.  The radio station was rebuilt after it was leveled during the war.  However, most of the houses are now filled with Liberians, which is really how it should be.  Big compounds filled with missionaries was the old way of doing missions, and thankfully organizations have figured out that there's better ways to reach people than putting all the missionaries together.  But it sure was an extraordinary place to grow up.  And since I never did get to say good-bye, I'm so thankful for pictures that let me see it one last time.  

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