Friday GUEST BLOGGER -
**I have known C.T. since the 7th grade. We grew up in the same town, went to the same school. She and I shared many, many classes. It does not surprise me that she has grown into an AMAZING woman and is truly making a difference in the world. She is one of those rare jewels you happen upon once in a lifetime... welcome my good friend, Calandra!
I was so honored when Nicole asked that I submit a piece for her blog. Then I read her blog and thought to myself, “What have I done?” I’m not nearly as eloquent as Nicole and frankly don’t have that much to say. But instead of running and hiding, I decided, “What the hell…go for it.”; which ironically, seems to be my life’s motto. So, I think I will take you on the journey that has been my life and hope it encourages you to take a closer look at your own life and challenge you to take a few risks of your own.
In 2003, a car crash changed the direction of my life. I was leaving work early and, while waiting at a stop sign, witnessed a car travel across several lanes and slam into a tree right next to me. I was the only car on the road, and though I was afraid of what I might see, I felt compelled to assist. So, I called 911 and got out of my car to survey the damage. The only person in the vehicle was Jessy Togbadoya, an international student from Liberia who, I would later learn, was working on both a Master’s of Divinity and an MBA.
During this time, the war in Liberia was at its zenith and was a major topic in the nightly news. Through the accident, Jessy and I developed a friendship. He shared with me the desire that he had to return to his country and be a force for positive change. I was drawn to this young man that was committed to the growth and development of his country. Getting to know Jessy – the product of one father, nine mothers and twenty-six children from Balama, Bong County, Liberia – and learning the history of Liberia transformed Liberia from some far off place in the “Dark Continent” of Africa, to a real country with desperate needs. How often do we see news reports of world tragedies and think to ourselves, “Oh, what a shame” or “Someone should really do something about that.” We never think that maybe “we” are that somebody. We don’t really believe that we can spark a change or make an impact.
Anyway, as the weeks turned into months, Jessy became more than a friend to me but I hesitated to take our relationship further because I knew loving him meant traveling to a war torn, third world country. I’m a prissy southern girl from Macon, GA. We don’t leave our mamas beyond a car ride a few hours away. This trip would take more than 18 hours on a plane. But I couldn’t deny that destiny was calling and “what the hell...” was my answer. Jessy and I were married six months later, we packed everything we owned, and moved to Liberia in August of 2006. When I think back on my first impressions of Liberia I often say that I felt like I stepped out of a time machine rather off an airplane. I remember the Immigration check in looked like a child’s wooden lemonade stand. Palm trees swayed all around us and the “highway” (I use that term loosely) was riddled with the largest potholes I have seen in my life. There were termite mounds that looked like mud huts and NO LIGHTS. Now, I understand why the call Africa the “Dark Continent”, very little infrastructure to support a power grid. As I have often said to myself over the last few years, “what the hell have I gotten myself into”?
Originally, we moved to Liberia to assist in the building of a primary school that would serve the district where my husband was born. In Liberia, children in the outlying areas often have to travel more than hour on foot to attend the nearest school. Most families are so poor they can only pay to send one child, typically a male child, to school. In the desperate hope that at least one person in the family would be educated, and therefore break the cycle of poverty, families send their children to live with upper class families in the city. These children often fall into unsavory conditions and are subjected to ill treatment.
The following story of one such child comes to mind: Angel was sent to the capital of Monrovia to live with an uncle and go to school. The uncle enrolled Angel in school but used her for his sexual pleasure as repayment. One day, his girlfriend witnessed the abuse and instead of rescuing Angel from her abuser; she waited until the uncle left and hung her in a closet, attempting to cover her crime as a suicide. Angel’s family in the village did not find out about her death until months later, and the true story was not revealed until a year after she died. Angel’s story is just one of many sad tales that Liberian children can tell. This is exactly the kind of situation we have tried to curtail by giving the children of Balama the opportunity to be educated while remaining in their own community and with the families that love them.
The social problem of extreme poverty is not just a matter of lacking food or access to medical attention. In addition to these needs, it also creates an environment where children and women are vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. It is our belief that if families are empowered to provide for their own children, and communities are equipped to educate their members, we could drastically reduce violence and sexual assault. At the same time, individuals can be given the dignity that working brings, and communities can be governed by those most invested in their future.
In the fall of 2006, Balama Elementary School opened with 98 students. We serve Pre-K through the sixth grade, and the average age of our students is 12 years old. This past fall, we had an opening enrollment of over 700 students and 15 of our students are now attending Junior High in another community. Balama Elementary School was only the start of the work we would begin in Liberia. We realized that the issues of extreme poverty were multi-faceted, and we needed to identify and address all the issues to produce lasting change. In addition to the school, we operate a leadership mentoring program, community farm, micro-lending project serving over 140 families and an internal missions program growing four local churches. This has become a life-long call. Our goal is to eradicate extreme poverty in the villages we serve while creating a model of service that can be replicated in other communities in Liberia.
We are only two people in a sea of needs but slowly we have been able to make a difference. One choice, one risk can change the course of your life. Where is destiny calling you? Often the call isn’t a shout but a whisper or a tug at your heart. Change is as close as the decision to step out of your comfort zone to do something different. What the hell? You only live once. I couldn’t have imagined the direction that my life has taken but I will never regret it. I would not want to live any other way.
Calandra J. Togbadoya
Wanderer on a Mission
Executive Director of Balama Development Alliance