The Other West Point

Near-full moon straight overhead shines through a thin mottle of clouds, along with a sky of stars turned sideways. The warm wet ocean breeze blows in from oout there, out across the wooden walkway, sand and waves that flash white lines across the shore in the moonlight. Even further beyond, towering cumulonimbus giants out at sea march north, rumbling with muted bursts of light as though trying to digest something uncooperative they’d swallowed.

Night on the Liberian coast, and what a day it’s been. A couple of hours ago, I was getting fish-drying tips from Elizabeth, a fishmonger on the spit of land at the mouth of the river that serves as Liberia’s largest slum. We’d come to visit the West Point Womens’ Association, which had self-organized to provide civil services to some of the 62,000 people that lived there. Maybe this is Dharavi, 15 years ago, but the task seems so insurmountable. The population is about 50% children, 35% women, and 15% men. Most of the women are single mothers, most of the population is illiterate, and clearly, very few of them have access to proper sanitation or health care of any kind.

The deck is stacked so far against the folks of West Point that it’s hard to believe anyone who sounds hopeful about the place. But they are hopeful, and it’s not the “We’ll pray to God that something will work out” hopeful. It’s “this is what we’re going to do about it” hopeful. These are strong women (and men!) both strong of will and of arm (Jane pointed out the thickly-muscled forearms of the women leading our visit – arm-wrestling, they’d probably snap my arm right off). There are so many questions, so many obstacles, and so many people still not served. Still, they’ve got a model that seems to work, and we couldn’t find any reason why others couldn’t duplicate it. It’ll be a long time before they’re as well-served as the residents of Dharavi though – Dharavi is surrounded by the prosperous and growing metropolis of Mumbai. West Point? Surrounding Monrovia is scarcely better off.

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