We held our first meeting with the Visions of Hope Community Arts Council composed of leaders in the Harper Community. The purpose: to gain the community’s support, and to ask them for direction on the general themes of the murals as well as their locations. Invitees included the City Mayor of Harper, the Superintendent of the County, and the County Education Officer. Invitees and/or their representatives who attended were briefed on the project, and Laurie and I expressed our hope that they would participate as a guiding council for the project.
The response was positive. Those present agreed to take on the responsibilities we proposed to them. We discussed the themes of the murals as well as their locations during this first meeting. Establishing the council has been an important step to gain community support and insight into the needs of the community. Based on their views of what Harper needs, the murals will be loosely based on 4 major themes:
Mural Theme 1 = Energy: the need for electricity, bringing light and running water would dramatically change Harper for the better. Light would cut down on crime and robbery, among the other ways that electricity can transform the entire living standards of a community.
Currently the sight in Harper at night is uncanny: the downtown district’s stately shells of large mansion buildings are dark and the activity has moved to the streets and sidewalks. Typically several sidewalk kitchens are set up with vendors roasting fish and plantains over small coal fires. People choose to sleep on the sidewalks, even in the busy part of town because of the heat, or because there is nowhere else for them to stay. The occasional lone light bulb or candle illuminates a business shop. In the quieter parts of town, once reserved for the elite of society, the darkness of the night hides the post war conditions. It’s more difficult to see the peeling paint, gaping windows without glass, and crumbling structures destroyed by burning and looting during the war, now overgrown with vines and moss. On dark nights, away from the street activities, one can see the outlines of the buildings and can imagine this town is some beautiful vacation destination, surrounded by beaches on either side, with the moon shinning over the water to the horizon.
The energy mural will also be bringing productivity to Harper, and energizing the community. The location: the Old Electric building, which couldn’t be more appropriate.
Mural Theme 2 = Culture: This mural will be about cultural practices the Harper community wants to encourage/invent, or preserve/revitalize. We also secured a very appropriate location for this one: the Cinema building in the center of town. The cinema building in its former glory was a bank on the first floor and the second and third floors were a night club and cinema respectively. Now occasionally the cinema shows soccer games and the first floor has been partitioned and made into a small shop.
Students will be posed the following questions: “Where are you coming from? Who are you? Where are you going?” To provoke and encourage identifying their culture, history and dreams. So much of the transfer of culture was lost in the war, as families were broken up by death, and immigration. Consequently stories and cultural practices weren’t passed down. Cultural heritage is a starting point for identity and for discovering your self worth. We hope that this will motivate the individual students to improve their lives and community. I am trying to dig into the past, finding links where I can to get some information on the cultural traditions of the Harper region.
Mural Theme 3 = Health: The goal of this mural is to envision a healthy community in Harper.
Every day someone is sick from Malaria, or something else that is unidentifiable and is being diagnosed as malaria. Typhoid is still a common illness here, as well as diarrhea. Both are caused by polluted water, and are life threatening to Liberians. There is a lack of latrines within the communities, and the beaches that border the town are used as a giant latrine. The other main illness is malnutrition. Most Liberians eat one meal a day. This one meal is a predominantly rice with a spicy sauce based in palm oil with meat or fish. The rice is white and very processed, and the palm oil is high in saturated fat. Vegitables are completely missing from the diet.
We will ask the students to identify what needs to change to overcome these life threatening illnesses. Some of the ideas for preventing the illnesses are: latrines, washing hands, creating protected wells that are fenced off to prevent pollution, draining flooded areas to stop mosquitoes from breeding, sleeping under treated mosquito nets, and growing vegetables and food in the region to support the population. Hospitals and clinics with trained personnel to operate them is also a priority. A good example: In the central part of the Liberia I drove by a giant new hospital probably three stories, and very imposing like a mirage in the midst of the rural landscape. I am told it is not only new but also is also fully equipped. Yet it is completely empty for lack of trained personal. The community surrounding this area lacks adequate healthcare and in the event of a medical emergency would not be treated.
Mural Theme 4 = Market Mural: Bringing Food to Harper
As much as Liberia is known for its rich natural resources and large land to people ratio with the capacity to grow many foods, agriculture is simply not being tapped as the necessary resource is truly is. The myth that food cannot grow in Maryland County where Harper resides has left much of the land unused. The markets rarely sell vegetables, or staples like beans, corn, bulgar wheat, onions, and potatoes. Even fruits that thrive in this region like papaya, banana, coconut and mango are usually not farmed, but just gathered by chance. Many foods are imported from the Ivory Coast that could easily grow in the region. The market good are sparse: eggs, fish, pepper, onions, rice, cassava, mayonaisse, peanuts and the occasional fruits.
Students will be asked to imagine what is needed to create a thriving market.
The location for this mural: the front of the main market in town.