Never Give Up – Always Look for Peace
by Bram Posthumus
Melita Gardner has managed to retain her sense of courage and humour, despite losing almost everything else during the war in Liberia. A woman undaunted by difficulty, she strives for the reconstruction of her country as it walks a tough road towards freedom.
The year is 2003. I am walking the streets of the tiny, once-elegant but now completely ruined town of Harper, Maryland, Liberia. Passing one of the town’s many churches, I see an elderly lady sitting on the steps. From beneath heavy eyelids, her eyes sparkle and shine. Melita Gardner, pleased to meet you. Care to see the church?
Certainly. We walk in and she begins. ‘Welcome to Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church. This building was completed in 1859. Before the war, it was a fine place and we had a large number of activities. We had child care, school, a women’s association, assistance for street children, we helped people with housework and kids with homework. But all that is gone now and we have no means to restart our activities. As you can see, the building is in a terrible state. The roof is leaking, birds can fly in and out, the windows have been shot and there is dirt everywhere. They used the benches as toilets...’
“They” are the rebels who turned this elegant little town into the ruin it is today. Melita’s own house is no more. It got burned. ‘It was a fine house, everyone was always stopping by to admire it. But they threw petrol on it and lit matches and as the house was made out of wood...’ And so the house is gone. Luckily, the church has escaped that cruel fate but the state of the building is, as she puts it, ‘a worry to my soul.’ Shortly after, the sparkle returns to her eyes and she asks me if I would be so kind as to find her a nice rich Christian man in The Netherlands. ‘Then he can pay for the repairs...’
From her old house to Saint Mark’s is a short stately walk. She got married in that church; her husband was a judge. They had six children but then the first blow came. He passed away. ‘From that moment on, I became a father and a mother at the same time,’ she recalls. That same year, 1989, her country was engulfed in a wave of violence it had never seen before. ‘The war met me in the capital Monrovia, where I was visiting relatives. I had three of my children with me. The other three were staying with my sister. The war separated us but with God’s help we were later reunited.’
The reunion happened in Ivory Coast, where she had fled. She was working as a volunteer for the United Nations refugee organisation UNHCR and they found Melita’s other children and brought them back together. They lived in Tabou, very close to the border with their beloved Liberia. She made peace between the Liberian refugee women and their Ivorian sisters, who regarded their new neighbours with fear and distrust. When the first wave of war had faded, she returned to Harper – and found it destroyed.
Peace only lasted for a few short years and at the turn of the century, Harper filled up with yet another group of rebels. They did the same: steal and destroy and once again a weary population was left to pick up the pieces. Melita decided to help the new refugees. ‘I had organised a group called Women In Progress for Community Services and we became the implementing agent for the UNHCR in Maryland. So they would bring food, water, etcetera.’ The parcels were, of course, addressed to the refugees, not the scruffy schoolboys manning the numerous “check points” she had to pass. ‘I confronted them and told them that my God was stronger than theirs and then they let me through. I think they were taken aback: there’s this small woman and she’s talking to us like that...? But in the meantime I was trembling in my seat and praying to God for my safe arrival.’ She laughs heartily about it – in retrospect.
In 2003, the war finally ended and the foreign aid programmes came pouring in. Melita and her friends started a whole range of courses. Reading, writing, tailoring for young women. Some of them had been raped and had children. They needed skills to survive. She also organised courses for the ex-fighters. That did not go down very well: why are we rewarding them for what they have done to us? But her take is different. ‘We had two groups here. They were called “Rebel Child” and “Community Child”. And there was a lot of trouble between them. So we told them, look, you cannot blame one group for everything that happened in the war. It is difficult to forgive but it is also something we are supposed to be doing. Then, we saw that things were improving between them. We were working at maximum capacity, with sometime up to 250 kids in our care...’ Then, Liberia dropped from the global radar screens and the money dried up.
It’s April 2010 and I am back in Harper. This time, I need to go to City Hall to find Melita. She is the Development Officer for the municipal authorities and she has an office. But she and desks are not best friends. Out in the field and on the streets, that’s her element. Problem is: a walk through Harper’s small centre with Melita Gardner takes a very long time. ‘Yea hello dear. You alright?’ She knows everyone – everyone knows her. There’s Anna Harmon. She was a trader and during the war she sent for her goods by ship, from Ivory Coast. Now she runs a popular restaurant and rents out a couple of rooms. Around the corner, Grace Gibson runs her own restaurant. UN and aid organisations used to eat here but their numbers are dwindling and business is slow. Half a block away, Christiana Gardner is selling cassava, plantains and fish by the roadside. She is a widow; her husband was killed in the war. Her business brings in a little but not always enough to send her children and grandchildren to school. And sometimes, her niece Melita gives her some cash...
We turn another corner and there is the empty space where her house once stood. ‘You want a picture? How about...here?’ And she poses right next to an old fire hydrant that came from America. Yes, her humour is as remarkable as is her staying power. Where does it all come from? There is a simple answer to that question as I look across the street towards her church.
She became a father and a mother to her family – but it looks as if she has taken all of Harper under her wing. ‘Melita Gardner!’ cries an elderly gentleman when we mention her name in a conversation. ‘We should build a monument for her in this town...’ What would make her really happy is for someone to come up with a few hundred thousand dollars so that she can save her beloved church ‘...before God calls me.’ That is the very first time that I see tears in Melita Gardner's eyes.
Image: Martin Waalboer
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