from the frontlines

Scars of War, Words of Hope

Day Two in Liberia.

In search of some early morning shots of Monrovia we found ourselves climbing a steep hill at one end of city’s commercial district toward the Ducor Palace, once the most luxurious hotel in Liberia. Overlooking the Atlantic, the Ducor at one time served as a popular destination for dignitaries and wealthy world travelers.

Today, the hotel stands in ruins – riddled with bullet holes and other physical scars of a war that crippled the country. Guarded to keep out squatters, the Ducor is surrounded by tin walls topped with barbed wire. Fortunately, a friendly chat with a guard and a few dollar bills bought us a ticket inside, and what felt like a trip back in time.

Under the threat of storm clouds we climbed six floors of what is now a concrete shell – hollowed out, dark and stripped by looters of anything but its bones and a few almost ghostly signs of its glory years: an empty table and set of chairs, a sweeping spiral staircase and a few blocks of marble floor. A the top, we took in our first view of Monrovia – from its long stretches of beach, to the teeming slum of West Point, all the way to Crown Hill and the bustling commercial area of Broad Street.

Once a luxurious hotel, the Ducor is in ruins – including the long-empty swimming pool

Many Liberians who lived through the violence in Monrovia in 2003 remember friends or family members who sought refuge within the hotel walls, which were later shelled and looted by rebel armies. Sadly, plans for a renovation of the hotel by a Libyan corporation has been put on hold because of the war there, leaving the Ducor – for now – to languish.

Our morning also included an interview with the country’s “Chief Pharmacist” Rev. Tijli Tyee.  A charismatic man charged with regulating the country’s drug supply chain, Tyee has a tough job – particularly when it comes to accessing and distributing badly needed psychotropic medication. Why can’t drug companies come into Liberia with a hearty supply of basic SSRI’s and antipsychotics? The reasons are many, not the least of which dates back to the war when rebels abused psychotropic drugs to recruit child soldiers. In addition, the Liberian drug market is rife with medication that’s been tampered with.

That said, Tyee is hopeful. He’s working to create a new regulatory body to test drug supply, and also working with mental health programs like the Carter Center’s mental health initiative to bring safe and effective drugs into the country.

Proud artist, with a bright new pencil

This afternoon we drove out to Grant Hospital, the ONLY inpatient psychiatric hospital in the entire country of more than 3 million – many of whom suffer from PTSD related to the long and violent war.

Located at the end of a dirt road and surrounded by tall, lush palms, Grant was not at all what I expected from a psych ward in an area suffering from poverty, limited resources and only a few hours of electricity each day.  It was bright – walls freshly painted and covered in motivational messages – well run and strangely peaceful. The patients, many wandering the open courtyard, seemed content and cared for.  The 80-bed facility is almost always about 40 percent full, and patients are offered support groups, medication and as part of their discharge process, vocational training.

Much of this can be credited to the work of its new director, Rodney Presley. Presley – an experienced mental health worker from California – was lured to Liberia by friends who said his skills would be useful in a country with so few mental health resources. One visit, Rodney said, and he was bitten. Bitten by the desire to help people who would otherwise be ostracized, left to suffer or dumped at one of the country’s main hospitals. Presley said that several patients arrive at the gates in the back of a car, bound at the hands and feet by family members who feel they can no longer care for them.

Why did he leave California to tackle such a daunting program? He says he’s remained at Grant for the satisfaction of creating a critical mental health program from the ground up. And even more, for the opportunity to see some of his patients – once unable to work, sustain relationships or enjoy their lives – become functioning members of society.

We capped off our day with dinner with the Carter Center team at Mamba Point Hotel, which has some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted. And have I mentioned the sushi bar? It rivals NY’s finest. This is Africa – a continent of so many contradictions, and as we’ve already learned, some surprisingly delightful jewels.