from the frontlines

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.

from the frontlines

An enlargeable map of the Republic of Liberia
Image via Wikipedia

In less than 48 hours, I depart for Africa.

It’s the third time I’ve visited the continent, but it’s my first trip to the Africa I’ve always dreamed about: rugged, historically rich, post-conflict but recovering and largely untrodden by travelers or journalists.

My destination is Liberia: a Sub-Saharan West African country of just over 3 million, bordered by Sierra Leone to the east, Cote d’Ivoire to the west and Guinea to the north.

After a brutal 14 year civil war, Liberia is at peace. But as one of the poorest countries in the world, it’s far from prosperous – still crippled by disease, corruption, high unemployment and a fragile infrastructure.

There are also the scars – both physical and mental – of a long and bloody war. Studies have shown that among Liberian ex-combatants, 44 percent have symptoms of PTSD. And in a country of over 3 million, there is only ONE practicing psychiatrist! That’s what I call a psychological crisis, and the reason I am traveling to Liberia.

In sharing the details of this assignment with friends and family, I’ve met with overwhelming support, curiosity and genuine excitement. That said, I’ve also had more than a few respond with concern. Are you nervous? Is it safe there? Aren’t you going to miss your girls? Why Liberia? I’ve even had one or two people pull me over to note, in hushed tones, that I might want to reconsider my travel plans in light of the war raging there (for the record, that war is in Libya)

My answers? No, I am not nervous. Yes, it is safe – providing that one follows all the necessary precautions for traveling in a poor, post-war nation. And of course I’m going to miss my girls, and husband! But I’m gone for only just over a week, and am fortunate to have the support on the ground in NJ to allow me to take off on my first far-flung global reporting adventure. More importantly, I want to make my girls proud. I want them to grow up with the knowledge, and the confidence, that the world truly is their oyster. And no matter what path they choose – parenting, working, or (hopefully!) both – they will always have my support.

Finally – why Liberia? Because there’s an untold story there that I believe the world needs to hear. And it’s not just one of hardship, like so many out of Africa. It’s also one of tremendous hope. It’s the story of one of the first nationwide, Government supported mental health programs in post-conflict Africa. Created by the Atltanta-based Carter Center, this program has the potential not only to help bring a promising country back on its feet; but also to serve as a model for so many other countries crippled by the burden of psychological illness.

Fortunately, I’ve got some fantastic editors on board – so I’ll be reporting for The Atlantic magazine, a special global health issue of Scientific American, and contributing footage to my old stomping ground: The NewsHour. I’m also delighted to be traveling with my dear friend and talented co-worker Ben Niles, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. We’re hoping to get enough footage to piece together the beginnings of a documentary on this remarkable story, so please wish us luck!

To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. That’s why I became a journalist, and why I’ve sought out stories on topics like mental health. And now, mental health in Africa. I can’t wait to hit the ground running.

Next stop – Monrovia! Stay tuned…