Reaching the Impossible in Liberia

Liberia is a country that has been through a lot. The destruction from 14 years of civil war is still apparent in the lack of infrastructure, and the storm clouds of the Ebola outbreak are just now receding, but it’s still fresh in everyone’s minds. Billboards tell you how to identify symptoms, or how to seek proper treatment, and ETUs (Ebola Treatment Units) can be seen throughout the country – constant reminders of the terrible virus that claimed more than 4,800 lives in Liberia alone. From the moment we stepped off the plane, we were instructed to wash our hands in chlorinated water and airport employees in latex gloves checked all travelers’ temperatures with infrared thermometer guns. These precautions are mandatory procedures to enter nearly every big establishment in Monrovia, and then as you drive through counties in rural Liberia, roadblocks are set up to go through the same motions.

The hardships are apparent on the surface, but we also saw a different side of Liberia, a hopeful side where villages and communities are being rescued from a different killer – water. While Ebola has generated a hysterical response, fueled by the media’s fear-induced reporting, 2,300 people die everyday from water borne illnesses (that’s more than 840,000 people each year!) because they lack access to clean water. That’s exactly what The Last Well is striving to end, and fast. The Last Well’s mission is to provide access to clean drinking water to every person in Liberia, border to border, by 2020. Not only that, but they are bringing the good news of the gospel to every village they serve. We had the amazing opportunity to witness this work on the ground, and to capture the story of The Last Well in the video below.

 

It’s hard for most of us to even comprehend what it would be like to not have access to clean water, but the reality is out of control. There are more than 750 MILLION people who lack access to clean water around the world. To Liberia’s population, water is the opposite of life: water is death. Below is a video we produced to show the reality of this problem in Liberia, and the transformation of lives and villages that take place when clean water is provided for them in a long-term sustainable way.

We saw this problem all over Liberia, even in the capital. After doing some general filming in Monrovia, we took a private, 8-person, single-engine Cesna operated by Samaritan’s Purse to Sass Town in Grand Kru County. When we went through the separate domestic airport in Monrovia to board the plane, we remarked on how it was the smallest airport we had ever gone through, but when we landed in Sass Town on a dirt runway with a single, small cinderblock building, we knew that THIS was the smallest “airport” we had ever been. And this is where the true adventure began.

There’s a saying in Liberia, “TIA: This Is Africa.” We came to understand that it basically means anything can happen at anytime, plans are made in 10 minutes and fall apart 10 minutes later, so you never really know what’s going to happen. One of our team members would say you just have to be “fluid” because even if you’re flexible you can still break. Another motto was “Don’t Be Surprised”, which was mostly used by Pastor James Vah, Director of Operations for The Last Well.  James is currently focusing on bringing clean water and the gospel to Grand Kru County, otherwise known as “the end of the world” to locals, and he was our project lead on this 5-day trip. James has a big heart, outgoing personality and a positive attitude. He is a key figure in The Last Well’s mission, and we produced the below video that really illustrates his heart for the nation of Liberia.

 
When we stepped off the small plane in Grand Kru County, we were immediately met with our first challenge – our ride was not there. Remembering all of the sayings we had learned helped us to take the situation lightly and to find comedy later when we felt at our wits’ end. Apparently, our drivers were stuck on the road (later we understood how), and we had to figure out something to do in the meantime. Thankfully, the entire town was waiting for us at the community center, where The Last Well staff put on a program about their efforts in Grand Kru County and all of Liberia. After the meeting, our ride was still nowhere in sight, so some community members asked if we wanted to walk to the beach. Yes, please! They said it was a 10-minute walk, so 40 minutes later we arrived at a beautiful, private beach surrounded by palm trees and massive rocks jutting out into the ocean. There was an island off the coast, almost within swimming distance, and fisherman in carved-out canoes trolled outside the breakers. We explored some and rested under the shade of the palm trees. Then, suddenly, two SUVs pulled up on the sand – our ride! We crammed into the two vehicles and headed for a town called Harper in Maryland County, which is the second to last town in South Liberia before crossing into Côte d’Ivoire. We arrived eight grueling hours later, feeling as if every bone in our bodies was jostled out of place from the terrible dirt roads.

The next morning, after finding a new car (because a previous driver had resigned) and a spare tire (because the other car got a flat), we headed for Barclayville where the president was expected to make an appearance and all the Independence Day festivities would be taking place. We could never have planned that we would end up at the presidential palace that night, to have dinner with the president (unfortunately, photography was not allowed). A lot more could be said about this 5-day trip, but we won’t bore you with the details of cold bucket showers and bug-infested foam mattresses that led us to sleeping in the car one night. We discovered so much beauty in these rural villages, one of our favorites being a serene beach town where you have to cross an inlet in a carved out canoe to get there. The bonds we developed with the team on this road trip will be strong connections for the rest of our lives.

Meet the Grand Kru team:

Chris: extreme mountain climber and long-time fundraising advocate of The Last Well. Chris is a realtor in Northern Virginia and we put together a fundraising video for RE/MAX Gateway’s “Climb for a Cause,” where Chris will lead a team up Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for The Last Well and Children’s Miracle Network. His goal is to raise $40,000. Watch the video and help him reach his goal by clicking here.

Scott: Vice President of Field Partnerships for The Last Well, who stepped up on our trip to Grand Kru since the founder and president of The Last Well got malaria and was unable to go with us. He even bought us crackers and OJ for dinner one night.

Randy: the newest addition to The Last Well, in charge of the evangelistic side of the organization. He also has his pilot’s license and took the controls from the copilot for about 30 minutes of our ride back to Monrovia from Grand Kru! Thank you for getting us back safely and also for your leftover stockpile of Clif Bars and trail mix!

What started out as a bumpy ride quite literally, turned out to be a successful trip, where we participated in two well dedications in villages and even attended a tiny, one-room church service. The pure vocal African harmonies sung at these occasions were so beautiful along with each and every man, woman and child we met.

Once we returned to Monrovia after our trip down south, we filmed The Last Well’s annual partner conference, where a room of 50+ professionals representing different clean water initiatives and/or gospel outreach ministries gathered to share ideas and to strengthen their level of interaction. A new partner for The Last Well is Sawyer water filters, represented at the conference by Darrel of Give Clean Water. You might not know the name, but check the brand of the bug spray or sunscreen options in REI next time you’re there and you’ll see Sawyer. Recently, the owner of Sawyer felt called by the Lord to donate his proven water filtration technologies, free of cost, to tackle the water crisis on a huge scale. God definitely ordained Sawyer filters to meet up with The Last Well, and now, The Last Well can reach “the last 15%” (or more) of the population where drilling a well is not a feasible option for reasons like houses are too spread apart where a village well would be more than a 15-minute walk for the households. These home water filters will be installed and come with a million gallon guarantee. We watched Darrel turn brown sludgy water into crystal clear water, and then, he drank it. Darrel is awesome like that — he also donated many Sawyer products, Clif Bars, Starbucks instant coffees, etc., to the “Jordan and Cassie missional year fund” as well as our very own compact Sawyer filter so we too can turn brown sludgy water into crystal clear harmless water that we can drink too! It’s partners like these that help make The Last Well’s mission to reach the entire nation not only a reality, but also a sustainable reality where they will see the fruit of their labors for generations to come.

The map below shows the different counties of Liberia along with the partners that work in those areas with The Last Well.

The Last Well's Partners

Similar to James Vah’s video profile about his work in Grand Kru through the partnership of his own organization The Last Work, another key figure at The Last Well is Pastor Peter Flomo, of Teamwork Africa. Peter has an amazing story of redemption. Growing up with an orphan father who was not accepted in their village, Peter now works in the county where he grew up to help the lost find Christ and to provide each village with clean water. Peter is the National Director of Operations at The Last Well, but also founded an orphanage, school and church in Monrovia. Watch the video below to hear his personal motivations for doing this work.

 

We went up to Bong County with Peter to film his story (above), a “day trip” that took four and a half hours one way, followed by another “day trip” the next day to Bomi County with CRCA (the partner that handles the gospel ministry aspect) and Water of Life (the partner that drills wells). That’s where we finally got to see wells being drilled by a crew of expert Liberian drillers with hardcore machinery to drill through the rock to get to the water table in this particular area of Liberia. When we arrived, the whole village was surrounding the workers in their yellow rubber suits. The villagers were watching in amazement — why would a stranger do this for us? They immediately thanked us for the well, assuming that the only white people at the scene were the ones who would do this for them, but we assured them we had nothing to do with it. This is God’s calling, God’s commandment, God’s doing. The Last Well and all its partners are just the hands and feet of this calling.

The ride back to Monrovia from Bomi County was long, but not too bumpy. We listened to the only CD in the car, a Rend Collective album, more than 20 times, but we returned to our editing retreat looking forward to completing all seven videos by the end of the week at our beachfront editing paradise. We stayed in what is called the ELWA Compound, site of the best hospital in Liberia run by Samaritan’s Purse and SIM. This is also the site of the first and largest Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) in Liberia for many months during the Ebola outbreak. When we arrived, the famous Nancy Writebol let us into the immaculate home, equipped with a full kitchen and other novelties with the exception of hot water for showers! Nancy is the second American who contracted Ebola in Liberia, as she stepped up to take on responsibilities during the Ebola crisis. What struck us as such a testimony is that Nancy contracted Ebola, and once she recovered, chose to come back to her home in Liberia to continue ministry work. Nancy was the sweetest soul, vibrant and upbeat. She laughed easily and eagerly welcomed us into our private home for the next week. Later, we met others with firsthand experience during the Ebola outbreak. Their stories were horrific, and so much more impactful than the details we were fed by the media. These incredible missionaries at the ELWA Compound stepped up in a time of great need regardless of their job title, even while Liberians were trying to force them out and burn down ETUs. Their stories were so remarkable, true heroes were in our midst. Each one testified how God was the only thing that got them through their circumstance. The images they described to us sounded like scenes from horror films, of bloody handprints covering hospital walls and decaying bodies that the normal hospital staff had ignored because they were afraid to dispose of them. Personnel Coordinators became janitors and undertakers. It was hard to imagine this serene environment exactly one year prior when the Ebola outbreak snowballed into a global crisis, but hearing these testimonies of unwavering faith showed us strength and hope in mere humans through God’s grace. God works in mysterious ways.

Even the circumstances of how we ended up in Liberia pointed to God’s work – how else other than through a divine appointment would we end up in Liberia all because of an orange velvet couch? This is when our Liberia project came full circle, when we invited Matt and Liz Porter over for dinner in our guesthouse on the beach. It was through this couple’s connection that we landed in Liberia in the first place. While we were living in Northern Virginia as newlyweds trying to fill a space together for the first time, we responded to a Craigslist ad for an orange couch. Cassie inherited two orange velvet swivel chairs from her grandma and this free couch listed on Craigslist matched perfectly. When we went to pick it up, we met the giver of the orange couch — Liz Porter. Liz told us that the orange velvet couch was originally her grandma’s, but that she and her husband felt called to become missionaries in Liberia and so they had to get rid of all their belongings to follow that calling. We shared our passion for mission work saying if they ever needed some help with photography or video production, that maybe we would meet again. And that’s exactly what happened. When we decided to take a leap of faith — quitting our paying jobs to offer our photo and video services for free to causes around the world — what we now call our missional year, we reached out to Liz and she put us in touch with The Last Well. That was one year ago, and the week we arrived in Liberia, so did Liz, Matt and their one-year old daughter Grace (the latter being the reason why they didn’t come sooner). So we finally met the whole Porter family, with another on the way coming late December. We enjoyed an oddly familiar evening hanging out with new friends that we know will be lifelong brothers and sisters. I’m sure our roots grew deep and fast due to our common love for Christ. We discovered an awesome ’70s French-Canadian game called Probe together, the cause of much laughter and something I’m sure we’ll talk about every time we hang out in the future. We were so blessed by their company and friendship — all because of an orange couch and an awesome God.

All in all, Liberia turned out to be an amazing experience. Regardless of whether it was a tough day or a fun day, nearly every day we shake our heads in disbelief and say, “We are living the dream.” It’s hard to believe that we’re already in mid-August, long past the halfway mark of our missional year with no idea what the future will hold for us after this adventure, but we trust that God will direct our path in the way in which we should go.

On a lighter note, The Last Well team begged us for a list of worst night experiences from around the world this year. So, as promised, here’s our TOP FIVE WORST NIGHTS from our travels thus far! 

  1. Sasstown, Liberia: coming in first as our WORST night so far, was the guesthouse in a town locals refer to as “the end of the world.” The massive speakers mounted atop trees should have been a sign that this was not going to be a quiet night, but nothing could have prepared us for the sound level of the music played at double speed until 2am. We might have even been able to block out some of the noise in Room #5 had there not been thousands of swarming bugs underneath the 2-inch foam “mattress” on a concrete block, leading us to sleep in a truck. Even the truck could have been a refuge for salvaging some sleep if the driver had not invited a friend to watch a movie with him in the front seat while we tried to sleep in the back. Easily number one.
  2. Rubaya, DRC: the story of this night has already become a family favorite, recalling the mystery animal that woke up Jordan by rustling through our food bag on the bedside table inside our plywood, windowless room. Being 4 hours deep in the rural parts of the DRC, blinded by absolute darkness, Jordan tried desperately to wake up Cassie before deciding that clapping to scare the animal would be the best solution. It worked, and the thud of the animal hitting the floor led us to believe it was the size of a large cat. This was no cat, and this night held the top spot on the list until our trip to Liberia.
  3. Kathmandu, Nepal: When we landed in Nepal at the Kathmandu airport, we had no idea that the three-day airport closure from the recent Turkish Airlines runway crash would have such a long-lasting impact. We should have realized when we landed at midnight and the airport was bursting at the seams, that they were not waiting for a flight, just their bags. We spent a sleepless 6 hours waiting for our bags to show up on the motionless conveyor belts. We finally made it to our hotel by 7am where we were then given a room to sleep in that appeared to be occupied from the turned down bed and possessions strewn about. This was our first of four rooms at this hotel.
  4. Bhaktapur, Nepal: Jordan arrived in Bhaktapur wearing a thick Nepalese blanket, lent to him by the person who owned the bed he collapsed into after not being able to make it through a church service due to stomach illness. Feverish, Jordan entered the hotel we were staying at for one night through the tiny knickknack shop on the first floor. Ducking to make it up the narrow staircase and then ducking again to make it into our miniature room seemingly built for a tiny Nepalese person in the 15th century, Jordan spent the entirety of this side trip sweating it out in the dark room, now underneath three thick Nepalese blankets.
  5. Nejapa, Nicaragua: After leaving Liberia, we arrived in Nicaragua and were greeted by government doctors who feared we were carrying Ebola. They immediately put us in a mandatory 30-day quarantine, and assigned a government doctor to check on us twice a day to monitor our temperatures. She never really told us what time she would come, and one night after waiting up for her, we went to sleep thinking she wasn’t going to come, especially after she rudely woke us up that morning. Instead, we were woken up a second time in the middle of the night by her banging on the door of our “casita.” Despite seeing red with anger, Jordan’s temperature read 95.8 and Cassie’s 96.3.

The Last Well is a Christian nonprofit organization with the mission to provide access to clean drinking water for the entire nation of Liberia, border-to-border, and offer the Gospel to every person we serve, by 2020. They are at their halfway mark to accomplishing this mission and they believe Liberia will be the first of many nations that will benefit from border-to-border clean water initiatives in the coming years. But they need YOUR help. Click here to see how you can get involved to accomplish this historic mission becoming an actor on the stage of history in eradicating the water crisis in the nation of Liberia.

2 thoughts on “Reaching the Impossible in Liberia

  1. Wow, what a great job on videos and pics. Memories came flooding back through your wonderful photography.

    And DOUBLE wow … i was just hoping Sasstown made your list, I never dreamed that it would be #1!!! God knew to give #5 to you guys as you handled it with grace and NO whining. If that had happened to Chris, Scott, or I … I would have woken everyone up and made sure everyone shared in my misery.

    I am praying for the rest of your year that you will continue to “be the river” and have that wonderful fluid approach that you both embody.

    Looking forward to your next post. Love you both!!

    Randy

  2. Laughing histerically at your top five night escapades, I am also praising God for His awesome care of both of you as you serve His calling in your lives.
    MOM

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