In 2016, Phillip Martin returned to Liberia where he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1988 and 1989. He traveled for the U.S. Embassy to paint murals with Ebola survivors. And, he painted a mural in his hometown of Zwedru. This blog, and the ones coming after it record his preparations and experience when he went home after so many years.
1989 Like so many cultures around the world, the Krahn people in Liberia have special customs when their children approach adulthood. What happens at the “bush schools” is a secret that nobody ever shares with any foreigner. The young people go to a mysterious location in the bush and receive whatever training the elders believe is necessary for adulthood.
I didn’t see girls who finished Krahn bush school very often in my Peace Corps experience. In my two years in Zwedru, I think I saw this three times. So, when I was at the market place and saw this girl, I raced home to grab my camera. I didn’t care how much I had to beg, plead, grovel or pay. I was going to get some photos.
As it turned out, the girl was just as happy to get her photo taken as I was to take the picture. It was the people around us who insisted that I paid her. Well, I reached into my pocket and emptied all the money I had into her hand. It was only about 25 cents in change but she was delighted.
I was too.
2016 This drawing of the Krahn Bush School Girl is my favorite portrait in my African collection. Really, hands-down, there is no competition. And, just in case you are wondering, she had a white, chalky kind of paint smeared over her body that crackled as it dried. When people had this kind of paint on, they were considered invisible. I don’t understand how that worked. I clearly saw someone I wanted to photograph.
It really was a rare photo opportunity and my camera wasn’t so far away as to miss this “Kodak moment”. Now, if you are too young to know what a Kodak moment is, back in the pre-historic days before digital photography and endless selfies, you had to use real film to take photos. You carefully monitored how many photographs you took because the roll usually had 24 or 36 exposures in total. And, developing pictures was so expensive! I’m thrilled that I get to return to Liberia with a digital camera and unlimited photos!
On this particular day, at this particular moment, I didn’t care how many pictures I took!
Usually when I finish a portrait, I just stuff the drawing into a portfolio. I have collections from Morocco, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Nobody else has ever seen all of them. But, each one tells a story to me about my journeys around the world. On a few occasions, I’ve retraced my steps hoping to find the people I’ve drawn and given them a print. I’ve not had a lot of success at this, but I’m taking one of these to Africa.
I really don’t know what to expect when I return to Liberia. A civil war, that ripped the country apart for a decade, started two weeks after my Peace Corps service ended. Zwedru, the home of President Doe, was a target during the war. I know my best friend Daniel fled his home in the middle of the night with what he could grab at a moment’s notice. His possessions included my address, but I haven’t heard from him in years. I know he was a refugee in the Ivory Coast for years. I still can hardly believe that I have a friend who was a refugee. I don’t know if he ever made his way back to Liberia.
There are several people I hope to locate when I get back to Zwedru. Of course, Daniel is one of them. But, I’m also going to ask people around the town if they recognize this 15 year girl who is now most likely a 40 year old mother with a 15 year old daughter of her own. I don’t know if I’ll find anyone who I once knew, but I’ll be a man on a mission.
2019 As things turned out, one of the men who painted with me on my mural helped me locate both Daniel and the Krahn Girl. You’ll learn more about Daniel later. The Krahn Girl wasn’t found until after I left Liberia. There were a few villages outside of Zwedru where it was suspected she might live. Fortunately for me, there is another trip to Liberia with the U.S. Embassy in the works. More murals. And, I have a framed print of this portrait for a woman who lives somewhere outside of Zwedru. I really want to have a photograph of her holding her portrait.
If you want to read all of Phillip’s blogs posted on Safe to Learn, click this link for the directory.