Bahia Akerele’s life changed last January.
Her mother, Olubanke King-Akerele, became Liberia’s Minister of Commerce, and her godmother, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, became the country’s president.
Liberia was founded by freed black slaves, and in 1989 entered one of the most brutal civil war periods in history. When Akerele’godmother and mother took power last year, Akerele found new hope.
“Liberia had a chance. A chance to come out of a twenty-year civil war, to come out of fifteen to twenty years of destruction to the landscape,” Akerele said. “It was a beacon for free people.”
Akerele was born in Boston thirty-three years ago to a Liberian mother and Nigerian father. She has lived all over the world—most recently in Washington, D.C., where she works as a consultant for The Annie E. Casey Foundation—yet has remained firmly rooted in Africa, where her family has long been involved in politics.
Akerele, who has made a career of helping create community support networks for children, decided to help with the “rebuilding of Liberia.” She is studying the Liberian diaspora for a book project on which she’s collaborating, and in the process, learning about her roots and the strong ties Liberian refugees still maintain to their war-ravaged homeland.
She spent August, December and January in a Liberian resettlement village that was established in 1990 about forty-five minutes outside of Accra, the capital of Ghana. Armed with vitamins and candy from Sam’s Club, Akerele met with the Liberian Dance Troupe and the MaCole Academy, a school for young Liberian children. Akerele recalled her first visit to the school.
“I went through the narrow hole. I came upon this room, so dark, and it was a room full of beautiful babies in their uniforms, in their little desks,” she said. “The alphabet was on the wall. Not to the glossy standard of America, but it was there.”
The students at MaCole Academy wear green and gray uniforms—green for Liberia’s hope, and gray to represent what the country has gone through. The children in the dance troupe learn the Liberian national anthem and other national songs. For Akerele, the hope in the face of chaos is central to her work on the diaspora.
“The stuff that goes to the inner man,” said Akerele.”This is how evil war is. Two hundred thousand plus people have been displaced. A whole generation or two of people. They’re living in a foreign land temporarily. Their existence is temporary.”
Akerele started a program to feed the children once a week at the school. She also brought notebooks, school supplies, clothes, candy and money to both the school and the dance troupe.
But as the refugees begin to return to Liberia, they face their fears, Akerele said. They don’t know what they’ll find back home. They don’t know what it will look like, how their lives will be, how they’ll make a living.
“How do people go home?” Bahia asked. “Aside from the logistics, psychologically, you’re going back to a place you fled from. One of the stories that comes out of the camp (in Ghana) is how people can keep their culture alive in the most difficult of circumstances. This camp has something to teach people who have been displaced.”