Phil’s Trip to Liberia

 

March 11 2004

    My name is Phil Eckart.  I live in the small town of Spencer, Indiana, located in the U.S.A.  I was born, raised and have resided in Indiana all of my life; with the exception of two years active military duty.  I am a retired auto worker and a small business owner.  My business is selling building materials, most of which is off grade or after market product.  My father was a minister and a school teacher while my mother was raising the family.  I am the oldest of four brothers.  I have been married 34 years to a lovely lady named Karen.  Karen recently purchased a flower shop where she has been employed for 17 years.  We have two children Heidi 31, and Aaron 29.  Heidi has one 6 year old son named Bobby.  I could write forever trying to explain how much he means to Karen and I.  We are very active in our local church which is continuously growing in members.  We own 16 acres in the beautiful southern countryside of our state.  We have lived on the property since 1975 and it has seen many changes as our family grew. 

    It was at an early age when my father began to influence me with knowledge of other lands and cultures.  My father, being a teacher of history, instilled in all of his children to appreciate how our past molded who we are.  I remember listening to guest missionaries and having a great interest as they would share the stories of their work.  I was thrilled to be stationed in Berlin, Germany while in the military.  I was a security guard on the Berlin wall and I knew I had become a part of history in the making.  In the last few years my desire has been to serve the Lord in some capacity overseas.  I had worked very hard to secure a pension at an early age to realize this dream. 

    I joined the Membership Committee at church.  We decided to hold a weekend outing at a local campground.  It was called Adventures In Missions and the purpose of it was to prepare people for short term mission trips.  It was managed by a man named Richard and his wife Carol.  Richard was retired from the Federal Government.  This weekend trip gave us the opportunity to share the details of our lives.  I mentioned that I worked hard to free myself from the factory work in order to do other things.  Richard spoke of traveling the world in his outreach work for A.I.M.  Then he told me of a trip he took in February, 2003 to Liberia.  “Isn’t there a war going on there?”, I asked.  Richard had flown into Liberia as the civil war raged.  He said he had gotten an e-mail from a pastor asking for help in a conference there.  Richard had never heard of this man before.  Then, like a bombshell, came the question.  Richard said, “I’m going back next February, do you want to go?”.  This question was asked to me in July and the war was in full swing.  I knew there would be making no excuses to a man of faith like Richard.  After several weeks of hesitation I agreed to go.
    Liberia has a most unusual history.  The nation, as we know it today, was mostly formed by freed slaves from the United States.  The majority of their governmental institutions were molded after that of the United States.  There has been contention between the indigenous people and those returning to their homeland from the beginning.  As time progressed these tensions eased as the line between who was natural born and who was not eroded.  Liberia was never colonized and became an independent state in 1847. 

    Things went on more or less normal (as the history of nations go) until 1989.  A conflict within the country that escalated into a civil war.  Soon the electric and water systems were shut down in Monrovia, the capital, and elsewhere.  This turned back time on a modern 20th century civilization, causing dramatic lifestyle changes.
This civil strife raged in various degrees for 14 years and to this day the countryside (or interior as the Liberians call it) is unsafe.  Fortunately, United Nations soldiers have occupied much of the country providing needed policing assistance.  There is much hope in the hearts of the people for the peaceful future of Liberia.
    The time for our departure was approaching and I watched the news reports with great interest.  Fighting around the capital had intensified by late summer.  Once the fighting was reaching Monrovia food was becoming very scarce and very expensive.  I remember watching hundreds of people running into the national stadium to escape certain death.  The news showed where fighting inside the city and on this one particular bridge was intense.  I kept hearing that people in Liberia were asking for U.S. troops to come.  At the time I hadn’t fully realized the close association between the two counties, both culturally and politically.  Finally President Bush sent warships off the Liberian coast and approximately 200 marines landed.  With one visit of the U.S. Marine Corps to the capital, the president of Liberia agreed to go into exile.  This affectively stopped the fighting in and around the capital.  My trip suddenly seemed less intense. 

    The conference we were to speak at was to last ten days.  The majority of that time was slotted for Monrovia, the capital and largest city.  The rest of the time was to be spent in Buchanan, the second largest city.  Unfortunately, we ran into problems from the start.  The tickets we had purchased to John F. Kennedy airport, in New York, from Indianapolis were canceled.  There was a delay in the flight to Ghana and Ghana airline provides the only direct flight into West Africa.  We finally reached New York after two more delays.  We then discovered that the Ghana flight was delayed again.  At the airport I met two young men that would accompany us to Africa and due to the delay we were put up in a hotel overnight.      Upon arriving at the airport terminal I noticed that Ghana Airlines had no ticket counter.  People were just lined up in this open space with their luggage.  We waited for a couple of hours there and were finally ushered aboard our airplane.  It was a DC-10 with five seats in the middle.  The flight was about eight or nine hours.  The air terminal in Ghana was small and very basic.  Soon we discovered that our flight to Monrovia was postponed.  Ghana Air put us up in another hotel.  There we met some Americans and had dinner with them at the hotel.  There was an Evangelist and his wife. He seemed to know everything about west Africa.  We met another young couple with Word Made Flesh on their way to Sierra Leone.  After dinner we went on a walk around town. I was struck with the contrast of the rich to the poor.  There seemed to be many luxury cars everywhere.  But there was also poverty all around.  As we moved into the center of  the city, street venders were everywhere.  We suddenly became very aware of our skin color.  These folks knew we had at least some money. I noticed that they would ask twice if we were interested in there wares and then politely dismiss themselves.  Much of what they had I found interesting, art and craft items, but I knew that I needed to hold on to  what money I had.  It was very busy and crowded, something I was to see a lot of.  Horns were blowing continually as people darted across the street.  A mother came up to us with her baby begging, I could not resist her and gave her a little money.

The next morning we climbed aboard that same uncomfortable, crowded bus and headed toward the airport.  Every time the bus would stop people would try to sell us something through the windows.  I noticed signs in English warning about the dangers of aids and announcing Valentines day. What a contrast I thought. Here and there we passed nice homes or hotels.  It seemed Ghana was not doing to badly.