Willa Returns to LiberiaInterview reprint from AllAfrica.com
Willa Reaves fled Liberia as a child of eleven, with her family, after the coup of 1980 ushered in a worsening period of instability and conflict. Among the early groups to leave, her family was spared most of the brutality and war that lasted for two decades. But Monrovia was always "home," in her mind, and she has returned – with her own family, a husband and three boys, five, twelve and fifteen.
grew up in the city. This is home, yes. My parents saw the problems coming. My father had his own business, a construction and a plumbing business, and my mother was retired. She worked as a radiologist at JFK hospital; she headed the department. But when we left, she was retired, and she worked for my Dad. I was the only girl; I had five brothers.
I remember everything from my childhood. I went to school in Cameroon, because my aunt was married to a Cameroonian, so it was the quickest and easiest place we could evacuate to. It was a bit difficult, but we made it through. We went to the States after a year – Elizabeth, New Jersey. My parents came back after things had kind of settled, so I was in boarding school in Middleburg, Virginia and then Albany, New York.
I went to Pace University and did management, and a I worked for American Express for over twelve years in their corporate travel department in New Jersey. I got married and then I got transferred to Long Island.
My heart was always here, home, and giving my kids the opportunity to experience the upbringing that I had here in Liberia [was important to me.]. It's not the same that I had, but at least they can experience my upbringing – and that is basically the freedom of being outside and not having to be worried about being watched or snatched.
I started a school. My kids have changed schools three different times. I didn't think it was stable for them to keep moving around, interrupting their education trying to find the right place for them. A couple of friends who had also moved from the U.S. had the same views. So we got together and opened our own school. We hired teachers. We started off with the Liberian curriculum mixed with some of the curriculum in the U.S., but right now we are doing a Christian-based curriculum, very intense, incorporating Liberian history and civics along with it.
We started off with thirty students. We have grown a little more than that and some of the kids have gone on also. We have had about eleven teachers or so, and we are hands on. Parents come in, they help with snack, they help with lunch, they monitor the halls and make sure the teachers are giving their kids what we would like them to give – discipline as well. There is a tendency of the Liberians teachers to kind of give in to the kids, because they feel they are privileged kids and they don't need to be disciplined, and we don't want that.
My children are thrilled. They enjoy having the parents around. The five-year-old I took back [to the United States] in April and after a week he was ready to come back home. The middle one, he's an easy going kid, so it was pretty easy for him. The older one had more friends and you know, it was a little bit difficult for him, but I think he has overcome it.
They are fine. And they appreciate different things, for example, at Christmas time. The first Christmas here, instead of buying a lot of gifts under the tree, the family got together. We had a culture show, we had a choir here to sing, we had dancers instead of going shopping and having a lot of gifts. They had one gift under the tree. From then on, it has been a tradition in the family that instead of having gifts under the tree, that we do something for others – it/s not just what you receive; it is what you give out. They have gotten used to that.
I've been here for three years. I just said, things are stable, the UN is in, and I'm going to look. So I came May 2004 for two weeks. Before I left here I told my husband to put the house on the market. And by the time I got home, we had sold it, and by September we were here. It was a big risk, a lot of my friends thought we were crazy. You know – "wait and see". And I said, "What for?"
My parents and other relatives had a lot of property here and there wasn't anyone to manage them and revamp them and get them back up and running. I started doing that on a small scale, and then I had people call me from the States and say, "Can you look after mine?" and "Can you do this for me? Can you do that?" And the business has grown. My husband works for the International Bank of Liberia as the Chief Technology Officer.
I suggest to anybody coming back that they come and take a look. I came and took a look for two weeks and then decided how we were going to go. What worked for me might not work for them. It is a good thing to come and assess the situation.
Liberia's future - it's a long road ahead. I think it is coming around, but it is slow. We need more people putting in. We need direction, we need to help those who have been here through the war and educate them.
This is home. Talk to people who have been here for a year or two. There are a lot of hiccups you have to go through. It is difficult, but at the end of the day, I think it is rewarding. I think we will be fine.
Editor’s Note by Cat Wayland, IF mag:
What is lovely in midlife are things like holiday cards or finding childhood friends on Facebook. Willa found me on Facebook and we have started notes and catching up and I am even interested in taking my children to Africa now that there is a friend there to help navigate the foreign lands. Wonderful to find out how Willa’s middle years brought her back to raise her children in Liberia. It is a brave adventure that she is on, and a great example of life to read about for me.