GBARNGA, Liberia — Children’s singing pierces the warm humid air at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, as it does every morning at Christ Children’s Home, an orphanage founded by former Rhode Islanders Fungbeh and Neyor Karmue.
The children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, sing the Christian hymns loudly into the early morning, sitting in the near- dark of a zinc-roofed building that serves as the orphanage’s Sunday school, worship service space and cafeteria.
Devotional hymns and prayer times are regular way points of everyday life at the orphanage, which houses 44 children.
“The best wake-up call,” says Neyor, who founded the home with her husband in 2009 after the family was forced to flee the country early in its nearly 15 years of civil war.
I spent Saturday evening and into Sunday afternoon with the Karmues after traveling the long, bumpy road from Monrovia, the country’s capital. Here are my photos from the stay.
Neyor Karmue says founding the home was important to her family after what they endured during the war years.
“If I had died during the war, I would have wanted someone to have taken care of my children, like we are doing for others now,” she says.
Warlord Charles Taylor amassed his rebel army very close to Gbarnga (pronounced BANGH-ah), the rural commercial center where the orphanage is nestled at the top of a hill.
The Karmues were forced to give up their home to rebel leaders, who used it as a wartime residence. When they returned after the fighting ended in 2003, the house was badly looted but largely intact.
During the trip, I also visited the former training ground of Taylor’s army, located farther down the main road in Gbratala (pronounced BART-allah) and also high up on a hill.
Later, when the Liberian, who had strong ties to New England, ascended to the presidency, it became a proving ground for the national army. Here are some photos.
Today, the wartime buildings are largely in ruins, though their camouflage colors are still painted on the concrete walls.
Gbarnga — and indeed Bong County — played a central role in the country’s conflict. Located at the cross roads of Liberia’s 15 counties, it was and remains the heartland of the West African nation.
Bong County is also among the key rural communities where foreign companies have invested in massive national resource development and extraction operations, sometimes to the chagrin of rural activists and residents.
I met a group of tribal leaders during my visit and heard some of their concerns. I’ll have more to write on that as I hope to venture into a mining encampment later in the week.
Here are some pictures in the meantime. I also interviewed a women’s association about the economics for growing what counts as a small business in Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world.
That’s a lot, I realize, so I’ll stop there. It was a long, enlightening trip this weekend into the country’s interior.