It was a hot afternoon in Liberia when I first met him. A very dignified man was introduced to me at the Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia and he asked me if I wanted a tour of the small church next door that was the first location of the famous church. Given that this church is known as the cornerstone of the nation and is the place that the country was founded, I quickly said yes. As we entered the building it was easy to imagine what it might have been like in 1847 when the returning American slaves took this courageous and controversial step to form an independent nation. It was very interesting to learn of the pivotal role that the church played in the lives of these early settlers and not surprising that the first church was a Baptist Church and the second was Methodist Church.
As it turned out, our humble tour guide was a pretty important person named Emmanuel Bowier who had served as a Minister of Information in the Liberian Cabinet in the 1980s and is a widely respected historian. He seemed interested in showing us more important sites in the capital city and asked if we had time for a tour later in the week. Upon learning that one of these sites would be Providence Island itself, we quickly agreed and set a time to meet on Friday.
Providence Island should be the primary tourist site in the nation, but as Emmanuel told us, “people have to be able to eat before they can dance”. Consequently, we had some difficulty finding parking nearby and actually walked across the bridge to the entrance point onto the island. As we arrived at the gate, we noticed that it was locked and that a couple of young girls were keeping watch. They recognized Emmanuel and quickly went to find someone with a key. The young man that let us in was delighted to see Emmanuel as were the other caretakers on the island who knew him from his time as a government official that used to bring many foreign dignitaries to the island for tours.
As we soon learned, Providence Island is a part of a complicated story of the modern origin of the nation of Liberia. In 1822, eighty eight returning American slaves chose the island in part because it was uninhabited and was at the mouth of a river. They had tried to settle in Sierra Leone to the north, but were rejected because their ancestors had fought on the wrong side of the American war of Independence with the British and Sierra Leone was a “crown colony”. Upon arrival on the island they learned that it was uninhabited because it was a ceremonial place of religious importance to the indigenous tribes that lived on either side of the river. They initially bought supplies from these tribes, but after their well on the island ran dry they went to the mainland with an armed party and seized one of the watering holes for themselves. This began a period of armed conflict with the tribal people. By 1847, they had established a permanent settlement and declared themselves an independent nation. The nation was then ruled by descendants of these first settlers for the next 130 years. The conflict that first began in 1822 with the seizing of that watering hole never really went away and ended with a military coup and the overthrow of the elected government in 1980.
The island itself used to be a beautiful place where people would come on the weekends to dance and listen to musical performances in the bandstand. Today, all that remains are the “ruins of empire”. A half-finished monument dominates the lower half of the island and buildings that once sold handcrafted items and souvenirs are all boarded up. Remarkably the story of Liberia is on display in the interesting location of two trees on the island. One tree is all too reminiscent of the recent history of war and devastation. It is called the Peace Tree and made entirely of old guns, bullets and detritus left from a period that nearly destroyed the nation in the 1990s. It is a hopeful statement that the designers of the monument intend that all who see it would desire never to return to war again.
Just down the pathway from this monument is a far more interesting site where two cotton trees have merged into one. No one really knows how it happened, but two trees that were fighting for limited space on the island decided to flourish by becoming one tree. Emmanuel told us that this tree symbolizes what had been hoped for – that the arriving American slaves and the indigenous people would work together to form one prosperous nation. The long civil war seemed to be in stark contrast to this image before our eyes. Today, however, it is clear that the country is tired of war and yearning to be prosperous again. Maybe one day all Liberians will see this tree as symbolic of a true union of its peoples. I hope to be there when the people of Liberia can dance again and talk with pride of a restored nation that has fully recovered from its violent past.