Posted by Sara Terry:
our introduction into the buduburam refugee camp has been through the liberian dance troupe — a remarkable group founded by two refugees, “jake” jacobs and emmanuel lavelah (who likes to be called by his last name). lavelah was our guide from day one — greeting us at the camp gates and showing us through the camps. we’ve gotten to know him a bit, and have been amazed by his committment to his community. lavelah was a dancer before the war, and started the troupe here in the camp as a way to help liberians remain connected to their culture. he teaches traditional liberian dances to anyone who wants to learn — from little children, to teenagers, to western aid workers living in the camp. with sponsorship from war child canada, the troupe also holds a series of workshops for children in the community — everything from computer classes to conflict resolution. lavelah believes that only by being rooted in traditional culture, and its values of reconciliation and forgiveness, will liberians be able to build a just and peaceful society. one of the things children learn at the cultural center he runs is the nation’s pledge of allegiance (similar to the u.s. pledge), and also the words to the rather lengthy national anthem (much longer than the star spangled banner!). we heard lavelah talking with the children one day before the dance class started, helping them to understand the meaning of the pledge. he told them that if liberians had really believed the pledge, and lived it, there would never have been a war. he’s learned forgiveness in his own life — his mother was killed in a mortar attack during the war. and when he was in ivory coast (as a refugee) he learned that the woman who had been in charge of mortar attacks during the war was staying in a nearby house. he told us he wanted to revenge, he wanted to hurt the woman for what she had done. but as he sat, just twenty or thirty feet away from the house where she was staying, he began to think about what revenge would accomplish — and he said he realized that if he killed this woman, someone who cared about her would come after him and kill him, and then someone who cared about him would go and kill the killers. . . and on and on. “that’s how generational conflict begins,” he said. and he chose to forgive the woman, chose to not what she had done govern his feelings and life. the result, he said, was feeling free, feeling free to live. . . lavelah is a man full of kindness, full of care. his dream is to return to liberia and to hold a series of reconciliation festivals around the country, using dance as a way of celebrating peace and relationships between people, while also using the festivals as a way to hold community workshops about reconciliation and conflict management. he’s a visionary, a big thinker, a man of great heart. we are fortunate that he has been our guide.