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Relief agency helps city cope with sanitation problems

11/19/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This story is part of a weeklong Close Up series on how the United Methodist Church is helping Liberia recover from war. Photographs, video reports and other features are available.

By Joni Goheen*

MONROVIA, Liberia (UMNS) - Upon arriving at work, the first thing Kerry Sly noticed after stepping out of his Toyota pickup truck was the foul aroma of human waste, the kind of smell one experiences when passing an overflowing portable toilet that has fermented in the sun for days.

It wasn't a pleasant odor, and the task at hand was equally nasty. But thanks to Sly and his crew, by the end of the day, the public latrine serving hundreds in a neighborhood outside Liberia's capital was tolerable.

Personal hygiene and sanitation topics are delicate issues to tackle, made even more so in the undignified atmosphere of the aftermath of war. There is little privacy, and running water, electricity and sewage disposal are largely unavailable.

Sly is the outspoken and passionate head of mission work in Liberia for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Raised in rural South Dakota, Sly has been involved with African issues for years and has been working with the relief agency in Liberia for more than two years.

"When I came to Africa in 1985, I came straight out of South Dakota University looking for something to do that involved agriculture," he said. "I joined the United States Peace Corps and went to Burkina Faso to work as an agricultural manager, and the bug bit me. I saw there were great needs in Africa, and I knew my skills and abilities could be used somewhere besides in an office in downtown New York or Minneapolis."

Under Sly's direction, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is involved in agriculture, health, rehabilitation, small clinics and education. For the moment, it is assisting other agencies with sanitation issues.

"The whole infrastructure of Monrovia collapsed years ago, due to lack of maintenance, funding," Sly said. "With the lack of a functioning sewer system, this UMCOR truck is one of the most vital links you have to keeping the environment and communities healthy and safe.

"There were supposed to be four or five (trucks), but to date, UMCOR has the only functional liquid-waste-management truck. Others have been promised, but there have been many delays."

The cleanup crew has worked with the relief agency for three years and "is proud to help the communities in this way," Sly said. "The communities quite often don't understand the importance of hygiene and taking care of these toilets. These guys know very well. They have also educated their home communities about the need for safe and hygienic environment."

Teaching sanitary practices is effective in controlled situations such as displacement camps, but few facilities are available for people living on the streets. It is not uncommon to see men relieving themselves along the roadside. Behavior like this is a result of war and other circumstances, and Liberians say they are embarrassed by it.

"I think the people of Liberia are by nature good people," Sly said. "I've talked to older Europeans and Americans who have refused to leave Liberia. They said that if you could have seen the Liberia of the 1980s, you would be amazed and confused at how it could have degenerated into this situation."

With only one operating sanitation truck, the agency faces more needs than can possibly be addressed. Simply obtaining fuel can be a challenge. Is fuel available for purchase? Is there enough money to purchase more? A gallon of gas was selling for $3 recently, down considerably from $30 in August.

When Sly came to Liberia more than two years ago, the relief agency owned the truck he is using today, but it fell into disrepair. With no money to fix it, the truck was sold and is now leased back at the rate of $4,000 per month. A great deal more funding is required to keep things going.

However, Sly and his crew are making a difference in the quality of life, one neighborhood at a time.

Climbing back into his truck after one such stop, Sly commented on his mission. "After 18 years in Africa, I love Africa," he said. "… I want to be part of something good, and I want to help Africa at the same time."
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*Goheen is a freelance writer living in Morrison, Colo.

Tomorrow: The church begins rebuilding the educational system.

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