Adventures in Africa
Posted on May 7, 2020
Visiting Liberia isn’t a top priority for many people, but it became very important to La Jollans Urs and Ursula Baumann after they heard the author of Witness speak at Warwick’s Books. The subtitle of Quanuquanei “Q” Karmue’s book is A Civil War through the Eyes of a Child. The Baumanns were impressed by Q’s sincerity. He was eight years old when the Liberian war, one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, upended life in his country. They were also intrigued by the description of the foundation he established to support orphans in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.
“The story went straight to our hearts,” Ursula says. “We were waiting for an opportunity to go back to an African country where we had visited decades ago as Swissair flight attendants. We love adventure, and we don’t do mainstream trips.”
The Special U.S.-Liberia Relationship
The diplomatic relationship between Liberia and the USA goes back more than 150 years. In the early 1800s, freed American slaves founded Liberia and named the capital city Monrovia after President James Monroe. Until its civil war, which started in 1989, Liberia was a stable democracy and had one of the most prosperous economies in Africa. However, during the almost decade-long war, thousands of Liberians fled to the U.S., including the Karmue family, who arrived in 1994. Q now lives in Sacramento.
Q’s foundation, Save More Kids, supports several initiatives, but it was the chance to volunteer in the orphanage that excited Urs and Ursula. Their plans to go in December were postponed until February, and then finally March. By then, not even the threat of COVID-19 could keep them from their mission. They flew to Brussels to meet up with the rest of their “Witness Experience” group, only to learn that the scheduled documentary film crew had bailed, and it was just them and an American college student boarding the plane to Monrovia.
Q met them at the airport. He travels to Liberia every two to three months and personally escorts every trip. “Witness is a YA [young adult] book,” Q explained, “and, for high school kids, I seek to use my story and the platform of the Witness Experience to mentor and guide them to finding and serving a purposeful life.”
“We arrived in Liberia,” Urs texted me. “Not a single case of corona here. Hand washing stations everywhere. They learned from the Ebola crisis.”
The Baumanns’ first two nights were at SMK’s guesthouse in Monrovia, and then they traveled three hours to the orphanage in Gbarnga.
Ursula is a talented artist, so I wasn’t surprised that she and Urs had volunteered to paint four classrooms in the school. “We made them cheerful with bright colors,” she said. “Twenty kids helped. It was great. We’re also learning to make soap with red palm oil and we repair furniture. Of course, Chef Urs is helping with the cooking. All’s well.”
And then, a week later, they texted again: “Liberia is locked down. All flights are cancelled and we’ll be here for maybe another month.”
“OMG,” I wailed. “How awful. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Urs replied. “We’re safe and sound, surrounded by beautiful and loving people. We have food, water, solar power, and 40 happy singing kids around us. We pump water from the well and boil it for our morning coffee.”
Ursula added, “Even taking showers with a big ladle is feeling normal now, and we get lots of green and root veggies and rice that is grown at the SMK farm. We also have pineapples and bananas and they bake spice bread. And the people make all the difference. Sending you happiness from this compound.”
Our friends also jumped at the chance to help the kids with their lessons.
“One time, we mentioned ice cream and saw a puzzled look on their faces and realized they’ve never tasted this first-world staple. They live without refrigeration and running water, and they cook on an open fire. The war destroyed Liberia’s infrastructure. Large corporations take out the natural resources, but don’t contribute to lifting up the country,” they texted.
Out of Africa
As I write this, the Baumanns have just arrived in Switzerland, having been picked up by an EU repatriation flight provided by the German government. They hope to return to La Jolla soon. Since they left Liberia, the government has confirmed at least 48 cases of the coronavirus, including five deaths.
“Do you think you’ll ever go back to Liberia?” I asked. “Yes!” Ursula replied. “We promised the kids! And we’ll do it for sure. It was a wonderful experience.” savemorekids.org Elizabeth Hansen
Photography courtesy of Urs and Ursula Baumann & Q. Karmue