The name, brings to mind the famous American military academy, but West Point is a strip of land just a bit longer than a kilometer and 400 meters wide, connected to the rest of the shoreline by the Zolu Duma bridge. It is the largest slum on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and home to more than 75,000 people.
Narrow and crowded streets, peddlers on every corner, kids chasing after each other, an indefinable smell that accompanies you everywhere, full volume music and the grinding noise of the motorcycles, taxis: this is West Point. We finally arrive at the house of the parish priest, Father Philip Wesseh. A young priest who is also professor of ethics at the Medical Sciences School ‘Stella Maris’ in Monrovia.
Father Philip welcomes us in his humble house with a big smile. “The challenges we face here – he says – are many. We’re leaving behind years of violence and anarchy”. Hot, humid and stuffy air obliges Father Philip to wipe away sweat over and over again.
“Crime is one of the most serious problems – the priest explains – and overpopulation, lack of access to clean water and sanitation are still serious challenges in this slum. Lack of hygiene often leads to a high rate of disease, while drugs and prostitution do not help the situation and make West Point a place where it is impossible to lead a decent life”.
Father Philip takes us round the place where people live in makeshift shacks attached one to another, built from cardboard and with corrugated metal sheet roofing. Many people greet Father Philip as he goes through the slum, and every time he stops and smiles at them. “Everybody knows me here, – he says – because I often visit families and the sick people. It does not matter whether they are Catholic or not. I try to give them advice and help with their problems”.
Father Philip’s constant presence is a sign of hope for the West Point people. Watching this young priest, and his relationship with the slum’s inhabitants, one wonders, how he feels about being there. “Before arriving at West Point, – Father Philip says – I had already worked in three other parishes. I think the situation here is more difficult. However I feel serene and keep on working with enthusiasm, being aware, at the same time, that it is a hard task and that not many people would accept such a challenge”.
The parish of West Point was founded in the early 70’s of last century by the Society of African Missions’ (SMA) religious. Today the Catholics attending the parish are about a thousand, and are divided into small communities. On Sundays, Father Philip celebrates the Mass in the chapel of the district and then in the St. Clare church, beyond the river. Along the way we meet Mr. Tee, the parish’s catechist. He tells us that the adult catechumens currently preparing for baptism are 25. While kids are only a dozen. “Their number is small – explains Mr. Tee – because families do not send their children to catechism classes”. Father Philip said parish activities include, in addition to catechesis, preparation for the Sunday liturgy readings and the choir, organization of the devotional groups’ animation and management of associations of men, women and young people.
In the meantime we arrive in front of a small house called ‘Happy Home’. “During the civil war – says Father Philip – the place was used as an elderly care home. Now we use it as a courthouse, to give people a place where they can assert their rights. Happy Home is the result of collaboration between the Catholic Church and several civil society organizations”.
The priest devotes particular attention to young people. “Working with them is not easy – he says – however we manage to organize activities such as monthly retreats, special Masses, meetings, sporting events and parties. At the end of the year, the representatives of youth groups of each community attend a work camp. All these initiatives mark the beginning of a path towards long-term goals”.
On the way to the river we pass by the Catholic elementary school, which is attended by 300 pupils belonging to different Christian denominations and beliefs. The district, in fact, is a mixture of faiths. 80 % of the population professes to be Christian, while 14 % is Muslim. The different groups, generally, live in harmony and cooperate with one another. “So far – says Father Philip – we have not experienced attitudes of intransigence or religious intolerance. These people have to deal with other kinds of problems”.
There is very little room at West Point. Shacks are attached one to another. The streets are narrow. And, like in many African capitals’ suburbs, people have to struggle every day to survive. Few people only own the house they live in. West Point is, technically, an informal settlement. “Not even the parish lands are ours – Father Philip says – they are state-owned. They could move us out any moment”. Nevertheless life goes on at West Point, even though the world outside the slum does not seem to be interested in West Point people’s problems. “Our commitment – Father Philip tells us – is helping people facing difficulties and supporting their aspirations; at the same time, we must remind politicians of their duties in promoting the welfare of those living in this place”. Father Philip’s message is making people of the slum understand that God is close to them. This young priest shares their suffering and is willing to offer concrete signs of hope. Father Philip is trying hard to make the life of West Point inhabitants more dignified and humane.
R.Armada – L.E.Larra Lomas