Finding myself in a foreign country

Renelle Mensah, article author, headshotDESTINATION: Liberia, West Africa.

Travel distance: 7,690 miles.

Mission accomplished.

We arrived at Roberts International Airport around 11 p.m. After getting through customs, hailing a taxi and dealing with stolen luggage, we – including my mother, aunt, cousin and I – left the airport around midnight.

With that, my month-long stay in Liberia, the homeland of my entire family, began.

The next morning we set out to travel the cities and landmarks that my parents had grown up around. With our driver navigat­ing the potholes and ditches, my mother recounted the vast memories and stories attached to the various buildings and people we encountered.

She showed me the strict, Catholic school she attended, where the nuns hit your knuckles with a ruler if you were disrespectful. She took me to the Atlantic Ocean, where she constantly played on the beach for hours with friends. Most importantly, she took me to the house she grew up in, the house she truly calls home.

Renelle Mensah poses for a photo last June in Liberia.

Through reliving my mother’s childhood, I realized how her youth experience vastly differs from a majority of the children who are living in Liberia today. My mother grew up with movie theaters, shop­ping malls and private education. Today, many Liberian children have never seen a movie, wear their siblings’ old clothing and do not attend school. This is largely due to an intense civil war that forced the country to rebuild from scratch.

I also realized how my life vastly differs from many of the native teenagers.

As I slouched in the luxury truck with the air conditioning rolling across my face, I saw many sun-beaten children laboring for every cent they made. I saw teenagers – some younger than my tender age of 16 – bargaining and selling goods on the streets and in the markets to buy clothing or their next meal. They would shout, “$10, Ma! $5, Ma!”

They were eager to sell the shirts off their backs if that entailed an income. With my stylish Nikes and polished nails, I quickly realized that I was their equivalent of the “1 percent.”

As my trip progressed, I began to notice the severe wealth difference between the native population and myself, despite the fact that we were both Liberian. I slept in cushiony beds, while others lived in huts outside the gates of my residence. I wore brand name shoes, while others traveled barefoot. Some walked to their destination, while I traveled in a truck with a towing capacity of up to 10,500 pounds. I quickly developed a deep appre­ciation for my life that I had never known before.

I also discovered a sense of civic duty to improve the lives of the less fortunate in my own community. I actively strive to achieve this goal through social awareness, volunteer work and community service.

After high school, I plan to carry out my goal through a career that involves advocacy and humanitari­anism. Through these continuous and focused efforts, I will leave the world just a little better than how I found it.