Experiences from Liberia
Finding My Mission for Building Peace in Liberia
by Andy Ankrah, SGI-Liberia
I started chanting
Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo in Liberia on May 8, 1984. I am originally from Ghana
but became a Liberian citizen after living in that country for many years.
This experience is about how my Buddhist practice allowed me to survive
the civil war which took place in Liberia from 1989 to 2003. The war started
when Charles Taylor, a former government minister, launched an attack to
overthrow the government of Samuel Doe. In 1990, a regional peacekeeping
force from the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), known
as ECOMOG, came into the country to stop the advance of the rebels.
The news that a killing squad was combing towns and villages slaughtering Ghanaians and Nigerians reached the village where I lived. Francis, also a naturalized Liberian of Ghanaian origin, and I were the only “foreigners.” Other villagers tried to persuade us to flee to neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, but we would risk being killed on the road or in the forest as the whole area was overrun with NPFL fighter. We decided to stay in the village, preferring to die where people knew us, who could one day tell the story of what had happened to us.
One particular day, we heard that the killing squad was just 10 kilometers from where we were. Francis, Mary, and I pleaded with the villagers to help us find a hiding place in another village deep in the forest. Although these were people who we had lived and worked with for some time, we were surprised that no one came forward to help us because they were afraid of being branded collaborators and of being killed themselves. We became outcasts, goats bound for the slaughter.
Mary sobbed uncontrollably. She kept asking “Who will father my baby if you are killed?” My only words of consolation to her were “Don’t worry; everything will be OK.” I started chanting “fighting” daimoku, praying for the safety of all foreign nationals in the area. I prayed fervently for an abrupt end to these barbaric and inhumane acts against humanity. Francis, who I had introduced to Buddhism a year earlier, was reluctant to chant and instead sat thinking about his approaching death. I continued to chant as if it was my last and only resort.
There was a full moon that night which added serenity to the tense atmosphere. After chanting some more, I came out of my house looked up at the moon. The scene reminded me of Nichiren Daishonin’s attitude during the Tatsunokuchi Persecution. I calmly addressed the moon “you, the god of the moon and all other gods vowed to the Buddha to protect all votaries of the Lotus Sutra. I am no doubt one and you are all witnesses to what is about to happen to my friend and me. You would be breaking your vow if we are slaughtered tonight. You better rush to our aid now if you think this would be too hard on you. Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo, Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo.” Tears of joy flowed from my eyes as I knew at that moment that we had nothing to worry about.
“Andy,” Francis called out, “come let us drink some gin because we are about to die.” He suggested we drink to give us the courage to face our fate. Through it all, I continued to encourage him not to give up hope because we would survive this ordeal.
An hour later, we heard the war chant of the death squad. Time came to a standstill. Reaching the center of the village, the commander demanded loudly “Where are the Ghanaians who live here?” Francis started shaking and sobbing. A woman who we all regarded as our mother asked “What do you want to do with the Ghanaians?” The commander replied “We just want to see them.” Reluctantly, the woman presented Francis and myself to the commander. After looking over us carefully and asking for our names, he said to the woman “We have received instructions from our headquarters not to harm any more foreigners but to protect them.” He then instructed his troops to protect us and help us with all of our needs, especially food as we had been starving. He warned Francis and me not to move far from their sight. We were saved! Francis and I embraced each other, with tears of joy. I offered him some gin and rushed to my altar to offer prayers of appreciation.
From that time,
I became deeply convinced of the validity of the teachings of Nichiren
Daishonin. My survival reaffirmed my conviction that I have a mission to
carry out in this lifetime for humanity. I always pray to be able to follow
President Ikeda’s guidance to continue to struggle with other SGI Liberia
members to realize a world of peace, tranquility and prosperity in our
beautiful land of Liberia, starting from our individual lives. The following
quotation from the writings of Nichiren Daishonin spurs me on in this life’s
journey: “A sword is useless in the hands of a coward.”
The Key to a Peaceful Society Lies in Buddhism
by Morris Barry, SGI-Liberia
I was introduced to Nirchiren Buddhism by a friend nicknamed “Mr. Tyson.” As someone who doesn’t take anything for granted, I decided to find out why this fellow kept nagging me about chanting Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo. Mr. Tyson told my two brothers and myself about chanting, but being Moslems and fearing the wrath and rejection of our parents, my brothers decided not to take faith. For my part, having made up my mind to find out what Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo had to offer, I was determined to defy any one who tried to hinder my Buddhist practice. My father in particular challenged my faith on several occasions. Each time, I countered his arguments and seeing that I was resolved not to give up my practice, he left me alone. One of my most memorable experiences occurred during the civil war in August 1990 in my home village.
I had sought refuge in the village from the fighting taking place in the capital city, Monrovia. At that time I made a determination to practice strongly by doing morning and evening gongyo every day and chanting lots of daimoku. Looking back, I am convinced that my strong practice acted to protect the whole village of several hundred people. Whereas the rebels killed, raped, and stole from the inhabitants of neighboring villages, through present in my village, they desisted from such acts in my village. It was as though they became transformed, acting in a polite, friendly and respectful manner, traits they did not exhibit in other nearby villages.
One morning, while I was chanting, I heard the sound of mortar rockets. Apparently, the peacekeeping force was in the process of creating a buffer zone between their position and that of the rebel forces. As rockets rained down on my village, people ran helter-skelter to seek refuge in the nearby forest and swamps. Within minutes the entire village was deserted except for me. Tragically, rockets fell on some of the areas where people ran to seek refuge.
I decided to stay in the village, calmly chanting Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo. I even went into my mother’s kitchen and finding that she had abandoned her cooking, continued with the cooking. I felt that since the whole area was overrun with rebels, nowhere was safe. Safety could only be achieved by remaining calm and chanting. Chanting Nam-myo-ho-renge-kyo would transform anywhere into the Buddha’s land and protect me.
war, I was protected by my practice. I always had food and remained healthy
although hundreds of people died from lack of food or from drinking contaminated
water. Others were shot or died from illness. I was also one of the fortunate
few who had a job that paid me regularly. My experience has allowed me
to see and understand Nichiren Daishonin’s proclamation that “there are
not two lands, pure or impure in themselves. The difference lies solely
in the good or evil of our minds” ("On Attaining Buddhahood in this Lifetime,"
p. 3) Unfortunately, despite the untold suffering of the Liberian people,
many people have not yet come to see the need to change their behaviour
and take responsibility for the war. I am now convinced that Buddhism offers
the only solution to our problems and have decided to dedicate the rest
of my life to the propagation of Nichiren Buddhism in Liberia.
Journey to Ghana
by Sonii David, SGI-Ghana
Most of my life had been spent moving between Liberia, my home country, and numerous other countries due to my father’s job as a diplomat. By the early 1980s, however, I and most of my family were living in Liberia. In 1986, I decided to pursue a PhD in the United States. I came back to Liberia in 1989 to conduct field work for my degree which is how I found myself in the country when the civil war broke out in December of that year. Like many others, our family did not want to leave the country, thinking that the fighting would stop soon and things would go back to normal. As the rebels drew closer to Monrovia, the capital, and life became increasingly difficult with regular ethnic killings and closure of the main airport, we made the decision to leave. Every night, we went to bed not knowing if we would wake up to find ourselves in the middle of fighting. My elderly father, however refused to leave and we were forced to leave him behind. My mother, two sisters and their families boarded a plane for neighboring Cote d’Ivoire in mid July 1990, as the rebels closed in on the city. We were among the lucky ones who had U.S. dollars to pay for the ticket. A week or so after our departure, the forces of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, entered Monrovia. From Cote d’Ivoire, I returned to the United States to complete my degree. My sisters and mother went to different countries.
After leaving the country, my family and I continued to worry about the fate of my father who had stayed behind. We later found out that he suffered numerous incidents at the hands of fighters and eventually had to leave our house to go to another part of town where he lived with relatives. He suffered from illness, hunger, and the threat of being killed by fighters. At one point he weighed only 117 pounds, having been reduced to eating wild plants and insects. Eventually, with the help of the UN, we managed to move him to Guinea where he was reunited with my mother and sister.
After completing my degree in 1991, I had to search for a job as the war continued unabated in Liberia. I was fortunate to get a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship with an international research institution based in Nairobi, Kenya, and moved there at the end of 1991. One day, a few months after my arrival, I met Katherine, a fellow Liberian living in Kenya. Katherine told me she was a Buddhist. I found this surprising as the majority of Liberians are Christians or Muslims. At that time I had been searching for a religion as I never felt comfortable with many Christian tenants, despite being raised as a Methodist. Katherine took me to an SGI Kenya meeting and I immediately started practicing. Buddhism felt right for my life and I felt comfortable with its principles. I practiced strongly and joyfully with the SGI Kenya members and enjoyed many benefits. However, in 1993, as my fellowship drew to an end, the familiar anxiety of searching for somewhere to go came up again. Although I had a good job and an exciting lifestyle in Nairobi, living in exile, alone and far away from family and friends is extremely stressful. I chanted strongly to find another job. To my surprise, I was offered a position in neighboring Uganda, which was just emerging from many years of war. My first instinct was to turn it down due to the situation there but when I found no other alternative, I accepted the position. I moved to Uganda in November 1993. Although the war had ended in 1986, life in Kampala was difficult and guns were in abundance. One day in January 1994, as I drove on a road near my house, I was shot at by an unknown gunman. Four bullets from an AK 47 rained through my car, destroying the battery and clutch. I managed to get home, unhurt. I knew without a doubt that I had been protected by my Buddhist practice and felt a deep sense of gratitude to the universe. My positive reaction to this incident led a Ugandan friend to develop interest in Buddhism and within a short time a small group started to chant and study together, with me as group leader. I am happy to report that by the time I left Uganda 10 years later in 2003, this group had grown and a firm foundation for kosen-rufu now exists in Uganda. Again, although I had a good life and enjoyed many benefits in Uganda, I was often lonely and felt home sick for West Africa. I decided to chant to find a job in West Africa to be closer to home. I longed to support kosen-rufu in Liberia but no one knew the whereabouts of the Liberian members as the war raged on. Finally, in 2002, I managed to get in touch with Harry Cooper, the Liberian SGI leader. I chanted to find a place close to Liberia that I could move to and establish a base by buying a home. I finally settled on Ghana, a relatively peaceful country close to Liberia. But the only way I could move to Ghana was to find a job there. I made my first visit to Ghana in 1999 which confirmed my desire to move there. While in Accra, I visited the Buddhist center and started a relationship with the SGI Ghana General Director.
I chanted and chanted but found no job vacancies in Ghana. I did however apply to various jobs in other West African countries and went for interviews but did not get any job offers. In January 2000, I was called to attend a job interview in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. I boarded the flight in Nairobi, Kenya, happy but anxious about the interview. When we got close to Lagos, our first stop, the pilot announced that the flight could not land as visibility was poor. He said we would proceed to Abidjan. We landed in Abidjan and I left for the hotel. The next morning, just as I was about to do gongyo, I learned from the television that the flight I have been on had crashed on takeoff from Abidjan, just five hours after I had disembarked. One hundred and sixty nine people were killed! I was horrified at the loss of life and at the same time I so grateful to the Gohonzon for my protection.
The plane crash really shook me up but I continued chanting to find a job in Ghana or at least somewhere in West Africa. At times I was hopeful and confident that victory was right around the corner. But often I was filled with frustration and anger. Nothing seemed to change. As time went on, I gradually began to lose interest in my work. I didn’t want to resign from the job though, since I could not return to Liberia due to the ongoing civil war nor did I have residence status in any other country. Some people began to see my desire to move to West Africa as a joke and thought I was being too choosy about the type of job I wanted. Yet I knew that being victorious meant finding a job which I enjoyed in a place I liked. I went through periods where I wanted to give up but was greatly encouraged by reading Gosho passages and receiving guidance from senior members.
Then in July 2002, the unthinkable happened. My employers informed me that they would not be renewing my contract. No plausible reason was given, although the letter stated that this was not due to poor performance. While disappointed that this was happening to me even though I was chanting, I knew this was a turning point and received the news with a positive attitude. It was now do or die — I HAD to find a job. I chanted with renewed vigor. Although I applied for a few jobs, none of them were very appealing. I was now looking for something simply to survive but knew this would not be the victory I had fought so many years for. In November 2002, I applied for a position in Yaounde, Cameroon, which looked interesting but I wasn’t sure would be a good career move. At the beginning of 2003, I made a determination to be offered a job by the end of February. I still had no offers. In early February I was invited to interview for the position in Yaounde. I still wasn’t sure it was right for me but decided to make the trip with a positive attitude. Members from my Kampala group and friends and family from all around the world were praying for my success. From the start every thing seemed right. I returned to Uganda very positive about the whole experience whether or not I got the job. On Feb 21, I was offered the position.
I was elated and full of gratitude to the Gohonzon! My new job met most of the criteria I was chanting for and the position required regular travel to Ghana as well as other countries in West Africa. While in Cameroon, I continued to chant to move to Ghana. Again it seemed that nothing was happening. Then just out of the blue, one day my boss announced quite casually that our office would be moving from Cameroon to Ghana. So that is how my daughter and I arrived in Accra on December 13, 2005.
When I determined to move to Ghana, I also chanted to buy a house there. So in September 2006 I started to look for a house while chanting to make this dream a reality. Of course finding the right house was a great struggle. I saw many, many houses but did not like any of them. Finally, in February 2007, I found the perfect house. Of course, there were obstacles to buying this house: the price was too high, and the owner was rude and made unreasonable demands. After many struggles and delays I purchased the house and moved in on March 1, 2008. It is a beautiful house and it is just what I was looking for.
The main lesson I have learned from this experience is the importance of perseverance, to never give up on your dreams, no matter how long it take to achieve them. Over these many years, I was greatly encouraged by this Gosho passage:
Be diligent in developing your faith until the last moment of your life. Otherwise you will have regrets. For example, the journey from Kamakura to Kyoto takes twelve days. If you travel for eleven but stop with only one day remaining, how can you admire the moon over the capital? ("Letter to Niike," WND, p 1027)I would like to thank senior leaders of SGI Ghana for their encouragement and continued support.