Deep in the Cut: Reflections from Rivercess County, Liberia

Deep in the heart of Rivercess County, the mud homes stand completely illuminated by the scorching sun. Their thatch roofs consistently prove match for the daily rains. Above, the blue sky plays backdrop for the treetops that surround each village. The forests and trees act as a frame, allowing another world to come into focus.

It is in this corner of Liberia where this journey begins. Baseline surveys, questions lost in translation, smiles at accents not completely understood. Under the unforgiving afternoon sun, it can be slow and tedious work. But there is something like strength in embracing the unfamiliar, trusting the process, and fighting to win.

The goal: organize local communities to receive formal ownership papers from the State for their customary lands. Land that has no title or deed, simply worked and lived upon for generations. As we seek to build the capacity of communities to manage their land and natural resources, establish community governance structures, and harmonize boundaries with neighboring clans, I realize we are talking about something revolutionary.

The importance of protecting rural land ownership rights rests, in part, on peacebuilding. These efforts are equally tied to sustainable development, social justice, and food security. The larger context is a national and global land rush with community land being sold off to foreign investors, with claims that few benefits are being distributed locally. The added nuance is that communities rightfully want basic social services – roads, schools, clinics, latrines, and employment – and are at times quick to sign agreements with companies.

The importance of protecting rural land ownership rights rests, in part, on peacebuilding. These efforts are equally tied to sustainable development, social justice, and food security.

The journey to the bush is an adventure in itself. Leaving Monrovia behind, the asphalt quickly turns to mud as the countryside extends its open arms. Wrestling the road ensures a constant jostle – back and forth, up and down. Any moment could mean being stuck in six feet of mud for who knows how long. There are times when the bush swallows the dirt path we are passing along, leaving green simply everywhere. After six hours my lower back begins to howl, thankful for our arrival.

The simplicity of life is tough, captured through clichés of young children carrying water along blazing paths. Here your cell phone is of no use. Electricity and sanitation are virtually nonexistent. Such realities demand reflection on the inequalities that persist in our modern age, and the benefits of balanced living.

I can remember the first time entering remote villages in the Himalayas: the sweeping sense of estrangement I felt. This time village life doesn’t seem so stark or particularly romantic. This time it’s just life lived daily. Here there are village elders, town chiefs, and forefathers to consider. At times, the bushmeat can seem excessive, the war stories – jarring. But the constantly candid conversations, strong social commentary, and laughter, ensure that the learning is endless.

The setting sun signals people’s return from their farms. Hearty smiles and handshakes initiate our gathering as we once again re-engage communities on our joint land protection efforts. As our discussions go into the night, I tilt my head all the way back to be assaulted by an unending canopy of stars. Deep in the cut years are added to the spirit. Providing guidance from above, they remind me I am here in Liberia to learn certain life lessons. Lessons I do not understand right now, but will prove invaluable in years to come.

Under the night sky, my thoughts try to keep up with all that has happened in the past few days. The kindness shown from strangers, the impassioned pleas against promises not kept, and the changing face of rural existence. Exhausted, I am given a bed that will be my refuge for the next few hours. I take comfort in knowing there is value in all that has passed, and everything yet to come.


Gaurav MadanGaurav Madan is Namati’s Community Land Protection Program Fellow-in-Residence in Liberia, where he is partnered with the Sustainable Development Institute to build the capacity of rural communities to protect, document, and govern their land and natural resources. Gaurav has organized alongside democratically-elected village councils on public health issues at the foothills of the Himalayas, mobilized students on human rights and economic justice in Washington DC, and advocated for youth Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in New Delhi. He is the author of Journeys in Service – a collection of stories highlighting the Indicorps Fellowship program’s unique approach to service and development.  He holds a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University – School of International and Public Affairs and a B.A. in Government & Politics from the University of Maryland – College Park.


April 22, 2013 | Namati Author