A West Chester University student overcame tremendous tragedy as a child during Liberia’s civil war and has worked to educate her peers about her history and heritage while staying true to Liberian culture and morals and living in America. Gluadia Lampkins, a senior majoring in music education, came to the United States when she was 12. Her emigration was sparked by Liberia’s tumultuous civil war, which killed people she loved. Liberia is an African country deeply rooted in morals and traditions, large families and communities, but it is also a country that faced the destruction of a brutal civil war, a war which gave arms to young men and instilled fear in the population through violence and injustice. Political differences and conflicts between Liberian natives and freed slaves ignited Liberia’s civil war. Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society, which placed freed American slaves in Africa. In 1847, Liberia gained its independence from the American Colonization Society and established a government.
The freed slaves, known as Americo-Liberians, ruled political life for over 100 years. The Americo-Liberians mistreated the natives, and it led to a fierce civil war that erupted in 1980 and lasted for years. Lampkins’ own story of survival stems from Liberia’s civil war. “When the war started, we thought it would only be for a few days,” she said. Her mother and father moved the family to northern Liberia, hoping to avoid the conflict. The voyage that the family made to escape peril and danger turned out to be devastating and tragic. Her first major confrontation with rebels came at the age of 11. While Lampkins was travelling with her family, an eight-year old boy baring an AK- 47 stopped her.
Young militants would often stop people traveling through Liberian villages and territories, Lampkins recalled in an interview. As she was traveling with her family, Lampkins hid her uncle’s wedding ring in a pair of pants under her skirt so rebels would not steal it, since it was not uncommon for the rebels to steal jewels and valuables from citizens. Pointing his AK-47 at Lampkins, the boy demanded her to strip, so he could search her, which Lampkins said was not uncommon at the time that the civil war exploded in the country. Lampkins obeyed the militant, and he pressed her with questions, trying to see if she was lying. She denied baring anything valuable in the pockets of her pants. However, the boy did not believe her, and he pointed his weapon at her head. Fearing for her life, Lampkins, only a child, pleaded with the boy for her safety.
Luckily, an older rebel demanded that the boy release Lampkins and her family. She escaped, with her family by her side and the wedding ring in her pocket. During her next encounter with the rebels, Lampkins would not be so fortunate. When the family was released and moved on, Lampkins had to sleep at packed compounds with other refugees. Once she slept in a room with 500 people. “It was stifling in there,” she said. The doors and windows had to be closed. Lampkins said that rebels would often throw grenades through windows to slaughter refugees who could be hiding.
Eventually, the family reached another Liberian village, Vonyemah, as the country was ravaged by war. In Vonyemah, Lampkins had to hide with three of her female cousins in a shed to avoid the rebels. ” [The rebels] would sweep through like locusts, taking food and women,” Lampkins said. Though the refugees and women hid in sheds and houses, the rebels still occupied the village. The waiting grew agonizing for the refugees. “We got hungry, we got sick,” Lampkins said.
One of her cousins fell ill, so they had to sneak out of the shed. However, the rebels caught them. In front of the village, the rebels humiliated and tortured Lampkins and her three cousins. “We are people, you are nobody,” the rebels said to Lampkins and her cousins. The young women were shoved to the ground, smacked with the ends of rifles, and sexually abused.
“I started screaming, ‘God you need to do something,'” Lampkins said. As she watched her cousins being attacked and raped, Lampkins resisted the rebels. “I just turned into a crazy woman. I just started kicking and screaming,” Lampkins said. However, her resistance wasn’t enough. The rebels forced the women to stand in a line. Then, the militants shot Lampkins’ three cousins.
After her cousins were butchered, Lampkins looked the rebel who pulled the trigger in his cold eyes. “Think of your family,” she told the militant. After that statement, Lampkins was whacked with the butt of the rebel’s gun. She passed out. “He may have assumed I was already dead,” Lampkins said. Unlike her cousins, she was spared.
Lampkins confessed in an interview that she does not remember the rest of the incident, only waking up, surrounded by her family, who wept tears of great grief, shock, and horror. After waking, Lampkins prayed to God to remove her from the threatening situation in which she was placed. Her prayers were answered when her father honked a car horn outside her house and demanded that her family enter the car. He took his family to Paynesville, the village where Lampkins was born.
A short time after, Lampkins moved to the United States with her parents and sister because the rebels began killing Christian preachers. Her father had worked as a non-denominational preacher in Liberia. In the United States, Lampkins is near completing her college education and her Liberian heritage has influenced her academic choices and career path. As a child, Lampkins was embraced by African songs, which contained history of her country and traditions. “At home, before we could even talk, we could sing,” she said.
When she graduates from West Chester University, Lampkins plans to return to Liberia and build a music school for orphans in Liberia. “I’m making a political statement by helping those kids who can’t do anything,” she said. Currently, Lampkins also has six brothers still living in Liberia, and she supports them economically by sending them food, clothes, and material goods.
Yet Lampkins has also acknowledged that Liberia’s civil war, which has calmed in more recent years, has changed her country and created economic depression. “Liberia has changed. It’s not the Liberia I remember,” she said.
She also noted in an interview the stark differences between American culture and the culture she was raised in while living in Liberia. She stated that community and family are important in Liberia, and families and communities are far larger than in the United States.
Entertainment and pop culture also differ greatly between Liberia and the United States. “When you walk in a room [in the United States], everyone has a cell phone,” she said. She went on to say that people in Liberia do not have all of the technology and entertainment outlets that Americans enjoy. “When it gets dark [in Liberia], you go to bed,” she said. However, Lampkins appreciates Liberia’s traditions and morals, and she values the culture.
She did mention, though, that Liberia’s cities do have typical clubs, and sports are growing in popularity. There are also gender differences between the cultures. “There’s a non-verbal rule (in Liberia), that women will raise the children, but men will provide for the family,” she said.
If a woman needs to work, then she will, but Lampkins said that Liberian communities view men who do not work as shameful. Lampkins also has some criticisms of the United States, especially concerning the educational systems. As a child living in Liberia, she learned about other cultures and countries. She believes U.S. history books do not focus on other countries and other histories and cultures.
For instance, she believes that Untied States schools do not address crises in other countries, and she used Africa as an example. “Instead of looking just at the past, they should look at Africa now,” she said. In recent year
s, Africa has faced massive problems because of AIDS and poverty.
Because she was faced with war’s brutality, Lampkins is also critical of current U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-led wars raging in the Middle East. “Even though you’re trying to create freedom, you put people in prison, in a prison of fear,” she said. Because of her experience in Liberia’s civil war, Lampkins believes that innocent people suffer the most in wars.
However, she did praise America for its opportunities. She said that there are more jobs and better chances for education in the United States than in other countries. She has also used her experience in the Liberian civil war to educate her American friends about the destruction war breeds, and she is proud of her heritage and dedicated to assisting those in need living in Liberia.