Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Life Gives You Bullets What Do You Make?

I was just recently given a shell casing that was found in the home village of my Liberian friend Eric Wowoh.  Eric was kidnapped by soldiers near his village at age 12 while trying to return home with some fish he had gotten to feed his family.  I could go on about how he was tortured, escaped, managed refugee camp life, etc.  He has amazing stories to tell, as do many Liberians, but what I want to focus on here is that these Liberian stories all address the question, "What do you do when life gives you bullets?  When all you have ever known is war or running from war in refugee camps or occupation by UN troops?"  

bullet casing from the Liberian Civil War(s) - found by Sam Wrisley in 2012 in Lofa County near Eric Wowoh's home village

Liberians have answered this question in many different ways.  Some have resorted to crime, to prostitution, to ritualistic murder, to milking NGO's for financial gain, basically resorting to the same sort of survival techniques used by many during the war years.  In essence some have answered, "When life gives you bullets you hide, you survive, you put up with it, or you stock up and wait for your turn to fire back."  However, some have answered this question much differently.

Bullets Into Crosses

Liberian "Bullet Cross" inside of a "Mortar Shell Cross"
In the artistic and craft communities of Liberia the answer has been a powerful symbolism:  "Bullets Into Crosses".  The millions of shell casings that have littered the streets and jungles of Liberia have been collected by some and transformed into crosses.  The symbolism is obvious for the Republic of Liberia, which has a large percentage of Christians:  When life gives you bullets, you point to the cross.  A place where God Himself is said to have faced death and where death and destruction did not have the final say.  There is a hope expressed here for a transformed, new, resurrected Liberia and it is well captured by the Liberian artist.

Of course now it has become commercialized like all good ideas.  Liberian bullet jewelry, fair trade bullet crosses, "charlies" selling the transformed shell casing turned out by who knows who in who knows what sort of conditions.  But the symbolism is still powerful.

Rifles Into Lamps

Recently a group met with the Vice President of Liberia about the idea of starting a University in the Robertsport area.  In support of this initiative the VP gave the organization a lamp made out of AK-47's.  It is now a fitting symbol of their organization and although I couldn't find it yet online, I am told this lamp is central in the new University Seal.  From war to peace.  From darkness to light.  Another great picture of transformation.  However...

The Jaded Humanitarian

I'm not sure we Americans can learn from the Liberian here, partly because we think they are supposed to be learning from us and partly because the lesson we need to learn has to do with our own struggles with materialism.  For my part I would be hesitant to even buy one of these works for fear that some "boss" is forcing kids to hunt for shell casings in the jungle and making children work in some sort of sweat shop turning out crosses because the white man likes to buy them.  I don't like that all we tend to see is a pretty commodity with a good story to buy and sell.  I don't like that people will abuse people to make sure we consumers can get what we want.  All I desire we see is what the symbol represents:  taking something terrible and making something new and even better out of it.  Turning ugly into something of beauty.  I want to share with you what Liberians can teach us.

Bullets And Lemons

While we Americans deal with what to do when life gives us lemons, I strongly believe we can learn something from the African spirit that answers what to do when life gives you bullets.  Perhaps all we can see when we see these transformed bullets is a commodity; something to sell and trade and own and place on a shelf.  We would do well to see beyond the prospect of setting up a new fair trade craft web site for Liberian bullet crosses, and simply just learn from our Liberian brothers.  They are teaching us something here.  There is more to dealing with life's problems than just setting up a new lemonade stand (or NGO for that matter).

What I am learning from my Liberian brothers and sisters is that while this life takes us through the valley of the shadow of death there is beauty to be shared with each other.  Relationships matter!  Singing together.  Dancing together.  Sharing symbols.  Sharing food.  Sharing life.  Sharing ourselves in community.  For this guy coming from a culture consumed with stuff and getting stuff and valuing people based on how much stuff they have the clear teaching of the Rabbi rings true:  "Life does not consist of the abundance of one's possessions"  True riches are found in relationships: relationship to self, to others, to your Creator, to your world, even to the bullet.  

So when all the raging is over, the violence done, and the dust has settled in your life you will find that you can turn to your Liberian brother and learn from him.  He has something to teach you.  He has been down this road before.  Listen as he says, "On this road you will see the spent shell casings that took from you everything that you held dear and loved, and yet you will also see that in that bullet is the very material that makes a cross; and a path to new life."  


  1. He shoots, he scores! Great post brother.

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  3. I know in the past, the 'bullet cross makers' were getting their shells from UN gun ranges (Bomi Lake, perhaps?), as it was getting more and more difficult to actually find them in the bush. However, I've found a shell while gardening in my yard, so I'm sure that if you dig around enough, they can still be found. Seems like the gun range would be the obvious and most convenient way to get bulk shells. Not sure about the mortars. Also, I've really been enjoying your posts lately...LOVE your latest Liberian English one! {I'm going to see how many times I can say chaklah today!}

  4. Ashley --- UN gun range makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing that and for the kind words. I'm not sure what else to write, I feel like if I were to go on I would just chakla this whole reply :-) --- Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for your work in Liberia!