Dorcas Kunkel and her sisters spent their formative years in the African nation of Liberia with their Lutheran missionary parents. But after a 14-year civil war decimated the country, it was difficult for Kunkel, an assistant professor of nursing at Minot State University, to contact people she had known growing up in Liberia, much less to return to the places she had been familiar with as a young girl.
"My sisters and I have long wanted to return to Liberia together," said Kunkel, a nurse with a specialty certification in population-based care who is working toward a doctorate with a focus on population-based nursing. She has worked widely in the nursing field.
Earlier this spring she and her sisters got that chance when they formed their own capacity building team to help train teachers and medical personnel in Liberia so they can learn new skills and eventually train others in their country. Working with the Pennsylvania-based Upper Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Kunkel and her sisters Kathryn Kunkel, a teacher, and Lois Kunkel, a psychologist and Kunkel's 20-year-old son Benjamin Bjorgaard, spent a month in Zorzor, Liberia. During the trip they had a chance to reconnect with some old friends they thought were long dead because of the war.
Submitted Photo •
Dorcas Kunkel waits for water at the village pump while on a service trip in Liberia earlier this spring.
"It was wonderful," said Kunkel.
While in the country, Kunkel worked with Deddeh Beyan, directress of nursing at Curren Lutheran Hospital in Zorzor, to organize sessions for nursing staff at the hospital. Her sister Kathryn facilitated sessions with the Curren Lutheran school's four administrators, gave introductory computer lessons to two of the administrators and taught English grammar and composition to 12th-grade students. Her sister Lois facilitated a two-day workshop on basic counseling skills for the Lutheran Church in Liberia's national Trauma, Health and Reconciliation program. Kunkel also met with the Women in Peace Network in Zorzor. Kunkel's son assisted his mother and aunts, helped teach computer skills and was a gofer for them.
Living conditions in the country were badly impacted by the war and much of the population is impoverished. The country has an 85 percent unemployment rate and little to no infrastructure. When she lived there as a girl in the 1960s there was more infrastructure than there is now, said Kunkel. The one exception is that everyone has a cellular phone. Cell phones are far less expensive in Liberia than they are in the United States.
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The current life expectancy is about age 48. Electricity was on only part of the day, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and again from 6:30 to 11 p.m. There was only cold running water. Kunkel and her family members got water from a pump while they were staying in Zorzor.
"It's like being on a backwoods camping trip without any equipment," said Kunkel.
Kunkel spoke of the hospital's surgeon performing surgery in the dark because it was so hot under the lights without air conditioning. There is no blood bank, so if someone requires a transfusion, a relative with the same blood type must donate blood on the spot. If there are no willing donors nearby, the patient will go without.
The hospital has access to a lot of antibiotics but is short on painkillers. One of the things Kunkel worked with the staff on was developing a pain scale and helping nurses find ways to relieve patients' pain. There are things that can be done without a lot of pain medication, such as positioning the patient in different ways.
No one Kunkel met had not lost someone during the 14-year civil war. Orphaned teenagers, who mow lawns for a chance to attend high school, sometimes sat and talked about their dreams for the future and recounted harrowing experiences during the war. One boy recalled running behind his mother, who was carrying his baby sister on her back, and how the mother didn't stop running even when the baby urinated down her back. While Kunkel was working in Zorzor, a 13-year-old boy who was clearing a school site stumbled across a land mine left over from the war and lost most of his hand. Wreckage from the war is all over the countryside. Buildings in use still bear the scars of war, including a carpentry shop riddled with bullet holes.
Teachers don't get paid or get paid so little that they have to work at two schools to make ends meet, and there are some schools where there is no chalk for the chalkboard. Students memorize what the teacher says or copy handwritten notes pinned to the wall. Those are the kids lucky enough to be in school at all.
Malaria is also a big problem. Kunkel thinks the problem might be worsened because people spend so much time outside and are bitten by mosquitos. Some families are so poor they sell mosquito nets in the marketplace to earn money. Other problems include injuries from accidents and trauma, HIV/AIDS and upper-respiratory infections.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is common, particularly since so many people have experienced loss, but counseling isn't widely available.
Still, even with all its problems, the people are trying hard. Kunkel said people are more "relational" there than here and will take care of each other. Food is shared with friends and neighbors, and friends or relatives will watch over children who have lost their parents.
Kunkel will go back to teach a master's course to Liberian nurses in about a year. Her sisters also plan to return.
Kunkel said other people should volunteer in Liberia. The experience has shown her how brave people are and what can be done with very little.
"I would say that I would do this type of volunteer work again," she said. "It really does assist those in developing countries build the capacity of their education and health-care work force. It is also personally and professionally rewarding in that wonderful friendships and relationships are developed with others who practice in your field of interest in other countries, and also you have the opportunity to extend and develop professional knowledge and skill sets in global and international health that you may not do otherwise."