August 24, 2007
Ryan Bolton and Kevin Hill
BUDUBURAM, GHANA–A straight line of charcoal ash is poured onto a grass-less, sun-baked football field and the celebration begins. A rag-tag drum core bangs away as students of 30 of Buduburam's 50 schools await the signal to proceed. Some of the young women sport cheerleading garb displaying the national colours of red, white and blue. A group of young men march in sharp looking 'zoot suits', while another wears shabby, eclectic attire and walks with a drunken swagger. It's August 24th, and it's Liberia’s160th Flag Day. This one, however, is being held at the Buduburam refugee settlement, just outside of Accra, Ghana.
Hundreds of Liberians crowd around the field to watch and ‘judge’ the parade of participants executing the day's traditional ritual. The line of ash acts a marker. The small platoons of students march in group formation towards the ash. When the leader of the school group steps on the line with their right foot, the team turns to the settlement's officials and the national flag, and salutes. If executed perfectly, without missing a step and landing their right foot exactly on the line of ash, the crowd roars. If they miss the line or fumble the salute, the crowd roars, but in laughter. And they are tough judges; Simon Cowell tough.
The students have been preparing for this event for weeks. Some have even choreographed song-and-dance routines which are executed just before crossing the line. Following the initial march in the field, the schools continue to parade throughout the settlement of 35,000. Once they arrive at the large field at the entrance of the settlement, they duplicate the ceremony and are 'judged' once again by their fellow Liberians.
But celebration is not the sole purpose of the day. "Education is what Flag Day is about. The day is to educate the student's on the importance of Liberia's flag," John S. Connell Sr., former Chairman of the Liberian Refugee Welfare Council and inhabitant of Buduburam since its inception 17 years ago, explains.
Liberia's national flag, the 'Lone Star', resembles America's 'Old Glory' with the recognizable red and white strips and blue canton in the upper right-hand corner. Although, the details differ. The eleven stripes represent the eleven signers of the declaration of independence and the constitution of the Republic of Liberia in 1847; the blue field symbolizes the continent of Africa; and the white star represents Liberia as the first independent republic on the continent.
Following the march, the students and community gather at a local church to listen to poetry, facts on the Liberian flag, an award ceremony and numerous speeches to bring a close to the day's festivities.
Current Chairman of the Liberian Refugee Welfare Council, Mr. Varney Sambola III, uses the occasion to the rework the word ‘flag’ as an acronym describing expectations for Liberians living at Buduburam. 'F' is for fairness, 'L' stands for loyalty, 'A' is for accountability, and 'G' represents good governance. Ideals he asks the residents of the camp to live up to. Ideals which seem difficult for those at the UNHCR and the camp's administration to live up to themselves. With user fees for such essential services as drinking water, toilet facilities and medical care; Buduburam’s inhabitants struggle daily to meet their basic needs.
The UN’s voluntary repatriation program that has taken many of Buduburam's refugees back to Liberia has come to an end. Resettlement to countries in the West, which has taken place in the past, is the hope of many of the camp's current residents. Unfortunately, it seems to be a pipedream. Integration into Ghanaian society, the third option for the refugees, is difficult, as they currently have no official status in the country.
As a displaced micro-Liberia, Buduburam celebrates its 16th Flag Day since the settlement’s inception in 1990. A day many at the settlement hope they will be able to celebrate back in Liberia. On this day we are reminded that even though the UN flag still flies over the camp, many of those who live here are still suffering from the effects of a daily struggle to survive.