Matthew Fred graduated from high school in 2003 and left his home in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, to live and work at a gold mine in Grand Gedeh County, 350 miles away. He planned to save money for college.
There was just one problem.
Fred comes from the Bassa tribe.
“I would meet a hundred people who were not just asking me for my name but, ‘What’s your tribe, what’s your tribe?'” he says. None of the seven men on his mining team was a fellow tribesman. No one at the camp would talk to him.
To make matters worse, after three months, the seven group members took all of their tools and moved on to dig elsewhere without him. Fred was left with a debt of 35,000 Liberian dollars for his share of the tools and food – equivalent to USD $378 and a large sum in the fourth poorest country in the world. A debt collector was threatening his life. To pay off the debt, he hunted monkeys in the jungle and walked 11 hours to a village to sell the meat.
Fred did go on to earn a diploma in computer science from Liberia’s Keytech Computer Institute. But his experiences as a miner and as a child during Liberia’s civil war led him away from computer science and into activism. In 2009 he founded Youth Against Tribalism in Africa (YATIA), a peace-building organization that strives to resolve tribal tensions.
Growing up during Liberia’s 1989-1996 civil war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives, Fred remembers walking past checkpoints stacked high with bodies. A Liberian who couldn’t speak the dialect of the checkpoint guard and didn’t share the same tribe would be killed and thrown onto the pile.
His own family was tortured by the army of Charles Taylor, a warlord whose subsequent presidential campaign succeeded on the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him anyway.”
Fred, who came to the United States for President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative program this summer, speaks passionately about his mission to unite Liberia’s four million citizens against tribalism. He tells of villages in Liberia that cannot be entered by certain tribes, of elders who discourage inter-tribal marriage, of political offices only given to people of certain tribes. He rarely laughs or cracks a smile. His mother always told him to be serious about his dreams.
His nonprofit, funded by membership dues, works in some 30 communities. Fred travels to villages to meet with specific tribes to raise awareness about discrimination resulting from tribalism, making sure there are volunteers who speak the tribal tongue. So far, YATIA has 500 volunteer members — mostly students and young adults — who come from all of Liberia’s 16 tribes.
YATIA is tackling a serious issue with an upbeat approach. When members visit a village, they host sporting events, traditional games, and plays in public squares. The activities bring the community together to hear the group’s message of national unity — that they are all Liberians, regardless of tribe. He and his colleagues host peace-building discussions and teach the villagers about human rights and Liberia’s constitution, which guarantees political, economic and social rights for all. Many people learn to be more accepting of others, Fred says, while others cling to old ways.
Fred aims to win over elders who hold influence in their villages, but his main focus is “the next generation.” Liberia’s burgeoning youth population comprises more than half of the country’s four million people. If he can discourage them from adopting the intolerance of their parents, he believes he can stop Liberia’s cycle of tribal discrimination.
This summer, on his first U.S. visit, Fred was surprised to see so many people living peacefully in one place. “Just walking on the sidewalk, I see whites, blacks and Asians, moving, laughing, smiling together,” he says. He’s taking that inspiration back to Liberia.
Sasha Ingber writes for the U.S. State Department