Touring through Camp Scheiffelin in the rural outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, just before Christmas, Assistant Yale College Dean William Whobrey thought about his 11-year-old son, Ian, waiting for him at home — a world away in New Haven.
On that picturesque 87-degree winter day in Liberia — which Whobrey left for Yale last week after a three-month United Nations peacekeeping mission — Whobrey said he got to know local children. But he said at the U.N.-sponsored Camp Scheiffelin that afternoon, young boys stood shrouded by the lush green foliage, holding guns.
“[These kids] try to establish this persona as an adult, as a soldier, as a military person, because in some cases they were involved in the fighting,” Whobrey said, describing the tension in the Monrovian periphery. “The satisfying part [for me] was trying to break that down, to see that they were little kids in there.”
Whobrey, a medieval German literature professor and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, served as a link between the peacekeeping force and humanitarian relief agencies in Liberia, where he addressed problems including food and water distribution and malaria.
“We would go to towns, meet with officials and find out what their most pressing humanitarian needs were,” Whobrey said. “Usually the answer was, ‘We need everything and plenty of it,’ because, of course, this was a country devastated by war.”
He said he helped Liberian townspeople plant crops and build schools, mostly as an “act of encouragement.”
“The motto for this kind of work is you have to teach people to fish and not fish for them,” Whobrey said. “The [United Nations] can’t go in and rebuild a country. The message was, ‘You can do something without somebody coming in and building it for you.’”
Yale diplomat-in-residence Charles Hill, a former U.S. State Department official, said Whobrey is the first Yale professor or administrator in recent memory to take a leave of absence to serve in a military campaign.
David Gershkoff ’06 said he admires professors like Whobrey and Hill because their professional experience reaches beyond the classroom.
“One of the coolest things about Yale is to have professors who have been there, who can [do more than] just talk academically about things, but with personal experiences,” Gershkoff said.
Whobrey, who said he carried a weapon every day in Liberia, said there were rebel factions maintaining checkpoints in many of the country’s rural areas. He said at one checkpoint he encountered 20 armed young men who smelled of marijuana.
Negotiating skills, Whobrey said, were essential.
“It certainly was dangerous with a lot of guys with guns who didn’t know how to use them,” Whobrey said.
But at other townships, the U.N. peacekeeping force was greeted with singing and dancing, Whobrey said.
“People were generally happy that peace had arrived, and we were accepted by the community,” Whobrey said. “We didn’t arrive with money in our pockets, but with a sense that help was on its way.”
Whobrey said he intends to continue his connection to Liberia by working to expand the National Museum of Liberia, which currently has a small collection.
After a few short days at Camp Scheiffelin, Whobrey said, the young boys who were once armed and hiding in the brush performed a rap concert for his convoy.
“You could really see that they could still have fun even though they had lived through horrible conditions,” he said.