A group of social workers in Liberia are looking for foreign aid from the US to help develop their community programs in Monrovia. The group finds a radical Black Church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna from Detroit that coincidentally wants to establish a mission in Africa. This collaboration begins smoothly, but slowly the interests of each group begin to clash. In the background we see the realities of Liberia, a country ravaged by civil war, and Detroit, an impoverished American city.
The film is set against the interaction of two organizations that do social work (the Church and the Liberian community organizations) and their modes of creating social change with limited means. The lack of means is a constant theme in the film, as the plot develops through hopeful plans for the future and a series of disappointments.
The African-Americans from Detroit see their new mission in Liberia as an opportunity to reconcile their Black origins with the motherland Africa. In a sermon held at the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit, Cardinal Mbiyu speaks to his congregation about ‘helping our African brothers and sisters in need.’
When Cardinal Mbiyu lands in Monrovia with church members Sister Oyin and Kojo Darden, this ambition begins to turn into reality.
On the other hand, the Liberians see the African-Americans as potential partners to help them expand their social work. As a former US colony, having Americans as partners is a way for the Liberians to gain status in the country. They hope for a way out of their situation, and their dream is the US. Joining this Black radical church and becoming their African lieutenants may well be a way for Preston Jackson, a young and ambitious social worker from Monrovia, to achieve this.
As Cardinal Mbiyu begins to develop the Church’s mission in the country, the Americans begin to understand that Africa and Liberia are much more complex than they could imagine at first. At the same time, the Liberians begin to realize that to be ‘blessed’ by the Americans is not a simple affair, and that their access to any assets from the US is disappointing at best.
PLOT TWIST 1
All goes well until the African-Americans tell the Liberians that their Church is not rich. When Kojo, a businessman and Church member shows the Liberians photographs of Detroit, we see their disappointment close up.
Until Kojo, the mission’s benefactor, says: “I have some money, I will help you.” Kojo declares that he and his wife want to invest some of their personal money in Liberia: his dream is to help Africa. As a former hustler from the streets of Birmingham, Alabama to joining the Church in Detroit where he found his path, Kojo sees himself indebted to doing ‘good.’ We travel with him back to Alabama and understand his personal trajectory from poverty to Detroit to Africa, going through his involvement with the Civil Rights movement.
Kojo’s way of helping is to ‘instruct’ the Liberians in doing business the American way. He begins to make business plans that Preston and his companions are supposed to carry forward. First, Kojo tries to export a few taxi cars for a new transportation business. Then, he creates a website to raise funds in the African-American community. Lastly, he believes that he can groom Preston into becoming a politician in Monrovia.
For different reasons, all of these ideas fail. The taxis never make it through customs, the website raises no money and Preston, despite Kojo’s vision, is not that interested in political office.
The Liberians are interested in getting support for community programs and feel like they are being roped in by Kojo’s one-sided visions. At first, they choose to trust Kojo in the hopes that he will keep his promises, but all along they feel like he doesn’t listen. Kojo stubbornly insists on his business visions. These visions are so different from the Church’s foundational beliefs, that the Liberians begin to question Kojo’s real motives.
When the tensions between them escalate, Kojo begins to criticize the Liberians for not knowing how to do things properly. This infuriates the Liberians during several meetings and starts to create a distance between them. Cardinal Mbiyu acts as a mediator in their conflicts to no avail. Kojo becomes a nuisance in Liberia.
PLOT TWIST 2
What is in one’s mind is not in another’s mind. How can Preston, the Liberians and Kojo parts resolve their differing views and settle into an agreement for a future working together? Kojo says, “How can you even think without money”? The Liberians say, “We never have money. Does that stop us from doing things? No.”
One year goes by until Kojo’s next visit to Monrovia. In a meeting about future plans, Kojo confesses that the FBI is after him and his wife. Their assets have been confiscated. With no money left, he can no longer help anybody, not even himself. He loses his function in the mission. The Liberians are very disappointed with Kojo. The hope for a bit of financial backup is just an empty promise. He faces his defeat. He can no longer help out independently.
AFTER THE PLOT TWISTS
Despite this, Kojo stubbornly does not want to leave the mission. The Liberians do not want Kojo to return. In the meantime, the work of the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Monrovia continues, thanks to the efforts of Preston and the Liberian congregation with the moral support from Cardinal Mbiyu in Detroit.
At the end we may wonder, do we have to have means in order to achieve a vision? Does hope always require money? The answer is: probably, but not at any price.
When the ebola crisis hits the country in early 2014, Preston and the Church he helped to build begin to play an even more important role in their community. The film crew chooses to leave a camera with Preston so that he can film the upcoming events in the community during the year. He begins to film himself as a kind of film diary, introduces members of his community, discusses the news headlines and daily life, with a strong focus on the ebola crisis.