Soldier of Good Fortune

Peter Gbelia grew up with two homelands. Today, he fights for one and saves lives in the other.

Life in Liberia for an 8-year-old was sometimes horrific. Sometimes terrific.

“This is where the president lives,” says U.S. Air Force Maj. Peter Gbelia, his laptop computer cursor darting through a massive photo file at his East Flamingo Road condo until it stops to linger on the snapshot of an opulent house in West Africa.

“I remember when I was a kid, they lined up 13 government ministers on the street outside the mansion, they hung them from electric poles and executed them.”

And yet …

“It was awesome growing up there, like Lord of the Flies without the violence. Kids playing soccer all day, going on treks in the jungle and the swamps, dressing in cultural costumes, these gorgeous tropical rainforests everywhere—not knowing the massive political thing growing between the haves and have-nots.”

Intriguing contrasts define this biracial, 41-year-old Air Force reservist deployed at Nellis Air Force Base. Raised in both the U.S and Liberia, he came of age playing games and witnessing death. Above the clouds, he’s carried bombs in high-tech jets to Iran, Afghanistan and Bosnia, but makes a living ferrying passengers to and from the chilly beauty of the frozen North as a pilot for Alaska Airlines.

Yet the mission that really fires Gbelia’s passion brought the Air Force Academy graduate back to terra firma and into Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. After earning a master’s degree, he turned his knowledge into a weapon for global health. Today he flies clean cookstoves to tribal women throughout sub-Saharan Africa, trying to extend lives often cut short by the dangers of cooking with solid fuels.

Understanding his quest requires knowing his journey, that of one man straddling two races, two cultures and two countries, with a military officer’s discipline and a humanitarian’s heart.

•••

Born in Spokane, Wash., he is the son of Sheila Gbelia, a white woman from Idaho, and Peter Gbelia Sr., a black man from the west coast of Africa who was studying law in the United States. Along with his older brother, Dwayne, Gbelia was raised in Pocatello, Idaho, where a biracial family didn’t go unnoticed.

“My mom is a tall, German-Norwegian Christian type, and my father was a short pygmy, African and dark—that didn’t go over so well in Idaho,” says Gbelia, whose parents divorced when he was an infant. “So it was a single white mom raising two mixed-race children. We didn’t notice until later in life that most of the burden was on my mom. She got the scorn and hatred. She protected us from it.”

Once his father’s visa expired, he returned to his native Liberia, where he practiced law and held high-level government jobs. When Gbelia was 8, his father brought him and his brother to live there for more than three years, from late 1979 to early 1983. Pleasures of childhood were simple.

“You were always exploring, playing in the trees,” he remembers. “Who needs PlayStation? Just a tire and a stick and you roll it around and it’s fun. And they’re very tight-knit. One person will take care of another’s family if they have to do stuff. If a kid misbehaves, another parent can [discipline] that kid. It’s a community.

That’s how Africans do it.”

Yet he had also arrived just in time for a bloody coup d’etat, one of several that mired the country in two devastating civil wars for more than 20 years.

Liberia then was run by President William Tolbert Jr., of the Americo-Liberians, an elite class descended from free-born and formerly enslaved blacks from America, who founded Liberia in 1847. Under their rule, a minority ethnic group called the Krahn, who are Liberians of indigenous descent, endured economic and political suppression.

Escalating tensions exploded into a military overthrow led by Samuel Doe, who, with other plotters, assassinated Tolbert on April 12, 1980, dumping his body into a mass grave with 27 other victims of the coup. Found guilty in a kangaroo court, 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet were paraded nude through the streets of Monrovia, the capital city, then executed 10 days after Tolbert’s murder. Brutality marked the Doe regime throughout its reign. More mass executions of Tolbert government officials followed, and the national constitution was suspended so some could first be tried by the country’s new military leadership, the defendants denied legal representation and trial by jury.

Liberia adopted a new constitution in 1985, but Doe, who had been the de facto president, claimed the title officially in an election widely decried as fraudulent and served until 1990, when he too was assassinated by other rebel forces. Civil war continued to plague Liberia until 2003. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—Tolbert’s former minister of finance and one of the few survivors from his cabinet—won the presidency, becoming Africa’s first elected female head of state. (In 2011, she was the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.)

“We left because of the coup,” says Gbelia, who, with his dad and brother, lived in Monrovia, as well as the city of Ganta in Nimba County, the home of his dad’s tribe. “The [new] people in charge kept all the goodies for themselves. They weren’t very educated, they were tribal, and as soon as they got power they rewarded their tribes and took the resources. For 20 years they murdered each other, Liberian children butchered, for what?”

Meanwhile, Gbelia had resumed his American upbringing in Portland, Ore., with his mother. In 1989, he was admitted to the Air Force Academy. “My brother had joined the Army right out of high school; he didn’t go to college,” Gbelia remembers. “When it was my turn to make that choice, I heard some stories about the Army, so I thought, ‘Maybe the Air Force is better for me.’ And I got an interest in flying from my brother, who was really into planes.”

Following graduation from the academy in 1993 at age 22, Gbelia embarked on a career that began in a newly unified Germany and has included accompanying senators and congressmen on European diplomatic trips, assignments throughout the Far East, medivac missions and Mideast combat. “There weren’t a lot of shoot-downs; the people who have it really bad are the helicopter pilots,” he says. “We’d go in, drop our cargo—bombs, people, equipment—and blast out. We were well-trained, and it was always about the mission. You feel satisfied for a job well done.”

•••

Personal sadness—a funeral—became the doorway to his mission to save lives. Though Gbelia escaped the warfare and political misery of Liberian life after only three boyhood years, his father had become an enemy of the state. In 2001, Peter. Jr. returned to Africa for the burial of Peter Sr., who died in exile in Nigeria, where he fled after attempts on his life by soldiers loyal to former President Charles Taylor. Eventually, Taylor was convicted of multiple war crimes at the Hague.

The visit refocused Gbelia’s attention on the poverty and misery of his father’s native land and inspired his creation of the nonprofit Empowerment Society International in 2003, stirring his interest in “sustainable development.” Recalling Liberia’s conditions after a 2008 visit, he noted the country was still devastated seven years later, as he wrote in an ESI blog entry:

“There is no power or electricity since the hydro plants that provided it were destroyed in the war. … There are no landfills since there was never any city planning, just corrupt politicians and warlords that used government as a private piggy bank. … The city is engulfed in rubbish. Added to this, the sole waste-processing plant was destroyed in the war, so human waste is a huge issue. … Roads are only in name and resemble cluster-bombed roads in wartime.”

By 2004, Gbelia had become a reservist. While settling into civilian flying in 2006 as an Alaska Airlines pilot out of Los Angeles International Airport, he continued to nurture his interest in sustainability. Broadly defined, sustainability is the ability to create methods for social systems and ecosystems to endure through renewal, rather than durability. Entering ASU’s School of Sustainability in 2007, he wondered what specific avenue he would pursue until he watched a classmate’s presentation.

“It was about cookstoves in Guatemala,” he recalls. “It was all that I was thinking of. I grabbed him after class and I quizzed him for information. That set me down the path with cookstoves—lowest cost, biggest impact.”

Cooking in open fire pits and mud basins, women use sheet metal or whatever they find handy to construct a container to hold their cooking fuel—charcoal, wood, even cow excrement—and put the pot directly on top. Lighting it with kerosene fires up a toxic cloud of smoke and chemicals. “When you look at the wall,” he says, “it’s just black with soot.” The problem in Guatemala, it turned out, was prevalent throughout the Third World.

Statistics on indoor air pollution compiled by the World Health Organization are sobering: In underdeveloped countries lacking regular electricity and liquid fuels with which to cook, nearly 2 million people die annually from diseases triggered by cooking with solid fuels, such as lung cancer and heart disease.

“It’s not like malaria, like you get the bug and you die,” Gbelia says. “Women die from years of accumulated effect. Being in the kitchen all the time, they die by age 37. It’s like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Women don’t have much choice anyway, the ones who are chosen for cooking duty are (considered) expendable. They know the people who cook don’t last long.”

Children are also casualties. “Kids die at around (age) 5 because they get pneumonia and other respiratory diseases,” Gbelia says. “People don’t necessarily make the connection because kids die all the time.”

Global ramifications loom as well. Studies conducted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change reveal that black-carbon emissions from 3 billion solid-fuel users are responsible for 18 percent of global warming. Deforestation, much of it caused by the making of charcoal and the use of forest wood for fuel, accounts for 25 percent.

Addressing both the health of Liberian women and the environment overall, Gbelia hit on the solution: the humble clean cookstove. Diving into intense research on the stoves, he completed his thesis, graduated and set a plan in motion. “I was like, ‘No, I want to try to implement this so it’s not just a master’s thesis or a theory on a piece of paper,’” he says. “Seeing these wars in Africa and my life being affected through my father, I had a passion for it.”

Maintaining ESI largely as an entity to accept donations, Gbelia then founded the for-profit SJEDI Green Energy Inc. (Noting the familiar-looking acronym, Gbelia explains that it technically stands for Sustainability Joint Economic Development Initiative, but admits his affection for Star Wars crept in: “The Jedi exist to ensure a balance in the Force, a harmony in the universe,” he says. “This is also what a warrior of sustainability seeks.”)

SJEDI ships an inexpensive device built by Envirofit International of Fort Collins, Colo., to a storefront he set up in Monrovia. Nicknamed the “rocket stove” because it was based on the combustion principles of the modern-day rocket, the original prototype was created by Dr. Larry Winiarski, who spent 30 years analyzing heat discharge from power plants for the Environmental Protection Agency. Designed with advanced combustion chambers and an insulated vertical chimney, it burns traditional fuel more efficiently, reduces fuel consumption up to 50 percent and minimizes toxic fumes.

High-octane names are attached to the clean-cookstove movement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton adopted it as a pet project. Actress Julia Roberts has made it her cause célèbre. Adding to its growing visibility, The New Yorker published a major story on cookstoves in December 2009. Even so, generating money and interest from donors proved frustrating. After his grant applications were repeatedly rejected, Gbelia purchased the first shipping container with his Chase Visa card.

“When I go out to promote this, it’s just not sexy or interesting to people. It takes explanation. Their eyes roll over,” he says. “There are a lot of do-gooder organizations that have their own thing, like malaria or AIDS. When you see an African kid with a distended belly, you throw money there. With malaria, the pharmaceutical industry gets involved, and that starts partnerships. But if you want to help people, save rainforests and fight climate change, then get into cookstoves.”

While its project is humanitarian in nature, Gbelia says SJEDI is a for-profit business by necessity. Had stoves been given away to tribal families, he says the men—whom he describes as either ignorant or indifferent toward the dangers of their wives cooking with solid fuels—would simply sell it for cash. “We went for a market-based approach, where [Envirofit] can mass-produce the stoves cheaply, then you can import them into countries and sell them.”

Spending around $40 per stove to get them to Liberia, Gbelia offers them on a sliding scale of $30 to $60, depending on the buyer’s ability to pay, and payable on an eight-month installment plan. “If you’re spending $20 a month for charcoal, the stove will save you 50 to 60 percent,” he says. “And once you pay it off, over the five-year life of the stove, all the savings are yours.”

Profits have yet to materialize, he says, citing obstacles such as a subpar banking system making financial transactions difficult; distribution problems caused by $6-per-gallon gas and muddy, washed-out roads; huge import taxes imposed by the Liberian government; and bribes.

“There’s corruption at every level, a lack of trust, a lack of patriotism,” he says. “It starts at the airport. The customs people hint that they’d like a bribe, so you know what to expect as soon as you get there. And we’ve had a hard time partnering with government agencies. They don’t want to help you unless there’s something in it for them. You tell them, ‘Sorry we’re not playing that game,’ and they turn off.”

Compensation for Gbelia right now isn’t in a bank account, but in the women’s faces. Even though tribesmen might not grasp the benefits of the stoves, their wives, whose lungs are choked by smoke and invaded by chemicals, get jazzed just at the sight of them. “Their eyes light up, but then they disappear,” Gbelia says. “Where did they go? They come back with three or four women, and before you know it, there are 20 or 30 women listening to our presentation.”

•••

Life in the states limits Gbelia’s day-to-day involvement in SJEDI. While continuing to fly for Alaska Airlines, he was assigned to Nellis in 2008, providing what he cryptically calls “direct combat support of overseas contingency operations.” Specifics, he says, are classified. Daily SJEDI responsibilities in Liberia are overseen by Royston Gbelia, his half-brother on his father’s side. Every six months, though, he heads back to Liberia—and the trips are emotional adventures. Recounting one of his return visits in his blog, Gbelia writes that he expected to reconnect with several family members, but was unprepared for what greeted him—a veritable mass of humanity awaiting him on a hill.

“Goose bumps ran across my skin as hundreds of people sang and danced, and my heart raced along the rhythm of the beating of the massive beating drums,” writes Gbelia, whose speech is friendly but measured in person, reflecting his military bearing, but passionate on his blog. That’s particularly true when Gbelia, who is divorced and has no children, writes of his African family:

“I was mobbed by people, lost in a sea of family, welcomed back with hundreds of open arms to the place from where my fathers came. That night we ate like kings, and danced in a circle in the house my fathers built, where my grandfather lay buried under the floor. I drank cane juice, which went down my throat like fire, and palm wine. … I snuck off to sleep, but the entire town celebrated, danced, sung throughout the night, drums beating. Before I knew it, the magnificently powerful sun was rising upon a new day.”

In stark contrast, however, were reminders of Liberia’s ubiquitous dangers, both natural and man-made. Dodging huge potholes as he drove along the rubble that passed for roads, he noticed billboards proclaiming, “Do Not Rape,” underscoring that despite a female president, women enjoy few protections under Liberian law. Plus there are those pesky critters. “Snakes galore,” he says. “You have to check your shoes in the morning. One woman was killed in her home by a brown mamba, the most dangerous snake in the world. It’s huge. And they also have these little alligator things.”

Still, when it’s time to return to America’s creature comforts, he is ambivalent. “You feel depressed for several weeks whenever you eat a hamburger and fries,” he says. “You feel guilty, like, Why did I have to order that strawberry milkshake when those kids have no shoes? You realize it’s ridiculous, but it’s just how you feel.”

Between his duties at Nellis, crisscrossing the commercial skies for Alaska Airlines and bringing healthier living to Liberia, Gbelia uses Las Vegas less as a home than a base of operations. Next on the agenda is expanding the cookstove initiative to Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, as are plans to create a stateside assembly plant and generate employment.

Having helped get the vote out for President Obama in the recent election, he says he’s being seduced by politics and considering expanding his involvement, but his commitment to service remains strongly rooted in the Air Force. “We are at war,” he says, “so I will continue to do my military duty until such time as my country no longer needs my service on the fields of battle.”

Piloting jets that carry bombs and saving lives by delivering stoves has created an ironic cosmic symmetry in Maj. Peter Gbelia.

“I’m a warrior for flag and nation,” he says. “But this is fighting a different battle, being a warrior for harmony and balance.”

See our Dispatch to learn more about the school where Peter Gbelia earned his sustainability stripes.

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