January 22, 2011
So I’m back. It has been a week and I think it is a good time to reflect.
I must say, I was skeptical of John and Kimmie when they talked about “not coming back unchanged”. It was not that I thought Liberia would not be special, nor that I thought I was particularly “tough”…more so, I think, that you cannot expect to be moved. It either happens or it does not. Regardless, they were right.
I have always done well in high stress situations. I think this is why I love critical care medicine, procrastination, playing bridge with Leslie Davis, and working for John. Maybe it is ADHD, maybe it is a love of adrenaline…probably a little of both. Or maybe I am just a goal-oriented person. High stress situations take away the need to plan, plot, or come up with a hypothesis. Whether it is keeping your patient alive, making the deadline, making a grand slam...whatever the goal may be, it is apparent. It rises above whatever else is going on in your life and whatever ugly details accompany the present. When the situation ends, you get to deal with those accouterments. As much fun as I had there, as many humorous stories as I can share, as honestly as I can say that it was not as bad as I thought it would be…Liberia was intense and had a profound effect on me. Even though our days were filled with a lot of driving and standing, there was a lot to process and remember at all times. Hydrate, wash your hands, get some calories, repeat. Just staying on top of that was a full-time job and then…wait, where’s my wallet? I am still absorbing a lot from my experiences there.
So…what did I take home? There are the obvious points: we have it so easy, we waste so much, etc, etc. I think the biggest thing for me can be summed up in a phrase I heard from every friend and contact I made while there, “When are you coming back?” Allow me to explain what this means to me...
Scott referred to the lack of the term “maybe” in Liberia. When someone asks you a question, any answer other than “NO” means yes. “I’ll see if I can”, “Maybe”, “It depends”…all of these mean yes. Not just yes, but a promise. To me, this symbolizes a history of letdowns, broken promises, and vague escapes.
It would be easy to go to Liberia, donate some chalkboards, and head home. Pat yourself on the back, tell everyone about your travels, and go back to your life smiling. Essentially, that is exploitation of a poor nation for your ego. Don’t get me wrong, the chalkboards are appreciated and it is a more productive use of your money than lotto tickets (which go to buying chalkboards for the public schools in your state). Chalkboards are not what Liberia needs. Liberia needs sustainable support, whether that means helping improve the educational infrastructure, providing medical support/education, investing in small businesses, or just being a good friend.
The people I met in Liberia are friends of mine. At least they were friends to me. At this point in the friendship, I am in the red. I owe it to them to come back, reciprocate, and hopefully help out as much as I can in the process. I do not want to be another letdown.
There is always something new to learn in Liberia. Always something to feel. Always new friends. First, for anyone who has known my hair in Africa (or most other times at home, actually), I posted a picture in the film strip above, drawn by the five-year son of Eric, in whose restaurant Trusted Angels has invested. It is quite accurate.
For the other pictures, I will post most of them when I get home as I neglected to bring the connector from camera to computer. The pictures I have posted are from my iPhone.
We have been filming the newly revived palm project at Bromley, an agricultural project that was established to harvest the 700+ palm trees planted on Bromley’s property, a project that I have been so excited about since my early trips to Liberia as it offers a road to self-sustainability. Trusted Angels contributed to the project on this trip and it was also largely funded by St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina. Expecting this to be rather straight forward, I arrived with camera in hand. Ah, but this is Liberia. I should have known.
The first stage, the “slicing” of the palm nut bunches from the tops of forty to fifty-foot trees was filmed by Gabrielle, Scott and Mike before their departure, as two of us were still ill. This is a process of tying a rope around your body a scaling the tree to the top. Not an easy task. At all. The stories I heard from Jeremiah, who performed this harvesting were quite alarming. “I met a cobra (deadly) at the top of that tree,” he said, pointing out the tree. “Don’t worry, Sis Kimmie,” said Nathaniel, who also helped, “If you leave them alone and cut very carefully around them, they will not harm you.”
Apparently snakes enjoy hunting from their kingly vantage points, so they are abundant in palms. Nathaniel also pointed out a Yellow Mamba (also deadly) just above the spot where John was seated on the ground, helping to pick the nuts (more on this later from him). “Sometimes they drop,” he said dramatically raising and dropping his arm. “Just so.”
They also took me to see a smaller snake that had been killed earlier. “This one is slow poison,” said Richie who has been overseeing the project, “It takes a long time to die.”
During the next stage of the harvesting, the nuts are dried for a few days and then taken to a cement pit and crushed. The pit is then filled with boiling water which allows the “palm butter” to rise to the top. Once the water is cool, one person stands in the thigh high water separating the crushed nuts at the bottom and tossing the shells out on a pile of dirt. Another person sits beside the pit and scoops the palm butter from the surface into a bucket where it is then taken to a large metal barrel, heated from below by bamboo fanned beneath it, where it is boiled once again, rendering the rich, orange oil. At the same time palm kernels were being crushed in a newly acquired machine that four men operate, then boiled, both processes working in tandem.
Palm oil is a valuable food product and used for cooking many dishes by almost everyone in Liberia and while we have been here, 15 gallons have been produced and provided to Bromley for the girls’ consumption. Meanwhile the inner tiny nut of the palm kernel is laid out on a tarp to dry and will be cracked and processed in a similar manner to produce an even more coveted clear palm oil that can be sold for a higher price at the market
Much work. Much progress. I am going to Bromley tomorrow to witness the next batch of slicing for myself.
What I noticed as soon as I started to descend the hill which led to the palm processing pit, was that many people from the Bromley families housed on the property had gathered to help. There were teenaged children who enjoyed the new machine, dancing and singing as they turned the crank, mothers nursing babies, or feeding small children on blankets on the ground and of course, all the people required to crush and stir and scoop and watch the fire. I could see that this was more than a project that supported Bromley, but also a project that revived community and pride. I repeat, this is SO exciting for me as I have been hoping and lobbying for some time, but I saw that this was more. It was exciting for them. And that is what matters.
So, I forgot to mention in my previous entry that I was arrested by the Liberian National Police… This occurred after dropping Mike, Scott and Gabrielle off at the airport for their trip home. I was alone, thank God. I was taken to a police station in the dark (with one light, under which they wrote their reports and by which my mugshot (Liberian style) was taken. A Liberian mugshot consists of a picture of your drivers license with a small digital camera, followed by a picture of you. Well, in this case, ME.
No, I was not arrested for drugs, gambling, prostitution (although I am in demand), or any other major sin that I have never committed nor is a crime in Liberia. Rather, I actually infracted the law. I intruded on the presidential motorcade with my car… yes. Intruded. Honestly, I simply didn’t realize what it was fast enough, and didn’t pull over fast enough as it approached from the opposite direction. At the end of the motorcade, the last presidential security SUV pulled in front of Barney (our Jeep, I mean Nissan pathfinder), and a cop jumped out and climbed in my car. I was ordered to follow the presidential convoy to the president’s house, and then past to the aforementioned dark police station. There was a bit of confusion (and crazy driving by yours truly) as we drove back and forth between the president’s house and the police station as the cop received conflicting orders.
However, they finally settled on the police station as the correct place to take an intruding driver. The cop who jumped in my car and I were met by another policeman as we walked toward a door appointed with iron bars behind which were kept the aforementioned prostitutes (going in and out like a revolving door). This station cop said with evident horror to my arresting cop (who was now a friend, by the way), “You arrested white man???”, to which my cop replied, “Yahh, I was ordered.” Several swear words were uttered and shaking of heads happened. I shook this new officers hand, and said, “it’s cool” and we smiled and life went on.
A long process of taking a report ensued, consisting of writing lots of information about me on a plain piece of typing paper under the dim light of a 40 watt bulb. The next thing that happened was a process of taking a report, consisting of writing lots of information about me in a tiny spiral-bound notebook under a dim 40 watt bulb. Then, with great aplomb, there was a process of taking a report, consisting of writing lots of information about me, very slowly, on a pre-printed traffic ticket, under a dim dashboard light. Same information each time… Different cop doing the report. Basically, I accumulated cop after cop. One was presidential security.
My friend high up in the police was not readily able to help with my arrest by the Presidential police, but he smoothed the way. The entire process was 100% professional and courteous, and the arrest was appropriate. Indeed they were reasonably friendly… So friendly, in fact, that after putting me back in my car, they jumped in front of it suddenly before I pulled on the road. I said a swear under my breath as I wondered what report was next, but then I saw in the dark the presidential motorcade once again passing by, and into which I was about to intrude. My arresting cops were not excited about arresting me twice for the same offense, and saved by skinny white butt.
Oh, and the traffic ticket? $100. US. Not cheap. And a royal painful process of paying it. I HAD to pay it because the cops kept my license. The process involves going to the Ministry of Finance to pick up a form, then paying the charge at the central bank, and then waiting in line at the main police station to get my license back. It would have taken all day, but our wonderful police friend helped me out by processing the ticket the next day, and walking my fine through the system so I didn’t have to. There is a bit more to this story that I cannot publish… Feel free to ask in person or by email.
So, my first of many planned arrests in Liberia was accomplished without permanent harm, and was educational. I will try to not commit any more crimes. By the way, the opportunity I had to hang out with the police was not nearly as edifying as my wonderful time shucking palm nuts out of their sharp pointy bunches, as mentioned by Kimmie. These nuts are protected in a similar manner to a porcupines back. Every third nut extraction prompted an "ouch" from me, and a concerned but happy "ooooh" from the Liberians. And the yellow mamba traveling from palm tree to palm tree in the canopy above me didn't fall out of the trees as Nathaniel had warned was possible, but simply continued its efforts at finding rats to gobble up, 40 feet high in the palms.
January 20, 2011
(Please note that Gabrielle, Scott and Mike are now back in the states, frantically trying to catch on their lives. Their final thoughts will come in stages. Today we have Scott’s:
Since I’ve been back in the U.S. I find that the best place for me to really sit and think about my trip and what it meant to me is the shower. The hottest, skin burning, steam making shower known to man. But honestly I found Liberia to be fairly comfortable and enjoyable, so besides the shower there wasn’t much that I missed from back home. It’s certainly a very self selecting place; those who think they might not want to go, should definitely not go. Those excited and entranced by the idea will almost certainly be making their way there several times.
I find it hard for me to truly “reflect” on any experience though. To sit down and try to decide what something has taught you or meant to you is a forced concept to me. In reality, I think we discover what things have meant or taught us only at the time and place in the future where these lessons become applicable or meaningful. So after being back for several days and having spent an overwhelming percentage of that time at work, I don’t have a collection of reflective prophesies to pass along. However, I can say that I came away with a much better understanding of why Trusted Angels has the goal of increasing wealth in Liberia and what exactly that means.
It was interesting to see so many people living in what we as middle class Americans would refer to as “harsh” conditions. I qualify this because if as a person you have never known anything else then your conditions are not harsh, they just are. A chicken white is white if you will. But we certainly have known better conditions, and so I, as anyone else with a single thread of a conscience, feel like it is incumbent on me to help improve this situation. The question then of course becomes how does someone go about helping to solve such a large problem? To come home and see so much waste and squandered resources makes you want to scoop it all up and give it to people who need and appreciate it. But you can’t do that, (and here’s the lesson boys and girls), nor should you do that.
To give to others in need is a noble idea and often very useful. However, at a certain point it is only the transfer of wealth and unfortunately that is temporary. Increasing wealth in a place like Liberia is in fact the solution to such a large problem. While in Liberia John talked a lot about Trusted Angel’s goal of increasing wealth, in addition to improving education and health. I understood the concept at the time, but perhaps I didn’t understand the far reaching consequences of such an idea. Certainly there are different concepts on how to do this but in the end, the goal is a necessary one.
That and I make sure to turn the lights off; I can still hear the generators…..
Dry season lives up to its name. There has been no rain for two weeks. All streets are now “dusty roads”, although the term in Liberia is used only for unpaved dirt roads. A brown yellow dust cakes the car and my body. Washing either seems futile, for the re-accumulation is so rapid and so thorough. My eyelids, ear canals, and the webs between my fingers are crusted with a fine cake, seemingly always present. My slacks are filthy, my white shirt mottled like a rag used to wash windows. And yet the Liberians all still smile, and maintain their impeccable cleanliness of clothes and body. I know not how they possibly do it, with no power, and washing clothes in nearby still-running creek that itself is dirtier even than the sweat that pours off my forehead.
Clean color is everywhere. Bright green shirt over shining white trousers. Black face over a shining white smile. Blue sign on the street that says “Stop Rape. It could be your mother.” Yellow and red advertisement proclaiming the impending drilling for oil in Liberian waters, scheduled intriguingly for just prior to this Fall’s election.
But the new black pavement—also applied to the destroyed streets in remarkable coincidence with the initiation of voter registration—cannot maintain its crispness against the onslaught of the dust. It is now yellowed, like the car and my skin.
There is a virus here, perhaps the flu, but perhaps RSV, infecting the children. Cough and fever. All fever in small children here is malaria. It might be something else—such as an ear infection—but it is ALSO malaria. Every child has malaria in their blood, but the diagnosis of “malaria” is only made when there are also symptoms of the disease—fever, malaise, running stomach (diarrhea), vomiting. So when such symptoms appear, regardless of their true cause, it makes sense to treat for the always-present malaria too… We just cannot forget to consider other causes. Like RSV or the flu. Or typhoid. Typhoid is nasty. Gradually rising fevers, frustrating cough, horrible discomfort, then running stomach later.. Not good. People die of it here. Fortunately, antibiotics work. Fortunately we have antibiotics. Many Liberians are not so fortunate. Most, in fact.
We have a friend here now who was treated with “local remedies” for his skin disease. Where I would use antibiotics and topical steroids, the local remedy involved coating with lyme dust (a harsh alkali) and swaddling in hot rags in a sweat room. I don’t know if it works to cure, but this remedy certainly can make the body ooze what one would rather not have oozed.
The same family had had a bed built for them—carefully carved by hand. During transportation there was a problem. They were notified by phone that the “bed boined”. Subsequent probing proved that the van on top of which the beautiful bed was being shipped rolled over and exploded, and the bed was “boined.” Only in Liberia…Apparently no major injuries to humans occurred..
To action.. One of our entrepreneurs is Eric. We staked his startup of “Eric’s Pastry Garden,” as the backbone of a broader food preparation business. This small storefront is immediately adjacent to Iron Gate, 3 miles from Bromley School. And it has been a hit. In 5 months, he has made $450 of profit, which is in the bank account. That is wonderful by Liberian standards. He has created an egg-nog which the local men believe increases their virility. I expect radio advertisements and daily emails to invade my inbox in America soon, promoting this new method of male enhancement. We have just staked the expansion of the Pastry Garden into a restaurant. In four days, the expansion was complete (Eric moves FAST) and the restaurant opens tomorrow night with a buffet. Apparently the opening is eagerly anticipated. There are no restaurants in this area anywhere.
We drive past Iron Gate on the way to Bromley. Eric never fails to see our vehicle drive by, and to call us. “Brother John, I just saw your Jeep drive by.” I don’t know how he does it. The man has eyes encircling his head, and ears on top of ears. I can hypothesize that the war may have made people hypervigilant. Eric certainly is. By the way, “Jeep” is the Liberian word for SUV. Herbie (our Toyota Rav 4) was a “Jeep”. Barney, our Nissan Pathfinder, is a “Jeep.” A Land Rover is a “Jeep”. A Jeep is a Jeep too.
Flomo has had his first two deliveries in the new document delivery service for Monrovia. He is another of our entrepreneurs. Flomo was orphaned at age 12 when his father was killed during the conflict. There is no mail here. Or has not been until now. Flomo has a motorbike and a bicycle for starters. And an office in Monrovia. A laptop computer and a cell phone. He was mugged the other day by four men, and lost his cell phone but managed to fight for his computer and motorbike. He is not a big person, so this was quite impressive and demonstrates his motivation. The radio is now blaring out advertisements for “Trust Express Delivery Service,” which is the name Flomo and I chose together after I suggested that his first name choice, “God Bless Liberia, Inc.” might already have been used many times over in this country and not therefore be available. My hope is that the more descriptive but less pious name will be acceptable to God and Liberians alike, and that Flomo will be successful.
Our steadfast friend Joe supplied MODUC orphanage in Buchanan with the materials to paint their new bathing facility—supplied also by Trusted Angels. We had hoped to do the painting ourselves, but illness precluded it. We have yet to provide them with 6 bunk beds for the boys “dormitory”—which is a cement and dirt floor dark single room in the back of a small building with a zinc roof. This needs to happen, as do so many other things. I found an inguinal hernia on a 10 year old boy, Jonah. This large hernia caused him great embarrassment as the other boys teased him because of it. In this nation with hardly any doctors, his hernia was repaired in less than a week. One call to a friend at Firestone (Dave Tetzlaff) and a visiting team from the US took care of the hernia. It had been there for three years.
Almost 50 orphans are still cared for by Mrs. Beh, who still hears the bird chirping, knowing that she is soon to be called home to God, and desperately seeking her replacement to watch over all these children. The Mission for Orphaned, Displaced, and Unaccompanied Children is in our prayers and hearts forever.
We had a great time getting a group of pediatricians together (yes, there are now TWO pediatricians in Liberia, plus a child health doctor (a generalist focused on children). Dr. Okoh (Nigerian) is still at JFK hospital. He sees over 2000 outpatients per month. In the US, that would bring in 100,000 dollars or more of revenue… He is jolly and excellent. Dr. Judd is Ugandan, and is at Redemption Hospital, where most of the children are now. He is wonderfully friendly, taking on the challenges of a very difficult situation. Dr. Fanta is a woman from the Congo, working at Catholic. These doctors did not know each other even existed before this dinner, so a big thing was accomplished. Also present were Dr. Elinor Graham visting from University of Washington, and two pediatric residents from Massachusetts and Kimmie. All in all, we had SEVEN pediatricians and almost pediatricians in one place at the same time. It is probably the first time in more than a decade that so many pediatricians were together in Liberia. Practice of Pediatrics is very hard here in Liberia. I will elaborate further on the current medical system in another letter.
Bromley, ahh Bromley. The children are now back in school, quietly listening attentively to their teachers, sitting upright, polite. They learn. There is no excessive wiggling, no evident exhaustion, no dehydration and heat-induced loss of attention evident, as I have seen so often before. Learning is happening. 183 girls are learning, growing, and are the hope for Liberia. I don’t imagine it will be the government of any nation (including Liberia) that pulls this country back into modernity, but rather the pushing of this country by the individual child, growing up, demanding peace and progress, that will bring Liberia back.
Bromley, which slept fitfully on the banks of the beautiful St. Paul River for so long, is now fully awake, still rubbing at her eyes and yet to shower off much of the accumulated dust. But the sun is shining, and Bromley is starting her new day. She needs breakfast and lunch provided to her, but then, soon, she will be cooking all of Liberia dinner…
From the morning blessing given to us by one of the Liberian men with whom we work: On this day, may the blood of Jesus be on you and on your car. Personally, I hope I am a bit better driver than that.
This has been a particularly challenging trip for me as three of us have been stricken with various illnesses. I have been sick with Typhoid for the better part of it. Sickness is strange when you are away from home and, perhaps because of too many relentless days of fever, I started to feel a bit lost, or that I had lost something. I had trouble finding my purpose.
On the way to church yesterday, I re-focused my attention on my surroundings sliding past my car window- on the sweaty faces waiting in long taxi lines, on a woman with her hair tied beautifully in her head scarf but with palpable sadness in her eyes walking towards…what? I watched a 2-year-old wedged between two men (all without helmets) on a motorcycle darting between the cars and crowded streets of Duala market. I had trouble finding my breath.
In church, the glowing primary colors of the stained glass window behind the altar greeted us in cheerful defiance but was juxtaposed with the remaining windows, which seemed duct taped together. A newly ordained Liberian priest gave the sermon and the first words out of his mouth were, “First, let us stop and thank God for our life. Thank God that we have breath to breathe and the strength to get here.” Those words transported me to an almost out of body experience where I left my self-consumed thoughts of loss and I could feel the souls around me, hear their breathing. Even after years of peace, these people had experienced true loss, on every level and they still found gratitude in the simple yet magnificent gift of life.
The first mission trip I led to Liberia in 2008 was to install solar panels at Bromley School and our theme was, “You are the Light of the World.” This sermon was on light. “Be a light to the world! Lights give brightness in darkness. Let your light burn before men, as individuals, in communities and for your nation.” He spoke strong words of living lives as examples, of no stealing and no cheating, and I thought that these were the words that would bring true change to Liberia.
At the end, the church erupted in spontaneous applause and the Peace followed soon afterwards which rose in a joyous, cacophonous mix of drums and singing and greetings. The very first song sung was, “This Little Light of Mine,” which was significant, as we had sung this song last week with the orphans in Buchanan.
School has been out for winter break, but one of the Bromley girls found me at the end of the service and hugged me hard not wanting to let go. I didn’t want to let go either.
After church, we went to watch the soccer game of a teenaged boy whose education is sponsored by Trusted Angels. I bought an orange from a woman we passed walking to the stadium because I was still unable to eat much and the orange looked just right, and as soon as I approached the seating area I gave it away in pieces to the small children with penetrating eyes who came to sit by me. I handed my camera to a young teen who had planted himself immediately next to me, showed him how to use it and let him have fun. At the end of the game, (a victory!) we offered a ride to the boy whose game we came to see and he asked if we could also take a few of his teammates home. We agreed, opened the car doors and within two seconds every available cubic foot of space in the 5-seater Nissan Pathfinder was filled with 14 soccer players…plus John and myself. They told us they did not have a football for practice, no football at all, so we gave them funds to buy one for the team. I smiled to myself a deep and authentic soul smile as I was smashed in next to the boy coach who climbed into the front seat and was refilled and restored with the original overwhelming feelings of love that accompanied me on the first trips to Liberia.
My mind drifted back to the strong yet soft and clear voice of an orphaned child that Bromley’s principal had “taken in” sliding through the walls, singing, “Turn, turn…”
I prayed for despair and discouragement to leave me and for a new song to fill my mouth.
I laughed to myself and with the sweaty soccer players finding camaraderie, community and even love through the sport of “football. ” I watched the destitute film strip in the fading light beyond my window and I thought- let it in, Kimmie. Let it in.
January 8, 2011
I am in Liberia again for my ninth trip in what has now been three years. Walking down the airplane stairs, though exhausted from the long journey here, I inhaled the damp, dusty smell from a recent rain and the somehow not unpleasant sweaty smells that greet you in the customs line, and I was exuberant. Perhaps it is smell association and not the actual smells, that remind me so much of a place and people I love. Of home.
As we sped along the dark road leading away from the airport, we almost slammed into what I later deduced to be “traffic cones” but to the untrained eye, looked like clumps of tall grass, (root ball and all) in front of a disabled vehicle- an instant reminder that we assuredly were not in Kansas anymore.
Waking the next day to the sounds of the village outside of my window coming to life- to roosters crowing, children screeching, birds chattering, I peeked outside of my curtains. I observed a women passing with a bunch of potato greens on her head and another woman brushing her teeth beside the tall corn. Neither of these would have been particularly remarkable except that I had never seen this much produce planted in this location, which has become very familiar to me over the years. I could feel the energy of renewal. I smiled at the lush squash leaves thriving in the tropical environment, at the people sitting and talking to one another, at the thrill and honor of being able to share this experience with friends from home, perhaps even in the camaraderie that Liberians and Americans share, both striving to connect with both known friends and new. There is solidarity in connection.
For those of you who have read my previous eJournals, this one will be a little different. I am traveling with a group of friends, including my daughter, Gabrielle Haeringer, 19, who is a second year Global Justice major at James Madison University, Scott Dwyer, 27, a Senior Research Specialist in the division of pediatric respiratory medicine at the University of Virginia, Mike Davis, 28, a Senior Research Respiratory Therapist and Coordinator also for the Hunt Lab at UVA, and Dr. John Hunt, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Allergy, Immunology and Pulminology at the University of Virginia. I will let them tell their stories…
John Hunt, M.D.
We would like to introduce you to Barney, our “new” vehicle. Herbie, Barney’s highly endearing precursor, seems to have run away, or should we say, “not run” away. Barney was originally billed as a 2006, I mean 2002, well really, 1995 Nissan Pathfinder. He has four-wheel drive, but the handle that controls it is more useful as a bludgeon for it is not attached to the drive train in any way. In fact, where it is supposed to attach, there is simply a large hole, big enough for my foot, like a Flintstone vehicle, thus the derivation of the name “Barney”.
We have only needed to change a tire once (per day). The windows work (backwards). The air conditioner is “icy cold” (or perhaps would be if we were in Antarctica), and it both changes gears and brakes (a modest safety improvement over Herbie).
The road to Bromley School is a disaster now. Barney got stuck in the mud on our first day, on the first trip to the school. Nathaniel, Richie, Jeremiah, Samuel, and Cooper all ran down the road to meet us. Jeremiah hacked a lock off a chain with a machete and chained Barney to Mallah’s truck and we water ski’d to safety. The road needs $7500 to rebuild. Anyone willing to help?
The entrepreneurial work is progressing. Eric’s Pastry Garden seems a success, with lots of clientele and a monthly profit of about $85. One of the big sellers is “Eric’s Eggnog” which is delightful. A legend has already developed saying that Eric’s Eggnog has qualities equivalent to some of the most advertised male enhancement products on the market in the US. To expand on the business success and Eric’s excellent qualities, we are happily staking the expansion of the business into a restaurant.
Flomo Kezele has fully started building his TEDS (Trust Express Document Delivery Service), which is the first document delivery service in Liberia, apparently. Motorbikes and bicycles and uniformed delivery personnel will provide document delivery to Monrovia (which has no fax machines and no mail service, but has lots of business deals being made). He will be on the radio this week promoting the service. Flomo has an office, a computer, a motorbike, and has been marketing to the heads of dozens of companies (and their secretaries) and the market looks solid. We will soon see. Maybe someday TEDS will become part of Fedex.
In the medical realm—we have partially restocked the Bromley School clinic. The new nurse, Jartu, is friendly and competent and interested in teaching as well as provision of medical care. We like her.
We had a wonderful visit at Firestone Hospital on Thursday AM. This hospital is part of the Firestone rubber plantation and is owned and funded by the corporation. The head, Dr. Mabande is a wonderful man. Firestone seems to serve as the de facto tertiary referral hospital for Liberia, although it is seemingly intended for JFK hospital to become the major referral hospital. Full laboratory facilities (including microbiology), a child health physician, a new program for complete prenatal care, plain film radiology and an ultrasound are present, in addition to 3 operating suites, 6 physicians, and numerous nurses and some Physician Assistants. They have 160 beds, but room to expand. 90,000 outpatient visits (30-40% being children), so the staff is very busy.
We now have with us 20,000 albendazole tablets donated by WOWNOW and the Mennonites of Pennsylvania. One tablet chewed once, every 6 months, can keep at bay the worms that otherwise occupy the stomachs of the children here, eating their calories and making their tummies hurt. These tablets cost $5 each in the US, at least, but only 1.4 cents with this deal made by WOWNOW. On Friday, we de-wormed MODUC orphanage and school. Over 500 children. In an hour. The Episcopal Bishop Hart was concurrently announcing to the diocese our plans to de-worm the entire Episcopal School population every 6 months (15,600 children). Given that 1 MILLION pills cost only $14000 to obtain, the massively improved quality of life after a child expels the intestinal worms, and the universal presence of worms, we think it may be a worthwhile project to see if the logistics for de-worming all the schools of Liberia every six months can be developed in a simple fashion. We plan to meet with the ministry of health and the ministry of education about this during this trip. In the meantime, we will deworm Lott-Carey Baptist School (700 children) as well. The Nazarenes are on board with universal deworming as well. There is a man named Dr. Dave Tetzlaff who will arrive Wednesday (a med-peds physician) who arranged the shipment of the medications). We are eager to meet him in person.
It is beautiful here as always. Dry, dusty, hot, and smiley. We love it here. We seem to have acquired a substantial burden of new uninvited pets, in the form of E Coli, Campylobacter, Yersinia, Salmonella or something (no way to tell), but the Ciprofloxacin is flowing, so we aren’t flowing too badly. We so hope things are okay at home. There are so many concerns at home, as well as here.
Being my second trip to Liberia, my favorite part of being here is still interacting with the children. I love children to begin with, but the children in Liberia are definitely different than most children in America. For one, everything I say makes them laugh. I think the fact that I was a blonde white girl was the funniest part or maybe that I have a strange drawing on my ankle, which is commonly pointed, stared, and giggled at. They commonly questioned each other about it and I would pick up things they whispered like, “is it a dragon?” No, it’s an elephant tattoo. Or perhaps they are more entertained by the ever-surprising fact that I cannot breakdance. Who would have thought I couldn’t spin on my head? Whatever it was they were laughing at, seeing the kids smile is probably more specifically my favorite thing I’ve experienced in Liberia. The kids have the biggest most beautiful smiles and I can’t help but smile along with them.
Talking with the kids is entertaining as well. Although getting past the language barrier, even though we all speak English, can be difficult, the kids are pretty funny themselves. The kids at Bromely wanted to know all about America. They told me to tell them anything interesting about where I came from. I explained snow to them, which they were amazed by; although I’m not sure they understood my explanation of a snowman or sledding. Again they just laughed at me as I struggled to explain rolling snow into balls to make a person-like creature. I’d have to say that my favorite questions involved if I knew Rihanna or Akon. I asked, “ You mean do I listen to their music?” No, they wanted to know if I was friends with them. I had to laugh, but it was hard trying to explain that I didn’t know everyone in America.
Even though I am disappointingly not friends with any celebrities, the kids instantly got attached to me, and everyone else. They told me they loved me after less than a day of hanging out. They wanted to hold hands with me and follow me everywhere. But what stuck out the most was that they almost all asked me not to forget them. I told them I wouldn’t and I know it’s true. It would be very hard to.
Monday we flew into Monrovia under the cover of darkness; its shops, people, beaches and roads all surrounded by the thick blackness of the Liberian night. In one respect this was a positive opening to our mission here, allowing Mike and I to see our surroundings from the inside out. At first I was not surprised by Africa. In many ways it was similar to other countries I had visited, and initially being here brought on an enormous wave of nostalgia and longing for those previous times and places. As I settled in and began to travel around though, the uniqueness of this place and its people became overwhelmingly apparent.
As you drive through the streets of Monrovia and take a minute to really observe the “chaos” in front of you, it becomes an all-telling representation of the value this country places on personal freedom. People have the opportunity and the ability to act as they please. The startling thing of course, as I imagine it would be for most cynical people, is that more often than not they chose to act responsibly. They make the choice that is best for their neighbor, God and country. A functioning democracy with inherit beliefs in personal freedom and social responsibility; it stands as an amazing model for everyone. But like anywhere freedom isn’t free and Liberia has certainly paid a great cost.
We were warned several times before coming that there is no word for ‘maybe’ in Liberia. That if you mention you may do something you are then expected to follow through on doing it. As people we sometimes have to block out things that we are not able to cope with and I get the feeling that Liberia cannot cope with anymore broken promises. They have simply deleted the word from their vocabulary. Seemingly for this reason it is hard not to get the feeling you are distrusted as an outsider. However coming here with Trusted Angels has helped to break down these barriers in a big way. As a guest of John and Kimmie you are immediately bestowed the level of trust that these two have worked for years to earn. Trusted Angels has been integrated into the lives of so many here both financially and spiritually; and if there is one thing that the people of Liberia possess it’s spirit.
I can’t tell you how many times I hear the phrase: “I would die without my [insert modern convenience here]”. I am equally guilty as anyone, for me it’s an iphone. But in reality we will not die without these things. Truth be told if we were half as spirited as the people of this country we would do exactly as they do: thrive without them. What Liberia lacks in wealth it makes up for ten fold in passion. But passion is not progress and nor is it productivity, it is only the desire to have both of these things and no where does that ring more true than here in the heart of liberty itself.
I cannot in one paragraph praise the virtues of their free society and in another say that someone should make them focus on progress. Not only would this be hypocritical but would take away from the essence of this country. What I hope that I can help do, and more importantly what Trusted Angels can do as a group of people, is use and direct this passion to help Liberia help itself. To restore a once thriving country and effect change from the inside out. For this reason it’s not surprising to me that both John and Kimmie are good parents. Liberia is a country that must be provided for in some way, nurtured in others, taught hard lessons, helped to grow, and eventually set out on its own to forge it’s own path. I think that the perfect group of people has joined forces to make change possible in this beautiful country; I’m glad that I am getting to be a small part of it. and more importantly we are all getting a small education in Nissan Pathfinder repair and service.
Mike Davis, 28
Liberia has been great. After harboring a growing sense of anxiety during the weeks approaching this trip, everything has actually gone pretty smooth so far. It is hot, it is humid, and it is GREAT.
We landed pretty late on Sunday and pretty much just crashed upon arrival at the White Compound (an ironic name for the place where the five of us are staying). It is like a bed and breakfast and, at night you could not tell a difference between it and anywhere in America. Well, unless you drank the water or tried to take a hot shower. Lucky for me, I picked the room with the broken air conditioner…
Things are a little different during the day since the power only runs during the night. We have Eric, the former chef from Hotel Africa (the nicest hotel in West Africa prior to the wars), who comes and cooks us breakfast every day and dinner every night that we stay in the Compound. There are lizards everywhere that look a lot like the Geico lizard. Scott hasn’t been able to catch one yet, but I’m pulling for him.
A note on the meals: They are delicious. The culture here loves spicy food, which makes me very happy. Breakfast is plain (toast and eggs most days, plantains sometimes). Dinner is almost always chicken and rice with some sort of awesome spicy sauce. That being said, it feels kind of bad eating so well. I did not realize the first night that the staff here waits for any leftovers we have.
Monday we headed to the Bromley School. This is the main priority of Trusted Angels. Bromley is an all girls boarding school funded by the Episcopal church. Before the wars, this was an elite school; now, Bromley is struggling to return to its prior state. So, the trip to Bromley:
Bromley is essentially a compound in the woods. The drive to Bromley goes from large paved roads to smaller paved-ish roads to gravel roads to the final driveway, a mud path. Several areas of the road were flooded and, even though it appeared that the puddles were the path most travelled, we decided to go down the seemingly flat parts next to the puddles. Our car has 4-WD…or at least a lever that says so that leads to a hole in the floorboards. Our introduction to the grounds staff of Bromley was, “White man stuck in the mud!” A comment on the genius of Liberians: All of the puddles have jagged pieces of concrete thrown into them to give traction. I could have driven my Volvo sedan through those puddles without a problem. At least we were skeptical and went with our own judgements…
Once at Bromley, we took the tour. The guys that work there are great, especially Nathaniel. Nathaniel is an older Liberian man who was born on the grounds of Bromley and has tended them essentially forever. The way he speaks about Bromley conveys a true passion. That man cares about the school, the girls, and the land. The women that work there are great as well and share that same passion. Probably the most influential part of the trip was meeting Queeta, the first orphan I met in the country.
Queeta is not her name. The women at Bromley gave her a name when she arrived two years ago. Nameless, ageless, homeless…wow. In fact, we gave her a birthday while we were there. Her age is around ten (chosen by her looks when she arrived), and, well, everyone needs a birthday. Queeta turned ten on January 3rd, 2011. And she learned how to play hackey sack.
After leaving Bromley (and driving through the puddles), we stopped at Eric’s Pastry Garden (the same Eric that is our chef). Recently, Eric discovered a new marketing approach for his “garden”. Eggnog! Eric makes a special type of eggnog that is already growing in popularity, to the point that I heard about it from the locals before I ever made it to his shop
Tuesday we went back to Bromley to set up the medical clinic there. Having covered a lot of the bases for Bromley on Monday, Tuesday went smoothly. We drove through the puddles, hung out with the same people, and focused on being efficient. Just outside of the gates of Bromley is a medical clinic that the US Navy set up years ago. It is now manned by a physician’s assistant named Samuel and stays quite busy (approximately 40 patients per day). Samuel functions as a physician, doing everything from urgent care (stitches, splints, IVs) to deliveries and apparently some small surgeries. He is also the local primary care provider, doing wellness checks, STD and malaria testing, and treatment of acute illnesses. Samuel is punk rock medicine, making do with what he has in the middle of nowhere and turning no one away. Everything in his clinic is free, and everyone hanging out in the lobby/around the door is friendly an appreciative.
After Bromley/Samuel, we headed to a beach and watched the sunset. I am not much of a beach person (a beach is a beach is a beach), but it was still nice and relaxing. The beaches here are beautiful and go well with a cold beer.
Wednesday was our first real visit to the city. Monrovia is a pretty happening city and reminds me much of downtown San Jose. It is a little rough and tumble but I think I could waste a day roaming around in it. Perhaps we will get a chance. We ran around government buildings all morning trying to get Liberian status for Trusted Angels which allowed me to see much of the inner workings here. Surprise, bureaucracy is everywhere (at least to some extent). Get the form here, fill it out there, bring it to that guy…oh wait, he’s not here. Come back when he’s here. When will he be here? Hmm…sometime. Keep trying.
Near the US Embassy are several hotels that target foreigners. They boast 24 hour power, running potable water, restaurants, casinos, wifi…you get the drift. For 5$ per computer we can get wifi and hang out in the bar all day at Mamba Point Hotel. We spent an hour catching up on emails (it is about as fast as dial-up), then had dinner with the police chief of Liberia (Tobi). Tobi is an impressive man and knowing him makes me feel even more comfortable here. We have a piece of paper signed by him that says we are not to be, “molested or harassed in any way” by police or criminals.
Thursday was a long, busy day. We headed to Buchanan (an eastern city in Liberia) to visit MODUC (the Mission for Orphaned, Disabled, and Unaccompanied Children). We took two cars for comfort since it was a 5+ hour drive. I left our group and road with Joe.
Joe is THE MAN. Joe is a 39 year-old Liberian and a Trusted Angel. He is one of our most important contacts in Liberia. Joe’s father was fairly wealthy and Joe is old enough to have grown up before the wars. He attended private high school and college (getting a bachelor’s in management), then headed to the states for ten years where he worked in logistics and started a family. He came back here a few years back to try and start businesses in Liberia after the war.
Joe knows EVERYONE. When I am with Joe I am worried about NOTHING. We installed a new door put on the clinic at Bromley to prevent break-ins Joe had a vault door located, purchased, and installed in the middle of nowhere in under 24 hours. Joe is a man that gets things done.
So Joe wanted me to drive. Driving in Liberia is AWESOME. It’s like driving in Manhattan, but faster and filling with dirt and gravel. The only traffic law is that you must wear seatbelts in the front seat. Speed limits do not really matter, as the road quality dictates how fast you can drive. Potholes are common, as are children, bicycles, broken vehicles, motorcycles, animals, trees, roadstops…
If you are with Joe, you do not stop at roadstops. I’m driving, coming to the roadstops, the police are waving me to stop and pull over at the roadstops…Joe says, “Drive through the middle”. As I drive through the middle, the cops get more and more insistent that I stop until we get close enough for them to see Joe. Then they wave, give me a thumbs up, and back away. I like driving with Joe.
Where was I. Oh yeah, speeding to Buchanan. On the way to Buchanan we drove through the Firestone plantation. Firestone, the American tire company, owns a plant in Liberia and the runs the world’s largest rubber tree plantation. It is quite impressive and beautiful. Firestone has funded Firestone Harbel Hospital in Harbel Liberia (in the middle of the plantation). This is perhaps the nicest hospital in Liberia and we toured it. This hospital accepts referrals from all of the other hospitals, however, it does accept referrals from all of the free hospitals and implements inexpensive treatments plans for national problems (like prenatal health and sterile deliveries). Dr. Mabande, the head physician there, is a very nice man who is very proud of the facility and strives to improve it. Dr. Snow (who claims to be the world’s only “black snow”) is the chief of anesthesia and was very excited to meet a respiratory therapist here. I now have invites to come back to Firestone and I very much want to.
Joe is very proud of Buchanan and refers to it as “his town”. Buchanan has suffered particularly since the wars. It used to be the sole export port of Liberia and a thriving city. Although the port is reopening currently, much of the city is still in ruins. It has been reduced in most areas to resembling more of a village than a city. Much like if I were bringing someone to Lynchburg, we had many stops at places where he used to hang out, play soccer/football, party, etc.
MODUC is on the outskirts of Buchanan. It is a particularly touching place that exists almost solely on the love of Mrs. Beh (pronounced bay). After the last war the school that is now MODUC was almost destroyed. Also, many of the children in Liberia were orphaned, disabled, or separated from their families. Mrs. Beh began caring for some orphans, opened a school, and in her words, “They just kept coming and I couldn’t turn them away”. There are now over 500 students at the school and over 50 orphans. Trusted Angels had built a bathhouse on the grounds before this trip, and upon our arrival the children performed several songs thanking us for the help (which was particularly awkward for me since I had done none of the previous work). It was very, very touching.
After our welcoming ceremony, we toured the grounds and met several other adults who teach at the school and work with the children. They all know Joe, since he delivers many of the gifts and services donated by Trusted Angels while we are in the states. Several of the kids had current medical problems, so I got to don my stethoscope for the first time this trip. Again…everyone is so grateful…
We headed into town, checked into our hotel (still not roughing it, other than the lack of potable water), had dinner and crashed.
Friday brought about our first casualty in the Trusted Angels crew. Kimmie came down with a wicked bug of some sort and was out of commission. Being sick in Liberia sucks, FYI. No air conditioning + no cold beverages + fever = worse than a Coldplay concert with Staind as the opening act and an encore featuring DMB. This also tied up John since the team doctor needed to take care of our fallen soldier. A really neat experience came out of this.
We had planned to deworm MODUC this day. So, now two of the five of us (one of which is the doctor) are unable to help with this. It turned out great though (although still crappy that Kimmie was sick). Scott, Gabrielle, and I showed up at MODUC, Scott and I each took a bottle of pills, Gabrielle took a Sharpie (for marking the people once they took a pill), and we went to work. We dewormed over 500 children in a matter of hours. It was the first thing I got to do in Africa on my own (well, almost on my own). It was an awesome feeling. We also got to meet all of the kids there and all of the teachers, here some more stories, and watch the school in action. Friday was an awesome day.
After MODUC, we headed out of town. Scott got to drive this time… every American should get to drive through a roadstop at least once in their lives. Once we hit the compound, we all crashed again. The days here are long and hot, we certainly are burning the little calories we consume (little compared to when at home), and we all sleep hard on the hard mattresses.
January 3, 2010, Red Hill, Liberia
New Year’s in Liberia
I have returned to Liberia, which marks my sixth trip and 18th week in the past two years. The drive from the airport is always an adventure, once a bumpy chiropractic adventure, now a white-knuckled ride of “running,” as Liberians refer to speeding. The most stress from this ride comes from pedestrians darting in front of your car, daring fate…or your brakes.
The smells of burning wood and sweat greeted me as welcomed friends and I was pleasantly surprised to see a small sections of Duala Market with single glowing light bulbs hanging outside- electricity! The farther we drove away from the city, the light bulbs were replaced by the orange glow of candles warming the market tables., with people moving among the shadows.
I have been able to accomplish quite a bit despite some transportation challenges. In fact, my first full day here my driver, who was scheduled to arrive at 8:30 (a.m.) did not show up until 5:00 (p.m.). I had carefully composed my lists and to-do’s and had essentially plotted a very scheduled and productive day. After stressing for quite some time over the no-driver situation, I finally gave up and decided to have a late lunch at a restaurant just down the street mysteriously called “Martha’s Elbow.” Here I ate some of the best crispy fried chicken I have ever had, sat under a tree whose bark was covered in thorns, along the St. Paul River, and slipped, almost indiscernibly back into “Liberian mode.” Where, exactly, did I think I was? New York City? Washington, D.C.? Northern Virginia?
So, I simply sat by the beautiful St. Paul River looking at flowers growing in juxtaposition to a wall lined with razor wire at the top, and was transported. I remembered that in so many ways, I was home.
I did have a bit of excitement when a viper dropped out of the bushes but was soon “eliminated” by a broom handle beating, the most common means of snake abolition.
This transportation mishap was a blessing and though I did not accomplish what I had originally planned, the day was not without achievements. I was gifted with the reminder that life pours out like thick syrup here. I met new friends, invaluable contacts and conducted an interview for the video project I am here working on, where I heard words that brought tears to my eyes and brought me back to Liberia with finality.
Because of the limited availability of airfare, I flew into Liberia right after Christmas, which afforded me the opportunity to experience a Liberian New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve here is not about sparkling jewelry, fancy dresses, champagne, balloons, Auld Lang Sein and romantic kisses. It is about a prayerful thankfulness to God for bringing you through another year. Almost everyone in Liberia attends church from 11:00 p.m.- 1 a.m. so that “God can meet us at the new year.”
At the Cathedral there was a crèche in the sanctuary with flashing colored lights, and I was welcomed by many old friends even though I was the only white woman in the building.
Bishop Hart preached a poignant sermon giving thanks to God “for preserving us.” He said we were blessed to remain in his presence for the last few minutes of 2009 and were sanctified in new life for 2010. He encouraged Liberians to stop being afraid, that fear hampers our common life with God.
At midnight, though the service was not over, the whole city erupted with church bells and cheers and then a silent, reverent joy- even in the dark, unspeakable corners of sadness.
At the sound of exploding fireworks, a Liberian friend sitting next to me almost jumped out of his seat, and continued to do so with every successive discharge. Although I would never profess to understand this trauma, I reached a new level of empathy for how profoundly one is scarred from a life with the constant sound of gunfire, and my tears would not stop falling.
Silently, from the pew behind me, I felt someone almost indiscernibly touch my hair. She continued to gently run her fingers through it until I turned to see her hand outstretched with a tissue.
Bishop Hart told us to learn to love our brothers and sisters and to love ourselves.
He said, “Do you want to get love? Get up! Go! You are well.”
Outside on the streets a chanted song rose in the humid night,
“Happy New Year, me not die
Oh, ah, aye, me not die.”
This mission trip to Bromley marked my fifth trip to Liberia, having spent thirteen weeks there in the past two years. Needless to say, Liberia has taken permanent residence in my heart. In fact, I was brought to tears many times from friends calling and saying, "Welcome home, Kimmie!" This is exactly how I feel. Home.
I also felt tremendous joy in introducing my friends to the extraordinary girls at Bromley, to their teachers and their caretakers. What an honor. We were all profoundly affected. We hold memories of successful work, but also of voices rising in song, laughter floating up like bubbles, profound conversations, tiny hands finding ours, and of eyes that hold a deep joy even in the midst of such hardship.
The theme we chose for this mission came directly from words and visions of the school's founders, carved into the walls of the Julia C. Emery Hall over 100 years ago, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6). The primary focus of our mission was to provide the Bromley teachers with professional development, utilizing critical thinking skills and communication through visual art and oral and written language.
This particular mission came as a direct result of the requests for professional development from the teachers and staff at Bromley. For months and months leading up to the mission, all the participants put their expertise- and their hearts- into planning. We also collected and shipped 49 boxes of teaching aids and school supplies and carried 13 extra suitcases packed with mission materials to leave at Bromley.
Teaching seminars, small group work and team-building activities for the teachers coincided with many student art projects designed to not only offer interpersonal social skills and teamwork, but also to address the hunger for creative channels, which was expressed on my last trip. We also gave out certificates for successful completion of the program, Mission T-shirts, and goodie bags (provided by the congregation at St. Philip’s, Durham, NC) for all the students and staff.
In addition, one of our missioners, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Pulmonology, Allergy and Immunology at the University of Virginia, Dr. John Hunt, was able to conduct preliminary assessments of medical needs at the Bromley Clinic, the J.F.K. Medical Center and ELWA Hospital, a project that has been developing over the last 10 months.
The results were rewarding and enriching for everyone, and even more than the successful project, we continued to build relationships. As Buck Blanchard, World Missions Coordinator for the Diocese of Virginia says, "It's the people, not the project."
Everyone came home with many letters of thanks and love from the staff and the students, which will help carry us all through our own challenging times at home. On our last day, filled with songs and cake and tearful goodbyes, I told the girls that I felt a little sad, but I thought I could speak for the group when I said our hearts did not feel heavy. Our hearts were light because they were filled with their love and their light. They are lights in our darkness, stars in our night and they will always remain in our prayers. Then, we all sang, "This Little Light of Mine," and clapped and cried and laughed. Hide it under a bushel? No possible way!
Just as the students and staff at Bromley take comfort in knowing there is someone across the ocean who remembers and loves them, we feel exactly the same way. It's as if we have brushed fingers with angels and in so doing will never be completely lost. Hand-in-hand we can do so much. Isn't it so exciting to dream of where the next step will lead?
A special thanks to all the missioners who worked selflessly to provide a lasting impact on The Bromley Episcopal Mission School:
This year’s members of the mission team included Rev. Kate Bryant, Assistant to the Rector for Adult Ministries at St. James’, Leesburg, five individuals with a total of 142 years of accumulated professional experience in education (Diane Bell, Nancy Chapin, and Elaine Nunnally of St. James’—Leesburg, VA; and Laurraine Landolt and Paul Miller of St. Peter’s—Purcellville, VA); a world-class pediatrician, Dr. John Hunt, from Church of Our Savior—Charlottesville, VA; a professional with 30 years of information technology experience, Judy Hall, also from St. Peter’s—Purcellville, VA; and a professional with 15 years of experience in community development, Donna Rewalt, from St. Philip’s—Durham, NC.
April 2, 2009, Bushrod Island, Liberia
After a few weeks of working in Liberia, I find myself more and more at home. Sure, when I’m exhausted and the ten mile trip to Monrovia takes over an hour in the traffic, when I have been sufficiently launched through the spine cracking craters in the streets, when I am pained to numbness from people with missing limbs pounding on my car window-and my heart- when my clothes,upon removal need tongs to lift into a bucket of soap and my hair is a perfect likeness of Medusa’s, or when I finally splurge and buy a small carton of milk that ends up tasting like Bob Evans sausage….I do wish for home.
However, people here welcome me into their families and their lives- which comes with the added luxury of their Liberian meals of pepper soup, palava sauce and cassava- all with the signature Liberian spice- and I always find that I want to stay.
Two weeks ago, I was invited to attend the inauguration of the University of Liberia’s new president. This was a steamy, outdoor event full of regalia and fanfare. Liberia’s president Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, was also in attendance. Most intriguing was a traditional wooden horn blown at certain points during the ceremony, sounding a long, deep moan. One man told me this horn has a long tradition and was used for chiefs and kings and now for presidents. Though I melted in my suit and we were there for a total of eight hours, including a dinner reception afterwards, I enjoyed myself immensely, moving a little deeper into this cultural immersion.
I also had an invitation to visit the schools on the Firestone Compound that are open to employees and children in neighboring communities. These schools actually had computers, gymnasiums, libraries, physics and chemistry labs. They offered a little hope that not only Bromley, but also all of the Liberian schools, can be restored to this level someday. I also discovered that they award college scholarships and that Bromley students (or any student in Liberia) can apply.
Driving past the perfect rows of rubber trees, curved from the ocean wind, looking like a regiment of old men laboring across the hills, the weight of their burdens bending them towards the earth, I saw Liberia, a sad yet resilient image of life in spite of everything.
But, for the majority of my days, I have been teaching at Bromley and loving every second. They have confided much to me, and just being with them and seeing their almost feisty hope, gives me hope.
Vestergaard-Frandsen, a Danish company I contacted while in the States, came to Bromley to donate insecticide-treated mosquito screens for the window and also water filtration devices that purify any water into safe drinking water. Their speaker engaged the students during his presentation and was met with loud applause. He promised to remember Bromley for future donations.
In addition, a Lt. Colonel from the US Marines donated boxes of toys and sweets that his mother had sent for distribution to children in Liberia. These will be used as the girls’ Easter treats and everyone was thrilled to receive such a gift.
The next phase of agricultural development is going well, with a new field cleared for planting cassava and a business plan in development for the palm oil project. Thanks to the generosity of St. Philip’s in Durham, North Carolina and also leftover Mustard Seed grant money from St. James’, Leesburg, the palm processing equipment is being ordered. Great enthusiasm surrounds the agriculture, as it is a means of sustainable food and revenue for Bromley.
So now comes the part where, having been back for three weeks, I must start looking for a way to return. My job may be concluded, but I will never be able to get these girls, or this place, very far from my heart. In fact, if I could design a fantasy job, it would involve returning to Liberia to live and write, not so much as a sociological study, but more as an adopted family journal. I would also love to teach more at Bromley.
Just as the earthy smells, the salty aroma of the sea, the deafening rains, the vibrant colors and even the city sounds are stitched into my soul, I can’t help but wonder what Liberia will remember of me? Will the children play a game I taught them, write a story in a journal I gave them? Will I live in the memory of a friend or in the rains that I loved?
For now, I leave with the knowledge that I must return someday, against all odds…
From Kebbeh, 20, a senior at Bromley:
What Makes Me Happy
When ever I’m in need of money
People look at me and give
Me money, but I am not happy.
When ever I speak, people sit
And listen to what I have
To say, but I am not happy.
It is God’s grace that
Makes me happy and the
Future he has for me.
People will like to see me
Going down tomorrow at the
Point of death and sit to
Laugh at me, but God
Will never laugh at me
Because he loves me.
I am down of the idea
Of being happy. Only as
Far as God’s grace, I go
In life. Let the Lord make
My dream brighter.
Monrovia, Liberia, March 22, 2009
Sometimes I am astounded by the fact that I am actually in Africa. I have so many friends here now, that it seems like another home, but then I will be staring out at the St. Paul River flowing past Bromley, or talking in a classroom of students, or sitting in a packed church singing, dancing and clapping to the drums and sassas of the offertory praise and thanksgiving, and I will think, my gosh… I am in Africa!
I have returned to Liberia to assist Bromley, for a sad final journey for quite some time, as my contract through the Diocese will expire at the end of this trip. Through my journeys to Liberia, however, I have learned that the great thing about life is that you never know what is around the bend and I must hang my hopes there. The smiles on the faces of the Bromley girls, however, make me eager to live in the moment and simply enjoy them.
From the moment I descended the airplane steps to the tarmac and breathed the rich, earthy smell of Liberia, I couldn’t believe the wash of serenity. How could I, in the midst of such abject poverty, in a tiny country that holds the largest UN deployment in the world, feel such peace?
After a week here, I am just beginning to settle back into “Liberian time,” and the slow, methodical, relaxed ways of conducting business. The wind has been blowing up to 25 knots since I have been here, which is typical preceding the rainy season, and offers a fabulous reprieve to the 90° heat.
It always takes a few days to adjust to the rhythms of generator power, like when we lose electricity from a summer storm at home and I still flip the light switch in every room I walk into. Here, I come back at the end of the day and think I will get some computer work done, or charge my phone and make calls, but then remember that the generator will not be on until dark.
Instead, I am forced out of my familiar routine. I am forced to observe more, to walk outside of the compound gates and “sit and talk” with new friends. Maybe this is what makes Liberia seem like home. Maybe home is not a computer, phone, iPod, appliance, house or car. Maybe home is a place where we truly learn to enjoy each other. The day is over. The work is done. Turn all gadgets off. Turn the rest of life on.
I have only been gone for 4 months, but upon my return, I see that much has changed. The road from the airport was actually smooth! There are road crews out in abundance around Duala Market and cinderblock walls, the sounds of hammering and even new plantings of palm and cassava are immerging from the earth. There is a slightly altered morale…as if life itself is beginning again.
Even Bromley’s spirit is better. They have a new principal giving new structure and the girls seem a little more hopeful. The garden that was begun during my last trip now has corn, eggplant, cassava, potato greens and peppers growing and the bulletin board just inside of the school’s entrance brags of the developing agriculture program and shows pictures of the girls gardening.
In between business and meetings in Monrovia, I have been working with the students on art and writing projects. It is incredible to witness their “ah-ha” moments, their discoveries of new perspectives. I see why my teacher friends love it so much.
Today was Liberian Episcopalians’ Mother’s Day, “Mothering Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday” at the Trinity Cathedral in Monrovia. The four and a half hour service was not cumbersome, even though we were, as is typical, drenched in sweat. This Sunday, marking the halfway point in lent, is a Sunday of celebration in Liberia. It is a Sunday to honor mothers and the nourishment and care that they provide. As Bishop Hart said, mothers are a light, a light in the darkness, a light home.
Even now, almost six years after the war’s end, I was shocked by the prayer just before communion, “Thank you for sparing our lives.” I forget sometimes, just what they all have suffered- in fact, I cannot, in my wildest nightmare, envision it. But, here they are, celebrating mothers, coming together, buds in the cinders.
I am learning that we can do nothing on our own and that Jesus asks us to do a simple thing…shine our light. Even if we all have the smallest light, together we are bright. Hundreds of people in the congregation came to the front of the church to light a candle to honor their mother. Hundreds of candles illuminated a handmade wooden stand and a beautiful alter.
Hundreds of people in a church following the day’s theme, as we all must…”Go Light the World.”
I have been home for almost two months now and the Bromley girls still burn in my daily memories. I thought I needed to wait until I returned to Liberia again to continue my eJournals, when what is happening at home is actually very vital.
On the business side of things, I am seeking 70 (!) $1000 scholarships for the orphaned girls at Bromley. The school is now out of resources.
Recently, I read a letter from a girl who could no longer attend school. She wrote that she needs to sell water before she eats and that she has been offered money for sex. She said she did not want to be on the streets as a prostitute and that if she could find a way out of this place, she would be glad. It is very hard to imagine from our vantage point, but these are the horrific realities for girls who cannot attend school.
Please stay tuned to BromleySchool.org for upcoming student profiles so you can choose a girl to sponsor if you feel moved to do so.
We also have some grant proposals currently being considered for building staff housing to attract additional qualified teachers.
These children are hungry to learn and view their education as a gift and an opportunity to change not only their own futures, but also the futures of countless others around them. Without the proper staff to guide them, however, these goals will be impossible to achieve. Keep them in your prayers for these potential grants.
We are also planning a big fundraising dinner on February 9. This promises to be an amazing evening with fine food, silent and live auctions and music. Please contact me if you would like to attend.
On the spiritual side… I miss those girls!! I would like to raise enough money to return and complete our agricultural projects and, of course, to see my friends at Bromley.
I think of them daily, wondering what they are doing, hoping that they are busy learning and not feeling too alone. In their letters, there is a recurring phrase, “Please, do not forget me,” sometimes repeated three or four times in one letter.
I think that they believe when there is someone out there who remembers them, who loves them, even if they are separated by thousands of miles, they are never entirely lost.
I am holding the handmade, white prayers beads that I bought in Monrovia. They were originally intended as Rosary beads, but for me, they are a link to the Bromley girls. With each of the 59 beads, I say a girl’s name in a prayer that strings us together.
As I roll the little beads in my fingers, I remember their faces, their fingers in my hair, their arms touching mine as we sat next to each other on a hard, concrete step-- or sometimes they hauled a desk outside for me to sit in, then surrounded me. The little ones would fling their arms around my neck and some would take my hand and gently touch the inside of my wrist where blue veins bulged up. They would look at their wrist, then back at mine.
“You know,” I would say, “our skin is a different pigment, but the blood flowing through our veins is the same color.”
Love for them flows through my veins and back to them now, and though an ocean divides us, I hope they can feel it.
I arrived to snow in Brussels and people walking around in fur coats with Chanel handbags buying Belgian chocolates. It’s like I am floating in space between two worlds. As sadness over leaving the girls at Bromley threatens to overtake me while I spend seven hours in the Brussels airport, facing yet another eight-hour flight home (the last leg was 9 ½ hours) I need to add some levity… so this is what I have come up with:
REMEDIES, RECIPES & INSTRUCTIONS
“How to Drive in Liberia”
1. (The most important rule) Blare your horn at every opportunity meeting a minimum quota of 100 times per 5 minutes. Do not forget to alarm women with small babies walking on the side of the road, taxi cabs trying to merge into traffic, teenaged boys pushing hundreds of pounds of water in a wheelbarrow, trucks trying to turn around as if they have anywhere else to go (unless, of course, it is you who are trying to turn around in which case blow your horn back at the cars blowing their horn at you.)
2. Blast the repeating BBC News on the radio until you have memorized each and every word of the day’s headlines
3. Make sure your passengers are so hot that they can’t breathe, sweat is dripping from their skin and clothes so profusely that they need a bucket, they are turning a strange color of chartreuse and scarlet, they are bordering on losing their lunch and when, because of the engine heat, when they open the door, the 95 degree air feels like air conditioning
4. Because of the new law, buckle seatbelts rapidly and only when approaching policemen
5. When angry, drive 85 mph launching passengers to the moon when you encounter potholes
6. Play “chicken” when passing
7. Come as close as physically possible to motorcycles without actually hitting them.
8. When truck won’t start, open hood and stare
9. Do not turn truck off or it will not start
10. Have a constant, animated conversation with drivers around you as if they can actually hear you
1. For Malaria: Scrape Pig Root, cut it into small pieces, put in water and let it sit. It will drive the malaria away and also drive the cold from your back.
2. Migraines: use the same process as above but soak in liquor instead of water
3. Joloboh Leaf- (this is very bitter)- boil it, drink it and it will “run your stomach”
4. For vomiting and diarrhea -Virginia Tree Leaves- chew them with palm kernel
5. Chicken Pox and Measles- Pigeon Peal Leaf- pound it in mottle with white chalk and mold into a ball. Rub on skin
6. Typhoid- African Pineapple- wash it but don’t peel, cut, boil, drink the water it makes.
African Pepper Sauce
“Grind the peppers, small onions and small garlic. Put pot on the fire. Add little oil. Burn oil. Add peppers and small-small water. Let it fry good. Put in seasoning cube. Let it steam good to cook seeds with just small (a little bit) of fire.”
So, God IS great and before I left, with the help of a friend from the National Episcopal Church in New York, I was able to fund the garden for Bromley, purchase all the tools and seeds and pay to have the land cleared, the beds laid and the project supervised by our agricultural expert. The garden will be used solely to feed the girls and they will help take care of it and learn a little about horticulture. They were so excited, especially when they saw the land actually being cleared. It was happening and not just being discussed!
The piggery and poultry will also have to wait on the back burner until I return, but we are moving. We are moving!
More good news…on the morning I was leaving Liberia, my friend’s father invited me to breakfast and named a professional who might be able to develop a master plan for Bromley free of charge. He will have lunch with him this week.
Also…out of hundreds of people on my plane from Liberia to Brussels, I sat next to a lady who is a Bromley Alumnae. She said this was her first time back to Liberia in 26 years and she wants to help with something but was so overwhelmed. She has volunteered to help me find alumnae and claims to know many in the states!
She had fond memories of going to school at Bromley, telling stories of everything from baking their own bread, lining up for inspection in the morning then marching two by two to the “principal’s stairs” for the pledge of allegiance and the raising of the flag. She talked of dances where a neighboring boys’ school was invited and how they had to remain a certain distance form the boys while dancing. She also talked of the “kaka-kola” or the spirits at night. This is apparently a word passed on by generations of students. Rumor has it that Bromley was built on a cemetery, she said, so the word came from the footsteps followed by a scraping sound they heard at night.
We both agreed that it was no accident to be seated together (a “so-called-coincidence,” as Father John always says) and she assured me that she was still in touch and would help me reassemble the group.
So much good has been set into motion. In one of my first eJounals, I said I felt like I had jumped into a river and was willing to be swept away. My new enlightenment is that the waters take me to people I would never have met otherwise. The waters surround me, sustain me and transport me on the journey God means for me to follow.
On my last day at Bromley, I sat with the girls, who all had long faces. They played with my hair, held my hands and spoke of my return. An extended good-bye ensued, lasting almost an hour, during which time I managed to keep it together. Hawa, the little girl who said she cried for me every night, stayed away until I was about to get into the truck and then came running up to me, wrapped her little arms tightly around me and would not let go. This last hug set free the oceans of tears that had been hovering under the surface. I told them everything would be okay…getting better every day…and I assured them of my return, although I am not even sure how this will happen. But it was a promise, so it must.
As the truck pulled away and I hung out the window, frantically waving back to all of those girls with tears streaming down their faces, I knew I would find a way. The words “my calling” sound inconsequential. The only significant truth is…these are the girls I love…and that is enough.
Bromley Mission School, Liberia
I am writing from Bromley as I have spent the past weekend there celebrating the school’s 103rd Birthday! Maggie Johnson, the person who first brought me to Liberia, her home, arrived a few days before and we gave out all the student and teacher goodie bags. Everyone was elated to receive the gifts, especially all the hair bows. Thank you everyone who contributed! They have already written a thank you note that I will bring back with me.
Saturday, a neighboring high school, B.W. Harris, in Monrovia, came for a “baseball” game (played with a kickball and no bats,) and Bromley conquered 16 to 10. The girls also played volleyball and there was African music blasting all day, even during the game.
I got a little sunburned or a “sun rash” as the girls called it as I sat outside with them, so thrilled to see them having fun, laughing, dancing…not a typical scene at all. The Bromley Board provided a picnic of hotdogs (Liberian style served cold with a BBQ sauce,) biscuits and cookies. I stayed late into the evening like that stubborn party guest who just won’t go home, but I just didn’t want to leave them.
This is the hard part. As I drove home that night, knowing I would be leaving within the week, I felt the sadness seeping in, like a cloth thrown on a spill, feeling heavier with every mile of dirt road trailing out between us.
Sunday, they had mass and Monday, November 17, Bromley’s actual birthday, they had a talent show and then a dance. Michael was the D.J. and I was mesmerized by the rhythm they all possessed. Even the four year-olds could put any American to shame on the dance floor. Soon faces were dripping with sweat and clothes could have been wrung out, but they never fatigued. They rocked the house until the last song, still begging for more.
At one point, I stepped outside to catch the river breeze and was followed, as usual by a little knot of girls. They all sat with me on the step, eating avocados from a tree on the property that is ripe with them. They also braided my hair and, wow! Was that so much cooler! I wish I could have it done everyday.
Also big news: yesterday Nets for Life finally came to Bromley, educated the girls on Malaria prevention and distributed 120 insecticide treated nets to all the boarding students. This was a very exciting day indeed, one that will potentially save many lives. Not one of the students at Bromley has not either had or known someone who had, or died from, Malaria. Now every student has a net to hang over her bed. Many thanks to Minnie, Wloti and the entire Liberian Nets for Life team!
Today, Maggie, Michael, Juanita and I are going to Bromley to celebrate all the November and December birthdays, a tradition started by Maggie several years ago. She is bringing cake, which is a huge treat for the girls.
As much as I miss my friends and family at home, I am really struggling with leaving all of my 187 “play daughters” at Bromley. As some of you know, the girls often ask someone to be their “play mother,” which is a guardian angel of sorts. I think they put much more weight into the title than we think they do. As Rev. Mary said, in Africa, words are sacred.
Driving past all the decrepit buildings, the homes with walls of woven reeds and roofs of scrap trash weighted down with rocks, all sights that horrified me when I first came to Liberia, I started thinking that one could adjust to this life. I have become accustomed to no electricity, running water, TV, internet, AC. I have adjusted o a deficiency of simple pleasures like turning the tap and being able to drink the water or brush your teeth, flipping a switch any time you want in order to get light, instead of stuffing every available socket with various camera, cell phone and computer batteries when the generator comes on well after dark.
Perhaps I am just romanticizing the situation, but I don’t think so. I have been interviewing the students for a video presentation and when they express their ambitions and their feelings of privilege to be receiving even this restricted education and when I look into those faces so full of hope, as if we (all of us who have spent time or given financial assistance here) could actually save them, then I know....yes, one…I… could adjust, even find joy, through the hearts of the children in Africa.
Maybe someday. As they say in Liberia, “By God’s grace.”
I made an interesting discovery while touring the Bromley property. They have resources right now that could bring them instant revenue. They have a plethora of palm trees, the fruit of which is falling to the ground and rotting when it could be harvested with a minimal expense. In fact, it was harvested and sold until the wars closed the school. They only need to clear the area, purchase some equipment and obtain the manpower. From the palm nut almost no part of it is wasted and the palm oil that is made can be sold on the market for profit to help cover the scholarship and operating deficits. For roughly $5000, the whole project would be up and running and funded through the time it would take to generate a profit.
Though it is far from solving all of Bromley’s needs, it is a start, and if they never start how can they arrive? I read something once that has become my motto: If not now, then when? If not you, then who?
This is such an exciting prospect to me because it is exactly the type of activity that could set them back on the road to self-sufficiency.
I also obtained an estimate from an agricultural expert for the planting of a garden and learned that this is the prime time to plant as it is just after the rainy season. The students would help maintain it and learn a skill in the process. They could have gardens for each grade and take pride in their produce and participation in the school’s survival and their own educations. For under $1500, Bromley could have a garden, the tools to maintain it and, most importantly, food for the girls!
For an even longer term goal, they could have a poultry and piggery business as they also had before the war.
While finding the funds before I leave in one week seems impossible, I know that God showed me all of this for a reason, so I will put my nose to the grindstone and keep the faith.
God IS great after all!!
This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in Liberia and probably the most meaningful Thanksgiving I have spent. Thanksgiving in Liberia is all about…well, thanks. You get up. You go to church. You reflect on your blessings. You bring the fruits of your labor to be blessed and auctioned, the proceeds of which all go to the church. No turkey. No feast. We simply breathed the air that was thick with gratitude.
Rev. Fr. Victor M. King, Vicar at Trinity Cathedral, in an impoverished country where most people would find it impossible to be thankful, encouraged the congregation to do just that. He said that we all woke up and we all came to church. We were all given the gift of another day, of life.
“Life will be difficult,” said Father King. “We are assured of that. But- someday- the light will shine! And, if we want Liberia to rise again, if we want her to shine, this cannot be accomplished without first stopping and giving thanks for what we already have!”
“Amens” resounded from a congregation largely comprised of people who live without running water, without light, without electricity. People who live in houses where a bed is a mattress on the floor, a kitchen is a smoky room with a small pot of burning coal, where furniture, if you have any is shredded almost beyond recognition.
Liberians echo “Amen” for a different reason. As my friend, said, “In this country, we are just so thankful for peace.” She told me her personal story of escape when the rebels took her house, of losing everything, of friends and relatives taken in car trunks to executions, of being lucky enough to be packed on a fishing vessel for five days with a baby, of watching the black smoke envelop her beloved city Monrovia as she drifted out to sea, of living as a refugee, but still…of living.
I have heard so many horror stories. I really cannot begin to imagine how one ever recovers from living through this, or if one ever does.
Today is Sunday, three days later. I went to church, then to Bromley to do absolutely nothing but sit and talk, as one of the girls requested on my first trip to Liberia almost one year ago. We sat outside with a strong breeze wrinkling the surface of the river. Solace surrounded us with long, comfortable silences alternated with many quiet questions about life in America. They told me of their ambitions to be a pilot, a nurse, an engineer.
What I did not tell them is that Sunday in America is quite different for those of us caught in the Northern Virginia frenzy of schedules and soccer games and meetings and shopping and television.
What I did tell them was how much I loved sitting outside on a hard stone step with them and how much I loved them and was grateful to have them in my life…I told them all of this without saying a word…just by being there. They are my Thanksgiving.
I have not seen television at all since I have been here, not even for the election, an event that would have had me riveted to the TV. This taught me that no matter how many hours I would have spent watching the coverage, at that point, it would not have changed the outcome.
What changes outcome in general is action.What will change the lives of these girls is action. I was teaching a writing class last week, incorporating a request from Rev. Mary. The room was packed and noisy, so in order to regain order I asked the students if they would rather act out the play I was reading to them. This got their attention and they fervently volunteered to play the various roles.
I had not taken into consideration just how far behind these girls were in their education because of the school closings during the war. I was soon mortified however when I listened to these girls (ages 12-16 in this class) struggle to read the words. It took so long to finish a sentence that the meaning was lost, but still I let them continue. I let them continue because they volunteered to do this, because I wanted so desperately for them to believe in themselves.
They finished to loud applause, an applause that will haunt me long after I return home, an applause that will be the percussion of my heartbeat so I will never stop trying to find them help. I always want them to have the luxury to hope, the conviction to dream.
I will close with a prayer that Buck Blanchard, World Missions Coordinator for the Diocese of Virginia, sent me off with…
Disturb us, O Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves;
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little.
We arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, O Lord, when,
With the abundance of things we possess,
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, O Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show your mastery
Where losing sight of land
We shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes
And push us into the future
In strength, courage, hope and love.
We ask in the name of our Captain
Who is Jesus.
~Sir Francis Drake, 1577
Monday, November 3, 2008. Monrovia, Liberia
Every Sunday I am invited a little deeper into true Liberian culture. This Sunday we went to Trinity Cathedral in Monrovia where Bishop Hart preached a lovely sermon on servanthood and Michael Sie chanted the most beautiful, transporting version of the Prayers of the People I have ever heard. I sat next to my new friend, Chrichstian (no “s”) who was so polite and gracious he wouldn’t even let me hold the hymnal we were sharing. It took about two minutes to feel like I had known him forever.
After church, I was told we were going “to sit with friends,” which turned out to be walking to a tiny, dark yet cheerful room called Dat Restaurant, joining friends from church and, in true Episcopalian form, drinking Club beer (made in Liberia) and shouting every church hymn we knew. The hours evaporated and somehow, I never wanted to leave…these people or this land.
But alas, naptime arrived and my driver took me home and, since I have never been much of a napper, here I am.
Last week, I learned that palm nuts are harvested for making oil to eat, to cook with or to burn. Normally my ultra-paranoid toxin-conscious American self would run and hide from eating a fruit that was cooked in a substance that doubles as fuel, but somehow, in Liberia it seems right.
What doesn’t seem right is that Bromley has hundreds of palm and rubber trees ready to harvest, as I was told by the grounds maintenance man who has worked there for 23 years as a teacher for most of the time. This is instant revenue with little cost up front. He also told me of his idea to have each class have a garden…brilliant. I will continue to investigate what can be done.
I learned all of this walking the property grounds where the ruins of missionary houses and barns were dotted along the riverbanks. I had a vision of a thriving, productive school community. It is within grasp.
I delivered the white church dresses that Frank donated and the girls are so proud that when I photograph them, I notice they had not removed the piece of paper (used to identify the recipient) with their name written on it. It was till pinned to their dress. Since I arrived on a Saturday morning, their hair is not yet plaited, but they don’t care. They wanted me to take the picture.
Some of the girls’ shoes are in horrible condition. Coral had on two mismatched ill-fitting broken flip-flops. Michael told me that the rainy season ruins shoes, but I think the lack of supplies is the problem at Bromley.
When I drove through the gates of Bromley that morning, it was laundry day and the entire front lawn was covered in drying laundry. I looked like a party and the aftermath of a hurricane all at once. The spiky grass propping the clothes off the dirt and the scorching sun made quick drying time, I’m certain, and people have been drying laundry outside all over the world for much longer than inside- but today it seemed so symbolic of the flung-out-to-dry feeling some of these girls hold inside.
One of the Bromley girls, Charlesetta, asked me to come live with them forever and another, Hawa, wrote me a note saying she cries for me every night and she dreams of me and my daughter, Gabrielle, when she sleeps. Where does one put all of this? I wonder.
A few random images:
Sunday football (soccer) game outside the compound walls. The goalie is wearing ripped yellow flip-flops but still manages to defend the goal magnificently, the grass is knee high in places, the palm trees sway in the background. I have come to watch Billie and Bor Bor play and am not only the only white person among the spectators but also the only girl. I make loads of friends, just the same. Walking to the field, Billie showed me a shortcut and I was mortified when we emerged in someone’s back yard and two people were covered in soap, in mid-bath. They didn’t seem to even notice me as I averted my eyes and walked quickly past.
Driving home from dinner at night the streets are crowded with people walking across the bridges and through Duala Market and dark except for vendors in shacks still open for business burning candles in gallon sized glass jars or wedged in among a pile of garlic on a wooden table. The soft glow is mesmerizing and inviting and I wish I could stop.
Remember the plantains from my friend? Well, Juanita’s cook, Joe, asked me if I would like him to fry some and when I said YES! He served me an impossibly large platter full. “Now what?” I thought, but they were still warm and caramelized crispy on the outside, soft and sweet inside…I ate every single morsel.
A storm approaches as I am working in my room. The palm trees are impossibly chartreuse against the charcoal sky. After the clouds unload, I walk to the gazebo in a world that is fresh and dripping, where rose petals are scattered along the walkway as if waiting for a wedding.
On the streets of Monrovia, a beggar approaches the cars and bangs on windows with his arms, both of which were amputated at the elbows, a common practice during village raids during the war. He stands in the middle of the street shaking his head so that it is obvious he has an itch. He throws his arm up over and over to no avail.
I am sitting outside the gazebo in the compound where I am staying listening to the rising tide lap at the cement barrier looped with razor wire in front of the house. I am concurrently thankful for the reprieve and guilt-ridden because of it. Dark, pregnant storm clouds hover above the horizon and I am so grateful for the strip of fading blue sky below them that allows me to witness a tangerine sunset. I watch two men in an ancient dugout canoe glide with stealth through the water, trolling their lines for fish- a fascinating art to witness. When I look up again, they are gone and I know they are near but they have slipped into the shadows now. I am disappointed I can no longer be a spectator but reassured somehow of their presence. I suppose this is not unlike how I will feel when I leave Liberia.
Day gives way to night. Tree frogs screech like whistle-blowing cops on a power trip. The strobe light of heat lightening flashes behind the sliver of a crescent moon with Venus just below it, dropped like a tear.
Wednesday, October 29, (President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s birthday), Bushrod Island,Liberia,
So, today I spent a humid morning on the Gazebo working on the compilation of Bromley’s strategic plan. The breeze kept me fairly comfortable compared to yesterday when my clothes were plastered to me as if I had just walked out of the St. Paul River.
Yesterday was one of those (if you are American) extremely frustrating African days beginning with driving into Monrovia, NEVER any easy task, waiting in the car while my friend and trip facilitator, Michael, tried to (unsuccessfully) print something from the internet, driving to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meet a very generous contact who offered to take me to the Immigration Office to get my visa extended without extortion. He also offered to print the document, but after a security process to enter the building where the president works, in the end, his Internet service was down. Instant Internet service is something I definitely take for granted at home. So, we left and proceeded to the Immigration office, which was under renovation and therefore dark and very close, to find out that I needed to come back later. (I must say thank you to my contact however, for ensuring that my return would be hassle-free). Then we went to the Internet cafe to try again, still without success. Then we went to the tailor to pick up the girls’ dresses and were told to come back on Friday. Then I went to the American Embassy to inquire about a USAID grant and Michael’s visa (he wants to come to VTS next fall) and was told to come back later. By this time it was about 500 degrees and I was nearing my expiration date being jolted through the mortar pocked streets. We then proceeded to a Bromley Board meeting and after returned to my house then back to the Embassy where I left the documents I obtained on a counter behind some kryptonite door out of a Superman movie. Then, we began the painfully long drive back outside of the city in much traffic to do some computer work. Finally when Nathaniel and Michael camto take me to dinner, the nearby restaurant was closed. So we trekked back into the city to get sandwiches to go. Sheesh. Still makes me tired. Okay, it is funny now, especially to those of you who have been to Africa.
I usually work outside because the generator is cut off at 7 a.m., so the limited light in my room is not sufficient to stare at a computer all day unless I want to be blind when I return home. It is usually cooler outside than inside anyway and Juanita has wonderful porches. I have been feeling the stress of not producing the written strategic plan as quickly as desired until it dawned on me today that the plan could be finished at home if it needed to be. My Bromley girls, however were here before me for only a brief period. For those of you who are familiar with me and my lists and my plans…I know! I must sound like an alien!
When my computer battery ran out, I headed off to Bromley. Nathaniel and I stopped for fuel at a small roadside stand where 4 glass gallon jars of gas were funneled into the running car while I prayed we would not blow up.
When I got to Bromley, I received tomes of letters. The girls keep asking me for more names of people to write to, so if any of you would like to receive a letter, please email me! Right now, my melting brain comes up with a few names that (sorry!) will probably receive a million letters apiece.
Every time I walk in the door, the little ones all latch on to me, literally holding whatever they can- my hand, my elbow, my pants, my shirt- and we walk around together as one little bunch of grapes. I love it. The older ones come to hug me and wait until the little one dissipate to come sit beside me or just hold my hand.
I try to arrive near the end of their school day so as not to be too much of a disruption. Today we went upstairs to the empty dorm room and played ball since it was dumping rain outside.
Earlier, on the way to Bromley, Nathaniel drove me to Duala market, a big muddy puddle of muck with hundreds of street vendors selling everything from yams to plastic buckets and rusted car parts. He knew just the place to take me for composition books, or copy books as the students call them. I got 48 books for $10, so that I could actually give each girl a book to keep for use a journal. Tomorrow, I will buy more if I can. At 2 p.m., I taught a writing class that was supposed to be optional for juniors or seniors but every two seconds the door opened with another student dragging a desk in until the room was bursting at the seams. This was an optional, after-school class, mind you.
The focus for today was journaling, where I explained they could write whatever was on their mind, draw pictures, collect wild flowers, and write letters. We then moved on to "story starters." I had them all write one sentence to begin any story of their choosing. Most of them were very conservative like, "I love the Bromley Mission School," or "Today I walked to the market." I did get one, "Today was the best day of my life."
When I explained that their stories could go wherever they wanted them to go, that there were no rules in this type of writing, that their imaginations were an endless ocean of adventure and magic, I silenced the room. Big, incredulous eyes stared back at me, and as my Dad always says when we are thinking hard, "I could smell the smoke burning."
They especially loved the idea of no rules, which ironically made them do whatever I asked them to do. I always said they could pick and choose from the writing suggestions I wrote on the chalkboard, but they all stayed long after their dinner bell until I had to physically remove myself so they would not go to bed hungry. I told them we could start a writing group that they could continue even after I return to the US. I cannot wait to read what they wrote tomorrow.
These girls are so hungry for knowledge, the expansion of the horizons in their narrow worlds, brand new possibilities for their futures and any and all attention we anyone gives them. As Neil, 17, said on our last mission trip, "these kids don’t even have textbooks and we complain that we have too much homework."
Yesterday, my little friend Billie came bursting in my room after school to show me his Batman costume. I didn’t even know they celebrated Halloween in this way, but apparently it is just school parties- no trick-or-treating, which is a very bizarre tradition, when you step onto another continent and consider. We played football (soccer) in the driveway, which was quite comical as I was wearing flip-flops.
We then went for another walk outside the compound gates. Everyone knows me now (probably as the crazy white lady who waves to every single person she passes). Just as we were about to re-enter the compound, the older lady I pass every day, who calls me "daughter" and is always dressed in the most vibrant colors, handed me a rather heavy plastic bag. This woman, who sat on a stool in a mud shack all day, selling a few items to the rare passer-by, had given me a bag stuffed with beautiful yellow plantains. I have learned from a previous mistake that it is insulting to politely say, "Oh, no, I couldn’t," so I thanked her profusely and huge tears dripped down my cheeks when I walked away. Liberia remains a place of pure emotions openly shared, of overflowing hope and of kindness like none I have ever encountered.
I am writing in near darkness now on pad and paper, waiting for the generator, so I must stop. I will close my eyes, see the African faces I love, and find light.
Wow. It seems like I have been here forever in some ways and in other ways like I only just arrived. I had a very busy week. The Bromley Board met for the remainder of the strategic planning on Tuesday and I have been trying to compile the document ever since.
I have made so many sweaty trips back and forth to town (sometimes several a day) that I have begun to lose my bearings. I am slipping into that too-far-from-home mode. I forget what the date is; I am losing track of world events; when my daughter called and said she was going to a Halloween party, I felt so displaced. Halloween? Fall? I am on another continent where time runs at a different parallel- so much so that it might as well be another planet. Time here is not turned by the seasons (other than rainy season and dry season, although by my judgment, it is simply always rainy season). It is turned instead by the turning of one steamy day melting into the next, by work days rolling into weekends, by rainy afternoon storms fading into brilliant, velvet, starry nights.
When I was at Bromley on Friday, I took the tailor from town with me to measure the girls who did not have white church dresses. A Solar Light for Africa participant from this past summer’s mission trip to install solar panels at Bromley, Frank, donated the funds to purchase white church dresses (traditional uniform for Sunday). Since it was United Nations Day and therefore a holiday, I could just be with the girls. We talked and played their circle games (where they were very entertained by my in-adept skills) and we made balloon animals until our fingers were raw.
Walking around the decrepit campus with buildings consumed by mold, seeing the classrooms where chalk is a luxury, looking at the unsanitary, peeling foam mattresses, some only ½” thick, on which the girls slept, peering into the “kitchen” with its dirt floor, open flames and large cooking cauldrons, I felt so overwhelmed. What could I possibly do? How does one even begin to change this? Where do you start? But I suppose that is rhetorical at this point because, as my friend Buck offered on the last mission when asked a similar question, “You just start.”
I distributed everyone’s pen pal letters and have already received many responses, so those of you who wrote letters can look forward to that. Everyone asked about every single participant from the last mission and they said they would like the same group to return. They miss their friends.
I know the feeling. In fact, last night I was feeling a little lonely and blue. However, I went to St. Thomas’ church in Monrovia this morning and instantly felt better. I also extracted my grandmother’s Chinese paper fan from my purse and although she has been dead for many years, felt her presence. I bet she would have never imagined that after all this time her granddaughter would be saved from melting in Africa by her little fan.
Again, I felt like I had an instant family within the traditions and people of the Episcopal church and even though the service lasted four hours (this is not a type-o) and I was wrapped in a Pashmina shaw (no bare shoulders in church in Liberia), and every time I stood up I had a stream of sweat drip down my back, I was comforted to the point of tears. But as The Rev. Dr. Herman Browne preached today, it is not always easy to praise God when times are tough, when you want to send your children to school but have no way to get them there; when you know you need to feed your family but have no way to do so. But, he explained, we have life. We have life! And, we have a choice…to make Liberia a better place or not. He believed it could be done. And so do I.
Later in the day when I was visiting with my hostess’ friends who were asking me a million questions, and making statements like, “It is time to stop talking and start doing, and thanking me over and over for not forgetting Liberia, I was told, “Oh, honey! You are a Liberian now!” So it is.
I have learned several more blatant rules in Africa on this trip: one does not wear shorts unless it is Saturday, and one actually relaxes on Sunday (!) and usually Saturday night. I also had the pleasure of visiting Barne’s beach where the ruins of grand houses from bygone, pre-war eras would break your heart. I made friends with an 11-year-old boy named Loves (which I finally translated after we both wrote our names in the sand) who wore a dingy shirt worn with holes and was collecting shells like me. He approached me and held out his hand full of treasures from the sea and said, “Do you want one?” I chose a tiny white scallop shell and spent the next hour helping to fill his little hand with even more shells. I gave him a plastic bag I dug out of my backpack and he carried his shells in it like I had given him a golden box. He said he would put them in his room, although I knew that “room” held a very loose definition.
Here on this beach of skeleton houses and hotels, where you could almost hear the ghosts of the people who were murdered here and where, walking on the black and white marbled sand my footprints behind me changed the color. If I stepped on white sand, my footprint would turn black and visa-versa. How metaphorically perfect. We do leave footprints. No matter what color.
First of all, sorry for the on again, off again Shutterfly invites. I’ve had a little trouble with the guest lists so will notify you all by e-mail and you can then go to the link.
So, I’m back in Liberia! But, to start at the beginning…Reverend Mary volunteered to help me at Dulles Airport, a gesture that made navigating six suitcases and a guitar possible. (I feel I must add a disclaimer here- the suitcases were not all for me. I took the supplies that St. James’ had collected and the guitar was for my Liberian driver, Nathaniel, who explained on a previous trip how the rebels had destroyed his guitar but that his mother had told him that someday God would bring him another). So, after all the bags were finally checked, after Mary and I said a tearful goodbye, after I bumped my way down the plane aisle dragging my oversized carry-on bag and guitar, after looking down on the popcorn clouds for seemingly endless miles, my stress began to subside.
Just before I left, I realized I had been home for just a little too long. Not that I don’t love home but, I am so hypersensitive to waste and conservation when I return from impoverished Liberia and recently I had slowly begun to go numb -maybe just in the extremities- like the fingers and toes when frostbite begins to kill one’s flesh. I found myself running the shower for just a little too long, leaving the computer running all night, not consolidating trips to the store, cooking too much food and forgetting to freeze it, resulting in throwing out leftovers. Simply put, I was falling back into the complacency of my Northern Virginia life, back into the place where I am not a threat to evil. I was falling back asleep.
Was it scary to return to Liberia alone? You bet, but I have jumped back into that river of faith and am willing to be swept away.
After over 24 hours of travel, I arrived on Friday night, jet-lagged and bedraggled to an excited bunch of Bromley teachers, who made the long drive to the airport to welcome me. When I stepped from the airport to smells of damp vegetation, wood fires, fruit and mud, my smile widened. The smells of Liberia.
After we were all in the car, laughing and reminiscing, I received a phone call from the Bromley Board chairwoman who said, “Kimmie, I have a small problem.” I held my breath. She told me the apartment in Monrovia that I had rented and paid for was no longer available. The UN tenants did not move out after all. Before the panicked questions in my head consumed me, she told me I would be staying with Juanita, a Liberian friend I had met on the last trip. Upon my arrival at Juanita’s compound on the great St. Paul river and after my steaming bowl of fish soup, I knew this change was a blessing in disguise. Not only am I staying with a friend, but am also secured in a compound teeming with security. As Juanita welcomed me back after I told her how thrilled I was to return, she said, “What is it about Liberia? It really gets into your heart.”
This is exactly how I feel. Even in the midst of such abject poverty, I am surrounded by warmth and love. In Liberia, everyone longs to come to America, but I don’t really think they would like it for long. It seems to me like, on some level, your heart would always long for this place.
My first night, it rained, that deafening Liberian rain that wakes you and holds you in its grasp and I felt, in many ways, I had come home. Early the next morning, before work, I sipped my coffee on the wide porch with the steamy air abated by the cool breeze from the river and listened to the tropical birds chattering and screeching from their Palm tree perches. The river was completely still but for the dripping of a few large raindrops plopping into the river like some Feng Shui fountain for which people in the United States would be way too much money.
After breakfast fish gravy (spicy!), cassava, papaya and pineapple with my new friend, Billie, my host’s seven-year-old son and my constant companion at the house, I was driven to town to meet with Richard, the Bromley Board member responsible for the organization of the strategic plan. The following day we met for an all day strategic planning retreat, beginning with a two hour church service with lots of incense, 100% humidity and absolutely no air movement. This service was originally designed to be abbreviated and incense-free to allow sufficient time for planning, but hey, this is Africa, a place where all plans are merely suggestions. I learned this on my last trip when my “schedule” was rearranged hourly until I finally threw it out. I was told over and over again by my Liberian friend, Michael, “Don’t worry. We’ll work it out,” which also becomes synonymous with having faith when you think about it. Because of the lengthy service, we took only one break during the day and ended at 7:30 PM with prayer. The day was very successful and we all felt energized by the ideas and dedication towards the restoration of Bromley School.
Regardless of how things have not worked out as planned, how “African adaptations” jolted me from the very first hour on the ground, I know I am where I am supposed to be and, in fact, these easy attitudes are exactly why I love it here. I also feel the warm, familiar embrace of the Episcopal Church and the traditions which instantly create a family 6000 miles from my home church. Even if I am uncertain of measurable results at this point, I know that, like Rev. Mary’s story of the rescued starfish on the beach, this is only one fish and one place, but at least a few girls in Africa know that they are loved, and that is all that matters.
Blessings to all,