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Tearing out the Seams

October 6, 2014
Dancing with Mistress Yekeh

In May I threw a joint birthday party with my son. My sewing teacher and dear friend Mistress Yekeh, pictured in the yellow skirt suit, danced with us for hours.

My friend Oretha knows everyone and everything about Cuttington University. So one day last February I invited her to visit and, over pepper soup, my heart spoke. “Do you know any good tailors?” I asked. “I want to learn to sew.” The next morning she returned with Mistress Yekeh and a bright light entered my life.

The same age as my mother, Mistress Yekeh taught tailoring at a vocational school before the war and travelled with her trusty Butterfly machine throughout the conflict. Trying to make a new start, she had gotten a job at the Cuttington library and was working toward a degree in education. She no longer sewed professionally but was willing to help me so she could earn money to finish plastering her house.

She quickly became one of my best friends.

I bought my own machine and she came over on the weekends to teach me the secrets of Liberian tailors. She’d give me an assignment and the next week I’d have to present it for inspection. Without fail she would drop her head and try unsuccessfully to hold back the laughter. Pulling herself together she’d straighten up and tell me, “It’s good for a learner. You tried. You actually tried.” Then she’d throw it back in my lap. “Now tear the seams. That’s the only way you will learn to do it right.”

Some weeks I’d protest, “But it’s on the inside! I’m the only one wearing it!” She always had the same response, “If you let yourself do bad work that’s all you’ll ever do. Try to be perfect. Then you’ll feel proud.” So I tore all my seams and, gradually, stopped repeating my mistakes.

As school restarted and the semester got busy we had fewer lessons, but I still saw her almost every day. She’d leave the library to walk to her village about the time I struggled to haul my bags up the hill in my tight lappa skirt. “Heeeeey, African woman!” she’d yell, “Did you finish your assignment yet?” I would shake my head and laugh, she would shake her head and laugh, and we’d both continue home.

In May I had a birthday party at Oretha’s bar and Mistress Yekeh was one of the first people I invited. She made a beautiful speech and we all danced until the rain came. It was one of the last times we spent together. Finals came and along with it graduation. I traveled to Sanniquellie and Yekepa and spent long days at my office. There was just no time for sewing.

Then at the end of July I left for a short vacation and Ebola shut down Liberia. Campus closed and Mistress Yekeh went back to Monrovia to stay with her daughter and her elderly mother.

A few weeks ago they all died of Ebola.

The news just reached me this week through the friend of a friend. I’ve been calling friends in Monrovia weekly but I hadn’t kept in touch with her because I thought she was still on campus, safe from the worst of the out break. So sure was I of her safety that I’d already packed a gift for her upon my inevitable return.

Like most Liberian women, Mistress Yekeh was a force. At fifty-seven she had seen the worst side of humanity and the hardest side of life… and survived to laugh about it. But the difference between violence and viruses is everyone knows how to run from bullets: grab your family and go.

But Ebola comes quietly and kills painfully. With not enough treatment centers families are asked to literally watch their loved ones die before their eyes. I know when Mistress Yekeh’s mother or daughter fell ill the last thing she was thinking was to run. In Liberia family is everything and the tragedy of Ebola is that the tighter that bond, the more people love and care for each other, the more deadly the disease becomes.

Ebola isn’t ravaging West Africa because people are dirty or uneducated: it’s precisely because people care and love on a level we, as Americans, have lost touch with.

Through a twist of coincidence the news of Mistress Yekeh’s death reached me around the same time an Ebola case was reported in Texas. The vitriol I saw in the news and read in Facebook feeds. The fear. The running I could feel in people’s hearts. What I want people in America to understand is that Ebola is not a threat to them because America has hospitals. It has doctors. Americans aren’t asked to take their sick loved ones back to the rented room they share with five other people. They have more than plastic shopping bags to protect their hands from contamination.

When will we, as an international community, realize we can do better? Liberia spent fourteen years tearing seams and now, just as things were starting to come back together, they’re tearing again. I pray we can get it right this time. There’s just too much at stake.

“If you let yourself do bad work that’s all you’ll ever do.”

Liberia isn’t Ebola

August 26, 2014

CuttingtonSeal

Liberia isn’t Ebola. It isn’t Charles Taylor and it isn’t child soldiers. But when I tell people I live in Liberia those are the only things they come up with… if they come up with anything.  In no order, here are five great things you probably didn’t know but you should:

#1 Liberia has the first democratically elected female president in Africa. She is also the first black female president in the world. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, you’re one heck of an iron lady!

#2 Cuttington University opened in Liberia in 1889. It is the oldest private, coeducational, four-year degree granting institution in sub-Saharan Africa.  (It’s also where I teach!)

#3 Liberia became Africa’s first republic in 1847.

#4 In 1995 George Weah was named the FIFA world player of the year. He is the only African to ever win the award.

#5 In 2011 President Ellen John Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

There are always two sides to every story and everything is relative. Last week I called a Liberian friend. I asked him about Ebola and he asked me about Ferguson. Does that put things in perspective? TV and a little distance make everything scarier.

“We are the other of the other.”

– Marcus Aurelius

A Hero’s Story

August 24, 2014

My friend and host family little sister, Kristen, posted this recently on her blog zozuafricanus.  Last year she was placed in Foya, Lofa County, which is very close to the border and the first place Ebola entered Liberia from Guinea.  The person she so poignantly describes here recently lost his life fighting the disease.  Kristen’s story is a stark reminder that talented and dedicated Liberians are sacrificing the most to contain this epidemic and, in the end, the county will take years (not WHO’s months) to recover from the loss.

Thank you, Tamba, for your courage and thank you, Kristen, for sharing his story.

A Hero’s Story

Fortitude: Be brave. Courage is the noblest of all attainments.
—The Woodcraft Laws

Normally, for fairly obvious reasons, these blog posts are about me – my experiences and feelings.  However, in light of recent events, I want to dedicate this entry to a person that I’ll be calling Tamba.

The international world has suddenly become fascinated by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and all the news outlets are telling heart-wrenching tales of American citizens being evacuated, exposed, and infected.  The world has zeroed-in on the inspiring courage and devotion of all the international aid workers striving tirelessly to end this epidemic that’s killing hundreds of poor, ignorant African villagers.  While the sacrifices and efforts of international organizations are indeed incredible and admirable, I want to talk about another side of the Ebola outbreak that is getting less coverage in the Western media. And it starts with my friend Tamba.

Back in March, before all of this started, I was at the hospital waiting to meet with a few of the hospital staff to discuss a potential health-related project.  Tamba shuffled in about 30 minutes late (frustrating, but predictably Liberian), brandishing a large stick of sugar cane that he gifted to me. He slumped into a chair and apologized for his tardiness, explaining that he had been up all night with a patient who had been losing fluids by the liter from diarrhea and vomiting, showing signs of a worryingly contagious hemorrhagic fever.  The members of the meeting began to discuss the protocols and dangers associated with a Lassa fever outbreak. There had been reports of something resembling Lassa fever in Guinea, and now it appeared to have moved to Liberia.

Three of the people, not counting myself, at that meeting were expats, and immediately resolved to avoid any physical contact with patients at the hospital, even going as far to say they might return to their countries of origin if an outbreak really did occur.  Tamba smiled quietly and then launched into a tirade about the lack of supplies at the hospital, which was currently out of gloves, gauze, and sutures.  The hospital never stocked medicine, forcing patients to travel to a pharmacy to buy the prescribed medicine and return to the hospital for treatment. Those at the hospital who tried to observe the proper sanitary procedures in order to avoid the spread of disease and infection were forced to buy their own gloves and cleansing alcohol.

Two days later, the patient at the hospital was confirmed as an Ebola case, and all the expats at that meeting (including myself) left to escape the disease.  Tamba stayed, not even for a moment considering going back to his home in Monrovia.  While I was waiting for the all-clear to return, Tamba watched two of his colleagues at the hospital die after exposure to the virus.  He worked 24-48 hour shifts as many other workers from the hospital fled and more cases manifested themselves.  In the face of mounting distrust of hospital workers in the community, Tamba went to work every day and advised people on various ways to prevent the spread of Ebola, even after the hospital was almost attacked by a mob of angry, grieving people attempting to recover the body of an Ebola victim. Every time I called him and asked how he was, his response was always, “I am fine; I am doing well.  We are working and praying for this outbreak to finish.”

When I returned, I asked if he had ever considered leaving, and he responded, “How can I leave? There are people sick and dying here, and we need to treat them.”

He hadn’t received any payment from the hospital or the government in over 6 months because of a clerical error that left him off the payroll (a fairly common occurrence in all public institutions in Liberia).

He was among the first to volunteer to work at the isolation unit that MSF was building on the outskirts of town, and has since been splitting his time between the hospital and the isolation unit. His friends accused him of aligning himself with the white people in order to make more money.

The last time I was at site, I told him that Peace Corps was removing us, and he looked a little sad, but then he smiled.  He said, “I am glad, there’s no need for you people to be here putting yourselves in danger for this sickness. Peace Corps are doing well taking you people out of Liberia. Meanwhile, we will be here, and we will be praying for this epidemic to end soon.”

I wanted to make this entry about him because I wish the world were talking more about people like Tamba.  Because when all the international organizations leave to protect their people, it’s people like Tamba that are left trying to end an epidemic with hope and rubbing alcohol.  Right now, the Ebola story is about West African victims and international heroes, by and large ignoring the thousands of Liberian, Guinean, and Sierra Leonean health workers that are putting their lives at risk to fight Ebola in their communities – that have been struggling for months without enough aid or supplies before the world realized that it’s a problem when people are dying by the hundreds, even if it’s happening in Africa.

Feel My Pain (Ebola)

August 23, 2014

Yesterday I didn’t get on the airplane to fly home to Liberia.  In the three weeks since I’ve been gone rats have undoubtedly moved into my food stores and mold has undoubtedly crept into my closet.  But outside I know the heavy rains have helped my flowers send roots deeper and branches higher.  I just hope to be back in time to help them through the dry season.

With Ebola continuing to disrupt life, more Liberian artists are writing new songs.  Since my previous posts about recent LIB music have been so popular I’m bringing you a new one from Scientific.  A Liberian rapper currently living in Ghana, Scientific is best known for songs like I like You Girl and Keep Pushing but he recently released this track, Feel My Pain (Ebola), that resonates with me right now. (Click the link to download it or watch the youtube video above.)  Here are the lyrics:

Scientific – Feel My Pain

Can you feel my pain right now?
Africa and the world
Ya’ll pay attention to this, man
West Africa cryin’
Tell the world it’s emergency
Ebola raging hell
Devil smile we need some urgency
Is it the wrath of God because we’re sinning?
If not why LIB, NIG, Sierra Leone, and Guinea?
Is this virus man made to wipe out the black race?
Let me speak to the jury, I’m pleading my case
Most traumatized for wars for many years
Now they’re trapping those, constant living in fears
With sanitizers, chlorine, wearing gloves and masks
Physical contact with a victim could be your last
Victims are quarantined, an act to contain this
Once they’re dead, these bodies are buried or cremated
No more handshakes and hugs, sex or making love
Body fluid is major, no kissing or sharing blood
This from monkey or bats
Let me get my prayer on
Stop the rumors: Ebola is not airborne

This my message to every family out there
Who lost someone to the deadly virus, man
I know a lot of people are living in fear
But I have to say this, man
God is with us, man
This is serious, man
It hurts me, man
Liberia is a beautiful nation
And our people, they can’t think straight right now
Everybody trying to get out someway or the other
Too much happening, man
I love my country
And I got ya’ll right up in my heart right now, man
So our prayers are going to get us out of this
I love my country

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Daughters

August 14, 2014

Sanni Flag Day 2012

It was completely unplanned and unexpected, but in Liberia I became a mother. Just like they say, it’s been miraculous. The resemblance and (lack of an) age gap often raise eyebrows, but there is nothing I wouldn’t do for my children. I’ve pushed and pulled and impulsively spent in ways I didn’t know I was capable. And I’d do it again without blinking. If anything, they have taught me how to be tough and how to keep going through the roughest storm.

My only regret, and it’s through no fault of their own, is that all my children are sons. Every year I pray for a daughter and every year I think ‘this is it’ only to discover the universe has other plans. Flying to Liberia I had dreams about girls’ clubs and literacy programs with market women but when I hit the ground I found a different reality.

There’s no “I” in Peace Corps. They teach you to throw your own dreams of service out the window and put your effort behind what your community needs. During our site visit I asked my principal about starting a girls’ club. He responded enthusiastically then said, “But can the boys join? They need help too.”

They need help too.

My inner hackles raised—I pretty much came out of my mothers’ womb with Gloria Steinem’s portrait tattooed on my tiny bicep—but as I became part of the community and interacted with the students I realized he was right. Sustainable peace and development was in the hands of the boys just as much as the girls. After all, men are usually the participants in war while women are the victims. Educating and training men so they don’t want to go to war helps women.

So I got involved with the quizzing team and my informal math club and the plans for the girls club (yes, I actually wrote some up) collected dust on the shelf. This was what my community needed and what they wanted so that was my job. I quickly became a close confidant and friend to many of my students and I started to watch them move mountains. Out of that original cohort two are now studying at EARTH University in Costa Rica and two are studying Arizona State University in the United States.

I’m close with just as many girl students as boy students, but the girls have had no luck with the scholarships. They’re usually older than the boys and almost all of them have at least one child, some of which are already adolescents. All of that comes up on a scholarship application and, no matter how great a girl is otherwise, her age and her motherhood put her out of the running.

This was something I accepted as the unfairness of life until I started teaching the course Rural Sociology, Gender, and Culture. Diving back into the reports and the theory I started to feel… like a hypocrite. Four times a week I stood in front of seventy students and told them it’s hard to be a girl! That girls work more hours in a day and receive less encouragement and support but are the absolutely key to solving the problems of food security and poverty. I know I’ve written about this here before but it continues to blow my mind. Women’s education is a better indicator for food security in a country than the amount of food in that country.

Stop and let that soak in: Educating women is a more effective way to reduce hunger than giving people more food!

Soil Texture Lab April 2014

I wrote it on the board and shouted it at the top of my lungs then packed my bags and walked home with my sons. “I wish there was something I could do,” I would think lying in bed at night, “but they’re old and they have families. I have to put my energy behind what I can do and I know I can help the boys. The next person will have to help the girls. They’re just not ready.”

They’re just not ready.

That was my light bulb moment. As a result of the gender gap women are quite literally a generation behind the men. Many of my students are pioneering women who have scraped and fought to be the first in their family to graduate high school, but it takes time. Unlike many NGO workers I’ve never accepted that the war created a ‘lost generation’ with problems too complicated and depressing to solve.

Ok, so I can’t send the girls abroad… but what can I do?

Just because they can’t go to the US doesn’t mean they can’t continue their education (something only 5% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa get to do). Sanniquellie has a community college where they could train to become teachers, nurses, or agriculturists while still fulfilling their equally important roles as wives and mothers. My job wasn’t to find women to send abroad—my job was to train the mothers of the girls who would someday be ready to study abroad.

But, ironically, it’s easier for me to find scholarship programs abroad than actually in Liberia. Even though the cost of education is very low compared to America the scholarship programs are rife with corruption, nepotism, and arbitrary requirements. There is no personal interview. There are no recommendation letters. There are transcripts (that can be forged) and WAEC results (that can be bought) and giant stacks of applications that get ‘lost’ at collection centers.

My soil science TA has a 4.0 GPA but he hasn’t gotten any of the half dozen scholarships he’s applied for and is on the verge of dropping out of school over finances. Something else is going on…

Living an hour away from Sanniquellie and having a different full-time job, I just wasn’t going to be able to help any girls fight that uphill battle. Again I thought, “There is nothing I can do.” This problem is just too big and too complicated.

But those of you who know me know that I don’t accept no easily.   So a week before I left Liberia I made a list of all the girls I knew who were intelligent, honest, and hard working but who were filling their post-graduate days selling small small things on their porch. It was a long list but after a lot of what felt like agonizingly arbitrary cutting I got it down to five. Tuition at Nimba County Community College is between $100 and $150 per semester so for the cost of bringing one to Cuttington I could send five to NCCC. I renegotiated my salary and decided to dedicate the extra to getting some daughters.

I called the first one and started probing her about whether she was interested in community college. She was enthusiastic, but said there was no way she could go even if someone paid her fees. I was confused. Hadn’t she supported herself through high school? That’s when the pieces started shifting into place.   I had the sobering realization that we are the same age (I would have sworn she was barely 21) and her adolescent daughter is getting ready to start junior high, which has higher tuition fees.

I thought that daughter was her little sister!

This threw a big wrench in the whole plan. I was planning to pay tuition for the girls and just ask them to cover their living expenses. So either I crossed this girl off the list (unthinkable once I realized her need was so great) or I reduced the number of girls and gave each one more help. After a lot of thought I did some more agonizing cutting and got the list down to three. Sure the girls had somehow supported themselves through high school, but they were dividing time between chores, childcare, farming/selling and schoolwork. If I could give them a little more help and ease that burden just a little it would make them better students and increase their chance of success.

So I wrote three letters, enclosed money to pay for the entrance exam August 2, and sent them with a student who was traveling north. Two days later I boarded an airplane for America and the country turned upside down. The entrance was postponed and schools are closed indefinitely.

Frustrated doesn’t begin to capture the feeling. May Liberia make a speedy recovery so we can all get back to our lives.

“Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.”

Clementine Paddleford

Ebola, yeah, frustration

August 9, 2014

 

A few months ago I wrote about the Ebola in Town song being played to raise awareness.  In the weeks before I left, however, the song Ebola by Black Diamond was getting a lot more play on Radio Gbarngese.  It’s a lot less upbeat and a lot more depressing, suggesting conspiracies and encouraging mistrust.

Even so, I remember dancing to it with my Liberian friends and laughing.  Ebola was a joke and nothing had changed in our lives since the first cases in April… and now the country is shutting down and I’m not sure when I’ll get to go back.

I had lunch with my brother yesterday and out of nowhere the green-haired bartender started chit-chatting about Ebola.  “Really, why can’t these patients stay there where doctors and hospitals know how to deal with it?”

I took a deep breath and tried to be polite.  “Actually, that isn’t true,” I said, “I live there.”  She looked at me in shock.  “The hospitals were poorly equipped and understaffed before this,” I continued, “and now the health workers are so scared the hospitals are completely closed down.  Even women in labor can’t get care.  If they knew how to deal with this there would be no problem.”

“Oh… well the media has really misinformed us,” she replied sheepishly.

Ebola.  Yeah.  Frustration.

Ebola – Black Diamond

Ebola yeah, frustration
Condition in Africa
Ebola yeah, frustration
Condition in Africa
Ebola yeah, frustration
Condition in Africa
Ebola yeah, frustration
Condition in Africa
Eh, yeah

No Ebola in America
No Ebola in Asia
No Ebola in Europe
Always Ebola in Africa
Why?
Oh Lord, angels, protect your children I say
Oh why why why in Africa?
I say why?

(refrain)

Everyday in the news
Ebola killed my sister in Guinea
Everyday on TV
Ebola killed my brothers in Sierra Leone
Everyday in the news
Ebola killed my mother in Liberia
Everyday in America, Asia, and Europe
Ebola is silent

(refrain)

Dem sayin’ it came from Africa
Dem sayin’ Ebola lives from Africa
But pillage and control is what I’m thinking
Cause every bad thing come from Africa
It’s said they won’t leave my people alone
They start civil war
Undermine African governments
Then charge our leaders for war crimes
Why doesn’t it leave innocent children to sleep in peace?
Biological warfare needs a new population control

(refrain)

Just in Time?

July 31, 2014

At JFK with the Boys

Sunday morning I boiled potatoes, finished the laundry, and piled in the jeep with two of my students. They’d won scholarships to study at Arizona State and I promised to carry them halfway. A heavy July rain beat the car the entire way to the airport but the driver blasted gospel music and morale was high.

Everything seemed normal.

We passed the Firestone plantation and pulled up to the airport around 1:30pm only to find a long line of cars stopped on the road. The gates were locked and a team of young men in rain suits and umbrellas seemed to be doing nothing but shouting, shaking their heads and sending people away.

This wasn’t normal.

We finally inched up to the gate and were told, yes, airplanes were flying but only ticket holders and drivers could enter. “I have nine people and a baby in this car,” the driver told the man, shaking his head, “What am I supposed to do? Put them down in the rain?” The man just shrugged, “Ebola.”

We backed around and found an entertainment center across the road. Saye’s uncle had come from Monrovia to see him off and we sat together for a few minutes drinking warm soft drinks, but unable to say much over the roar of the rain. Back at the gate we were again interrogated but this time they opened the fence a crack and, with a suspicious look, let us in. We pulled up to the Delta terminal and untied the luggage from the roof. It was soaked. (Good thing I stayed up late trying to wash and dry all their clothes.)

I helped them get their documents ready and tried to put on my most confident but friendly face as we approached security. I’d been nervous about Ebola embarrassing this trip for months and it was one reason I’d broken the bank to buy a plane ticket just four days earlier. My first two sons had trouble getting to Costa Rica—surely it would be even more difficult for the ones trying to get into America.

The security glared at the boys’ documents for fifteen minutes, pacing and showing them to other people. “First trip to America?” he finally asked without looking at us. I smiled and replied cheerfully but he just grunted, took a long look at my busted Peace Corps tag and lapa dress and threw the passports back across the counter before granting us passage.

I expected someone somewhere to ask us about Ebola or to somehow check us for symptoms but once we were in it was business as usual. Ok, I thought, so far so good… but this is Liberia. When we land at JFK in New York someone is going to have questions.

But at 5:30am we cleared immigration in the family lane and collected our still soaked bags.

Everything was going so well! Too well. I should have known the pot forgotten on the back burner was about to start boiling.

Yesterday, while cooking Liberian pumpkin soup at a friend’s house in Delaware I saw a news alert. Peace Corps is evacuating all Volunteers in Liberia. My stomach fell through the floor and I had to sit down. The boys and I were originally supposed to leave on Tuesday but the trip was unexpectedly moved up and thank god for that. We literally missed trouble by a few hours. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but borders are being closed (is that possible in Liberia?) and some airlines are cancelling flights.

The two or three days before I left Cuttington my son Siaffa had been scared. He’d attended a campus wide Ebola meeting and had been wearing rubber gloves and refusing to shake hands (even with me) ever since. “Sis RB people say that when they think you have Ebola the doctors come and give you an injection that kills you. I don’t know. How true is it?”

Probably harboring similar concerns, a man in Sanniquellie escaped from the hospital after being isolated as a potential Ebola patient. A doctor at the Phebe Hospital adjacent Cuttington campus died of Ebola and so did three nurses, rumored to be Cuttington students doing their practical. Hand washing stations had shown up all around campus but the message continued to be that we were safe. Ebola is extremely deadly when caught but relatively easy to avoid because it is transmitted primarily through close contact with body fluids like feces and vomit.

We are a university, not a funeral home or hospital so the general feeling was that if we were careful we were safe. My coworkers, primarily Nigerians, were initially very concerned about the Ebola outbreak but my stance has always been “as long as the Peace Corps Volunteers are here I’m not worried.” I even wrote that to Siaffa in an email just hours before the evacuation was announced. “I know you’re scared but as long as Brother Alex is there with you things are going to be all right.”

Thank god I clicked “save draft” and not “send.”

I’ve received a number of emails from close friends and family saying how grateful they are that I left when I did, but I have to admit I’m conflicted. Yes, I’m grateful to be safe and, yes, I thank god the boys made it to ASU but I still have half my family in Liberia. How do I sit down here and not feel like shit? They have nowhere to evacuate to and, increasingly, nowhere to get medical care. When I went to Gbarnga last Friday the hospital, usually overflowing with patients and market women was abandoned and locked. Doctors and nurses are afraid to treat any patients and as a result people are dying needlessly of preventable things.

I don’t know what’s going on with my office and my project yet, but I have faith I’ll be back and so will Peace Corps. It might not be as soon as I thought, but we’ve worked too hard to turn back now. Besides, I’m just a private citizen now so as long as I can get a flight, or a bus, or a canoe I’ll find a way back.

Be strong, Liberia.  If there’s any justice in the world this too shall pass.

The Grass is Greener

July 30, 2014

Saye Yekepa Blue Lake

If you ask a Liberian what they think America is like they’ll say something along the lines of “No one has problems” or “It’s heaven.” Their country and their culture are beautiful but, like everyone everywhere, they struggle to see past the daily drudgery to the good around them.

The grass is always greener.

With two of my students packing for study in America I wanted to take them away from some of that daily drudgery to see the beauty and potential in their own backyard. A big part of the Mastercard Foundation’s mission is to prepare students to “go back and give back.” Scholarship recipients are expected to return to their home country after graduation and become active change makers. To help cement this in the boys’ minds I planned a trip to Yekepa, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been and something that happens to be right in our ‘backyard.’

George has been teaching in Yekepa for the past year and Saye has been 45 minutes away in Sanniquellie his whole life but neither of them had ever been up the mountain. “It’s here with us everyday but, no, we’ve never been there.”  Yekepa was a concession area for LAMCO, a Swedish-American-Liberian mining company, from the 1950s until the early 1990s. They developed the city into what I’ve heard described as a small America tucked inside the Nimba range. “Europeans even came here for vacation,” people tell me proudly.

But in 1989 war broke out and before long the company was forced to abandon operations. The legacy they left behind is pretty unbelievable and I wanted the boys to have an idea of what their country was and start to imagine what it will be again.

I also wanted them to have a fun day with a few of their closest friends.

So the day after Central High graduation six of us chartered a pick-up and headed out of town, dark clouds hanging low and ominous but not yet threatening. Once in Yekepa it became apparent the driver did not actually know how to get where we wanted to go. We asked some small kids on the side of the road and finally got directions to “the blue water.”

But when we found the road the driver was not happy. “What is this? I’m not going!” But he needed my money and I still had half of it in my pocket so we continued on down what was a footpath more than a road. Just as I could tell he was about to turn back we came across two boys fishing and asked directions again.

The shorter boy pointed the direction we were going, “Yes, it’s there. Keep going and you’ll see the coal tar.” The driver and I stared at each other then started laughing. Did he just say coal tar? What kind of jokes are these people playing?

But two minutes later we rounded a bend and there it was. Heavily overgrown but in perfect condition, a two-lane asphalt road wound its way right up the side of the mountain. We couldn’t believe it. Here in the middle of the bush was a nicer road than could be found near any of our cities!

After fifteen minutes we emerged at the top of the mountain and climbed out to see what used to be.

I think the pictures will speak for themselves. If this is what they abandoned and left behind, what else used to be here?

We spent a few hours exploring, chunking rocks, and testing the validity of stories the security guard told us. “The water is protected. No rock you throw can enter, even if you go right up to it.”

Prince, my young geologist, proved that one wrong! Watch his results here:

 

Finally it was time to go. We drove back to town to meet George’s family and take pictures with his friends around Yekepa. We ate fried okra and GB at a cook shop and headed back to Sanniquellie just as the torrential rain broke.

It was a perfect day but back at the guesthouse I was melancholy. For about $60 I’d taken them on one of the first field trips of their lives and shown them things that had previously been mere rumors and here say. If Central High even once got the money it is allotted in each national budget maybe students could actually go on field trips and they’d have more pride in who they are, where they are, and what the future might hold.

“Thank you,” one of my students texted me later that night, “today changed my life.  I will never forget what we’ve done and what I’ve seen.”

The grass is greener where you water.

Everyone’s Need or Everyone’s Greed?

July 28, 2014
Baccalaureate Sanni

The prospective graduates line up outside the church.

At the end of June I went to Sanniquellie for the first time in almost a year. The last group of students I taught were graduating from Central High and I also needed to speak to the boys’ families before they left for Arizona State.

You know how they say you can never go back? I was terrified.

I left my house around 10:00am and by 1:00pm I was checked into my guesthouse in Sanniquellie. Krista, you would not believe the coal tar road the Chinese are working on. Remember those three hour Mario Kart rides dodging holes between Gbarnga and Ganta? One hour now. It happened so fast I was sure I’d fallen asleep when we pulled up to the checkpoint.

It all kind of caught me off guard. No one saw me get out of the taxi and, sitting on the edge of my bed, I thought about turning around and going right back. There were so many phone calls I never returned. So many people I forgot to bring gifts for. Would I be a friend or a foe? Would anyone remember me? And if they did would they want to talk to me?

So I took a deep breath and called one of my sons. “I’m here,” I said, “What should I do? Who should I speak to first?” He agreed to escort me around town so I pulled myself together and walked out to meet him on the road. Without batting an eye or showing the slightest surprise children started greeting me like I just saw them yesterday.

“RB! RB!”

Then, as we walked around campus I started to hear shrieks and students and administrators danced over to hug me. “You remembered us! You remembered us! Thank you!”

Are you kidding? How could I ever forget?

I made surprise visits to a few of my closest students and sat with their families before ending up at my old ‘office’ to drink soft drinks and lecture. The longer I sat the more people materialized and there was none of the anger or bitterness I feared.

In the end I was enough.

Many of my former students are now working for the mining company. I grilled them about it—they could all do better—and I immediately started getting angry. A new Indian company has been brought in as some sort of sub-contractor and the kids are working twelve hour days six days a week. They get up around 4:30am to eat and walk into town where they’re loaded on retired school buses and driven to the mine in Tokedeh, midway between Yekepa and Sanniquellie. They stay there all day and come back on the buses around 7:00pm. (These buses tear through town without regard for the children, animals, and general business of the main street.)

In return they get paid around $300 a month. Yes, this is good money in Liberia but they are receiving little formal training and there is little hope for advancement or education: this is it. These were my brightest students but they’re doing grunt jobs and serving as ‘helpers’ just watching the Indian people work. As part of the concession agreement I know the company has to provide jobs to Liberians, but this does not seem like what the government officials had in mind. Liberians want to be trained to do the mining themselves… but that is bad business for the company.

To throw fuel on my fire about a week before my trip I found a promotional video from Arcelor Mittal, the primary mining company and the largest steel manufacturing company in the world, on YouTube. It was published in 2012 and talks about all the wonderful work they’re doing for Nimba County.

It misrepresents the entire situation.

They say they’ve restored the railroad to the Buchanan port.

Their train runs a dozen times a day but no one else is allowed to use it. The local people get no direct benefit and, in fact, Sanniquellie wants to relocate the hospital because of the noise. People and valuable livestock are often killed by the train.

 

They say they’re repairing farm-to-market roads and the Ganta-Yekepa highway.

This is a photo of that highway I took one month before this video was posted. What should have been a one-hour trip to Ganta took me six hours in three different cars. According to a corporate magazine published in 2013 work started last dry season. Really?

Total Truck Flipped on the Ganta Road

 

They say they’re providing jobs.

As helpers and unskilled laborers because Liberians are hungry and are cheap to hire.

 

Did you see that school bus?

It takes the workers to the mine. Only a few operate in Yekepa to carry students to the company schools.

 

Production of saleable iron ore in Liberia was 4.1 million tonnes last year according to the 2013 Annual Report on the company’s web site (page 211). This was sold and according to the Mineral Development Agreement the Liberian Government received a 4.5% royalty. Who gets the other 95.5%?

In the video you see community members expressing hope and excitement that mining is returning. That’s because before the war the area was a LAMCO concession and there were heavy investments in infrastructure and development. (In a future post I’ll write about visiting the old mine with some of my students during this same trip to Nimba.) LAMCO built houses and roads and treated it like a place they lived. Arcelor Mittal has recently come under fire for bringing in temporary housing units instead of rehabilitating the old structures.

While I was in Nimba people expressed a lot of frustration with the situation but that wasn’t new. People have been shaking their heads since I got there in 2011. But things are getting more serious than I realized. The day after I left and returned to Cuttington a peaceful demonstration at the Tokedeh mine turned violent when the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) fired tear gas on protestors. Guns appeared out of homes—after the war Liberians were paid if they turned over their guns but they weren’t forced to—and things got heated. Several pieces of machinery were damaged and the highway ‘bridge’ (actually just boards) linking Sanniquellie to Yekepa was burned.

I learned of all of this by word of mouth phone calls after arriving back at Cuttington but it was later confirmed on the radio and AllAfrica. The reaction in Bong County was disappointing. People said Nimbanians love violence. That the Mano and Gio people are trying to start another war. That they don’t know how to be grateful for the jobs and education their children are receiving.

No matter where I go I will always be a Nimbanian at heart. I have hundreds of Mano and Gio children and I know they fear nothing more than another war. They just want justice and none of their ‘big people’ are listening.  The protest was peaceful until the police fired the tear gas.  The company isn’t the only one at fault here–the government bears its own share of responsibility–but it sure isn’t the fault of the Nimba citizen.

My students all have smart phones (something I never expected to see) and back in our gathering on the road they whipped them out to show me photos of each other at work in their blue jumpsuits and orange vests.

“But don’t worry, Ms. RB,” one of them said soberly, “we are just using them like they’re using us. We’re going to take their money and find a way to go to school. We know this isn’t what you want us to do. Remember? What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.” Then one of them pressed $20US into my hand. “This is from all of us to help with your transport here and to thank you for what you’ve done for us.” I refused up and down but they insisted. “This is Africa and we have to appreciate you.”

What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.

If they only remember one thing from all my math classes, damn it, I’m glad it’s that.

Someday, in a more just world, I hope they’ll be the ones conducting the train, supervising the mine, and using their resources to actually develop the community. It’s going to be a challenge but I’ve never stopped believing that they can.

The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.

            – Mahatma Gandhi

Women and Agriculture

May 21, 2014

This video pretty much says it all.  I showed it to my gender class yesterday and, to my surprise, they clapped and some of them whipped out their cellphones and tried to record it.

“That’s it!” Edwin yelled as it faded out.

Maybe we’re getting somewhere.  Maybe they’re starting to see it isn’t about me and what I think, but what’s best for all of us.  Men and women.

Research shows that improving women’s access to education does more to reduce hunger in a country than improving access to food and medical facilities.  That’s powerful.

If you educate a woman she’s more likely to know how to exercise her property rights and access credit, extension services and inputs like improved seeds and fertilizers.  She’s also more likely to share decision-making rights in the home which can increase her children’s rate of survival by as much as 20% (UNHCR 2012).

I’ve watched the video a dozen times but it still chokes me up a bit.  It just seems so simple.  If you want a better life you have to allow women to live a better life.

“Men and women should own the world as a mutual possession.”
― Pearl S. Buck

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