Thursday, December 10, 2009

African holiday

Tomorrow morning we leave for Ghana, where we'll be on holiday for the next two and a half weeks--our first holiday since moving to Liberia in May. Updates and photos to come! It will be my first time in Ghana for more than an overnight, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dido tushion

Check out the tank top I bought a few weeks ago for $2.10 at the Happy Corner shops in Waterside. It looks all bright and art deco from afar, but up close the Chinese translator was clearly having some trouble saying what she wanted to say... And what is munfuctry?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Rules and scoring from the 1st Annual Surf Liberia Contest

Here are the rules Nate drew up, read to competitors and kept with the judges during the 1st Annual Surf Liberia Contest:

  1. Marshal is right. [Marshal is the head judge and one of the most respected surfers in the water. He's also the eldest, so culturally this presented no issue to the local surfers -- or anyone, for that matter. We all love Marshal.]
  2. Bad sportsmanship, bad attitudes and rude behavior are causes for disqualification.
  3. Whoever is sitting deepest has the right of way.
  4. Judge the maneuvers, not the wave and not the length of the ride.
  5. Dropping in, interfering, collapsing sections, leash pulling and snaking all constitute interference. If you think this is happening, tell Marshal.
Here's what was on the score sheet. I find it a little intimidating, but we had to come up with something. Thanks to the Eastern Surf Association and the peeps of for helping us put the rules and criteria together.

"Please use whole or half points unless expressing small differences in the excellent range.

0-2: Wipe-outs, shaky rides, rides straight to the beach
3-4: Rides with little confidence and no real turns or with one maneuver and nothing else
5-6: Average waves -- a couple of turns but nothing bold, no variety: just a safe ordinary ride
7-8: Good, confident varied ride with a couple high quality turns/moves, but not too risky/bold
9-10: Excellent rides: surfer stays in the pocket, making big moves at critical sections, shows commitment, flow and variety. Barrels, airs, huge spray, top class."

I have a spreadsheet of all the participants' wave scores, so e-mail me if you were in the contest and want to see how you did.

The 1st Annual Surf Liberia Contest

Photo of Alfred Lomax (left) and Keith Chapman (right) courtesy of Myles Estey.

A hearty congratulations to the winners of the 1st Annual Surf Liberia Contest. In the men's surfing division, Alfred Lomax came in 1st place with a cash prize of $200, Keith Chapman in 2nd with a cash prize of $100, Benjamin McCrumada in 3rd with a cash prize of $50 and a rashguard, and Peter Swen in 4th with a rashguard. In the bodyboarding division, Keith Chapman also came in 1st and got a rashguard. We hope to have a women's division in the contest next year and to have more surf-related prizes.

Thanks to Liberia Travel and Life Magazine for putting up the prize money and the surfers of BHP for donating the rashguards. Thanks also to Nana's Lodge for helping with equipment and logistics, and for hiring young men from the community to clean the beach over the whole weekend of their larger event. Thanks also to Myles Estey in advance for letting me steal this photo of the winners from his blog. We'll have more photos to post when he generously stops by and drops them off, as we're still too weak recovering from typhoid and malaria to actually leave the house...

This year's contest was held in November to coincide with the 1st Annual Nana's Lodge Sports Festival and Family Fun Weekend, a three-day extravaganza of football contests, volleyball tournaments, sand castle building and face-painting, not to mention beach bonfires and live performances. The weekend sounded like a great success. Unfortunately, as Nate and I were still recovering, we had to keep our presence to a minimum and only came up for the surf contest and a quick meeting with the Women's Sewing Coop.

We got lucky on the contest weekend with long-period swell, almost no wind and head-high waves during the semi-frequent sets. I'll let Nate post more about the surfing and the conditions with some photos (by Myles). Suffice to say it was an unexpectedly good day in a dry season prone to baby swell and occasional onshores. There was some fun surfing. Next year, we'll hold it in the rainy season when there's proper swell, but for 2009, we did good with the waves we got.

By the way, all proceeds from surfers' entry fees go to the Surf Liberia Scholarship Fund, which pays part of the school fees for local surfers we sponsor -- the other part they raise themselves through working in Robertsport Community Works projects or giving surf lessons. Now that we're raised a bit, although through the sale of our Surf Liberia t-shirts, more local surfers are eligible for scholarships based on their scores in the contest.

Because Nate and I needed to maximize our energy for the day, we got a ride up and back with a generous friend, also the head judge and one of the chillest and best people to have in the Liberian lineup. That was helpful, as we had about an hour to set up and register people once we arrived, which I did from a hammock at the campsite. Another friend saw we were looking a bit ragged and drove us in his 4x4 from the cotton tree to Shipwrecks, where we'd decided -- based on the swell coming in at Inner Cottons -- to hold the event. It was pretty fun driving on the sand, hanging out the window and waving to everyone, I have to say.

Once we got to the beach, there was a small crowd lined up under the shade of the almond trees. The local surfers, who'd all had their entry fees waived in lieu of becoming volunteers, had set up plastic tables and chairs, which we shaded with judges' beach umbrellas and made look rather official. Nate had written up scoring criteria and judging sheets, and we'd had a pizza and beer meeting at the head judge's house a few nights before to decide how things would go.

Before we started, we got everyone together, went over the rules -- 20 minute heats of three to start, how waves would be scored, penalties for interference -- and emphasized that the whole point of everything was to enjoy each other, represent surfing in Liberia, and have a good time. The local surfers were intent, focused and visibly a little nervous. We started the first heat with a siren from our borrowed megaphone, and so the contest began. Highlights included a fantastic showing by a novice, S., who charged without hesitation into steep shoulder-high waves, and the moment when Ben's new board broke and Myles rushed out to loan him his thruster. We even had a member of the Ministry of Youth and Sports in attendance and a video journalist from Reuters filming and interviewing the local surfers and the community, so expect to see a link to that piece soon.

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude to all of you who helped to make Liberia's first surfing contest the relaxed and enjoyable event it was. Neither Nate nor I are big into competitive surfing, but it was important for the local surfers to represent their sport and help them legitimize surfing in Liberia. We'll see what opportunities it brings them. In the meantime: judges, helpers, volunteers, supporters and well-wishers -- you know who you are, and we very literally could not have done it without you.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting better all the time

Nate and I resorted to second-line antibiotics to knock our typhoid, and the zithromax seems to have worked, for which we are grateful. Thanks to all the concerned readers who send their well-wishes and concerns.

We did get some great check-in phone call from our peeps in Robertsport. The most unexpected was from Augustine, the sometimes cantankerous and curmudgeonly manager of the bar and restaurant at Nana's Lodge. Augustine is one of the few people in the community who have a phone, and when I call him asking to speak to people, he'll sometimes call them over and then hang up on me, to punish them for something they've done that has vexed him. I always call back and we pretend it hasn't happened.

We also had a string of phone calls from Jerry, one of the men who silk-screens our African T-Shirt Company merchandise, and Emmanuel, the entrepreneurial young man who sells DVDs outside the Abi Jaoudi supermarket on Randall Street. They were kind.

Next post will be on this weekend's 1st Annual Surf Liberia Contest, which was a great success...

Monday, November 30, 2009

I miss my next-door neighbor.

It's so warm, I almost forgot it was Thanksgiving, until my flatmate invited us to an American Thanksgiving potluck hosted by the Carter Center.

Nate and I were both reeling from typhoid and just recovered from malaria, so we got there with the strategy: stand in line, eat and go. We brought Tupperware for our leftovers and I snagged a piece of homemade pumpkin pie for dessert. We greeted most of our new Monrovia friends and wanted to socialize but just didn't have the energy. We ate stuffing and pie later that night and watched anime until we feel asleep early.

I haven't written very much about New York, where I used to live, on this blog. But Thanksgiving makes me think of Fred. In Rockaway Beach (NYC), where Nate and I shared Bungalow 8 Million (you hear me) with our friends and other surfers, Fred was my next-door neighbor. It didn't take long for us to warm to each other. That first winter when we shared the bungalow, Fred was the one smoking on the stoop, always calling me crazy when I went out to surf wearing a face greased with Vaseline, booties, gloves and earplugs. He has a taste for cold beers and blackberry brandy, and never came to visit us without at least two plates of ribs, pork, beans, rice, steak, you name it. The man can cook.

Fred is one of the best people I met during my time in America, and I consider him family. You can see us here at our going away party in May, demonstrating the use of homemade numchuks he constructed himself when he was coming up in East New York in 80's (he'd gifted them to Nate on an earlier birthday and we have them in Liberia -- they're right by the plant and the bedside table). In the photo, I'm standing in the back of Boarder's, the next-door surf shop. A bunch of us were play-fighting on the benches (I think it's on YouTube) and Fred cleared the place by coming in (expertly) swinging the numchucks. I was the only one who stuck around.

I miss hanging out with Fred on my way out the door or coming back, talking about whether there were any blues in the water yet and planning our days. I miss hearing from him late at night how to cook certain meats (his specialty) or seeing him take over our kitchen whenever we hosted friends. On Thanksgiving, he always brought us such a generous plate that all of Bungalow 8 Million could eat for a week.

So Fred, when you read this (because I know my sister will make you, gracias hermanita), come and visit. You'd like it here. I promise.

Monday, November 23, 2009


As promised, I have not left my apartment in days -- since Friday afternoon, when I was diagnosed with malaria and typhoid, to be exact. Well, I went downstairs to the tea shop to buy six eggs for the pumpkin bread I made yesterday (restaurant food here is horrible. of course I cooked a little), but other than that, I've been resting dutifully and taking my medicine on time. Nevermind that to get rid of the typhoid I'll need to take cipro for two weeks, restricting my social calender to teetotaling for Thanksgiving and the 1st Annual Surf Liberia Contest 2009, but oh well.

After watching back-to-back episodes of 'Welcome to the NHK' and 'The Wire,' I do feel my energy increasing. The fact that Nate and I have traded kitchen duty whenever we have the energy has helped. One night he made roast chickens with potatoes and carrots (one of which we devoured in less than 15 minutes) and yesterday I made pumpkin bread, lentil soup and spaghetti aglio con olio with shrimp, which was way tasty. When one of us is doing this, the other is usually sleeping in bed, but I think tonight we might just have the energy to go out to dinner together.

I think we've earned it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Medical update

Did I mention yesterday that I was planning to go to Robertsport? That didn't happen. Instead, I slept early, slept late, and woke up to distance coordinate by mobile phone the Women's Sewing Coop meeting, attended this week by a project officer who may be interested in giving us seed money funding to scale up marketing and distribution. Now that we've sold bags to friends and family, we need new markets!

Anyway, coordinating that was successful in that it encouraged the Coop to think on their feet and band together without me, but not so successful in that they weren't prepared to answer the list of questions the officer had prepared for me -- questions focusing on the long-term scalability of the project, capacity building, online marketing and distribution. Bendu called me after, called the meeting "terrifying" and made up a bunch of answers to avoid disappointing the man, including telling him that we are 25 (we are 12) and that we want sewing machines and a building (we don't -- our project is successful and scalable because any woman can instantly join and work from wherever she normally spends her time). Gulp.

I'm trying not to be disappointed that I couldn't make it. I have a follow-up meeting with the officer, who was very sympathetic to my malaria-typhoid coinfection, next week. I'm reminding myself that showing up for the project and all the work we've put into it is what's important, not the outcome of that work (like getting seed money to make it sustainable and keep it moving forward), just like the Baghvad Gita says. It's not that easy, but I'm supposed to be resting in bed.

Here's the medical update: we're both on imported German ciprofloaxin for our typhoid, which other than achiness and utter exhaustion isn't too painful. I'm on Coartem, an artesenate dual treatment which Nate had to scour nine pharmacies to find. I'm also taking Panadol for general achiness, and reading a lot. For those of you who are worried we'll exhaust ourselves with work and general running around, I promise we'll stay in this room all weekend.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Malaria! Typhoid!

So, a few hours ago we called City Laboratories (Motto: "Insist on knowing your medical problems.") for our malaria and typhoid test results -- the ones I almost didn't have done because I didn't like the look of the big sharp needle. The woman on the phone asked me twice if I wanted results over the phone and then said that I have a co-infection of typhoid and malaria, but that Nate just has typhoid. I made her repeat it, then repeated it and had her confirm it. After a moment or two of disbelief (typhoid? really? I feel okay, I'm just sleeping a lot), we hopped in the car to pick up the results and grab our meds.

Turns out I have "few" malaria again -- the "malaria" option circled under hematology with "few" scribbled beside it. Then, under "WIDAL TEST," which is for typhoid, the health worker wrote for both Nate and I, "Strongly Reactive." It's kind of exciting to be strongly reactive, until I remind myself it's for typhoid.

My Facebook updates since I broke the news (I called my parents and sister first: we have a family disclosure policy on illnesses) warn of dire experimental cocktails and mistreatments. I'm taking the standard Cipro (made by a pharmacy in Germany, no generics for me thank you) for the typhoid and Coartam (made by Novartis, thank you also) for the "few" malaria. No artesenate and amodiaquine, thank you -- my friend just finished that treatment only to have heart palpitations and have to get an ECG in a Liberian hospital. No, I'm putting my very expensive MPH to work and we're doing things by the book, thank you Hopkins.

You may notice that I sound like I'm feeling fine. As I tried to assure my father over a rather bad connection as we drove through the din of Newport Street and Monrovia's biggest mosque, I am feeling fine. I'm tired and sleep a lot, but dry season means wonderfully dry heat, so that's supposed to happen a little. We're off to Robertsport tomorrow for a Women's Sewing Coop meeting and "few" surfing. I swear I'll take it easy, but the ocean is good for the soul.

Temporary freak-out for no good reason

We both went to get typhoid and malaria tests this morning at City Laboratories. I've been there before, the laboratory is basic (no running water, photocopied health announcements reminding women to have "only one sexual parteners" with the final "s" blacked out) but acceptable. I've kept a close watch on clinical practices during our many visits, and have been please to see good sharps disposal, decent equipment, and most importantly, all new needles and sticks taken out of their plastic wrappers in front of clients. They also have an impressive list of diagnostics on offer, including fertility testing for both women and men, which I thought was interesting.

Anyway, Nate and I enter the lab, pass a weak-looking Asian youngster looking gratefully at the functional air-conditioning, and both sit on the carpet-lined bench against the wall. The confident and rather dapper technician who usually pricks my finger wasn't there, but a small woman with a large facial mole was. She grabbed a glove and two syringes. I examined her face for signs of confidence, becoming uneasy at the idea of a) an African clinic b) the lack of a familiar face and c) the extremely large needle attached to the syringe and figured hey, I probably don't have typhoid. I mean, really -- would I be sitting there, sweating lightly, able to have this conversation in my head, if I had typhoid? Please.

The issues started when Nate volunteered me to go first, all blase and not yet aware of my increasing alarm. The health worker firmly tied the rubber glove just above my elbow and unwrapped what was now looking to be a monster needle. I panicked.

"I'm not sure this is such a good idea," I said to Nate, looking stern. I leaned in to whisper, desperately, "She looks incompetent." And then, strangely, "We should've discussed this." And then, full of panic, "Stop!"

So Nate went first while I assured him, sweating a bit more now, that I was quite sure I don't have tyhpoid or malaria and I certainly don't need any tests. He looked at me, bemused, and the health worker didn't look at me, but smiled, and I quieted down. And let her jab me.

We'll call them for results in another hour, but for now are walking down to the UNICEF canteen for jollof rice and fried chicken with pepper sauce. I feel better.

Breaking news: A gecko

There is a gecko -- a real one -- in our cupboard. This is very exciting. First of all, by 'real', I mean the translucent kind with beady black eyes that stare and dart and eat mosquitoes (very important -- see previous post about household malaria incidence). Not the skinny, scabby black ones that seem to hate being trapped inside. Or the red-headed pushup lizards that scamper like leaves when I walk to the car, there are so many of them.

I was so happy to see it and tried not to scare it too much as I reached for the tea. I even opened a window for good measure, should it want to escape. I don't think it will: our kitchen is too full of fruit flies that seem to spontaneously generate around the pineapple to want to go far.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Malaria, again

For the last week, Nate has had malaria. No, we're not on prophylaxis like I said we were. Taking doxycycline, even at low dosages of 100 mg a day, was enough to make both of us so photosensitive we prioritized minimizing skin damage and avoiding cancer to getting the blood borne pathogen. Seriously, it was the better public health call. Four hours on an overcast day had us both pink and peeling, despite a mask of zinc oxide, and we surf a lot. That kind of thing can't happen.

So, three months after our last bout, here we are. It's extra bad because the rapid test Nate got at our City Laboratories (motto: "Insist on knowing your medical problems.") showed negative, although a microscope slide test would've showed positive. We caught it about three days late.

By "caught it," I mean we went to the Ahmadiya Muslim Clinic (no motto, sadly) between 10th and 11th Street in Sinkor. It was, at 11 am in the morning, what you would expect of a private African clinic: wooden benches with people patiently waiting, a large fan, and a file system of stacked, well-thumbed papers in wooden cubicles stacked on top of each other against the wall. Nate paid $10 to register and waited almost an hour to see the doctor. Not horrible, but not great. They ran the usual gamut of tests, and he showed positive on the one that takes an hour, where you use a stain and a microscope, old school-like.

True to African fashion, we were coming for treatment a bit late. So the doctor prescribed a cipro drip and a 2 mg/ml suspension of artesenate, the Chinese herbal-based wonder drug which every uses now because it's so effective. I might mention here that because artesenate is so effective, the malaria parasite it fast becoming resistant to it in monodrug form and dual treatment, just like for HIV and TB, is the public health norm.

While this had been going on, I'd been sitting patiently in the waiting room next to the water cooler, watching mothers encourage forlorn looking children to take their pills. Nate came to get me so we could hang out while he was getting his treatment, and we passed a small pharmacy, private rooms where people were receiving similar drip treatments, and other people waiting quietly in the hall.

The treatment room was a hot, airless little box with two beds and clean sheets. An Indian man lay napping on one of the beds, a needle in his hand and another drip suspended from nails hammered into a make-shift coatrack. I was starting to see a trend in the doctor's treatments and started to mention to Nate that maybe we should get a second opinion on monodrug treatment when I was reminded that, well, we were already here and things were already a bit decided.

I was keeping a hawk's eye on all hygenic procedures, and aside from the fact that the clinic had some innovative adaptations for medical equipment, things looked passable. I was happy to get out of there, and -- aside from a feverish evening after Nate insisted on going bodysurfing in Robertsport ("I only bodysurfed for 20 minutes!"), he's getting better.

Still, we're more committed to getting on prophylaxis now and have heard that cotrimoxazole (spell that), the broad-spectrum antibiotic that children living with HIV take to keep infections down, can be used to keep the parasite away. We're not sure of dosage, but I have a pack of them on my desk. I don't want to do this again.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Random thoughts on beach cleanup

Every month, we help to run a Community Beach Cleanup. I say "help" because although our NGO Robertsport Community Works organizes it, we're opening up leadership of the Saturday event to the wider community: local surfers, expatriate surfers, weekend beachgoers -- pretty much anyone who wants to volunteer.

Only here's the thing. After 30+ members of the community come together under the hot sun and walk down the beach picking up plastic with each other, here's what actually happens. We pile the rice bags, bulging with marine debris and local plastic waste, into the bag of the Nana's Lodge pick-up truck and it drives away.

Here's the thing. We take it to the local dump and...we dump it. We're picking up trash in one place and putting it someplace else. True, it's better in a dump than washing around the ocean, suffocating sea turtles who think plastic bags are jellyfish and clogging up fish gills. And to our credit, we separate the plastic marine debris from the other garbage.

It's that separation that, in a few months, just might pay off. I heard the World Bank is starting to fund a plastic recycling program. I'm not sure of the details, but it sounds like Chinese companies might be buying plastic waste to recycle. Our plastic would be almost perfect: sorted, clean and dry.

A big thank you to Nana's, who also pay for the meal our volunteers then enjoy -- usually a spicy mix of cassava leaf and dried fish served with rice in giant pots. Really, they're as wide as my sink -- I'll photograph the women cooking sometime.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kitchen witch

Two hours ago, I walked into the kitchen, my mouth still fuzzy from the peach vodka and sodas I'd been drinking very happily with my friends the night before. Just now, I walked out. There is a spinach quiche cooling on the stovetop, a swirl of custardy eggs and cheese, spinach and fresh tomatoes. On the burner, I've covered a pot of pumpkin, shrimp and coconut curry, flavored with lemongrass I pulled from our plants on the balcony and which I cooked up sans recipe because my assistant forget to buy onions and I forgot to tell him to buy tomatoes. In the oven, a pineapple upside-down cake is baking, with brown sugar I carmelized on the stovetop and freshly-cut pineapple. In the fridge, there is a fresh white cabbage, ready to be grated into a dressing of lime juice, fresh mint and hot pepper (what I'm starting to call fresh chillies, because everyone here does). I did this all myself, almost magically, happy because Nate is coming home and I want to have nice things around for us to eat.

I love this kind of cooking. It helps that Nowah, who comes in to do dishes on Saturday mornings, is around to clean up. "Ah, you're busy now," she said as she greeted me. "Boss man coming home today?" We then agreed on the proverbial way-to-a-man's-heart-stomach dictum, which seems to have made it into West African culture as well...

A few years ago, when I was living on a farm in Tanzania and friends with the only masseuse in town, I'd invite her over for an afternoon to give massages to everyone. I remember making her fresh mango ice cream in custard made from farm eggs made by the chickens running around our yard. In between sessions, I pushed a bowl of it, light orange and thick with mango-ness, into her hands and handed her a spoon. "You're a kitchen witch," she said, smiling.

It was one of the best compliments, one of those things that stays with you and builds you up forever after it's been said. Before that, I'd been a little uncomfortable finding my way around a kitchen, always sticking to books and asking people's opinions. After that, I found my own way. And now, on Saturday mornings, before a yoga session to shake my hangover, I'm grateful that I can make something with my hands and heart that everyone can enjoy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Photos of the Women's Sewing Cooperative

My friend Jana Videira took some great photos of the Women's Sewing Coop when she came to visit us in Robertsport. I'm using the occasion to introduce you to a few of the women in the group. Thank you, Jana!
Bendu is one of the Team Leaders. She is the most serious of our members and the most matronly, regularly appealing to her authority as the eldest woman in the Coop to boss other members around. She was our first project manager. As Team Leader, she's responsible for quality control and cloth cutting. Before each meeting, she measures each finished bag and collects them from the women in her team, just like she's doing in the photo above.

Early on, I bought Bendu a phone, she we never used it, referring to all sorts of SIM card problems and issues with the machine. After repeated attempts to reach her over a series of months (not weeks), I finally took it back and kept it in a drawer. My own phone was stolen last week, so I had the occasion to use it, and it works just fine.

This is Teresa, who joined the Coop after being talked up by Bendu as a talented seamstress of African fashions. "She know how to sew," Bendu would nod at me emphatically. Teresa is older and chill, like Bendu. She has a real eye for quality sewing and is responsible for teaching everyone the thick hem stitching on the beach bags -- an innovation that improved quality.

This is one of my favorite photos and the only one not taking facing the beach. The grove of trees we've cleared looks more like a forest, and Teresa looks relaxed and right at home.
This is Botoe, modelling the Fish Bone and Bunnies beach bag prints. Your can see her making the Bunnies bag with her daughter in the one above.

The first photo was taken by the inlet at Inner Cotton Trees, which is always shifting with the tide. Botoe is one of the most beautiful women in the sewing Coop and was one of the first to want to model them with Jana. At the time of the photo shoot, Botoe had two children. She lost her little boy a few weeks ago, a sadness which I'll write more about it a little bit.
Mariama is the granddaughter of the Community Chief. She's small and looks quiet: she never even spoke our first couple of meetings. We pass Mariama's house on the way to the Community Campsite in Robertsport every week and I usually see her, pounding cassava for fufu or doing something in the house. She has a really cute daughter who comes to all of our meetings. Mariama also helps cook lunch -- usually cassava leaf and dried fish -- for the community volunteers after the monthly beach cleanups.

We first started doing real quality control during one endlessly rainy weekend, when we held our meeting in the restaurant/bar area at Nana's Lodge next door to the Campsite. It rained the whole time. I recruited Nate to come and help me measure each bag and hold its seams up to the light. When it was her turn, Mariama found it excruciating. "My bag is fine. It will pass!" she shouted at Nate, laughing and nervous. "Mariama! I thought you were shy!" I teased her, and all of the women shook their heads, laughing.

This is Jebbeh. She was one of the young women in the kitchen with me the week I ran the Robertsport Cooking School out of Nana's Lodge. She looks rather striking in this picture, and doesn't usually make such an open expression. She'll like this photo when we print it out for her.
Tina is the other Team Leader. She was the smartest person I trained in the Nana's Kitchen when we ran the cooking school. She still makes me fresh lime juice over the weekends and prepares Nate and I our dinner plates and brings them to our table. Tina is the best.
This is Matilda. She works at Nana's Lodge and will be our third Team Leader as the Coop expands in the future. She's showing off a bag in Taxi lapa, one of our more popular patterns in the beginning. Matilda sewed all the bags for them, so we call this "her lapa."

Stay tuned as we keep growing and thanks to all of you who have supported our products!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lapa buying in Waterside

Over the last couple of months, our Women's Sewing Cooperative beach bags have cycled through over 20 different prints of lapa cloth in different West Africa patterns. Where does they come from? How do we purchase them? So many questions! The answers, and more, below...

Lapa, which I was reminded this week just means 'wrap', are tw0-yard pieces of cloth printed with any variety of multicolored patterns -- often garish, sometimes nice. They used to be made 100% in West Africa, but global cotton subsidies (hello, USA) being what they are, often it's cheaper to use material printed in China. I try to buy local -- or at least regional -- when I can, sourcing Nigerian or even Cote d'Ivoire lapa, but it's often more expensive and hard to find.

The interesting thing about lapa patterns is that they're so variable. One day, you see a lapa print of a large hand with floating, separated fingers and the next, it's the life cycle of a chicken: egg, hatched egg, baby chick, hen. It's fun, but it makes filling multiple orders difficult. I'm getting better at buying popular patterns in bulk -- and having my assistant track elusive prints down in the Waterside market. I regularly send him with color printouts of lapas we've photographed for the website. Seriously, supply is harder than it looks.

Today I took a friend to Waterside -- or rather, her driver drove us in blissfully oblivious air-conditioning while we passed open sewage and stopped at Water Street -- which is, incidentally, almost always flooded. We went to a lapa shopped owned by a Lebanese man who is the cousin of my next door neighbor's ex-boyfriend -- such is the connection of social networks in Monrovia. He gives me a good price, has regularly above-average selection and his shop is quiet and orderly, an oasis from the noise and hassle of the street.

Today, I went picking lapa for two dresses I'm having copied by the expat girls' favorite tailor. I have her down as "Elizabeth Tailor" in my phone, which amuses me when she calls say she's running late. Patterns from today: surfboard, camera, plenty fish (a repeat) and kaleidoscope. I'll post them to the website soon.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Running the Robertsport Community Campsite

Photo courtesy of Jana Videira.

For the last five months, Nate and I have driven to Robertsport every weekend, set up our campsite, hired local security, brought out hammocks and kerosene lanterns, made sure the toilet thatch was defending modesty, and readied Robertsport Community Campsite for potential guests. We stayed there the whole weekend, so it was also an investment in our own comfort, but gradually the packing and unpacking of extra tents and the scent of kerosene in the trunk made us start thinking. We definitely needed someone to run the campsite.

Over the same five months, we've seen local surfer (and world famous!) Alfred Lomax smile and snap to attention whenever he's heard of a new guest visiting Robertsport. We've seen him introduce himself politely, ask tons of questions, invite strangers to stay at his house, organize his mother or his fiancee to cook for them, give them surf lessons, entrust them with his surf boards, and generally encourage visitors to feel welcome, safe and appreciated. Clearly, it was an obvious choice.

Last weekend we sat down with Alfred in a grove of hammocks and offered him the job. He was thrilled, especially since we hired his best friend and fellow surfer Benjamin McCrumuda, to be the groundskeeper. Ben has been making 'African benches' for a few weeks now -- uncomfortable looking wooden benches made from tree trunks and bamboo poles that are actually quite nice to sit on, in a therapeutic sort of way -- so we were really just formalizing his position. Plus, it's good to support them two of them: they do everything together and are respected young members of the community.

We've trained Alfred on how to make receipts and now he's officially in charge. We had a Peace Corps guest last week and a couple of friends stay over the weekend. Things are going well.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Facebook: My worst fear

Here it is: my biggest fear about social network sites has been realized. The horror.

This little "she has no friends" announcement is showing up on the right hand column of my Facebook account, complete with the "friendless" woman's photograph and the snarky suggestion that I hook her lame ass up with peeps. It's the equivalent to running around the lockers in middle school whispering that she's a loser.

And it instills a creeping sense of panic. What if I show up like that, even though I have hundreds (you hear me? hundreds) of friends? Facebook is acting kind of mean.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My weekend (even though it's Wednesday)

Guess where the photo comes from? Thank you, Sean Brody.

Okay, I know it's not the weekend anymore, but I wanted to share how being back in Robertsport after our longest absence to date was. Plus, it was a really fun weekend.

Nate and I drove up on Saturday morning after a nice lie-in, since we decided there was no reason to kick ourselves out of bed really early only to feel tired for the rest of the day. We'd been to a friends' going-away barbeque at the PAE compound the night before, enjoying a South African brai of fillet, lamb and barracuda. The Thai owner of the Golden Beach Restaurant, which has overpriced and disappointing food, made wonderful golden shrimp and spring rolls, which meant I started to harass and plead with him later in the evening in an attempt to convince him to put Thai food on the menu.

A word about the PAE compound. PAE is short for Pacific Architects and Engineers, a division of Lockheed Martin that's training the Armed Forces of Liberia. Enough said. Their bar, which is open to the public, was a covered hut by the pool with an American and an MIA flag hanging behind in. They served beer, liquor and soda, but no juice or water. They also have a kick ass pool and a fleet of tough looking vehicles all backed into their parking spaces ready to go, but no trees.

Anyway, our drive to Robertsport was fun. We had a Response Corp volunteer (the post-conflict version of Peace Corps) staying with us for a few days, so we set up the campsite, which now has a bunch of new benches made by Alfred and Ben. Then we went surfing at Shipwrecks, where I caught nice little shoulder-high waves and managed to stay on them pretty much all the way to the rocks. It was a good session, followed by a paddle-out at Cotton Trees when the waves got very, very big. So big that I didn't want to go in, but I sure as hell was not going to paddle into one. It was even an effort to make it in at Inner Cotton Trees in one piece.

Two cool things happened with Robertsport Community Works projects: 1) We made local surfers Alfred Lomax and Benjamin McCrumuda the Campsite Manager and Groundskeeper of Robertsport Community Campsite, respectively -- a hiring which I'll blog more about later this week -- and 2) the Women's Sewing Cooperative resolved its management schism by officially splitting into two five-women teams, one led by Tina and another by Bendu, with a third team coming shortly as we continue to scale up.

Mostly, I just felt welcome. We've only been in Liberia for a little while, but I guess the community had gotten used to us. Five minutes after our car pulled up and parked under the cotton tree, Tina ran up to give me a big hug and took me over to Nana's, where I was summarily scolded and greeted with exaggerated displays of happiness. For example Augustine, whose invitation to buy him prayer beads and a Muslim hat for Ramadan I had to deny, insisted on kissing my hand, which Tina then rubbed off. It was awesome to be back.

She's up, charging Cottons!

After a great weekend in Robertsport, surfing waves I'd been dreaming of over a 10-day stretch in Monrovia, I thought I'd post the photos our friend and photographer Sean Brody took of me surfing my biggest wave (so far) at Cottons. Here, you see my fearless and quickening pop-up.
Next, I stand up and turn, angling myself towards the face of a wave I consider rather large and steep. I'd call this maybe head-high -- one of my biggest yet! I remember being very pleased with myself for making the drop and thinking, hm, I'm going quite fast!
Then, I really start to get into things. I bend my knees a little, look at what the wave is doing and try to figure things out. Important things, like where should I try to be, how do I pick up speed, am I going to hit that rock, no I am not going to hit the rock, what about the next rock, this is so fun, how do I get off this thing without injuring myself, I feel so cool right now, et cetera.

I keep going a little further, not quite working my way up to the top and back again with little turns yet, but obviously thrilled just to be there.
Here, you can see me do a tiny little claim. Ha! So fun.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Unexpected hazard: African mold

When we first moved here and lived 20 meters from the ocean, you may recall we had a problem with mold. We were assured by our future roommates that living in a third floor apartment with air-conditioning in Mamba Point would eliminate the alarming incidence of mold spores on our clothes, books, bags, wallets and sheets. Only I don't really like air-conditioning, so living in downtown Monrovia has meant only a slightly lower growth rate of alien spores.

A few weeks ago, my roommate entered our common room wondering if she needed to throw away a favorite necklace guessed it: it was growing mold. I assured her she could just wash it off, until she pointed out that it would just grow mold again. I myself have been regularly rinsing a local necklace I particularly like. When I opened up my jewelry Zip-lock (better for hiding then a conspicuous box), even my silver had a patina of light green.

When I packed for our extended stay in Robertsport a few weeks ago, my Guatemalan travel bag had colorful embroidery on one side -- and mold on the other. When I picked it up to examine in more closely, small mushroom clouds of mold puffs into the air and settles in an invisible film on my skin. I try not to panic.

Instead, I google "hazards mold." It was a little scary. Of course, you could google "hazards popcorn" and I'm sure you'd find something, but here's where we stand. The EPA site tells me, "The way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture." Did you know that I live in the second-rainiest capital city in the world? I am screwed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monrovia's restaurants

As one of my friends pointed out the other day, I don't like to complain -- until I do. Here you are: the restaurants in Monrovia are repetitive, overpriced and disappointing.

They don't take advantage of diverse fruit, vegetables and seafood around -- rows of sweet pineapple, piles of different mangoes, huge papayas, different types of cucumbers, sweet and savory bananas, water-filled heirloom and round Roma tomatoes, litchis that Liberians call "monkey balls," white cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, huge pumpkins and squash, colorful spreads of hot red peppers, and even -- occasionally -- guavas. Instead, they serve the same things, mainly Lebanese appetizers, sometime canned, rather smallish and spare salads, and overcooked meat, sometimes in an oily stew.

The two exceptions are the Great Wall Chinese restaurant and Tajj, the Indian restaurant -- both within a few blocks of each other in Sinkor, one of the areas outside downtown Monrovia. Tajj is a wonderful mix of North and South Indian food, with giant $6 masala dosas and idlis on the weekend, a marvelous coconut milk shrimp masala. The restaurant is outside, surrounded by high whitewashed walls and covered by a thatch roof. There's a giant screen for projecting football matches up front, and I imagine they could do a great movie night. That Tajj is right next to one of the country's two Totals, the only trustworthy gas stations in town, makes a good excuse for a visit.

This whole post has perhaps been an excuse to talk about the Great Wall: indubitably the best Chinese food I've ever had -- and I lived in Chinatown in Manhattan for four years. There are homemade pork dumplings, kung pao chicken with tons of Sichuan peppercorns, and an assortment of strange vegetable salads served lukewarm that I am consistently impressed by.

The Great Wall restaurant is across the street from the Great Wall Hotel -- one of the taller buildings in Monrovia that isn't bombed out from the war. There's a bar, largely stocked with Chinese spirits I look forward to trying, and six tables -- some with the set-up for a hot pot -- with two private rooms in the back. The waiters and waitresses all wear red tailored high-neck Mao tops and I've heard it becomes quite a party on some weekends, with some singing together past the point of drunkenness until they are carried to their cars (and, hopefully, drivers) outside. It's an awesome little place to hang out and explore -- and I'm headed there tonight.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Courage at Shipwrecks

Photo, as usual, courtesy of Sean Brody.

I'm not sure what happened to this wave -- whether I wiped out or made it. But look! It's a decent shoulder to maybe head-high wave, steep enough of the face of it. I am proud.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sometimes, the project manages you

It's worth noting that after a two-week extended stay in Robertsport, during which the Women's Sewing Cooperative met regularly under the giant cotton tree and checked in with me almost daily, showing me their progress, assuring me that they were measuring the straps and sides appropriately, and just saying hello, I haven't had a meeting with them in about two weeks. That means for Coop members used to making $20 a week sewing bags (beautiful ones, which you can buy here), there has been a sudden but temporary lull in their new income.

Before the Women's Sewing Cooperative gave them scissors, sewing needles, and new skills, most of them were what the World Bank calls "underemployed," meaning they might earn small sums for trading or selling fish, but that their income potential was being underutilized -- in simple English, they could be earning more. It's not as if African women are actually underemployed -- sourcing and preparing food, organizing water supplies and child care, cleaning, washing and all the other constant tasks of managing a family can hardly be called "underemployment." It's just that they weren't seeing any cash or formal compensation for their labors. Until now.

Putting the Women's Sewing Cooperative on a fortnight of temporary hold wasn't my intention when Nate and I took our Monrovia stay-cation, but it is benefiting Coop management. Before our break, we had one leader on suspension for accusatory outbursts and unnecessary drama during meetings. The younger members complained that the older women were hoarding fabric and not giving them the supplies to make more than a small number of bags per week. Meetings were filled with interruptions and although we'd agree on one thing, once the women were left on their own, they often decided not to follow instructions and sewed renegade, misshapen bags. Project management demanded patience.

Yesterday, my phone rang with an unknown number. Nate answered, spoke to a man for a moment and passed the phone to me. It was Bendu, our project leader, telling me she missed me and wondering if we're coming up to Robertsport this weekend. We are. I spoke to her for a moment, chatted about work and things, and then she passed the phone to Miriama, another Coop member, who said that she missed me and demanded my return to Robertsport this weekend. Then Miriama passed the phone to Matilda, who also missed me and was looking forward out our Saturday meeting. Then Jebbeh, then Botoe, and then the rest of them, only by then everyone was giggling at their repetitions and I was too, laughing at the idea of a bunch of Coop women organized and clustered around a pay phone kiosk, greeting me one by one and telling me to get back to them so they could keep making money. It was wonderful. I can't wait for Saturday.

Something I've been thinking about: three of the Coop women were training with me in the kitchen at Nana's a few weeks back. Although it's none of my business, I asked, and they weren't getting paid any extra for being there all day. Towards the end of our 10 days of cooking lessons, Botoe pointed out that the three of them wouldn't have any bags for me that week -- they'd been working all day in the kitchen. I realized what a sacrifice it had been for them -- well, sacrifice or strategic investment in the future, which is often the same thing -- to be there, learning from me and consciously taking a cut in their income to do so. I'm impressed with them. And I like it when they call.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monrovia stay-cation

For the last two weekends, Nate and I have been on stay-cation. The first weekend, we stayed at a friend's house out of town. We came with groceries, including ingredients for chicken basil fettuccine, a garlic roasted leg of lamb, pineapple, grapefruits, and a case of South African cider the supermarkets have started to import. We watched back-to-back new US releases on ripped DVDs. We read books. We wrote. We took naps. We went to the beach and played around shore-blown waves. We even stayed an extra night and helped my friend cook Canadian Thanksgiving, and although it was more like Whatever-We-Have-in-the-Fridge-and-Freezer, it worked out alright.

Last weekend, we found ourselves still in need of a break from our usually routine of weekly consulting and weekend community work. We tried. We planned to wake up, pack the car...we'd even shopped for camping meals. But it didn't happen. We've been doing this every weekend for five months -- except the weekend we both had malaria -- so fair enough.

So, last Saturday, on the second round of our Monrovia stay-cation, we spent a sunny, dry-season day drinking white wine with fresh grapefruit in it on the balcony, swinging our hammocks with our feet on the railing. It was marvelous. I made spinach and two-cheese quiche, which paired nicely with the pineapple upside-down cake I'd baked the day before. Maybe we would leave for Robertsport on Sunday?


On Sunday, we took our surfboards and made for Kendeja, the new five-star hotel on the other side of town that boasts a "brunch" which is, in fact, a lunch buffet. We discovered this when we arrived at 10:00 AM only to be informed by the staff that "brunch" started at 12:00, but we could order (and pay) for breakfast if we wanted. More confusing was that "brunch" in fact had nothing breakfasty about it, and was instead a bland lineup of nearly-boiled meats and overcooked vegetables.

Not to be daunted, we went for a dry-season surf at the Kendeja beach break with almost no wind and head-high sets coming in pretty regularly. I got caught in a set during my first paddle out and turned around to bodyboard back in, marveling at how point breaks have spoiled my commitment to making it outside. Then Nate rode an amazingly long right and came in to paddle out with me. That helped -- I made it, dodged the big waves and got my courage up to ride a little one in. I'm getting braver!

The rest of the day was spent on deck chairs under a large umbrella, jumping in the pool and people watching as the local Monrovia crowd came to see and be seen. I have no idea how I got so sunburned on the front of my body. But it was fun.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Small wildlife

Here's a spider our friend Sean Brody took a photo of. It's the size of a fingernail but was building a massive web between two little trees.

On a similar but related note, Nate and I were looking at a similar spider -- it had stripes like a zebra instead of crazy horns -- on the fence at Nana's Lodge the other day, marveling at how cool and small it was. And then it ninja-jumped off the fence onto my shirt. My naturalist cool and safari girl calm instantly displaced, I started shaking off my shirt and shrieking. I don't think I've made noise about a spider in a long time...

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Flapping around on the street"

The first draft of a letter I needed in support of a project grant, the highlight of which is, "We will find a date to meet with you and discuss about the spot for the buildings." (Wait. What buildings?)

The second draft, the obvious highlight of which is, "Your project have brought change to our community and have help our young ladies to earn their own finance instead of flapping around on the street."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A tour of the Roberstport hospital

Last week, Ansu -- a security guard at Nana's Lodge next door -- stepped on a massive nail covered in rust while brushing the area around the road. Incidentally, the request to brush was issued directly by the President herself when she visited last weekend, as apparently the encroaching bush was a bit unsightly. This, of course, has nothing to do with why Ansu stepped on the nail.

A resident missionary nurse, acting nanny for the On Surfari peeps' small children, immediately prescribed a tetanus shot and asked if I'd like to accompany her on a short visit to tour St. Timothy's, the hospital up the hill. She and her husband, over a period of years, have filled and shipped a container of medical supplies to distribute to at-need locations around Liberia -- quite a feat, when you think about it -- and she was interested in seeing if St. Timothy's qualified as being in-need.

When we arrived at the hospital on the hill, up an appalling dirt road that made me grateful I wasn't in an ambulance, we were greeted by the hospital administrators and shown around.

Now, it goes without saying that the St. Timothy's Hospital in Robertsport is not a place I ever, under even the best of circumstances, want to visit as a patient. But there was little crowding, clean conditions, clearly posted information and -- although it was a Sunday -- medical staff were visibly in attendance. Things could have been much, much worse.

What struck me most about the visit was the maternity ward. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. If you're a Liberian woman, getting pregnant is one of the most dangerous things you can do. At St. Timothy's, when the missionary nurse asked what the OB/GYN needed, she immediately starting listing things like bedding -- simple sheets and blankets -- and delivery kits, as the hospital only has one. "When it gets busy here," she said shaking her head, "we only have one to sterilize and share between four or five women."

I'll go back and visit the hospital when I have some time on my hands and talk more to the OB/GYN about what we can do to improve their capacity. In the meantime, if anyone wants to send donations for me to buy things here, let me know. I'll do it and post back here on its impact.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A thousand words

Photo courtesy of Sean Brody.

Less than six months after the move from NYC to Monrovia/Robertsport, Liberia, here we are. Fit, tanned, happy, riddled with chronic GI infections (see? it's not all glamorous!) and constantly debating whether or not we should take cipro. I digress.

The community are a constant presence at the campsite where we stay for half the week, coming to sit on our 'African bench,' as it is proudly called. Why buy plastic chairs when Ben can make a bench that seats five out of local wood and rattan? They also take over the hammocks we recently put up, and we laugh together when the recycled fishing nets we use to tie the hammocks to the almond trees splits and breaks, leaving the hammock occupant looking surprised, with one half of their body angled towards the ground.

By the way, this is the best surfing bikini I've ever owned and is made by a small Australian company called Hive Swimwear. They deserve a shout-out -- I've never had an issue with them coming off in the water, no matter how spectacular the wipe-out.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A not-so-private practice

As the photo below shows, I have taken to practicing on the beach. Mostly, this happens in Robertsport before a surf session, once Nate and the other boys are already in the water. I find myself some shade underneath an almond tree and cycle through variations of sun salutations, starting with low lunges, working up to crescent moons with twists, and then transitioning to Surya Namaskar Bs -- the warrior series.

By this point, even if I remain technically alone, I have usually generated at-a-distance attention. "You do training!" one of the security guards at the lodge next door to the campsite tells me. I nod and smile. "Yoga!" yells Peter or Alfred as they run past me back into the water after beaching themselves with a long wave. Sometimes, they'll do a warrior pose or two with me. Those are everyone's favorites.

When I teach my Sunday class to the Robertsport kids -- a class always followed with shared biscuits or now, thanks to the generosity of a resident American, Blow Pops -- this is the part everyone sparks with recognition at. Warrior One: arms up, hips forward, front knee bent, we hold a cutlass over our heads and cut grass. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh. Warrior Two: arms out, hips to the side, keep your front knee bent, now take an arrow from the case on your back, load your bow, aim at the sky and shoot towards a cloud. Load, aim, poing. And so on. Warrior Three: hoover your arms, balance on your front foot, don't fall, fly through the sky. I've cued this to make us airplanes before, but I haven't seen any fly overhead and I'm not sure they really know what they are. Way better to pretend it's us who are flying.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My First Wave at Cotton Trees, or Outrunning the Barrel

Photos courtesy of Sean Brody.

Finally, I paddled out and caught a wave at Cotton Trees -- the most well-known break in Robertsport and a place that, when it's really working and you ride just right, you can catch 300-meter lefts. I'd sat outside on the break for a week-long stretch two Septembers ago, before we moved here, but the shoreline of jagged rocks and the steepness of the wave's face -- it regularly barrels -- had always kept me from paddling in before.

But, having mastered my fear of rocks by surfing for months at Shipwrecks and feeling pretty competent on a borrowed (but hopefully soon to be mine) little 6'0 double-bump, I went out. It helped having friend and surf photographer Sean Brody in the water to cheer me on. It also helped that I'd borrowed a move from local surfer Benjamin McCroumuda -- a bodyboarded slide down the face for a delayed pop-up when things seem a bit intimidating. As you can see below, it worked -- and I outrun a nice little barrel that eventually clips me in the head.

Here's the wave in all its glory. As you can see above, I'm pretty pleased with myself on the paddle back out.