Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Robertsport Community Works

As Robertsport Community Works develops and grows, it becomes increasingly appropriate for the NGO to have its own space, separate from my personal posts.

We're blogging about RCW here, including all the colorful details of our start-up, progress, projects, successes and challenges. I taught myself Photoshop to design the logo, which is a silhouette of the ancient cotton tree at the campsite.

Nate and I will blog regularly, but so will the community members we're working with -- the community leaders, tourism employees, surfers, women, teachers, environmentalists and everyone else who feels like it. Expect profile photographs and their own words: we look forward to telling it like it is, in all its messiness.

Please keep tabs on us! We'll be sure to let you know how you can support us, but for now: keep reading.

By request: Purple salad

I survived on this purple salad, as it has come to be called by Bungalow 8 Million, for months when I lived with my friend Cathleen in Cairo. Here's the recipe, as requested by my RB peeps:

Purple cabbage salad

a purple cabbage, shredded
a bunch of scallions or chives, chopped
1/3 cup vegetable oil (with a tablespoon of sesame oil if it's around)
1/3 cup Heinz apple cider vinegar (it really does make a difference)
1/3 cup soy sauce
a package of Ramen noodles, uncooked
1/4 cup sesame seeds
a few tablespoons of butter

The night before you want to eat it, mix the cabbage and the onions together with the oil, vinegar and soy sauce. You might want to increase the quantity of the dressing to taste, as it's extra tasty when it's tart and strong. Cover and leave it in the fridge, stirring when you remember to, but not so often that it becomes cumbersome.

Before you're ready to eat it, break up the uncooked Ramen into pieces and fry them over medium heat in butter, stirring frequently so they don't burn. They burn easily, so be forewarned. Once the Ramen pieces are toasted and brown, add the sesame seeds, stir for a minute and add the topping to the salad. If you don't add the topping, the salad keeps in the fridge for days.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Maternal mortality hits home

This Friday we hit traffic on the drive out to Robertsport, joining a 10 km-long train of cars that crawled past Duwala market, making an evening surf session an increasingly unlikely opportunity. My ladies at the Total station, who all have my number, told me it was the funeral of a "big man," led by a brass band and a line of mourners whose grief blocked the only road leading west out of the city for over an hour.

We passed the first checkpoint, and the traffic crawled so slowly that we could buy $0.30 of boiled peanuts out of the window without loosing our spot. It wasn't until we reached the first village out of town that we saw the funeral party peel off and slowly climb the hill to the cemetery in the distance, their black cars lining the road. We made it to Robertsport in time for a short evening session, by the way.

Yesterday, I wore my arms out surfing (more on this later) and walked back to camp. Alfred Lomax, our friend and Liberia's best-known surfer, and our well-intentioned but narcoleptic guard James were piling leaves into a wheelbarrow to fill a large hole someone mined sand from a few months back. Alfred made a few half-hearted trips to the hole, sighing and slouching a bit -- clearly something was wrong.

"My friend died last night after giving birth," he said, looking away and trying not to let his facial expression alter. "She had her baby, and at 3:00 am she died." I stood in silence for a moment, holding space for him as he told the story. "They took her to the hospital, but nothing. All of Robertsport is bereaved now."

We stood together for a few minutes, and as Alfred got ready to leave "to go sympathize with his friends and her family," we talked about Orita's life: her husband loved her, she has five other children, now there is no one to feed the baby.

With what many consider to be the highest infant mortality rate in the world, an estimated one out of every hundred Liberian women die giving birth. Being pregnant is one of the most dangerous things a woman can do. For Orita, it was fatal. Only for her, there will be no brass band, no stopped traffic -- only a man left to raise too many children on his own, and an infant who will never know its mother.

Nate and I are starting an NGO to address the needs of the Robertsport community, but what if the need of the half the community is simply to survive pregnancy and giving birth? How do we incorporate interventions for maternal mortality into our projects, even if it's just working with other local NGOs on health education to emphasize the importance of prenatal visits?

Ideas welcome.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Anonymous comments encouraged

I just enabled this blog to publish comments from "Anonymous users," which hopefully does not mean junkies hidden in the shadows but does mean some of you.

Take advantage of your new freedoms to post comments, anecdotes and suggestions, as well as the rude but humorous remark here and there.

I will be editing, but with benevolence.


I woke up under the cotton tree in Robertsport to find that our guard had killed a baby crocodile during the night. "It was swimming across the lagoon," he announced unapologetically, poking at it's 1-foot carcass with a stick.

I paddle through this lagoon to go surfing, the women wash their clothes in it, and it is where we rinse off and do our dishes. The multipurpose use of this semi-freshwater, which is always changing in shape and size with the rains and tides, is for the moment inconsequential. Once we get the NGO running, we'll learn how the community obtains and uses its freshwater resources and see what sustainable environmental solutions can be applied to help out. But for now, back to the crocodile.

You can see here that it's head has been cut off, like you would do to a snake, largely because I suspect the guard got bored. "Are you going to eat it?" I asked hopefully. The guard nodded. "Will you make in into a soup?" I asked, already knowing the answer and angling for an invitation. Yes, he was. And despite asking several different ways throughout the morning, we were not invited. In retrospect, I should've given him a dollar or two to secure the rest of the ingredients for the soup, thereby guaranteeing my invitation. Next time.

Monrovia's location, surrounded by swamp, means that it should be a happy habitat for many crocodiles. I was walking home from my dentist appointment last week, joined by two neighborhood Liberian girls who insisted I teach them songs, and thought I'd ask them about this. "Are there crocodiles around?" I said, motioning to the mangroves. "Oh yes!" they told me, with all the glee of children talking about deadly animals. "Really big ones! They eat children!"

I suppose it's a good thing our guard killed the baby crocodile after all.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Morning at the market

This morning, we decided to go out for breakfast. The place we'd driven by a few times, which has cafe tables attractively set up along the roadside, told us that in fact, they had no food, so we did what any hungry person in Africa does who doesn't want to eat doughnuts for breakfast. We went to the market.

First off, no one bothers white people here like I'm used to being bothered in African markets, so there's no need to avoid eye contact or mentally block out kissing noises. People watched us curiously, but more because there wasn't much going on.

The market is an open area with low whitewashed walls roofed with corrugated tin. Women divided themselves according to what they were selling, with bags of beans, lentils and rice towards the entrance, various vegetables and foodstuffs towards the front, fufu and assorted cassava products to the back left, and assorted protein products including bones, pork cubes, chicken thighs, pig's feet, chicken's feet, prawns and smoked forest antelope to the back right, and greens just out the back.

At one point, I saw what looked like a block of clay, was encouraged to try it, and found that it actually was clay. Pregnant women here are known to crave and eat dirt, but I suspect it's also a poverty thing: the woman who wanted me to buy some told me it was for appetite, perhaps like the mud pies in Haiti. It did suppress my appetite, but also made me feel a little nauseous for a couple of hours. I look forward to spending more time in markets and figuring out what everything is.

Here's what we found for about $10:

* enough baby eggplant to fill a roasting pan and make baba ghanough (recipe below)
* black-eyed peas and whole lentils, which I'm sprouting thanks to the advice of my friend Cathleen
* okra for a South Indian thoran
* a huge pumpkin, which we're making into both curry and pumpkin raisin bread with yoghurt frosting
* bananas which we froze for future smoothies
* handfuls of onions and a bulb of garlic
* local peanut butter, unsweetened and without salt
* plantains, for roasting or frying
* limes, for our water
* 15 eggs, since our chickens are sitting on theirs
* small prawns, which I cleaned and took the heads off of, then made into a scampi with butter and garlic

As you can imagine, I'm pleased with our excursion and figuring out how we can eat locally quite well.

Here's how to make proper Egyptian baba ghanough. It keeps as long as hummus, is less filling (as it's full of mashed eggplant instead of chick peas), and can be used in exactly the same way.

Eggplants, enough to cover at least half a baking tray when cut into thick slices, the younger the better as the older ones tend to be a bit bitter
Tahini paste, a couple of big tablespoons full
Lemon or lime juice, without the seeds as they make it extremely bitter
Salt to taste
A few cloves of raw garlic

Slice the eggplant into two-finger thick slices and lay them on a baking sheet or roasting tray. Broil or bake them in the oven until they're browinsh and soft -- the length of time will depend upon the settings of your oven, the eggplants and your patience. I've broiled eggplants in 15 minutes before, but often prefer roasting them at 350F for about half an hour.

Add the cooked eggplant, tahini, lemon or lime juice, salt and garlic to a food processor or, if you don't mind a bit of prodding, a blender. Pulverize until the skin of the eggplant has blended with the pulp. Add water as needed to thin the baba ghanough, especially if you're trying to do this with a blender.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Small puppy alert

Before the weekend, I invited friends to come with us to Robertsport. "We can't," they said. "We just got a new puppy." I thought this was a bit lame, and as we discussed plans for meeting up this week, I inwardly rejoiced at our freedom.

When we got back from Robertsport on Monday, there was a puppy waiting for us on the stoop. More accurately, I saw that there was a puppy running around the garden and tried to make friends with it while it tried to run away. I have longer legs, so I cornered the small animal behind our bag of rice and forced it to eat white bread soaked in milk. As you can see, it is very small and according to Nate, kind of gross.

The next morning, Myers explained that the puppy was a gift from his Oma/"old ma" and that it doesn't have a name yet. It still doesn't - Myers and I are thinking of one. But two days later, the puppy has been bathed, eats dry dog food and wiggles around a lot. I look for it when I peer out the window and it licks my legs when I get out of the car. Last night, it got a piece of soup bone wedged between the teeth of its palate and pawed at its face, whining, until Nate tugged the bone out with my tweezers.

In this photo, we are trying to feed it shrimp heads and skins. Nate keeps chasing it away from the door. I am constantly putting on my flip flops, going outside to pet it, and then coming in to wash my hands. It's fun to have the puppy around.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A mysterious uncle

Last week, we gave Myers $20 to buy a new tarpaulin for his house, which as you can see is much smaller and in far worse shape than the one we're renting. The rains had been flooding his house, dampening his belongings, and causing me to wake up to fret about his well-being in the middle of the night. The first time we asked him to please sleep in one of the spare rooms in this house, he declined and appeared uncomfortable. When we asked him again, this time in the pouring rain well after dark, he accepted. I was pleased.

We asked Myers what he needed to make his house better, and gave him the $20 for a new tarpaulin he requested. But we can't just give him $20 and nothing to Talent and Diana. So towards the end of last week, I took Diana aside, told her what was up, and asked them to think about what they'd need.

What did they want? Mobile phones. Of course they do. We did some research, figured out that good, sturdy ones cost about $35, and said okay.

Only between the asking and the approval, something happened. "We don't need phones anymore," Diana told me yesterday, smiling smugly. "We have an uncle who bought us both phones. Now we want suitcases."

An "uncle"? Both of them? Are they planning to skip town? These are nice, Christian girls. I don't know what to think, but they both have new clothes and are extremely happy this week. And will be getting suitcases.

Friday, June 19, 2009


People here are among the poorest in the world, so meat and even fresh fish are a luxury. Our household is considered well-off by most standards, so our soup is regularly flavored with reconstituted dried fish and stock bones that are sold in shops off the main road. I have yet to see a butcher shop that sells cuts of actual meat. The fish is bony, oily and takes some getting used to, but it flavors everything here -- even meat soup -- so I'm accustoming myself to it. The bones that flavor the soup are another story. They smell like meat, flavor the soup like meat, make me want to eat meat, only they aren't meat -- just scraps of gristle and sinew around the bones.

During the Second World War, the U.S. built an air base outside of Monrovia that tapped Liberian natural resources to supply the African and European fronts with all the rubber they needed. The American soldiers were on a diet of imported rations, and the local Liberians who lived nearby nicknamed their area "Smell-no-taste," because they could smell the food the Americans were eating, but they never got to taste it.

Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world. There are more than 15,000 aid workers in Liberia, and there is still a large UN Peacekeeper presence. We can buy South African wine, German chocolate and even Indian papadams in the supermarket.

I wonder how many Liberians I pass or converse with every day feel like the people in Smell-no-taste, looking at my well-stocked fridge and my car, seeing evidence of my better health and education, and minding the gap.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hot peppers are not a vegetable.

We have three people working daily at our house: Myers, Diana and Talent. All three are on work-study scholarships that require them to perform household chores like laundry, making sure the dog doesn't attack and eat the two ducks we bought, cleaning and cooking lunch. Lunch is ready between 1:00 and 4:00 on any given day and includes rice with different kinds of soup flavored with boiled garlic, onions and a stock cube. And anywhere between 20 to 40 chili peppers.

I spent my formative years in New Delhi daily eating raw chilies and South Indian food. In New York, I once put so much red pepper on my pizza that the Mexican staff came out of the kitchen to watch me eat it, congratulating me that they'd never seen a woman eat so much chili. But at the moment, most of the color in my diet comes from green and red chili peppers added by the handful, and how to say it tactfully? They are not a vegetable.

Here's a photo of Diana cooking over charcoal (does anyone know the name of the eco-friendly stove pioneered in East Africa ) under the awning of our house, staying dry from the rain. The lovely green stuff is a sauce of potato greens, which are mellow and sweet. Cassava greens and palaver (which means "to argue") greens are also available, and I intend to figure out how to cook them. Note the color in the pot, which is all hot pepper...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Local posters

"Just say no to your friendly neighborhood arms dealer."

I'm just dyslexic enough that I saved the file as "weapons not development," then had to stop for a second and backspace. I love his multi-pocketed vest and eager, entrepreneurial expression.

This public-service announcement seems to be all about narcing on your friends. Rather than encouraging them to seek treatment, you should tell the army about their illegal activities and get their sorry asses thrown in jail.

Yeah. Take that, youth of Monrovia. You've survived 14 years of civil war. Now you'd better watch out for that girl in the cute jeans.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nate and Elie surfing on the BBC

Here are Nate and I in Robertsport, about to surf Shipwrecks, and on the BBC.

Fans of the blue fish back at Bungalow 8 Million will see that it is happy and safe, and Psycho? That's your old board I'm about to ride.

More shots of us surfing will follow. The issue is, we're both always in the water, so who takes the photos? The answer is, we train one of the Robertsport kids - and then they can earn money taking photos of surfers and selling them on a CD at the end of the day.

Chez Missionary

This is the house we are renting from absent missionaries that we share with a rotating number of German Swiss men, also missionaries (and one of whom is moving his wife and four kids in on Monday). Elderly missionaries in chinos and skirts walk the beach and drive sturdy new Toyota Landcruisers. Our surfer friend has church - with a band - on Saturdays in his backyard. Even Myers sings off-key and absurdly high-pitched hymns until we put on Beck or Fela Kuti loud enough to drown him out.

Sub-letting on a missionary compound leads people we meet to assume that we are also missionaries. After we tell them where we live, there's always a hesitation, which we scramble to fill with "We're not missionaries! We like to drink! Invite us to your parties!" or something like it, hoping not to sound too desperate.

This is how close we are to the ocean, which at the moment is angry and onshore. It's rainy season, about 25 C, and rained so much last night that the river outside our wall is full and flooded.

There are certain things I'm not telling you. For instance, the garden is infested with small biting ants that sting like needles for 8-12 minutes post-exposure, then 24 hours later come back again and feel like the most seductive mosquito bite you've ever wanted to scratch. It is rare that I venture into the crabgrass without getting bitten, despite having adopted a dictatorial march step to avoid standing in one spot for too long. The windows, even when closed, let in rain: this morning our dishtowels were commissioned into soaking up and mopping what became 2 liters of water from the rain last night. Also, there is an unidentified scuttling animal, that could be a mouse but is probably a very large flying cockroach, whose swift and shadowed movements startle shrieks out of me every time we encounter one another.

More importantly, my leather sandals have grown green mold spores twice now, and I'm not sure what to do. Spray them with Doom? Bug spray? Dishwashing soap? Advise welcome.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Remembering Thembi

A few years ago, when I worked at UNICEF Headquarters, I went to an hour-long presentation by a young woman named Thembi Ngubane from Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town in South Africa, who was living with HIV.

Her presentation and the NPR-featured audio diary that went with it chronicled what it's like to be a bright and spirited 19-year old living with HIV. She taped and shared with us what it was like to disclose her HIV status to her father, talk with her health worker about her antiretroviral regimen, and ask her boyfriend Melikhaya (who took this photo) late one night if he ever hated her because she infected him with the virus.

In all the other presentations and meeting I went to at UNICEF, I have never seen an audience so emotionally affected by someone's story. Over the next few years, it was my privilege to work briefly with Thembi as she matured into an international AIDS activist, traveling and sharing her courage and her unbelievable spirit with everyone she met.

A few days ago, Thembi died of multi-drug resistant TB, a deadly co-infection that disproportionately affects people living with HIV, especially in Southern Africa. She was 24. Thembi is survived by her boyfriend Melikhaya and their young daughter, Onwabo, who is living HIV-free thanks to drugs that prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Joe Richman, the Radio Diaries producer who mentored and supported Thembi, included this quote of hers in the email with news of her death:

"Seeing people who were losing hope, who were on the death road, made me realize that there is no time to waste. People needed to be aware. I felt like maybe some of the way AIDS has been portrayed hasn't helped them. Maybe people don't feel the messages, maybe they don't hear them. Maybe people need someone they can relate to, someone who is just like them, to spell it out to them. I felt like I owed it to everyone to just be heard."

Please listen to Thembi's story and learn more about drug resistant TB at a site run by another South African, TED award-winner James Nachtwey, called XDR-TB.org.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Figuring it out in Robertsport

Yesterday we had our first meeting with the some of the Robertsport community, sitting on the sand until the resident expat, a German IT professional named Carl who drove down from the U.K., gallantly carried over some plastic chairs from the lodge next door. I was surprised by the turnout of about a dozen, mostly men working for Nana's Lodge, some of the local surfers and Beatrice, who contributed vociferously and whom I really like.

Nate and I began by sharing what we're trying to do under the auspices of a yet-to-be-named and still-to-be-started NGO: help the community benefit from local tourism while caring for the natural environment. People were receptive to the idea of organizing a beach clean-up project, especially as they started to list the kit that could come with it -- highly visible t-shirts (blue instead of yellow, which shows dirt too easily and will be hard to clean), branded trash barrels, a wheelbarrow, shovels, rakes, gardening gloves, raincoats... We had to draw the line at NGO-branded raincoats, actually, as the excitement was getting a bit out of hand and I'm quite sure that's not actually something we can deliver.

Two things surprised me the most. The first was that top of the group's list of things of needs were toilets, so that people wouldn't have to squat in the bushes and hope their passing neighbors looked the other way. Rain and high tide washing E. coli into the groundwater or the ocean is a pervasive sanitation issue, and I'm more than happy to figure out how to build and fundraise for a couple of pilot composting latrines. This will also be an excellent way to establish visibility, build goodwill and generally get a better grasp on how people get organized and like to work here. The second was Carl's suggestion that, as we are currently privately funded (read: by Nate and my dwindling amounts of cash, as we have yet to figure out how to access money into an nation devoid of internationally-networked ATMs), we could provide a meal of rice and sauce as a means payment, which seems to go over well.

My main interest as we start and mentor the group is how we can keep people motivated in the early months, before there's visible payback. I'm not sure how we want those we work with to be remunerated, but I'm becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the barter system. There is such a disparity between my resources and those of the Liberians I live and work with that this seems like the best basis for an economically empowering exchange. More on how I work this out soon.

Important update: Some of you will be happy to know that Myers, of previous chicken-killing fame, decided to wash our car, (which I skillfully drove back from Robertsport, smiling charmingly at each policeman who stopped us at the checkpoints so that they let us pass despite the fact that we're currently driving without plates). Since we're sub-letting at the moment and don't pay his salary directly, we gave him a dollar -- what many Liberians make in a day. He returned a few hours later with a mottled chicken for our coop. I'm impressed that he invested his single so quickly in something that benefits our little compound. I wonder what he would invest in if we gave him five.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Less than 50 km south of the border with Sierra Leone are arguably some of the best point breaks in Africa -- smooth, sandy-bottomed waves that catch almost any angle of Atlantic swell and break for up to 200 m. I was there last weekend, and I'll probably be there every weekend, camping under the cotton trees. The one on the left is estimated to be about 500 years old and the place where Joseph Jenkins Roberts and members of the American Colonization Society landed to "found" Liberia.

Day before yesterday, I was surfing Shipwrecks and cut my foot when I wiped out too close to my fins. I walked to the lodge next door to get vodka and their first aid kit, and as I was sterilizing, cleaning and bandaging, I made friends. First, there was Beatrice, who made sympathetic noises as I cut away the shredded skin and sponged vodka on the sand that had collected around the wound. Tina downed half the shot of vodka I got gratis, which I thought was admirably forward for 11:00 am on a Monday. Vivian asked me what I was doing in Liberia, and the conversation went from there.

Nate and I are working here as consultants in education and health, respectively, but we also spend most of our free time surfing, and Liberia has world-class waves bordered by rainforest, with no sharks, no rocks, no reef, and people who have been through a 14-year civil war to emerge resilient, focused and motivated. Since we're going to be in Robertsport on our weekends and be part of the community there, it makes sense to start an NGO focused on environmental management and community-based tourism. Right?

When I explained this in three sentences to the lodge staff, they asked if we could meet with them and other members of the community next week after the weekend crowd had dispersed, to hear their ideas and talk about how we can work together. This is awesome. I'll get Samson, the 11 year-old who wants to be a surf photographer, to take pictures.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sudden-onset vegetarianism

I have just sent a chicken to its death. Myers came up to the window and held it up for inspection. Even upside down, struggling to free its wings, it looked right at me with its beady, unblinking eyes. Everyone in the house looked at me, actually, as if I was supposed to say "yes" or "no," as if we hadn't already agreed that we would eat chicken today and it was up to me to say whether the thing would live or die.

When I lived in New York and ate factory-farmed, antibiotic-pummeled birds, I didn't think twice about this, and I'm a yoga teacher -- we're supposed to be vegetarians. Now that I can look the scrawny, stupid thing in the eyes and watch it peck around for ants in the crabgrass, I start to wonder if it fears death or experiences acute anxiety in its last seconds of life. In a country that does not grow carrots or cauliflower, this sudden empathy for fowl is inconvenient.

I am posting before-and-after photos of the said bird, which I preferred alive. I'm planning a trip next week to Red Light, the largest market in Monrovia and the only place they sell baby chicks. I want to make amends to the thinning flock of chickens in our yard. And who knows? Next week I might get hungry.