Friday, July 31, 2009

I like Liberian food.

Moving to urban Monrovia lead to a surprising discovery: I really like African food. The girls at the E.L.W.A. compound house who used to make us lunch just couldn't cook. We now live about 200 meters from the World Bank, UNICEF and WHO, so the neighborhood is surrounded with middle-class Liberian restaurants serving a wide variety of local food. Goat soup with dumboy, a derivative of fufu, is Nate's favorite. I like potato greens with fish and rice. Sure, we both pick around the bones and don't let pieces of meat with skin bother us. This food is good.

My favorite African restaurant is the African Food Center in Robertsport, just over the bridge in Grassfield. It's run by two round and happy women who are always a bit surprised to see us and happy to serve us food. They serve chlorinated spring water, which I've little by little sipped to increase my immunity to local bugs. So far, no worries. When I took these photos, I was so hungry and pleased with my potato greens and fish that I forgot to take photos of the food. Look at how bright and clean the restaurant is instead.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kpatawee, Bong County

Nate and I joined a camping trip with WOW Liberia last weekend and drove upcountry to Bong County, where the community around the Kpatewee waterfalls hosted us at their campsite and celebrated Liberian Independence day with us. Here's a photo of me with one of the community leaders, enjoying ourselves.

The campsite was enclosed in a high bamboo fence, with bamboo benches and small, similarly constructed palaver huts, one of which protected the dj from the nightime drizzle. He played Sierra Leonean hits like "Don't Mess with my Tutu" and "You Done Make Me Fall in Love" off an iMac while our fellow campers -- a mix of Americans, English, Germans, Lebanese and Liberians -- danced around a bamboo campfire and drank Club Beer. The late-night contingent traded songs in their home languages and even included the Bengali UNMIL batallion who'd been brought in to guard the perimeter. I'm not sure it we needed the level of protection that UNMIL provides, but the solidiers were clearly happy to be there, volunteering to snap pictures and trying to remember all of our names.

Food that night was served by women from the village, who had brought large pots of jollof rice, fried chicken, cabbage salad and goat soup from Gbanga, the capital of Bong County where President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spent her Liberian Indepdence Day weekend. On our way to camp, we stopped at the Coo Coo Nest reststop for $2 Nescafe and shared the space with former President Bryant, the Liberia's leader during the transitional period, the Cheif Justice, and other heads of various ministries and important offices. As soon as I found out who they were, I gave up trying to order all the mezze that were on their table.

I really like community tourism and I thought WOW Liberia did a great job on their first organized tour to the falls. I like how they work with the local community and that community members were there, eager to see how we were enjoying our stay and appreciating their natural resources. I heard a lot of pride in their voices as they welcomed us, and I liked that.

Monday, July 27, 2009


I've been trying to snap a photo of this copycat Red Bull add for weeks. On Saturday, driving back through an uncrowded Duwala market, I got my chance. Check out this copycat billboard for Red Bull -- I mean, Road Ball.

I've passed Road Ball a few times in the supermarkets and assumed, due to its almost flawless color matching and packaging, that it's Red Bull. But instead of guaranteeing Pamplonan levels of energy, Road Ball implies that you might play in traffic. Sticking with this inference, Road Ball's male model looks like he's being felled by a machine gun or that a football has exploded from his chest.

Puzzling? Yes. Consistently amusing? Most definitely.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Scholarships for surfers

A friend of ours is starting a small business, selling t-shirts to schools and using a percentage of the profits for student scholarships. It's a great idea, and one that Nate and I are appropriating for Robertsport Community Works. 

We've been thinking about how to sponsor Liberian surfers in a way that builds their leadership skills, environmental awareness and community activism. Peter Swen and Alfred Lomax, Liberia's best surfers at 18 and 20 respectively, are both still in high school and frequently mention the stress of having coming up with school fees. Even once fees are paid for, there are transport, uniform and school supply costs to attend to.

I'll be speaking to administrators at Peter and Alfred's schools to get a better idea of costs, but selling shirts that directly benefit them and promote Liberian surfer is a great project for us to get started with. We'll be selling Surf Liberia t-shirts for $10 and figuring out in the next week or so how to ship them to the States. Rashguards are next.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Obama in Africa

My roomate's friend brought her back this biscuit pack from Ghana, where President Obama recently made a much-anticipated visit. Here in Liberia, there is an Obama Grocery off the main road, a taxi named Obama Hero and obviously many more examples of what a symbol of power and progress for Africa this man has become. 

If you like the background cloth, stay tuned for my future post on the market bags project I'm starting through Robertsport Community Works. I'll be selling them in and out of Liberia in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Yoga for kids in Liberia

While I'm trying to set up teaching a kids' yoga class in my Monrovia apartment, moving the furniture back classroom-style and charging a fruit or a vegetable, my small band of boy followers tracked me down last weekend and followed me back to the campsite, from which Nate had recently banished them.

"Can I follow you?" one of the small boys, Morris, asked me as I passed underneath the almond tree between Nana's Lodge and the campsite.


"Can I follow you?" another one piped in, imitating the other one.

"Yes," I shot back, knowing what was coming next.

"Can I follow you?"

"Can I follow you?"

"Can I follow you?"

"Yes, yes, yes," I answered, not looking back and making my way through the sand.

"Hey Pied Piper," Nate called, from where he was disassembling the tent. "I just kicked them out -- for you to bring them back already?"

It's true that small children around make packing up camp almost impossible. They eagerly catch anything they perceive you might not want: twine for the washing line, empty water bottles we try to reuse, surf wax stuck to the tree. 

"I need that," I always say, taking things back. We can't forever be buying new kit for the campsite, nor can small children assume that guests' packing up means freebie time. It's bad for business.

Last weekend, Nate packed up as I stood looking at the five of them, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. 

"You teach them," Nate said. "I'll pack up camp." Brilliant. 

This is how I found myself giving my third official yoga class to the boys at Robertsport. They're really into the balancing poses, especially the ones where you can grab your friend and have them fall on top of you. "Strong! Strong!" they kept calling to me, switching to the local Vai now and then when they were particularly pleased with one another's progress.

Once we move to Robertsport, I'm starting a Girls' Club where we'll have all-girls yoga classes, after-school peer tutoring and income-generating activities. For now, it's me and my boys, trying not to get sand in our eyes.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Truth and reconciliation

I wanted to share the photos of a mural I passed by that communicates the work and purpose of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a forum modeled on those of South Africa and Rwanda that released its controversial report a few weeks ago.
In the first photo, we see quite graphically why the TRC was founded. There is an image of executions, rape, children being forced to affiliate with armed groups, violence against civilians and the burning of their villages. How it would feel to have been affected by some or all of these atrocities, and then seeing them graphically displayed, I can't imagine. All the same, the message is clear: this happened here and this process is a step towards making sure it doesn't happen here again.
In the second photo, we have another graphic depiction of sexual violence, this time -- through the process of the TRC -- leading to a very public resolution. First, a woman is being raped at gunpoint. An estimated three out of four women in Liberia are survivors of rape or sexual assault, so this image likely brings up a lot of emotion for many. Next, we see her dressed and reporting the matter to the Committee, who invite the perpetrator and the survivor to sit down together, which leads to him asking her forgiveness and -- only in some cases --prosecution.

Before I left New York, I was trained by the Sexual Assault and Violence Invention Program at Mount Sinai to be a New York State certified sexual assault and intimate partner violence crisis counsellor. I volunteered at emergency rooms around the city, advocating for health and psychosocial services for survivors presenting in their Emergency Departments. I know that work will inform what I do here, but looking at the scale of things, it's hard to know where to even begin.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Few malaria

Waking up exhausted after two 10-hour nights of sleep sent Nate and I to our friendly neighborhood laboratory on Monday, where after pinpricks $1 each and a few 50 Cent music videos in the waiting room, he was diagnose with malaria and I wasn't.

We went to get the dual treatment recommended for Liberia -- 150 mg each of amodiaquine and artesenate twice a day for three days -- and stocked up on juice, fresh fruit and veg, and after running a few errands, decided we'd take it easy for the week.

That day and the next, I felt like I had an undeserved hangover. This morning, I added aching bones and general apathy to my list of symptoms. By 2:00, Nate insisted we go back to our friends at the laboratory.

"This time, we'll do a slide test," Addis the lab technician said as his assistant squeezed blood from my fingertip onto the kind of slides I remember from high school biology. I waited 20 minutes on the cramped benches in the waiting room and when Addis called me back in, he presented me with a smartly folded paper.

It said, "Malaria: few."

"I have malaria?" I asked. Despite spending over 20 years in Africa, I'd never been diagnosed with malaria before.

"Yes," he said, "few malaria."

So here I am after another trip to the supermarket, already digesting the first set of combination pills. It makes me feel better that I only have few.

Also: I realize superstitiously that our sudden infection was likely brought on by my boast in the "Not getting malaria." This has prompted a dicussion as to whether writing about river blindness and other forthcoming health topics in this post will also bring down their wrath. I'm going to guess not, but all the same -- I have been warned.

Charging Liberia

When I first visited Liberia last September, I met 18 year-old Monrovian surfer Peter Swen. "Are you good?" he asked me, sizing up the 1970's 6" single-fin and the Byrne 6'2" hybrid fish I'd brought for the trip.

I was taken aback by his question, considering this was our first conversation, so I shrugged and said, "I'm learning" even though I wasn't. I'd been dropping into head-high waves since spring, surfing my local beach break consistently on a 9'' longboard nicknamed "The Dog."

But it was my first time on a shortboard, I'd never surfed a point break and there was well overhead swell in Robertsport, where we were spending a week on reconnaissance for our future move. I paddled out, caught a few, but mostly steered clear of the big ones, practicing my duck dive and figuring out how not to let double-overhead set waves break on my head.

Fast-forward to a few weekends ago, when I'd gotten used to the size, the point breaks and the shortboard, and started charging head-high set waves and throwing little turns. The first time Peter, who came out just for Sunday, saw me paddle and catch one at Shipwrecks, he lost it. "Elie! You're good!" he shouted at me as I passed him. "Look at you surfing, girl! You're surfing!" He hooted at each one I paddled for, made techno beat noises which I echoed when I made it back outside, and even obliviously called me into a few closeouts, he was so enthusiastic.

Peter and I are becoming surfing friends. He has a lot going for him. He's on scholarship for his last year of high school, lives straight edge on the missionary compound, and is rapidly becoming the best surfer in Liberia. In the future, he wants to become a defense attorney and be a leader in the surf community in Liberia. I think he'll do it. He's also started a blog I'm encouraging him with, typing and posting from the iPod his sister in Canada sent him. Check it out -- it's a fun read.

Monday, July 13, 2009

God willing

In conversation with a Liberian today, I ended our hour-long consultation with the phrase "God willing," a hangover from the inshallah of my childhood. The man, middle aged and in a suit, sharply drew in his breath and leaned back, assuming the posture of a man about to immensely enjoy giving an instruction.

"Do you know who else said that phrase?" he said, smiling because he knew the answer and believed that I did not.

I paused, playing for time. "Give me a clue," I said, leaning forward on his desk.

"It was August 13, 2003," he said.

Nate and I looked at each other for a moment, doing the math. "Accra Peace Accords," Nate said, referring to the official end of Liberia's 14-year civil war.

"Accra Peace Accords," he affirmed. "But who?"

Here we were silent, watching him as he reveled in his superior knowledge of Liberian history. Clearly, whoever had pronounced "God willing" at that particular moment, the end of decades of conflict, had made something of an impression.

"Charles Taylor," he said, almost smiling. "Charles Taylor said it when he said he would step down for the good of Liberia. He said 'God willing, I will be back.'"

As the accused warlord stands trial at the ICC tomorrow morning and young Liberians try to rebuild their lives against almost impossible odds, I can't help but hope he's very, very wrong.

A La Laguna

The other morning we went surfing half an hour outside greater Monrovia to a beach break in Congo Town. We parked at A La Laguna, an open-air bar bordering the lagoon that you paddle across to get to the beach. My family had scheduled a conference call on Skype, so I waved to the owner and sat in the parking lot as Nate and Keith paddled out.

A little later, I locked up the car, put the key in my leash and walked through the muddy grass to the edge of the lagoon. The group of young men perched on the sandbar, who had their backs to me watching the boys surf minutes before, shifted slightly so I was now in their field of vision. I took a few steps, pushed my board into the warm water and slid on top of it, gliding for a moment and then sticking my fins abruptly in the mud.

My graceful entrance interrupted by the shallowness of the water, I walked for a few meters, pointed towards the center of the lagoon that I hoped would become deeper, trying not to think too much about what was in the mud between my toes. When the water started to cool, I sensed it was getting deep enough to resume paddling and I did, making it all the way to the sandbar's edge where the group of men were still looking my way without overtly watching.

"Hey, ju!" they called to me.

"Ju" means "girlfriend" in Liberian slang, a gendered term more familiar than the "fine girl" used to address young women who are complete strangers. When I'm driving, men I pass call me "ju" all the time, shouting enthusiastically in a bid for my attention, which is usually returned with a jubilant thumbs-up from their side. Male attention in Liberia is friendlier and less aggressive than I'd expected.

We chatted a bit about surfing as I tried to figure out where a nice rip tide would carry me out past the inside waves. There was a gentle medium-period groundswell coming in, with overhead sets every ten minutes or so. Without the onshore winds characteristic of rainy season, the water was glassy -- perfect conditions for me at the moment. One man was more articulate than the others, and told me he wanted to learn how to surf.

"Do you know how to swim?" I asked him.

"No," he said.

"Learn how to swim first, then we'll talk about learning how to surf," I said. "You have to paddle strong and be able to hold your breath for a long time under the water."

Most Liberians rightfully steer clear of the ocean, which is an angry, rip-tide mess for swimmers. After a few drownings last year, UNMIL and many NGOs make staying out of the ocean a condition of employment.

"Are we going?" the man's friend asked him. "No way, man. I want to stay and watch the ju surf!"

Beach breaks, where the waves break wherever they feel like it, have given me a beating since I moved here. First, there was the day at Kendeja where the shorebreak was so powerful it ripped my hooded rashguard out of my hands. Then, there was the shore pound at Sargo, where I bodyboarded back to the beach when the sidesweep threatened to wash me up in Sierra Leone. I won't mention Thinker's, or the days it's been to heavy at Fisherman's or Mamba Point. At that moment, though, I really wanted to make it outside.

I did, paddling out with Nate who'd come back to get me, making it after a few duck dives during a nice long lull. I caught a few waves, head-high rights with big drops that closed out after 10 meters or so -- short rides compared to the easily 200 meter lefts at Mamba Point. It was fun waiting for the sets to come in, but next time I'm staying inside to catch the smaller, more frequent ones. I like the pushiness of beach breaks, the whitewater everywhere, the mayhem of not knowing exactly where the next waves will be.

After an hour or so, we went in, saying goodbye to the now-dispersed crowd and walked back through the lagoon.

"Why don't we walk on the shore?" I asked Keith, pointing to the few men who'd stayed to watch us as, flip-flops in hand, they edged their way through the muddy grass of the lagoon.

"The snails in the mud carry river blindness."

I stopped, mud squishing between my toes. I visualized small snails squirming under my toenails, laying eggs and secreting their parasitic offspring into my skin. I knew nothing about river blindness, really. I was completely inventing the entire trajectory of my future demise.

Keith is a dentist and has lived here a long time. "What do you know about river blindness?" I asked him. "Nothing," he said, "but I'm wearing booties next time."

Great, I thought. A resident dentist and an new MPH, and we know nothing about one of the leading causes of morbidity in West Africa. I tried to paddle again but had to give up when my fingertips kept brushing mud. We walked faster.

I tried to remember some slides from my class in International Health. "I think it gives you boils," I recalled, more confident as I noticed a handful of people with raised boils on their faces since we moved here. "You know," I added hopefully, "before you go blind." I paused. "I'm sure we could take antibiotics."

I've since re-learned that river blindness is actually transmitted by fly bites and does not give you facial sores. I'm still wearing booties.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Virtuous women cooperating for many purposes

This sign, right before the bridge that connects Duwala market with greater Monrovia, has amused me on our way back from Robertsport every single time.

How do they assess the virtuousness of the women joining?

For what many purposes do they cooperate?

If I find the motivation, one afternoon driving home, I will stop and ask them.

I also like the accidental overlap with the Club Beer billboard to the left, where a probably not-virtuous woman encourages us to "Come Alive."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Not getting malaria

I am jinxing myself by telling you it is miraculous I have not yet gotten malaria. Much of Monrovia is surrounded by mangrove swamp, it's the middle of the rainy season, and I regularly get bites in the evening that swell up to the size of my thumbnail.

This is my mosquito net, nicely knotted in the daytime. It was made in China, cost $3.50 at Red Light and is moving with us to our new digs in town tonight. I cut off the fringe and use the excess netting to strain the seeds out of my lime juice.

I wanted to buy a long-lasting insecticide treated net, the kind that actually repels mosquitos, for $7.00. However, when they're not being given away by the millions in massive nationwide campaigns, there is only one place to buy them in town and I don't know where it is yet.

In times of conflict where malaria is endemic, the parasite often kills more people than violence for two reasons. First, displaced communities with a particularly nasty strain of malaria move to areas where the strain is milder, transporting a more virulent parasite to their new neighbors. At the same time, people with lower resistance to the parasite move to an area with a nastier strain, so they're more vulnerable to infection. Add a non-functional health system to the mix, and you have Africa's number-one killer on a death mission.

Interestingly, mosquitoes are also attracted to dark clothing, where they can blend in and not be gleefully squashed. Last night in my black yoga pants, I had a swarm of them around me while the others were invisible to the blood suckers. I will need to phase out dark colors from my wardrobe -- a difficult thing for an ex-New Yorker. And I promise to wear bug spray.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I let them think it's karate

These are the children I've been teaching yoga to on the beach in Robertsport. I wanted to wait until the NGO is established, we have a space and some props, and I could approach the local school about integrating yoga into their physical education curriculum. Instead, I have a determined following of young boys who track me down whenever I'm solo on the beach and look up at me expectantly. "Will you do training today?" they ask. Even if I'm about to get in the water, the leash already on my leg, I never tell them no. 

Here's the thing: they think it's karate. "Yoga. Yo-ga." I tried to tell them the first time, then figured when they joined me in natarajasana that we had more important things to do -- like tree, all the warrior poses, wheel and crow. The addition of a few kriyas -- fast-paced and highly energizing movements -- only solidified their certainty that I am an expert trainer.

Of course, as we progress, they might start to understand that I am not actually teaching them how to fight each other, but the opposite. Then again, maybe not. They're eight year-old boys and they think it's awesome when an adult engages with them. Plus, they see quite a few surfers doing sun salutations before catching awesome waves, so of course they think it's cool. Is it so important that they know the difference between Ha Kriya and a warm up for kung fu?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Don't raze me, Broh

Monrovia has an opinionated and controversial mayor, a woman whose idea of leadership involves bulldozing the informal sector -- literally. Of course, "informal sector" is really a bland euphemism for the poorest of the poor. People who "belong" to the informal sector often live on less than $1 a day with little or no access to health care or education, and do not know where their next meal is coming from.

What little they do have is often transitory -- a plastic bag of belongings, a mattress if they're lucky, or for the truly fortunate, a shop or shelter built out of discarded planks and hammered out tin. Mayor Mary Broh, as you can read in this article, intends to clean up Monrovia by knocking them down. With logic I need to have explained to me, she believes this will encourage people who fled to Monrovia during the war -- and stayed -- to go "back where they came from."

In classic blame-the-victim style, she claims that the poorest people in one of the poorest countries in the world "want to stay in the city and slum ... because they are just too lazy. Nobody wants to go back to the soil. Laziness is the root of this whole thing." Here's what it looks like:

A week ago, we were dropping a friend off after beers in town and turned off the main road towards his compound on the beach. On the way, we passed shacks where people lived and worked, showing Nigerian movies for a small fee or selling rice and soup to passersby. The blare of Nollywood drama and the light from small lamps cut through the darkness as we drove, winding our way through a dusty football pitch and along the beach.

Last weekend, we were supposed to collect the same friend on our way to Robertsport, only a bulldozer blocked the road and a crowd of silent people had assembled. "You're going to have to walk here, man," Nate told him on his mobile. "It looks like they're bulldozing your street today." We parked a reasonable distance away and, taking turns and making sure we stayed in each others' line of sight, went to see what it looks like when what little people have is demolished by a Caterpillar. It felt Palestinian.

So why am I smiling? My future roommate made this shirt, which cost $8 and is silkscreened on a secondhand H&M t-shirt he bought from the market. My $8 purchased my shirt -- and a free shirt for one of the men or women who live in or run businesses from the shacks. And I wore it out to a fun Liberian party last night, all pretty and political.

We dropped the same friend off last night and his street is now empty, broken signboards and pieces of demolished lives littering the dust, no lights from people who were just trying to make their way. I wonder where they're sleeping.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Living in a tent

Half of the week, I live in a tent. I sleep under a sheet on my yoga mat with towels strategically padding up any of the rain that leaks in. We keep it almost manically zipped against mosquitoes and horseflies, which we hunt out with flashlights before falling asleep to the sound of storms on the wide leaves of the almond trees.

Right beside the tent is a small pond, which during rainy season is home to the most rambunctious collective of frogs I've ever heard. Let's just say that as part of creating the Robertsport Community Campsite, we're filling in the pond.

Our car is the only place we have to lock things in, and it starts to look like a refugee supply truck by the end of the weekend, spoons hiding under board bags, mobile phones secured in the glove box, bit of charcoal and half-opened boxes of matches sequestered behind the spare tire, and half-empty water bottles that we reuse every weekend banging about. The seats become makeshift clotheslines where we dry towels, rashguards, board shorts and my bikini.

Like any good storage space, who puts what where in the car becomes territorial. "Why does he have his entire backpack open on the back seat?" I demanded to Nate last Saturday, referring to a friend who'd come along for the weekend and spread out his t-shirts to dry. I was taking up the entire front seat with my backpack, but now that his backpack was there, there was no place to sit down, because we don't yet own chairs. We're bringing chairs this weekend.

We also don't have a table, so the hood of the car becomes our food prep area, cutting board, lounge and desk space. If I swing myself up and lean my back against the windscreen, slouching so as not to damage the windshield wipers, the car becomes a reclining chair from which I can look up at the cotton tree.

Supplies for our NGO projects, which have recently included large wooden signs and a wheelbarrow, are strapped to the top of the car for the ride down. Not only is this useful, but it makes us look like we mean business to the checkpoint policemen who are getting to know us and to the people in the community we drive by on the way to the beach. We do mean business, by the way.

Towards the end of every weekend, when there's sand in the sheets, the yoga mats are damp and the biscuits have all gone soggy, campsite improvements start occurring to me. We're mapping trees to figure out where to put hammocks, where to build a thatch shelter from the rain, and where to designate a cooking area and a compost heap. I may even change my mind about the frogs.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The eggs had eyes

I'm sorry. I don't want to gross people out, but my secret fear of using eggs from the chickens in our backyard came true this morning as I stood cracking eggs into the pan for breakfast: the eggs had eyes.

I broke one, and then the other into a bowl (which I do now, as at least half of the commercially-bought eggs here have yolks that stick to the shell and worry me). It was good that I did that, because in fact, the eggs were not eggs at all. They were half-formed baby chicks. With a
visible placenta. And eyes.

The fact that I probably just made you squirm in your chair and make a face at your computer makes me feel better, because I had my own moment of gross-out which resulting in burning the toast. Breakfast became a much-scaled back occasion that originally planned. I think, for awhile at least, we're sticking with just the toast.