Monday, August 31, 2009

Alignment

In yoga, the subtle adjustment of various parts to make a structured pose is called alignment. In my experience, things tend to fall into place when I let them grow organically, in their own time.

Over the last month, three things have fallen into place for my work here. First, we met a marine biologist who is now generously advising us on environmental projects for Robertsport Community Works. Second, Sabine from SoulSurfers.org and I have started to talk about ways to partner and support the Surf Liberia scholarship program for surfers and our environmental projects, including beach cleanup. Third, in addition to my freelance stuff I started taking on work through with Nate's consulting company, Consultants for Online Development and Education, and am developing a proposal I'll write more about this week.

As Robertsport Community Works projects take shape, I've also looked at how to become more professionally engaged with public health work in-country and spent a few afternoons with a friend of mine who runs a center that provides skills training and psychological services to at-need Liberian youth. She's a trauma specialist in her last year of training, with a highly qualified support network and a strong passion for her work here.

I assumed, based on my own priorities, that she would be supporting women affected by conflict, mostly likely survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault. Rape is the second most reported crime in Liberia, with young women and girls most at-risk. When I got to the center and met her program staff -- people she had trauma counseled in Buduburum Refugee Camp in Ghana and then hired as her Liberia program staff -- I saw that all three were men. When I looked at her program rooster of self-selecting trauma survivors from what she calls the "ghetto" around the center, 3/4 were men.

I thought I was getting involved in a center supporting women survivors. Instead, I'd done the opposite: showed up for a program that offers psychological support to young men, many of whom are probably perpetrators: ex-child solidiers, or, to use UNICEF terminology, young men "formerly associated with armed conflicts and groups." But next door to my friend's center is a partner program, one of Liberia's few drug treatment centers. It's a much-need resource in a country where conflict was fueled by drug-riddled combatants, many of whom cope with lingering addictions. Although it wasn't where I was first looking, this is an intriguing program.

The center offers support groups that teach tools to deal with anxiety and depression, teaches meditation, offers courses in literacy building and, if I join their staff, a yoga program that monitors and evaluates the effects of a regular yoga practice on diagnosed clinical trauma. It's an opportunity to teach a group I wouldn't normally teach, with a strong monitoring and evaluation component that will apply my professional skills and my new MPH.

I'm in.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three months

Nate and I have been in Liberia for three months, just long enough to start to put our roots down and have a good idea of what we've gotten ourselves into. Here's what I've noticed about Liberia in the last ninety days and counting:

1. There's a lot less hassle here than in East Africa. I'm not sure why this is. There's hussle -- people struggling to make ends meet by trying to get you to buy their DVDs/mangoes/biscuits/washclothes/insert cheap Made in China product here. But they do it, for the most part, nicely. They remember your name, even if they mispronounce it, and if you want to sit in your car, chatting on your cell phone with the windows down, they leave you alone. This also goes for walking on streets in Monrovia: dramatic bids for your attention -- yes. But for the most part, these are fourth-grade harmless, and satisfied with an eyes-ahead smile or a shake of the head. I'm used to African city streets being a constant battle of controlled body language, closed communication and gaze -- anything to get people to not pay attention to me, to let me pass unnoticed as much as possible, to let me be. Things are, strangely, different here.

2. Liberia is small. I grew up in a city of 23 million people, where over a million a day, every day, commute. Monrovia is 2 million. There are only 3 million in the whole country. This makes for an almost neighborhood feel, or like I'm in some sort of grad-school simulation. People who have lived here for a year often know everyone from private sector CEOs to government ministers, mentioning them casually as bar mates or favor-doers with whom they're happy to put you in touch.

3. Um. The waves. Sorry to those of you who don't surf -- I waited two whole bullet points before bringing this up. Liberia's sandy-bottom point breaks are the best places I've ever surfed. Most of the people in the water with me agree, mentioning Teahupo and secret Southern CA spots now and then. Seriously. Mamba Point, which I can practically see from my house, is chunky, protected from the wind and a slow-breaking machine. Robertsport's string of points, each one faster and steeper than the next, bloody well rock.

More soon. I have a roast chicken salad with green beans and fresh herbs waiting for me, and a well-deserved celebratory bottle of wine. Cheers to three months -- and counting.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Um... Om?


On Sunday, my usual five-child yoga class swelled to 14, with four girls leaving their mothers down the beach to come and join us. "The first time girls have joined the class! How exciting!," I thought, until one of the older ones started a fistfight because she hadn't gotten tagged yet in the yoga version of "duck, duck, goose." Although I asked her to sit out for the rest of class and didn't give her the wafers I hand out at the end, I made sure she knew that she could participate next time and am very glad she came.

I moved us from under the campsite tree to the beach, so that we'd have adequate space and campsite guests wouldn't feel we were infringing on their weekend privacy. Plus, I'm trying to draw clear boundaries between public and private space for us at Robertsport, otherwise our days there become child-crowded open-houses.
We drew a circle in the sand, did sun salutations to the Karma Kids sun dance (any excuse to mention my favorite yoga studio!), worked on our warrior poses, did eagles, trees, crabs, frogs and fell over many, many times. It was only when I moved on to group activities that the fighting erupted.

Now, it's not unusual for children to fight. And get them doing something participatory and their normal conflict resolution techniques will show themselves, be they empathetic questioning, fist-fighting or crying to get attention. So, when the older girl jumped up, fists in position, during duck, duck, goose, I told her to stop, sat her out and told the children that they are not allowed to hit in my class. A few minutes later, another boy thought he was getting patted on the head to hard and also stood up, swinging a few times for dramatic effect. Clearly, these children are used to acting out their feelings the quick and easy way.

Maybe they're just not quite ready for group games, either. Group games take teamwork, a sense of community and a knowledge that there will be fair play and everyone will get a turn. It's up to me to teach that, and stick to individual poses, stories and activities in the meantime. Maybe in a few weeks, we'll move on to partner work but I'm here for the long-term and we can take things slow.

After the second altercation, I sat everyone down and told them that we'd have class every Sunday afternoon and that all children were welcome. But, I said, trying not to scold, I would not tolerate hitting or name-calling - there was a considerable amount of that, too, with sweet-faced Elijah instigating most of it.

With all the newness and hostility, I don't think we're quite ready for the final relaxation -- usually everyone's favorite part. They kids are pretty wary of me and of each other, and lying down next to each other with their eyes closed doesn't seem like the safest activity for now.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bag ladies

Beach bags hand-sewn from West African batik fabric by the women of Robertsport are almost ready to hit the shelves. The group of three women have grown to ten, lead by Bintu, who now has a mobile phone so I can coordinate and bring appropriate sewing supplies for her. Also, and most importantly -- they're getting paid.

Originally, the women were getting an even $2 per bag, which take a little less than a day to sew. When they revised the design to make two bags out of one cut of lapa cloth, we divided the extra profits between the women and the Community Fund -- a loan pool for the micro-enterprise projects supported by Robertsport Community Works. Now, they earn $3 per bag and they're pretty stoked -- the week after we bought the first bag, their numbers tripled to the ten we've capped the project at for now.

"The bags are perfect. You'd better bring money," Tina, second-in-command, told me laughing as we chatted on the new mobile before our Saturday meeting. I did. Now I just have to get the bags off of our shelves and onto people's shoulders. I welcome the challenge of coordinating a grassroots marketing campaign from West Africa, but please -- ideas welcome.

Saturday was the rainest day in Robertsport yet, and Nate and I spent most of Saturday afternoon running quality control in the restaurant of Nana's Lodge, which we took over as a de facto community space because it was dry. To ensure consistency, the women filled the restaurant tip jar with sand and put it in each bag, inspecting the seams for signs of stretching and chalking areas that needed a little more work. I walked away from there with 22 bags, and we'll have the styles and fabrics up on the Robertsport Community Works website for orders later this week.

Beach bags will be $10 with $8 shipping and handling anywhere outside of Liberia. We take PayPal and the bags take about 2 weeks to arrive in the States. Check back in a few days for photos of the beach bags (which will be followed in a few weeks by matching coin purses and yoga mat bags) and then email me at elie@robertsportcommunityworks.org to order.

Thanks for supporting with your orders and ideas! And thanks to Myles for this awesome shot.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Chai

I drink copious amounts of tea. I always have. It's a product of growing up in Kenya and Egypt and I like to be served both countries' versions of chai -- the milky, spicy, milky version from East Africa and the clear, sugared, mint-flavored version from the Middle East.

East African chai is the best kind for drinking throughout the morning and well into the afternoon. It's best, for sleep purposes and to avoid ruining your appetite for dinner, to finish up your mug before 6 pm, which I'm doing just now as I write this. East African chai is easy enough to make and spice yourself, mixing voluminous mugs of it and coloring it just right.

Middle Eastern chai -- or shai, to say in in Arabic properly -- really needs someone serving it to you, refilling your shot glass with mint stalks and pouring the freshly brewed tea from a pot high above, careful not to splash for maximum dramatic effect. It feels wrong to drink shai in anything except a delicate little tumbler, and I haven't the patience to keep pouring refills of it.

When I left Kenya for Egypt at 14, East African chai was one of the things I missed the most. Over the years, I've learned how to make a pretty good replica of it.

1. While your water is set to boil, prepare your mug. Use the largest mug you've got, and put two Lipton or other strong dark tea bags into it. If you're using sugar instead of honey, add a generous spoonful of it now. Then add a pinch or so of dried ginger and another of black pepper. Trust me.

2. When your water is boiling, pour it slowly over the teabags, making sure the water runs directly through them. This will make the tea instantly stronger, which you'll need to counter all the spices, sugar and milk. Leave about a third of the cup free for your milk.

3. Using whole milk, fill the cup until your tea is a lovely milky brown. If you've had chai before, you know what I mean. Otherwise, just estimate and you'll figure it out according to your taste.

4. If you're using honey, add it now, after the milk has given the tea a chance to cool. Heat denatures the enzymes in honey, so you want to add it now to get all of it's benefits.

5. Holding the string on the tea bags, stir everything gently until the tea darkens another shade. Then squeeze the bags against a spoon to get the last of the color out, remove them and drink up.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Surf Liberia hits the racks


So, our Surf Liberia shirts are ready, with 100% of profits going to the Surf Liberia Scholarship Fund. Read all about the scholarships on the Robertsport Community Works website and order a shirt! Here's the low-down:

Nate and I wanted Robertsport Community Works to support and grow local surfing, but also to innovate a model of surf sponsorship that is healthy and productive. I have nothing against throwing money at worthy young people, but I want our influence in the community to be more productive than that. Here's the plan.

We pick the best and most promising surfers in Liberia. At the moment, that's Benjamin McCrumuda, Alfred Lomax and Peter Swen. Then, we work out a contract with them that's mutually beneficial for us both. So far, this means we contribute to their school fees, help them get surf equipment and meet them bimonthly to talk about their personal and professional goals.

In turn, they contribute 50% of the income they earn from surf lessons, wear our Surf Liberia rashguards and board stickers when they surf, and attend Robertsport Community Work events like the monthly Beach Cleanup. They also agree to be good role models in and out of the water.

The photo of Peter, above, was taken as soon as he saw the shirts, and he's been wearing them everytime I've seen him since. He wants to be a criminal lawyer, and when I was talking to him this afternoon, I let him know that if he works hard and surfs well, we might be able to help him with that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Productivity vs. the parasite

This small clinic is responsible, for the affordable sum of $0.90, for telling me that I don't have malaria. I'm on a first-name basis with Adi, the chief lab technician, who lets me call him for my lab results instead of watching hip-hop videos with silent and ailing locals in the waiting room. The clinic's moto is "Insist on knowing your medical problems," which I did -- only to learn gratefully that I had a cold.

Every time I walk in, the receptionist appears unhappy to see me and shakes her head. "You're getting too cold!" she tells me as I slowly spell out my name. This weekend, it was true: Robertsport kepts up a grey drizzle, I only brought one change of clothes and was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt, and the sheets I'd grabbed from the communal cupboard were thin twin- sized and certainly insufficient for a night of heavy rain.

I was weary enough of a potential repeat of malaria that Nate and I have been taking our doxycycline, 100 mg at 2:00 pm every day, reminded by our Google Calendars.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Happiness, in a car

Here we are, after a weekend in Robertsport, as photographed by our friend Myles who was sitting next to the surfboards in the back seat. We are happy and slightly sunburned and heading back to Monrovia. Nate and I are looking into living full-time in the RP now. The Internet there is faster...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hand-painted signs

There are proper billboards in Liberia, the glossy kind with models and slogans, but hand-painted signs like this are still the norm along the major roadways. Many of them are health focused, telling passersby to "wash your hands after pupu" or, like this one, to vaccinate yourself and your children against major preventable diseases. Notice the much nicer Omega Insurance billboard in the back?
The "Welcome to Bong County" sign is an awesome metaphorical testament to Liberian reconstruction. You have the boatman sailing the Liberian flag with an oar of Reconciliation, his passengers holding signs for "Peace," something too small to read, and "Truth." The center of the shining sun is the Bong County flag and in case you missed the metaphor, we see that Bong County is indeed "sailing forward to a brighter future for Liberia." I'm glad they didn't paint any sharks in the water.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sustainable activism

My new housemate, a Zimbabwean who's studying in Australia and has an accent as occassionally mixed-up as my own, worked on his laptop next to Nate and I yesterday, asking thoughtful questions and listening to us bounce ideas of each other and move forward our respective projects. Around 10:00 pm, when we'd returned from dinner only to hop back on our laptops, we started joking about how hard it is, when you're working on your own schedule, to stop working.

"I have friends like you guys," my homie said. "They work really hard, doing their things, and are really successful but never go on vacation." Then he paused, as if he wasn't sure he should tell us, who he'd only just met, what he wanted to say to us. "And after three years, they all burn out."

I was grateful to be reminded of the simple fact that working towards positive change in a country and culture not your own can not only be stressful in the short-term, but can create antagonism over time. You get jaded. Tired. You loose patience and feel like the outcomes aren't what you expected. Maybe you roll your eyes when someone invites you to another partnership meeting. Maybe your voice ends up a little curt when you finish sharing your opinion or making sure a project is working the way you want. I don't want that.

It's important for me to rememeber that all I need to do is show up for the work I want to do and do it the best I possibly can. The outcome is beyond my control. To my yogis out there, this sounds familiar -- it's a paraphased quote from the Baghvad Gita -- but in practice, it's hard.

In May, I went on scholarship to Off the Mat, Into the World -- a weeklong workshop that helps activists make their work sustainable in the long-term that pulls from the experiences of leaders in the environmental, social justice and indigenous movements. The intensive helped me better understand what feeds me, why I'm motivated to do the work I do, and how I can take care of myself holistically to keep focused and strong.

Off course, Off the Mat drew heavily on yoga -- a physical discipline that I find an indispensible resource for stress management and general well-being -- but it also helped me to examine other avenues towards self-care. On a simple day-to-day level, I started to meditate again, make time for reading and writing, make sure I was getting enough sleep and the foods that I like. I learned how to not apologize for needing what I need, and how to better show up and hold space for the people in my path -- without judging or reacting, just letting them be. It's been an invaluable lesson, and one I'm still learning.

Thanks for reading. Please remind me, in a few months, to go on vacation.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Motivation

At the moment, I am the only female surfer in Liberia. The only girl who wakes up before dawn, paddles over what seem like giant sets and charges what seem like head-high waves. They're probably a little smaller, but I'm getting braver by the week.

Some of the motivation for my bravery is the fact that I'm the only girl regularly in the water. The other is that a crew from Fuel TV are here in September, like a birthday present, and I don't want to look timid.

One of my long-term plans here is to start "The Liberian Girls' Surf Club." First, someone would need to teach young women how to swim, so it's a long-term in the future plan, but it's a plan. Surfing is one of the most empowering, difficult things I do. It would be awesome to share it with women here. 

Monday, August 3, 2009

Campsite tour

Since I'm always referencing Robertsport and the campsite, I thought I'd show you what it looks like. This is me walking on the road after the turn-off from Nana's Lodge.
This is a grove of trees just across the boundary of the land. Most of them are mango and coconut, so it's where the kids who bring us fruit on the weekends go climbing. Even at midday, it's shaded and quiet - the perfect spot for practicing yoga.
When you walk down the path for a little, you get to a grove of almond trees under the giant cotton tree. This is where the tents for the campsite are pitched, with almonds scattered in the sand and sometimes falling into your lap. Here, you can just make out Nate drawing a tree map with young men from the community. That's Alferd Lomax, Liberia's most famous surfer, turning and making shaka signs for the camera.