Monday, September 28, 2009

Cooking on surfari

This week I get unfettered access to the kitchen of the best (okay, the only, but it's still the best) lodge in Liberia, which incidentally is right next door to our campsite. The entire crew of National Geographic and Fuel TV show On Surfari are staying there, and a daily dose of Liberian food, which the cooking crew admits has "plenty pepper and plenty oil" is not idea of a family of professional surfers with two young kids. So, I stepped up and created project #8 of Robertsport Community Works -- the Robertsport Cooking School.

It works like this: I train Tina, who runs the kitchen, with her two assistants, to make a variety of western-style dishes by explaining them as we cook for the On Surfari crew. If things work well this week, this could be a more regular deal: friends and family know I've been dying to run another restaurant kitchen since The Dhow Restaurant was such a success in Zanzibar years ago. This might be just the opportunity -- from a distance.

I'm not going to start running the lodge kitchen -- at least after this week -- but I will train the women working there how to make things that I like to eat. Meals, for example, full of locally-grown produce and fruits picked from nearby trees. Nothing fancy, just good, nourishing food.

Here's how my day went. I woke up early, as it was getting light, and made sure fresh fruit was set out for breakfast -- most of it had frozen in the deep-freeze, but thawed admirably, which was a relief.

Before lunch, I opened the storeroom, took out the Italian salami I'd brought from Monrovia, waited for the restaurant manager to bring Fula bread (which is a lot like mini-baguettes), and boiled some eggs with Tina, who I then taught how to make sandwiches. We needed her assistants, who were busy bathing in the nearby lagoon and did not appreciate being summoned to work by Augustine shouting at great distance...

In the afternoon, we used the leftover bananas from lunch to make smoothies, for which I have created great demand and expectation. I enjoy that.

Dinner took longer to make than anticipated, as it took awhile to chop vegetables for the ratatouille (which also had to thaw, see above) and as I was making food for 10, everything took longer to come to a boil. I almost forget to mention that we ran completely out of water, or at least seemed to, and Augustine suggested getting water from the bathroom tap until I reminded him (actually, Nate reminded me, ahem) that it has Dettol disinfectant in it, which is nice for a shower but a poor choice for boiling pasta. And we managed to scrounge water in half-liter plastic bags from the bottom of the deep freeze, so problem solved. I did manage to instruct my trainees on how to make a roux flavored with three cheeses, which they enjoyed after the guests had eaten and we managed to transform the unfrozen banana smoothies (the deep freeze continues to mystify me) into a much-enjoyed dessert.

In between long stretches of work and surfing, it's fun to be in the kitchen. More about spending a full week in Robertsport to come.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The 1st Robertsport Community Beach Cleanup

Photos courtesy of Myles Estey.

On Saturday, 12 September, about 30 community members and expatriates met under the cotton tree at the Robertsport Community Campsite to participate in the first Robertsport Community Beach Cleanup. September's cleanup was part of the Ocean Conservancy's 24th International Coastal Cleanup -- the largest volunteer event in the world with over 400,000 volunteers in over 100 countries. The event raises awareness about the importance of clean beaches, oceans and waterways to human and environmental health.

Our goal was to collect plastic and marine debris from Fisherman's Point to Shipwrecks -- the main stretch of tourist and surfing beach. We gathered around 9 AM and by 10 AM had divided into teams lead by community members and RCW-sponsored surfers Alfred Lomax and Benjamin McCrumuda.
Each volunteer had a pair of thick leather work gloves and a rice bag to collect the trash, but the bags soon filled up and people began dumping the trash into a large pile at the campsite so that they could reuse their bags. This created a logistical challenge at the end, because we needed the trash in back in the rice bags to transport it to the dump, but it did create an impressive looking pile of plastic. We're scaling up our supplies for next month's cleanup and expect more volunteers as well.
We collected 28 rice bags in less than 2 hours -- over 500 pounds of trash. There were a large number of single-use plastic bags that, judging by the newish looking state they washed up in, are from around the Robertsport area. There was also a sizeable amount of older plastics that had broken and decomposed in the water. With the help of a marine biologist who is kindly guiding us, we're collecting data on the types and amount of marine debris collected -- data that will help us form intervention programs to reduce, reuse and recycle local waste in the future.

Every second Saturday around 10:00 am we'll be leading similar cleanups, so please join us or show your support by buying a $10 Cotton Tree t-shirt -- all the proceeds go to our environmental projects. Email me to get involved or pick up a shirt!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Read it: "Donor fatigue for soap making"

This is reposted from here:
The Niapele Project’s country director in Liberia, Megan Sullivan, often sends hilarious email updates about her adventures navigating the intricacies of Liberian bureaucracy. With her permission, I’m posting the email she sent today about a meeting at the Ministry of Gender and Development (slightly edited, for privacy and clarity).

“So, yesterday afternoon was my second try at carrying [NDLR: carrying = Liberian way of saying “bringing someone”] Finda to the monthly women’s empowerment meeting at the Gender Ministry. If you recall, we went last Wednesday of last month but it had secretly been converted to a memorial service for a deceased Min employee.

So it’s not setup at all like a dialogue of women NGO leaders as I had been explicitly told. Instead, it was like a lecture where about 50 women gather to voice concerns and then receive a lecture on a topic of interest.

When the minutes from the late June meeting were passed around the tone of every meeting immediately became clear.

For example, under AOB [Any Other Business]:

  • Korpu from War Widows with One Leg Vocational School stated that the Ministry of Gender should empower the women of Liberia by giving them support. But the GoL [Government of Liberia] is not supporting (ie funding) the women’s groups like they promised.
  • Annie from Good Lord Jesus Praise His Name Help Us and Save Us Tie and Dye expressed concern that the GoL is not supporting and empowering the women of Liberia and her organization needs supplies and the staff has not been paid.
  • Hawa from Bless Jesus who Died for Our Sins Hair Plaiting Academy mentioned – as she has mentioned at every monthly meeting since 2006 – that she would like for the Ministry of Gender to please give her funding.
  • The women present decided to form their own committee to investigate how exactly they can better convey to the Ministry that they need some support. Findings will be reported at the next meeting.

Ok, so I was a little loose in my interpretations but that’s TOTALLY the gist. This next one, my fave, is a verbatim quote though:

“Rita Harper of the Women’s Empowerment for the Upliftment of Females in Liberia through Microloan said that she was promised rain boots by the Her Honorable Minister at this meeting and where are they?”

Approx 3:15 of the 1:00 (scheduled to begin) meeting we move past the prayer, greeting and reading of minutes and the surprisingly contentious voting on the acceptance of said minutes, and onto the main presentation of this month’s meeting.

Reproductive Rights.

Which is good and relevant but it doesn’t really help these women improve their businesses and you will see why the info was not incredibly helpful.

The guest speaker seemed like a bright, friendly successful Liberian woman in her late 50s (I would guess?) She has been at the Ministry of Health in the Division of Family Health for 30 years and recently became a consultant (or something) with the UNFPA for women’s health in Liberia.

Seems great to promote the importance of family planning within this demographic. She starts off with some stats (no visible notes with her)

  • 983 Liberian women die during childbirth every SECOND (the crowd gasps)
  • 983 Liberian women out of every 1,312 die during child birth
  • you need to switch the type of birth control you use every 2 years or it will make you sterile
  • a woman loses half of all her ovaries by the time she is 18, so she should finish school right away so that she can start having babies by 19
  • The egg waits in the fallopian tube for the sperm to come and fertilize it (maybe thats correct, but it didnt sound it).

The women had a MILLION questions that were the equivalent of 7th grade sex ed in the US - which I guess is not totally shocking, but wow. One man there said that he had done his own research at a hospital in Lofa County and 70% of the children in the hospital had HIV. So he had the idea of asking the 70 % if they had been circumcised in the bush and then if they had used a clean blade. Which led to huge discussion on FGM etc.

And back to birth control — is it true that if you have sex standing up you can’t get pregnant? etc etc. One woman asked if there were different sizes of condoms, the guest expert said no, only one size. The questioner said “but my friend has a man that it can’t fit” Expert “he’s not trying hard enough.”

(I took detailed notes cause it was pretty amusing).

At the end Finda was like “So when do I talk about the work that Malaya does?” [NDLR: Malaya is the agricultural co-op The Niapele Project is sourcing food supplies from for our school nutrition program]

The words “business strategy” “planning” and others like that were never mentioned.

In other non useless details — the Director of Women’s Empowerment mentioned that women’s empowerment programs that make soap and tie dye need to move in a different direction so that women can build real skills. (The Nike/Clinton Foundation has multimillion dollar project on vocational training like mechanics and engineering and nursing and stuff for women in LIB). She said “there are no more grants for tie and dye. The international community has donor fatigue for soap making.” :)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cleaning the beach

Every year, the Ocean Conservancy runs an International Coastal Cleanup -- environmental activism that has become the largest volunteer event in the world, with more than 400,000 volunteers in over 100 countries. This year, thanks to...well,'s happening in Liberia.

The 24th International Coastal Cleanup, Robertsport-style, will be a relaxed community event with community members volunteering and a few dedicated ex-pats showing up to help me with photos, organization and just participate in general. The beach has gotten really dirty over the rainy season, with lots of plastic washing up to color the shoreline with juice boxes and detergent bags, thin plastic bags that sea turtles eat because they look like jellyfish and then die (did you know Liberia has 4 of the 5 species of sea turtles in the world?) and sometimes an empty vaccine stopper or two that wash up (or down from the nearby hospital).

We're going to put something like this together on the second Saturday of every month, meeting in the morning to organize into teams lead by our Surf Liberia sponsored surfers. There will be a small competition for who picks up the most trash on the surfing beaches between Shipwrecks and the campsite, and a community meal served under the cotton tree for local volunteers.

We've gotten good reactions from the community, partly because I suspect they're intrigued by anything we do and we've been talking about this for months, and they actually care a lot about how their beach looks. Over the last week or so, the children who walk with me to my surf sessions have been pointing out the new trash washing up in the water, which they tell me comes from the ships that pass and dump their garbage. Some of it is foreign, but I suspect most of it is not.

The formal sector in Robertsport is also very supportive. Musa, the owner of Nana's Lodge, is supporting us wholeheartedly, paying for the purchase of bowls and spoons, and the community meal to be shared by the local volunteers. The Superintendent of Grand Cape Mount County may be attending, and so may the Mayor -- a lovely elderly woman who lived in Robertsport all through the war and who I look forward to sharing about in the future. I wrote a press release, so we'll see if we end up in the local news!

The team leaders and I will be keeping data on what the trash we collect and, over time, we'll be able to inform a thoughtful trash-reduction program with the community, maybe replacing some single-use plastic items with more durable ones, or providing plastic alternatives.

If you'd like to support our efforts, visit The African T-Shirt Company -- our new fund-raising site that sells merchandise -- and buy a Clean the Beach t-shirt!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bags to riches

I have inherited my mother's love of puns. I have also inherited her desire to see women lift themselves out of poverty -- what ten young women from Robertsport are doing as members of the Women's Sewing Cooperative, sewing beach bags by hand that you can order here.

With your support, their numbers will grow. I look forward to a blog post in a month or so about the impact their additional income is having in their lives and the lives of their families.

Check out this article on the importance of women-focused development and support Liberian women by buying some bags!

We'll have yoga mat bags and coin purses soon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On my ownsome

For the next ten days, Nate is in East Africa for work, patiently accepting what probably seem like endless requests for him to bring back things like muffin tins (which, he reminds me, do not fit when you only have carry-ons), a stack of kikois and Bassett's wine gums. In the meantime, I get to see what the life of almost half the people I meet here is like. As in, how to handle Liberia, sola.

The first real manifestation of this came when I needed to go to the bank to access our savings account -- savings, because it's a no-fee account, only we have to remember only to access it a few times a month to avoid penalties and plan accordingly. This is proving difficult. Anyway, the bank is right beneath the now-abandoned Ducor Hotel, once the pride of Monrovia and built conspicuously on a hill. Only I didn't know how to find it. And Monrovia, on usually-trusty Google Maps, looks like this:
Staring up at the landmark and orientating myself accordingly doesn't work in Monrovia traffic -- the closest thing to driving in Cairo I've experienced. So, I took out the only other reference I had -- a mouse-eaten UN map Nate bought from UNMIL for the artistic purposes of collage, at least before the mouse got to it. Nonetheless, it still told me mostly, except for the visibly nibbled parts, where I needed to go.

Mission accomplished, I settled in to my proposal-writing day where I spend my afternoons. It's tough, you'll agree.