Monday, November 30, 2009

I miss my next-door neighbor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009


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

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

I think we've earned it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Medical update

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Malaria! Typhoid!

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

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

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

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

Temporary freak-out for no good reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking news: A gecko

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Malaria, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Random thoughts on beach cleanup

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kitchen witch

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Photos of the Women's Sewing Cooperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lapa buying in Waterside

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

Running the Robertsport Community Campsite

Photo courtesy of Jana Videira.

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

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

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

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