Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The African T-Shirt Company goes local

When Nate and I first started The African T-Shirt Company to raise funds for our Robertsport-based community NGO, we did things quick and simple. Website? Try Google Sites. Photos? Bring out the digital camera and let's talk some against the wall when the sun is out. Modeling? No one's around--let me go wash my hair.

A year and a half later, and we have a staff of plenty at Tides and a gorgeous rooftop balcony with a view of West Point and the Atlantic. So, we reshot our classic designs and added a few new ones.

Here's Alfred Lomax, in a photo picked up by B-spirit!, the Brussels Airline in-flight magazine. They give it out free at their office in Monrovia, so it has a large local readership.

A new design from Old Star Radio, here's the Ministry of Fun and Drink...


And because Maryedeh of the Tides kitchen enjoyed having her photo taken so much...

You can see the rest--and buy shirts--here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Back to Tides

Over the last few months, under different management, Nate and I were able to have the break from Tides we so desperately needed. Start-up is hard work and the ability to hand it to a friend and step back for a bit was a total blessing. We're grateful to our manager friend who took it over as soon as we asked (ahem, begged) him to, and handed it back the moment we said we missed it and wanted back in. Thank you!

So, here we are. We have a wonderful friend who's also invested in the business and is handling all the day-to-day management. At the moment we're creating long-term systems for tracking everything from knives and forks to the prices of our toilet paper, trying to get the business viable and accountable without constant oversight.

It's hard work, mostly because I'm a just-do-it kind of girl who enjoys the feeling of pulling everything together at the last minute with a smile on my face. Not for me, endless spreadsheets and temperature logs for the fridge and freezer. Only, those things are important...so I hired a kitchen manager. We've prioritized food hygiene and safety, timeliness of orders and quality control, plus I'm totally redoing the menu in January, when our corn masa order should come in and make Mexican food again a Monrovian reality.

It feels good to be back--and this time, in the shadows, letting our team do the hard stuff.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thinking it over

So, a lot has been going on in the last six week that I've not been blogging. I hit a bit of a wall in terms of self-care, and am slowly starting to take the time that I need to care for myself the way that I need to.

I suppose this is always a bit of a back-and-forth, and it's sometimes difficult to make space for yoga, meditation, art or reading when there are so many projects and people that can absorb my attention. Working non-traditionally, outside of an office routine, can also make setting a regular self-care routine difficult. "I can always practice later," I tell myself as I settle in front of my laptop in the morning, only to find that once it turns 6:00 I'd rather check on Tides or figure out what to cook for dinner.

Putting myself first can seem really selfish, but it's important--I think essential--if I'm going to do the things I want to do. So often, when I'm not in a good place, starting from a foundation of peace, equanimity and serenity, nothing else seems to work well. I find myself short-tempered and focused on people's short-comings, which isn't productive, especially in such a challenging environment. When I do take time for myself--time that seems self-indulgent and lavish, at times--I have compassion and patience, two qualities I think are necessary for good work.

I'll be practicing and would gratefully appreciate suggestions and comments about how you manage self-care in challenging, work-driven settings. How do you do it?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Living on the ocean

Most mornings, I hear the sound of men fishing outside my window.

A simple dugout canoe is launched off the beach at West Point and drops hand-mended nets in a semicircle until it reaches our part of the beach. Young men wade in, pick up the end of the net--the start is anchored on the West Point beach with a similar crew--and start pulling the rope in with their hands. Meanwhile, the man in the boat beats the side of his wood vessel with a wooden oar or slaps the water. The sound takes a moment to travel and you hear the knock a split-second after you see him splash.


Early, I like to peek out the window and watch them.

Party at the Mama Liberia Sewing Co-op!

The Mama Liberia Sewing Co-op just had it's first party. I'm not sure why it took us so long, except that gathering all the women together seemed like a volatile event and I shied away from it for a few months. I think, despite a few hiccups, that it went well and they all had a great time. Parties like this are important for building their group identity and increasing their social capital. That, and they deserved it.
Here is Miriama, showing off the chicken stew they served with check rice, followed by pepper soup and fufu. I brought the chickens and soda, and the Co-op members all pitched in for the rest of the food. They had big pots with massive, rake-like spoons. Next time, I'll get to the party earlier so I can watch the cooking.
By the time I made it into the kitchen, the dancing had begun.
This is Joe, celebrating the Co-op by dancing happily in front of the Nana's bar. Thanks to Nana's Lodge for hosting our party!
This is my favorite photo, of the women looking at a slide-show of the photos we're going to use for their Mama Liberia website. As you can see, they like them quite a lot.
Here are Tina, Ma Bendu and Matilda (left to right), the three Team Leaders of the Co-op. They're each responsible for four tenured members and a wider team that is mobilized during big orders. These three wome have been with the Co-op since the beginning!
This is Jebbeh, who is using her sewing money to build her own house.
This is Miriama dancing with her daughter, little Bendu, named after Co-op Team Leader Ma Bendu. Miriama uses her sewing money to invest in her own transport business.
This is Josephine, who opened a bank account to save her sewing money. Josephine is trained as a nurse but hasn't found work in the local health centers. I'm not sure why and this puzzles me, as Liberian is in dire need of rural health workers. I intend to talk to her more about this in the future and see if she can't find a job in the area.
Tina, who organized most of the party cooking and serving, gets ready to serve the food. That's Jenneh next to her. Tina started a crab-selling business with her sewing money and Jenneh is building her own house.
I'm posting this portrait of rather happy looking Ma Bendu wearing lovely surfer boardshorts commissioned by some friends. They look good, right? She never managed to deliver them, probably because she likes them so much herself. You two know who you are, and if you want me to organize a duplicate pair, let me know.
Of course, someone has to do the washing up. Small Bendu and Jenneh volunteered, but didn't want to be left out of the photo taking.
And last but not least, the obligatory children's shot of little Bendu and friends.

To buy Co-op products, visit The African T-Shirt Company. Thanks to all for your support!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pics from the 2nd Annual Surf Liberia Contest

On October 24, a group of local and expatriate surfers gathered under the cotton tree at the Robertsport Community Campsite to convene the 2nd Annual Surf Liberia Contest. T-shirts were passed out and surfers registered, but where were the waves?

We waited until low tide then made the call for Shipwrecks, carried over chairs from Nana's Lodge and set up under an almond tree. We had 12 local surfers and 7 expats, including a few beginners and very new local beginners. You know you've succeeded in targeting youth when one of the contestants signs his name, "Baby Boy."

The contest lasted a little over three hours, with judging done by local and expat surfers as well as the visiting Surf Resource Network crew. We had over a hundred spectators, including Robertsport locals and weekenders, some UNMIL visitors, and even half of the Mama Liberia Sewing Co-op! The waves were a bit onshore, shoulder to head-high with some overhead sets on the drop quickly turning to mushy faces.

Of course, when it came time for the women's heat right before the finals, the swell surged to overhead plus and I got smoked--along with the relative and extremely brave newbie I'd cajoled into surfing with me. Better luck for the women's division next year!

Thanks to Robertsport Community Works partners Soul Surfers Foundation, Seren Clothing and Surf Resource Network. Thanks to our Surf Liberia contest event sponsors Nana's Lodge, Liberia Travel and Life Magazine, and Miss Boss Lady Entertainment. We value your support!

Here are some photos, courtesy of Surf Resource Network's Sean Brody, of the contest:

Alfred Lomax finishes a heat. Alfred is currently on scholarship courtesy of the Ministry of Youth and Sports and attending high school in Monrovia.

Alfred does a cut-back at Shipwrecks.
Alfred wins the contest and is chaired to the beach by fellow surfers. This is my favorite contest shot.
Alfred, 1st place in this year's Surf Liberia Contest, with a wooden plaque hand-carved in Robertsport.

Peter Swen, a university student in Monrovia, pulls into a little barrel before giving Alfred a run for his money and winning 2nd place.
Armstrong shows some local style on his newly-donated board.
Philip has gotten a lot better this year, thanks in part to a surfboard of his own donated by the Soul Surfers Foundation. Thank you!
Sam Brown Jr. looks remarkably like his father, Sam Brown, a member of our Community Board and an invaluable member of Robertsport Community Works. His board was donated by Surf Resource Network. Thank you!
For a full budget overview of Surf Liberia and the surf contest, check out the monthly budget reports on our Robertsport Community Works blog.

See you in the water next year!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I love Tides.

We're a strong team at Tides now, with two additional members of the management team. It means now, instead of all decisions being made by Nate and me, plus our investors when it mattered, we're now a handful. Each of us has something we like to do best and are looking forward to doing things together.

Speaking for myself, I'm quite looking forward to making crab and pork dumplings a la Chinatown in NYC. I want so desperately to write "soup dumplings" -- if we manage that, it will be quite the achievement.

It's a wonderful feeling to have assembled such a strong team and to be in a place where we're working together, managing our collective priorities and sharing our vision for Tides. As we work together to create long-term management systems, we're also hiring new staff. If anyone knows of a strong and experienced kitchen manager, preferably a woman as our kitchen is 100% women, let me know.

Here's a new waitress studying our drinks menu before opening time:

If you're in Monrovia, come to our Halloween costume party tomorrow! DJ Raed, a special live performance by MC Digga, and the scariest shots in Monrovia...

Friday, October 22, 2010

Adventures in African Cooking: Chutney

Chutney is the ketchup of my childhood. We put it on sandwiches (especially cheese sandwiches), chips (or anything with potatoes, for that matter), chicken, roast beef...I drew the line at pizza. Chutney comes from the Indian subcontinent and traveled widely as a popular import as early as the 1600's. Of course, European versions were sweeter and less spicy than the Indian versions, as are African ones like Mrs. H.S. Balls, to the left.

Really, chutney can be made at home with whatever is in season, some spices and a saucepan. Mango is indubitably the most popular, but I'm recovering from malaria so let's save that for another post.

For now, here are some ideas about how to use bottled chutney. Of course, I prefer the South African brand to the left, which you can find even in Monrovia, but if you're lucky enough to have a friend who makes her own, good for you.

  • Salad dressing, especially on a cabbage-based salad: Mix a spoonful of chutney with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper.
  • Marinades for beef, lamb chops or chicken, especially for a barbeque/braii: Use it straight or mix it like the salad dressing, above, using less oil and less vinegar.
  • Cheese toast: My favorite. Toast bread in a toaster oven and add slices of cheese as it starts to brown. When the cheese bubbles and browns, smear on some chutney.
The savory-sweet combination might be a bit strange at first, but it's a unique and hard-to-pinpoint flavor combination that's worth experimenting with. I recommend it especially as a lift for cabbage salad, for those of us that are scared of the local lettuce and haven't yet gotten around to growing our own.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Full moon over Waterside

This is one of the apartments above the Johennsen Street warehouses that border the ocean. I like the plants growing out of it. A family used to live here, but I think they got evicted. Now our security guards use it as a night post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Surf Liberia Contest next weekend!

I've been spending today getting all the details ready for next weekend's 2nd Annual Surf Liberia contest. Learn more here if you think you can make it. Email me if you plan to compete!

Here are the details:

The contest will run on the morning of Saturday, 23 October if the waves are good. If not, it will be postponed until the afternoon, or even Sunday morning or afternoon. Once we begin, the contest will take about three hours.

We have three partners supporting us this year: Soul Surfers Foundation, Seren Clothing and the Surf Resource Network. Soul Surfers sponsors our Surf Liberia mentoring program in the Uptown community, the Surf Resource Network is helping us run the contest and the boys at Seren Clothing (both of whom I went to school with in Cairo) did the t-shirt.

Solomon thinks its really cool. I agree. He's helping us have a first run-off of 60 made for next Saturday. We'll put them on The African T-Shirt Company, which will also see some new energy in the next few months...

We'll have live commentary, prizes for 1st to 4th place, and it's the best place to see all the local surfers side by side, representing Liberia. Nana's Lodge and Miss Boss Lady Entertainment are the lead Liberian sponsors, contributing to the Surf Liberia Mentoring Project and lending us a hand with the organizing.

Hope to see you at the contest!

Friday, October 8, 2010

You want monitoring and evaluation? Take this, from the Duke of Wellington.

This is the Duke of Wellington on monitoring and evaluation, back in the day:

Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French Forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests, which have been sent by H.M Ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch rider to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstances since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with my best ability, but I cannot do both.

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Ha! It's from a recent paper by Former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios called "The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development."

h/t to Alex Evans at Global Dashboard

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Feel the fear and (try to) do it anyway.

Photo courtesy of Alex Costa.

I've started writing this blog post at least 20 times, so let's cut to the chase. That is me. That is a smallish wave, about shoulder high. That is me not taking that wave.

On that particular wave, I didn't paddle quite hard enough. On the 10 before and after it, I likely did--and then pulled back at the last possible moment. In surfing speak, I didn't commit.

My yoga teacher is always saying that they way you do one thing is the way you do everything. I'll tell you that I don't have a fear of commitment--I just don't want to get hurt. I'll tell you I don't mind taking risks, but that I don't want to break my board or end up on the rocks--in other words, I don't want to suffer the consequences.

My fears are well-founded. I've gotten a black eye from surfing (just one). But when I moved to Liberia, I think had more confidence than I do now. Now I've got experience and what I call The Fear. I'd like to point out that The Fear is based on this experience.

Two weekends ago was my first time back in the water after almost two months of work-vacation-more work. The waves were short-period, which means you don't have a lot of time to catch your breath between duck-dives under the whitewater, but they weren't huge. Still, as I started to wade in, my breath got shorter and stayed in the top of my chest. My heart started beating faster and my stomach tightened. As I kept walking into the water, I noticed that I'd started to sob softly and then, full panic ten meters further, I started to cry.

"I hate this!" I yelled to Nate, who was doing his best to calm me down and keep me happy. "I can't do this! I hate it! I'm terrified and I just sit there! I don't even catch any waves!!!" And at that, I started crying again, so angry this seemingly irrational fear of large walls of water.

Thing is, it's not true: I do catch waves. I catch all of the ones I go for and I never, hardly ever, wipe out. Maybe I'll face-plant after a turn or something, but I rarely get the free-fall "oh my god that was bad" wipe-out. My wave selection is perfectly focused on the shoulder-high, little ramps that have my name on them. And because I haven't taken a wave in half an hour and my surfer buddies want to see me succeed, I never paddle battle for them.

But sometimes, a wave comes that has my name on it and it isn't shoulder-high or sloping. It's steep and big and by the time I register this I'm on top of it, about to drop. It's not that I think I won't make it. I think I might. But also, I might not--and that's the part I don't want. I want all the success without the underwater pummeling.

I know it doesn't work like that. I also know that surfing West African waves, without the Flying Doctors or a decent local hospital, I'm playing it safe. But I don't really think I'll end up bloodied and broken if I go outside my comfort zone. I just don't want to deal with not making it. I don't want to fail. Some part of me thinks it's not okay.

According to a friend who's been surfing for more than 30 years, what I need is confidence. I can do that. Confidence can be got. But I want to get it gently, gracefully, and I want to enjoy it. Stay tuned--and hopefully there will be more pictures.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Adventures in African Cooking: Nana's Lodge hot red pepper sauce

I know the last cooking post was about pepper sauce, but the kitchen at Nana's Lodge in Robertsport just showed me how to make their version, which is my favorite. If you're up for it, this bright red blend of onions, tomato paste and red peppers that can act more like a sauce for rice than a condiment. Again, a warning.

Nana's Lodge Red Pepper Sauce

1/2 cup onions, thinly sliced
2 cups red hot peppers (the Liberian ones look like Scotch bonnets but aren't quite as hot--experiment at will)
a spoonful of seasoning salt (the kind without MSG), but just salt and pepper will do
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup water

Before you start cooking, open the windows and have tissues around to cough into. Cooking a pan full of hot peppers releases some noxious fumes, so maybe an escape route from the kitchen is also a good idea.

Wash the peppers and remove their stems. Then put them in a mortar and pestle and mash them until the skins start to break up. Add the sliced onions and keep mashing until everything is a mushy paste of skin, pepper flesh and seeds. Be ready with a big spoon to scrape it into the pan and under no circumstances let the peppers touch your skin.

Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat. It will start to shimmer and, before it gets too hot, add the tomato sauce and stir to incorporate. At this point, if there's leftover oil that doesn't want to blend with the tomato paste, you can spoon or pour some off. Keep in mind, though, that oil is the preservative in pepper sauce. The more oil that's in the sauce, the longer it will keep.

Next, spoon in the hot pepper and onion mixture. Mix until uniform and then add the water. Stir pretty constantly for about 5 minutes or until the peppers are cooked. Add seasoning salt to taste. Remove from the heat and cool before serving, ideally in a small bowl with a spoon, next to the rice. This will keep in the fridge for weeks and at room temperature for about a week.

Enjoy!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Overheard in Monrovia, 6

"If you hold it like that, it will slap you."
-- Ma Bendu, advising me to hold the sea turtle we were releasing upside down until we put it in the water. She was right.

"Did you just put that you're working 881 days this year?"
"I think so."
-- Nate and I, correcting my math.

"It's so hot, it feels like the sun is branding the center of my brain."
"We don't have nearly as many ways of talking about heat as you do. In my culture, we just say, 'It's hot.'"
-- Nate and Solomon, on the way to Robertsport.

Have something to share? Email me and I'll post it in the next installment of 'Overhead in Monrovia'!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The 2nd Annual Surf Liberia Contest runs Oct 23-24

Photo of Liberian surfer Armstrong (no pun intended) courtesy of Myles Estey.

Robertsport Community Works is pleased to announce the 2nd Annual Surf Liberia Contest, to be held on the weekend of 23-24 October on the surfing beach in Robertsport, wherever the waves look like they're breaking best.

Participants and volunteers will meet at the Robertsport Community Campsite cotton tree on Saturday 23 October at 9:00 am to decide which break is working best. We'll postpone to the afternoon/next morning/next afternoon if we expect conditions to markedly improve.

If you'd like to participate, send me an email. Registration for participants is $25 and you get a cool contest t-shirt inspired by a Liberian painter. Shirts will also be on sale at the contest site and though The African T-Shirt Company. All profits go directly to the RCW Surf Liberia Mentoring program. Local surfers compete for free.

We hope to organize a fun, relaxed event that showcases the local surfers' skills and sportsmanship, and to have a fun day at the beach!

Monday, September 27, 2010

The big picture

It's been almost a month since Nate and I got back from our desperately-needed vacation. While we were relaxing, we didn't pick up the phone. We didn't open our laptops. I ate a lot of steamed callaloo and drank bananas blended with rum. We got to see Toots and the Maytails live under full moon. It was relaxing, revitalizing and, best of all, it gave us focus.

A lot of things sifted into place while we were away. First was that our life in Liberia had gotten too hectic. Way too hectic. We hadn't had time for writing, collage, or even surfing--all things that really matter. I couldn't remember the last time I'd cooked a meal just for the two of us.

While we were away, both of us clearly identified a need to step back and prioritize. We still loved that we live in Liberia and are leading on some cool and creative projects, but we missed our freedom, especially the ability to craft our own schedule for work and play. It seemed, at least as far as the major start-up was concerned, that it was time to hand over the baby.

We focused on Tides because, as the new project in our lives, it demanded the most attention. It's a bar-with-food, so of course it does. Anyone who's gotten close to one of those projects will tell you that--and this is probably the exact phrase they'll use--"It's a lot of work." It is, first because of the sheer number of things, people and processes to manage, and second because the schedule is unrelenting.

It doesn't matter if you're on a call for your real job all afternoon or that you're down with malaria. If you don't call the vegetable supplier before 2:00 pm, you're not going to get your delivery on time and your prep won't be ready by opening time, effectively delaying food service for the whole night because you needed some personal time. That kind of unrelenting schedule--where you sometimes have to put the job first and yourself second--wasn't such a good thing over the long term.

Looking at the way things worked out, just less than a month back, I couldn't be happier or more full of gratitude for how gracefully we've been able to move through this management transition. I love beginning things and then handing them to the right people. It keeps my energy in the right place: conceptualizing, creating, building, moving things from ideas into reality and making something new. Being able to turn Tides from an abandoned, dilapidated rooftop to a popular cocktail bar that showcases Liberian and West African produce and where people feel like they can let loose....I'm proud of us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The changing Tides

Officially as of my birthday today, my dear friend and fellow Funrovian Sachin will be managing Tides. Those of you who are our people know him as the chatty Indian guy who hadn't missed a night at the bar since he found us and who sent out our welcome back email four times to the expat list. I recommend getting to know him. He's a perfect host and all-around awesome.

This good news means Nate and I get to step back, enjoy the fruit of our hard work and drink coconut water as we sit on the deck and watch the fishing boats sail past. We're still involved as investors, but the start-up phase is officially over. We did it!

And I only halfheartedly apologize for the pun in the title. I can't help it: it's genetic.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Adventures in African Cooking: Liberian Pepper Sauce

I am writing this in withdrawal. It's been 5 days since I've allowed myself to eat hot peppers, the small bit off the end of a roasted hot pepper dipped in Thai sweet vinegar sauce last night notwithstanding. My stomach is feeling much better, thank you. I still deny any causation from the correlation hot pepper equals terminal belly pain, but my behavior has changed.

So, in my longing, I give you multiple variations on pepper sauce--that Liberian elixir that, when everything else in your meal is going very wrong, you can slather on in abundance and find comfort in the fact that yes, it is passably good and now you can eat it.

Here in Liberia, the predominant fresh peppers are Scotch bonnets with bird's eye around if you search a bit. For 100 L.D. (about $1.40) you can get about 3 cups of mostly green ones with some red thrown in. I like to sort out the slightly sweeter red ones, blitz them in the food processor and add vinegar, salt and sugar for an Asian-style pepper sauce.

There are as many variations on pepper sauce as there are people who love it too much. For example, my ladies in Robertsport boil the peppers first, then mash them, then fry them. The way I've written up here is easier and probably slightly hotter because you don't boil and drain the peppers. Do with them what you will, but don't blame me if you start to experience intense distress over liking something that causes so much pain...

Liberian hot pepper sauce

1 cup hot peppers, washed and dried, then sliced finely
2 cups onions, sliced
salt or a seasoning cube, if you're up for the MSG (and who here isn't?)
vegetable oil, about 1/4 cup (don't skimp. this will help preserve the pepper sauce and aid its sauce-like consistency)

Mix all the ingredients in a saucepan or a frying pan, stirring over low to medium heat until everything is cooked and smelling nicely. You might want to open the windows, as the steam from the cooking peppers will make you and everyone in your kitchen and perhaps your building cough violently (don't forget that people have called anti-terrorism squads in response to fumes from brewing pepper sauce). When the acrid and inflammatory fumes disperse and start smelling sweet, the sauce is ready to taste to adjust the seasoning.

At this point, you can add a variety of ingredients: creamy peanut butter (a.k.a. ground pea butter), tomato paste (my favorite, creating a very spicy ketchup) or, if you're really brave, some mashed smoked fish.

Don't be shy to tell me what you think!

Friday, September 10, 2010

The RCW Sea Turtle Rescue Project

Design courtesy of Tamar Losleben.

Last September, before our first beach cleanup, Alfred and I were surfing Inners and he noticed a massive pile of sand right under the big almond tree.

"Turtle!" he shouted, and started digging.

Rather naively, I asked what he was doing.

"Turtle eggs are too sweet," was his reply.

I paused for a minute, reluctant to be the white woman in Africa who pushes conservation just for the sake of it, going crazy with zeal for, say, saving turtles while the community around me was also in need. I waited, weighed my options--Alfred thinking I was insufferable versus being indirectly responsible for a hundred dead turtle eggs--and told him not to dig them up.

"But why, Elie? If I don't, someone else will." He had a point. Without a plan, and a good one at that, what was I doing trying to change the behavior of one person when clearly it wouldn't affect the outcome?

Still.

"Do it for me, okay Alfred?"

Alfred gave me a look like I was exactly the crazy white woman stereotype I was trying to avoid, then grabbed his board and we surfed a few little Inner Cottons stomach waves before starting the cleanup. We joked about the turtles for weeks.

We still joke about the turtles. Only now we've run a 3-month pilot Sea Turtle Rescue project modeled on the one in Ghana and we're a little further along from where we started. Just a little.

What we've learned from Project Leader Abraham (AB) Fanbulleh is that it's not easy for people to trust the project's motives. They think we're working with the police, who arrest people in possession of either sea turtles or their eggs and imprison them until they pay a hefty fine.

We also have teaching to do about the importance of sea turtles in maintaining species balance in the ocean ecosystem, although AB has been explaining slowly their connection to keeping jellyfish populations--that ruin fishing nets and spoil entire catches--at bay.

There's obviously more, but that the main stuff. We have a lot to work on in the future!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Excerpts from the Current Gratitude List

#3 Two Chinese women give $30/hour massages at Glamour Salon beneath Tides. They have a strong massage table, use scented oils and it's a wonderfully relaxing experience. It's worth the effort to get an appointment. I highly recommend.

#7 I can get $7 pedicures at Glamour Salon beneath Tides and order grapefruit juice and soda--my new favorite at the bar. Service to the spa is a little slower than upstairs, but it's worth it. Way to feel pampered!

*
Glamour Salon and Spa, beneath Tides
077-093-236 / 06-413-197

Monday, August 30, 2010

On holiday

Photo courtesy of Alex Costa.

At the moment, I'm on holiday. I'm sleeping close to the ocean, eating fruit and salads, walking on the beach and falling asleep in the sun. I'm taking the time I need to recharge, refresh and renew my commitment to my dreams and my projects.

These days, they're becoming the same thing.

Thanks for reading. I wish you a wonderful last few weeks of summer.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Overheard in Monrovia, 5

The amodiaquine used me. I was like crazy."
-- Solomon.

"You are free. Free! Even the pupu is free."
-- Lab technician, explaining good results.

"You don't understand. The catch is natural to me."
-- Tides.

"Are you a model? You should be in commercials."
-- Tides.

"Welcome to Tides. Tides is the place to be. Signed: Solomon, sponsored by Tides."
-- Graffiti on the Tides bathroom chalkboard.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tides is on holiday

We're closing Tides for the 2nd half of August while the staff take annual leave and Nate and I go on holiday.

It will be a long-overdue and well-deserved break. We haven't had a holiday since getting involved in Tides construction back in January. We worked so hard to open the place, I can hardly believe it's been four months since we opened. We've come a long way.

It's time to step back for a moment, to reassess how we want to be running things and put systems in place to ensure that processes like stocking soda water and buying soy sauce go smoothly--or as smoothly as they can at a seafood bar in a country that says they don't go fishing in the rain.

We'll be open again on Friday, 3 September with DJ Raed spinning on Saturday, 4 September. If you're in Monrovia, I expect to see you there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Trying not to be kali

Deep exhale.

I have waited too long to go on holiday.

How do I know?

In Swahili, when you call someone kali it means they're cranky. Like, really cranky. It's after the Hindu goddess of destruction.

"That mama is kali," for example. Being kali is not a good thing.

It's my new FB status update. At least until I go on vacation. I won't let myself go this long without a break again.

Seriously.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dollar dumplings

After some experimentation, we figured out how to make the most delicious dumplings. Look what's on the Tides menu!

- Potato greens and oyster mushrooms
- Chili and basil chicken
- Shrimp wontons
- Pork and cabbage

This, along with green papaya salad and a spicy Thai chicken coconut soup that involves lots of lemongrass and is perfect for rainy season.

Come and enjoy!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Welcome, Peace Corps!

Robertsport has Peace Corps volunteers. Two, to be precise, and very nice they are indeed. They'll be here, living in Uptown, for two years--three, if they want to. We are very, very lucky.

Welcome!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How the Sewing Co-op spends their money


For their bulk order we're sending out from the Co-op next week, we decided to take a group photo. Three of our tenured members were missing, but here we are (the sun was bright: we normally look much better than this):

Top row (left to right): Bendu, Matilda, Tina, Jenneh, Matilda, Botoe, Josephine, Famatta, Rose and Ma Bendu

Bottom row (left to right): Musu, me, Jebbeh

If anyone is in Liberia and would like to take more professional photos of the Co-op for their new website, please let me know. We could use them.

I also asked the members of the Sewing Co-op how they're spending the money that they're earning through the project. Here are their answers...

“With my sewing money…

* I was able to invest in my own video club business.” –Miriama
* I was able to send my children to school.” –Matilda
* I built my house.” –Ma Bendu
* I was able to start my own fish business.” – Rose
* I was able to start selling scratch cards.” –Bendu
* I am doing a crab business” – Tina
* I am building my house.” –Jenneh
* I was able to open by own bank account.” –Josephine
* I am saving my money.” –Botoe
* I am going to built my own house.” –Jebbeh

Cool, eh?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Going to Robertspot

It's Sunday morning and we're headed to Robertsport for half of our week, where we spend time camping, surfing and working out of the Robertsport Community Campsite. We've packed leftovers from the restaurant--chick peas, potato greens, roasted tomato and red pepper salsa--and are ready to start driving.

On Monday and Tuesday, we'll work on our laptops from hammocks, taking calls on the beach and surfing whenever it looks good. Miriama is cooking fish for lunch tomorrow and the Women's Sewing Co-op are meeting to show me their quilts and sell me bags.

It's going to be a good weekend.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What is Cellcom doing?

Two weeks ago, after putting $5 on my Cellcom mobile, I immediately received the following text message. I had since repeated the experiment twice, and both times, the same:

"Looking for love? looking for discrete relationship? dont be alone pickup the phone, call now 077-999-444"

Has anyone called this number? Please report back.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The *African* T-Shirt Company

I remember when I was turning nine and had just moved to Kenya with my family. I was in 4th grade and planned a birthday party in September, my first month in a new school.

It was 2:00 and no one had come. I stood in the driveway with my mum and Beatrice, our ayah/nanny/housekeeper and looked forlornly at the closed black gate. "No one has come yet," I whined softly to my mum.

Beatrice was having none of it.

"Don't worry," she said, wiping her hands on her apron and starting to go back to the house. My mum has baked these cupcakes in ice cream cones that she topped with frosting, and Beatrice wanted to check on them.

I nodded and swallowed hard--I can still exactly remember that feeling. But it didn't last long. By 2:35, two of my friends had been dropped off, my mum making friends with their mums on the veranda. By 4:30, the party was in full swing, and my soon-to-be best friend from Djibouti had arrived with her CD plates.

"See?" Beatrice said later as I was going upstairs to bed. "Africa time."

Twenty years later, and I run a t-shirt company with my partner that employs, when we're busy, almost ten people. We've given them so much business selling shirts online that they got investment to open a shop on Newport Street. Although we have yet to visit, they assure us there is a conspicuous sign: "Graphics Palace International." I recommend their business and they hand-silkscreen all our shirts and bags.

We started silk-screening shirts with them over a year ago, playing around with design ideas we made up (usually at bars) in New York. The first 'Mogadisco' shirt was inked in Sharpie on one of my H&M tank tops I used to wear to teach yoga. Our red ones now are a bit better and since then, thanks to some shout-outs and Facebook, it's grown into a nice little business.

And I can't do it anymore. The time it takes me to fill online orders--in between consulting for CODE, managing the Tides kitchen, and running programs with Robertsport Community Works--has stretched from a reasonable seven to 10 days to...let's just say weeks. If you're reading this and ordered something from us anytime stretching back to April, your order is in the mail. But now when people email me asking how long orders will take, I remind them that it's rainy season and invoke the sacred notion of..."African time."

I'm sorry. I should do better. As a personal practice, the endless patience I have with deprioritizing one of my own start-up businesses is amusing. After all, as I am continually telling myself, it's just t-shirts. No one minds if their beach bag or 'Failed State' arrive a week or two late. What's late anyway, when you use the Liberian Postal Service?

You see what's happened. It's time to pass the business on and delegate. We shouldn't be managing it. We're recruiting for a Project Assistant right now: someone who would source quality shirts, update the website and manage online orders. Email me if you know someone. And if you're interested in bulk orders and helping to market the business outside Liberia, I promise African time is a thing of the past.

Also, we hope to have a *very* cool shirt online soon...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Surf Liberia becomes a mentorship program

When we started our Surf Liberia Scholarship program over a year ago, our idea was to offer an alternative vehicle for sponsoring surfers that didn't involve throwing them cash and encouraging a consumer-based lifestyle.

We wanted surfing to be a positive force for change for themselves and their community--to grow leaders through surfing. So we paid their school fees instead.

Fast-forward one year. Nevermind we may not be the *only* people paying their school fees (gasp!). When we asked two surfers what they wanted to do with their sponsorship money, they said they wanted to buy clothes. They thought about it and that's what they came up with. I'm not saying they shouldn't buy clothes, but not with Surf Liberia money. So what good is this money doing?

Nate works professionally at a variety of educational initiatives and projects involving young people and we know we want to impact the local surfers in a way that helps them realize personal and professional goals, whatever they might be. So we're revisioning our Surf Liberia project--which has raised almost $500 in t-shirt sales to date--to be more mentoring oriented and less about just giving young surfers money and equipment. We'll still do that, but we'll have better boundaries and parameters about what we will and will not support.

For example, seed money to start a business, cool. Money to go clothes shopping in Monrovia, probably not. Thanks to Soul Surfers Foundation for their support for Robertsport Community Works and this project: Alfonzo and Phillip are holding donated surfboards above (this photo, btw, was taken in May). They're the ones who aren't getting the clothes, but they have new surfboards. I think they'll get over it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fairness and incentives in the Women's Sewing Co-op

When I started the Women's Sewing Co-op with Bendu, Tina and Vivian last June, we did everything equally. Each of them received identical sewing kits, which I made up during a visit to the tailors on Carey Street and included scissors, a tape measure, needles and different shades of thread. Each of them received the same yardage of lapa to make the first sets of bags from. Since then, the Co-op has followed this model.

Every meeting that I'm handing out lapa, I do so evenly between all 15 tenured members of the Co-op. Each team leader gets five sets of 6 yards of cloth--a measure of three lapas or one 'African suit'. The next meeting, some of them would've sewn the entire lot into beach bags. Others--and it was usually the same women--would have only sewn half, or wouldn't show up that week at all.

When we had our first bulk order for 500 bags this Spring, it didn't occur to us that the management model should change. Each team sewed the 500 bags on short notice in less than a month--an average of one bag per Co-op member per day. Sure, some women--the same women--came over two hours late to our meetings, but the bags were good quality and we sent the order on time.

Now, things have changed. We're getting what could be a repeat order from a large client and the Co-op needed to make 1,000 bags in two short months. The first meeting we had to buy bags, Matilda's group had made 119 in one week. Bendu's group had made...16. So when I gave out lapa, I gave Bendu's group the usual 5--one per person--and Matilda's group got 10.

That's when things fell apart--for Bendu's group. Matilda's team were happy with the challenge, Tina's group decided they would sew faster so that they could also get extra lapa, but Bendu's group--well, Bendu, to put it nicely, decided to fight. Nevermind that she was an hour late and the meeting was actually over, with all the other Co-op members having carried their new lapa away, along with $2,000 sewing money divided among them in crisp Benjamins tucked nicely into their clothing for safekeeping.

Bendu showed up late, with her bags in a bundle, her lips pursed. I recognized trouble. Before she even had a chance to put the bags on the sand, there it was:

"You gave Matilda more lapa than me! It's not fair!"

She had a point. It's not fair--in the 'everything should be the same for everybody' sense of the word. But now that we're working on a tight deadline and bringing in thousands for the Co-op, we need to put incentives in place that prioritize good work, done on time.

My version of fair, for the Co-op, is that you get paid for the work you do. If you sew 20 bags in a week, you should get paid for them--and have the resources you need to sew 20 more. If you just sew 6, fine. You're still in the Co-op, you'll still be paid for those 6 bags, and when you get your lapa for the week, the cloth you get will match your previous week's output. As a certain businessman friend of mine would say (i.e. is always telling me, which I find sometimes a bit annoying), "It's about business."

That was not really an answer Bendu wanted to hear, so I spared here the one-liners and brought out my Co-op notebook. "Look, Bendu," I said, showing her the numbers. "Last week Matilda's team made 119 bags and you," I turned the page, "made 19."

"No, Ellen. I did not. I have my bags here," she said, pointing at what were probably close to a hundred of the beach bags.

"But you're late."

"But I have a long way to walk."

"You're still late. You could've left your house earlier. I came from Monrovia this morning and I got here on time."

"But you have a car."

At this point, our conversation had degenerated into banter and I wanted to refocus Bendu on the bigger issue: her team was not producing enough to warrant being given more lapa, and she wasn't about to bully me into giving her more.

I re-explained things. Her team members tried to drag her away, but she came bag, arguing and pointing at me and saying I wasn't being fair. It was stressful. I repeated myself for about 15 minutes, then gave up.

"Bendu," I said, "you've been in this Co-op since the beginning. But you're shouting and you're not being helpful. I know that if you're treating me this way, you're treating your team this way. If you don't show me that you can be a good leader to your team and to the group, we'll need to talk about replacing you."

And that's the short of it. She didn't like what I had to say, but fair is fair: I'm not going to hold other women back because Bendu's team can't up their output. Both teams of women are making money, and if Bendu can't be a good sport about being out-performed--and learn from what that lesson has to teach her, then someone else will.

It's not easy, though.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Overheard in Monrovia, 4

"Ghana is playing suburbia."
World Cup spectator referring to the Algeria-Serbia match.

"Dude, you're so bad at talking to women, you should write a book on Facebook about how not to talk to women."
--Anonymous

"Shall I pull their heads off while they're alive?"
"Yes."
Solomon, having misgivings about prepping shrimp that are trying to jump out of the bucket.

"If I ate that every day, for weeks and weeks, I would look like the Notorious B.I.G."
Mawuli, our Head Bartender, paying me a compliment upon eating my coconut lemongrass curry.

"I know the rawness of the African living."
Email to an NGO from a prospective volunteer.

"One man, one cup."
Taxi bumper in Duwala market, 'nough said

Monday, July 12, 2010

Adventures in African Cooking: Getting started

I grew up eating good African food of the East African variety: a lot of maize meal, greens and coconut milk, from the Swahili influences of my Kenyan youth. I love Swahili food, but more about that later (or in Swahili Kitchen, which I published in 2005 with Javed Jafferji).

For over a year, I've been cooking, eating and shopping in Liberia. I've cooked for a film crew in Robertsport with only local ingredients, plundering a neighborhood lime tree so we could make bottles and bottles of fresh juice. I've wandered local markets, figured out how to use biterball and taken a liking to consuming handfuls of hot pepper at a time. I also now run and co-own a tapas and cocktails bar in Johennsen that uses only local seafood, fruits and vegetables. Every day I eat Liberian food. But I still feel like I'm just now learning how to cook it.

Enter 'Liberian Cookhouse Cooking', the Peace Corps cookbook that sells for close to $30 at the Abi Jaoudi supermarket. It has 169 recipes adapting Liberian food for American kitchens, along with colorful anecdotes and illustrations by former PCVs (that's Peace Corps Volunteers, for those of you slow on the acronyms). I've enjoyed the book, but haven't cooked from it yet. When I tried to look up a recipe for Liberian hot pepper sauce, there was none to be found. What? No pepper sauce? That's right. I had to call Tina and Miriama in Robertsport to talk me through the process, and you know what? I failed.

Lucky for you, loyal readers, I consider it a personal affront that I live in Liberia but cannot yet make, from memory, an excellent, rich red pepper sauce to put on my morning rice and give me early hiccups. I also want to be able to summon a deliciously thick groundpea soup with fish, chicken and shrimp--which incidentally, is what right now I am eating for breakfast. Add to the list potato greens, which I now saute at Tides and totally adore, cassava leaf, fever leaf, torbegee, bitterball and the Liberian way to cook pumpkin.

As you've heard me bemoan for over a year on this blog, I often find Liberian food too oily for my taste. When there's an inch of red oil covering my potato greens and I need to squish them against the bowl to get even some of the oil out, I am usually not that pleased with what I have eaten. But I've also been asking the people who cook for us--Miriama in Robertsport and Loretta in Monrovia--to scale the oil back, and have been really pleased with the results.

Also, there's Ro-zi's, where we eat brunch on the Sundays we're in Monrovia. Ro-zi's makes what she calls "creative Liberian fusion" and the food is good. I wish I had a bowl of her collard greens and fried rice right now.

So basically, I'm going to start learning how to cook Liberian food--not just Liberian dishes, but the strange and wonderful vegetables, tubers and fruits that find their way to the market and to my table. Welcome to my Adventures in African Cooking.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tides: An Indian-inspired menu

To remind myself what I'm up to, I'll be posting our changing menu at Tides from time to time. Last night, with the help of my vegetarian chef friend Ankur, it included this:

Small plates

Roasted coconut in chili and sea salt
Masala pumpkin seeds

Vegetable tapas

Mango avocado salad
Cucumber tahini salad
Potato greens with peanut and orange
Okra bhajia with coconut chutney
Sweet potato fries with roasted garlic mayo, mango salsa, and hot pepper sauce

Seafood tapas

Brandy and black pepper prawns
Barracuda with Caribbean salsa
Lobster roll
Crab melt

Sweet things

Starfruit sorbet
Nutella and banana crepes

Picking something to write about

Over the year that I've enjoyed writing this blog, I've tried to confine myself to describing my life in Liberia and the interesting aspects of working and being here. I started writing for my friends and family, to have a basis for starting conversation. It's been great for that, and I'm grateful.

What I didn't suspect was that it would open a new way of writing about what interests me: things like cooking, reading, yoga. And that it would attract people who don't know me but still read what I write. Some of them are in Liberia and have come to say hello at Tides (hello!) and others just write to me, sometimes, and order t-shirts or bags.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that both kinds of writing will continue. I like signposting, so you can expect to see in the coming days and weeks:

1) More about Tides, now that we're in full swing.

2) Adventures in African cooking.

I've been working for a few months on a memoir that became a cookbook and now is somewhere, hopelessly, in the middle. Adventures in African cooking, during which I will shadow Liberian cooks and make recipes from the Peace Corps cookbook, will help me work through that. Also, there are no online recipes for Liberian hot pepper sauce, and we need to change that.

3) Yoga.

I've been teaching a weekly class for a year, almost. I'll post some of my sequences and thoughts--briefly--online. Don't worry. This won't try to be a yoga class.

4) Et cetera.

Feel free to give me feedback and let me know if you'd like to see stuff. I'll try to take more photos and, by popular request, "Overheard in Monrovia" will most certainly continue.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My assistant's comment on my Facebook link

This, from Facebook:

Solomon Gartor commented on your link:

"Job well Dont women of Robrtsport you are doing well i am proud of you people keep up you job well God will Reward you people And Elie we Love you Liberia Love you and Liberian are proud of you to come in this Land and change people Life. God Bless you and Nate i Love you Nate you are a hard working man God Love you. Solomon from Tides Bar and Resturant. all the Staff of Tides Love you and they say you are hard working woman Elie. is me Solomon specila to you all who will Love Robertsport Let go it is time Robertsport need your support Lets Go Robertsport 2010 for progress Liberia and all Liberians."

Solomon is fantastic.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bags from plastic bags

A project making hand bags from the plastic water bags ubiquitous in Liberia just came to my attention, and I'm sharing the contacts here in case

1) anyone has clean plastic bags to donate

or 2) anyone would like to make an order. She ships to the States!

Monday, June 28, 2010

The view from my bedroom window


Sometimes the fishermen wake me up at night with their noise. I look through the curtains at them and don't mind it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Country cloth meets the Liberian market

These scarves/stoles are hand woven from natural fibers in the tradition of upcountry Liberia. I found them at the US Embassy Craft Fair, where I found all the artists in my recent 'Liberian Artists' posts. I liked the juxtaposition of football clubs and Jesus at this man's stall.

His name is Bah Mohamed and he has a shop opposite the US Embassy in Mamba Point. He's also at fulbehgowu@yahoo.com or +231-657-1602.