Friday, February 26, 2010

All about beach cleanup

We're well on our way with three major projects at Robertsport Community Works now and have been working officially with the Robertsport community for six months. Over the next couple of weeks, I want to share each of these projects with you in-depth--how we started them, how we mobilize support for them and how we keep them going. If someone wants to do something similar, maybe they'll get some ideas. If anyone wants more details, let me know.

So, beach cleanup. The idea for this started on Nate and my first weekend in Robertsport in May 2009, right after we moved. We'd both visited before to do a recce, but hadn't really noticed the trash. That weekend, there were single-use plastic bags and marine debris all over the beach. That, and a 3-meter pit where someone had sand mined illegally and dug right under our neighbor's cotton tree, so deep that the roots were showing. Here we are with Trinity Dental Clinic dentist Keith Chapman after picking up the trash people were throwing in it. (Photo courtesy of Adam Weiner.)
All good projects need partners, so the first thing we did was see if Musa, the owner of next door Nana's Lodge, would be interested in partnering with us. Lucky for us, he was--and Nana's Lodge remains the lead partner of the Community Beach Cleanup. Every month, they pay for volunteers to share a meal together at the campsite. Then, they load our rice bags filled with plastic into their pickup and take it to the town dump. A big thank-you to Nana's Lodge for supporting this project.

Here's a photo (courtesy of Myles Estey) of our first cleanup, when we picked up almost 500 pounds of trash.
Since then, we've come a long way. We've handed over the project entirely to local leadership, which is sustainable and very exciting. First, we had the local surfers running it. That went well, but then local leader Abraham (aka A.B.) Fanbulleh came forward and really wanted to volunteer, so he's the project leader now. Here are the surfers with surfer and photographer Sean Brody, who took the rest of the photos below during our September clean-up.

We've had numerous people tell A.B. that they'd like to be paid for their work, and each time he brings this up (he brings this up a lot) we remind him that volunteering is...volunteering. And we reward participation with a small meal, cooked by Miriama and her friends. And if you participate for five months, you get a blue Clean the Beach shirt. And if you participate for 10 months, which will take us into the rainy season, you get a RCW raincoat (these will be stylin'). And, we tell him, we recruit for all of our microenterprise projects from the group of volunteers. I expect he'll keep bringing it up, though.

Over the six month beach cleanup has been running, we've had things become a little more informal--now on the first Saturday morning of each month, you just show up with your friends, grab gloves and a rice bag, and walk towards Locos. You come back to eat when your bag is pretty much filled or you score big, like a car bumper we'll be carrying back that washed up right at the Locos point. A.B. writes you name down as you eat, you hand your gloves bag, we count the bags and carry them to Nana's, where they load them with the weekend's garbage and take them to the dump. They bring the rice bags back and we use them again the next month.

Of course, where the trash goes is another story (hint: it's not great) and the focus of a future recycling project. Wonderfully, it's the community who pointed out that something needs to be done with the plastic in the landfill--and the community who notice now when day-trippers leave plastic plates and soda cans all over the beach. They don't just notice--they take a wheelbarrow and pick it up.

Now, it looks like the Monrovia-based surfer we sponsor, Peter Swen, is going to organize his own neighborhood cleanup at ELWA. We're lending him rice bags and gloves and helping him raise money to provide a thank-you meal for the volunteers. (Nice one, Peter.)

Thanks again to Musa at Nana's Lodge, to our anonymous donors who paid for gloves and rice bags and to all our volunteers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Paying to sit under trees

As of last Saturday, you are asked to pay $5.00 to sit under this almond tree and two others that border Cassava Beach. But only if you sit under it for the whole day. I saw a group of bikini and board-short clad visitors sleeping under the tree, but as they were asleep could not ask them whether the mysterious and well-anchored sign had been enforced. If it had, whether it had been enforced with cheerful hospitality. I wonder.

For the last few weeks, we've been seeing signs of life at Cassava Beach. The road, an overgrown path crowded high with elephant grass, was cleared. Areas around the trees were burned and small grasses now grow between the char. There is a wonderful little umbrella thatch on the sand that I'd love to copy for our campsite, and even a little changing area shelter made of bamboo. All wonderful and thoughtful. But I wonder how they decided to charge people who sit under the tree--and how that will work for them. There are quite a few trees on the beach in Robertsport--one of my favorite is the less-photographed giant cotton tree that borders Cassava Beach.

To me, the remarkable thing about this sign is that it's on a tree. At the Robertsport Community Campsite, we encourage our day guests and picnickers to hang out at the shade trees and hammocks next door. Our friend Aaron, who we're always giving our watermelon seeds to, runs a picnic site there. It works well. He makes a little money for helping out with tables and chairs and keeping the place clean. Our campsite guests get their peace and quiet. Everyone shares the pit latrine (or sneaks up to Nana's Lodge--we don't ask).

I've thought about it, and I'm happy in both cases to encourage people in Robertsport to charge people for services. I coached Aaron on how organize the picnic in a way people would pay him for it. Nate and I have worked closely with Wallace and T-Boy, who now work full-time at the campsite, on how to cheerfully request a $5 overnight campsite fee. All three men (two of them young--Wallace is a retired police chief and has the relaxed energy of someone at least 70 in my culture; a story about him later) collect a reasonable income from their mostly-weekend work.

I think the guy at Cassava Beach might have a hard time though, and not because people don't value the work he's put in. Paying for a person-to-person service seems fair and reasonable in West Africa--the people in Robertsport are happy to lend a hand no matter who's visiting. I think Cassava Beach's attempt to get in on the action would do best if if they focused on being there as "security" for the car or actively doing something. Anything! But asking me to pay to sit under a tree and I balk: trees are nature, part of our makeup, for relaxing. No one--not any one--should have to *pay* to sit under them. Looking at that sign makes me oddly offended.

This is either a sign of the industriousness of the people of Robertsport or the kind of impact all this dry season's visitors are having on people in Robertsport. If it's both, that could be good news. But on principle, I'm not paying $5 to sit under that tree.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Setting priorities

Photo of the Robertsport Community Campsite courtesy of Doug Calhoun.

We're about to start a major new project, just as my consulting work and co-directing Robertsport Community Works is really taking off. Add a weekly community yoga class I teach at the US Embassy, my surfing habit and the time I like to make for writing, collaging and relaxing with Nate, and it becomes essential to set clear priorities.

So, how do you do that? How do I make sure each day has an adequate mix of work, creative work, time for yoga, myself and my relationships, and fun? So far, I've been taking it one day at at time, being easy on myself, practicing and setting clear boundaries (which doesn't always work, but I try), and enjoying the process of so many cool projects.

It's amazing to be able to have such a rich and varied life here--surfing at dawn, consulting from my laptop, working with the Robertsport community on projects that matter to them, and putting together the perfect spot for sundowners in Monrovia.

Whenever things get a little too busy, I stop to remind myself how grateful I am for it all.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Solomon did not get seeds

March is planting season here, and I'd like to bring some people in Robertsport packs of seeds they've asked for. I sent Solomon to find the price of tomato, cucumber, okra, collard greens and hot pepper seeds. Only I sent him over a week ago and he's not yet gone to ask.

On Friday, I told him this was the only thing I expected him to do all day. Yesterday we went out to Kendeja and the airport. He had the day off. I saw him just now, and he had it on his list again for today. "Why didn't you do it Friday?" I asked him.

"Oh," he said. "I was washing my clothes."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Adventures in tropical medicine: Jigger extraction

A warning: this post is not for the squeamish. If my 'The eggs had eyes' dispatch from June 2009 made you want to throw up, don't read this.

Years ago, when traveling in Zanzibar with my friend Justine, she became obsessed with the Lonely Planet. While on the beach, she read the entire health section without speaking. It was not a good sign. I remember her reading out loud about jiggers, how you dig them out with a pin, and that their under-the-skin nesting "could be prevented by wearing thongs." Not the underwear--the shoes. I've been wearing flip-flops obsessively ever since.

Perhaps because of this early intervention, I've not yet gotten jiggers (NB: I'm probably jinxing myself right now). I've heard people who had them describe going to their Indian doctor to have him dig them out with pins, how "you could see their eyes." No thank you.

So when it looked like Nate had jiggers over the weekend, we spent a few days trying to observe. Three days later, we decided he did. I knew what to do. We got a bottle of Pichu and cotton balls, the needle from my sewing kit, sterilized his Swiss Army knife scissors and I went to work. I like this kind of thing.

After I finished, pleased with my bush doctoring, Nate found another one. The second extraction was cleaner and more surgical than the first. The female jigger lays eggs by attaching to toes (or other things, I assume), burying her head beneath the skin or nail and dropping eggs. The flea starts to resemble a queen termite, all soft and larval, which is how I gummed up the first attempt and had to dig around Nate's toe with a needle, being sure to extract the whole thing. The second time, I dug out around the insect and popped it out.

Satisfying, but let's hope we don't have to do that too many times again. In Kenya, one organization has jigger help and counseling centers in five districts and lists time lost to extracting jiggers as a problem that limits work productivity. I think I prefer to wear thongs.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tides: The Interviews

For the past few months, I've been regularly meeting Liberians who profess to be interested in working for me at Tides. I've been keeping notes of the people I meet and what I think of them, and it's time to share them with you now.

The first batch of women I met looked like they were dressed to in a brothel instead of a bar. There is a difference. I found myself trying not to stare as I attempted to elicit answers to my basic interview questions, but it was difficult. There was so much cleavage! Spandex! If I hired these women, how would any work get done? Unfortunately, we'll never get to tell. The spandex vixens were totally incompetent, unable to answer even the most basic questions (like "where do you live?") without blushing, looking down shyly (at their cleavage), and generally looking totally confused. It was sad.

The other curious thing I've noticed as I interview women for bar, kitchen or front of the house positions is that everyone wants to be waitress. I've unblinkingly told women that I have plenty of waitresses, that I really need someone in the kitchen, and then asked them in the next sentence where they'd like a position. The answer, 85% of the time? "I'd like to be a waitress." At one interview, the man who silk-screens our t-shirts had brought his girlfriend in and interjected, "No! She'd like to work in the kitchen!" I wish I could hire him, but then who would make our shirts?

There have been some winners, like Annie, who used to bartend at Pepperbush, a now-closed nightclub (that has been replaced by the rather forwardly-named '69'). Annie was smart, quick to answer, and seemed totally capable of managing a 30 meter-long bar. Hopefully she's won't find another job in the large gap between her interview and Tides actually opening, because she's hired.

Also hired is T-Girl, a future chef I'm poaching from her job as supermarket stocker. I met T-Girl on my first night in Mamba Point at a bar called CeCe's Garden that two weeks later doubled its beer prices and lost my business. T-Girl was working on spec, not yet getting paid, and as we tipped her, her face lit up and she smiled at me. She was smart, got my number, called me later that week, and I immediately hired her to buy women's t-shirts for us. Now, with her full-time job, she organizes her friends to do the same. How's that for entrepreneurialism?

But then there was Nana. Two friends independently asked if I'd interview her and she's the weekly cook for another. However, it took her seven calls to find the interview spot even though I'd given her directions a week in advance. She was late, didn't smile, and although she's the only one I've interviewed whose ever read a recipe, she picked her nose the entire interview. She was picking her nose at the same time as she was telling me she wanted to work in the kitchen. I cannot hire her.

Other highlights include meeting someone named Specialean, pronounced "special-lin", and getting a follow-up call from someone at midnight on a Saturday asking when the job would start. Training should be interesting...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Return of the Robertsport Cooking School

Here you see Jebbeh (left) and Tina (right) serving Nate and a a tray of potato greens with fish and chicken, pepper sauce and rice. Jebbeh and Tina worked with me in the Nana's Kitchen and are occassionaly around for me to hire as campsite cooks. The potato greens were delicious and the pepper sauce Tina makes is the best I've had.

In an effort to make the campsite generate as much income as possible for the local community, I'm encouraging the expansion of the Robertsport Cooking School. Miriama, who is a member of the Women's Sewing Co-op and the member who lives the closes to the campsite, already cooks every month for the Community Beach Clean-up. I'll be working with her in the next couple of weeks to adapt her usual repertoire to my palatte--sparse oil, lots of vegetables, not too much pepper and no stock cubes or MSG. Fun!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Buying lapa for the Co-op

One of the best parts about mentoring the Women's Sewing Co-op is going to Waterside to buy the lapas. We usually go later in the afternoon as it starts to get cooler, driving down to Waterside from Mamba Point and checking the point to see if it's breaking. I used to walk there from Mamba Point down Randall Street, but got a little too much attention for my liking--and it was hard to carry all the lapas home. So now, we drive slowly through the traffic, squeezing our way between wheelbarrows ladden with wares and women with piles of cloth, flip-flops or some other commodity spread on tarpaulin on the ground.
I like to shop indoors away from the sun and crowded streets. Mostly run by Lebanese families, the cloth shops sell lapa in sets of three--enough for an 'African suit' or plenty of bags and aprons sewn by the Co-op. Each lapa is two yards, so a set of three is six yards of fabric--it's important to make sure the lapa comes in one solid piece. The juxtaposition of bright colors and loud patterns can sometimes make my eyes spin and I need to 'cleanse the palette' while I'm buying by looking at the ceiling or a solid color for a moment, before going on.
We've discovered, through trial and error, that some lapa patterns are extremely popular and stick around for months. Others, like our most popular 'honeybee' and often-requested 'jungle' lapa, show up for a week and then disappear. Even Solomon, scouring Waterside, cannot find them--one vendor suggested he travel to Guinea to find it, at which point we abandoned hope. We've since learned that if we like a pattern, we should buy three sets of lapa of it and hope it does well.
Lapas come in all kinds of colors and patterns. Here, you see one current pattern (seashell, bottom right) and two new ones (schoolhouse, bottom left and dragon fish, top right). We now buy 15 sets of lapa at a time--one for each member of the Co-op, who then sews beach bags, hand bags (and soon to be on sale) yoga mat bags and cooking aprons from the cloth.

The Co-op just started selling little hand-sewn hand bags that are perfect for going out at night or, as my sister in New York discovered, packing your lunch. Check them out here!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thai food in Monrovia

Last week, I sent out an email to our surfers list asking if anyone wanted to have a Thai dinner catered by my multi-talented hair dresser. Within 24 hours, we had that many people signed up. I was a little startled that what I'd figured would be ten or twelve people was now, with +1s, turning into a surf party. Luckily, a friend of mine has a pool on her compound and agreed to host, making organizing infinitely easier.

Last night, we had our Thai food, spread banquet style for two dozen people. The caterer came with a list of eight dishes, including green papaya salad and shrimp in green curry, that was half in Thai. It was delicious, delicately spiced and impressive. Here's the menu. I know it's sideways--just tilt your head a bit. I've edited it twice to make the rotations save on Blogger, and the bloody thing's not working. Anyway, you get the idea.
I can't wait to try more of what Addy can make--more red, green and yellow curries, more seafood, more noodles, maybe also I am also slowly convincing him to come and cook at Tides on Thursdays. Imagine Thai food every week? Exactly.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Women's Sewing Co-op gets a grant from the U.S. Ambassador's Self-Help Fund!

The Women's Sewing Co-op is the proud recipient of the U.S. Ambassador's Self-Help Fund. We're receiving funds this year that allow us to build the project and make it sustainable, and include workshops on leadership and financial management as well as work that I'll do around marketing and distribution.
The grant also gives us money to expand our product line. Here, you see Tina trying on a sample apron my sister brought us from El Salvador. The Co-op members loved it so much that Miriama ended up wearing home (or trying to) the sample they made, because my sister wouldn't part hers. It's fitted, feminine and functional--and we're now making it with West African lapa. Note the handy little side pockets. We won't need to embroider ours, but the pockets will stay.
Here are Miriama, Bendu and Josephine (left to right). Bendu single-handedly ran our booth at the U.S. Embassy Craft Fair and earned more than $600 for the Co-op in one day. Miriama, to the left in pink, will be the next team leader as we expand to 20 members in the coming months.
Matilda is our newest Team Leader. Here, she's tallying and handing over bags that her team members have sewn.

Over the next year, I'll be working with the Co-op to achieve the following:
  1. Try to scale-up Co-op membership to 30 women.
  2. Train team leaders in consistent quality control and management.
  3. Market and distribute the monthly output of the Co-op, which now is over 100 products, both locally in Liberia and internationally.
  4. Expand their product line to aprons, yoga mat bags and more.
  5. Brand the Co-op as a women's microenterprise program and show buyers the positive effect product revenues have on members' lives.
  6. Build the Team Leaders' capacity to effectively run and manage the Co-op on their own.
  7. Build Co-op members' skills in business management and financial literacy.
  8. Develop a Monrovia-based network of suppliers that the Co-op can directly liaise with.
If you're interested in giving us about any or all of these, let me know. I'll be blogging about how we're working towards these goals throughout the year, and your support and guidance is much appreciated.

Monday, February 1, 2010

(Eating) barracuda

Photos courtesy of Tamar Losleben.
A few weekends ago, we were chilling at the campsite watching the fishermen pull in a particularly good catch when a young man came up in a wheelbarrow. With a four-foot barracuda in it. Having just bought a nice rosy grouper for $8 and already planned how to cook it for lunch, we were not really in the market for another freshly-caught fish.

But when someone comes to you with a four-foot barracuda, it tends to change your mind about a lot of things. Most pressingly, should this become my new Facebook profile picture? And what are we going to do with all this fish?
Of course, we bought the fish. For $22, after having photographed ourselves holding it and using it as a weapon in various different ways. The fisherman was amused, and Sam--our Chief of Security and the Community Chief's son--took the occasion to comment on Nathaniel and my way of doing things, in general. Apparently, we are very chill and respectful, which is good to know. We'll keep it that way.

Lucky of us, since my stint cooking at Nana's, I've assumed the occasional use of their fridge and freezer for just these kind of situations. You know, when a man brings a four-foot barracuda to you in a wheelbarrow before lunch. So, the new campsite security cheerfully skinned and chopped the fish into manageable pieces about the size of a 2-month old puppy. We took one to A.B., the Project Leader of the monthly Community Beach Cleanup and the proud father of a new baby girl he named...Elizabeth. We grilled giant barracuda steaks for dinner with coconut cream sauce and rice. We put the rest of the giant hunks of barracuda--or 'cuda' as it's called here--in the freezer and took it back to Monrovia.

This might have to become a habit.

Dreading a hair cut

In the 71.4% of my life that I've spend outside of the U.S. (where my only passport is from), I have had a lot of haircuts. There was the hairdresser in New Delhi who made is possible for me to be mistaken for a boy for almost a year. There was the hairdresser in Egypt who cut my chin-length bob so asymmetrically that my mother allowed me to skip school while she called a retired hairdresser friend. There was the hairdresser in Arusha who almost gave me a mullet as I was talking on my cellphone.

Given that historically I've lived in countries where "straight" or "white" hair is an anomaly, I have to be prepared for situations like these and handle myself appropriately--ideally, even maturely. Instead, I don't let anyone cut my hair. I have been in Liberia eight months, my hair growing to the length of a Victorian spinster, sticking faithfully to this rule.

Finally, I became too hot, my hair became too straggly to do anything but ponytail (see recent photos for proof), and I began to cave. Enter Adi, a Thai man who cooks, massages and cuts hair in Liberia. Adi came over on time without getting lost, pulled a plastic chair onto the balcony, and after agreeing that my hair had suffered from so much sun and sea, began clipping.

Adi began clipping very, very fast while talking to me about cooking Thai food and getting me to teach yoga at UNMIL. I no longer felt hair on my back or neck and told myself, "This is either going to be really bad or really good." Which ones of those was, at that point, out of my control.

I lucked out. Now I have wispy, wavy locks liberated from weightiness. I keep turning my head back and forth. I will not tempt fate by letting anyone else cut my hair here, but I'm glad I took the chance.