Monday, March 29, 2010

A few more weeks, I swear

Since Joe first started telling me, "Elie, I'm going to give you a bar," back in late October, I've been telling people we'll open "in a few weeks." It's almost April, though, and I'm still saying it.

Still, it's only this week that Nate and I became partners with our investor. The new collaboration has inspired a lot of movement. And so--"soon." Here's the logo with our colors, evocative of sunset and bright ocean. Below are some photos of the deck taken by my friend Heidi, who just moved back with Nicholai to Ocean Beach. (We miss you!)

So here's the view from the deck--you can just see West Point and the Free Port in the distance. The banana tree was put in water to add some greenery and I am sorry, but did not survive the next day's heat. Please also forgive the lapa print of this particular set of chairs. It was a mistake.

Here is Nicholai enjoying a drink and looking out to the ocean, where Mamba Point would be breaking if there was massive rainy season swell. Note the blue-and-white lapa prints on these chairs, which are as intended.

Here's the view of the cliff side of Mamba Point and a bit of West Point as well. The smoke you see could be diesel fumes, but is likely burning plastic. Ah, Monrovia. But pretty, no?

More photos when I document ongoing work and construction this week. It's fun.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kimchi, for reals

I've loved kimchi since I was a child in Nairobi, where we bought jars of it from our local Korean restaurant and I'd sneak into it on the sly after school, dipping my fingers into the brine and finishing it straight from the fridge. There's something about probiotic food--maybe it's sourness, maybe a slight fizziness I detect on the top of my tongue--that I'm crazy about; it's the same with yoghurt and kombucha. Kimchi, with calcium-rich cabbage as its base, is a particular favorite.

As part of my recipe-testing extravaganza for Tides, I came across a recipe for it that didn't look hard, so I decided to try it. And although it's fermenting faster than it would in temperate climes (it's a cool 90 degrees with crazy levels of humidity), it's working. I'm so happy about it, I had to share. Next up, kombucha--if only someone will send me some culture...

Friday, March 26, 2010

FedEx Liberia rocks

Nate and I arrived at the FedEx office on Broad Street in Monrovia in the morning a little after 10:00. Between us, we carried 210 beach bags hand-sewn by the Women's Sewing Co-op in Robertsport. Each one had been double-checked for quality control (are the seams strong? is the hemming tight? is the pattern facing the right way? did the sewer embroider her initials?) by Solomon and me, and folded precisely into a small roll of colorful fabric by Solomon. We were there to send the first installment of our first major order (550 bags total) to the States for a major conference. And also, we were wrong.

How wrong? Well, let's just say we'd quoted our buyer a FedEx price that was actually less than one-third of the real price--more like a quarter. And we're giving her a major bulk discount on the bags, so we don't have much wiggle room. I think this shows on my face, as I slowly look over to Nate and announce, "I don't think this is going to work."

We've got close to 45 women, 15 Co-op members and the friends they're teaching, working non-stop for the last three weeks to fulfill this order. It's the first major order we've had since receiving the U.S. Ambassador's Self-Help Grant to up our marketing and distribution this year. It's also, according to my research on Liberia and the U.S. Africa Growth and Opportunities Act, the first time Liberia has exported textiles to the U.S. since the civil war.

But this wasn't going to matter, because our assistant had misquoted FedEx prices at such drastically lower rates--quotes that we'd passed on--that sending the bags was going to loose us a few thousand dollars. I looked at Nate. I looked at the FedEx manager. And I explained that I didn't know what to do. And I was silently freaking out about it.

Usually, in these situations, the private sector will retreat to their profit margin, offer professional sympathy and send you on your way. But that didn't happen. Instead, Ernest offered us a steep discount on both shipments. I was stunned, grateful and rather amazed. We're sending the entire shipment of 550 bags via FedEx now, everything is arriving right on schedule, and we could not have done it without them. Cool, eh?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Body, mind and spirit

I've been running around getting stuff for the bar and working lots, so I'm going to do yoga instead of blogging. I'm starting my practice by reading this excerpt from yoga teacher Seane Corn's article about her trip to Uganda to advocate for maternal mortality.

I wanted to share it with you because it suits where I'd like to take my practice in the days ahead. Take what you like and leave the rest.

"We invoke into our hearts and into this space the God of our own understanding, be it our higher power, the creative conscious, Mother Earth or the Holy Mother herself. We welcome this essence and grace into our being. May it infuse our practice and this day with the love necessary to make our work meaningful, potent and beneficial for all beings."

"We ask, dear spirit, that our judgment be transformed into understanding, our resistance into surrender and our fear into faith. May we stand in our power and create space and opportunity so that others may stand in their own. May we stay heart centered and available to all the people we meet and greet them with openness and a willingness to share ideas and experience without judgment, prejudice or fear. Expose our assumptions and limited beliefs so that we may grow, and give us the strength to acknowledge these limitations without shame."

"May this practice be blessed and may the vibration that exists within each of our hearts be offered outward into this community and our universe as a prayer for healing, unity and peace."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Women's Sewing Co-op: Working hard, on a deadline

Three weeks ago, a friend asked me to send some of the Women's Sewing Co-op beach bags to her boss, who was staying at Kendeja. I sent Solomon with the bags and his ID card. He returned with a little note that said, "550 bags to the US by 5 April," or something close. For weeks, I'd been complaining to Nate that we were never going to move our Co-op stock, which we (the organization) buy from the women at monthly meetings, effectively assuming the project's financial risk. I did quick math and figured that the stock I'd been worried about moving was less that 200 bags. We were going to have to move, and move fast.

Before I agreed that the Co-op could meet the order, I needed to do some research. How would we get the bags there on such short notice? Could the women sew 350 bags in a month? More importantly, did they even want to?

I made a few phone calls to Robertsport, mentioned the idea to the Co-op Team Leaders and got their enthusiastic vote of approval. They wanted in and better yet, they thought they could do it. So Nate and I purchased 45 African suits worth of lapa--over 400 yards of cloth, a bunch of thread and headed to Robertsport.

Three weeks later, the women are on schedule and this Sunday, when we have our meeting, will probably all be needing Thai massages for their necks and shoulders. I will keep you updated on the order, as it's a big one and I'm sure will be a good story to tell.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Being schooled in seafood

As we check prices around town on things like fridges and gas grills for Tides and learn about the economics of business start-up in an import-dependent country, we come across some interesting people. One of the Lebanese shopkeepers, in between showing off models and telling us prices, thought to give us some advice.

"I worked at the Hard Rock Cafe," he told us, not specifying where. "I know all about how to run a restaurant." For the 15 minutes we stayed in his shop, the majority was spent insisting we needed a stand-up glass fridge (space and power inefficient, I kept repeating) and telling us how to run things.

"The most important thing is your menu," he said, after we told him we wanted to serve something different than the fast food and imported drinks on offer. "For instance, you must serve hamburgers."

This had happened before, when Nate and I were in Ghana on holiday. The last day, we took a taxi to visit a restaurant wholesaler in Accra. There, we met with the company manager, as the man we had an actual appointment with was also on holiday. "I supply many restaurants in Monrovia," he told us, making us feel better about maybe bringing over half a container by sea. "What kind of restaurant do you want?"

I told him, although he preferred to listen to Nate repeat what I'd said two minutes later. "We'd like to use local ingredients to make slow-cooked, clean food," I said. "So you'd like a schwarma display." I looked at Nate, who volunteered, "We'd like to see your ovens and fridges." The manager's response? "Shall I show you our new cotton candy machine?" Such patience, my man has. "

Back in Monrovia, Baseem, on the other hand, told us what our options were in terms of menu. "There are," he announced solemnly, "only five ways to cook shrimp."

At this point, my patience returned. "Only five ways to cook shrimp?" I asked innocently, counting in my had. "Yes." And here is his list:
  1. Grilled shrimp
  2. Shrimp cocktail
  3. Fried rice with shrimp
  4. Sweet and sour shrimp
  5. Fried shrimp
I was a little confused that fried rice with shrimp wasn't a real number, since technically it's actually either grilled (#1) or fried (#5). However, I held my tongue. And good thing too.

"Will you have lobster?" I told him yes, we would have lobster. "Then, there are three ways to cook lobster." Here they are:
  1. Fried lobster
  2. Grilled lobster
  3. Lobster thermidor
But who would fry a lobster? When we finished our meeting and got to discussing this conversation, Nate and I decided we needed further research. That night, sitting on the breeze-cooled balcony of Mamba Point Hotel, we checked out their menu.

Sure enough, there are exactly five ways to cook shrimp at Monrovia's oldest hotel:
  1. Grilled shrimp
  2. Golden fried shrimp
  3. Garlic shrimp
  4. Shrimp with hot sauce ("for the daring")
  5. Shrimp curry
Grilled and fried, both on the shopkeeper's list, made it to the restaurant menu as well. But he forget shrimp cocktail. I don't really like shrimp cocktail and we're not going to serve it, but still. I was entertained enough to see that Mamba Point serves only one kind of lobster---lobster Thermidor--although I still don't know what that is.

This post reminds me--I must go and seem Baseem after today's public holiday (J.J. Roberts' birthday). We need to get some of his fridges.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"That squirrel is very terrible."

A few months ago, during a particularly feisty meeting of the Women's Sewing Co-op, one of the small children we allow to linger during meetings captured a small squirrel. Bendu convinced him to give it to her and used her sewing thread to make it a collar and a leash. The squirrel, which Bendu and the children took turns holding in their cupped hands, looked terrified.

"It's a baby," Elijah, who'd no doubt had some part in catching it, informed us." The baby squirrel bulged its eyes and made a squeak. "Let it go!" I wanted to scream, but didn't. I have to choose my battles, and freeing imprisoned squirrels was not going to be one of them. Bendu took it home on her leash and when I asked her about it later, she let out a little wail. "No! It left me!" she screamed, laughing. "It ran up the tree and I said, 'Squirrel, squirrel, please come down,' and it said no!" Squirrel-1, Bendu-0.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when I was relaxing at the campsite until I heard a terrible racket. I looked over to where all the noise was coming from, and there T-Boy and Wallace were, swinging their cutlasses at something I couldn't see. "Squirrel!" they shouted with cheery enthusiasm.

Now, in Liberian English one would say this is "not correct." I stopped them both and asked T-Boy to explain why campsite security was bent on the annihilation of a tiny squirrel. "I wanted to keep it for a pet," T-Boy's answered. Then, why the machetes? "You know," T-Boy explained, pointing with seriousness. "That squirrel can be very terrible."

I could not help but start laughing. A tiny squirrel, terrible? Exactly how? "Sometime," T-Boy said, gesturing towards the towering cotton tree, "it can fall on your head." Now both Nate and I burst out laughing, and T-Boy joined in.

"No more killing squirrels," I said, "even if they do fall of the tree."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Adventures in tropical medicine: Removing jiggers

Between my first jigger post and this one, I've removed five from people's feet. The last two were from my big toe and prompted Wallace, who works at the campsite, to marvel that I was a "real Liberian woman." I was extremely proud. So proud that I want to share with you, faithful readers, how to do it. Just in case you come back from the bush with bugs in your toes. Also, I recommend you find a friend to do this for you.

What you will need:

Clear alcohol (wipes, rubbing alcohol, or even vodka)
Sharp-nosed tweezers (if you don't have these, use tweezer and a needle)
Surgical gloves, if you feel better wearing them
Optional: Swiss Army knife scissors

1. Identify that your friend indeed has a jigger. It should look like a rather circular blister that is pea-sized or smaller. It will be slightly swollen, have tiny dark flecks on it (jigger body parts) and be kind of numb when you press on it. Usually they're on the foot, toe or a little under the toenail.

2. Wash your hands and the infested foot with soap and water. If you're wearing gloves, put them on now. Dry the toes thoroughly and sit lower than the foot (like on the ground with your friend in a chair). Encourage them not to look, as it will be gross--but strangely painless.

3. Wet a cotton ball with alcohol and sterilize your tweezers, the needle (if you're using one) and the scissors.

4. Using the sharp-noosed tweezers or a needle, start to poke a shallow circle around the infected area. Poke a little under the skin and pull up. Our aim is to remove the top layer of now-dead skin that the jigger will have burrowed under.

5. Once you've done this around the jigger, you should be able to tweeze the top circle of skin off slowly to reveal the jigger. At this point, it gets a little gross, as pieces of the insect will come off with your friend's skin. Wipe and clean the tweezers in alcohol.

6. At this point, you should see what looks like a larvae--it's the egg-laying jigger. Since you've exposed the area surrounding it, you're in a good position to grab the insect and slowly pull it away from the skin. You want get your tweezers as close to the head as possible so that in one slow, solid pull--you'll need to pull--you grab as much of the jigger as you can. Check with your friend that it's not hurting, but in my experience, this part doesn't--the jiggers have some kind of numbing agent that makes removing them pretty painless. Don't squeeze too hard--you don't want to burst it. Again, wipe and clean your tweezers but I probably don't need to remind you. This step is pretty gross.

7. There should be bleeding around the wound now, which might be pretty deep. Wipe it away with a cotton swabbed in alcohol--this part will sting--and take a good, close look. If you see anything pus-like or black, tweeze it out as firmly and deeply as you can without hurting your friend. A good test is pressing firmly with both thumbs on either side of the wound. It should bleed freely. If it doesn't, you'll need to have your friend press while you explore a bit with the tweezers--nothing drastic, just a little bit of poking. More jigger bits (or, if you're me, another jigger) may come out--try to expect it and not be grossed out.

8. In the end, the wound will probably be deep but clean, bleeding freely. Clean it again with alcohol, apologizing to you friend for the stinging, and then bandage the wound with a strong band-aid. Let them air it at night so a scab forms, but have them keep it nice a clean. Any sign of swelling or infection means you haven't gotten the jigger out, so be sure you have!

Monday, March 8, 2010

My namesake, Helen

When Nate and I were still reeling from typhoid, Davis announced that Rita had given birth to a baby girl. "Wonderful!" I enthused, holding my hands out in front of me as I staggered to the car. Nate stayed a few moments longer and David continued, "We're going to name her after your wife! We called her Helen!" At this point, Nate stopped staggering behind me to the car, turned and crushed the new father's pride. "Her name isn't Helen." "Oh," Davis said. After that, it was Christmas holidays we didn't hear from him for a little while.

Everyone here calls me Ellen. Or Helen. I correct them, write my name in the sand, even type it into their phones, but it doesn't matter. I'm still Ellen. Or Helen. When we drive into Uptown, little kids yell "Ellen! Ellen!" I tried and tried to change it, but stopped trying. Now, I am Ellen (or Helen). Does it matter?

Fast forward to January, when A.B. who leads our monthly Community Beach Cleanup (if you're reading this and in Liberia, you are now expected to come out and volunteer) approached me shyly and mentioned that his wife (which doesn't mean you're married, btw, it's just nice) just had a baby. "And we're going to name her after you!" I took him aside, as I did not want this to be embarrassing. "AB, you know my name isn't Helen. It's Elizabeth." I held my breath.

AB is very smart and immediately got with the program. "Her name will be...Elizabeth," he said. I exhaled and smiled. Elizabeth, the little one, is above being held by her mother. If I look a little sketched out, remember I am not used to be around babies. Also, I was being lectured about not having learned Vai yet by the older woman on the right. You can kind of tell.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Monrovia geniuses win quiz night for conservation

I have some very exceptional friends, so when Dina--who supports our beach cleanup and helps organize my yoga class--said she was competing in a new monthly quiz night, I was not surprised. Our surfer friend who often comes to Robertsport on the weekends was leading Dina's team and had decided to give the winnings--if they won, of course--to Robertsport Community Works. And you know what? They won!

Special thanks to the team leader and his team (you know who you are), who raised $250 for the NGO!

What are we using the money for? Well, Benjamin and other young men from the village have been working informally with us to create a rainforest walk through the Robertsport old-growth coastal rainforest. It's a protected area, an Important Bird Area (not my capitals) and a RAMSAR site (important wetlands--not my acronym), so there's plenty to see.

There's also saw grass, which is just like it sounds. Nate pointed it out on an early walk and I scoffed. How sharp could it be? Bleeding ankles and forearms later, I repented being so blithe. Now, the guides have strict instructions to avoid saw grass at all costs. It does not make for a pleasant tourist experience.

Anyway, this $250 will pay for the start-up of the project, which is just what we need. We've advertised for a volunteer to come and help us set the walks up, but we don't have the cash stipend the two highly qualified candidates would've needed to stay for a couple of months. After all, airfare here is a hefty $2,500, more or less.
So, here's what's on our project list as we get started:

  • Birds of West Africa and Mammals of West and Central Africa: These classic and rather expensive guide books will help Benjamin and the other guides identify the birds they know and learn their western names, as well as what they eat, where they like to perch and other fun stuff. I'd love a similar book for trees...
  • Eco-Tourism Guide t-shirts for the guides to wear when they're leading a walk: This will help them look professional, although I'm sure they'll want ID cards too. All our project staff ask us for ID cards.
  • Cash to develop and draft a map and species list of likely will-sees--trees, birds, insects and maybe lizards. We'd like to have the map onto and to add photos to it on Google.
  • Guide training: Ben and the others know the forest like the back of their hand, but that doesn't mean their ready to lead inquisitive tourists on a two-hour hike. Guide training will include first-aid, guest relations, when to share information and how to best pace the group.
  • Promotional photos and brochures: It would be great to have photos to share with Liberian tourism and conservation sites online, as well as a simple brochure to advertise the walks and encourage people to join on walks.
I'm sure there's more stuff, but I really wanted an excuse to post about how much the quiz night winnings will help put this project together. If you're visiting Robertsport in the near future, email me to schedule a guided walk--unless you see one of our brochures first!