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!