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Saturday, March 3, 2012

An incredibly eventful day

Yesterday, the Pre-K through 3rd graders at my school went on a field trip to Marshall, a city in Liberia about an hour from my school. Marshall is on a river that feeds into the Atlantic ocean.  While on the field trip, we took a boat ride.  The ride passed a small fishing village, which you can see in the first two photos.

The boat ride also took us past Monkey Island.  

Before Liberia's civil war there was a research institute that did pharmaceutical tests on chimpanzees.  These tests were illegal in the US, so companies performed the tests here and send the results back to the US.  When the war started, the institute shut down.  They left the chimps behind on 6 different islands; people still bring them food 2-3 times a week.  

As the boat approached one of these islands, the kids in my class began making loud "monkey" sounds.  Slowly, about 8 chimps came to the coastline.  They wanted to be fed.  They even used hand motions to show us they wanted food.  Unfortunately, due to the low water levels, we could not get the boat close enough to the shore to throw the chimps the bread we had brought for them. These showed us their displeasure by  jumping around and pounding their fists on the sand.  As we watched the chimps on this island, we could hear the sounds of monkeys on other nearby islands.

It was amazing to see these animals out in the wild, but a little scary too.  Their size was massive!  And, the echoes that carried across the water of the other monkeys on the surrounding islands were a tad creepy.

Can you find all 7 chimps in the last photo?
On the way back from the beach, I was busy noticing how sunburnt my neck and shoulders had become when the caravan of school cars suddenly stopped.  One of the 4x4s had flipped on its side!  The adults got out of the other cars and were able to work together to flip the car right side up.  Thankfully no one was injured!
The dirt road to the beach kicked up lots of dust.
Later that night, I definitely to unwind -- a feeling shared by Caleb, my coworker, and my boss Ed.  We drove to Saaj, a restaurant that hosts salsa dancing on Friday nights.  As I was getting out of the vehicle, I fell into a deep hole.  Here, because there is so much rain, tunnels are dug to channel the water away from the roads.  In the US, these deep pits would be covered with metal grates, but Liberia doesn't cover them because the metal would probably be stolen and sold.

Anyway...long story short, I have a wonderful new bruise on my knee.  Have no fear, though.  I did dance the night away.  (I also paid the price later when my knew began throbbing with pain as I tried to fall asleep.)


Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Smattering of This and That

It’s been so long since I’ve updated this blog.  What can I say?  The muses haven’t blessed me with the writing “bug” in quite some time.  However, I have plenty of time on my hands today and figured that it was time.  Here are a couple of anecdotes from the past months.  Please forgive me; they aren’t necessarily in order.

Party Time:
My teacher's assistant, Theresa, and me
One of my co-worker’s “sons” got married.  The reception was held in the gym on our school’s compound.  (Our gym is one of two in the country.)  I helped to decorate the night before and the morning of the wedding.  It was one of the first times that I felt I could truly give back and help out a friend who has helped me acclimate. 

I enjoyed attending the reception.  Liberian wedding receptions are something to be seen.  First of all, the wedding dress reminded me of an 80’s bride, replete with puffy sleeves.  Second, the seating at the reception is done according to importance.  The family of the bride and groom, the clergy, the dignitaries, and the school staff had special tables.  We were provided with food and drink by the wedding hostesses.  The others in attendance served themselves at a buffet line after we had eaten. 

I wore a traditional African dress on which I received many compliments.  I was so proud to have chosen the lappa myself and have it made by a tailor.

Wulki Farms: For the first time since I’d arrived in Liberia, I left the confines of Monrovia and headed out of the city.   The city of Monrovia is unlike the rest of Monrovia.  At times it feels stuffy.  There are so many people in such a small place!  Plus, once you get out of the city, you realize how lush the rest of the country is with its sprawling hills of greenery.

Ed, his girlfriend Alyssa, Javier, and I trekked about an hour and a half out of the city to Careysburg.  Just past the school where Alyssa works is Wulki farms.  The land is gorgeous.  The farm boasts chickens, cows, pigs, crocodiles, ostriches, etc.  Additionally, there’s a large series of pools complete with slides!  The restaurant on the property serves food grown (and slaughtered) on the grounds.

The owner’s house was the biggest I’ve seen in Liberia.  There were many limousines parked out front of the house; I wonder if there were foreign dignitaries staying there.

After touring the farm, we dropped Alyssa off at St. Anthony’s, a boarding school.  Seeing that school provided me with a better idea of a traditional Liberian school. 

 Getting chummy: The parents at school are very gracious.  Twice the teachers from my school have been hosted by parents for nights out of eating, drinking, and being merry.  The first time, we were provided with all the accoutrements of a Lebanese dinner at one of the local hotels.  I LOVE Lebanese food and gorged on kebbeh, kebabs, and baba ganoush.

All the parents that attended that dinner were Lebanese, so I learned a lot about the Lebanese community here in Liberia.  Many of them were born in Liberia.  However, because of Liberia laws, they are not considered Liberian citizens.  Additionally, non-Liberians are not allowed to own land.  This discovery shocked me because the majority of stores and restaurants that I frequent are managed by Lebanese familes.

Later, our school staff was hosted by the head of Total in Liberia.  Total is a French gasoline company.  The house was magnificent!  The conversation was even better.  The French couple has a child in my class, and it was enlightening to hear how he goes home after a full day of school and continues lessons in French at home.  I admire his parents for maintaining his home country’s language.  Additionally, I am always in awe to hear of the places where these families have lived. The pictures I saw of Benin made me begin dreaming of other places in Africa that I want to visit before I move back to the States.

"White woman! Take our picture."
Blue Lake: Alyssa, the director’s girlfriend, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia a few years ago.  A friend invited her back to Tubmanburg, which is about 2.5 hours outside of Monrovia, for her 1st wedding anniversary party.  I was invited to tag along, and I am so glad that I did.

A run-down church on the way to the anniversary
While in Tubmanburg, I saw the Peace Corps housing where Alyssa had lived.  Let’s just say that it made my apartment on campus look like Shangri-la. 

Before we attended the anniversary party, we went to Blue Lake.  At one time, iron was mined in Bong County.  After the mining stopped, the area was filled with water.  Thus, Blue Lake. 

Blue Lake
The anniversary party for Amos & Meenie was
held underneath a tent of woven palm leaves.
We took a quick dip in the refreshing water.  The little boys taking a swim did not hide their gawking at me – a white girl in a bikini.  As soon as I got in the water, they surrounded me like minnows.  I wish I had a picture of that!

A Country on the Brink

As the presidential run-off election approached, feelings escalated and there were some instances of violence around the city.  On the eve of the run-off, the opposition party hosted a rally that ended in bloodshed.  Depending on which report you read, between one to five people died with the Liberian National Police acted to break up the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) rally.

Despite the fact that the incident happened just a mile or two from my school compound, it did not really faze me.  At no point did I feel threatened or worried.  In fact, it wasn’t till that evening that I realized how volatile the situation was and how it could come down the street toward me.  

The empty canister still
smelled like gunpowder.
The scorched earth outside our compound
The security guards at the compound showed the director and me an empty canister.  It must have contained a flash or tear gas.  Regardless of what it was, the canister was dropped by a UN helicopter outside the school walls to disperse a crowd that was gathering there.  The canister caused about 15 yards of grass along the wall to catch fire.  Thankfully, the canister didn’t land inside the fence; it was only feet away from our generator!

Like I said, I didn’t realize any of this commotion was taking place.  I can always hear sounds from outside the wall.  People and music from the streets seem to echo within our walls.  The only difference I had noted that day was an abundance of helicopter noise.  They seemed to be circling the compound…and now I understand why.

Since that incident on Monday, November 7, there have been a few other acts of violence around the city.  Someone’s house was burned, a few businesses were ransacked, and a radio-station was razed.

As results from the run-offs came in, there are posted here.
UP is the Unity Party.
CDC is Congress for Democratic Change.
The CDC called for a boycott of the elections.   It was no surprise, therefore, when the incumbent President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson won by a landslide – like 600,000 to 60,000.  Unfortunately, the prior day’s commotion deterred many from going to the polls.

One of "Mama" Ellen's campaign signs
Every once and a while there are rumors.  The riots that were supposedly going to happen when the CDC buried the shot man did not happen.  November 21 was supposed to be “Black Monday,” a day marked with many petrol bombs.  When rumors of these events fly, people stay home.  They pray for the best but prepare for the worst.  Those are the days when only a few of my students show up for school.  I cannot blame the parents that keep their kids at home.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September 12, 2011 Under the weather

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry.  In some ways, I think that’s a good thing.  Why?  Well, first, it feels like I’m settling comfortably into my new routine of work and rest.  Second, the busyness of life has been less time for writing.  Third, it felt, for a while, like I was living life behind the camera instead of just living.   By that I mean that I was always on the look out for the next blog entry.  What can I write about?  What would surprise other people the most? 

I’ve got a few things to write about today, but it’s with a gracious heart that I document them – not out of greed for people to read my “newsworthy” adventures…

In the past few days, I’ve really begun to experience the meaning of community here in Monrovia.  On Thursday, Adisa, Linda, and I bummed ride from the US Embassy bus that shuttles kids back and forth between the school’s compound and the embassy compound.  From the Expat Listserv, Adisa had found out about a consignment sale.  The sale was held at Coconut Plantation, a compound not far from the embassy. 

I don’t know what I expected of the outing.  The most I had hoped for was to buy a few kitchen things and a few items to adorn the walls of my spartanly apartment.  What I got out of it was a glimpse into the female expat community.   As we introduced ourselves as teachers at the American International School, one of the hostesses recognized my name; she had gotten an email about my blog for students!

There were a gaggle of ladies there, including several moms of students at my school.  Some people browsed and exited quickly, but most people sat down and enjoyed the company of the fellow females.  It seemed like not many people were in a hurry to head home.  The comfy seats and the delectable finger foods (I must inquire abut the recipe of the puff pastry with the goat cheese inside!) invited guests to stay and mingle.  I saw Sandra, the beautiful Italian/Swiss hairdresser who just trimmed my hair on Tuesday and met Christina, the founder of Resurrection bags.  She helps a group of seamstresses turn the local fabric, lappa, into wonderful totes.  I met Jenny, a former British head of school who’s here now volunteering her time at a mission with her husband.  The ladies hosting the event also had tales of volunteering their time to teach English at Francis Gaskin, a local school/ orphanage in Payneville. 

These are the women, I realized, who understand that I am going though. 

I think when people back home here about what I’m doing they think Yikes!  Africa. but they say That’ll be a wonderful adventure adding the cautionary Be careful

These ladies know that life is different here, but somehow it’s still the same.  We still work and cook and clean and raise kids and eat and play.  (We just have work harder at finding the fun things to play at.)  We live in a country plagued by poverty, not by depression.  We live in a place that has been riddled by violence and war but is in a growth spurt of positivity and peace.  No, it’s not what we grew up with.  No, Liberia is not a place of convenience and affordable luxury.  But, yes, it is a place where you can exist and live happily.

I looked around the room and not one of the women looked at me with pity or concern in her eyes.  They looked at me like, Yeah, well, this is what normal looks like here

In the end, I came home with a pair of earrings, a Resurrection handbag, a Pyrex dish, a dress made out of lappa, a pair of “sailor” pants, and an excitement to hang out with the girls again.

Another feeling of community has extended on the school compound.  I got sick on Saturday and thought I had beat it by this morning.  Not so.  My gracious assistant Theresa took over the classroom while I tried to sleep off whatever bug it is that I have.

I have never had more visitors to my room than today.  Klubo, the school nurse, came to look me over; Ed brought me crackers; Adisa brought me tea; and Weata, Suba, and Linda checked in on me after school.  Gertrude and Theresa scoffed when they saw that I had soup past its expiration date in my pantry; they ventured to the grocery story and returned with chicken noodle soup and juices.  Sure, they mocked my constant denials of needing anything while the soup heated, but they did it out of love.  Gertrude said that we have to watch out for our fellow Lower School Teachers.  And, she didn’t hesitate to add that the soup she’d just brought had an expiration date of 2013!

Note: As of yesterday, the student blog I’m working on has already had over 500 visits!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

September 4, 2011 After one month…

I have made it through the first week of school…alive. The teaching part is not hard; it’s the monotony of living and working in the same place and being around the same people all the time that is going to drive me nuts. (Perhaps I should note that I’m in a bit of a cranky mood as I write this post and that, had you asked me earlier in the week, I might not have had the same take.)

I don’t think I’m the only one in this proverbial boat. Each day after school is over, one of the other ladies is busy trying to make off-campus plans. We’ve journeyed to the grocery store and to eat out just to get off the compound.

I feel like it’s taken almost this whole month for me to take off the training wheels. Finally, I went to the market by myself. When I told my mom that I went outside the compound gate by myself, she had a minor conniption fit. However, it was time. I need to be able to venture out. To prove to myself that I am really living here. These people are not to be feared, but to be mingled with and educated by. I used my solitary journey to bring the picture I promised to the man who grinds cassava leaves. I also bought bananas, potatoes, and onions. Thankfully, Miatta, my house help, had given me a little mini-lesson on how much I should expect to pay.

The main stress this week was water. There’s a leak somewhere on campus, and all the water they bring in to fill the tower drains out within a day or two. Every other day, Adisa texts me to inform me of the lack of water; she has become the consistent bearer of bad news.

It is the rainy season, so it is uber-ironic that, with water falling all around me, I can’t get it in my own room. Therefore, I donned my swimsuit and took my shower products outside one morning before school. The water was a bit chilly, but it beat the option of trying to take a bucket bath in my shower, which is the size of a phone booth.

Ed told the school board about our woes with leaky pipes and unreliable internet connectivity. The board members have promised quick solutions. One member sent his crew out to look into the possibility of cleaning up our well and putting a pump in it to supply the apartments and school with a more reliable source of H20. Another member sent an internet supplier out to check our routers. Here’s to hoping the results come quick!

Other things to note about this week:
• I ate sushi on Thursday night with Adisa, Aminu, Ed, and Elisa (Ed’s girlfriend who just arrived on Wednesday night). The Living Room is a restaurant located in the lobby of the Royal Hotel. It’s a bit sketchy to eat seafood here in Liberia; many of the waters are polluted. So, I stuck to shrimp tempura and California rolls. The chicken stir-fry looked good, too. All-in-all, not a bad dinner. Afterwards, we rolled over to Dona Maria for some more macaroon cookies.
• The yard behind the apartments has been cut…by men with machetes. Of course there are no lawn movers in Africa; it’d be too expensive to import them or to buy the diesel.
• After one whole week of school, I have 11 kids, with one more confirmed to arrive on Sept. 12.
• I began a kid-friendly blog site at
• I got back into the routine of cooking my dinner. This week’s menu included Ritz cracker chicken, beef stroganoff, and some delicious marinated chicken (garlic and butter) from Exclusive supermarket
• Albert, Aminu, Linda and I went to Groovies on Friday night. Albert spent the night pointing out the three other white women who showed up --one of whom I had already met last week (Kate). A group of young girls wearing matching shirts that said “Girls Guard” got loud and rowdy. They were definitely in the spirit of “I am woman. Hear me roar.” They were in town for a women’s symposium where President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson spoke. One of the girls gave me an election pamphlet about the initiatives the president has taken and plans to take if reelected.
• Saturday night, Albert, Linda, Adisa, and I revisited Tides for the 2nd open mic night. Albert played one of my favorite songs, “Sweet Pea” by Amos Lee. Mr. Music gave Adisa and I several shout-outs. I must remember not to order the Bourbon-ade again. It was too sour!

August 27 Red Letter Day

Saturday was the best day yet! I slept in late and took my time fixing biscuits for breakfast. I have finally conquered my oven – I know how to light the gas oven without burning myself and how to convert recipes’ Fahrenheit temperatures to the Celsius on my oven knobs.

Ed volunteered to drive Adisa and me to Abi Jaoudi on Randall Street. I spent an exorbitant amount of money there, vowing not to go grocery shopping again for two weeks. I found out, though, that the more you spend, the bigger your US Embassy discount!

Afterwards, Ed, Adisa, and Iwent to Dona Maria’s to eat. I’ve made a connection with one of the Lebanese owners, Albert. He and I started chatting last week because we both have Mac computers and he admired the protective case I have on mine. This blooming friendship resulted in free cookies for the table. They were yummy and reminded me of macaroons.

During the afternoon, I put a batch of clothes in the laundry and returned to my room to let the rain lull me to sleep. I needed that nap desperately.

From the Expat Listserve, Adisa and I had found out about an open mic night at Tides. This restaurant/bar is located near the US Embassy, between Mamba Point and Waterside. It also hosts movie nights on Tuesdays.

I had a great piña colada with freshly squeezed pineapple juice. From the balcony, I could see the ocean lapping against the sand, and it was then that I actively thought I’m in Africa. I mean, I knew I had been in Africa the whole time, but it was only in this moment that the reality of the situation hit me. I wasdrinking a fruity cocktail, but I am in Africa. I was listening to a band, but I am in Africa. I was watching the ocean, but I am in Africa.

The open mic night was a fun outing. Ed did sing. I met a girl named Kate, who works with orphaned and prostituted girls. She works with an organization called More Than Me, and her spoken word pieces were poignant and horrifying. Albert, the Lebanese guy who had just hours before given me free cookies, showed up. It really is a small city. Everywhere I go I see at least one person I know.

The Unity Band, Adisa’s favorite band in Monrovia, played between and after the open mic performers. The band’s front man is “Mr. Music.” He’s a vibrant person, who caters to the audience’s mood. He invited two other older gentlemen to take the mic, giving way to his “profs.” One of the fellows could have been made of sticks, but good music and a deep voice emerged from the twig-like man. Robert had been the director of the Liberian National Police band and had given Mr. Music his first opportunity on stage.

Adisa, Ed, and I went home,happy to have found “our place” and vowed to return the next week.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

August 26 Halleluiah!

I was finally able to access the internet on the school compound! Granted, the WiFi doesn’t reach all the way back to the residences. I’ll take what I can get for the time being.

The internet came in handy for the second day of school. I was able to use to communicate with my Swedish student. We wrote back and forth to one another to explain directions, ask questions, and talk about the Swedish book he was reading. Thank goodness for technology!

After school, Miatta come for her first day of cleaning. Man, she is a hard worker! Together, we used a bleach solution to wipe down the insides and outsides of all the furniture – a necessary task since many of the dressers smelled moldy. Then, Miatta took out the trash, swept, and mopped the floors. The whole place smells wonderful and looks better than when I moved in! Our next cleaning date is Tuesday.

Unsure of how long my internet connection would last, I downloaded updates, checked my email, got updates about the weekend events in Monrovia via the Expat Listserv, and even Skyped with my brother Christen, who recently moved up north to attend Yale Law School.

Even though we only had two days of school, all of the faculty that live on campus were ready for a night on the town. We all squeezed in the school SUV and headed to à la Laguna, a restaurant/bar near the Chinese Embassy. At first, we were all ooh’ing and ah’ing about the beauty of the place. Our table was on a dock out on the water. The light breeze was doing a great job of keeping the mosquitoes away, and the stars overhead twinkled brightly. Two hours later, we were all grumbling and ready to leave, angered over the long wait time for our food. To a certain extent, we all have grown accustomed to “Liberian Standard Time,” the lackadaisical and non-prompt time it takes for anyone in Liberia to do anything. But, when our food arrived at 10:30 pm, no one was particularly forgiving of this aspect of the culture. My chicken was delicious, but I’ve learned my lesson. Go to à la Laguna before you are hungry because it will take forever to get your meal!