Sunday, April 28, 2013

Putting Things into Perspective

A couple weeks ago, our Liberian friend’s three kids came over to visit after school. The ten-year old boy was just beside himself with the guesthouse that we are staying in. He looked around in awe and kept saying, “look at all these fine fine things!” Now to me, it is definitely a decent place to stay considering where are in the world. But, it is a bit junky and really not a place I’d consider living long-term. And our “fine fine things” are anything but glamorous. Most of our things are borrowed or cheap items that we bought just to get by until our container from the States comes.

A few days later, I understood a bit better. John-Mark came back from visiting their house and informed me that the entire family of eight was sleeping in one room, maybe 13X13. A husband, wife, 15 year old girl, 14 year old girl, 11 year old boy, 10 year old boy, 6 year old girl, and a 2
year old boy. (Three of these are foster children). The married couple share a double bed with the 2-year old while the rest sleep on the floor. The family is renting this room in a house and sharing one toilet with a couple other families.

When I was doing home health social work in rural South Carolina, there were so many of my patients that could have really benefited from hiring someone to help do laundry and clean the house. The going rate to hire from an agency was approximately $15/hour with a three-hour minimum. You could hire someone privately for $8-10/hour. I learned that in Voinjama, the going rate to have someone help wash from 8am-4pm is $150 Liberian Dollars. That is $2 for an entire day of hard work. Laundry, for instance, would probably require the woman to walk to a water source and carry buckets of water back to the house. Then, hand wash clothing, sheets, etc and hanging them on a line to try.

Some of you might be thinking, “Well, $2 can buy a lot more there so it evens out.” The truth is, $150 Liberian Dollars (LD) doesn’t stretch too far, especially if you’re trying to feed your family. A pineapple or a cup of rice, for example, costs 50LD. A piece of bread costs 20LD. A little bag of red palm cooking oil is 25LD and four onions cost $25LD. To finish the meal, one would still have to come up with maybe 100LD to buy a little fish and greens or vegetables. That doesn’t leave much left to pay rent, school fees, or to invest for the future.

Returning to Monrovia

Over the last few weeks in Voinjama, John-Mark has worked with a local mechanic to make multiple repairs on our vehicle. We even had John-Mark’s dad order a fan from the US, had his brother, Nathan, pick it up in Cleveland, overnight it to a friend coming out to Liberia, and then flown on the Samaritan’s Purse plane from Monrovia to Kolahun. John-Mark then borrowed a motorbike to pick it up from Kolahun and bring it back to Voinjama. It seems like we got the fan problem fixed, but we are still having problems with the radiator leaking and now issues with the transmission too.

All that to say, when it came time to go to Monrovia last Monday, we weren’t shocked when the vehicle wouldn’t budge. After about three hours of working on it, we finally decided to rent a taxi. Yes, we took a little yellow TAXI for NINE HOURS over mostly DIRT ROADS! John-Mark felt an obligation to provide transportation back to Monrovia for the electrician and his 15-year old son  that we had hired to help with our house. So, they shared the front seat while John-Mark, Audrey, Angel and I crammed in the back.

At least the trip back was ONLY NINE HOURS this time instead of TWO DAYS. Still the trip was just short of miserable for me. I ended up feeling really car sick for most of the trip. At one point, the driver decided to stop to buy coal to haul back to Monrovia. I ended up vomiting on the side of the road and then had no choice but to turn around and greet the several Liberians that had gathered behind me to watch! In addition, I had really hurt my abdominal muscles the day before. I could literally hardly walk or bend over. So, the constant bumps and bracing myself resulted in a very painful ride.

One thing that surprised me was that the taxi driver had to pay a small bribe at each of the government check points. These check points are put in place to catch any troublemakers passing through. But, the government apparently pays the workers so little, they feel it necessary to charge a ‘toll’ for taxis to get through. This, of course, is illegal. Our driver spent about $50LD ($0.75 US)  at each of the check points.

The car didn’t have air conditioning, so dust was blowing into the car the whole way. We were all caked with red dust by the time we reached Monrovia. Even Angel had turned into a red dog!

Of course, we were so happy to reach Monrovia. Mark and Nancy’s friend is a fisherman here and brought Lobsters over. Nancy had them cooked and ready for us. We all slept SO well that night!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Audrey's First Birthday

To celebrate Audrey’s first birthday, we decided to host a birthday party
for her at the guesthouse in Voinjama. We chose five families to join us,
which ended up being more than 50 people! It was truly amazing to have so
many (40) kids come, but since it was well-organized and the parents were
great at keeping their kids in their seats, it wasn’t nearly as chaotic as
it could have been.

John-Mark and I spent all day getting ready. I made and bagged popcorn and
plantain chips. I baked a chocolate cake the night before and a homemade
oatmeal cake with a peanut glaze for the icing in my ‘easy bake oven.’ Both
turned out exceptionally well considering my easy bake oven doesn’t have a
temperature gauge on it! John-Mark blew up 50 balloons and hung them in
clusters around the front porch. We arranged the tables on the porch and
used white sheets as tablecloths. When all is said and done, it looked very
festive considering the limited resources.

The party started at 4:00, which means most people came around 5:00. Audrey
was SO cute! When we walked outside to the porch and she saw a few of her
little guests sitting and waiting for the party, she stretched out her hand
and greeted each of them individually. Some of the little boys had a bit
piece of notebook paper taped to their shirts. One say, “My name is
Benjamin. Happy Birthday Audrey!” Another said, “My name is Joe Joe. Wishing
you a long life, Audrey!”

While we waiting for the jollof rice to finish cooking, John-Mark, with the
help of a few of the fathers, managed to run a few games. There was pin the
tail on the donkey and a ball/basket toss. The kids’ favorite by far was the
“Dress up like Audrey’s Pa.” Two kids raced to put on John-Mark’s clothing.
In between each piece of clothing, they had to run back to the starting
point and tag the basket. It was hilarious seeing these little kids with
John-Mark’s shorts falling off them! Even a couple of the fathers played the
game. We had a prize basket that the kids enjoyed picking out of.

Eventually, it started to rain, but everyone was having so much fun, no one
seemed to mind! Remember that many of our guests had NEVER been to a
birthday party before. Some of them don’t keep track of birthdays and really
don’t have a clue how old they are or what year they were born.

Some of the guests brought gifts. One family brought a pooh bear stuffed
animal that they found in the local market. This probably came from the
States from a Goodwill store that wasn’t able to sell it. It was in great
condition and clean and Audrey really loves it! Another family gave a
package with two rattles. There was also two pair of little girl underwear
in the package too. Odd combination. Any girl old enough to wear cotton
underwear is probably too old to be playing with rattles! LOL! Finally, one
family, our best friends here, gave a beautiful custom-made Liberian dress
and purse. Audrey wears it to church every Sunday.

After much too long, the jollof rice was finished. We ate and then sang
Happy Birthday a few times to Audrey, candles and all. It was pretty late by
this point so it felt a little rushed. But, they also sang Happy Birthday,
Liberian-style, wishing her “success.”

The families went home with treat bags and the kids talked about the fun
games for days afterwards! Since Audrey loves kids so much, she seemed to
have a very fun time too and loved getting all the presents! She looks
forward to celebrating her birthday again in a few days with her Sheppard
grandparents and uncles, Jonah and Jared. Since she loves playing in water
so much, we'll be taking her to this little waterpark called the Barracuda.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Unrest in Zigida

Zigida is a small town in Lofa County that is another special place for John-Mark and myself. It is where we had our first dates. In 2008, John-Mark drove me there on his motorbike and we hiked through the jungle. We spent a few hours at a beautiful waterfall and another day at a “monkey bridge.” (An amazing, long bridge, intricately woven and strung up on the highest trees with only forest vines). So, when we heard about some unrest there, we were especially concerned.
During one of our many breakdowns a few weeks ago, while I waited for JM to return with a tow truck, a young white woman passed by on the back of a motorbike. She stopped so Audrey and I introduced ourselves. She was French, but her family lives in Singapore. She is conducting research for Yale University on a reconciliation project that was started in Liberia years ago. Anyway, she shared with me that she had just tried to visit Zigida to conduct her interviews. The town chief met her as she was trying to come into town. The chief apparently had blood all over his shirt and urged them to turn back around, reporting that there had been some violence between the animistic Lorma people and the Muslim Mandingos. The chief was going to get the authorities to help.
Tensions like this are not uncommon between the Lorma and Mandingo people. Many Lorma towns have a small population of Mandingos. The Mandingos are distinct from the Lorma in language, culture and religion. Although the Mandingo have lived among the Lorma for centuries, and oral tradition points to a common origin for the two tribes, many Lorma people see the Mandingo as being “strangers” or foreigners to their region. They are seen as being in competition with the “native” Lorma for farmland and other resources. Further compounding the problem is the Mandingos’ Islamic religion. Mandingo Muslim men often take Lorma women as wives. The wives often convert to Islam, and all children from these unions are raised as Muslim. However, the Mandingo will never allow their daughters to marry “pagan” Lorma men. This has also led to resentment from the Lorma.
In some cases, Mandingos have been refused the right to settle in particular Lorma towns. There have also been cases where Muslims have been attacked and driven from Lorma towns while attempting to perform their ritual prayers. The Mandingos generally practice a tolerant form of Islam and do not try to convert their Lorma neighbors. Yet when provoked, it is not uncommon for hotheaded young Mandingo men to retaliate. During the civil war, Mandingos in one rebel group entered a Lorma Poro grove and desecrated it, carrying off sacred masks and other artifacts. This provoked widespread anger among the Lorma.
In this particular instance in Zigida, the men’s Poro society was conducting some kind of ritual that involved the masked “devil” parading around the town. According to the secret society’s tradition, all women, children and uninitiated men are required to hide indoors during the masquerade. In the past, the Mandingos had similar traditions but abandoned them as they became more Islamized. In Zigida like so many other places, the Mandingos grew tired of living under the authority of the Poro society, and simply refused to go indoors. Things apparently escalated to the point of a violent clash between the two tribes. From the little that we heard on the radio, the dispute was settled fairly quickly without any fatalities.
In this environment where rumors and false information spread quickly, a lot of people in Voinjama were nervous. A scuffle in the market between some sellers and a few petty thieves got the local rumor mill going, and soon people were saying that the Lorma and Mandingo were fighting again.
A similar event happened here in Voinjama a few years ago, sparked by a clash between the Lorma and Mandingoes in Konia. Unfortunately, some Mandingo troublemakers turned it into a “Christian vs. Muslim” conflict and things escalated to the point of churches and houses being burned. The pastor of our church here actually was injured, and lost his house and many possessions that day.
Back to a couple weeks ago… The teachers sent the kids home early from school, causing them to be unnecessarily afraid. In fact, it seemed that some adults were afraid that some troublemakers might try to stir things up just for the sake of looting the market. An official went around Voinjama on his motorbike making an announcement on his megaphone, stating that all was stable in Voinjama and that anyone caught starting rumors would be in serious trouble. We never felt any kind of threat during the day, but even if there was some trouble, there is a very large UN presence here in Voinjama that would quickly step in and enforce peace.
 Although there has been a lot of work done by the government and other organizations to promote peace and reconciliation in Liberia, it is clear that lasting change will only come through hearts and minds transformed by the Prince of Peace. 

Adjusting to Life in Voinjama

Things I really like:
Some early evenings I can look out our kitchen window and see huge black clouds rolling in over the hills. The wind really picks up and within a few minutes we have a big, loud rainstorm. The temperature drops considerably and we get to enjoy a cool evening after a very hot day.
In the US, we would often ‘stop by the store’ to pick up a few ingredients for dinner. It would always take time to get off the freeway, find a parking place, walk through a large store to find the items, stand in line to check out, etc. In Voinjama, to pick something up on the way home can very quick and easy since there are lots of people that set up little shops on the side of the road. I can literally step off the roads and buy onions, garlic, tomato paste, fresh produce, sugar, laundry soap, candies, cookies, kool-aid, bread, coke in a glass bottle, and a number of other things. It takes no time at all!
I like that I get a good workout every time I leave the house! Whether Audrey is on my back or in her stroller, it is challenging to get up these hills, especially on a hot day.
I like that now that people are getting used to seeing me and thus, not shouting so much advice. When I pass by on the road now, many people greet me from their yard, asking, and “How is your baby?” It is different from so many places in the US where so many people keep to themselves, often even avoiding eye contact.
I really like that culturally it is appropriate to send meals or fresh produce as a gift. We’ve received so many things including pineapple, papaya, plantains, avocado, bananas, plantain soup, and bread. I’ve managed to make loko (a friend plantain dish) for our security guard’s wife when she was very sick with malaria and also for another friend. I can tell that they are totally tickled that I participate in this fun tradition.
Things I am still getting used to:
The roads in Voinjama are pretty steep and some of the paths are nearly impassable even with my good stroller. I’ve started carrying Audrey on my back with a lappa cloth. Audrey loves it, waving at the kids as we walk by. For me, it still feels a little awkward and heavy, especially being 29 weeks pregnant!
The value placed on time is so small. I like not having to rush anyplace. But it affects us in different ways too. For example, there is absolutely no rush on the part of the contractors to finish the house. They come and go as they please and can just not come to work some days because they’ve decided to take up other contracts.
I’m getting used to having visitors pop in and out throughout the day. Of course in the US, it is appropriate to call first. But here, I never know when to expect someone. The hard part is that since many of the visitors have nothing better to do, they think nothing of staying for a couple of hours. Still, I am usually grateful for the interaction and Audrey loves having the company if they bring their kids along.
Things I miss:
Internet! It is pretty isolating and sometimes boring when I have to be at home with Audrey all day. I hate not being able to Skype with my family. We can get online for a couple hours in the evening, but usually after 10 pm. Since Audrey wakes up so early and is a handful all day, I can rarely stay awake that late. We stopped by the UN headquarters today and the commander remembered John-Mark from several years ago and welcomed him! He was a bit hesitant at first, but it looks like we might be able to start using the Internet there.
Apparently, I miss ice cream. I didn’t have it too often in the States and I haven’t really craved it during the day, but I dream about it a lot at night! Big ice cream sundae bars, an ice cream parlor filled with every color and flavor of hand-dipped ice cream that you could imagine, and finding smooth homemade butter pecan ice cream in my parent’s freezer have been some of the dreams. I joke with John-Mark that it isn’t fair for a pregnant lady to have to live in a place without ice cream and ice chips.
Apparently I miss paper towels too. I dream about them.
And, I most definitely miss cooking with chicken. Once the container arrives, we will have a small freezer so we can bring some chicken up from Monrovia. But for now, we don’t eat chicken. I had a torturous dream the other night about having a grilled chicken breast with a balsamic glaze.

Things I don’t like:
Bugs. I’ll leave it at that.
It is still hard for me to have random people tell me how I should be doing things. At least it is rare now for people to shout at me about how I’m taking care of Audrey. But individuals or small groups of people will still comment about how Audrey isn’t wearing socks, that I should have her on my back and not in a stroller, and that she should have her ears pierced.
Sometimes when I buy the locally made bread there can be sand particles in it. I made my own flatbread now (roti and tortillas). I’m considering baking other breads, but because baking time is a bit long, I hate to waste the gas tank on that. A refill is $45, and we have to take the tanks all the way back to Monrovia. We use charcoal to heat our bathwater and to cook beans.

The Nairobi Fly

A week and a half ago we were at the building site of our new house. I started having a tender feeling on my left shoulder. After a couple hours, I finally asked John-Mark if he could see anything. He actually acted a bit disturbed by what he saw, but had no idea what it was. When I got home, I used a little mirror to look for myself. There was a round red area about 2 inches in diameter. Inside were four little round white spots. It actually seemed to be in the design of a butterfly. I also saw a similar, smaller spot mirroring it on my neck. I couldn’t see any place where there was a bite or sting mark.
Over the next couple days it became more and more painful, especially to the touch. Of course clothing was constantly rubbing against it and since Audrey can’t help but climb all over me, she was always touching it too. The small white patches were getting smaller, but the other red part was getting darker and seemingly a little bigger. I showed it to several Liberians who cringed when they saw it. Some suspected the Nairobi fly.
After a couple more days, the white patches were gone, but a couple hundred tiny white blisters surrounded it. It was SO uncomfortable and disgusting! I was trying to treat with essential oils, but it was hard not knowing exactly what it was. It resembled a bad burn, but I hadn’t burned myself! At this point, I convinced JM to use our precious couple hours of very slow Internet time to do research. Sure enough, it was the Nairobi fly that got to me!
The Nairobi fly is extremely tiny. It didn’t actually bite or sting me, which explains why I couldn’t find that marking. Instead, when it passes over your skin, it leaves behind a poison that causes a chemical burn on your skin. The burn shows up at least a whole day after the contact. It doesn’t seem to be a very common problem. Many people that I’ve talked to have lived here their whole life and haven’t encountered the Nairobi fly. The Liberians recommended using okra as a way to soothe the burning sensation.
At this point, 10 days after the burn appeared, I am feeling much better. It is peeling now like a bad sunburn. After a few more days, I doubt there will be any trace of it at all.