Saturday, December 30, 2006

Happy New Year!

So our first year is “fini.” True, we have been here a year and a half, but the first few months were all about getting accustomed to life on the West African coast. 2006 saw adjustment, and we began in earnest what we came here to do. For those of you who wonder what we do here besides hang around the porch and collect animals, here is a list of activities that kept us feeling useful in 2006. For those of you who support us in any way, from the US, Canada, or Liberia, include yourself in the “we.” Some of you may have seen a similar list in our Christmas letter. If so, feel free to feel good all over again. Working together, "we..."

* helped facilitate a budding partner relationship between Calvin and Kuyper Colleges with Mother Patern College of Health Sciences working to develop Liberia’s first professional social work program.

* trained through LEAD 90 businesses in three twelve week courses, distributed business loans and saw new jobs created.

* developed and taught 3 new college courses for the upcoming Mother Patern BSW curriculum.

* Worked with the Liberian Ministries of Health and Education, to forward key progress toward improving national mental health standards and service for the future.

* assisted in the creation of community development association in our area— The Foster Town Community Development Association. (FoCDA). Three community workshops were offered by FoCDA, with attendance over a hundred at each. More coming.

* are lending our heads and hands as the community establishes a market. Currently people travel miles to get daily food; donations from Madison members have been used to secure land and start building a structure and tables-- allowing many to shop near home.

* taught and trained in a dozens of workshops, ranging from two hours to two weeks long, offered to hundreds of people in settings throughout Liberia—topics: counseling skills, psychosocial skills, classroom management, phonics, teacher/student and teacher/parent relationships, Reformed theology, alleviating poverty, starting a business, church leadership.

* participated in establishing neighborhood watch groups, in partnership with the local police station.

* are helping facilitate partnerships between 2 local schools and Millbrook Christian and Beaver Dam Christian in Michigan. Letters exchanged, money raised for school improvements.

* providing ongoing monthly support of local orphanage: school scholarships and uniforms plus food money for 37 children.

* raised funds for two new roofs—one on a local church, the other on a local home, and a new pump-head for a neighborhood well.

* established a new community library (our living room) – at least 30 books and games loaned weekly to neighborhood kids.

* are sponsoring and lending our enormous athletic talent to the Eleven Dangerous Dwarves – the local boy’s soccer team.

* have placed hundreds of band-aids placed on cuts, given out thousands of pinches and administered countless “conks” to dozens of little heads.

* distributed scads of clothing, Bibles, books, toys, educational materials, loans, school scholarships, gifts to families for various needs (funerals, sickness, housing, etc.).

We have said it before many times. The Reeds are in Liberia as servants, mostly doing what we can to help others—from the US, Canada, and Liberia—as they work to rebuild this nation. I think of us all as builders and farmers, creating structures for the future, planting crops that produce for many years to come. We are in this together, and we are humbled to be a part of the effort.

May 2007 see more building, more planting, and more fruit.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Blogger is finally up again after a week of not letting us in, so here we are. We try to give you news at least once a week, so if it has been longer than that, it's almost always a technical glitch. Here is our Christmas entry, which has been updated a bit.

We are in a quieting down mode these last few days. LEAD and Mother Patern College are taking a break, school is out for a few weeks, and even though rogue activity is up again, we are responding with a night time neighborhood watch. It seems much quieter than last year. It feels like Liberia is healing.

Monrovia is a crazy town as shoppers flood the street side markets looking for gifts for family and friends. Here, as in America, Christmas is too much about buying and getting. It is tough to watch the pressure Liberians put on each other to “give me my Christmas,” especially with such extreme poverty and unemployment. So the Reeds are avoiding the city at all costs, and happy to live far enough away not to feel the chaos.

Back home, we are taking things in stride. Our struggling generator, a very generous gift from our friends Mary and Ron Van Valkenberg, finally gave up the ghost after fourteen months of suffering the effects of Liberia’s salty humidity and terrible gasoline. Yet even living without electricity for many days during the last month was ok. The evenings were quiet, and the candlelight was nice. The new, much smaller and simpler generator we bought Monday is humming along beautifully. All’s well that ends well.

The living room is decorated with cut-out snowflakes and birthday wishes for Jesus, and we even have a two foot high plastic tree adorning one of our end tables. Christmas day, we’ll have our traditional birthday party for Jesus and enjoy a meal of chicken thighs and legs (we never see chicken breasts here)m mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread dressing, canned green beans and homemade apple and chocolate cream pie.

As we enjoy the breather, enjoy these cheery Christmastime images.

Noah and Trokon building a palm leaf hut. Planning a camp out soon. Getting help from Christmas elves. Why are they white?

Trokon up the plam tree cutting down a ripe bunch of palm nuts. Palm butter and dried fish! Yum! A holiday treat!

Hannah and Andrew. I'm watching him like a hawk.

Time for Christmas cookies-- hold the palm oil.

The next door neighbor pup and the monkey making out under the mistly tow. Look, I know its holly, but these guys use any excuse they can.

The monk and Renita enjoying an elf fly-by.

Christmas morn, sunrise in the Reed home. We caught the elves trying to rip us off.

They say there is a resemblance, but this picture proves otherwise.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ground Breaking Stuff

I mentioned a while ago that FoCDA, our very own community development association, is hard at work to get our neighbors involved in making Foster Town/Thinkers Village a cohesive community. A few months ago they agreed that the neighborhood needed a market, where people could buy and sell food and other general store items. In Liberia, as it is throughout much of Africa, most people have no electricity, no way to refrigerate food. Someone must go to a local market every day for that day's meals. Currently the nearest market to us is miles away and means people with very little money must find it daily to pay for transportation for food.

Now, thanks to to some very active Liberian friends and neighbors at FoCDA, and a few American supporters, a Foster Town Market will soon be a reality. The ground breaking was Friday the 8th, and folks are busily clearing the land and preparing to build the structure.

Foster Town and Thinkers Village friends and neighbors gather for the ground breaking.

Rev Augustine Zar digs into the sand in front of the large field that will become a community market. If all goes as planned, this will make daily life easier for several thousand people living in the area.

Monday, December 04, 2006

What does the President of Liberia, Gender Based Violence, A New Book, HIV-AIDS and a Monkey Have in Common?

UPDATED 12/11/06
They were all a part of a very busy Reed week. On Thursday, the Reeds were invited to attend a Presidential launching of a new effort to combat the significant gender based violence problem in the country. In partnership with several UN agencies, this effort will hopefully be a major step toward bringing peace and justice to the country.
At the launching, the President also announced a new book put together by my dear friends, Grace Boiwu, head of the Mother Patern College Women's Program, and Barbara Brillant, Dean of MPC. Grace and Sr. Barbara both spoke at the event.

On Friday, we all joined MPCHS as it celebrated World AIDS Day. School children from ten or so Catholic schools put on a great show, and the day ended with sports and games. We brought a few neighborhood kids along with us. It was inspiring to see these kids speaking out on the subject. 9 out of 10 kids with AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa.

And the Monkey? She was a major part of our week. On Tuesday, some neighborboys brought a monkey—specifically a “white eyelid” mangabey (Cercocebus fuliginosusto) to us after their uncle delivered her to them from the interior. I had mixed feelings about taking her, but she apparently has been with people for a while and the boys did not want her. She quickly endeared herself to all of us. She is affectionate, responsive and playful. You ought to see her torment Nikki and Pinky.

As I say, I’m feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, the kids and dogs are crazy about her. They love playing with her—although one gets the feeling that actually she is toying with them and they are just trying to keep up. She appears completely in control, happy and adjusted. On the other hand, I have not fully fleshed out my position on the “primates as pets” issue. I’ve done some research and we are figuring out the most resposible course of action for her. We are leaning toward releasing her up country.
So how was your week? Finally, we are able to upload some pics. The internet has been very slow for a week. Here goes:
First stop, the Gender Violence meeting with President Sirleaf. These are the women from the MPCHS women's program, with the staff behind.
The President, sitting next to a UN official and our own Sr. Barbara Brillant.
Two pretty great women trying to rebuild a nation. Present Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Grace Boiwu, head of the women's program and the catalyst behind the book, One Pain Touches All.

Sr. Barbara, ever the opportunist, gets the President to sign some of the books. She'll sell 'em to the highest bidder.

Next day, the Reeds observed World AIDS Day with children from the Catholic Schools. A brass band leads 300 school children through the streets of Matadi, a Monrovian suburb.

The Reeds seated behind the Sisters of Charity (Mother Theresa's order), and the other organizers as the program begins.

Lots of traditional dancing...

...and songs about preventing HIV infection.

...along with some original poetry. All in all a great day.

Now on to the Mangabey. Say hi.

The lil' lady is a load o' laffs.

You haven't lived until you've been groomed by a monkey.

Monday, November 27, 2006

ReedNews Update

Due to deaths, ponderings, and general busy-ness, we have not given you a news update in a month or so. The hot, drier season is upon us which means it is time for some of the government-sponsored road work to begin. We have seen some of these plans, which include resurfacing and widening roads, as well as creating new paved roads in the interior. Have yet to see much around Monrovia, but watch for it daily. More power continues to be restored in Monrovia. Mother Patern College is powered 22 hours a day. Street lights are now extending out of town, inching their way toward us. Here is what else is happening.

Item- Renita has just ended her third twelve-week class on business development for LEAD. More businesses are requesting loans, and the next class is being planned. LEAD is getting to be quite the "Little NGO That Could."

Item- Mid terms are over for my class at MPCHS. Most folks are doing well, but a couple are really struggling. I hate the idea of anybody flunking.

Item- I've been asked to create an all day workshop on behalf of the ministry of health for a bunch of mental health organizations. This will be a report on the work our task force has been doing to establish mental health training standards for Liberia.
Item- The Foster Town Community Development Association is busy working on its next project, and its a big'un. They are working to establish a community market. This would be a huge boon to the Foster Town/Thinkers Village area. Currently people have to travel miles for daily food. This would put all they need within walking distance. The benefit would be to thousands. Thanks to a Madison Square family for the money to secure the land. The community meeting are a thrill to behold. Neighbors that hardly talked before working together to make the community healthier, happier, and more close-knit.
Item- On the Reed home front, our hands are full keeping our car and generator running. In the last month, we have replaced bushings, balljoints and shocks on the Pathfinder, and diodes, a capacitor, and other maintainance on the generator. As I write, the generator is still under repair and the Reeds have been without power for four nights. We are seriously considering buying a smaller backup, thanks to a gift from my big brother, Don and his wife Carolyn.

Item- Some of you read our update from Friday, November 4 of 2005 on the death of our next door neighbor's dog, Survivor. Survivor was hit by a car with ten barely weened pups. The Reeves' gave away all the dogs--including one to us we named Pinky-- except one, which they named Survivor. Six weeks ago, Survivor II gave birth to six pups, and two weeks later, in front of Hannah and Renita, was herself hit and killed buy a car. So now we are trying to give these pups a chance. One has already died. Needless to say, none are named Survivor.

Here are a few current "around the house" photos.

Each morning, after some individual quiet time, we start the day together over coffee. Rarely missed, it is an important time to connect and plan. Noah usually accompanies us. I look at my toes and dream of Michigan.

As we sip and talk, we also watch the birds-- egrets, doves, kingfishers-- and these little guys, weavers. The males are bright yellow with a red eye peering out of a black head. They move like a wall as they devour the rice we toss out for the chickens.

Extremely skiddish, the weavers take off at the slightest movement. We can feel the blast of air from their wings from our chairs on the porch.

Last Saturday, the boys asked us if our yard could be part of their "cleanup campaign." They were attempting to raise money for the new "younger kids" football team. There were about fifteen kids in all.

One of Survivor's pups, Blackie, became very sick because of a worm related problem. We brought him home for some intensive care, but it proved to be too late. Blackie died that night.
Next day, Eastman and the Reed kids buried Blackie. Blackie's owner Trokon was off playing football. As always, death is never far away, so it is taken in stride. As always, only Hannah and Noah shed tears.

On a lighter note, Noah and Yers T. are introducing an exciting new game to the neighborhood. Its called "softball." The kids are loving it. They dig the helmets too. A gift from the Ammons'.

Day is done, and the generator is acting up. Yers Trooly lowering the idle so we get the proper amount of watts. Nobody want to see anything blow up...

... like Noah's head for example. Just before bed, a bit of barbering. The great thing about Noah is his multi-tasking ability. Here, he gets his hair cut while at the same time plays "The Sims."

The all-important family septic tank shot. We're always looking for a nice backdrop.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mother Patern Visits Foster Town

The newly created "Foster Town Community Development Association" is off and running.(Acronym FoCDA, which is also Bassa word meaning "rest." Most of our Foster Town/Thinkers Village neighbors are Bassa.) In three months, they have offered three fine workshops, with over a hundred community folks attending each. The first was on neighborhood security, and was presented by reps from UNMIL and the Liberian National Police. Out of it, a neighborhood watch is being formed. The second workshop was offered by some medical folks from our nearbye hospital, and it was on HIV/AIDS. From that, four community members are being trained to offer more HIV/AIDS support and teaching for Foster Town.

Last Saturday, my pals at Mother Patern came out here to give a three hour workshop on general hygiene and eye care. It was led by Mr. Beyan and some of his senior nursing students. We had a great time, and the jollof rice served after was "too fine." Some of the photos we took follow.

(Technical note: I recently switched to a beta version of Blogger, and it does not let me upload photos the way I used to. Which means I had to learn a new way of uploading and inserting captions again. I think I have it figured out, but for this group of shots, I inserted the captions in the photos. They are not easy to read, but the next group should be much better. Sorry about the snag, folks. Those of you who know me well know how much this kinda thing drives me up the wall.)

Friday, November 17, 2006

What Happens When Counter-Culture Goes Cross-Culture?

I have been struggling with a dilemma that has been increasing ever since I got here. It vexes me. The dilemma has to do with how involved I get in Liberian cultural issues—especially those I think are unhealthy.

On the one hand, as a Christian, I know I am supposed to critique and even challenge the surrounding culture. The great leaders of my faith from Abraham to Moses to the prophets, on to Paul, Augustine, the Desert Fathers, Francis of Assisi, all the way to modern leaders like Teresa of Calcutta or Martin Luther King spent their lives testing, confronting and even defying convention. They lived and died speaking out for culturally unpopular issues like justice, holiness, faith, and self sacrificing love. Jesus Himself blasted those involved with the worldly poisoning of the truth of God.

On the other hand, I am a visitor in a foreign land. Everything I have been taught, told, and believe says to be slow to speak regarding areas of Liberian culture that seem unjust or unloving or in some way wrong to me. Respecting the culture and avoiding ethnocentric reactions are at the core of effective international development work.

So now I have been in Liberia sixteen months. In the beginning, keeping my mouth shut was easy. When I saw something that seemed morally or spiritually suspect, I could avoid speaking up on the basis of “cultural sensitivity.” I liked the arrangement. It kept me from sticking my foot in my mouth and making a fool of myself. It also kept me from getting involved, which is always nice for an underachiever. Lately, I’m getting nudged from several sources—Liberian, American, from outside my head and inside—to speak up more, to get more involved, to “be more prophetic” in my work with Liberians. At Mother Patern College, from the folks of our new Foster Town Community Development Association, from my neighbors, I hear that I have shown the requisite respect for Liberian culture. Now it may be time to challenge certain aspects of it.

It makes me nervous. I enjoyed the honeymoon. What will being a prophetic American Christian in West Africa look like? I do not want to make the mistake of saying too much, of sounding like another American blabbing like he owns the place. But now I can no longer use that concern to justify silence. It is time to be willing to speak, and I am afraid of saying too much or the wrong thing.

Not that there is anything specific on my mind. It is not like I have a sense I am supposed to tell so-and-so that I think he’s being bad, or stand up at some meeting and rail against a particular injustice. I’m just supposed to be open to speak up more. I’m supposed to pay attention, and He will do the nudging at the right moment. And trusting anyone else’s nudging, even His, really makes me nervous.

Anyway, while I ponder my next steps, here a few shots around town.

Friday, November 10, 2006


I’ve been meaning to write an update for a few days now, but things have been a bit busy. And I just can’t seem to get Otiero off my mind. So the update will wait until next time.

Otiero Reeves, formally Samuel Reeves, son of the late Deacon Samuel Reeves, nephew of Pastor Sam Reeves of Providence Baptist Church, came to live next door in June. I was not fond of the nine year old, in part because he was in my space more than usual, trying to get me to buy or give him something, and nine years old or not, I need people to hold back and get to know me a bit before I am interested in acting like pals. He was in love with Hannah from the first week, and in typical boy fashion he showed that love by continually annoying, teasing, and hitting her. He was relentless, and a few times I had to come out of the house to tell him to lay off. He would typically run away and when I had gone, return and start up again.

As the months passed, I noticed Hannah laughing with Otiero more and as he gave me required space, I began the inevitable process of softening up. He began regularly getting books from Renita and hanging out on our porch, reading them. I knew it was just a matter of time before I would begin letting him in my heart a bit.

Just a matter of time.

Last Saturday at around 5:00pm, Otiero’s sister Patience gave him an errand. She needed to return an article of clothing to a friend who lived near the beach and she wanted him to take it to her. Otiero and the friend did not know each other, and likely passed one another on the road. Otiero apparently used the missed opportunity to do some swimming at the local rain-fed lagoon.

At 9:30pm, the Reeds received a knock on our gate from one of the neighborhood boys. Otiero had not returned. This was serious, because after dark in Liberia means everybody is at home. More ominous was the news that his clothes and the clothes he was taking to Patience’s friend, had been found at the edge of the lagoon. I felt sick, because this almost certainly meant something terrible had happened.

I immediately headed to the Oceanside lagoon with our flashlights and about twenty five family friends and neighbors. We debated for a bit about what to do, but when Renita arrived, we both knew we had to at least try to find him. If it had been one of ours, no one could have kept us out of the lagoon. Most of our neighbors are afraid of dark, moonlit water, so only two joined us. The four of us waded through the chest high waters, feeling for signs of a body with our feet, but we knew we did not have enough people, so after twenty minutes, we called a halt to the search.

At sunup Sunday morning, Otiero's father Othello found the body of his son, which had returned to the surface after resting on the sandy bottom all night. On Monday we buried him in a cemetery that lies between his home and the place he died. Children are buried quickly in Liberia.

I have been thinking about Otiero and his last moments. The lagoon varies in depth because of the rains, but usually returns to wading depth quickly. Otiero was an active boy who loved the lagoon. He could not have known that what was a few feet deep last week was now well over his head due to recent rains. The water gets deep quickly; eight feet out is waist deep, but twelve feet out it is five feet deep. In my mind’s eye I see him, a naked little boy rushing out with expectation, finding the water warm but refreshing, happy to be away from older kids telling him what to do. But just ten steps out, an alarm sounds in his head. The water has never been so high before at this spot. He reacts instinctively to stop, but his forward momentum has already taken him over his head. And he is all alone. I imagine his surprise evolving in an instant to shock, then panic, then terror. I imagine after a few frantic seconds coughing and trying to shout at the surface, he disappears. The water settles down immediately and becomes smooth. A bird calls from the bushes. A passer-by notices some sort of clothe and flip-flops on the sand and nothing registers. He enjoys the ocean breeze and moves on.

Later on Sunday, Renita and I were asked to be a part of a "community coroner's panel," a custom that asks a community jury to examine the body and give its observations about the condition of the deceased. It was a sad task. There was no mischievous smile, no hopeful glance. Just the naked body of a little boy. Already gone. I am having difficulty getting around it.

It is interesting to watch his family go through the grieving process - life seems to go on so quickly again, probably because it has to. Maybe it is because tragedy is more a part of normal life here. Drowning happens a lot. There were two in our area last weekend. The children who lived and slept with Otiero seem to have moved on. By the next day they were laughing and playing like normal. A week later, nobody says his name. Already gone.

As a Christian I do not grieve for Otiero as those who have no hope. Deacon Reeves probably greeted his grandson upon his arrival and then introduced him to Jesus. The soul that we named Otiero is fine. But he is gone from this place, and already passing from thought, soon to pass from memory, except for a handful. I think about how long it was taking for me to let him in, and that he never quite got there. I wonder who the next one will be, and will I have let him in by then?

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Lil' Visit from Some Homeys

So the Tigers lost. Enough said about that.

We had the opportunity assist in hosting a group from the Pebbles and Stones ministry, which includes three friends from Madison Square Church—our home base. Mary Springer, Cheri and son Jeffery Niemeier, along with P&S founder Kathleen Trock, came to do some children’s ministry workshops for Providence Baptist Church. While here they visited our neighborhood and local schools and orphanages. Later in the week, we all went up north past Kakata (about and hour and a half on decent roads, then off road a bit) to see one of LEAD’s businesses, a new plantain/banana plantation. Zhaye and Emmanuel Garpue were our Liberian hosts. Emmanuel runs a church in Kakata and a taxi business in Monrovia, while Zhaye teaches in Monrovia. They hope the Kakata business will provide them with enough income to focus on one sustaining activity.

Here are a few images from the West African bush.

This part of visit begins just north of Kakata, with Emmanuel showing Renita, Jeffery, Cheri, Katleen and Mary the church. Zhaye is on the right.

Always, there are spectators.

After the church visit, on their way to the plantation, Cheri Niemeier, Kathleen Trock and Renita Reed.

Off road now, driving through the bush. Whenever possible, let somebody else lead on these trails. This is the Providence Baptist Church car. Note the clouds ahead. We met up with those rains just as we arrived at the plantain/banana field.

The jeeps can go no further, so we hoof it for the last few hundred yards. Jeffery leads his mom and the rest through the undergrowth.

Arriving at the banana field, Jeffery finds a lovely grasshopper he must share with the ladies.