Monday, December 31, 2007

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Weather: Hot and Humid. Daytime temps in the mid 90s, lows in the mid 70s. Light variable breezes. No precipitation. Less than one tenth of an inch of rain since December 1.

So 2007 is history, and 2008 is upon us. The year promises to be eventful for this country in transition. Year end is the right time to look over our shoulders at what has been accomplished through the efforts of a few of us . We know what we’ve done is small for this nation of three million, but there are thousands joining in to rebuild Liberia. So we feel good about that small part we’ve played. For those who might wonder what we were up to on ’07, here is a partial list.

  • Helped develop and launch the first academic program to train professional social workers to support individuals, families and communities get back on track in a postwar environment through the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences. 25 first year students.
  • Saw LEAD Inc. expand to two more counties; Liberian staff increased from one to seven. Trained more LEAD businesses, bringing the total to 233 businesses with 71 business loans.
  • Working with the fledgling Foster Town Association for Community Transformation (FACT) we constructed a major community market place where a hundred women can come and sell food, clothing, and other products-- plus have a central place to simply connect.
  • Conducted many workshops, developed and taught another college course.
  • Made important recommendations to the Liberian Government and key players regarding mental health training standards; developed and presented a related national workshop.
  • Continued our partner relationship between Calvin College, Kuyper College and Mother Patern College of Health Sciences.
  • Provided 22 school children with full tuition scholarships for the entire year through your gifts to our community fund.
  • Underwrote eight Foster Town business start-ups (apart from LEAD) through your gifts to our community fund.
  • Facilitated new partnerships between
    o LEAD and the World Food Program to work with women who are HIV/AIDS positive in creating self-sustainability through business.
    o LEAD and the International Labour Organization for the creation of 40 new trash removal businesses, a much needed utility in Monrovia.
    o Active Kids Canada and five Liberian schools for building libraries, and the shipment of thousands of textbooks and reading books—arriving January 2008.
    o LifeWater and FACT for the construction of four new wells in the Foster Town area.

So it’s been a good year. What does 2008 look like? Well, we will continue our work with LEAD, Mother Patern College, and the Foster Town community. Our volunteer agreement with CRWRC ServiceLink ends June 2008, although we’d like to continue at least into the fall. We have not the first clue as to what follows our work in this country, but since our hands are full while we are here, I guess we’ll find out when we are supposed to about life after Liberia. When we know, you’ll know.

Until then, stay tuned, hang on, enjoy the ride—and have a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Note: internet is acting up, so no pictures. Next week, we’ll introduce you to another of Liberia’s indigenous creatures: the Two Spotted African Palm Civet! She’s a real sweetheart.

Monday, December 24, 2007


In this season of Advent, anticipation, and delight

In this season of hurry, jostling, and anxiety

In this season of remembering--

With tears of sadness and joy

In this season of hope;

The Reeds wish you, our many friends,

* near and far away *

All the warmth and goodness of this most special day.

Bob, Renita, Hannah & Noah

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Working Birthday

Weather: Hot and Hazy most days, with daytime his in the mid 90sF and nighttime lows in the upper 70sF. Light, variable breezes through the day. Moderate humidity. No rain in two weeks.

Renita sees another birthday today, and the love of my life is spending it in Monrovia starting another three-day business workshop with women in the WFP’s HIV program. In the midst of the workshop, she needs to run off and attend a meeting with a large US NGO on behalf of LEAD. Then back to the workshop, run a few errands, and maybe get home by six. (She left at 7:30am) Meantime, I’m taking the day off to take over teaching duties, and make sure the birthday cake gets baked.

Last week, in addition to preparing for the new Gbarnga office, Renita also attended two graduation ceremonies as LEAD completed its sixth and seventh classes, these in Monrovia and Buchanan. To date LEAD has trained 233 businesses, offered 7 twelve week courses which impacted 755 jobs. She reports that 59 new jobs have been created. LEAD has approved 71 business loans and over $40,000 US dollars have been distributed, with a 92% repayment rate.

It has always been the case that Renita works hard and smart. Where ever she goes, she makes things happen. Projects get completed, contacts get made, employees get trained and supported, proposals get written, all while at the same time providing support to the local community and managing things around home. She is in an African culture, yet even here, as in the States, people respond to her, look to her, follow her. She is respected because she delivers results. Renita remains focused, regardless of how slowly everybody else seems to moving around her. She never quits, rarely lets up. She is forever imagining, planning, preparing, or completing. I do not know anyone who applies so much energy to doing a job right.

And yet, she is almost completely unsupervised. She answers to almost no one. Nobody monitors her, and she remains fanatically scrupulous. No one watches her clock, yet she shows up early and leaves late. She is a volunteer, gets paid nothing, yet fights to make sure LEAD continues to grow, that the staff gets paid fairly, and that every dime is accounted for.

There really is only one reason that anyone would work this hard. People never put out this kind of energy or generate this level of productivity unless they care about something. Ambitious people are caring people, passionate people. For some, the passion is for recognition, for others it is status, or money or influence. And the level of energy is proportional to the amount of passion. Care-- or passion-- can exist for anything and can drive us anywhere. For Renita, it is simple and obvious: she loves God. She loves seeing righteousness and justice prevail, she cares about His people, and she is passionate about pleasing him. She works because she loves. She works for Him.

Today, her birthday, is like any other for her. She’s got stuff to do.

Happy Birthday, my love. See you soon. The cake is waiting.

Just last week, two graduations.

Today, the birthday girl is in Monrovia all day in meetings and leading the WFP-LEAD workshop.

Meanwhile, the kids bake a cake and decorate the house (their faces too).

With one of a dozen "MOM"s hanging, the family awaits her return, cake in hand.

Monday, December 10, 2007

LEAD Spreads Out: 3 Counties Down, 12 to Go

By now most of you know that Renita's primary work in Liberia is to support and act as consultant and acting director for LEAD, inc. LEAD stands for Liberian Entrepreneurial and Asset Development, and offers a 36 hour business management course as well as a matching loan program to help small to medium sized business grow. Starting off in the capital, Monrovia, the plan is to become national, with branch offices addressing the needs in each of Liberia’s 15 counties. LEAD continues to garner attention as the "little NGO that could" from big organizations like the UN, the World Food Programme and the Liberian government. More to the point, LEAD has offered substantive business training to hundreds of Liberians, loaned tens of thousands of dollars to strengthen businesses and create new jobs.

In February 2007, LEAD opened a satellite office to the southeast, in the Grand Bassa County seat of Buchanan. The Buchanan branch is operating well, offering the same training and loans that the Monrovia office provides.

Now, Renita and the LEAD team is traveling back and forth to the Northeast, to the Bong County capital of Gbarnga (Bang-ga). Working closely with Liberian Senator Franklin Saikor, LEAD has secured an office and is in the process of hiring staff.

Getting oriented-- LEAD has offices in Monrovia and Buchanan-- Gbarnga (red arrow) is next.

The soon-to-be Gbarnga LEAD office. Not much too look at, but dig that ga-roovy rustique "tow truck" lawn ornament. Kewl!

Senator Saikor, lending his support to the efforts.

Meeting witha women's group in Gbarnga-- very excited about LEAD coming.

Weather: Hot and dry, with moderate levels of humidity. Little night time breezes, with light and variable easterly winds throughout the day. No rain in a week.

Monday, December 03, 2007

ReedsNews Update: December Edition

Weather: Sunday night saw the most rain seen in a month. A thunderstorm brought first two hours of very heavy rain followed b y eight hours of light rain. About four inches of rain total. Otherwise hazy, hot and humid most days. Last year, we received virtually no rain from November 20 until March, so the occasional rain may indicate a wetter dry season. But of course, I have no idea. Now, some news:

Item: The Christmas season is here, and that means mostly two things: frantic, pressured shopping and rogues breaking into more homes looking for holiday booty. Vera, who helps us with laundry and weekday dinners, had some guys break her door in the early morning hours Friday. She called out and the rogues fled without taking anything.

Item: Renita’s left arm is in a sling and may stay that way for some time. She has what some people call “tennis elbow,” or an inflammation of the tendons around her elbow. Being left-handed, this has really cramped her style, and not being able to help as much is frustrating for her. But she’s sometimes in lot of pain, so she’s taking it seriously.

Item: We had an uninvited visitor Friday, a four foot long black cobra found its way into our yard and casually made its way across our lawn. Actually, there are three venomous black snakes that inhabit Liberia, the black mamba, the black spitting cobra, and the black tree cobra. Vera and Noah both thought they saw a hood, so this is why we thought cobra. The spitters are more likely to be in area, so that's the one we think it was. These are some of the deadliest snakes in the world, so naturally everyone became very excited. I was at a conference, so I could not join in the adventure. Apparently, there was enough human activity that the snake decided to leave the way it came. So just as some neighbors showed up with their cutlasses—all snakes are killed here on sight—the snake escaped. We discovered how it got in and plugged the hole in our wall with cement.

Item: The conference I attended while the cobra was in our yard was hosted by the World Health Organization. It was on substance abuse in Liberia. As I already suspected, substance abuse is at near epidemic levels, with both alcohol and marijuana at the top of the list. Both are very cheap here—a shot of strong liquor or a marijuana cigarette cost about ten US cents—and both are readily available.

Item: “O’ Henrietta, we hardly knew ye… but you were delicious!” As planned, we bid farewell to the pig our friends in Kakata gave us in the spring. Killing her was unpleasant but I felt an obligation to be there with her, so I helped hold her down while the deed was done. We invited many of our neighborhood friends for the pork roast the next day, and Henrietta supplied full bellies to about fifty folks. None of her was wasted except her hair, and Renita had me save the brain, heart and an eyeball to be dissected for science class the day after the festivities.

Renita, arm in sling. She has a rubber ball wrapped in the ace bandage that covers her forearm and elbow. This supplies additional support and counter pressure, which eases the pain.
The black spitting cobra, likely the type in our yard. Naja nigricollis woodi. Beautiful creature.

Now on to Henrietta. This was last Wednesday, as Rev Zar, Sam Befelon, Bernard the Butcher and I prepare an alarmed Henrietta for dispatch.

After the deed, Henrietta is cleaned of all hair, washed, then her innards are removed. Rev Zar was thrilled to take all the innards home for a "fine pepper soup" for his very large family.

After a night in our refrigerator, we roast her on a home made cooker. Here, after roasting for four hours, we are turning her over. She got a bit burned at first, but just on the surface.

Alex, secretary of FACT, cuts off some meat as some of the fifty guests that came that day enjoy Henrietta.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Debt Relief

Weather: The dry season is here. Days are hot and hazy, with little wind and high temps, nights are often still with temps in the upper 70's. Less than one inch of rain in the last week.
Last week, the international Monetary Fund cancelled Liberia’s 800 million dollar debt to the organization. The IMF decision was a huge victory for the Sirleaf-Johnson administration, supported actively by the ONE campaign and US President Bush. Earlier this year Liberia’s three largest national creditor nations, China, Germany and the US, cancelled Liberia’s debts to their respective nations.

Debt cancellation is a controversial action, as it ought to be. Naturally, nations in debt have a responsibility to repay funds borrowed. But in the case of the Liberian debt, who really is responsible for it? As Josh Peck of stated, “On April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe staged a military-coup in Liberia, killing the president in his home and bringing an end to the first African republic. During his decade of brutal dictatorial rule, Doe borrowed billions of dollars from international creditors to consolidate his power. Eventually, his regime collapsed into a bloody civil war that lasted 14 years and claimed the lives of 1 in 12 Liberians.But now Liberia has rebounded. There is peace, and
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, once a political prisoner during Doe's regime, has been elected as the first female head of state on the African continent. Sadly the Liberian people are still saddled with $4.5 billion of Doe's debt.”

For over twenty-five years, Liberia was ruled by bad guys and their henchmen. Power was stolen through assassination and maintained by brutal intimidation tactics. The Liberian loans were sought by ruthless criminals who ended up using the money for their own corrupt purposes or just wasting it through mismanagement. The men who secured these loans did not act in the interests of Liberia, and the money was not spent on Liberia. Yet the loan requests were granted. Incredibly, these loans were requested and granted in the midst of unprecedented Liberian instability. IMF and the other lending nations bear responsibility for approving bad loans that never made it to the intended beneficiaries, and it is just that they not require the people of Liberia bear the burden for repaying them.

So today, most of Liberia’s crippling debt burden is lifted. It appears the nations may be trying to do right by the Liberian people. Today, thanks to an honest and tenacious leader at its helm of state, Liberia is doing business with the world in a way that may right some of the past wrongs, and may actually impact the average Liberian. The debt relief removes the burden of crushing interest payments, and paves the way for smaller, wiser loans to be approved for the continued rebuilding of Liberia. We do not delude ourselves in thinking some money will not be eaten by some dishonest politician or contractor. But for the first time in a long time, Liberia is getting better. For the first time in almost two decades, the economy is improving. Roads are being rebuilt. Trash is being removed. The lights are coming on. For the first time in a quarter century, ordinary Liberians are beginning to believe they matter in the scheme of things.

It’s a good sign.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Not Always Easy-o

Weather: Two words-- Hot and humid. The temps are in the mid 90s during the day with stifling, water-heavy air and little wind until late afternoon. Evenings are cooler with a refreshing wind off the ocean. Nightime temps in the lower 80s dropping to the mid 70s by early morning.

Several happenings this week kept us occupied. Renita went up to Ganta as I mentioned, and on the way back the fan belt broke in the middle of nowhere. The LEAD Liberian staff worked the problem with Renita, and after hitching a ride to the nearest town and retrieving a new belt and a mechanic, she got it fixed (mechanic emergency roadside repair fee: $7.00)

Some of our closest friends experienced a two-week string of five attempts by rogues to steal stuff. The last attempt occurred three nights ago, and it was the most serious. The bad guys actually got into our friends’ house and held a machete to a guest's throat. When confronted by our enraged friend—a father of four—the rogues attacked him by slashing his face with the machete. Undeterred, he chased them out of the house before being taken to the Mercy Ship hospital for stitches. Happily by Sunday, the rogues were caught and hopefully our friends can sleep at night. As our Liberian friends say, "It not easy-o!"

The status of the Calvin-Kuyper-Mother Patern College partnership is as follows: both US schools continue to show strong interest and a commitment to what is happening here with the Bachelor of Social Work program. We are waiting to see if a grant request will be approved, but we continue to plan and for another visit from both schools by January of the academic year 2008-2009. For the January visit, the plan has them actually teaching courses and offering technical support to the BSW staff at MPCHS.

Road work has started on the main drag into Monrovia, amen. The workers are completely tearing the old road out and starting from scratch. They are doing it piece by piece, one section at a time so motorists can easily detour around on the side roads. It only took me a half hour to get into work this morning.

I got hit with yet another bout of dysentery over the weekend. This is the fourth or fifth time for me. Its very unpleasant for a day or so, but once you figure out what it is, its rapidly treated with antibiotics.

The deathwatch for Henrietta the Hog continues. She's a dead pig oinking with an execution date of November 28. That's the day before former President Tubman’s birthday, which is a big holiday here. We are preparing ourselves for the upcoming community feast. Henrietta now weighs maybe a hundred seventy five pounds, and she requires a lot of food and water. So while killing and butchering her is not something I’m looking forward to, it needs to be done. It’s why she was given to us. And I am definitely looking forward to eating the beast, that much is certain. Let her slow cook over coals for eight hours, then call in the neighbors. Slather on some barbeque sauce with some jollof rice and chicken wings on the side— man, I’m licking my chops already.

On the way to Ganta, a hundred fifty miles northest of Monrovia. The roads were pretty good and Renita and the LEAD team made it in five hours.

Even up here, clearing trees to make way for road work. A good sign.

Cattle coming back to Liberia. A good sign.


On the way back, a broken fan belt between Gbarnga and Kakata means a three and a half hour delay. Could've been worse.

By the side of the road where the Cruiser waits for repairs, a country rice field. On the platform a boy swings a long whipping pole to frighten the birds. That was all he did for the time the LEAD folks were there. Makes for a long day.

Back home, a typical evening outside-- puzzle for Hannah, dog teasing for Noah, feet up for Renita, and getting it on film for Yers Trooly.

One last shot-- more roadwork, this time in the city. Its going to be a long dry season for drivers once all the work commences.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

More “Life in Liberia” Factoids

Weather: Strong storms Monday night dumped a couple inches of rain in an hour. Tuesday mosly cloudy and very humid with dew points in the upper 70's. Almost no breeze.

Well, Renita is up visiting the towns of Gbarnga (pronouced BANG-ga) and Ganta today (Tuesday the 13th) doing some advance work for LEAD. Ganta is on the Guinea border and is about five hours away on ok roads. She should be back by 7:00pm tonight-- 2:00pm EST.

Meanwhile, I'm home with Hannah and Noah having some nice chats. I told them I did not know what to write today, so they suggested a few more of our ever increasing list of items that we find interesting about this place we call home. I included a couple Monrovia pictures.

- Monrovia has about ten daily newspapers. Most costs about 35 cents. (20 Liberian dollars)

- Night time temperatures in our house rarely fall below 78 degrees Fahrenheit. At 79F, we start shivering and reach for our blankets.

- If you are sending your child to a Liberian school, you may be asked to supply the desk, which the school will keep. You must also supply toilet paper.

- Mosquitoes in Liberia are three times smaller than Michigan mosquitoes. One rarely feels the bite.

- If a schoolboy’s hair is over a quarter inch long, he is sent home, sometimes with a chunk of hair shaved out.

- If you need to go to a hospital, be prepared to pay a deposit before treatment and if admitted bring toilet paper, soap, towels, plates, and usually food.

- A 55 gallon steel drum used for burning trash in our yard falls apart from rust after five months; by eight months it will have completely disintegrated without a trace.

- Price of a typical Liberian meal (Rice, greens, meat or fish, oil) for four: About $2.00

- Price of a typical American meal (Spaghetti with meat sauce, garlic toast) for four: About $12.00

- When a mouse dies in our house, Renita always smells it first. Bob always gets to dispose of it.

- A favorite treat of Liberian children is “putuh,” a light gray smoky flavored chunk of dried mud.

- DVDs containing up to 16 movies sell for $5.00 apiece in downtown Monrovia. The movies are bootlegged. The worst are simply videos of the movie taken off the theatre screen, so you can see silhouettes of patrons getting up and sitting down.

- The soil quality of Liberia, as in much of Africa, is classified by experts as “poor” or “very poor.” Plants grow here because of the enormous availability of water and the rapid decomposition of everything dead.

- Large pineapples cost a dollar out of town, up to $8.00 in town.

- Foster Town Market ladies love to pray, and they love to dance.

- If you need to go to jail, your friends or relatives must feed you. And provide toilet paper.

The view from Monrovia across the Mesurado past Powder Island to Bushrod Island and the port in the distance. Looking NE.

Traversing the only operable bridge linking Bushrod Island/Freeport with Monrovia. Traveling North, looking West.

Monday, November 05, 2007

ReedNews Update- November Edition

Weather—Warmer and very humid, with daytime temps in the upper 80’sF, mid 70’sF during the night. Rain almost every night, sometimes heavy, but little or no rain during daylight hours. Hazy, partly cloudy skies. Light breezes, mostly from the East.
UPDATED Friday November 9
Time continues its inexorable march to wherever it is going, and as it marches, some things change and some things stay the same. We’re here to tell you which is which in our corner of Liberia, West Africa.

--Changes: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was in the US last week getting a Medal of Freedom from pal George W. This is further evidence of Sirleaf’s standing around the world, but back home we continue to wait for the oft promised improvement to water, power, transportation and health infrastructure. We are reading in the papers that major demolition of roadside houses, followed by major road construction will begin any day now. Meanwhile, the potholes are getting deeper. Interestingly, the one thing that has already been completed refurbished is the 50,000 seat Samuel K. Doe football stadium.

--Changes: The tomatoes have arrived! Monrovia is stocked again with Romas, although we are still getting gouged a bit—about three small Romas for over a US dollar and a half. My sandwiches are whole again.

--Changes: Next door, Patience, the 18 year old granddaughter of the late Deacon Reeves, delivered a baby girl. Renita was closely involved in the labor and delivery process, and has since been getting her “baby fix” by stealing the lil’ dumpling for hours on end. The baby’s name is… Renita. This is the fourth kid that has been named for my dear wife, while I on the other hand, am batting zero in the “named after me” department. Yes I’m jealous. I keep telling myself it’s because her name is so unusual and mine is so common. But the truth is my wife is a honkin’ saint, and me, well, I’m something else. She, they love. Me, they laugh at.

--Changes: The Foster Town Market is accepting applications for a superintendant. The truth is the market has been suffering under the effects of “management by committee,” and needs a paid point person to do the job. In addition, there remains a small group of very disruptive women who are doing what they can to sand bag the whole operation. They never accepted the fact that they were not placed in charge to run the operation from the beginning, and are now actively engaging traditional magic women to cast curses on everybody involved. It’s a real spiritual battle, but the faithful women of the market are holding prayer vigils and some of the disruptive ladies have actually repented and begged forgiveness. It’s going to be all right.

--Changes: The little piggy we received from the Kataka farm in the spring is now a hundred fifty pound hog and growing. We are planning a community pig roast the end of the month. This of course means the hog will get killed and butchered right here. Many of our Liberian friends are clamoring to do the deed. We’ll let you know what happens.

--Changes: Speaking of the Kakata farm, we took a trip last Saturday to see how the rice planted over the last few months is doing. (See April 2007 Archives, "Kakata" post for a "before" view.) The farm, co-owned by our friend and local pastor Augustine Zar, is one of the places some of you are supporting through your contributions our “community development fund.” Because of these gifts and the hard work of this large extended family, they will not only have food to sustain themselves, but they are employing a number of farm hands and they will be providing rice, eggplant, pepper and cassava to local markets. On the path to the fields, we passed about arm's length from a four foot long cobra in the bushes, about chest high. It slithered off before the boys could get to it with their machetes.

--Same: Nikki, our two year old female mutt turned actress, was not pregnant. We think the introduction of a male dog into the yard got her hormonal juices flowing. She produced milk for two weeks and actually appeared to be growing. Noah, a hopeful believer to the last, finally admitted the truth the rest of us had accepted when he realized we were three weeks past the gestation period for a dog. We believe she will become “available” sometime after the new year, and we’ll see what Max and she can produce together.

--Same: The humidity is wrecking more things (dvd player, padlocks), and I’m dripping.

On a trip through the city before heading out to the Kakata farm. Monrovia's main road by the end of the rainy season. We keep our fingers crossed for the promised rebuilding.

Our way along the path to the rice. This was taken just after our encounter with the cobra; you can see how easily the creatures can find places to hide.

We break out of the brush and we get a panorama of the rice fields.

Renita and Rev Zar discussing the progress and process of farming rice. The rice n the far left is ready for harvest.

Yers Trooly Grokking the Groovy Glory of Green.

This is what happens when we leave for the farm. "Are they gone? Can we come in now?"

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Impossible Task of Liberian Counselors

Weather: Humid, with nightime rains. Occasionally heavy, with local flooding. Daytimes are mostly partly cloudy, humid with little rain. Temps in the upper 80s during the day, the upper 70s at night. Light and variable breezes, mostly from the East.

I tend to gush when I talk about Liberians engaged in providing psychosocial support to fellow Liberians. Working in the minds and souls of people is the type of work I’ve been doing for twenty five years, so I know something about how difficult it is. For Liberians engaged in counseling their countrymen and women, the work needing to be done is usually incredibly challenging, and sometimes cannot be done at all.

I am not one given to overstatement or hyperbole, but it is difficult to discuss Liberia without sounding like I am exaggerating. The plain facts sound like overstatement. Fourteen years of civil war. 20,000 child fighters. One in ten dead, one in three displaced. Tens of thousands raped. Thousands tortured. A failed state. Education, transportation, and health Infrastructure destroyed. Rampant poverty and crime. Almost every Liberian above the age of fifteen has a story to tell of terror and victimization.

The facts regarding the psychosocial response to the Liberian Crisis sound equally melodramatic. The typical Liberian counselor has had little or no professional training. International NGOs like the UNICEF or USAID have provided some help, but their training workshops last at most a few months and offer the most rudimentary and fundamental counseling principles and techniques. Most of the time, ongoing support and supervision is not included in the training package. Follow up is rare.

Many professional counselors, including myself, have argued that the majority of counselors working in this country are not qualified for the task. We have argued that most Liberians in this field should not be providing counseling at all, let alone working with people suffering the effects of severe trauma. Many professionals have suggested some of these counselors are doing more harm than good. They are probably right.

However these arguments are moot. Very few qualified mental health professionals—and particularly the vocal critics— seem to have any alternatives to offer, and fewer still are in Liberia themselves doing any work. The people who are here doing the work are the “unqualified Liberians.”

It is because of these plain facts that I find myself in awe of the work Liberian counselors are doing. These are men and women with inadequate support and training, getting paid next to nothing, in the field listening to everyday stories from fellow Liberians— including many stories that would make most of us ill. Some do not know their limits, some offer bad advice, some make it worse. But they are all there-- in the midst of the sadness and confusion and loss and horror of their Liberian countrymen-- because no one else is, and somebody has to do something. They stand in the gap in order to help heal others—often an impossible task given the damage they face and the limitations of their training—in part because no one else will. Humanitarian observers and mental health professionals owe Liberian counselors more than criticism for being unqualified, we owe them more than disdain for sometimes working beyond their skill level.

At Mother Patern College, we are the first to offer a professional training program that will provide counselors with more tools than they have ever had to address the colossal psychosocial needs of Liberia. But we will only be graduating a couple dozen Social Workers every year, and that not until 2011.

In the meantime the best we can do, the best I can do, is to work as close as I can to as many counselors as I can to provide support, ongoing training and supervision as they work with their overwhelming case load. In the meantime, we continue to try to build the skills of those standing in the gap.

For the past two weeks, I offered a fifty hour seminar to eleven Liberians who every day hear the stories, who every day sit with people and offer hope. They were from several organizations—a health and development group for women, an HIV-AIDS program, a women’s legal advocate, a counseling agency, the Catholic Church. It was a privilege and a learning experience for me as well, and a lot of fun to boot. I hope we can continue to work together. After all, the task is impossible, and really, none of us are qualified to do it by ourselves. Impossible tasks ought to be shared. As always, you’re invited to join in the fun.

Yers Trooly in front of some Liberian Heroes as we open another workshop day.

Many exercises. Here, we sit back to back to see if we can get the message of our partner without using non verbal cues.

Some face to face practical counseling exercises.

Counseling is not something you can learn from lecture. You have to do it. Sister Thava, on the left, practices counseling Wannie Mae.
The last day-- class picture time. Ten Liberians, one Sri Lankan, and a privileged facilitator from Michigan, USA.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tomato Jonesin’

I’ve been dyin’ over here. Tomatoes, man. I got it bad. And there are none in the city. You got that? A city of over a million, and its out of tomatoes. None in any of the large Western style super markets, none in the local Liberian open air markets, none on the street. And hey, I need tomatoes. They are necessary for my sense of culinary wholeness.

See, I’m a sandwich guy. I love them. Easy to make, sandwiches are a complete and balanced meal in one hand. You got your grains in the bread, you got your meat for protein, you got your dairy with cheese, and you got your vegetables—onions or cucumber maybe. But what is a sandwich without a cool slice o’ tomato? It’s a honkin’ disappointment, that’s what it is, a letdown. A sandwich without tomato is a promise unfulfilled, a dream unrealized. And in Liberia, a sandwich made right—with tomato—tastes like home to me.

Ok, so for almost two months, the Capital city of Liberia has been sans tomato. Tomatoes do not grow well here, so they have to be shipped in. Usually whoever does the shipping keeps the city stocked with a steady supply. It’s the same for all Western produce. Apples, pears, carrots, good onions all get shipped in, so when they are gone, they’re gone for everybody all at once. Some produce, like apples and tomatoes, are more abundant than others. We see good lettuce maybe twice a year. Plums the same. I can’t remember ever seeing a peach. But right now, Monrovia seems out of everything.

We’ve seen two or three week dry spells before for but this is ridiculous. Until today, I hadn’t seen a tomato since early September. And I’ve been looking. In fact for over a week I’ve been driving in every day because I’m conducting this two week seminar for Liberia’s counselors (which I’ll tell you about later.) Not only that, but because the government is working on the pothole-filled roads in town, it takes me an hour and a half to drive the twelve miles. So I get a long look at all the markets along the way.

Today I got lucky. Driving in, as I broke through a traffic jam, I glanced to my right at a little produce stand we often visit. Like everywhere else, the produce was green or yellow: grapefruit, pineapples, bananas, papayas, or butter pears (avocado). Same old thing. And then I saw a hint of red in a box. I thought: “Is it? Could it be? It is!” It was a box of tomatoes. But I couldn’t stop. Traffic was too heavy and I was already past. I felt panic. “Where did they get them? Why do none of the other markets have them? The only tomatoes in town, and I just passed them! How long can they possibly last?” During our lunch break, I needed to rush to the bank which took me back past the same stand. Again I was unable to stop because I had to get back to the workshop. The tomatoes were still there, but the box was half empty. Other tomato junkies were beating me to the goods. Probably some were hogging more than their fair share. Not good.

By the time the workshop ended for the day, I knew only one purpose. After answering a few post workshop questions from the participants, I excused myself and bolted to the Cruiser. The traffic was a bit lighter, although the potholes were just as treacherous. After a few jolting minutes, I could make out the market. And even from down the road, I could still see the glorious red glint of ripe Romas beckoning me hither. I pulled into the parking area, jumped out of the Cruiser, and there she was: the Tomato Lady. She was charging premium prices for her stash, but in my state, I would have given her my wallet. I bought nine Romas for $5.00, and I should have bought more. I know I may not see them again for a while.

This afternoon, I had an egg salad and tomato sandwich. Later, I’ll snack on a cheese, potato green and tomato—or maybe just tomato and mayo. For breakfast, maybe a grilled cheese and salami sandwich—with tomato. The Romas might make it to Tuesday night, but they might not. Until then, I’m good.

I’ll worry about Wednesday Wednesday.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Slip Slidin' Past Bong Mines

Weather: Very heavy rains the past few days, with over a foot since Thursday. Some strong storms. Mostly cloudy skies in the morning, clearing to partly cloudy by afternoon. Dew points in the upper 70’s. Hi Temps in the mid 80’s, lo temps in the mid 70’s. Variable and shifting breezes.

After some discussion, we decided Renita would try the trip to a banana and corn farm past the Bong Mines area with the LEAD staff, and that I would mind the fort back home. I originally thought I'd drive but I think this was in part due to some cave man part of me that thought maybe "I oughta take the wheel, honey." We both decided to let that go.

LEAD is looking at some farms for investment opportunities. The area where this farm is lies roughly sixty miles north of Monrovia. We were told the roads were good. Listening ‘twas a mistake that shan't be repeated.

It took Renita over five hours over terrible-- and intimidating--roads to make it there, and of course five hours to get back. The Land Cruiser got stuck briefly four times, and she was exhausted by the time she made it to her family that night, but she proved what a great bush driver she is. Here is what it looked like last Thursday, although the pictures fail to capture the extent of the treachery of these roads.

On the way out-- even the big fellas fall victim to the deep muck.

The roads are deceptive. The mud is part clay, and very sticky and slippery. Another semi "heech."
This was once a vital iron ore mining town.
Off the big bad road, now onto the two track bad road.

In some places, the forest almost swallows the road.

Here, Renita got stuck for a few minutes. We're still trying to figure out wha' happened.

The Team finally made it to the farm. Consulting with the folks tending the plantains.

For a few Liberians, a Field of Dreams.

On the way back, the LEAD guys attempt to offer muck-avoidance counseling.

It didn't work. Renita "heesh da jee' on da stum'." Some body damage, but after a half hour, some friends and a machete (here called a cutlass), she was back in business.
Hurry lady! It's gettin' dark, and this road ain't any nicer at night!