Saturday, September 22, 2007

The East Wind: Harbinger of All Things Dry

Weather: After about eight inches of rain this week, the wind did something it has not done since June—it shifted from West or SW to the East. It brought us at almost two glorious days of bright sunlight in cloudless skies— all day yesterday and today (Saturday) until about 3:00pm. This is rare in Liberia. There are less than ten really cloudless days all year. Even in the dry season months, the sky is almost always hazy with humidity and partly cloudy. So to have this in September of all months is great. Hi Temps upper 80’s, Lows upper 70’s. Afternoon rain Saturday, about one half inch.

Renita is performing quite the juggling act. For LEAD she is managing two new contracts—the World Food Program’s Women with HIV microfinance project, the International Labour Organization Waste Management project, two new regular LEAD 12 week classes of 35 businesses each (one in Buchanan, one in Monrovia), keeping track of 60 loans from LEAD grads, and preparing for a new agricultural partnership—along with the Grand Rapids based Nehemiah Liberia Group-- in order to generate long term income and sustainability for LEAD. This is in addition of course to home schooling three days a week and the community development activity with FACT.

The FACT market continues to grow. We are witnessing more women selling diverse wares, a new sign board, an administrative office, and a good board running the operation. The Reeds shop there for five out of seven main meals.

“Reed Drive” is almost finished, and we’ve got a problem. If you look at last week’s pictures, you can see the gate is covered over top with blocks. The clearance is low--exactly six feet. Our Nissan Pathfinder only needs 5’8”, and most cars need less, so we thought we’d be fine. Oh how foolish! We are just about to purchase another vehicle to replace the beaten up Nissan. The new used vehicle is a 2000 Toyota Land Cruiser. It requires a clearance of 6’5”. It don’t fit, man! So, we are today busting out the overhang, welding extensions onto the gate, and putting razor wire on top. I’ll go snag a picture for you.

Here are some of the week’s pics.

The new LEAD office in Buchanan. Two counties down, thirteen to go!

Renita sharing toothy tid-bits with some of the LEAD staff.

A couple new LEAD businesses. Now does this look like a Father & Son business or what?

The mini-mart, Liberian style.
The other day it rained crazy all day...
... Hannah was a bit bored...
... Noah went slip-slidin' away... at 7:00am!

This mornin', the day broke bright and clear. Henrietta was awaitin' for her breakfast slop.
Down at the market, the new sign is up-- the small print says Foster Town Association for Community Transformation-- Where Transformation is a Matter of FACT" Catchy, huh? All mine.
No, Enoch does not have some tropical wasting disease-- this is after his red clay fight with Trokon. He lost. I told ya-- he looks like "The Thing, Jr."
The new new gate. Just a few hours ago.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

ReedNews Update

The weather in our part of West Africa continues to defy prediction. In spite of the fact that September is considered the second wettest month of the year, the weather has been great for over a week. Relatively low humidity with mostly sunny skies. We are thrilled because every day we get closer to the end of the rainy season so we think that the worst may be behind us. But we do need some rain, otherwise the dry season will really hamper us, so a very wet Friday was ok. We saw about four inches. Today, Saturday, is sunny again.

Now to tidy up some news loose ends and create a couple that will need to be tidied later:

Item- Noah is fine. We took him off one kind of anti-malaria medicine, started him on another, and his nausea promptly cleared up. We appreciate the concern some of you expressed, even though it was never more than an annoying condition.

Item—The data in my hard drive has been recovered. Thanks to a team led by creative computer dude Steve Colthorp working with the guys at Compucraft in Grand Rapids, almost all the data was salvaged. The most urgent has already been emailed; the rest will follow on DVD. Thanks too to Kris Vander Stelt and Janette Vanderveen for their support.

Item— Hysterical dog pregnancy? It sounds weird, but I think Niki may be faking it. There is now a running debate in the Reed home. I know I’m in the minority, but I think she’s not pregnant at all, the lil’ faker. We’ll keep you posted on this developing—or not developing—story.

Item—Home school for Hannah and Noah has started, and I’ll be joining Renita as instructor, taking on the subjects of History and Logic every Tuesday and Thursday. I am not teaching at MPCHS this fall, but I have some training big gigs coming up. Being at home these two days allows Renita to get into Monrovia to keep up with rapid developments with LEAD.

Item—Speaking of which, LEAD has another big contract, this with the UN’s International Labour Organization and the Monrovia City Corporation, working on a project to establish 40 new waste management businesses. Waste management has huge ramifications for health and is essential for the future of any developing nation. This effort will hopefully provide jobs and clean up the greater Monrovia area.

Item—I have been as busy as ever this week, and I never left the yard. The short version of a long and convoluted story is that the owners north of us are building on their property, so our large car gate on the north wall must be moved to the south wall. Not only is there no driveway along the south wall, most of the area is swampland and will need to be built up to support SUVs coming and going. All day everyday this week I have been supervising a large home engineering project for which I am, of course, unqualified. Tons of crushed rock and clay had to be brought in from the truck, then hauled by wheel barrow and spread by shovel. But based on the work, I seem to know as much as the workers. See, my grampa Cain was a road man, so maybe I got some natural skills from him. Anyway, it’s been a gauntlet of stuck trucks and cars, red mud and cement, good workers and bad, but today, Saturday, we finish the job. The saga is illustrated below.

July 24, 2005: Our first day in Liberia. The southern view off our front porch. No wall, but the low land is full of silt and swamp, especially to the right. People fished it for crawdads.

January, 2006: Same view. The wall is complete, the grass is brown, and the warriors are tugging. (Our christmas party)

This week: A bi' ho' has bee' bus' out. (Liberian for "a big hole has been busted out" of the wall to make room for the gate currently on the north wall.

Current: The gate is up and getting finished while Enoch and Trokon play marbles with ones they made out of the red clay we are using for the road we need to build.
Mohammed, Steve and Tom finish the gate job while twelve year old Eastman supervises.
The view outside of our gate and wall, with Deacon Reeves' wall further down and the swamp and stream to the left. The road building has commenced, and the dump truck is stuck in the distance.
"De tru' is heesh." ("The truck is 'hitched-'" another way of saying "stuck.") It took them three hours and another dump truck to haul them out. Note the road behind taking shape. See, my grampa was a road man...

The dump truck was not the only victim of the partially finished road. One of us-- I won't say who-- got it hopelessly mired on the way in. Here our neighbors work to jack it up in order to get something solid under the rear tire.
There she goes! By the way, Hannah is taking these shots-- Yers Trooly is in the mud behind the right rear tire using his weight advantage, pushin' for all he's worth. Renita is at the wheel. Finally got out after an hour.
The red clay arrives on the road, now covered with tons of hand spread crushed rock. The clay is a mucky mess when it rains, but we'll lay sand on it. I've got a great shot of Enoch covered in it after a mud fight with Trokon. He looks like a mini version of the "Thing" from the "Fantastic 4" comic book characters.
The North gate that became a wall. the two-track goes nowhere now, but you can see where the gate used to be.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Mother Patern BSW Program Launches

I am honored to tell you, many of whom have supported and looked to this day, that today, September 10, 2007 sees the beginning of the first and only professional level Social Work program in Liberia. Mother Patern College of Health Sciences, a Catholic college within the Stella Maris Polytechnic Institute, has been working to develop this program, with the support of two Reformed Christian Colleges in Grand Rapids, USA: Calvin College and Kuyper College. This ecumenical effort gives the people of Liberia the highest level psychosocial or mental health related program in the country. The first class has 20 students, and we are confident each succeeding class will be larger as the word gets around.

As you know, Liberia has seen enormous damage in communities and individuals everywhere. The recovery of a destroyed Liberia requires concerted efforts on all fronts. Resurfacing roads, assisting with job creation, conducting workshops, or digging wells are all necessary but insufficient without working to resolve conflict and provide mental health and community intervention. A rural mother of three, traumatized by rape and/or the death of her husband, shackled by illiteracy, will not recover simply by employment and good access to the cities. Nor will her village. Community workers, trained and supervised by graduates of the Mother Patern professional social workers, will provide tools to help her work better with her family, her neighbors, and with her own internal roadblocks.

This is just the beginning of the Mother Patern BSW program. There is much work to be done. Most of our students will not receive their degrees and licenses until spring 2011. Her partner colleges, Kuyper and Calvin, have committed to provide more support, including sending instructors to liaison with the staff and teach courses. Someday we hope to exchange faculty and students, or at least have students from the US programs visit us.

For me, this is a huge moment. This is in part why I came; to help facilitate this event. But of course, it is not the biggest moment in my effort here. It is not, as the French would say, my raison d’ĂȘtre-- my “reason to be” here. My biggest moment will be on that rainy day in August 2011, when the first of many graduating classes march out of the Monrovia Pavilion, degrees in hand, on their way to help Liberians all over the country-- including that mother, her three children, and her village-- find their way to wholeness and freedom.

That is the reason I came.

The 2o first year BSW students plus most of the incoming students who just received their Associates degree in Social Work for a total of around 26. Pioneers all! The director of the program, Joseph Kpukuyou on the left, Yers Trooly on the right.

Weather: Rain this morning-- about two inches, followed by high but solid overcast. Temps in the low 80s, but with a 15mph wind from the North. Could indicate the first break in the armor of the wet season, as the winds prepare to shift from the west to the easterly direction of the dry season. Tuesday the 11th, Bright sunshine, hot and humid. Light winds from the South, then West, temps in the mid 80's.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spirituality in Liberia

Weather: Sunny, warm and low humidity Monday the 4th. A wonderful day. Temps in the mid 80's during the day, low 70's overnight. Rainy and overcast Tuesday the 5th. High temps in the mid 70's, upper 60's overnight. Rainfall Tuesday about an inch.

Even after more than two years in this land and feeling adjusted to “Liberian normal,” we still live with a constant awareness of how different West Africa is from North America. The climate, the post-war culture, the way people treat each other, the sense of time, the views on family and business—all are daily reminders that this area of the world operates under a different set of rules than in the West. We have not, however, talked much about the spirituality/faith systems of Liberians, even though Renita and I believe faith is the most important factor in any human being’s life. What lies at the core of our values, what we actually trust to be most important in life, determines all of our actions every day. It has taken us this long to sort through the rhetoric of faith which exists here to get a sense of spirituality in Liberia.

People who study people tell us that between 40 and 60% percent of Liberians say they are Christians, about 15% say they are Muslim, and between 25% and 45% say they have “traditional beliefs.” In Liberia, traditional beliefs include participation in "secret societies," the conviction that the invisible world is very active with powerful beings and ghosts, and that certain people can, among other things, make people sick, change themselves into animals, and perform miracles that defy the laws of nature. Traditional beliefs come with their own set of prescribed rituals and symbolic behaviors, every bit as sacred, complex and—to an outsider—incomprehensible as any Christian or Muslim ritual.

What we have found is that these traditional beliefs permeate all other faith systems, including Christian. In Foster Town, it is completely typical for our Christian friends, including pastors, to be part of a "secret society," to believe they can be cursed or hexed by witches, to believe that when a person is sick or dies it could be the result of an enemy. Many seem to believe this spiritual reality is far more active and powerful than their stated Christian beliefs, and most of the time they speak of it with fear.

One of our Christian friends here is a Liberian who talks about this socio-spiritual phenomenon. He says, “Christianity in Liberia is a mile wide and a half inch deep.” He means on the surface, it seems everyone is a Christian. Christian phraseology is universal, churches are everywhere, and every other taxi cab has a Christian slogan painted across its bumper. But underneath professions of Christian faith, there lies a foundational and more strongly held conviction that real spiritual power lies beyond, in another realm. Scratch the surface of a Liberian Christian (or Muslim,) and you get a “traditional spiritualist.”

This is not unique to Liberia or West Africa. Christianity in America is wide but shallow too. Scratch the surface of most Western Christians, and you get something else as well. Americans are as full of easy rhetoric as anybody in West Africa.

The difference is in the specifics of our respective “traditional beliefs.” The traditional beliefs of the North American Christian are entrenched in the empirical world: they are rationistic, materialistic and decidedly non-spiritual. Most Americans don't really believe the spirit world has much to do with daily life. For Liberians on the other hand, the unseen world is full of power and mystery in the here and now. Professing Liberians may not believe any more than American Christians in the power of Christ, but, unlike Americans, they do understand power of the unseen. And we have learned from them.

The challenge for Renita and I is to figure out how to use this deep certainty in the unseen world as a starting point to bring about a more integrated understanding of this Christ who rules over all spiritual forces and powers in the universe. We wish our friends to know the One who “even the demons obey.” We wish our friends to know how unnecessary it is to fear the spiritual forces of this world. We have from them a glimpse of the power of spiritual reality, our hope is to return to them a glimpse of the power of ultimate reality: the love of God through Jesus Christ.