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!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Ebb Today, Flow Tommorrow

Weather: Mostly sunny and hot during the day, with thundershowers during the night. Locally heavy rains for brief periods. Highs during the past few days in the upper 80s, lows in the upper 70’s. Today (Monday the 8th) begins very bright, and should be sunny most of the day. Nice breeze out of the east, 10-15mph.

We’ve had a bit of a breather these last few days, which has been nice. More time to sit in the yard at day’s end, more time to visit with some of our community and church friends. As the rainy season transitions into the dry, we are afforded lovely sunsets and in the evening, refreshing off shore breezes.

But it’s a brief respite. Beginning late this week, we enter a few weeks of intense activity. Renita’s work with LEAD will have her—and the rest of the Reeds-- traveling deep into the interior to Lofa County. Lofa is NNW of us, on the Guinea/Sierra Leone borders. Because of the road conditions, even though our destination is less than 150 miles away, we will take all day to get there and have to spend the night. Renita is traveling to Lofa, and also to a place called Bong Mines in Bong County, to evaluate two agricultural projects that LEAD is considering as investment prospects. The Lofa project is a coffee plantation, the Bong Mines project is growing bananas and corn. The Reeds just purchased a well maintained 2000 Toyota Land Cruiser from Mother Patern College, so we’ll see what she can do in the Liberian bush. We would never attempt these journeys with the old Pathfinder, which we are hanging onto for backup. Anyway we should have some great pictures for you of a very different Liberia upon our return.

I will also be revving up. In addition to acting as driver and comic relief for the two LEAD trips, starting October 15 I will be conducting a sixty hour seminar on counseling skills for a group of Liberian counselors from several organizations. Basically, I get to be in front of the class for two weeks, Monday-Friday, from 8:30am to 3:30pm. It’s a gauntlet, but I am looking forward to it. I find I enjoy talking about the craft, especially with those who are practicing but know they need more training. I get to impart my know-how and tricks of the trade while they get to share their experience of field work in this deeply challenging culture. Hopefully, everybody will leave enriched and more connected with each other for future support.

Around town, some road work is beginning. For a couple weeks now, it has taken us up to an hour and a half to get into or out of town as the government works on building up secondary roads to act as bye-passes for the really big job just around the corner. They will be resurfacing the main road through Monrovia, out right past our house all the way to the airport, thirty miles from here (forty five miles from downtown Monrovia), then beyond the airport all the way to Buchanan, some eighty miles away. Obviously, even with an army of equipment, I don’t think this can be done in one dry season, but I think they’ll get a good portion of it done. Unfortunately, this will mean demolishing homes, schools, and businesses that have built too close to the road. Some of our friends will see their homes and business structures vanish before the wrecking ball. We’ll keep you informed.

A bit o' the morning routine. Homeschool includes P.E.. Here, Noah tosses a perfect spiral to Hannah during real football practice.Meanwhile, the Pathfinder's fuel lines are corroded and pouring gas. The mechanics from Mother Patern come to do what they do best. That's Mohammed in the wheel well, lead mechanic Mohammed observing, and MPCHS driver Matthew keeping company.

More of Renita sharing toothy tidbits. "Use your Brain more than your Back." Amen.

Last night, facing due NE, sittin' in the yard with the sun setting at our left shoulder, lighting up the papaya tree on the left with the new Land Cruiser on the right. In the background a storm is a'comin'.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Liberian English

Liberia is classified as an “Anglophone” country. Despite its 15 active tribal languages, the official language of the country is English. This makes it easier for us to work here, obviously because we did not have to learn a completely new language upon arrival. I said it makes it easier, but understanding the Liberian version of English is not always easy, and even after two years sometimes it is impossible. Being the amateur linguist that I am, I’ve been able figure out what is behind this difficulty in understanding my native tongue when uttered by many Liberians. It is not simply a matter of accent.

First, and most obvious to the listener, is in the way Liberians pronounce many words—the end of many words are left off. “House” becomes “haw”, “dog” becomes “daw”, “serious” becomes “seria”, and so on. Sometimes even each syllable in multi syllable words are deleted, so “redlight” might become “re’li’”, “everything” is “e’ry’tin’, or ” kool aid” is “koo aye.”

To complicate matters significantly, Liberians use different English words than most North Americans choose. For example, “reaching” means “leaving” as in “I’m reaching to my hou’,” “finish” means “to be out of something,” As in “the rice is finish,” or “flog” instead of “beat,” as in “My brother tol’ me he wou’ flog me.” Finally, Liberians finish many words randomly in “O,” as in “fini-o” for “finish,” or “daw-o” to give “dog” a little more panache.

Therefore when you combine words pronounced differently with word choices that are different than what you’ve lived with all your life, you get sentences that are just a little beyond reach until you understand both the usage of the word and the pronunciation of all the words in the sentence.

So, putting these factors together, we might have the following sentences—see if you can figure them out:

1. “Trokon carry mah own sef pla’ toe to hi’ hou’.’” (Literally, “Trokon carry my own self play toy to his house,” or “Trokon took my toy to his house.”)

2. “Dea’ ca’ be sweeo.” (Literally,” Deer can be sweet-o,” or “Venison is delicious.” )

3. Leh ca’ta’ eh sleepi’ bah da’ pi’ hou’ (Literally, “the carter it sleeping by the pig house” or “The carter (a clothe pad used to cushion the head when carry things) was left out all night near the pig pen.”)

4. “De ro’ he wah a bri’ one and dryo.” (Literally, “The rogue he was a bright one and dry-o,” or “The thief was light-skinned and very thin.”)

5. “Leh pum’ eh spoi’. Le’ carry de jeep to tow’ fo’ new pah.’” (Literally, “The pump is spoiled, let’s carry the jeep to town for new part,” or “The pump is not working, so let’s take the 4wd vehicle into town for a new part.”)

6. “Boieh! Boieh! Boieh!” (Literally, “Boiled egg, boiled egg, boiled egg!” which children shout as they carry hard boiled eggs for sale on the street.)

7. “Unca Bah, I juke mah foo-o. Plea’ pu’ plasti’ on mah cuh.” (Literally, “Uncle Bob, I juke my foot. Please put plastic on my cut,” or “Uncle Bob, something jabbed or poked into my foot. Please put a band aid on my cut.”)

8. “Eneh, i’ yaw wais’ wateh on ma’ trouseh, I weh sureleh blow yaw mouf.” (Literally, “Enoch, if you waste water on my trousers, I will surely blow your mouth, “ or “Enoch, if you dump or spill that water on my pants, I will certainly punch you in the mouth.”)

9. Deh worsha’ weh fi’fi’. We gettin’ yaw puh-lenti!” (Literally, “The worshop was fine, fine. We getting you plenty,” Or “The workshop was very good. We understood you very well.”)

10. “Whi’ ma’, plea’ buy suh’ re’ oi’ fruh me. One hundreh LD.” (Literally, White Man, please buy some red oil from me. One hundred LD.” Red oil is palm nut oil; LD is Liberian Dollars—in this case about $1.80 US. )

11. “Sis Renita, I cuh’ to spe’ to yaw.” (Literally, Sis Renita, I come to speak to you,” or “Sister, Renita, I dropped by just to say hi.”)

Not everybody speaks like this, but these phrases reflect a large portion of the people with whom we live and work each day. Some people, such as government or business leaders speak very similar English to me, with only what I call the attractive “African accent” distinguishing us. Others speak a version of English so different in cadence, inflection, pronunciation, syntax and vocabulary as to require interpretation. Most children are harder to understand than adults. In our neighborhood, English is a second language to Bassa for many, and a significant minority speak virtually no English. So getting to understanding each other always takes a little extra time, even for simple things. Bu’, we ah tryin’, sma’ sma’, wid dis talkin’ ting he’. An’ soo’, we wi’sureleh be gettin’ e’rybodeh puh-lenty clea’, an den’ we ha’ a googoo ti’ togeddeh.