Monday, January 28, 2008

The Bong County Curse

Weather: Hot and dusty during the day with highs in the mid 90s. Pleasant on the porch by morning, with temps in the low 70s—sometimes the high 60s. No rain.

Ok, maybe I overstate. But since we have had the Land Cruiser, every time it travels northeast to Bong County, something goes wrong. We've traveled south, to Buchanan in Bassa County several times over terrible roads, with no problem. Not so with Bong. The first time we took it to Bong Mines, it got stuck and sustained body damage. The second time, it lost a fan belt coming back from Ganta and it took three hours on the roadside to get it back running. (I know what you are thinking--Ganta is in Nimba County, so it can't be the Curse. But it wasn’t until we crossed the county line into Bong that we had the problem. Need I say more? But I shall.) The third time we were on the way back from the Bong County seat of Gbarnga when a timing belt went, but we limped home and fixed it next day. Thursday, Renita took it to Gbarnga and we thought she broke the curse by arriving home safely. We breathed easy when she pulled in the yard. Next morning, I got about two miles in toward town when it died on me. After getting it off the road and waiting six hours for the Mother Patern mechanic Mohammed to arrive, he gave us an ominous initial evaluation. It sounded like something in the engine block—perhaps a piston or something else. The Bong Curse had returned with a vengeance.

Anyway, that was three days ago. We still have no Cruiser and do not know when it will be fixed or how much it will cost. We still have the ’95 Pathfinder, although it is definitely showing its age in this climate. We believe the Pathfinder is also affected by the Bong Curse, even though it’s in no condition to get anywhere near Bong County. We used it to push the Cruiser off the road and it doing so, we broke the plastic hood wind screen thingy. We’ll keep ya’ll apprised.

Renita and Noah are both sick—Renita is coming off Pink Eye and now seems to have strep throat, while Noah has had a steady, spiking fever for four days along with diarrhea. They’re both miserable. I, on the other hand, remain chipper as ever.

If the hood is up, this must be Bong County.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tid Bits

Weather: A few days last week were very hot and humid, with temps nearing 100F (38C). The weekend saw moderate temps (highs in the low 90s, lows in the upper 70s) and steady 15mph sea breezes. Monday sunny, with temps in the mid nineties, very light breeze, and moderate humidity. No rain.

Big news from Grand Rapids comes to us from Cheryl Brandsen, chair of the Calvin College Social Work department. Our collaboration team from Calvin and Kuyper Colleges in Grand Rapids and Mother Patern College in Monrovia has been holding our breath for six months, waiting for word on a grant proposal to fund the BSW project. We can breathe now--The grant was approved for us to shift into high gear. The team, including faculty from both US colleges, hope to be on the ground this summer to continue prep work for their teaching visit next January. This also means textbooks!

Our brother-in-law Brian is back with us, here to do some work with LifeWater Canada. He’s gone most of the day, working in the sun on a new operations compound for LWC’s national counterpart LifeWater Liberia. It was LifeWater Liberia that provided the five new wells for Foster Town.

Noah Reed is now a teenager. On the 16th, we celebrated the lad’s 13th birthday with a medevial murder mystery. We invited the usual suspects in for a dinner party, in which everyone played a part. Not everybody quite got the concept, but it was great fun. Birthday boy Noah was the murdering jester, with Mom in a supporting role as the Hag, Uncle Brian as the guard (“Brioon of Lorna Doone”), and Yers Trooly got to dress in drag and play Nurse Roberta. We played host to Kings, Queens, a Princess, a prince and a Duke. In the end, the troop failed to discover “who done it,” so Brioon executed the wrong guy.

The Foster Town Market is doing well. The new market superintendant has submitted a budget, is cracking down on inefficiency and some in-house corruption, and for the first time the market is actually making money for its parent-- the Foster Town Association for Community Transformation (FACT).

The palm civet continues to enjoy human company. In addition to bananas, she loves roaches, crickets and all manner of bugs. I went to take a nap the other day and he was in my pillow. Almost squished that little lady before I realized where she was. We’ve been meaning to get a cat for a while to play host to our frequent mouse and rat guests, so last week we got a kitten to also provide company for Houdini. The cat is named Pebbles, after our long deceased Michigan puss named Rocky. After a couple days of wary adjustment, cat and civet are now playmates.

Monday, January 14, 2008

On Being Grease

Weather: Harmattan visited us for less than a week, with morning temps as low as 64F, a relatively low humidities. We were caressed with perfect weather for about four heavenly days. Alas, all that is over. Temps and dew points are back up with highs in the mid 90s and humid, and outside morning lows are back in the 70s. Morning lows in our house, low 80s.

It is not unusual for Renita or me to get inquiries regarding our work in Liberia. Every week, a curious web surfer stumbles across our blog and contacts us with questions. It is familiar, and really, everybody gets these “So tell me more about your work” requests. Usually, after receiving the information, they say something nice about us and go on with their business. Every once and a while though, we get something like this, “What difference do you think you are making in people’s lives?”

It’s a good question.

To be perfectly candid, I wonder sometimes what difference we make. Not about everything, like I know helping build the Foster Town Market directly impacts a lot of people, but some things I wonder about. For instance, I wonder about the many workshops that Renita and I do. We average a couple hundred hours of workshops every year. We speak before Liberians in rural settings and in schools, in churches and in palaver huts. We discuss topics ranging from “how to manage your microbusiness,” to “resolving conflict in your village” to “Christian leadership.” Is it reasonable to think most of the participants—or even a few—will be changed by what we offer? After spending a few hours together, is it reasonable to expect what we say will even be remembered? Are we wasting our breath if few remember?

Last Friday I sat in the conference room at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. There were a few of us from various organizations and from the Ministry. We were discussing the fact that mental health is low on the government budget priorities. For the umpteenth time. It seems that as the country emerges from its devastation, focus remains on the most serious, most visible damage: roads, infrastructure, and in the health arena, on medical conditions like malaria and HIV. Mental health is difficult to address, or maybe to even think about. So for two and a half years, I’ve faithfully attended most of the Ministry’s “Mental Health Task Force” meetings. I may have attended more meetings than anyone. I’ve offered input, helped with studies, written reports, and conducted a national reporting workshop. And there I was Friday, after two and a half years, listening to some new Ministry guy telling us how important our voice is, that we must continue our advocacy of mental health programming, that the country cannot recover without it.

Blah blah blah.

I thought, “Who are we kidding? Nobody has listened to our advocacy yet, what makes us think anybody will start now? The country is not ready to address its huge mental health needs. We are not making any difference.” I decided I would speak up and say just that. So, in a lull in the conversation, I started to speak. The acting chair person’s phone rang (and in Liberia, phones are almost always allowed to interrupt whatever is going on.). I waited. After the call, we got diverted. Another lull came. I started to speak. The conference door opened, and a latecomer arrived and had to be brought up to speed. Then another diversion. Then another lull, and for the third time I started to speak, only to be interrupted again. I realized that maybe Somebody wanted me to keep my cynical mouth shut. I realized I was being told to take a step back.

I took a step back in my mind, and with a new inner perspective came a new thought. Maybe we are just one part of a process. Maybe we are supposed to be advocating regardless of who's listening, giving workshops that may be forgotten, supposed to be banging our heads against the wall. After all, if you bang your head long enough, the wall gives way. Maybe someday the country will be ready for prioritizing mental health, and then they just might listen to our advocacy, even if we are long gone.

Then in my mind I took another step back, and it hit me that whatever we do, whether we see immediate results—like building a market—or nothing at all, we are everywhere part of a process, like cogs in a giant machine. Or not like cogs, because we are not that important. Maybe we are like grease helping cogs run well. We do our part, get used up, get replaced, but in time our sacrifice, and the sacrifice of those before and after us, pays off. In the end, only the Master Machinist knows the how and where we changed things for the better. I guess in the end, it doesn’t necessarily matter that we see what difference our being used made. In the end, I think it matters mostly that we can say we were available for use and got used doing what we were made to do.

The difference comes in being available.

A couple available people in our lives. Trokon, here 2o feet up trimming the lower branches of one of our two coconut trees. The 12 year old climbs without a ladder and wields the cutlass like a pro. Insert shows him up close in the tree.

Sis' Vera-- available to us every weekday, making shopping, laundry and cooking much easier for the Reeds in Liberia.

Monday, January 07, 2008

ReedNews Update: January Edition

Weather: Hot in the days, cooler at night, with daytime highs in the low 90Fs (33C) every day and lows as low as the upper 60Fs (19C) by dawn. Light ocean breeze throughout the day. Virtually no rain since December 1.

Harmattan is returning as I write and promises to give us a couple weeks of cool dry breezes, which makes this the most pleasant season of the year for me. We've been sweltering in hot temps and moderate humidity.

The most humid time is May but dew points have still been high enough to produce lots of sweat and tee shirt changes. I've been going through about four a day. This is a dusty time, with virtually no rain from December to April. We have had a couple cooler nights—got down to about 79F in the house. Very nice relief from the norm. We are just coming off Christmas break which means back to work for Hannah, Noah and Yers Trooly, and simply turning up the volume for Renita. Here’s more news.

Item: Former president Charles Taylor's trial in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity has begun after a six month delay. There are supposed to be many eyewitness to his actions. Keep up with the developments on the BBC.

Item: Road work is happening in lots of places, with resurfacing and patching being the primary activity. So far we’ve seen no signs of widening any roads. They really need to rebuild the shoulders at least, because it is not uncommon at all for there to be a foot or more drop on either side of the road. Traffic is fairly jammed during rush hours, but it clears up during the day and on weekends. The government just received a bunch of buses from Spain that they say they are going to use for public transportation.

Item: The cost of living is exploding with food and gas prices leading the increase. As the economy improves, merchants see an opportunity to boost profits. Everyone, from Lebanese building supply owner to Liberian microbusiness operator is asking more for their product. For us it has meant a 20% increase in operating costs this year, with most of that in the last quarter of ‘07. In addition, the value of the Liberian dollar is showing signs of weakening.

Item: Renita continues her LEAD collaboration with the World Food Programme while also interviewing candidates for the new LEAD office in Gbarnga. She is also preparing for a LEAD-sponsored conference on the future of small businesses in Liberia. More on this later.

Item: I’m working on a joint project with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the MPCHS Women’s development program on a series of workshops in the village of Koons Town. Ironically and appropriately, the women’s program is targeting the men of the village as it tries to reduce Gender Based Violence (GBV). More on this later. I’m also getting ready to teach a course in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding for the MPCHS social work students.

Item: Without getting graphic, Max and Niki are behaving rather “amorously” toward one another this week. Very touching. I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up, but we will be listening for the patter of little paws sometime in early March.

Item: Trokon’s mother, who lives in the interior, brought us a creature from her neck of the rainforest. It is an African palm civet (Nandinia binotata). I actually ate one a couple years back in Cestus City with cassava leaf over rice. Kinda chewy. Most Liberians call it a “Tree Coon.” These creatures are not in the same family or genus as most civets, and are sometimes confused with another civet of the same name. Common creatures, they are not threatened, and do quite well in captivity. So we’ll keep her a while. Reminds me of a cross between a house cat, a raccoon and a teddy bear. Omnivorous, she loves bananas and crickets. Noah named her Houdini.

Look at this lil' lady! No, she's not getting squished, just held with authority. Note the pink feet.
She eats a banana a day. Finding a warm shoulder to rest upon.
A non-civet related shot of the kids. This was actually last Halloween. They banged on our bedroom door demanding candy.