Monday, March 31, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Women

Weather: Continued very hot and somewhat humid. Right now, my fingers are wrinkled from wiping the sweat off my brow in this internet cafe. Temps in the upper 90's, sometimes reaching 100F by early afternoon. Nighttime lows in the low 80sF. Nice afternoon breezes help out a bit, especially late afternoon, when we get the shade of our mango trees. Total rain since December1: around 2 inches.
For ten years, the MPCHS Women’s Health and Development (WHDP) program has worked with the women of a number of communities in Liberia’s interior. Grace Boiwu and her staff have supported and empowered the women of these communities by offering workshops on many topics, providing skills training so the women can help support their families, and even micro loans so that their budding businesses can expand a bit. The relationships by now are deep and look very much like friendship. The goal of WHDP has always been to heal and strengthen post-war communities by empowering women. But a funny thing happened on the journey. The women’s program discovered men.
The trip to Koon Town. A jarring two hour trek.

What I mean is WHDP is realizing that in order to more fully do its job to strengthen women, it cannot focus only on women and ignore the men of the community. Even if it remains primarily a “Women Health and Development Program,” it needs to figure out how to include men. Men are simply too important to the health of the community and the women, especially in this patriarchal society. In a way, this was inevitable. Take Koon Town for instance. WHDP has been in this little village for a decade, working exclusively with women, building skills, enhancing capacity, empowering them, transforming them-- while the men of the village watched from the sidelines. Yet the men are key stakeholders and of course have enormous interest in how

Koon Town, viewed from the road in. The arrow indicates my location in the next pic, looking back toward this point.

their wives, mothers and daughters are affected by all this empowerment and capacity building. Grace Boiwu and WHDP have come to a point where it seems obvious that it is time to include the men in this process. They see the connection between women’s empowerment and helping men become better men. They see women and men living in community need each other to be strong and healthy, in order for the community to be strong and healthy. What a concept.
Something tells me this is laundry day.

So last week, WHDP sent my Liberian co-facilitator, John Dominic Moore, and Yers Trooly up to Koon Town to begin the process of engaging them with a view toward their empowerment and building their capacity as well. John and I had a great time. Here we were, gathered with 21 Koon Town men, in the Women Empowerment Center—“built by women for women,” and discussing ways to make Koon Town a better place.

The men posing in front of our meeting place-- the Women Empowerment Center.

It felt like we were breaking some invisible barrier, like the time had come to work in a new way—women and men together—on community development.

The men were proud of this-- a cleared field, being prepared for cassava. Its a big field, and it is cleared without anything but the most basic hand tools-- in the hottest months of the year for harvest in the wet season. I almost died just walking the mile uphill (in the 100F heat of the day) it takes to get there. My bald head makes a great brain oven.

There are challenges ahead. One of the reasons WHDP came to be was to support women, most of whom were victims of violence because they are women. Gender Based Violence is still a problem in Koon Town. Wife abuse is still an all too prevalent part of the culture in this male dominated corner of the world. The fact that WHDP has empowered so many women has also, in some cases, created more conflict. The men feel their masculinity is threatened, their way of relating under attack. How can we help men see themselves in a new way, help them redefine their masculinity in a way that preserves their sense of “being a man,” and at the same time uplifts empowers the women in their lives? How to we teach these men what it means to be a man without sending the message that they’ve not been good at being men up to now?

The trip home. Following a truck laden with raw latex from the rubber trees.

The good news is, the guys seem eager to participate in the process. They seemed open and willing to engage us. They’ve seen what WHDP has done for "their women," and even though it has sometimes created conflict and left the men feeling powerless and out of the loop, they see it has produced impressive results. The women have learned skills, are more capable, have provided for the family. “Yes,” we imagine the men thinking, “they seem to be more assertive, and talk back when in the past they would have kept quiet, but maybe that is a good thing. Maybe if we figure out a better way to be together, we can figure out a better way to work together. And maybe together, we can make Koon Town a better place to live.” What we imagine, we can work to make happen.

I tried to get a shot with the shadows to give an idea of how bumpy these roads are. It didn't work. The roads may look flat. They are not.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Back Online (knock on wood)

Hey Folks,

Just a quick note. We are back online for the moment, so here are the shots of the playground. Hopefully, I'll be back on Monday with a story about Koon Town and "the women's program that discovered men."

Here is what the space looked like in early February.

Here is how it looks today.

Another view that gets the slides, jungle gym, merry-go-round, and swings.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Please forgive the lag!

Hi folks, Renita here, filling in for Bob, who is doing some work in a village called Koons Town, a few hours northeast of Monrovia.

It has not been easy getting online this week. Our goal is to post a blog entry at least once a week, and we aim for Monday, so for those of you who check in weekly, you may have wondered where we were. It turns out Monday was “Easter Monday” around here, a non official holiday where half the population plays hooky from work. The internet café we usually go to was closed. Then Tuesday the café was closed again, this time due to generator problems.

Just as a reminder, the internet situation in Liberia is that except for Monrovia, there really is no internet. In the city, one can get wireless receiver set up in home, but we live outside the wireless area. This means a three mile drive three times a week to the internet café where we send pre-composed emails, get email, and do any internet work we need to. The limited availability of the internet means are not on for more than a couple hours a week, and the kids are almost never on.

Anyway, Bob is gone today, and he’s the guy who’s in charge of the blog. So you’ll have to wait for the entry he was planning to post, but he asked me to at least write and tell you what’s going on with the lag.

I was planning on posting some before and after pictures of the playground that has recently been completed in Norm Katerberg's memory, but after going to three internet cafes and finding them all closed, and finally finding a fourth, I have tried to upload the pictures for the past 90 minutes only to have it fail again, and so I am going to stop trying. I am so thankful to Bob not only for his creativity and commitment to writing this blog every week, but also for the patience he has in working with the Internet in Liberia!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Liberian Cuisine, Part One

Let's talk about food. What we eat and how we eat it help define our culture, and I would be remiss if I did not explore with you Liberia's contribution to the culinary arts. Most of you know that the four Reeds spent much of our lives in the Great Lakes region of North America. Renita is Canadian, living most of her growing years in Ontario, while the rest of us are Michiganders through and through. We all grew up on foods very different from what we have encountered in West Africa. Compared with my midwestern culinary orientation, the food in Liberia is blunt, unrestrained, and powerful. Three years ago our uninitiated taste buds found many of the dishes overwhelming, and at times repulsive in flavor and texture. I remember thinking critically that there was no subtlety to Liberian cuisine, no "hinting" at this taste or "suggesting" that flavor - this was rude food. Little did I know that my perspective was based on a simple misunderstanding.

One of my pet theories about food is that when we reject a new dish or initially find it unpalatable, it is at least in part because we do not “understand” it. We don’t get what the dish is “trying to be,” so we don’t know how to orient ourselves to it. A similar phenomenon occurs when one is given a tuna sandwich when expecting an ice cream cone or when one is offered New York Cheddar on sourdough when one has his palate set for French Brie on a cream cracker. The offered food is rejected as unpalatable because the mouth was expecting something else. So it was for us with the cuisine of Liberia. Palm butter, bonies, foofoo, cassava leaf, red oil, fermented fish, bitterball, kitili, torpogee, fish heads, okra—many of the foods came with unfamiliar tastes and heretofore unacceptable textures. Some we found frankly disgusting. How could Liberians love this stuff? But that rhetorical question became the key to understanding. Liberians DO love it. Maybe we were missing something. So we kept eating, kept tasting. Gradually we began to figure these foods out, and as we did, we learned how to eat them,how to enjoy them and even look forward to them. We now have our favorites, and of course some tastes we still avoid, but mostly I think we can say that we finally understand Liberian food.

So beginning this week, I thought I’d present to you some of the foods we have figured out and learned to love—and maybe a couple that we still find confusing to the brain and disagreeable to the palate. Look for these every few weeks or months.

Before we get to the dishes, there are a few things you ought to know about Liberian cuisine. 1.) Rice is the staple of Liberia, with no close second. Rice is eaten with almost every meal. Most dishes are called “soup” and served over steamed rice. 2.) Most foods are boiled, roasted or fried over coals or a wood fire. You may use a stove top. 3.) Liberians use a lot of oil. Until we figured this out and redirected our Liberian cook, we were using a cup or more of oil a meal, mixed into the soup. Unfortunately, both the raw red oil and refined oil is palm oil, which is not generally considered to be very healthy. 4) Liberia being located where it is, fish is readily available, and is the most common animal flesh found in Liberian dishes. Dried fish is very popular here, in part because it requires no refrigeration. It has a very powerful flavor, which we tend to avoid. 5.) Hot Peppers are used in many dishes. Based on all of this, if you think of Liberian foods as spicy, fishy and oily over rice, you are getting the picture for much of it. Let us begin. Actually, because I’ve used so much space on this intro, we’ll only look at two dishes today.

Palm Butter
This could be called the national dish of Liberia. It is only recently that I figured this dish out, and now it is my favorite. Renita is learning to like it, but the kids still don’t understand it. Made from the flesh of palm nuts, it has a strong musky flavor.

To prepare: Wash palm nuts and boil until the skin becomes loose. Remove and place the nuts in a large mortar and pound until skin becomes separated from the kernels. Remove the kernels and continue beating skin, fibers and flesh into a pulp. Transfer pulp into a pan and add water, enough to cover. Wash pulp thoroughly, then squeeze liquid out of fibers and chaff. Pass liquid through a sieve to remove all fibers or traces of kernels. (Palm butter may be purchased already prepared.) Pour the liquid into a pot and continue to boil. Add a combination of preroasted fried or boiled meat, including chicken, crabs, dried fish, or dried meat - we prefer a combination of fresh beef (called cow meat) and fresh fish - along with 2 chopped onions, hot pepper to taste, seasoning salt to taste, etc. Let mixture cook until it becomes thick. Serve over rice, foofoo, or cassava.

Potato Greens

This spinach-like green also produces a sweet potato if allowed to grow but like the cassava both the leaves and the tuber is prized. The greens are also prized by Hannah who considers it one of her favorite dishes. We eat it every Thursday without fail. To prepare: Remove stems and wash 4 bunches of greens thoroughly. Cut—we prefer tear—into fine shreds. Combine with two cups chopped onions, and hot pepper and fry about 7-10 minutes, stirring constantly. Place into a pot with water. Add chicken or beef cube, salt, black pepper, seasoning salt to taste. Add pre-cooked meat—we prefer turkey—but anything (dried fish, fried fish, boiled pig’s feet, cooked cow meat) you like is acceptable. Boil away most but not all of the water. Serve over rice.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Around Foster Town

More overcast of late, but still little or no rain. Monday the 10th is began cloudy with a light westerly breeze. Overcast becomes hot, hazy and humid by afternoon, with highs in the low 90s and nighttime lows in the upper 70s.

The thing about containers—those large steel box-car sized crates shipped all over the world, stacked on top of giant freighters—is that they arrive when they arrive. And when they finally leave the port, you must be ready to cease all other activity in order to be there and unload what is yours. Receiving a container is like welcoming a dignitary or making a doctor’s appointment: whatever you were previously planning that day is instantly a lower priority; all other events are sacrificed for the sake of the stuff in the big steel box. Furthermore, when a container is late, as ours is now, each day is spent wondering, “is this the day we will need drop everything and rush into town to offload our things.”

Mostly the items on our particular container are books. Hundreds of boxes of books, collected and boxed mostly by Renita’s family working with Active Kids Canada, they are bound for five new school libraries around Monrovia. As with our other activities, we avoid simply handing out these books as if we are some scholastic Santa Claus. To receive these books, the schools had to actually build reading rooms, make reading tables and book shelves, and otherwise show investment in the effort. In addition, the library personnel must attend a two day workshop, sponsored by Active Kids, on setting up and running a library. We ran the workshops in our neighborhood Friday and Saturday, with a library person from the States doing her best to translate her very western style and manner to 40 very Liberian school teachers and librarians. It was a learning experience for everybody. To top it off, we of course had no books to distribute as we had planned. So we will need yet another day with the schools to give them their books when the container becomes available.

Also around Foster Town, the FACT board continues to meet and plan activities as well as run the Foster Town Market. With the new market superintendent, FACT is actually making some money for itself. The board is trying to figure out what to do with some members who are not pulling their weight. Laying down the law seems to come tough in this culture, which avoids conflict and is somewhat indirect in communication style.

We do have some tragic Foster Town news to report. Sunday, at the main road a couple hundred yards from our house, three men were killed when a taxi lost control while passing and ran them over as they waited by the side of the road. To add to the tragic circumstances, the car was filled with very young children—unaccompanied by any adult. The children were not hurt, but the taxi driver ran off, leaving the children at the scene. As of today no one seems to know whose children these are, or why they were alone in the taxi with this reckless young man. This makes about twelve people who have suffered accidental or violent death within a half mile of our house these past 30 months. Three have been shot, three killed yesterday, and the rest have drowned.

Somewhere in this stack of boxcar-size containers, our books await.

Our two day library training workshop-- Renita in the back with Renita on her lap.

The next day, we split the group. This is what the CFCA library looks like-- where o' where are the books?!?

Monday, March 03, 2008

ReedNews Update: March Edition

Weather: Monday the 3rd of March began with a cool westerly breeze, and drier air. The skies clouded up a bit by mid morning as the humidity rose, giving way to a hot haze by mid afternoon. We’ve seen a little rain during the past few weeks, but still averaging less than an inch a month since December. This morning the temperature was in the mid 70sF, and today’s highs will likely reach the low 90’s.

It is hard to believe February is behind us, but here we are three days into the third month. The LEAD conference is over, our guests are gone, and I'm back from my travels. Both Renita and I are catching our breath as well as lost sleep while finding full “to do” lists in front of us each day. At least its not crazy around here. LEAD is running three business/small loan classes as well as three micro credit programs in three counties. Total participants: 245. This keeps Renita traveling to and fro, and on those days she’s in Buchanan or Gbarnga, it’s a 12 hour day of travel, meetings and teaching. As for me, I have three projects running: teaching my class at MPCHS, designing a curriculum for a men’s program in Koon’s Town, and visiting Liberian national NGOs discussing possible future collaboration opportunities.

In other news:

Item- We can report significant improvement in road conditions to both Buchanan and Gbarnga, and not simply due to the dry season, which usually makes the impassable passable. The roads are patched and allow for less jolting rides for both human and vehicular suspension systems. The improved roads have also made travel time shorter, so we get back home faster.

Item- President Sirleaf has promised to visit the Foster Town Market, so everyone around our little corner of the world is anticipating the event. We’ll keep you posted.

Item- A container we have been waiting for has arrived and we’ll be sorting through its contents soon. Among the items are hundreds of boxes of books designated for five area schools. Working with a Canadian NGO called Active Kids, Renita has been liaising with the schools as they’ve each built (with help) a library-reading room in their respective facilities and soon those libraries will be filled with books. We will be conducting library science workshop next week to help the schools organize and run their new additions.

Item- The St Theresa School- Norm Katerberg playground is still under construction, but we hope to see a finished product by next week. We’ve had some snags along the way, and had to push the construction crews not to cut corners, but that is part of the norm here. I have no doubt the kids will appreciate the effort when done. We are putting in two slides, three swing sets, two merry-go-rounds, a jungle gym, and three teeter totters.

Item- Monrovia is out of eggs. As with tomatoes last fall, the city has run out of eggs. Not being an egg guy myself, I can live with it, but it is weird, especially since I thought the eggs were produced locally.

The road to/from Bong Mines in the dry season. Much nicer, but still a bracing experience.

On the way, a common sight throughout the country and continent-- wash day along a local river or pond.

Back around home, a young lady pounds cassava at the Foster Town Market.

Another common sight during our guest's visit-- Todd working on the car. This evening, he replaced the U joint.

Some of you have been asking, so here she is-- Renita Reeves, enjoying her first taste of solid food. We get to take care of her several days a week while mom tries to earn some money. A very easy babe.