Monday, April 28, 2008

I Thought We Wuz Supposed to be in Bakau

Well, of course we were. After one of the most crazy seasons of our marriage, we felt as if we just might make it to the prize at the finish line-- 16 days in the Gambia. Make that 15 days. Make that 14 days. Make that... you get the picture. We were supposed to leave Sunday, but just like our 2006 visit to Mali, we found out at the airport just a few minutes before boarding that the flight was cancelled. I dislike most things to do with flying as is, but African airports-- and especially Liberia's Robertsfield Airport-- are too often hot, humid, stress producing places. And while some airlines are alright, the carrier to the Gambia, Slok Air, is the worst we've flown since the permanently grounded Ghana Airways. So I'm not looking forward to running the boarding gauntlet whenever Slok calls us back to Robertsfield. Even so, it is worth it flying Slok just to get to Bakau, Gambia.

Anyway, Slok told us Sunday night that the plane was in need of some repairs and "hopefully Monday" we'd be able to begin our vacation. Tonight, Monday night, we are waiting for Tuesday. We are not holding our breath. Maybe by Friday.

We keep reminding ourselves that it could be worse, and that to be able to fly off to a great vacation is something most of our neighbors will never be able to experience. Meanwhile, we're all pretty tired and eager to get out of Limbo. Stay tuned for more Liberian Cuisine posts as well as a closer look into what life is like in a Liberian village. And of course, keep an eye peeled for shots from the Gambia-- assuming we make it.

Actually, the tag line ought to be "Your Gateway to Disappointment, Frustration, and Days of Waiting Until We Fix the Only Plane We've Got for this Route." I guess its better than crashing in one of these buckets.

Monday, April 21, 2008

ReedNews Update: April Edition

Weather: Some late night/early morning thundershowers of late, followed by hot humid days. Monday begins cooler and less humid with temps in the 80's. Light easterly breezes. About an inch and a half of rain in the last week.
We are relieved to report that the dry season is behind us. Think of Liberian seasons this way: 1) A hot, humid season with virtually no rain, lasting four months, from mid December to mid April, 2) a four month cooler, humid wet season with about a hundred sixty inches of rain falling from Mid June to Mid October, and between these two very different seasons, there are two identical seasons of transition from mid April to mid June, and from Mid October to mid December. These two month seasons see about 20 inches of rain each, but it always seems nice in comparison to previous weather. The transition months are welcomed harbingers-- by the end of both seasons we are ready to be done with each.

Here’s the news from our neck of the rainforest.

-Item: On the national scene, President Sirleaf issued a stern warning regarding the armed robbery problem that plagues the country. She gave the current law enforcement authorities—UNMIL law enforcement and the Liberia National Police—one month to make headway against the rogues. After that, she promised “drastic, perhaps unpopular measures” to end the domestic terror.

-Item: In that same speech, Madam President also addressed the rapid increase of the cost of living over the last eight months. Food costs especially have gone up, and the nation’s staple, rice, has seen a 25% increase. Some food prices have doubled. Gas and diesel fuel are around $4.00 a gallon. This all in one of the poorest countries in the world.

-Item: I am getting out of town more of late with the MPCHS Women's Health and Development Program. So far, we’ve met with leaders from Johnson Town, Koon Town and Kaingai Town as prepare to expand our work to include the men of these villages. We spend a few hours with them in each of our several visits, trying to understand their daily lives, their strengths as a community and their hopes for the future. Later, we will offer workshops, skills training and micro loans to support them as they rebuilt villages destroyed by war.

-Item: Speaking of getting out of town, the Reeds are getting out of Liberia beginning Sunday. We are off on our much anticipated—and I might add much deserved—two week retreat/vacation on the windy beaches of The Gambia. We’ll keep in touch when we are not being caressed oblivious by those winds.

-Item: Speaking of getting out of Liberia, we are getting ready to lose our children for the months of June, July and August. Hannah and Noah are leaving the continent and heading to family and friends in Michigan USA and Ontario Canada. They leave our midst with a family heading West less than two weeks after we get back from the Gambia. I think it will be a good preview of how life will be all too soon when they leave the nest for good. I know I’ll miss them deeply—I think Renita even more—but the up side is the kids will probably have the time of their lives and Renita and I can really focus on our next steps.

-Item: Its plum season! Actually, you probably know them as mangoes, but here in Liberia, they are called plums. There are a number of varieties, and the trees grow everywhere. We grow three types in our very own yard. Our favorite is called the German plum, and it is exquisite. In some ways similar in taste, color and texture to a peach, with a tang of orange and in a really good plum, a hint of coconut. Plums are terrific eaten raw, and heavenly in pies and other desserts. For our neighborhood kids, every day is a plum party.

Behold a few semi random photos. One I added April 28.

This was taken this morning. A somewhat grumpy Noah being helped by his Teacher Mom. Oh, the challenge of dual relationships! Hannah in the background viewing a math lesson on DVD.
Remember that playground we all constructed in memory of Norm Katerberg? Here is another shot of the finished job...
...but we thought you ought to see it in daily use, with over 800 girls giving it a workout. We think Norm would have been delighted.

Hey, and while we're on the subject of "what it looks like now," this is what a container filled with books looks like now: four new school libraries and and kids who can't get enough of them. Added 4/28.
A couple shots of road repair, Liberian style. This is work in the city, which is going on in a number of places...
... and this is our crew last Friday, trying to get to Kaingai Town. We had to do some repair work on this bridge to get to our meeting with the men.

Plums (mangoes) on the vine. These are country plums, less prized than Kerosene or German plums, but still a valued commodity.
Trokon sucking the pit of a German plum, with another small one on deck.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Our Ten Most Valuable Little Things

I think one of the most common themes I’ve hit on in this blog is that life is not nearly as easy in Liberia as it is in America. I’ve referenced more than once the climate, the cost of living, and the limited availability of stuff we think we need. But we have made a life here, and we have made it more than tolerable, thanks in part to what we brought with us and can find in Monrovia. So I’ve come up with a list—“The 10 Little Things that Have Made the Most Difference in Our Liberian Lives.” These are the small items that have turned out to be big deals in the struggle to maintain perspective in an often surreal and uncomfortable place.

10 The Inverters—Without these little guys, we would have no power during the day to run a few electronics, most especially our laptops, CD player and battery chargers. They invert the DC power from our solar panels into AC. We brought a bigger, more expensive unit when we came to power the whole house, but the corrosive climate put it out of commission in 10 months. Happily, we have been able to make do with these smaller, less expensive units in a couple rooms. We use them every day.

9 Our First Aid bag—We go through lots of band aids, bandages, ointments and even antibiotic medicine. Without it, some of the kids around here— the Reeds too- would need to go to the hospital to deal with cuts, infestations and sores that otherwise all too easy turn nasty. We use it almost every day.

8 Popcorn—We need it. We pop it four nights a week while we watch a DVD movie or show. Its cheap and easy to get in Monrovia compared to other snacks. (Potato chips, for instance, might cost $3.00 for a 5 oz. bag while we can feed all four of us popcorn for about fifty cents.) I think we might go crazy without being able to crunch regularly.

7 Epoxy—We’ve used this stuff to affix everything from razor wire to mirrors and to repair everything from our cracked solar batteries to our ceramic bowls. We use it as needed, every couple of weeks.

6 Shower bags—This would be even higher if we figured out a way to increase the flow pressure, but as is, being able to take even a dribbling shower is something we certainly took for granted in the States. Without shower bags, we’d have to use cups of water poured overhead, wash, then pour another cup or three to rinse. We would end up using far more water that way, and its just not the same as a shower. Multiple uses a day.

5 Flashlights—Once the sun goes down, we get three hours of electricity from the generator, then its lights out until morning. Flashlights are simply the only way to see. We have the new LED type, which draw far less energy and last longer. We also use a 3,000,000 candle flood to light up the whole yard and scare away potential bad guys. Used every night by all of us.

4 Batteries— We’ve become semi-experts in the world of DC power, amps, voltage and batteries. Without batteries, not much would work around here—we run our refrigerator, fans, some lights, our music and daytime electronics from our big solar batteries, but also we use small rechargeable nickel metal hydride and even disposable batteries. We are charging and using all day every day.

3 Giant Ziploc bags/Zorb it— Electronics are just at the mercy of Liberia’s humidity and ocean air. Nothing electronic survives long left in the air. So every night, everything electronic we use that can fit—laptops, inverters, camera—go into bags. In each bag we put a product called Zorb-it, which is a high tech desiccant that does not need to be replaced. These two products have saved us thousands of dollars. Used every day.

2 Our front porch/yard—We are on the porch throughout the day, but certainly every morning around 7:00 we sit together with our coffee and plan the day, and every evening around 5:30 take our plastic chairs into the yard and catch a sea breeze while the boys play around us and Enoch chats with us from his tree perch. It is a ritual that has sustained us and centered us through our stay.

1 The DC Fans—I would not be in Liberia without these fans. None of us would. Because they run off our solar batteries, the fans can run virtually 24 hours a day, and we absolutely would not be willing to swelter in 85F heat with high humidity every night in the dry season without some relief. This house is not built for air conditioning—levered windows cannot be closed tight—and we could not afford the cost of air conditioning anyway. We could not even afford running regular AC fans all night. But the DC fans on a hot dripping body are just enough—and because these little Amish made wonders have made our stay here possible, they earn the number one spot as “The Little Thing that Makes the Most Difference” to our life in Liberia. Used all day, every day and all night, every honkin' night.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Container Arriveth

Weather: Mostly hot and humid-- some rain at the end of last week as we begin to transition out of the dry season. Temps in the 90s and very humid. Not good container unloading/box carrying and sorting weather. Tuesday the 8th, we recieved heavy rain for the first time in four months. We got about two inches in the space of and hour. It is marks the begining of the end of this year's dry season.

This is going to be another week of "post-as-post-can" I'm sorry to report. The internet cafe we usually haunt-- which is the fastest commercial site in the country when running-- continues to limp along with generator problems. This puts us at the mercy of other places, most of which are much slower and cannot handle photo uploads. Actually, with all the error messages I'm getting, I'll be lucky if I get this note off.

After waiting ten weeks and multiple frustrating false starts, we finally got the container we've been waiting for out of the port. From the 40' foot long steel box, we extracted hundreds of cardboard boxes and bicycles bound for 1)the YMCA 2) Catholic schools around Monrovia 3) Five local school libraries we (Active Kids Canada, some of you, the schools and the Reeds) helped build, and 4)LEAD. Renita and her Liberian crew unpacked the container at the YMCA on Wednesday April 2, and then took the stuff for our five libraries and LEAD to our house. (We knew that if it came during the week, one of us would not be able to be there because of the alternating nature of our schedules. I felt bad-- it came on Wednesday-- because I had to teach at MPCHS. If it had come on Tuesday or Thursday, I would have had the unloading job.)

Our take was 300 boxes, mostly of books-- about 50lbs each--and a few bikes. We spent the next three exausting days sorting and organizing the haul into essentially six piles of boxes-- 5 to the schools, 1 to LEAD. Each pile has about 50 boxes, sorted according to subject and grade. It was brutal work for the kids and me, but nobody worked half as hard as Renita. We had to work in our yard because we could not fit half of it all in the house. Naturally, it rained Thursday and Friday, the first time its rained two consecutive days since November. So we used the big tarps Renita's mom had sent along and created a roof over our heads. We finished after a 12 hour marathon session Saturday, and Sunday, we sort of rested from our labors. Both Renita and I prompltly got sick Sunday, probably from the let down of being on container duty for the past few weeks.

Monday the 7th, Renita had the happy tasks of delivering the thousands of text books, library books and reference books to the libraries. Fortunately, she did no more heavy lifting-- the schools had crews unloading their prizes.

UPDATE Wednesday, April 9
I mentioned before that we were feeling a bit under the weatther after our ordeal with the container and boxes. It turns out Renita was much more under it that I. She has malaria. This is the second time she has contracted it and feels appropriately terrible. Vomiting, fever, aches, nausea, headaches, the typical symptoms. However, she is taking medicine and should be better soon.

Now for the pictures of our week with the boxes.

Gauntlet Week begins Wednesday the 2nd at the Port. This is our second trip in three days to get the container. First time we waited four hours only to find out a loading crane was busted. Second time, Renita waited in the heat four more hours, but finally after being in the port 10 weeks... it comes! Forty feet of good wishes from Canada, all waiting to be unpacked, reorganized and delivered.

Opening the container and hauling out the 60 bikes first. Then the boxes. We got our three hundred-- it was exhausting working in the heat and humidity-- and headed home.

A literal ton of books and supplies waiting under the tarps to be organized, sorted, and divided.

Saturday morning, we head for the finish line. With Renita consulting her list, Eastman, Noah, Trokon, John and Alex shuffle boxes according to her commands.

All done and under the tarp by nightfall Saturday. Five piles of over fifty boxes each, waiting for delivery. We slept well.

Monday, the books were delivered-- the scene was the same at five schools-- kids and staff claiming hundreds of books and oodles of supplies-- thanks to Active Kids Canada, and many friends both in Canada and Liberia.