Monday, May 26, 2008

ReedNews Update: May Edition

Weather: Partly cloudy and very humid of late, with evening thundershowers and some very heavy rain. Raining about four days out of seven, usually between sundown and sunup, but occasional rain in the day as well. Sunday it rained from 10:00pm until Monday at 3:00am, dropping about 5 inches on us, for a total this week of approximately 8 inches. It will get much wetter. Moderate breezes from the east, mostly in late afternoon, otherwise very light and variable winds providing little relief from the humidity. Daytime temps in the 80sF, low 70s at night.

The global economic downturn is hitting this nation especially hard, and comes at a time when the real gains we’ve seen these last three years are vulnerable. Rice prices have risen by 30% in six months, and the international oil crisis had caused shortages and impacted prices of all imported and transported commodities—which is just about everything. Gas is currently US$4.05 a gallon, and diesel is $4.70 a gallon. Prices of just about everything are up 25-50% since last year. The impact on the people of Liberia—already among the poorest in the world—is difficult to characterize. Liberians are used to living on almost nothing. Almost every Liberian lived on the run, in the bush somewhere as a displaced person more than once during the war. They understand being squeezed in ways most of us cannot imagine. So once again, they are suffering economic oppression, and once again they are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Here’s more news:

Item-- Vera, our weekday dinner cook and laundry lady, was robbed for the third time since we’ve known her, again in the middle of the night by cowards armed with machetes. They broke her door, beat up a young man staying with the little family, stole the $30.00 or so she had (and that’s all she has), took her food, some clothes and even the mattress she lays on the floor to sleep on with her daughter. A terrifying experience for this single mother of four. Hannah had some money given to her by one of you to use "as she wanted," so she bought Vera a new foam mattress.

Item-- Sunday morning, rogues continued their work, this time at the local church many of you have helped build and supply. They broke in, stole the chairs and electrical wires for the generator.

Item—On a more positive note, last week LEAD graduated its 8th, 9th and 10th business classes, in Monrovia, Buchanan and Gbarnga, respectively. LEAD now runs two business empowerment programs, one for very small businesses that includes a two day workshop and loans of up to $300.00US per participant, the other for larger businesses includes loans of up to $1800.00US and a twelve week, 36 hour business course. It was this larger program that graduated the classes this time. In Gbarnga, the proud grads marched through the city in parade fashion, banging drums and singing in celebration.

Item—The Pros from Dover are returning! The Social Work team from Calvin and Kuyper Colleges will be in Monrovia in June to continue their assistance in the young Mother Patern College BSW (Bachelor of Social Work) program. They’ll be bringing textbooks, tweaking the curriculum, and preparing for their visit in January—they’ll be teaching two courses.

Item-- We are temporally losing our children. Hannah and Noah are traveling today from Liberia to North America for three months. This is by far the longest we’ve been without them, and we are mixed about seeing them gone for so long. But we believe they will have a great time. They will be traveling with a family we’ve come to know and trust, and will be picked up in Chicago by our friend Mary Vermeer.

Vera, on a happier morning. She's doing better today.

The 10th LEAD class marching down the Gbanga main road.

Hundreds of business men and women empowered by LEAD. These are the latest.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Around Monrovia

Weather: Rain more frequently now, especially in the evenings, at least every third night. Last night we got about .75 inches in a couple hours. Day time is humid as ever with temps in the 80's. Night times are cooler now, and we are chilly with in house temps dipping to 79F.

Now that we are fully back into the Liberian soup, I thought a little tour of the streets of Monrovia might be in order. We live outside the city, and while some of our work is miles away, both Renita and I find our work centers in Monrovia.

Monrovia is really the only true "city" in the country, all the others amounting to villages of varying sizes, none much more than 20,000 in population. The civil war caused Monrovia’s population to double, as displaced people streamed into the relative security of the capital. Today, the city cannot support all of its residents, so many wander the streets, some begging, some stealing, everyone looking for any opportunity to get some cash. Estimates are Monrovia now holds over a million people, or over a third of the population of the country. It is not a pretty city, for over fifteen years of neglect has left it scarred and dirty. Not yet fully supplied with the electricity it enjoyed before the war, with a poor water supply and meager sanitation, with insufficient and roads constantly needing repair, the city struggles to clean its act up. In the four years since we first visited, we have seen real progress. The administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has worked hard against a tradition of corner-cutting, skimming off the top, extortion and every other type of corruption invented by man. She deserves a Nobel Prize.

Anyway, join Renita and I on a trip literally around this town, which like "Tobacco Road," may be despised because it’s filthy, but loved because its home. If you look close, you'll see signs of hope everywhere.

Not far from home, the Chinese have consructed an asphault and concrete-making factory as it supervises road repair throughout the country. Heading North.

Our first major intersection as we appoach the city-- this is ELWA junction. Turn (bend) to the left to head into the city.

One of the several new used buses for much needed public transportation. Monrovia needs a lot more!

As we head into the city, we pass UNMIL headquarters-- UNMIL stands for the United Nations Mission in Liberia. Still one of the largest in the world, with thousands Peacekeepers. They will be leaving a little at a time, begininng this fall.

The Capitol Building--being refurbished with the help of USAID-- the good people of the USA. And directly across the street-- the President's building, called the White House. Oddly, signs on the gate state "Photography Strictly Forbidden." Not sure what that means, but since I got this photo online, they can't bust me. I hope.

Downtown Monrovia-- this is Center Street.

Leaving downtown, nearing an area called Red Light-- thousands of little roadside shops. Heading East.

How you like the ride so far? No spitting out the windows!

After circling the city, this checkpoint is on the east side. This during the dusty dry season.

A very common sight-- not only grossly overloaded vehicles, but this one with bags of charcoal for cooking on coal pots. The coal is made in the interior and trucked in. Now heading Southwest.

On the way back, this is a side road to our friends' house-- we need to be in 4WD to make it.

Finally home, the journey 'round Monrovia over. Eastman waits by the big gate.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Liberian Cuisine, Part 2

Weather: High humidity with evening thundershowers becoming more common. Daytime temps in the upper 80sF, nighttime lows in the low 70sF.

We arrived back in Liberia after just under two weeks in Gambia and we were instantly engulfed. Engulfed I say. First of course by the humidity, which smacked into us like a wall the second we exited the plane, but also by our Liberian life waiting for us. By the end of the day, we had 1) attended the graduation ceremonies of LEAD’s 8th business class, 2) hosted an impromptu version of our annual “plum party” for about 15 of our neighbor kids (The mangos are ripe and the kids have a riot trying to harvest the allotted amount before I kick ‘em out.), 3) walked Enoch over to his family’s house and had a long talk with them about the eleven year old’s out of control behavior of late, 4) discovered we had a second deer in our yard, given to us by our friends who are about to go to Canada for a few months, and 5) spent a frantic half hour with the neighborhood kids trying to catch the deer who got out our gate while we were hauling water, (Miraculously, we caught her.) Needless to say, we were dog tired by the end of the day. We are still getting back into it; as I write, Renita is home schooling, and I—well, you can see what I am doing.

So while we are getting up to Liberian speed, I thought I’d introduce you to three more Liberian dishes, all three of which we eat regularly.

Water Greens
Water greens look a little like potato greens when cooked, but have a different texture. To me they are like a slightly slimier (Slimy actually is called “slippery” here, and Liberians seem to like the texture) version of spinach—they definitely have that strong spinach flavor.

To prepare: For four adults Remove stems and wash 4 bunches of greens thoroughly. Cut or tear into fine shreds. Combine with two cups chopped onions, and hot pepper and fry in one half cup of oil for 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 cow meat—but anything (dried fish, fried fish, boiled pig’s feet, chicken turkey) you like is acceptable. Boil away most but not all of the water. Serve over rice.

Dum Boy (with Bene Seed)
Dum Boy is a milder version of its much more famous cousin, fu fu (or foo foo. You get the idea.) Dum boy is not nearly as complicated to make as fu fu, and we prefer it to the strong tang of the fermented fu fu. Every Liberian will tell you “do not chew dum boy, just swallow.” As for me, I gotta chew it a couple times before I can get it down. It is very sticky and gelatinous. Here is what it looks like before the soup goes on top:

To Prepare: You need a large mortar and pestle, and to grab a bunch of cassava—the root not the leaf, and grate it into a bowl. Take the grated cassava, place it into a plastic bag, and put the bag into a pot of boiling water. Boil for a half hour to an hour. When the cassava is cooked and tender, dump into a mortar and begin pounding with your trusty pestle. Pound until the cassava becomes a sticky paste. Form these into balls— and serve with soup.

Bene Seed Soup
You can eat dum boy with anything of course; it does not have much flavor and is very starchy. We prefer peanut soup or bene seed soup. Bene seed is sesame seed. You purchase little bags of bene seed in any market. Here is what it looks like on dum boy:

To prepare: Take about a cup of bene (sesame) seed and toast it in a pan over a coal pot or stove. Make sure all seeds get golden brown or more. Remove the toasted seeds and place them in your mortar and pound them into a pulp. In another pan, fry two chopped onions, peppers to taste, and chicken or beef seasonings, depending on the meat you will add. Add any pre-cooked meat you prefer—we like turkey—and fry a bit more. Put the cooked ingredients into a pot, add water to fill the pot and the bene seed. Boil the mixture for a half hour. Some people add a bit of flour to thicken, others toss in a couple of diced potatoes. Sometimes we add noodles. Serve over the dum boy (or rice).

Jollof Rice
Jollof rice is a favorite all over West Africa, and you can find dishes like this all over the world. Its easy to make, and easy to dress up. We eat it about once a week—usually on Fridays. We make a lot of it and feed a few friends. Trokon does not like it much—too much tomato.

To Prepare: Fry two onions, a minced clove of garlic, and peppers to taste in a half cup of oil. To this add five small tins—about a cup and a half—of tomato paste. Stir it all together and fry it up a bit. Remove and place in a large pot. Add enough water to cook six cups of rice (this depends on how you like your rice. Liberians like their rice soft, I like it “el dente.”) Boil the mixture together. Cook the meats you wish to add—anything but fish. Like many Liberian dishes, it is preferable to serve a dish with two (or more) kinds of meat in the dish. We prefer chicken wings with beef (called cow meat here), but when on a budget, we slice up some hot dogs (here called sausage.) By the way, true sausage would be delicious in jollof rice. We can’t get it here, or else its too expensive. Once cooked, set the meat aside. Add the rice to the boiling pot of tomato paste and seasonings. When the rice is done, add the meat and a can of mixed vegetables. We also chop up some fresh tomatoes and mix in just before serving.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A Few Obligatory Vacation Shots

Weather: The glorious winds have really picked up at the beach, and I for one could not get enough if it knocked me over. Winds averaging a steady 35-40 mph last night, a steady 20mph during the day. Hot, dry daytime temps (around 30 C, 86F), and nightime temps much cooler (20C, 68F).
We are in our final weekend in the Gambia-- a lot has happened and in our meeting with other team members, we know a lot more about our next steps in Liberia and beyond.
But all of that can wait. Today, and through Monday, we are still embracing our time here. And of course, we are taking pictures. Here are a handful.
The wind blows all day-- our hangout at sunrise...

... at noon-- here you can see the palms bending with the breeze--...

... and in the evening. I know the shot is cliche' as can be, but it also happened to be the view out my front door last night.

The countryside of Gambia/Senegal is much drier than Liberia.

Noah took this shot of a red colobus while on a four hour walk with his sister and some friends.

He also got this view when a family of vervet monks showed up, possibly looking for a handout.
Our beach at mid day, facing North.

Late afternoon, looking toward Liberia, hundreds of miles to the south.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Getting Used To Paradise

Weather: Relatively low humidities with warm days and cool nights. Daytime is sunny with temps in the upper 80's-low 90's, with nightime lows in the 60's. Winds are moderate in the day-- 5-15 mph in the mornings and pick up in the evenings, averaging 20-30mph.

Sorry, I'm still adjusting to life in the Gambia. I'm trying to work on the blog-- I want to write you, give you news and pics, but, well, we are having a such great time hanging out, relaxing, enjoying laughing with each other-- its hard getting around to doing a full post. And of course, the net is very fickle here.

But enough excuses, expect more very soon. For now, enjoy the view from our balcony...

We're having some fun-- Breezes, ice cream (almost unavailable in Liberia), laughter, and takin' it easy. Happy happy, joy joy!

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Reeds in the Wind

We arrived in the Gambia Tuesday night-- all things are swell except the internet. We'd love to post some images of our delightful view, but for now you'll just have to take our word for it that it's just this side of paradise. The breeze remains just as healing as ever. Maybe that's what they mean when they say its "balmy?"

Feel free to read last year's blog post-- I think May or April and you'll get the idea of what's happenin' here. Anyway, until the 'net allows us to post photos, we'll be off having a great time.

Keep tuning in!