Monday, June 30, 2008

John and Abe Return

That’s John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper to y’all. The pros from Calvin College and Kuyper College—Drs. Cheryl Brandsen and Beryl Hugen from Calvin, and Dr. Judi Meerman from Kuyper—returned for a week of intensive work on the Bachelor of Social Work they are tweaking with Monrovia’s Mother Patern College of Health Sciences. From our viewpoint, the trip was extremely valuable. The team helped us clarify and better articulate our program offerings. We better know where we are going and what we will need to get there.

While here, the team visited various sites and places throughout the week. They met with schools, an AIDS treatment facility, an organization that works with young men, a hospital, and other sites where future social workers will be needed and where hopefully we will be able to place our practicum students.

Enjoy the following images—most taken by our visitors.

The team at work. We spent several full days working through and improving the BSW curriculum.

On Saturday, we visited an area called West Point-- concentrated population, high poverty. It is also the home of a very active fishing enterprise.

The fish are delivered from the boats here...

...where some get immediately purchased by the dried fish ladies. Note the load she works with.

Joseph, my Liberian counterpart at MPCHS made sure he grabbed a bunch on the smoker for a quick lunch.

Some of the fish, like these large yellow tail, get purchased to sell in area markets.

Tryin' to make a few Liberian dollars-- these boys are selling palm nuts-- five LD a bunch.

Back to the office: the team meets with the officers of the National Association of Liberian Social Workers.

On Sunday, the Reeds hosted the team at our house. Here Dr. Hugan plays grampa to little "Rae-Rae" Renita Reeves.

Afterwords, we all took a stroll 'round the neighborhood.

On the day before we left, we took a trip to visit another site where we work. On the way back, we stopped to take in some scenery. This is called Blue Lake.

One of the local papers, the Inquirer, gave us this write up.

Weather: The rain slacked off this past week, giving us only a couple inches and some very nice days. With the start of a new week, the rain has returned. It has been raining all day Monday, and we expect a few inches at least. Winds from the west with heavy overcast. Temps today in the upper 70sF.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Elizabeth and Naomi

We first met 14 year old Elizabeth in our collaborative work with Active Kids Canada and a Liberia elementary school. AK Canada paid to have a library built and stocked with texts, and wanted to hear about some of the children who attended the school. The principal of the school told us about several children, all of whom have stories worth telling, but we wanted to make sure you met Elizabeth. She is a hard working student, gets good grades, and really loves her school. She lives with her mother Naomi about a mile and a half from the school. There is no father in the picture.

Elizabeth and her mother crush rocks for a living.

In Liberia, the need for crushed rock is high and constant. Almost any construction project in requires crushed rock to provide support in the sandy soil. Roads, cement houses, walls all use crushed rock. Elizabeth and Naomi live in a community of rock crushers near a quarry-- appropriately dubbed Rock Hill. The quarry cliff face is heated, then large rocks broken out by the rock breakers and sold to the rock crushers for $150.00LD ($2.50US) per load. The rock crushers break up the large rocks into small rocks and sell them by the pile for $500LD ($8.00US) to the rock retailers who in turn bag, sell and transport them for roughly $3,000LD (50.00US) for the bags coming from the pile. The method of crushing big rocks is simple. Using a ball peen or other small hammer, the crusher hits rocks into the required smaller size, and throws them onto a pile. When the pile is a few feet high and a few feet wide, the crusher calls the rock seller to come and haul it away.

Elizabeth has been crushing rocks since she was eleven. She starts work when she gets home from school at 2:00pm—Saturdays she works all day—and continues until around 5:00pm. Her early thirties-something mother has been crushing rocks daily for fifteen years. Elizabeth and Naomi sell about three piles every two days for a total average (subtracting the amount the pay to the cliff-side rock breakers) of about US$5.00 a day. The money is just enough to feed this family of two and send Naomi to school.

Most Liberians work very hard in difficult conditions for very little return, and for some like coal makers or rock crushers, the work is almost incredibly demanding or tedious. For Elizabeth and Naomi, and the rest of the residents of Rock Hill, the strain of everyday life shows on their strong and calloused hands, and on their tired faces. For mother Naomi, this is the only method of making a living she has known, and there are no real alternatives. She does not entertain dreams of a better life. For Elizabeth, it is different. You can see it in her eye and in her commitment to school: She wants out of Rock Hill. How long she can maintain that desire is anyone’s guess. At least until she graduates I'm sure. But her desire for a better life is challenged by tradition, inertia, the lack of friends outside Rock Hill, and the general Liberian economy. Eventually she will either use the rocks to help her escape, or the rocks will bury her. I imagine she knows she is in the race of her life.

The quarry from Elizabeth's house. The center of the Rock Hill community.

Elizabeth just getting home to mother Naomi.

Renita, the school principle and I chat with Elizabeth and Naomi about their world. Naomi did not speak English well, and Elizabeth was shy and quiet throughout.

They demonstrated how they spend their days for us.

The Rock Hill area-- piles of rock, everyone by hand-- are everywhere to be seen.

Elizabeth and Naomi, with their latest rock pile behind them.

Weather: The rains have come, as they always do, and as might be expected, not all day yet. During the last week, the rain came mostly at night, but at times heavily for a few hours. Total last week: Monday, 2 inches; Tuesday, 2 inches; Wednesday, 2.25 inches; Thursday 2.25 inches; Friday .25 inches; Saturday, Trace, Sunday, Trace, and by this Monday morning, 1 inch has already fallen. Total for the week: just under ten inches. Hi temps in the low 80’sF and very humid when the sun shines, low temps in the low 70sF.

NEXT WEEK: The Return of the Pros from Dover. We look in on the team from Calvin and Kuyper Colleges as they meet with the MPCHS staff, and tour Liberia with social workers' eyes.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Weather: Coming off of a dreary weekend, we are writing on a dreary Monday. We received only about two inches of rain over the past two days, but it fell light both days under a low overcast. There were bits and pieces of sun, but it was mostly cloudy with light and variable winds. Hi temps in the low 80sF, lows in the mid 70sF.

As I mentioned last week, Renita was out past Cape Mount, a few miles from the Sierra Leone border, conducting a two day workshop for a group interesting in better ways to run their micro businesses. While I was running my social worker students through final exam gauntlet in Monrovia, she was enlightening a group of very eager businessmen and women in the little roadtown of Tienii. Here are a few shots.

Next week: A mother and daughter work together—on a rock pile.

In case you were wondering.

Tienii-- just a little village on the way to Sierra Leone, which lies just a bit beyond the hills. The road is one of the best in the country.
The view from the little guest house where Renita overnighted it. You get the sense that the bamboo fence is just keeping the rainforest at bay temporarily. No mosquito nets-- it was a long night.
Renita Reed and James Hillary from LEAD at work inside.

See? She had a great time. The participants really wanted to learn.

The class poses Friday afternoon.

Monday, June 09, 2008


Weather: After heavy rains last week, we enjoyed a weekend of no precipitation and clear air. Hot and partly cloudy in the daytime, evenings are clear with spectacular night time skies the last couple nights-- looks like night in upper Michigan with the band of the Milky Way clearly visible. This only happens a few nights of the year, so I'm taking it in.

Renita has left me again, this time gone to Cape Mount up near the border with Sierra Leone. She'll be conducting a two day small business management workshop. Me, I'm spending time visiting some local organizations as we continue to discuss future things, and preparing the final exam for the Conflict and Peacebuilding course I'm teaching. Mostly though, I'm missing Renita, and of course Hannah and Noah, who are whooping it up all over the Great Lakes region of North America. Sigh. Tonight, I'll enjoy some fish and rice with Trokon and Eastman, spray the yard for fire ants, and maybe watch "King Kong" with them on dvd. Feel free to drop in. In the meantime, enjoy these shots I took recently of life in various Liberia villages. Coupled with last week's post, it'll help round out a bit of life in much of Liberia-- and the entire region of West Africa.

More of the same-- bumpy and dusty in the dry season, bumpy and slippery-- or impassable-- in the wet season.

Ahh-- I see they fixed that bridge!

Koon Town-- a palaver hut. A community place to gather.

... and the ubiquitous cooking hut. My favorite place in the village.

Looking along the front step of a house-- another palaver hut in the back.

In Kainga Town, a house given some color. When I asked they lady who lives here what they were, she looked at me like I was from Mars and replied, "Dey flowers."

The Center of Gbaye's Town.

The quintessential shade tree.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Let's Play "Livin' Liberian"

Some of you, intrepid souls that you are, have expressed an interest in experiencing life in Liberia, or Africa in general, but haven’t had the means or opportunity to do so. Some of you have said it would be good to have your family experience the reality of living in a developing country, in part to add perspective to life in North America.

After churning it over a bit in our minds, we think we may have come up with a way to create a Liberian experience in a non African context. We call it Livin’ Liberian. It is actually nothing more than applying the living conditions of most Liberians to a set of instructions for you to follow. For some of you, just reading about it may be all the “experience” you want to absorb. For others, you may want to try it with some modifications. But for those radical ones out there, you may want to do the whole thing.

The full version of Livin’ Liberian should take place in the hottest, most humid time of the year. It should last for a week to get a richer sense of it (although longer would be even better). However, even a day or two will work toward an understanding. Of course, there can really never be a full understanding, because we have the option of stopping-- of buying the food we want, of going to the bank, of driving a car, of having running water. Nevertheless, in place of the real thing, this could be meaningful.

You ready? Here we go. Remember, this is the full version. You may modify.

Most statistics say that Liberians live on one US dollar per day per person. We’ll assume you live close to Monrovia. So, put aside $28 for the week to live on, assuming a family of four. If you need more, you will have to ask other people to loan you money, but not more than $1.00 at a time. (NOTE: In North America, some prices will be higher for some items than here. For instance, rice for a family of four may cost $.80 in Liberia, and perhaps $1.20 in NA. Go ahead and buy the food you need, but subtract the amounts listed below from your $1/day/person in your household. Remember, you will have to juggle and make tough choices if you want to eat and get to town and use a phone and use the internet and…)

Turn off the running water in your house. If you don’t do this, you will use the tap or flush the toilet without even thinking. Place a large, clean barrel, cooler, clean garbage pail, or something that can hold 20 gallons of water in one bathroom in your house and a larger receptacle your kitchen. Make an arrangement with a neighbor about a half a block away to buy water from them by the bucket. You can use their hose outside their house instead of drawing or pumping the water. The cost should be about $.05 per bucket. Water is usually drawn twice a day, although we draw it once per day and just do more at that time. You’ll have to carry the buckets of water back to your house and fill the barrels in your bathroom and kitchen. Boil it before drinking. You can cook and wash with it as is. (For an authentic experience, mix a little dirt in the water; most Liberians and Africans do not have clean water and you never really feel clean even after a shower.)

Unplug all your appliances, including refrigerator, lamps, stove (If gas, turn it off), fans, air conditioning (if central air, turn the thermostat off), clocks—anything that uses electricity. For light, use candles-- you can buy them for $.15 each. For cooking and food storage, see below. For relief from the heat, get used to it and pray for the rainy season.

If you have read our blog, you have seen typical Liberian food and have found recipes for various dishes. As a temporary Liberian, you will eat rice every day-- and love it-- for the two meals you eat (breakfast and dinner; it is usually only cooked once in a day, so either the breakfast is leftover or the dinner is leftover, depending on the you). The rice is served with a “soup” of some sort on top, with fish or dried meat boiled into the soup. The soup is often cooked from collard greens, squash, cabbage, or other vegetables that can boiled. Remember that you only have $3 per day and you have other expenses as well, so buy your food carefully. Some people just have bread for breakfast so you can opt for that if you prefer. Remember that you have no refrigerator or stove, so people often do their buying on a daily basis (they buy rice one time for the month, if they can afford it, and then the items for their soup daily, otherwise the rice is about $.15 a cup). Pots of rice and the soup should be cooked over coal, so if you have a grill, buy some charcoal and use that (don’t use propane—subtract $00.15 for coal for each meal. If you don’t have a grill, buy a cheap one that can last you for the week from the money that you will be saving on groceriesJ).

Bed Time
Sleep on the floor on a sleeping bag or foam mattress. Remember—candles only!

Toilet Duty
If you are one of the few Liberians with indoor plumbing fixtures, you will flush the toilet, by using a small bucket in the bigger barrel-- fill it with water, and dump it in the toilet and it will flush. If you are like the vast majority of Liberians, you do not have plumbing. Dig a hole in your back yard and use that as a latrine, with leaves for wiping. Not a very hygienic solution, we know, and it wouldn’t go over well in your city, but that’s what people do here, hence the many health issues like cholera.

Place a cup in your bucket of water, stand in your shower and dump it over your head. You will naturally use less water (either because it’s too cold or because you don’t want to draw too much water); we use about a gallon per day per person for a shower.

To wash your clothes, gather two big tubs and fill with water. Buy a bar of soap ($.10 here) and some bleach ($.10 – about two tablespoons). Wash by hand. Rinse. When you are done, spread on your lawn to dry (most people can’t afford to buy the rope or the clothespins to hang their clothes up.)

As you see everywhere in the world, the price of gas and diesel are high here as well - $4.05/gallon for gas; $4.70/gallon for diesel. But you will not be driving anyway— very few Liberians own one or can drive. But the prices have increased for public transportation here as well. Since you are earning $1/day/person in your household, we must assume you have a fulltime job. So, pay $.80 for transportation each way ($1.60 per day). In addition, the time spent to get a bus or a taxi can be hours both in the morning and the night. If you go anywhere this week, walk or take public transportation. Go to the bus stop and wait for one or two hours before getting on the bus to really get a feel of what it is like to move around in the city. You could also walk or you could rent a bicycle for $1.00 for the day. (You’ll only need to subtract the Liberian cost from your $1/day/person in household allowance. We know transportation in your town is higher.)

Most people do not have their own cell phone (there are no land lines), although that seems to be rapidly changing. For the sake of this experience, you may use your own phone but each call will cost $00.10 and should only last a few minutes. The good news is that it does not cost to receive calls here. So keep phone calls very short or call someone and tell them to call you back.

The cost for the use of the internet is $1.00 for thirty minutes. In addition, you need to take transportation to get there, so add an additional $.30 cents for that.

Summary List of Costs per week-- Budget wisely!
Rice (3-4 cups ) – $0.60, soup ($0.50), meat ($0.70) = $1.80/day x 7 days $12.60
Coal - .15/day x 7 days=$1.05
Water – 0.40/day (8 buckets/day x 7 days)=$2.80
Laundry (1 time per week)=$0.20
Candles – 1 @ 0.15 – 5 used in a week=$0.75
Transportation - $1.60/day for five days=$8.00
Phone – 5 calls @ $0.10 =$0.50
Internet – 1 use per week =$1.30

Although this may be tough for you to get through, the point to keep in mind is that hundreds of millions—perhaps multiple billions—of your fellow human beings do it every day for their entire lives. It gives one pause, does it not?

Hauling water-- they do it every day. The containers, called "gallons", actually 2.5 gallons, bigger ones hold 6 gallons.

Preparing cassava together.

Laundry day-- a main challenge is to keep the kids from stepping on it.

If your rubber boots tear, you may not throw them out and buy new-- you can't afford it. Find broken, discarded flip-flops, tear off the straps, and create a patch by melting the strap onto the rubber.

Hope you don't have any building to do this week, if so, you must make your own blocks.
And if your hut needs a new coat of mud, you gotta do that yourself too-- you can't afford a mud contractor.Hey, just be thankful you don't live in the bush on the other side of a broken road...

... during the rainy season.