Monday, September 29, 2008

A Land of Dying Young

The average life span of a Liberian is 48 years. In part, this is due to a high infant mortality rate, but in reality, we see relatively few old Liberians. Of course they are here, but when a man or woman reaches sixty, it is an accomplishment. Recently in our neighborhood, and also among the LEAD family, a number of friends, aged 30 to 50, have died. One was killed by her husband. Most died of unknown illnesses. The recent deaths got us to thinking: in our time here, how many have died young, or if older, unnecessarily? The list that follows includes only people we knew, or people that lived in our community. It is also only the list that Renita and I could recall.

Drowning: 12

Bacterial meningitis: 2
Undiagnosed illness: 4
HIV- related illness: 2
Gunshot 3
Domestic Violence 1
Pedestrian hit by car 3
Snake bite 2
Carbon monoxide poisoning 2

Update October 15: Add two more deaths. Last week, a young boy drowned on Thinkers Village Beach, and the wife of a pastor friend died of cerebral malaria.

The average age of the above list is around 30. Some, of course, are beyond the scope of even the most modern medicine to treat. Yet most could have been prevented.

Medical facilities here are still operating without proper equipment and enough trained staff. Our medical friends are real heroes, working with enormous pressures. But still, too many times patients are routinely diagnosed with malaria without looking further, given antibiotics, and sent home. In the two cases of meningitis, the symptoms were missed, so the patient was sent home and died. Liberians often go to Chinese herbalist hacks that have sprung up around Monrovia. Theses parasites charge high fees for simple teas and over-the-counter remedies that do nothing for the truly sick. In addition, Liberians often seek traditional “bush” healers who often hasten death with unsanitary procedures or unsound practices. Good friends of mine have died in this country when they shouldn’t have. Or at least, they probably wouldn’t have, if only they had access to the kind of heath care so many in the West do.
When I was having suspicious symptoms in Nigeria, after being given the best care anyone could expect there, I was flown out in a private jet to Europe and given a battery of the most sophisticated tests the world offers to determine I was suffering from headaches. When my Liberian friends have been sick, I have watched them suffer, get misdiagnosed at the local hospital, released with a standard “placebo pack” of vitamins and antibiotics, get worse, desperately turn to charlatans who take their money in return for false hope, get sicker and too often die as family and loved ones look on helplessly. There is something terribly wrong with this picture. But the pictures are everywhere. Here are a few of them-- friends gone.

My dear friend, Samuel Reeves Sr. Died from bacterial meningitis-- treatable if caught. It wasn't. Deacon Reeves is the oldest of all we knew who died-- mid sixties.

One of LEAD's businessmen. Saye died suddenly in his early fifties.

Henry and his wife Mary. They ran an poor orphanage until we helped them find homes and better facilities for their orphans. He died in April 2006 after a short bout with a mysterious, undiagnosed illness. She died three months later of some sort of liver disease, in the hospital. They left four children behind-- suddenly orphans themselves.

A little boy, Otiera, who lived next door to us. He drowned in a lagoon just off the ocean.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Leaving Liberia
Part One: Why?

The Reeds have known these days would come since we arrived thirty eight months ago, but we didn’t know the details. We didn't know when they would come. But they are upon us. For those of you who have faithfully joined us thus far, some of you may be surprised at the news. True, when we came we said we’d be here at least three years, so in a way there was advance notice. But there are a lot of good reasons to continue; why change scenery now? We agree with the spirit of the question. There is so much to do in Liberia. This country will be digging itself out of its post-war abyss for decades to come. It needs all the support it can get. The skills that Renita and I offer--psychosocial, educational, organizational, administrative-- have proven of value in a country where so much is being rebuilt from the ground up. In addition, we have adjusted to life here. We know how to be in this country and it has become familiar and often comfortable to us. To leave and go somewhere else would mean another possibly long and difficult period of adjustment.

We understand these facts very well, and while the thought of going leaves us emotionally ambivalent, we are convinced beyond doubt that it is the time to go. There are two reasons either of which alone would be enough to cause this move, and neither are reasons that look to change anytime soon.

Reason #1 Hannah and Noah need a healthier socio-educational environment. That sounds a little psycho-babble-ish, but what it means is our kids need to go to a good school where they can be seen as part of the crowd and make friends. Let’s parse that sentence out a bit. “Our kids need to go to a good school…” For three years, first Renita and then both of us have provided Hannah and Noah with the best home schooling we could. And we think we’ve done a good job. But home schooling is not an ideal choice for us or our kids any more. It keeps Renita and I away from other important work, and it locks Hannah and Noah into a very limited educational environment. “… where they can be seen as part of the crowd and make friends.” Those Liberian children who we think of as friends are atypical. Friendship requires a certain level of unspoken understanding, a connection that does not need explaining. That kind of connection is extraordinary even in a shared culture, how much more in two very different cultures? The most obvious solution of course, is to send our kids to a good school with kids from many cultures—including their own—here in Liberia. But none exist. There are no quality international high schools in Liberia. If we want our kids to enjoy a healthier “socio-educational environment,” we need to go where that environment is.

Reason #2 We need to free our family and friends from the burden of being our sole support. Some of you have been incredibly generous, giving thousands of dollars toward our efforts here. All of the support we have received for everything—food, housing, transportation, logistics, everything—has come from less than a hundred steadfast people who love us and love the people of Liberia. When we first told our family and friends about this work and asked them to join us, we promised them the financial sacrifice would be for a limited time. We need to honor that promise. If we could do that and stay in Liberia, we would (assuming Reason #1 was addressed). But the Liberian economy certainly cannot support us, and the organizations with which we work, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Partners Worldwide, have no paid positions here. If we want to continue the kind of work we are doing and not rely solely on loved ones to do it, we need to leave Liberia.

Some of you are already asking, "What next?" "What is for Liberia, what next for the Reeds?" We have some answers for you, but we are still working on the details. Stay tuned, and we'll get them to you as fast as we can. In the meantime, enjoy these random shots from a place we have grown to love.

The lush vegetation of Liberia-- always green, but during the rainy season so lush you almost get drenched looking at it. September 2006
Among my most favorite pictures of Renita. I've probably posted it before. This on our first morning in Liberia, July 2005.
What can I say? Kids, everyday.
The countryside-- this a farm house in Kakata. April 2007

The city. Monrovia. April 2008
Another favorite shot. This of Trokon, on the left. What will I do without this young man and his brother, Eastman, in my life? February 2007

Max, this morning.
Sunset off the porch, September 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

ReedNews Update: September Edition

Weather: Overcast most days, with moderate rains almost every night, averaging just under an inch a day. Light and variable winds from the south or west, with temps in the upper 60sF at night to upper 70s in the day. Much hotter and very humid when the sun makes an appearance.

As we round another rainy season, we are enjoying “Liberian Normal.” Even things that used to rattle us, like the car blowing a radiator out in the bush (last week), or the generator going on the fritz (this week) or getting the Pathfinder stuck in the mud (three days ago) are taken in stride. Stuff happens in Liberia, and you just work the problem ‘til its fixed. But that’s on a micro level. On a macro level, “fixing the problem” or “problems” in Liberia is not as simple. There are many mechanics in the garage, and not all agree on the diagnosis or the appropriate tools. But the country remains at peace and stable. Here are some news tidbits:

Item: Food prices have climbed to record levels. Almost everything has tripled in price. From potato greens in the market to apples in the grocery store, the prices are making life very difficult for the average Liberian. The cost of transportation, of course, has tripled as well, since it is the price of fuel which lies at the heart of the overall price hike. We find it merely frustrating; our neighbors find they must go hungry some days.

Item: The controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues. Following the model of South Africa and Sierra Leone, the Liberian TRC is intended to provide a forum for victims of the civil war to tell their stories, and for perpetrators to confess their crimes in a safe environment leading to forgiveness, restitution, and restoration. This is how it is supposed to work. Lately though, the process has been somewhat politicized, with some grandstanding and finger pointing as some well known figures take the stand. The TRC proceedings are broadcast on the radio, so everybody hears the testimony.

Item: The Sirleaf-Johnson administration is cracking down on the rogues who plague this country, most often at night: the legislature has passed the death penalty for certain crimes related to armed robbery. Amnesty International and the UN have opposed the move, but Liberians are wholeheartedly behind it. Several rogues were burned alive in Red Light the other day, and we’ve heard rumors that three rogues were shot to death and secretly buried just down the road from here while we were in Nigeria.

Item: LEAD just graduated its 11th and 12th class, with its 13th starting tomorrow in Buchanan. Total in loans disbursed to date US$159,000. Repayment rate: above 90%.

Item: In Reed news, Renita and I are preparing for two October gatherings. She’s getting ready to leave us for the States to attend a Partners Worldwide conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while I am getting ready for an important one day meeting with several Liberian NGOs and Joel Huyser, who’ll be representing the Christian Reformed Church in North America to discuss the future of organizations like Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM), and Partners Worldwide (PW) in Liberia.

Item: FACT marches on. The Fostertown Association for Community Transformation is looking to the future. Knowing the Reeds will not be around after November, and thus a key conduit of support will be gone, the board is developing partnerships with Liberians of means and government reps to join them in upcoming activities. In the meantime, the FACT market continues to provide for the community, although in the present economy, it has taken a hit like everyone else. There is room for a hundred market tables, currently only 40 are filled.

Here are a few pictures of contemporary LiL. (Life in Liberia)

Sometimes teaching a LEAD staffer how to drive has its consequences-- "Watch out for the porch-o!" This was the Buchanan office porch.
Now a few faces: Garmi, seller of red oil and other goods at the FACT market.
Hannah and Noah, performing Abbot and Costello's "Who's of First" for our Gambia friends last May.

Dene'. One of my alltime favorite liberian images. I think Hannah took it.
Apple mugging while Renita enjoys.
My Mom and Step-Dad back in Michigan-- celebrating her 80th birthday September 13 at a Detroit Tigers baseball game. Go lady! HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Back Home to a New Routine

Weather: Monday the 8th welcomed us with very dark skies and heavy rains for the first day of school. Unfortunately, with the generator failing us, we resorted to education by candle light. We got about an inch in the fist half hour, then another over the course of the day. Very light winds out of the West, with temps in the upper 70sF.

It felt great to be home together again-- for all of us: for Hannah after three months visiting a dozen homes and two summer camps in the US and Canada, for Noah visiting some but mostly overdosing on video games and his own imagination with the infamous Steenwyk Brothers, for Yers Trooly after bouncing around for a month from Nigeria to Italy to Belgium within the context of a medical emergency that literally became a big headache, and for Renita jetting around even more, from Liberia to Nigeria back to Liberia, then rushing to me in Milan, joining me in Brussels after a Liberian flight got canceled, then awaiting all of us on her lonesome back in Foster Town.

We began our last semester of home schooling today, as well as our normal Liberian life. The routines are similar, but there are important differences. My work with Mother Patern College is finished, at least my active duty with them. This leaves me free to share more home schooling duties. Renita continues her activities with LEAD, but as she hands off more and more to her Liberian colleagues, the nature of her day-to-day changes as well. With every activity, there is a sense that we are finishing something here. So its familiar, but its different.

For these are our last three months in Liberia.

This is the first we’ve told you, although some of you know. There are a couple reasons we are leaving this land, and we’ll spend a post discussing them soon. We have mixed feelings about moving on, mostly because there is so much more to be done, and we’ve grown fond of the people and the life here. It has become home to us and we will miss it. But we are confident that it is time to go. So sometime in November, we’ll fly out of West Africa. We’ll keep you with us during the whole crazy process of leaving Liberia. And of course, the process of making a new home in, er, ah, now where was it we said we are going?

We didn’t. That’s for another post too. So stay tuned, thanks for welcoming us back, and for keeping us company while we were away. Seeya with more news soon.

We're Baa-aack!
Back to the ol' routine too-- fillin' water, washin' dishes, making hot water on the stove.
Our generator was out Monday morning and it was very dark outside with the heavy overcast-- so its back to school by trusty candle light.

Then the skies opened up. Had a nice refreshing shower. Like I said, back to normal.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Reeds on Three Continents

A Tale of Three Cities

Monday morning finds our family as spread out as far as we ever hope to be, although our kids aren’t even grown yet and then who knows what they’ll do. By Wednesday, after being separated for three months, and after me being out of Liberia for four weeks, we’ll finally be altogether in our West African home.

Just where are we anyway? We are hanging out in very different places, different cities, and the contrasts are worth enjoying . Let’s do some comparing and contrasting of this triumvirate of metropoli.

Renita— Monrovia Liberia, founded in 1822
Population: about a million. Located on the west coast of Africa. The Capital of Liberia. City best known for: Humidity, getting along without running water, sanitation, or electricity for sixteen years. Contributions to world culture: the handshake w/ finger snap.
Monrovia in History: First woman African head of state ever elected, 2005. Most famous landmark: The gutted Masonic Temple. Staple foods: rice, cassava. Favorite dishes: palm butter, cassava greens, fish, chicken, red oil-- really, anything.

The Masonic Temple. Former mecca of all the Liberian Presidents, now home for displaced squatters.

Liberian kids eating in the traditional group style. Looks like yellow peas. Where's the rice?

Bob-- Brussels Belgium founded 979
Population: about a million. Located in central Belgium. The Capital of Belgium. City best known as capital and economic hub of the European Union. Also HQ of NATO. Contribution to world culture: the French Fry, waffles, Brussel sprouts. Brussels in History: King Leopold II, father of the catastrophic African colonial movement. Most
Famous Landmark: the “Manneken Pis” or “Little Man Pee Pee” Staple foods: Beer, potatoes and bread. Favorite Dishes: Rabbit in Geuze (A sour beer), Stoemp, (potatoes mashed w/ vegetables, served w/ sausage) Chocolate desserts, pralines.

Stoemp with sausage, a Brussels classic. You mean I don't have to share?
The lil' guy has been standing here, peeing, for four hundred years.

Sometimes they dress him. Now he looks a guy on the side of the road in Liberia. Small world.

Hannah and Noah-- Grand Rapid Michigan USA
Founded officially 1850
Population: About 200,000. Located in Western Michigan, Great Lakes region of USA. City best known for: its wealthy conservative Republican Christians, its liberal use of mulch, well maintained, clean curbs. Contribution to world culture: The furniture catalog, the Bissel carpet sweeper, Amway products. Grand Rapids in History: Long ago known world-wide for furniture—aka “the Paris of furniture design.
Most Famous Landmark: The Calder Sculpture. Staple Foods: Potatoes and spaghetti, ground beef. Favorite dishes: Kraft Mac and cheese (with ground beef), Spaghetti w/ Chunky Prego and Ground Beef, Chips n’ melted Velveeta cheese (w/ Ground Beef n’ Chi-Chi’s Salsa), pizza, hamburgers—really, anythin. Except Brussel sprouts.

The Famous Calder.The Original Famous Calder.
Oh Velveeta! Oh Chi-Chi's Salsa! And don't forget that ground beef! One of Grand Rapid's many special dishes.