Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Beginning of the End

When you see a thing beginning, you don't know it's the beginning of the end. That's how I feel about Christmas Day 1989. That was the beginning of the end of my life, my family's life in Liberia.

Christmas in Liberia was a sweet family day. There was no media hype, no commercials, no constant reminders that you needed to spend money to be happy. People planned to use their resources to make their family and friends happy and if they were Christians, they planned to be thankful, and to praise God. A sweet family day.

I remember that my gift to my children had been a small television set that I had scrapped up the money to buy so that we could watch television for a couple of hours several evenings a week, when there was electricity. I remember giving my business partner Esther a Christmas gift and buying some small things for my children. Mostly things they needed anyway, simple things.

The excitment for us was that we had invited a guest to share Christmas dinner! A friend that I had met in recently had come to Liberia to head up a diamond mining expedition. Ron Watkins was witty, and urbane and I found him interesting and attractive. I hadn't found a man interesting or attractive in a very, very long time and the notion of having a man posessing both those attributes in my home was a gift in itself! I typically had very little contact with Americans and while Liberian men made overtures, I kept to myself. I hadn't healed from the breakup with my children's father after 20 years and just making a living and keeping my children in school consumed all my waking energy.

But talking to Ron was easy conversation, like turning on a faucet and running water. There was nothing to translate, nothing to misunderstand.
He was probably in need of good company too because he agreed to have Christmas Dinner with a vegetarian and her five children. How brave is that?

I remember laboriously and lovingly preparing a savory, hot palm butter (sans meat) with my eldest daughter and making sure that the country rice was perfect. We also prepared potato greens, and there was soda for the children and a couple of icey bottles of Club Beer purchased for us.

After dinner Ron and I talked comfortably as the children played and kept a watchful eye on their mother, who after all hadn't had male company in quite awhile. And then, on television, or was it the radio? I can't say that I remember how we heard the news, that Charles Taylor had crossed Liberia's northern border with his rebels on December 24th, my eldest daughter's birthday.

The so-called rebel incursion wasn't something on everyone's lips. Everybody didn't have access to the information and truthfully most people on Chubor Road were tired of President Samuel Kanyon Doe and wanted him overthrown. In our experience, a coup removed the head of state, cabinet members and those closest to him. A coup wasn't a war and definitely wasn't a civil war.

As Ron and I sipped Club Beer and smiled at each other my children and their friends played oblivious to the life-altering changes that rode towards Liberia leaving a trail of blood. We just continued enjoying our sweet family day.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Coal Pot as a Metaphor

The coal pot is both an icon and a metaphor for survival very much at the core of Liberian life and culture. When I reflect on my life in Liberia after a few minutes my thoughts inevitably return to the feelings of the warmth generated by the cooking and sharing a meal. Those wonderful simple, yet rich meals cooked on a coal pot.

The Coal pot is a device kinda like a charcoal barbecue grill however, rather than being just for grilling meat, the coal pot is the mainstay for cooking everything in Liberia. A segment of the populations before the 1989 civil war had a one or two burner electric hot plates, and the more affluent Liberians had an electric stove (whether it worked or not), but electricity was unreliable, and in now in post war Liberia, where I’m told electricity is rare, food was mainly cooked outdoors on the coal pot.

Every home in Liberia has at least one coal pot, we had three. Like multiple burners on an electric stove, multiple coal pots insure that the rice, the soup and hot water for dishwashing can all be prepared simultaneously. Even in homes where there is an electric stove there’s always a coal pot. There are just some traditional dishes, such as palm butter, a delicious full-bodied stew made from the laboriously obtained pulp of the palm nut tree, which tastes best when allowed to thicken over a coal pot fire.

Coal pots are made by local craftsmen. The coal pot can have a square or round (bowl-like) base and the cooking surface is generally from 12-24 inches around or square. Some coal pots are of lightweight tin and others made of cast iron and have legs and stand as high as a traditional barbecue pit. Coal pots of better design have a grate to secure the cooking vessel, but grate or not, the vessel is often set directly on the hot coals to speed the cooking process.

In the city mainly charcoal is used, but wood and dry branches are often used if it’s available. The charcoal burned in coal pots is made locally in charcoal pits where wood is cut and burned in a measured way to dry it out; then it’s bagged and sold in the market. Once the charcoal is placed in the bowl of the coal pot the coals are ignited by lighting wood slithers, plastic bags or even using cooking oil as an accelerant. For the 11 years I lived in Liberia, I never saw any commercial accelerant used to light a coal pot. I doubt if any was even sold.

While here in America ‘firing up the grill’ is seen as something of an art, lighting the coal pot is a task often relegated to the children in a family, or in some instances the house boy or girl, while the real cooks prep the meal.

As I have catapulted into middle age and battled, somewhat unsuccessfully, the spreading of my girth, I’ve had to come to grips with the reality that much of my life has spun around food. I have been in denial because most of my life I’ve had a pretty robust metabolism and an extremely high activity level that allowed me to eat like a stream- of-consciousness while still maintaining a size eight pant size. But no more!

Menopause has forced me to face the verity that many women have faced decades earlier. Food has filled all the empty spaces in my life, it comforts and supports me and when I am lonely food is my friend!

I remember that my mom always prepared a hot breakfast for my sister Yvonne and me. She wasn’t very demonstrative but I understood that her rising to prepare whatever we wanted for breakfast was her way of saying, “I love you” every morning. The love and warmth that is generated in the selection, preparation, the serving and sharing of food sustains our families in the physical, and most importantly, in the spiritual sense.

The smells and intrinsic warmth emanating from her kitchen is etched upon my heart. My mother, well into her 80’s, rarely cooks except when her grandchildren request her peach cobbler or her very special cornbread dressing at family events.

And so in Liberia, I witnessed again and again how people of color appreciate each other’s humanity, how we show that we care through the preparation, and more importantly, the sharing of food. And so I had found another reference point to reconnect to my roots in Africa – the coal pot.

The coal pot is an icon that symbolizes a tradition of resilience and strength that has endured like the people of Liberia, through their joys and sorrow and through their rise and fall and will persist until the eventual redemption of Liberia.

Friday, December 7, 2007

How I Got To Africa

In 1978, when I was about 29, my former mate and several of our friends joined the Original Hebrew Israelite Foundation of Liberia. The Original Hebrew Israelites (often called the Black Hebrews) focused on the fact that the original Hebrews of the Old Testament were people of African Ancestry. The group wanted to return our people to that land to live peacefully and return to the life of our biblical ancestors. One point they emphasized was that the division between Africa and Israel was man made,the Suez Canal, and that Israel was actually a part of North East Africa. This supported the notion that the man called Jesus, the son of Joseph was of African Ancestry.

The idea that Jesus wasn't white was very appealing to me. I had begun ditching St. James Methodist Sunday School at the ripe old age of 12 when I just couldn't relate to the blue-eyed, blond portrayed as my savior. I was destined to be a rebel from the beginning.

At any rate the Hebrews were on a recruitment drive spearheaded by Prince Asiel Ben Israel, the handsome, charismatic International Ambassador of the Hebrews. His goal was to recruit among the Black Nationalist groups. At the time it was very difficult to get Blacks from America into Israel. The Israelis frowned on the immigration of African Americans to Israel and most Black Hebrews that resided in Israel were illegal aliens. Setting up settlements with Black Nationalists made sense because the nationalists had an affinity for Africa and could hit the ground running in the settlements that the Hebrews, who will henceforth be called the Nation, had in Liberia and Ghana, West Africa.

My mate and I were Black Nationalists and living in Africa was definitely appealing to us. Black Nationalists claimed "Africa for Africans at home and abroad." When as a little girl, I had seen Kwame Nkrumah, first president of modern day Ghana, in his ceremonial Kente robes, I knew that someday I would set foot on African soil. The Hebrews helped me realize that dream.

Since returning from Liberia I've been asked a number of times if I considered the seven years that I spent as a member of the Hebrew Israelites cult membership. Honestly, it's always been a difficult question for me and one which I have answered differently on at least a few occasions.

Today, as I reflect over my life I would say no, I was not a cult member; I didn't have a cult mentality. I always thought my own thoughts, I questioned policies that were implemented and made as many decisions for myself as possible. Like every person in a "system," you pick your battles but I think when people are in a cult they have a slavish mentality and do what they are told because they feel there are no other options.

I was with the Hebrews seven years and in Liberia on my own for four years. I always had a job and typically another source of income on the side. In fact my salary was one that was shared communally to benefit other members of the community. I do remember that the structure of living communally, conforming to decisions I didn’t personally make and accepting those consequences, had the effect of crippling my personal decision making capacity, once I left the Nation. I am reminded of a friend whose husband was a Chief in the US Navy and upon his retirement he found the decisions and requirements of civilian life very stressful. He'd had much less requirement to make personal decisions in the Navy. So would we declare the US Navy a cult? I'd say no, and in my opinion the Hebrew Israelite Foundation is also not a cult.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

About Loneliness

Talk about loneliness
I had never socialized much with the larger community of American residents of Liberia. For the most part they were either with the embassy or employed by an embassy satellite like USAID or a multinational corporation like J.P. Morgan Chase or the accounting firm Price Waterhouse (before Cooper) and they were paid in American dollars, which meant their incomes more than quadrupled mine. Most of my social life was with low to middle income Liberian Nationals. Occasionally one of my well-connected American friends toted me with them to a party in the home of someone that had friends in the Liberian Community and in the foreign community. There was Virg a former Peace Corps Nurse and Kava a friend of mine who taught at the American School and I don’t remember how, but somehow I managed to have a friendship with Gloria the US Ambassador’s secretary. We would sit in her gorgeous high rise apartment across the street from the embassy and chit-chat over snacks and wine. I was her insight on what Liberia was really like since 95% of her time was spent on the embassy hill.

One of my more memorable experiences in Liberia was actually shaking hands with Maya Angelou. Ms Angelou was at the cocktail party of a Liberian doctor and his American wife and I was crashing the cocktail party with Kokava a friend that taught at the American School and her husband Massiehoo. When I saw her that night so tall and statuesque she absolutely sucked all the air of the room and took my breath away. We stood at the back of the room during the reading but then Ms Angelou rose and began shaking hands with other guests I was drawn towards her and then somehow my hand wound up and her hand and I was muddling something inane like I read “Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and loved it, as if everyone in the known world hadn’t. She graciously smiled on my and it felt like warm sunshine, truly.

I also met Nina Simone in Liberia. Betty [ last name] threw a party for her at her home. Nina was exiled from America at the time for income tax evasion and was going to Amsterdam to sing. At the time she sang and played the piano a little and sang one song but she seemed as though she was recovering from an illness. Her friend Betty that had once been a jazz singer, and had married into the Tolbert Family and bought a fleet of garbage trucks that had contracts with the American and other foreign embassies. She had a compound that was quite lovely and I saw her socially several times a year at her home or parties thrown by someone close to the embassy. I was on the periphery of the “in crowd” because all I really wanted in life was to make a difference in Liberia and educate my children. I really didn’t place much importance on friends, at least not then.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Kind of Hearts You Have

At 3:00am recently I awakened with this memory and I wanted to share it with my children so I hoped online and created this email for them. I had repatriated my elder children back to the United States with the final batch of American evacuees during the later stages of the coup in 1989. I had high hopes for Liberia's recovery and the possibility that our family had a future in Liberia and so I stubbornly remained with my three youngest children who were Zevah (10 years), Zefron (8 years) and Elitikvah (6 years). My plan was to wait out the coup and later send for the elder children. As it turned out we would also be forced to flee Liberia.

Dear Children,

If you recall Binah and her daughter Yohanna and Penemiel had been sent back to America and we stayed. Binah was young and beautiful and it would have been hard for me to defend her against a soldier deciding to rape her during the war and I was terrified that Penemiel, who was a wild, free spirit, always curious, always exploring other areas would be kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier. They were evacuated by the American Embassy about for or five long months before we decided to flee. I kept you three with me and home schooled you. My hope was that America would intervene in Liberia's affairs and that the coup would not turn into a bloody Civil War. My thinking was that, since I co-owned First Steps Child Development Center, and had been guaranteed a part time job at the Embassy, on the horizon, I would be able to afford plane fare back to Liberia for Binah, Yohanna and Penemiel and all would be well... at least that's what I thought at the time.

At any rate, the three of us, were living in our house on Chubor Road. Food was very, very scarce. People who had food hid it and cooked at night or indoors instead of outside on the coal pot as we typically did in Liberia. Liberians are such generous people and it was painful to keep having food a secret. We had a bag of rice which we had hidden in the ceiling to protect it from being stolen soldiers. For the 4 of us I was cooking only 2 scoops of rice for the entire day! Every morning I got up very early and walked to the market to fight for whatever vegetables I could get in the market to make the soup for our little rice.

This particular day, the little girl that Zevah and Zefron played with across the road was very sick with malaria and her father came to tell us. She had been sick for awhile with malaria and her family was treating her with roots and herbs. They had no chloroquine and they had no food. I remember listening to her father saying that if she didn't eat he thought she would die. He sat with a heavy heart and I promised that we would pray for her and then he left. When he left I called you together and explained how serious her situation was and that I wanted us to pray for her as a family.

And then the most wonderful thing happened. Zefron said, "She can have my rice!" and Zevah agreed as did Elitikvah. We talked about the fact that giving away our food would mean that we wouldn't have food to eat that evening and you all were fine with it. So we put all of the soup that we had for dinner, keeping just a bit of the rice and oil to cut your hunger, into a bowl.
I really wanted you children to feel the effects of your sacrifice and so I covered the bowl and handed it to Zefron and you guys humbly carried the soup across the road and spent some time sitting with your little friend.

As a mother, that was one of the proudest moments of my life! Here were my children, in the midst of a war with hunger all around them, giving up their food for a sick friend. It is easy to be generous in the midst of plenty but when you are personally facing hunger and are willing to give your food to someone who needs it more, this is real generosity and real love. When I reflect on our time during the War in Liberia, the series of miracles that kept us safe during that time and the miracle of our eventual escape from Liberia I'm sure that the Universe was just giving back some of the good that we projected in Liberia.

I have no idea why after all these years my spirit gave me back this memory but I wanted to write this memory down and share it so that you always remember that you all have the capacity for loving and giving in the midst of serious adversity. Have a wonderful and productive day!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Reflections of the Past

I lived as an American expatriate in Liberia for 11 years and I've written a memoir of experiences that I had in Liberia. I'm wondering if there are any other expatriates that lived in Liberia out there that want to talk about our experiences.