Sunday, September 6, 2009

As Green As It Gets

Green is a fad in America. People in other countries don’t think of not wasting and not being selfish as being green. Waste and selfishness is the American way. We seem to need a fad, another movement, to help us do that which common practice elsewhere. Why is that? In America, we tend to waste more than some people have to begin with. Out of necessity, I lived a frugal, energy efficient life in Liberia yet once I returned to the United States, over time, I find myself guilty of being as wasteful as some people who have never had the opportunity to see how efficient it is to recycle. Therefore, my question to myself is, why does where we live effect what we do? My guess is that the answers are necessity and culture.

A couple of weeks ago I culled through my clothes closet and pulled out clothes that I hadn’t worn in a year and donated them to my local resale store. As I write this passage there is a large full black plastic garbage can behind my home. I live alone but the amount of trash I discard is tremendous, especially after junk mail deliveries, parties and gift giving holidays.

Here in America, we spend billions of dollars a year on garbage disposal. We have a vast sanitation industry that picks up our waste and hauls it away. In some instances, trash is taken to recycling centers, in other cases to landfill or to be incinerated.

In Liberia, the situation is much different. In Liberia, as in many developing countries, there is often really no centralized system available or needed for the country people. In fact, while I was in Liberia I only remember one garbage disposal company. An African American woman, Betty Carter, who had formerly been a popular jazz singer here in the US, owned it. Her customers were in the more affluent sector of Liberia. Her company had contracts to pull garbage from the American embassy. However, the common folk, the clerical workers, the marketers, persons struggling to make a living did not have garbage pickup. In some instances people took their trash to garbage dumps that sprang up in every area, some people dug pits and buried garbage in their yards.

All sturdy containers are recycled and many of those containers store locally produced palm oil or vegetable oil for sale in the Market. Palm oil and vegetable oil are resold in plastic or glass bottles that are gathered off garbage dumps, washed with soap and water and placed in the sun to dry.
The containers, once refilled with oil are closed with a banana leaf stopper or folded paper.

Food is sold in paper cones or wrapped in newspapers or any paper discarded from offices and homes. Again, someone’s job is to gather the paper and provide it to the market women. Plastic sandwich bags hold ground pea butter, which is a staple in the Liberian diet, and a few other commodities that would not transport well in paper.

Plastic bags, the kind we get at supermarkets, are the lighter fluid for coal pot fires. Reusable market bags are fashioned from sacks that formerly held 100 lbs of rice. Handles are sewn on the cloth-like are sold and each customer brings their own market bag into the market with them.

Nothing is just routinely tossed out, food is no exception. I learned about real kindness and generosity by observing and finally participating in the way that the Liberian people share food. A bowl of food is served and everyone that wants to eat comes to the bowl with a spoon. Folks sit together and talk while they eat until the food is gone; the emphasis is on eating with someone else and sharing the camaraderie. Whenever food is not needed, it is offered to someone else and more often than not, if no one wants the food it is saved and eaten later as ‘cold bowl.’

If you are eating, ‘mean’ not to offer food to others and in Liberia, no one wants to be called ‘mean.’ The custom is that if someone visits your home and you don’t have enough to offer an individual serving you give that visitor a spoon or fork and they eat from your plate. If your guest is hungry, they eat and if they aren’t they politely eat a spoon or forkful and place the utensil down, signifying that the other diner is free to continue eating the rest of the meal. At a time when we place a lot of emphasis on germs, no one gives it a thought. The concern is for the visitor. That is the essence of a mentality that in so-called “civilized” or modern societies sometimes gets completely lost.

Restaurants save the food that people leave on their plates for disabled or insane people that come to the back door for charity. In addition, if you attend some of the more lavish parties that were given in Liberia, whether the host is aware or not, the staff either packs up the leftovers from the guests plates or hands it out the backdoor to others. Food is just not thrown away.

At the Red Cross Daycare Center, daily we prepared lunch for between 50 and 80 children. Our fees stayed low because we served local foods. Several times a week we bought fresh fish and greens from the Rally Time market only purchasing chicken or beef a couple of times a month. The protein was combined with vegetables, typically cassava leaves, palava greens, potato greens, okra, eggplant, bitter ball or pumpkin squash and served over parboiled rice.

Noon was lunchtime. Children sat with their caregivers and practiced their table manners while eating. After the children were put down for their naps, a couple of cups of rice and a little of, the stew was stirred into a bowl for the staff and they sat together and ate communally. The children’s plates were scraped before washing in hot water but the table scraps weren’t thrown in the garbage, they were placed in plastic bags or covered bowls. Staff requested the table scraps to take home to their pets. Packs of dogs roamed the market grounds and dumping sites ripping through garbage for food but the average Liberian couldn’t afford to feed a dog. Certainly not my staff that were paid $100 a month. I came to understand that asking for food for pets was a way to save face, which I respected.

We also used table scraps to feed starving men released from Central Prison on Tuesday. The prison was several blocks away from Red Cross Headquarters. There was no prison kitchen, no mess hall. If you had a relative in jail and you wanted them to survive the experience, it was your responsibility to feed them and other prisoners nearby and to bring either food or money for the guards. That is, if you expected them to get the food. One of the other Red Cross directors that had himself been imprisoned during the April 12th coup shared with me that the rice for prisoners was cooked outside in a 55 gallon metal drum over an open fire and that a couple of gallons of palm oil was added to help increase the calories. This rice was distributed to the prisoners, no matter how many prisoners there were. When the food was gone, it was gone. Weaker prisoners routinely became ill and died in custody.

Tuesday was the day that prisoners that were the frailest were released from prison. In the early afternoon, they would stagger over to the Red Cross begging for food. The only food prepared on the premises was in the daycare center kitchen so on that day the prisoners were given the scraps from the children’s lunch. The food was dumped onto serving trays from which the men ate with their hands. Often because they were starving, they became ill and vomited from the richness of the food.

One tragic experience comes to mind. A man, who appeared to be Fula, stumbled to the backyard of the Red Cross during the children’s naptime. My janitor, Saah, had finished mopping the lunch area and was about to sit and eat his bowl of food alone on the back steps. When he saw the released prisoner, he felt sorry for him, knew all the food was gone and gave up his plate. He left the man hungrily devouring the food but later when Saah came back to retrieve his plate he found that the man had died. We were all shaken up but Saah said he was glad that the man had received some human kindness before he died.

I am grateful for the experience of living in the midst of people with such generosity of spirit. I believe that when people who have a little share what they have, it has more significance than when people, who have a lot, share a little. Generosity in the face of what appears to be lack indicates a fearless trust in the Universe to provide.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Grunna Children

*‘Grunna’ is a Liberian English term that means ‘grown up.’

Children are called 'grunna' when they are alone due to poverty or being orphaned. 'Grunna' children are kids who are raising themselves. While I was in Liberia I thought children raising themselves was a phenomenon in developing countries however, as I look around my city and see what drugs and the violence that grips our urban communities from gangs, I realize that I am surrounded by grunna children even in the US.

My washboy's name was David. He was about 18 with skin the color of unsweetened dark chocolate. He had sparkling white teeth and skin stretched tautly across a tight muscular frame. He was majestic. Although African Americans have become quite proud of the kink of our hair, Liberian men typically keep their heads either shaved or cropped.

David was introduced to me by Andrew, my janitor at the Liberian Red Cross Day Care Center. I was struggling to keep up with my washing and Andrew brought David to see me. He had no place to sleep and was "stopping" with Andrew, and needed to find work so he could afford his own room.

Three of my youngest children were nightly bed wetters. Binah, my eldest daughter, and I had been washing their sheets, bedclothes and their school uniforms daily. But now Binah had a baby girl of her own and so now I did most of the washing for the bed wetters.

In addition to working as a director at the Red Cross, I grew and packaged mung, lentil and sometimes azuki bean sprouts for sale in the Lebanese grocery stores and local Chinese restaurants. I needed help. David agreed to wash, hang the clothes in the sun and press them for me as they dried for $25.00 a month and of course we would provide a bowl of rice and soup for him on his washday. You typically couldn't’t get your clothes washed and ironed at that price so I figured he was angling to eventually get a permanent job with the Red Cross or wanted my help in getting him ‘ducofley’ (old clothes) from the Red Cross warehouse to sell. There was always a hidden agenda but at the time I thought I had stuck a good deal! I wish I had remembered the adage “whenever something appears too good to be true it is.”

Early Saturday mornings,just after sunrise, I‘d hear David out back drawing water from the outdoor spigot and pouring it into the three zinc tubs I'd left outside for him along with the wooden washboard, scrub brush and cakes of wash soap. The sound of running water punishing the zinc tubs was my cue to bring my laundry outside.

David would greet me at the back door wearing only a broad grin, really short-shorts and flip flops. He washed silently, hung the clothes on the line to dry before ironing and by the time he finished his work, we had finished prepared the meal of the day. By 2:00 he had eaten his bowl of food, played soccer with the boys and left as quietly as he had come.

This contract went on for three Saturdays and although my pay check from the Red Cross was going to be delayed at the end of the month I fully intended to pay David from profits I made from my bean sprout sales. As we neared the end of the first month of our contract the agency decided to show the their appreciation by allowing me to choose clothing for all my children from the gently used clothing bales that had just arrived from several of the European Red Cross Societies. Our national society was allowed to sell a portion of each shipment to help fund the organization’s activities. The clothing was in excellent condition, almost new and mainly 100% cotton. I virtually got each of my children and my granddaughter a completely new wardrobe! They attended private schools that required uniforms so between this new clothing and their school uniforms they were now well-dressed.

It took an entire afternoon in the storage area of the Liberian Red Cross to agonize over the clothing needs of my children, when I finally brought the clothes home I had so many 'new' outfits stuffed into the trunk of the taxi that I had to pay extra for the driver to deliver me to our door! My children, especially the older ones, were elated to have name brand clothes, many like the ones they had seen in magazines.

I planned to spend more time socializing with other African Americans living in Liberia and the 'new' clothes provided them with the wardrobe they needed to fit in with the children of other Americans living in Liberia. Many of those parents were employed by the Embassy or held jobs that paid in foreign currency, not the local wages I earned at the Red Cross.

When Saturday rolled around I brought out the newly acquired clothing and asked David to wash them for extra money. He was adamant that I must not pay him anything extra and he stayed on late into the evening to wash and iron the new clothes.

On Monday, when my eldest daughter began to look for specific items that I had gotten for my her daughter, we couldn't find any of the pastel tee shirts from Carter and the Oshkosh coveralls. She looked and looked and could not find them. Gradually the other children began looking through the stacks of carefully ironed items and realized that we could barely account for half of what had been washed.
We came to the realization that the clothes had been stolen, but how?

The next morning at work I shared the mystery of the missing clothes to one of my employees and she seemed to be stifling laughter.

“Ole ma, the wash boy but his finger in your eye.”

"How?, He comes and goes naked, how could he have stolen the clothes."
Then she said,
“Don’t you think that man knows how to throw clothes in the bushes and come back for them at night?" And then she just walked away leaving me feeling very stupid.

It seemed that David, as he washed, tossed some of our clothes into the bushes with the dirty wash water. The area was marshy so no one had reason to go there. Then probably at night, while we were slept, he came back for the wet clothes, washed them, pressed them and sold them. No wonder he didn’t want me to give him any extra money!

I was so furious my head spun. I ordered Andrew to fetch David. He had thought I was so naive, probably thought we had so much, that we'd either not miss the clothes or never figure out what happened. He was wrong. My children and I were hanging on by a thread and those clothes had been important to us. Of course Andrew professed embarrassment at David’s theft. However, in Liberia, theft of items from a household is extremely common and mainly people overlook it. But these clothes had been treasured by my children.

David stood his ground, "ole Ma, I never stole nothin from you 'O'!, swearing he had not stolen the clothes. I refused to pay him the $25 I owed him unless he brought the clothes back. Of course he had sold the clothes so he began to 'beg' me, which means to throw himself on my mercy. I didn’t relent and so that was the end of that. He lost his $25 but he probably sold the clothes for much more. I was a fool but I wasn’t a damn fool. A subtle but important difference.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Oh My God, The Roaches Have Wings!

“The roaches were so large that I could hear their footsteps on the floor”

I’m a city kid and no stranger to your average roach. I’ve spent much of my life in apartments and the downside of sharing your environment with neighbors is that you get to battle the common infestations; mice and roaches. Of course between visits of the exterminator there is that can of Raid that each family carefully conceals in their grocery cart.

And then there’s the water bug, the roaches’ more fearsome counterpart. I’ve heard that in the southern states the roaches grow pretty big but Liberia has the largest cockroaches I’ve ever seen. I soon became accustomed to seeing cockroaches 2 1/2 inches long cutting the corners of a room. Sometimes, at night, as I lay in the quiet darkness of my room I could hear them creeping across the floor.

I remember being horrified when a friend spied a cockroach perched on the arm of her dining room chair. She maintained eye contact with me while with one hand grabbing and swinging a fly swatter, BAM! Only the target took flight and the flurry of those short brown wings that made a buzzing sound was as frightening to me as being sealed in a room with a giant condor.

Early on in our Liberian experience we lived down Lakpazee Road in a quiet residential area where we constantly battled the homegrown roaches that infested the home we shared with two other families. One of the other women and I had both delivered babies within a month of each other and together we struggled with hand washing diapers, breastfeeding and acclimating to life in Liberia. It was difficult enough to keep the kids and the house clean without modern conveniences. The road that ran past our house was unpaved and we constantly swept sand from the floors. But the most disturbing thing was that there were roaches everywhere! If you opened a door or a drawer or moved something that had been stationary for awhile, you set the backfield in motion.

One night, I fell asleep nursing my newborn and I awakened to find two roaches on my exposed breast; one actually perched on my nipple! I became hysterical, my husband, jerked from his sleep by my screams quickly killed both roaches and, although he was almost as disgusted as me (after all he hadn’t been awakened by a cockroach licking milk from his breast), he tried to get me to go back to sleep. There was no freakin way I was going back to sleep! For the rest of that night I sat erect in the living room with all the lights on.

I realized that I’d have to build up my confidence to kill big roaches! When you squash them a thick milky substance oozes out and leaves behind a distinctive odor. I eventually mustered enough courage to grab somebody else’s shoe, to kill the roaches, and finally was able to stomach using thick paper to pick up dead roaches and toss them down the toilet or into the bushes. I observed that they are highly intelligent creatures and, like ants, roaches look after one another. I have witnessed roaches come to retrieve the body of a fallen roach and to hesitate and circle it, as if in grief and finally pull the body away!

The straw that led to our all out assault on the roaches was when our friends, housemates, who had brought hundreds of books with them to Liberia, were rearranging their books and stumbled upon a cockroach nest. That day they killed two dustpans full of roaches in their room and more just seemed to keep coming. That was when we decided that we would wage war! Once we determined that roaches were intelligent we became very aggressive about stepping on them. That sounds cruel but it was a battle of wills and that they needed to know that we weren’t taking no stuff! The roaches in our house were so big and meaty I fancied that one day one of them was going to actually scream while being stepped on.

We searched all the closets and cupboards and killed everything moving, but we s couldn’t understand why we still had so many roaches. The men went outside and looked all around the house and low-and-behold, on the side of our house, there was a bush that had an awful smell. They pulled back the brush and our cracked septic tank teeming with roaches living off the waste in the tank. Everyone felt dirty after an afternoon of killing roaches so we took early showers and sat around nibbling popcorn and discussing how to repair the septic tank.

Meanwhile I recall that one of the men, rode into town the next day and hired an exterminator from the Ministry of Public Works. We had imagined this was going to be an experience quite similar to hiring an exterminator from any one of the pest extermination companies we were familiar with in the states. You know, “Got a Roach, Call Coach, Orkin, or Roach Busters, TNT. We were so wrong!

The exterminator came on a Thursday heightening our anticipation of a weekend without roaches. We were instruction to leave the house for the day and return around 3:00. Upon our return, we were overjoyed to find roaches dead all over the house. We opened our front and back doors and threw open the windows to expel the smell of the fumigation and joined together in the disposal of the dead roaches we found in every crack and cubby hole. However, at dusk we were puzzled by the unnatural silence. Gone was the sound of the crickets and the birds that we normally heard outside our windows in the evening. Shortly thereafter we noticed that not only were the roaches dead but there no longer seemed to be any animal life around our house. Later that night, while mopping the kitchen floor, my friend opened the cabinet under the sink to grab the mop bucket and found a small dead snake. We went to bed that night with mixed feelings.

Early the next morning, when the other women in the house and I were in the backyard washing clothes we found several dead birds lying in the grass. The effects of the exterminator continued to become apparent. We discovered that even the plastic cases that housed our cassette tapes were pitted. And we were saddened when our Lebanese neighbor interrupted our pancake breakfast to tell us that his pet monkey, that we had often played with across the back fence was dead. Obviously no one mentioned the exterminator.

Frightened at the power of the chemical that was used and wondering if we would be affected, my husband hurried to the main road and took a taxi into town to find the exterminator, what he learned confirmed our worst suspicions. Our home had been sprayed with several chemicals, one of which was Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, a pesticide which although banned in the US in 1972, was perfectly legal in Liberia! He returned home with several pamphlets containing information about DDT and after reviewing it we made a joint decision. We reluctantly threw away all the food we had stored in cardboard boxes and plastic bags that had been exposed to the spraying.

It was an utter catastrophe for us! When we immigrated to Liberia we knew we’d be saying goodbye to the foods we were accustomed to. But we were vegetarians and wanted to bring our favorite food staples to tide us over until we found the local equivalent. Now, that our food had been contaminated by the DDT we tossed out pounds of Soy milk powder, organic cashews, pecans, almonds and sunflower seeds in addition to whole wheat flour, organic soaps; everything had to be thrown away! In fact we dug a huge whole in the backyard and buried it to keep locals from going on the dump and thinking it was good food and carrying it away. All we were able to keep were a few pounds of nuts and soy powder we had stored in Ball glass jars.

This was an expensive wake up call for us. Although DDT is a deadly chemical and stays in the soil for years after it is dispensed, to date, it is still considered the most effective chemical in the fight against malaria which is a deadly scourge in parts of Africa.

The loss of our imported food actually helped us become more creative in learning to prepare Liberian foods which we had initially snubbed our noses at. I guess you could say we had our security blanket ripped away.

A Taste of Life In Liberia

My book, which, like a pregnant woman I am still in labor with, will definitely be born this year. But while I am pouring through my experiences and better shaping my book,I wanted to share some of the stories that I just can't contain in Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coalpot. During July, August and September I'll be publishing some of those experiences in this blog.

Those experiences enriched my family's experiences in Liberia. I hope you enjoy reading them and also that, if you've been to Africa or to any place where you've had some interesting experiences, you'll be inspired to send me a post.

Not a good writer?
No worries, I just want to hear from you!
Never been out of America? Trust me, you don't have to leave America to have interesting experiences. In fact I live on the far south side of Chicago and yesterday morning I heard a loud BOOM, ran to the front door, looked a few houses down the street and there was a military grade tank on my street with a team of men in combat gear carrying assault rifles. But that's another story. I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Common Expressions Used In Liberia

Below are just a few of the expressions that form the pidgin language called Liberian English. If you have lived in Liberia, please add to this list.

1. Leave them, they will come to theysef- a form of what comes around goes around
2. The fish gets rotten at the head- implies that when there is a problem with a system or organization, look first to its leader
3. Never Mind yah- don’t worry
4. Borning- the process of giving birth
5. Man business or woman business- about love and dating
6. Baby mah-baby’s mother
7. Baby pa-baby’s father
8. Ole Ma- older woman
9. Ole Pa-older father
10. Small shop- small roadside shop, typically a zinc or zinc covered shack, where small items like bread, soda, razor blades, and cakes of wash soap are sold.
11. Dash- a kickback used more in Ghana
12. Cold water- same as a dash
13. Yah- yes
14. ‘O’- something that is said to emphasize a statement- she’s mad ‘O’ (she’s really mad!)
15. Abuse – (pronounce abuuz) As in how can you abuse me like that? - Means to cuss the person directly. The act of calling a person a Bitch or a Fucker is abusing the actual person, using the word without connecting it to the person is not abuse.
16. Americo-Liberian- a person descended from American slaves that relocated to Liberia
17. To beg – To beg is to humble yourself acknowledging that you are wrong and to show remorse. Asking for forgiveness is a common thing and people are not too proud to admit wrong doing. This can be a ploy to manipulate a person that is perceived in a class (Liberia, like America is very class orientated) above you. Often the begging is insincere. It is also important to note that begging a person’s forgiveness does not mean that the same offense will not be committed again; it just means you acknowledge that it was wrong, and you regret being caught. There are many things that people do for survival, not malice and begging acts to clear the conscience.
18. Congo people- slaves that were taken from the interior of African (the former Belgium Congo region) that became free in Liberia and never made the trip to the United States but are an amalgam of many tribes.
19. Coal pot – a coal pot is a utensil similar if function as a barbecue pit. See the Coal pot as a metaphor.
20. Na fo- a rhythmic children’s clapping game, similar to hambone that is popular in Liberia.
21. Civilized- having more modern, as opposed to traditional tribal, behaviors, mannerisms or lifestyle.
22. Bush school- (called also Sande Bush or Gola Bush) the traditional and secret system through which male and female initiates learn the ways of their tribe. It is said that young people learn marriage customs, tribal roles and responsibilities and how to accurately tell time without a clock, herbal cures and how to be a responsible member of the tribe. It is during this initiation that tribes that carry out the rite of circumcision.
23. As God so fixed it- means according to the will of God
24. Grunna boy or grunna girl- means a street child; literally a grownup girl or grown up boy.
25. What news? – What’s up and the response commonly given is, No bad news.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Children of God in War

When I left Liberia in August of 1990 some of my friend's children were upcountry in Bong County, unable to get back to Monrovia, unable to get out of Liberia.

I know that they faced severe hardships and it would encourage them to tell those stories to people who will listen quietly and not judge, to people who will offer them support. My children were fortunate that I was with them and able to, through the help of others, get them out of Liberia when I was guided by Spirit. It is really hard to stay and survive in a war when you don't have a side. All I wanted was for Liberians to make peace with one another so that it could go back to being Sweet Liberia. I wonder if anyone else wants to comment on Liberia during the war or on any other aspect of Liberia. From time to time I'm going to throw up a topic and hopefully get a response. If you know someone that was in Liberia and an Hebrew between the years of 1980 and 1991 please send them this blog address and ask them to contribute.