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.