Saturday, November 6, 2010

Thoughts about Liberia

Since publishing my memoir, "Sweet Liberia, Lessons From the Coal Pot," I have happily re-opened the mental file of Liberia. When I fled Liberia, August 8, 1990, 8 months into the Liberian Civil War, thought then to be a "rebel incursion," I thought at first that I would be retreating only briefly to America. I prayed that the violence would stop and I'd be able to gather my family and return, reopen my school, resume my life on Chubor Road, to re-establish my relationships in Liberia.

Unfortunately that was not to be and Liberia was plunged into 15 years of Civil War. In the twenty years that followed my departure I received letters about acquaintences and friends in Liberia that I could not bear to open and simply put aside. All I allowed myself to think about was how to retrain my five children for life as Black children on the South Side of Chicago. I needed to teach my children about gangs, and drugs, and how not to trust adults you didn't know, and about African American history, the part that includes lynchings, Jim Crow and institutional racism. In short I had to teach them how to navigate America, a new home where they would have less freedom and less human dignity than they had experienced in Liberia. It was really, really hard to lose the promise that I had come to Liberia with, and to convince myself that it had never existed so that the loss of it was not so painful. That's what I did in the years between 1990 and 2007 when I began to seriously write the vignettes and stories that would become Sweet Liberia, Lessons From the Coal Pot.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Part 2 - I Meet the President of Liberia

In Part 1 of my adventure to give a copy of my book, Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot to the President of Liberia, I’m expressing the intention. What happened next was pure serendipity. The lesson for me was that when I have, what appears to be an impossible idea, but something inside urges me to move forward, MOVE FORWARD!

My first break came when I mentioned to a friend who had purchased my book that I wanted to give a copy to the President of Liberia. Instead of saying, something non-committal, she said, “She’s an AKA, and she’ll be at our AKA convention.
I replied, “You are an AKA, can you give it to her for me?” to which she replied, “Why not give it to her yourself?” She promised she would do what she could to help me. Meanwhile, another good friend, coincidentally an AKA, planned to drive to St Louis, and when she told me that, I knew that this was the Universe opening a way for me. Did I forget to mention that my younger sister Yvonne just happens to live in St. Louis!

My friend and I drove down on July 10th in plenty of time for the private book signing my sister and her husband had planned for me and in time to attend the Public Forum of the AKA sisterhood, held at the America’s Convention Center, on Sunday, July 11th.

As we sat in the nosebleed section of the Convention auditorium, I was feeling a bit discouraged. The program was exciting and as one who had never joined a sorority I was impressed by the number of women present, the level of organization, the level of their philanthropy, and the fact that many of the female movers and shakers of our country are sorority members, particularly AKA, the oldest Black sorority. Nevertheless, I hadn’t a clue how to make the leap from the nosebleed section of the Convention Center, to the President of Liberia. I had the fleeting thoughts of going back to my sister’s comfortable home and curling up on her couch with a bowl of ice cream for comfort.

Then I saw them! Women wearing the colorful lappa suits I used to wear in Liberia and I knew that they must be either with the President or with a delegation planning to see her. By now, the first floor was crowded but some women had left and there was seating on the main floor. We raced to find the lappa suits!
When we did, I began speaking in my rusty Liberian English, “Hello Yah,” I said, attempting to make the connection that I too wanted to see the president. An ordained minister from downstate Illinois served as escort for the native women. He was a warm person, listening to my story of formerly having been a long-time resident of Liberia, who had written a book that I wanted to give to Madame Sirleaf. He seemed amused and a bit of hesitant. Finally, I won him over and he invited me to stay with them and follow them when the group was called! My sister Yvonne later told me that she read disbelief on people’s faces, but I was in the ‘zone’ and didn’t feel anything but the need to connect.

Now seated on the first floor, in the VIP seating, I was on pins and needles, while watching President Sirleaf receive a check from her sorority sisters in the amount of ½ million dollars to a project that would educate the women of Liberia. When the purpose of the money was stated, the Liberian woman behind me burst into tears and, I can’t explain it, but I began crying too. I know what education can mean for Liberian women. My tears reminded me that feelings that had long been buried were being excavated.

After the check presentation and President Sirleaf’s response, I found us hurriedly ushered to a small waiting area behind the stage and as the President’s security allowed the Liberian delegation entry, I felt it necessary to explain my special mission. They were polite, told me to make sure I did not interfere with any of the official protocol planned, and accepted samples of the bookmarks and palm cards advertising Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot.

Then I saw a woman who looked just like president Sirleaf, only smaller, and realized that this genial looking woman was probably her sister Jennie Bernard. I greeted her and expressed my intention of presenting her sister a copy of my book. She smiled as if to say, “try.”

Then Madame President entered, escorted by her staff. There was a flurry of dignitaries taking turns to speak with her. We took a few group photos into which my sister and I squeezed ourselves and then the conversations continued. Finally, someone turned to me and said “your turn sister” and all reservation left me; this was my moment!

“President Sirleaf, I appreciate all that you are doing for Liberia and will do. I met you years ago. I was introduced to you by Anna Cooper, when I worked as Directress at the Liberian National Red Cross.” She looked at me searching her memory and said, “that was way back.” She was right, it was 1982 or 83.

Now that I had her attention, I rattled off something about my book being about my positive experiences in Liberia, and asked if she would honor me by accepting a copy. I had already autographed the book and enclosed a letter of introduction so she would know that I was not a lunatic…or maybe not. And then I pulled out my felt signing pen and my marked up copy her book, “This Child Will Be Great,” which my sister conveniently handed me, (thank God for sisters that have your back), and asked her if she would autograph my copy. As she did, cell phone cameras whizzed. The professional photographer stepped in front of my sister to get the shot, blocking out her camera, much to my sadness.

The whole event was surreal and wonderful. However, the absolute capstone moment of my day was shortly after speaking with President Sirleaf, while my sister and I reveled in the victory. I received a call from my youngest son who was deep inside the memories of our life in Liberia and wanted to tell me that he loved me and to thank me for writing the book, and for his experiences in Liberia. I have not had a perfect life but I have led an interesting life. I look forward anxiously for my next adventure!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Meeting the President of Liberia - Part 1

As I wrote my book, "Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot," I had several goals in mind. First, I wanted to make sure that I documented the experience for my children. My eldest daughter Tonya became a woman and a mother during our 11 years in Liberia, West Africa. My eldest son Gyasi arrived in Liberia when he was just 6 months old and my other three children, Zevah, Muasa and Hope, were born in Liberia.

Over the years, their memories of Liberia began to fade as did mine and I feared that in 20 or 30 years the story of our lives in Liberia would be lost. I wanted desperately to preserve a very important portion of our family's history.

As I wrote, I recalled the beauty that was Liberia, and the spirit and hope of the Liberian people and realized that the Liberian war had changed that. I wondered what it must be like to be a Liberian in America and have people reference, not the art and culture and natural resources of your country, but the barbarism and brutality that had made it infamous. I wondered what it must be like to be the President of such a country. How difficult it must be to maintain your ground in the international community, head held high, friend raising and fundraising against the backdrop of the horrors of the Liberian Civil War and the trial of Charles Taylor, your country's former president, for crimes against humanity.

I wondered what it must be like to be the first female elected African president. I wondered what it must be like to be President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

So. My second thought was that perhaps my book would provide an opportunity to share something positive, about the sweetness of Liberia, the wonderful humanity and kindness, and freedom from fear I had experienced for many years, before the war erupted and sucked the civility out of Liberia. Perhaps, "Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot," could, in some small way, show Americans and particularly African Americans that Liberia had been, and again could be, a place that people consider when they want to vacation, or retire. Liberia could again be a place where international agencies and faith-based organizations feel comfortable to engage in development and missionary work: a country where African Americans could begin to invest our money in businesses and in the future redevelopment of Liberia!

Then I remembered my introduction to President Sirleaf many years earlier, in Liberia, when she was just Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Ministry of Finance and I was just the Directress of the Red Cross Day Care Center. Something made me think, wouldn't it be nice if, as she moves about the world, trying to friend raise and fundraise on behalf of her beloved Liberia, that she knew that there were many people thinking good things about Liberia. It was then that I said in my heart, "I intend to give her a copy of my book." end of part 1

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Recipe for Liberian Food-Cassava Leaf

Liberian’s love Cassava Leaf. While I was in Liberia one of my favorite foods was cassava leaf. Imagine my joy when I found a LaFruteria, a Mexican grocery on 89th and Commercial, in Chicago that sells, in addition to Mexican foods, Caribbean and African foods! I found cassava leaf, palm butter, palm oil and parboiled rice!

I am a vegetarian so when I prepare cassava leaf I don't use meat; however, in Liberia cassava leaf was prepared most often with smoked fish or lightly fried chicken. For my protein, I typically use either ground pea butter (peanut butter without sugar) or add pre cooked red beans. Note of Caution: Palm oil is heavy, saturated oil. With our sedentary lifestyles, enjoy the dish, but not too often unless you are really exercising.
2 -8 ounce packages of Ground Cassava Leaves
1-1 ½ cups of Red Palm Oil
2 green chopped Habanera pepper (if you get the red pepper use only 1)
Salt –to taste
Garlic-2-3 cloves chopped finely
Onion- ½ diced
Vegetarian bouillon cubes (if you are not a vegetarian, then chicken or beef bouillon cubes-favorite brand is Maggi - 1
Ground pea butter -4 tablespoons. [Stir in several tablespoons of hot water]
2 cups of Parboiled rice or any long grained rice-prepared according to package directions
Cover the frozen cassava leaves with 4 cups of water and cook over a medium fire (watch carefully) until all the water is boiled out of the cassava. Be careful not to scorch the cassava.
Add the palm oil and ground pea butter, onions, garlic, chopped peppers and cook until the mixture has the consistency of gravy. If needed add more oil and adjust your seasonings to taste.

Options for chicken and beef-Omit the ground pea butter -Lightly brown your meat and put it to the side. Then flake it into bite size pieces and add AFTER the palm oil and other seasonings is included. Cook for a few more minutes in order to let the seasonings filter through the meat.
Serve over nice firm rice
Make the meal healthier by serving with a large vegetable salad and plenty of cool water!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Man sharing for Fools or Realists?

One man having multiple women is called many names. Cheating, Polygamy, Man sharing, Divine Marriage, Plural Marriage and some bad names I refuse to print. I want to explore whether, in 2010, there might be a way for men and women to form positive partnerships that are mutually beneficial to a male and multiple female partners. There is already sufficient drama in our relationships and looking around, I see large numbers of children being raised in homes with little or no consistent positive male interaction. Is it reasonable to consider men having multiple partners in a relationship where each knows their status in each other's lives as a possible solution to the chaos we are currently witnessing.

I first became aware of the fact that some men have more than one wife in the 1970's when I was in my early 20's. Do not start guessing my age, but I do consider myself a fine-tuned vintage model. I've covered some mileage but I follow my Maker's manual and I'm in nearly mint condition! I digress, back then I considered myself an African Nationalist, you can look that up, but in brief, I believed strongly that for African Americans to achieve better status in the United States we should be more closely aligned with Mother Africa.

Then, as now, for Black women, the viable options for a committed life partner of the opposite sex were limited. Lets deal with that. During a quick Google search, I found that the 2002 statistic for prison inmates in the U.S was well over 2 million. Further, 10.4% of the entire African-American male population in the United States aged 25 to 29 was incarcerated, by far the largest racial or ethnic group—by comparison, 2.4% of Hispanic men and 1.2% of white men in that same age group were incarcerated. Once a man has been in jail (has papers on him) do you know how unlikely it is for him to secure a "good job"?

In the 70's, 40 years ago, Haki R. Madhabuti, distinguished educator, author, publisher and founder of Third World Press, convened a forum to discuss and air views in the Nationalist community on 'Man sharing.' Everything goes in circles and so now 40 years later; this unresolved topic rises again to the top of the heap. I saw a recent forum on Black Love convened by a concerned sister and the topic was 'Man sharing' yet again. I have learned that when life tosses you a lesson and you cannot resolve it, it comes back to you. It is almost as if the Universe is saying, "Are yawl ready to deal with this now?"

I notice that, perhaps because so many men are being locked away together, there are increasing numbers of men who are same gender loving. In addition, large numbers of men are being killed in street violence or in the military, not to mention men who are just mentally unstable, pedophiles, rapists, or just hopelessly emotionally broken. Seriously, what are women to do?

Years ago, I joined one of the many Black Hebrew Israelite groups in the United States and migrated with them to West Africa. The group practiced Divine Marriage. Divine Marriage allowed for, but did not specifically require, a man to have more than one wife. Our guidelines required that the man be responsible in all the ways that he was responsible to his first wife, to additional wives and all the children. The intention was to infuse order and balance into the relationship.

An observation made recently by a long-time resident of Liberia was that having more than one wife is an African solution to a problem of having more women than eligible men. He understood from living in the mountains of Voinjama (Liberia) among the Mandingo that if you have more women then men in a tribe you want the women of your culture to increase your tribal numbers and to retain your culture rather than dilute it by marrying outside your tribe. Survival of the group is the issue. A man of stature gained respect by taking up the slack and marrying more than one woman. I've lived in situations where men have multiple wives and I've seen relationships run the spectrum from good to terrible, much like relationships between couples practicing monogamy.

As I witness some of the more recent scenarios play out in my community between men and their multiple women, the perception and the practice of relating to one another seems mainly negative. There is a lot of "baby mama drama" and women fighting other women over the attentions of a male, and men shirking their responsibility for their offspring. How can that damage be repaired for the good of the community?

Do we challenge the notion that it's wrong for a woman to pursue another woman's man, even when the chances for her having her own man are not in her favor? Should women feel bad for forming relationships with men already in other relationships? Is there a way to manage these relationships positively and productively? These are questions.

Women who feel they are safely in a relationship look outside at their sisters and say, "Get your own man and leave mine alone." However, when I speak to men, even those that claim to be in a good relationship, few can honestly say they have never had an extramarital relationship. Among Black women, our reality is, there is not a 1 to 1 ration of hetero Black men to hetero Black women. So how does a Yin balance her Yang?

I speak from the experience of a Black woman, but could my scenario fit women of other cultures. I’m not sure, but I don't think so.
At any rate, I was turning this topic around in my head. Has anybody else? I open the conversation.