Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Liberian Living: Progress in my Heart

I know it’s been a minute since you’ve received a personal blog update from me, but I do hope you’ve been following the Mayor’s blog to get a glimpse at what I’ve been up to. I currently work in the hardest working office in Liberia, and that leaves very little time to author my personal experiences, but you know my mind has been overflowing with good things about being home.

Me, Mayor, Desmond

Check out what's happening in Monrovia here. Visit my new little pride and joy.

The very same day I got my job, I got a car. It was not just any car either. It was a Mercedes. This Mercedes was older, so it’s not like I was driving around Monrovia in a flashy manner but it was still enough car to make the police think I was wealthy enough to pull over for foolishness. The reason a Mercedes in Liberia is key for me is because my grandfathers drove Mercedes cars when they lived here. When I got mine, it felt suited perfectly for me. I could never bring myself to park it in the car port at my grandpa’s house because I believe that it’s still where his car should be. I can only imagine how things would have been had there been no war. I would have seen my grandpa in his Mercedes, going to and from his company, rather than simply hearing about his legacy. This morning I cried a bit as I brushed my teeth in his bathroom. I looked in that same mirror he looked in thousands of times while he shaved for work. To be in Liberia without my grandfather is surely a sore feeling for me. Everyday I have to talk myself out of tears.


Butmy grandfathers are protecting me. One week after I got my car, my boyfriend and I had a car accident that could have been horrible. I was asleep in the back seat with my body stretched out and I heard someone whisper, “hold on tight.” As the car flipped several times we were able to emerge with our faith and bodies intact. Both my grandfathers were Mercedes fans, and although one passed away in the 70s behind the wheel, I was blessed and protected this month. Clearly someone thinks I’ve still got a large job to do here in Liberia.

Praise God

The worse part of the accident was going to JFK Hospital afterward. The way people were strewn about the emergency ward in any kind of way they could fit. Men laid naked with their legs open on the beds and on the cold floor next to puddles of urine. The women laid in beds with their clothes off, sweating, trying to cover what they could. The rats that scurried by the check in desk were the size of the children who were still begging for money and attention. This is the emergency hospital in Liberia, and had we needed plenty of attention, we surely would have died.

The organization called HEARTT, Inc was in town that same day to host an event at Monrovia City Hall. Dr. Sirleaf from HEARTT’s board checked us out later the next day. When we told him about our experience at the hospital he partners with, he wasn’t surprised. He simply reiterated how important it is that people invest in healthcare for Liberia. After my trauma in the trauma room, he couldn’t be more right.

Translations for this week:
Seree – Another word meaning “of America.” Being that I am “of America” I hear all the words that have to do with my upbringing. “Yah mayor’s office full a so so seree girls,” means “The Mayor’s office has plenty of American girls.”

You pa – A phrase that usually means someone is about to tell you about yourself. It seems to be short for “your part of problem,” which is pretty much stated when people tell you about your flaws. “You pa you like too much street business,” pretty much means “you like going out too much.”

Women as a Commodity (my tough story for the week):
One of the themes for the last class I took on campus was ‘commodification’ and it is here in living color with women as an affordable, common good. I work around many women who were here during the war and the stories are just awful. One, Angeline, had a mulatto sister before the war. Her father had a fair skinned daughter by a Peace Corp worker in Maryland County, Liberia. Angeline explained that she always ran from the war because Prince Johnson killed her pa, and raped her sister until she died. In her mind, war killed her family so she was literally running for her life. As the story goes, Prince Johnson always had a thing for the fair-skinned “Conga” women, meaning women whose ancestors are former US slaves and therefore were mixed with Caucasian blood somewhere down the line. They say every time he saw a Conga woman, she had to be his. I think about my beautiful sisters and just cringe at the thought. Women were victims and weapons in the war here, and ultimately it was women who caused the fighting to cease. I still cannot watch ‘Pray the Devil Back to Hell’ because the story is too real. For right now, I know there was a war here because everyday I work to clean it up. But to see footage will make it too real for me and I don’t think I can experience all of that.

Another co-worker talked about when she was 13 and a general came to her mom and said, "that’s the one I want. I will be back for her tonight." Her ma told the general that her daughter was a small girl and couldn’t possibly go with him. He said “big girl like that? She will be just fine.” After that she had to stay away from her town for almost a week until the coast was clear. When she was old enough she got a job at the Royal Hotel in Sinkor, and whenever people said “government officials are here,” she would hide in the back storeroom until they left. She didn’t want anyone to want her, “because one will want you, take you out, then another will see you and take you from him. Before you know it they have all passed you around whether you want them or not until they find the next red girl to take your place.”

These days, women still have a cost, the fare is just handled differently. I work in the Mayor’s office and every Lebanese man that comes through the door has asked for my phone number when the Mayor looks away. They offer money right there in the office with huge wedding bands on their fingers. Some say “don’t be scared,” or “we will be friends, I will help you,” as if associating with them is something I have no choice but to do. It’s hard for me to see the foreign businessmen as people whose industries can build my country up while they still prey on my Liberian sisters. A woman who makes $100USD a month would at least consider the option of dating these men. During the war it could keep her fed. Now, it could still just keep her fed. There are some very tough decisions to make here.

The magic words used by NGOs to gain funding these days are girls, women, empowerment, and technology. Any combination of these will earn your group a piece of someone’s budget this quarter. President Johnson-Sirleaf is so tickled by a conversation she had earlier this month with a boy who wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, and a businessman. She asked him why he didn’t want to be president, and he exclaimed ‘that’s a woman’s job.’ The problem here is this: women have been misused for so long in our history that we need to take measures to level the playing field. However, if we are not careful we will have a society of prosperous women and incompatible, corrupt men to stand beside them. I really enjoyed the photos from International Women’s Day and Emma Thompson’s recent visit to Liberia. The two accounts really spell out what’s going on in here better than I ever could.

Girls at Ricks Institute hanging out at recess.

What Liberia Needs is You

Many people ask what they can do to help the situation here and I LOVE that you feel so engaged. Liberia really needs hustlers. There’s a lazy way of life here. People take too long to do anything, make money only for themselves, and few try to make an impact on Liberia as a whole with their actions. There is so much “Liberia for self” going on that even the NGOs are money makers. My professor just alerted me that the Carter Center has said their job is done in Liberia, so they’re ready to ship back to Atlanta. Liberia is far from better right now and there is always work to be done. With all the world’s crises, it’s been easy to forget about all the other people in need, but I’m glad there are like-minded people like you who still need ways to help.

Desmond is having an international college fair at city hall from June 20-24. We need schools present! Please send me an email if you have questions on how you can contribute. itsarchel@gmail.com

I am starting a summer reading program as my birthday present to myself at the end of May. I need children’s books, coloring books, crayons, etc. Again, email me! itsarchel@gmail.com

We are having issues with the school for which we would have referred potential teachers to work, however if teaching here is something that may interest you, please email me! itsarchel@gmail.com.

Basically, I’m risking unwanted emails in the hopes that something will call you to help the kids of Liberia. Below is the formal request for books for my summer reading program:

My beautiful home country of Liberia needs a lot of help in many different ways, but the first challenge that needs to be addressed is education. Without reading and writing skills, our children cannot hold positions to run our country in the future. 14 years of civil war has ruined our once thriving educational system, and we can take very simple steps to make it better. I believe the first step in recovery would be to have books the children can read.

When I was little, I had every book in the world. At least it felt that way. I was able to read and escape to different worlds, learn life lessons, and relate to fictional children my age through words and pictures. Nancy Drew made me want to be a detective, and the Babysitter’s Club made me excited to get my first job watching neighborhood children. I wanted to be something, and I could articulate what I wanted to be because I had access to a vocabulary I could use limitlessly.

As communications is my job in the Mayor of Monrovia’s Office, I would like to initiate a summer reading program at an orphanage my mother supports. The problem is, I haven’t got any books to do so with. I’ve not seen anything sturdier than a Newsweek magazine or more children focused than a cereal box in Liberia. Even if I did find a children’s book, I’m certain the majority of children couldn’t afford to purchase one. I want to teach kids to read, and I think everyone should have the chance to enjoy children’s literature.

Someone in the Liberian Orphan Education Project shared with me a story of their visit to this particular orphanage. A group of girls were sitting together on the ground with one sheet from a coloring book and one piece of a red crayon between them. The girls would take turns shading a part of the picture, and then passing the red shaving and paper to the next girl and so on and so forth until the picture was all colored in. I always had a favorite color in the crayon box. And when the crayon would break, I would simply throw it away and get a new one. My coloring books had tons of colors. I could never choose which page was my favorite to start with! I know that because I had coloring books, crayons, and reading books my mind had no bounds. Please help me expand the creativity of a young Liberian child. The orphans could be the next rebel leaders and armed robbers, but a small intervention could make them the democratically elected president that influences other countries to seek better for their children. Here is the change we wish to see in the world.

Kids at Ricks Institute at recess

This weekend I perform "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou for an UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) women's concert. I don't really know how I ended up doing this, but look forward to updates on women and fashion!