Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Liberian Living: The Land Where God Smiles

Just had my first plum from my tree!!! It's a great day in Monrovia for me! I popped it in the fridge and had the best two minutes of my life eating an authentic, Liberian, chilled mango. My tongue still has the taste of sugar! Way better than the ones in the states!

Over the weekend, I traveled to Buchanan, a city an hour past the major airport in another direction. The large destination part of the beach is right through the ArcellorMittal plant. There, a few friends and I found a few palava huts and an outdoor bar and cookshop to enjoy the most beautiful beach in the world. You can see the interesting formation of the coast, with the rocks, sand and grass, palm trees, etc. The black rocks weren't even hot because of the constant spray from the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean on this side of the world is pretty rough. I don't even really know what an under-current is, but ask any Liberian, that sucker is going to drag you out to sea if you're not careful.

Not a speck of trash in sight!

I'm always scared to eat from cookshops. You just don't know how clean the food is or how long it's been sitting out. The sun can give you huge hunger pains though, so I risked it and was quite happy I did. They had a luxurious cookshop menu in Buchanan.

No gloves, plenty jewelry.

Typical Cookshop food in Liberia:
  • Roast Meat: Cut meat cubes on a skewer (stick). Often with onions and served with fried pepper sauce and ketchup on the side. Sometimes simply called a meat stick. Mind you, I've never seen a cow in Liberia, but somehow roast meat is everywhere. I'd beware if I were you.
  • Chicken: Just chicken, usually dark meat. The 'country chickens' are kind of tougher and skinnier than what we're used to in America. I prefer imported chicken. I like the added hormones.
  • Plantains: Usually fried, but can be found boiled easily. My favorite side that can double as a dessert if they're sweet enough. If I had a restaurant I'd serve it with vanilla ice cream. Alas, I'm asking a lot from a cookshop.
  • Sausage: Pronounced Saw-chage. Really wrinkled, over-cooked, skinny hot dog on a stick. I haven't seen a real sausage since I touched down. I wouldn't mind so much if they were using Nathan's or Hebrew National's, but there I go again wanting too much from a cookshop.
  • Fish: We are after all on the coast. Usually the fish is fried with the plantain or grilled with everything else. It's always really bony, and typically a type of fish I've never heard of.
  • Boiled Egg: Hard boiled egg. I always wish they would just scramble it.
This cookshop was luxurious because they also served typical Liberian style potato salad. The salad recipe consists of potatoes, mixed veggies, boiled egg, spam, and mayo. This cookshop also cost about 2-3x as much for each entree. A roast meat stick may usually cost $20LD, here it was $50LD. The chicken platter was $5USD and came with potato salad and plantains, but that price and suggested quality would be unheard of in the city. In true cookshop fashion, there was no place for the cook to wash her hands and I did a little prayer that I wouldn't get sick after eating it.

The House at Sugar Beach
I have been trying to read more literature on Liberia so I can have something to base my findings on, but all Sugar Beach did was make me cry. I read the book when I went to the beach, ironically with some Cooper kids my age, and finished it rapidly. I had never learned as much about Liberian history before reading the book. I was in college before I truly understood how I could be West African and yet had a red complexion. My family rarely talked about Liberia, and I think it's because we had to really focus on having a life in America. I knew my grandfather was somewhere in Africa, and I knew my parents grew up there, but I never really grasped what it meant to be Liberian until I came in 2004. During middle school, I wished I was from some cool, faraway country where I had different customs and colorful clothes and a culture I could share with a few kids at school. 14 years of war robbed me of being able to grow up knowing that I already had all of that.

Anyway, I put off reading Sugar Beach before, and I think I was meant to read it at the low point of my time here. My close family knows I've met a few issues in the past month, and Sugar Beach has helped me realize I am just part of the pioneering class of Liberians here today. It really renewed my anxiousness to keep moving toward my goals here!

The book was written by Helene Cooper of the Dennis and Cooper families, which are two relatively large Congo families that I have plenty "Antys" and "Uncles" from. In Liberia, older people always want you to "add handle" to their names. Even if they're not related to you, you have a lot of play Antys you didn't know about until they meet you and say you look just like your parents, their good friends from the time they were small. "Mrs." and "Mr." is much too formal, and "Uncles" will give you food and money. ;) She went to ACS, which is the American school my mother attended, and also attended First United Methodist Church, for which my grandfather was lay leader. The hardest part about reading the book was understanding the life I could have had here if there had been no war. I would have watched movies at the Relda, and begged to go across the street from my house to Sophie's Ice Cream to hang out with other Congo kids that I knew. I don't have any childhood Liberian friends now. My Liberian English is laughable, and both Relda and Sophie's are in need of serious reconstruction (understatement). The places a kid could go to have fun in the 70's are now just cement shells.

Liberians just didn't learn how to integrate. Just because we were all the same color we felt we didn't need to, but oppression of any kind is bound to cause unrest. We're a great example of the need to open opportunities for advancement to everybody. I'm at ground zero and I believe we still need to work on this Congo/ Country People thing. Right now I have friends in the states that are of Country families, because we all had to scatter by 1990, so how different are Liberians really? Success seems to be a birthright.

Below are some Cooper properties. The morning I finished the book, I woke up at the nearby Thinker's Village Hotel and walked right over to Sugar Beach to feel connected. Well, it would have been great to have had a tour guide who actually knew which house was the one Helene lived in. I didn't. Desmond took me here instead of the right property. And as I walked around trying to picture the room that the girls all shared to protect each other from imaginary demons, or which room her mom was raped in, I realized every shell really has a story. Some family lived here and had to flee. What happened to them? Were they able to do successful business wherever they relocated? Will they come back to property disputes? The squatters are plenty in this house, and they believe they own it, that's for sure. When I returned home in 2004, my grandfather had put every penny into making the house livable for us. I never was familiar with a shell. The shells didn't talk to me before, and the country is full of houses that look just like this. Imagine if this were your home.

Would have been awesome if someone could really point the house out to me. Anyone headed to Kendeja soon??

Anyway, Helene Cooper wrote "Liberia wasn't a place where you lived, it was a place where you died." I'm here to claim it for you living breathing pioneers!!

Endless Trash:
There's a really slummy district of Liberia called West Point that we're trying to clean through the IMPAC Program at Monrovia City Corporation. This is the program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. When people talk about the worst places in the world to live, West Point is the best place to get footage of extreme poverty. The site manager was discussing her frustrations with the daunting task ahead of her:

"The main hospital in Monrovia discards birth waste (umbilical cords, etc) by throwing it outside and rinsing the street.It runs off into a community called West Point (named after the US military location) which is full of squatters and essentially homeless residents.
Since the residents of West Point are not landowners, they cannot formally complain about the issue. The hospital always claims they will report the people and have them removed. So children walk to school and jump over after-birth and umbilical cords like hopscotch."
I showed up to West Point in a sundress and flip flops. Well, next time it'll be rubber boots and long sleeves. People didn't even pause from using the bathroom when we drove up. They literally squat where they eat at West Point. Progress cannot come fast enough for these residents.

My grandmother said "West Point? What were you doing there?!?!" Trying to have my part in making a change Nana. I'm documenting things that will not be the same five years from now. We have great grants and leaders that are taking us away from this point.

Whein Town

I took a trip to the World Bank funded landfill at Whein Town, just outside Monrovia and I see we are making progress already in some places. The workers on site showed me how they dig the hollow beds to dump trash and cover them with dirt again so they meet international standards. The manager who took me out, Pusah, is very proud (not in a cocky manner) of the job he is doing out here, and he has every right to be. He took me to see the dump site and made sure I didn't take pictures of exposed trash because he wants the world to see how hard they're working to make things better in Monrovia, and specifically by international standards. I enjoyed my expedition so much! As filthy as it was. My mom would have died!

On top of trash!

Kids were there as young as 8 years old, picking through the trash for things to sell. Bottles, tins, rubber, and scrap metal are valuable items in the landfill, and if they don't find them they don't eat. I think of my own sisters in flip flops among rubbish so they can buy some roast meat. One kid's skin was so dirty the sweat didn't drip, it simply beaded and stuck to her face. Progress is being made but it all takes time.

I'm here and I'm hopeful and I'm waving at you from across the Atlantic!
I don't think I'll continue this blog beyond the summer. I have to save some material for a book of my own, you know. Maybe you all can join me in Monrovia and we can write history together!