A Despot’s Best Friend

Sometimes I wonder if God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other…Then I look around and I realize… God left this place a long time ago.

Character, Danny Archer in the movie Blood Diamond

Love can throw a mean curveball. About 10 years ago, I found myself taking a swing at one such curveball. I desperately wanted to prove my love and get my beautiful soon-to-be fiancé what I thought she wanted – a diamond ring. However, I must have been paying at least a little attention to world news because at that time, the news I heard coming from West Africa made what should have been a fun and exciting quest for the perfect ring feel more like I was half-heartedly swinging at a wild pitch only to be struck out.

While the news reports talked of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia being funded through the trafficking of raw diamonds, I remember roaming the streets of Las Cruces, New Mexico searching the jewelry stores and rummaging though the phone book calling local and not-so local jewelry stores. Long before I finished contacting every single jeweler in the area it was obvious that jewelers didn’t have a clue whether or not their wares had been involved in funding and inadvertently supporting the horrors I was hearing about on the news. My plea, “I just to want to make sure the diamond didn’t come from a conflict zone” was overwhelmingly met with a blank and confused stare. Only one jeweler seemed a bit sympathetic to my quest.

There are few if any diamonds mined in Uganda that I’m aware of (although it appears many are smuggled from the Congo via Uganda) but I will never forget the deformed face of the man I saw 15 years ago who’s ears were sliced off by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. His face and what I can only imagine his terror would have been like during such a violent act has stayed with me all these years. It was his Ugandan face I saw in my mind when I would later hear the news coming from Sierra Leone a few years later when they talked about the rampant killing, gang rapes and cutting off innocent people’s hands, arms and sometimes legs. It was this Ugandan face that became my personal poster child for what was wrong with me buying a diamond without knowing where it came from.

I regret that in spite of the values I thought I would uphold, my search for a “conflict free” diamond ended with me buying a ring with multiple diamonds. I bought it from the jeweler who seemed sympathetic and I suppose her sympathy lessened my guilt just enough for me to lay down my credit card. I am guilty of buying diamonds with unknown origin while the sale and trade of diamonds were enabling so much horror in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Like Liberia’s then president, Charles Taylor, I’m also guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.

Last month’s verdict by the Special Court for Sierra Leone judges in The Hague pronouncing Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting was perhaps a bit anti-climatic. Leading up to the verdict, when I could get the static-filled BBC radio broadcasts in my house, they’d be recounting Taylor’s history and his alleged role in the atrocities. People here in Liberia were generally eager to share their opinion when I asked them what they thought about the trial of their former president. Some said they’d be happy to see him sit in jail for the rest of his life for what he had done. Many others said they’d be happy to see him run for president again if they didn’t convict him. On the day of the verdict, the baby blue UN helmets were back on the street in my town shading the faces and the rifles of the Nigerian and Pakistani soldiers. We hadn’t seen the blue helmets in town since the elections last fall. I hunkered down and stayed close to home. Perhaps we were all holding our breath.

Then they announced Taylor’s guilt. Nothing happened. School went on like it does. After school, I saw my students selling cassava and nail polish from the wheelbarrows they pushed around town. Between announcing Taylor’s guilty verdict, the local radio station still played Nigerian pop music mixed with songs by Don Williams and Kenny Rogers. The dust still settled over my table and bedding. Perhaps we were all exhaling.

Charles Taylor’s legacy: victims from Sierra Leone (photo: http://www.thenational.ae/)

Journalist Douglas Farah, in his book Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network Of Terror, documented bin Laden’s interest in West African diamonds and al Qaeda links to Taylor as far back as 1998. That same year, televangelist Pat Robertson, wanting to diversity his investments in Congolese diamond mines, worked with Taylor and invested (and ultimately lost) $8.5 million dollars into a Liberian gold mine. Jesse Jackson also spoke highly of Taylor back then with the aim of countering Taylor’s “abysmal human rights record”. With fear of being assumptive or naive I’d like to think that both Robertson and Jackson, at least back in the late 1990’s, honestly believed Taylor was on the straight and narrow and didn’t know he was just the next flavor of despot orchestrating the hell we now know he was unleashing in the name of greed. I hope they had good intentions although that’s little consolation to the 500,000 people who died in Sierra Leone and the 250,000 people who died in Liberia and the millions more disfigured, displaced and forever traumatized because of Taylor – and, perhaps in part because of Robertson’s poorly invested $8.5 million dollars, and perhaps in part because of Jesse Jackson’s misinformed lobbying, and perhaps in part because of my own decision to compromise my values.

Early this morning, they sentenced Taylor to 50 years minus his 6 years already served. If this holds through whatever appeals may be coming, he’ll be in jail the rest of his life. Clearly his jail time doesn’t make up for the horror Taylor caused but somehow knowing he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail makes the air feel a little clearer here in Liberia – less dusty, less burdensome. Liberia is definitely breathing again. I’ll be celebrating and I think many Liberians will be joining me. I know they’re partying in Sierra Leone. Maybe even some of the LRA’s surviving victims in Uganda are enjoying just a little semblance of justice in the world. Here’s to a little semblance of justice and here’s to the good riddance of another despot – may he be one of the last.


Truth Be Told

“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby

I told a lie this week. The man I told this lie to heard my lie and looked at me oddly. So, thinking that he didn’t understand my accent, I switched over to my best Liberian English and retold him the same lie. Truth is, he understood my accent and I’m pretty sure he understood I was lying.

I have a long list of things that I appreciate and admire about Africa in general and Liberia specifically (such as Liberians’ generosity, their quick-to-laugh nature and Liberia’s mysteriously hidden wildlife wonders, to name only a few). However, I also seem to be assembling my own codex of those aspects of Liberia that I find less admirable. One such aspect is that Liberia, not as a rule, but nonetheless on more than this one occasion, has made me feel the need to lie. This is in blatant defiance of my upbringing where I was taught that even the smallest of lies is abhorrently wrong.

Blue Lake (our local “mineral bath” created from an iron ore mine)

Desperation makes us all do many things that we wouldn’t choose to normally do. I’m not saying that I told my lie out of desperation – perhaps I did, but that’s not my point. My point is that fourteen years of war has left a faction of Liberia with residual desperation that has in turn created, and is still maintaining, an atmosphere whereby an idealistic-hanger-on such as myself, finds himself needing to lie.

When I came to Liberia I brought a laptop with me (which I’m using to write this confessional) and I had grand plans to use it to counteract the dismal lack of resources in my school; I would demonstrate the effective and efficient use of Excel to organize and calculate the grades of my students; I’d show documentaries and reinforcing subject videos for biology and chemistry students, I’d give small computer classes, etc. However, I quickly learned that no matter how loved and appreciated I am in my community (and I certainly do feel loved and appreciated), the truth is that my laptop, like my stolen camera (and more recently, my stolen solar LED light) was at a huge risk of growing legs and walking off. My now-ancient Mac is still easily worth a year or two’s wages for most Liberians. No matter how generous and appreciative my community is, my laptop is a highly valuable and consequently, a highly vulnerable commodity.

Waiting out another beating from Mother Nature

Now, eight months into the school year, I’ve stopped keeping track of my students’ grades in Excel; I’m doing so on grid-paper, using rulers, pencils and a calculator. While I’m coordinating a wonderful UNICEF funded program integrating computer technology with cultural awareness to a relatively small group of students, I haven’t demonstrated the power of the computer to my colleagues. I haven’t shown any awe-inspiring wildlife movies to my students. Instead I’ve put considerable effort into simply hiding my laptop and keeping it a secret. This is both inconvenient and a disservice – it is regrettable. So, when the man asked me if I had a computer while a couple of my students were around, I didn’t hesitate in lying to him. This too is regrettable. It is as regrettable as having your mom find out that you’re a liar. My mom raised a liar. Sorry mom. Apparently, I am not one of the few honest people I’ve ever known.

Solomon and his kickball team

On a totally different, and more virtuous note, these past two weeks I have been free from teaching and I have to admit that I have loved the break. Our school had this break because the seniors and 9th graders from the surrounding four counties descended upon and used our school to take national exams (think of something resembling SATs). Thus, without the burden of teaching, I’ve not only been able to take some good steps forward with my secondary project with the Forestry Training Institute (establishing a Geographic Information System and associated training program), but I’ve also enjoyed some of those other aspects of Liberia that I enjoy such as hanging out with my neighbors and students watching the local girls kickball tournament (with two of the teams coached by my students), getting severely beaten at chess by my two new friends Bill (“as in Clinton”) and Jimmy (“as in Carter”), swimming in Blue Lake with what seemed like a battalion of Pakistanis and enjoying some good reading (e.g. The Great Gatsby) as the rains pummeled my tin roof. It’s been a great couple of weeks. That is no lie.

Abduli’s and his kickball team (who was charged with fielding players too old!)

Superman is Dead

O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?

I Corinthians 15:56

Last November I wrote about Superman, my little friend and neighbor who I also claimed was carrying the future of Liberia on his growing shoulders. (see, “Superman Is On His Way”: https://fifthdimension55.wordpress.com/2011/11/). Looks like I spoke too soon. Here in Liberia, one out of nine kids die before they have their 5th birthday and this week Superman became part of this statistic. I was home that afternoon for less than an hour when the familiar awful wailing came loud and clear from right outside my window. I’d heard this sound before and there was no mistaking the frantic and alarming cries; someone had died. It was Superman. “Little-man Vincent”.

Little-man Vincent

Those who had seen him earlier in the day said his eyes had turned yellow, as did the palms of his hands. Superman had jaundice. However, it’s most likely that something else contributed to  Superman’s death; with jaundice, its killing partner of choice in places like Liberia is often either malaria or hepatitis.

The very next day, one of Superman’s friends was standing on my front porch sporting his new-to-him Superman t-shirt. Back in the States, wearing your friend’s shirt who had died the day before could have seemed a bit uncouth or in bad taste. But, we’re not back in the States. We’re in a harsh and uncompromising land where death is always ready and willing to pull another friend and loved one down. I saw Superman’s shirt being worn by his friend and was momentary taken aback, but then I found myself smiling. Who doesn’t want to leave this world without leaving something worthwhile behind, something to help out our friends and family? For a three or four year old kid living in Liberia, what he could leave behind, besides a distraught mother, included warm memories and a special shirt that his friend clearly needed.

When I began writing about Liberia, my hope was to share some of the realities of living in Liberia, shedding some light on some of the good and some of the bad. Lately it seems like the bad is dominating and I feel like I’m hosting an obituary column (yesterday, I learned yet another student at my school died this week). Back in the day, Saint Paul wrote to a Corinthian Church and asked, “O death, where is thy victory, O death, where is thy sting?” Death’s victory is apparently right here in Liberia. And, where is death’s sting? Let’s ask Superman’s mom.

Getting Lucky with Alison

She had lived through the wars

She didn’t want to go through it all again

She has seen injustice

She has seen corruption


She has seen racism

And any other kind of suffering you can think about

Then she said to me

Son, is this the end of our suffering…

            –Lucky Dube, Is This Freedom

Last night Alison Krauss made a welcomed visit to Tubmanburg, Liberia. She made her visit unannounced and did so dressed like Shakira. She also spent some time dancing like Shakira. Between her violent hip shaking she was breathing lyrics to her songs in my ear. Then a giant rat ran by my foot. I reacted without the slightest hesitation, no doubt trying to impress Alison, effectively jabbing my foot down squarely on top of the rat. That was the same instant that I woke up and discovered I had nearly kicked out the screen of my bug tent. Both Alison in her sparkling spandex and the would-be flattened rat were nowhere to be found.

Hanging with the late Lucky Dube

The pharmaceutical company that makes the anti-malaria drug I take every week calls the psychotic dreams a side effect. In spite of the rat vision and almost kicking out my bug tent, I call it a fringe benefit; who am I to object if Alison wears spandex and whispers in my ear.

Depending on which number cruncher I ask (or check on via the web), between 800,000 to 1,000,000 people die from malaria every year. That’s one person dying nearly every 30 seconds. That’s a lot of coffins. From my little spot here in Liberia, malaria clearly takes its toll, although without good data, it’s hard to tell whether it’s malaria, wrecks with cheap Chinese motorcycles or some unnamed illness that kills more people. Two weeks ago, we lost Fatu (see the last post) to an unknown cause and this week we lost one of my chemistry students, Boddy Ross. Like Fatu, the cause of death will likely remain a mystery.

My own experience with malaria has mostly involved taking drugs to prevent the symptoms along with witnessing the impacts to my Ugandan and Liberian friends and coworkers over the years. But, back when Billy Joel and I both wore a younger man’s clothes and I was in Uganda, I thought I was tougher than any single-celled sporophyte, enough so that I was a bit too cavalier about anti-malaria meds. I had never completely stopped taking the drugs, but I do remember lacking some consistency and thinking that my toughness would make up the difference. Plus, I seemed to keep getting those pills stuck in my throat and that is never pleasant.

Malaria found me there in Uganda’s savanna being both foolish and vulnerable. Fortunately, natural selection can sometimes be flexible enough to allow for some young and foolish individuals to make it through those early years with only a severe warning. And, if we’re lucky, maybe we even get some bonus memories out of those foolish assumptions. Often when people experience high fevers and delirium, they later report that angels or Jesus or some other metaphysical support was there to lead them through. I was no different, although it wasn’t Jesus that came to my rescue but Lucky Dube.

As I sweated through another bought of 104-degree fevers from a Kampala hotel room, Africa’s seemingly ever-present burning plastic trash and diesel fumes snaked into the room along with the call to prayer over a speaker system that couldn’t handle the desired volume. I also felt the offbeat reggae bass from Lucky Dube’s live concert that night thumping across Kampala. By the time the fever subsided and the morning sun peaked through the window’s iron bars, my head was happily bobbing up and down and I was breathing lyrics to Lucky Dube songs to no one in particular. That was 15 years ago but still today I discover my head often bobbing up and down to Lucky Dube. That hasn’t changed. Malaria still strikes quietly in the still of the night, killing thousands of people every day. That hasn’t changed either.

Remembering Fatu

Every soul is certain to taste death: We test you all through the bad and the good, and to Us you will all return.
The Qur’an 21:35

Death will catch up to us all. Death is not a one-man show!
Rev. Wilmont Kpenkel (a.k.a. “Daddy K”)
Principle, C. H. Dewey Central High School, Tubmanburg, Liberia


This past Saturday had started out to be a blue-ribbon day, filled with celebrating the accomplishments of 101 deserving forestry graduates as well as the hard-won accomplishments of the Forestry Training Institute’s impressive progress over the past three years. After the speeches, the hugs, the food and the excitement, I was almost back home when a fellow teacher from the high school stopped me. He gave me the news that Fatu was being buried! She had just died that morning.

I’m pretty sure that years from now when I think back on my time at C. H. Dewey High School, I will remember a harshness and an edginess coated with my sweat still trying to dry in the Liberian sun. I’ll remember quick-tempered students, chalk dust and Daddy K’s kick steps to catch up to another wayward student to lecture back onto life’s better path. I’m also pretty sure that I’ll remember how Fatu effortlessly and completely counteracted all the harshness, tension and chaos. She was in charge of the school’s accounting and in charge of the students’ records. She didn’t know it but she had also been in charge of my sanity. I found myself looking forward to greeting Fatu each morning outside the school’s administrative building. I looked forward to seeing what she’d done to her hair (she was a fan of extensions and wigs), but mostly I looked forward to her big smile greeting me with, “Mr. Paul, American Man!” and snapping my finger.

By Saturday afternoon, only a couple of hours after hearing of Fatu’s death, I went to visit a few of my fellow teachers. I found Norrison and Doe outside the house but there was wailing streaming from the house next door. Apparently, totally unrelated to Fatu’s death, another youngish women who lived in the house had also died that morning. This women’s death included a fever that started the night before on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, her family took her to the hospital (the best one in Liberia outside of Monrovia, I’m told) only to find that all the doctors, all the nurses and all the staff had left. They were boycotting work for the simple reason that they hadn’t been paid in months. Even the diesel generators that had provided electricity had been cut off. The family brought the woman back home. She died shortly afterwards.

Me, Fatu and Daddy K

Fatu will be severely missed. This morning (Monday the 19th) after a short song and a prayer we closed down the campus, leaving the Liberian flag at half-mast. Because Fatu was Muslim and died before noon, it was important that she was buried before 2pm that same day. That doesn’t leave time for anything other than shock and confusion. A memorial for Fatu is being planned for next Sunday. In the mean time the shock and confusion is giving way to yet another reality check telling me that life is way too short not to be breathing deep and sucking the marrow out of life (thank you Thoreau). Death is not a one-man show (thank you Daddy K). Neither is life. May we all breathe deep and keep sucking. There is wonderful marrow yet to be found.

Telling the Story

Tell them the story so that they may reflect – The Qur’an, 7: 176

I’m probably beyond ever having another religious experience, however I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t experience religion. Some days (albeit increasingly rare) this is by choice as I find myself enjoying and swaying to the evangelical African drums with one of my student’s church that I’m visiting. But usually it’s the everyday living that brings religion up close and personal, such as when I recently met a local policeman who introduced himself and then asked me the same question I hear so often in this part of Liberia, “are you a Christian or Muslim?” Then, last week on holiday as I traipsed across Morocco among the many burka-clad women and where calls to prayer pour over the landscape every few hours, apparently NATO/U.S. troops had burned Qur’ans in Afghanistan with the not-too-surprising response of rioting and killing. I didn’t hear about this news from the friendly Muslims who served me hot mint tea and stewed beef last week from their mountain-side tea houses in Imlil, but from a friend upon returning to Liberia.

Atlas Mountains from Imlil, Morocco

After hearing the news and checking on details from the web in the Peace Corps office, I set out for my usual Monrovia layover digs; the humble catholic hostel. My taxi driver was a thin, bearded man wearing a familiar Muslim kufi on his head. I greeted him in my very limited Arabic, followed by the friendly back and forth of pricing the ride. Then Mr. Bah and I somehow fell into discussions of Muslim and Christian relations. I sat in the back seat visiting with this older man who came to Liberia from Sierra Leone years ago and I was again reminded of why living in a place like Liberia (although for reasons both good and bad, I’m beginning to think there is no other place quite like Liberia) can be so exciting and surprisingly open. Mr. Bah commented on how wrong it was for anyone, including Muslims, to take another life and stressed the finer points of being fair, honest and faithful. He also tactfully let me know that to some West Africans (including him), a non-Muslim (including me) using Arabic (including my previous greetings) can be felt as offensive. At least to Mr. Bah, his Arabic is as holy as his Koran and the language should be reserved for God and not for doing daily business. He shared this as a thoughtful father would gently guide a good intentioned but misguided son. Point taken.

First Arabic lesson from my 10 year old neighbor

Between the news and Mr. Bah, I was also reminded of spending last September 11th, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, with new Muslim Pakistani friends who work for the UN. We, the children of Muslim Pakistani parents and one son of Christian American parents, watched the BBC news channel together as the twin towers were shown over and over being struck by the planes. Not only the U.S., but Pakistan as well, has not been the same since that day.

It’s not too hard to speculate that there will continue to be significant challenges and continued violence within subsets of Muslim and Christian relations in the future. Based on what I read of the past and what I see of the present, I’m unfortunately guessing that the future will continue to provide a theater for much of the same. But, in the mean time, I’m looking forward to more time with my Muslim friends and students here in Liberia. We’ll visit and share our time, we’ll break bread together and I’ll pause during their afternoon prayers. We’ll probably even discuss the latest regrettable events in Afghanistan. This won’t fix the world but I think it makes it a little better. It’s not a religious experience, but it is a start.

A Seemingly Simple Discrepancy

Edward is one of my better biology students. He’s also one of my many neighbors and a great footballer (again, we’re talking soccer here). While we both are hoping that Real Madrid will finally beat Barcelona one of these days, Edward and I have almost nothing in common short of our enjoyment of football and laughing together on my front porch every now and again. One obvious example of our differences is that while I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place most Liberians consider to be the land of milk and honey and I had the option to simply chose to travel and work in Liberia, Edward grew up here but will be hard pressed to ever succeed in his obsession which is to get to that land of milk and honey. But one other difference that really disturbs me is the fact that I have two biology textbooks and Edward has none; and, I can’t seem to fix this seemingly simple discrepancy.

Why not just give my extra biology textbook to Edward? He could even get ownership buy-in by working for it. With this thinking in mind, last week Edward and I walked home from school together and I mentioned my idea of having him cut the grass around my house (i.e. cutting the grass is done with a machete and yes, this as time consuming and labor intensive as you are imagining it to be). In exchange for this work I’d give him the textbook. He lit up. With a big smile on his face, he said he’d change as soon as he got home and would get to work on the grass. But then, as we neared our houses and walked by the primary school built as a gift by the late Muammar Qaddafi, Edward solemnly said, “Mr. Clarke, I can’t take the textbook”. I looked at him baffled, not sure what he meant and could think of no reason why he couldn’t take the book. I assured him it was fine to take it; it would be his. Then he reminded me that his house doesn’t have a door or any bars on the windows. “Someone will find out I have it and will come in a take it”.

Thus far, since I’ve been in Liberia, I’ve had my camera stolen from my home, cash stolen from my pocket and my two-day old coal stove stolen from my back step. But, what’s different about Liberia and my concerns about having “stuff” stolen is not just about thieves living around the area. People get cameras, cash and even grills stolen in Albuquerque and Richmond, Virginia, and just about every other place I’ve ever lived; that’s not different. I don’t think it’s all about a level of desperation that stems from poverty either. While 95% of Liberians live on less than $2 a day*, I saw much more abject poverty in Uganda without the constant threat of stuff walking off; I don’t think that’s the difference either. Perhaps some would call it a sense of assumed entitlement. I know some Liberians who would call it a burden of family obligation – being expected to give windfalls to those around you if and when you do get ahead in the game of life. Everyone wants his or her time to eat and if your family member or friend is eating, he or she is obligated to give up some of the food.  This not only makes it hard to get ahead, but I can imagine that it cuts down on motivation. I like to think that I’m a generous guy, but if I knew that my hard work would result in someone else getting much of the benefit, I don’t think I’d be as excited about going that extra mile.

At the risk of oversimplifying what is undoubtedly a very complex phenomenon and at the risk of misapplying a standard term generally reserved for natural resources management, I believe an important difference gets boiled down to a parallel of the classic Tragedy of the Commons. The Tragedy of the Commons is what pushed sheep farmers to overgraze the once productive grasslands of the Southwest, leaving those grasslands a hundred years later to be a pathetic reminder of the economic and biological wonder that they used to be, and still could be if they had been utilized properly. Stretching the concept a bit, the Tragedy of the Commons could also help explain why it took nearly a year, 2 engineers, 2 policy makers and one frustrated state employee to install a bike rack on state (i.e. common) property. Tragedy of the Commons is alive and well in the world. And here in Liberia it affects not only issues of natural resources but it also seeps into everything as effectively as this dry season’s harmattan dust that coats both my Kindle and my lungs.

Harmattan dust

Harmattan dust (photo from the Brother Paul Noonan Formation Centre, Tamale, Ghana)

When I first told people I would be heading to Liberia to take up the chalk in a room full of students who have missed much of their education (schools were closed during many of the war years and would-be teachers and students alike were hiding, running and/or trying -or failing, to survive), I was generally asked soon afterwards about how they could help. Accordingly, many generous people offered up their textbooks for me to take.

Textbooks in Liberia are a big deal and are in extremely short supply. But, just to be clear, I have 143 10th grade biology students and I’d guess about 5 of them actually have a textbook. I also have 163 11th grade chemistry students. As far as I can tell, maybe 10 of them have a textbook. After poking around Monrovia a bit, I learned of an outside market area where every morning, people somehow make 100’s of textbooks and a scattering of old classics appear out of nowhere. Many of the classics are generally bootlegged with misspelled words, missed punctuation and/or smeared printing. The textbooks are all used. Many will tell you the American school that the book was retired from if you look in the front cover. Others are stamped with “Not For Sale” or “For Evaluation Purposes Only”. For $30, I picked up a used teachers addition chemistry book (Mississippi edition) and a use biology text (formerly used in Mesa Verdi by 9 different students between 2002 and 2009 including one Mr. Goodenough in 2009 who made a note to inform me that there is a tear on page 127 – implying that the said tear was not his doing).

I want my students to have textbooks. My students want to have textbooks. Liberia’s Ministry of Education wants their students to have textbooks. And, clearly there’s even enough money from one source or another to actually buy books. But the students don’t have textbooks. In full disclosure, my school does have a small library and this small library, while dominated by donated used novels that will never be read by Edward or any of these students, it does have a set of Britannica Encyclopedias (circa the hippy age) and even some textbooks. Students can and do utilize these textbooks but there are serious limitations. For example, my biology students will be using these texts tomorrow as part of the homework they’ll learn about in the morning. But, the library can only comfortably hold about 6 people at any one time which means there will actually be up to 20 at any one time. With about 150 biology students the math is not in their favor. It works, but only in a better-than-nothing sort of way.

Edward will most likely never overcome the limitation of not having a biology textbook and the many other hurtles that are part of everyday school life in Liberia to become the next Stephen Jay Gould or Edward O. Wilson, yet I’m optimistic about Edward. He’s smart, hard working, motivated, funny and good-natured. He’ll continue to make Liberia a better place for himself, his family, and his community and I suppose for Liberia for that matter. Edward will make it. But those seemingly simple discrepancies still disturb me. I know they disturb him too; how could they not? It’s those discrepancies that are all too common and all too tragic.

*World Bank data from 2007, last year data was available.

Kofi Goes To Ghana

Fishing boats outside of Cape Coast

10am, January 10am, January 6th, 2012, overlooking the Atlantic from the cliffs of Ghana

In a few hours from now, I’ll be heading back to the Accra airport and then back to Liberia; back to the bush taxis, back to a chaotic school, back to bony fish. I like to think that my grasp of the obvious is as firm as the next guy’s, but I confess that I find myself surprised by my previous lack of appreciation for this small West African piece of paradise. After nearly two weeks here, it is nothing short of obvious that Ghana is unique in its culture and in its offerings for folks like me willing to traipse around and experience what there is to experience.

This happy discovery took place sandwiched between two unhappy events. First, I had planned to be in Ghana before Christmas but street riots broke out in Monrovia on my scheduled day of departure. After being turned around three times by angry youth, even the armored embassy car escort couldn’t get me to the airport in time to make my flight. The next available flight was two days away. Thus, I traveled late on Christmas day and found a small room in the bustling city of Accra before I could find Andy still waiting for me the next day in Cape Coast. Second, for my last two days here, I’ve been hosting some of Africa’s smallest fauna in my gut (for the extremely low price of a locally prepared meal in the village, you too can have an African enema). However, between these two anti-pleasantries, I found a slice of Africa that, like a longed-for lover, left me wanting more.

I had the good fortune to share these experiences (minus the riots and micro fauna) with my fellow Peace Corps Response cohort, Andy. One would think that living on a small south Pacific island for three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer would have given him soft feet and made him too accustomed to an idealistic life of comfort and excess to deal with Africa appropriately, but yet again, my firm grasp of the obvious failed me; it would be hard to imagine a better travel partner (alright, maybe the aforementioned longed-for lover).

Andy, waiting for the bus

After a few days of recovery time on the coast enjoying the salty water, soft sea breezes, abundant mangoes and daunting tours of 500+ year old slave forts, Andy and I submitted ourselves to 15 hours of… Nigerian movies. Along with the cost of the ticket, watching the same Nigerian movie over and over for 15 hours with the sound blasting is just part of the price you pay to travel by bus in Ghana. By the time we memorized the lines from the movie we were in Ghana’s arid, Moslem dominated north. Here we welcomed in the New Year with elephants, Grey-headed kingfishers and Aussies. As the clock ticked off midnight five hours ahead of the state’s east coast, I momentarily savored New Year hugs from two beautiful Aussie sisters only to have that pleasantness erased by a wet kiss on the check from their bearded brother-in-law.

One of the oldest mosque in Africa; 600+ years old

Then there was the 600 year old mosque with the 500 year old baobab tree and the 400 year old Koran. Then there was the slaughtered cow and the reception to welcome home two neighbors just returning from Mecca. Then there was the shea butter, the Kumasi market (largest in West Africa), Baboo’s Indian food, more mangoes, haircuts, Rastafarians and then the music. Ahhh, then there was the music. In a tiny little drum shop back in Accra, Andy and I rocked out with Moses and his friends. Moses has mastered his 2-string gourd thingy (Moses called it a 2-string guitar, I called it a 2-string banjo, Andy called it unbelievable). I think Andy is the only one right, but Moses whaled on the thing while his friends backed him up on drums, shakers and harmonies (stay tuned; as soon as I can find adequate bandwidth, I’ll share some videos).

Not a bad view from Cape Coast

Post script:
I loved Ghana and I can’t help but think that Ghana feels the same about me. Ghana liked me so much in fact that I was given a Ghanaian name. My new name was given to me by a taxi driver after we had adequately disclosed all the good and bad about Africa, Ghana, Liberia and the US and then came up with a few simple and effective ways to fix Africa’s corruption problems. He bought me a bag of cold water and delivered me safely and on time to the airport (without a single riot to slow us down!). He then gave me a smile, a handshake and a new name. I gave him a smile, a handshake and a big tip. I’m back home in Liberia now and in every one of my classes, students have commented (i.e. laughed) at my lopsided haircut I received in Ghana. Oh well. Next time Kofi heads off to Ghana, he’ll get his haircut before he goes.

Let’s Sing…

In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.   -Bertoit Brecht

Let’s sing…

I like to think that my Liberian English is improving. And, by improving, I simply mean more effectively communicating with those around me. Considering I’m trying to teach 300 Liberian students everyday, this is a priority. In those rare moments when I feel like I’m in my best Liberian English groove, I’m always talking slower (as much for me as for my students), but I’m not at all pronouncing my words in slow deliberate Standard English -I’ve found that rarely helps. Instead, I’m mimicking what I hear as best as I can and this means not only saying things in ways that I wouldn’t normally say them, but also in simply leaving off the ends of many words. A good Liberian English example would be, “bony fee su finee, ba my ga na fu”. Conversely, if I said the same thing in Standard English, “bony fish soup is finished, but my gut is not full”, my chance of being understood diminishes significantly. This American-Liberian English divide continues to present a challenge in the classroom, but at the same time, it keeps me on my toes and it keeps my students somewhere on the continuum between flustered and entertained.

In some ways, this is comparable to Uganda’s approach to English but with a notable difference. Ugandans don’t tend to drop the ends of words; instead they’ve been known to drop the ends of what would otherwise be functional phrases – at least from a non-Ugandan’s perspective anyway. One of my favorite examples is “I’m used”. When this is said in Uganda, it usually means that the person is used to something, or is familiar with something. It may also mean, “no problem”, but it’s really an abbreviated way of saying, “I’m used to that”. Of course as Peace Corps Volunteers who are forever being creative and good-natured, we latched on to this phrase and used it liberally but used it for its double meaning. When “I’m used” was said by a PCV to another PCV, the unstated part, “…and abused” was generally implied, but always in good fun and with smile. For example, “Yes, I’ve just arrived after waiting for 7 hours in the hot sun for a ride on the back of a cassava filled truck and then it rained for 3 hours during the ride. A baby threw up on my shoe again, but that’s OK. This trip was better than the last time I did it and anyway… I’m used”. Then, the understanding heads nod and everyone smiles.

But…let’s get back to singing in Liberia. Much as transpired recently, including getting robbed on the busy pre-Christmas streets of Monrovia; losing my little bit of evening time electricity; sharing a bed in a mud hut with fleas and; being only a few seconds behind a rollover car crash. There were also some bad things that happened but why dwell on the negative?

For starters, I was rudely reminded of how one feels violated and vulnerable after being robbed. I have rarely carried any significant cash with me around Liberia, but the banking situation is so horrible here that I decided to withdraw as much as possible when I could so I wouldn’t have to return to the bank so soon. Going to the bank to withdraw money involves not only a trip to Monrovia but then waiting for hours and even then you may or may not get your money (4½ hours is my record wait time thus far, and that record holding event still culminated in the system going down and me having to leave without any of my money). I had finally gotten my ATM card and had successfully used it to withdraw the $250 allowable maximum at the ATM. I tucked the five crisp $50 notes into what I had considered to be a “secure” zipped pocket of my travel pants and then proceeded to an enjoyable lunch with colleagues. After lunch two us were working through a chaotic queue to put ourselves into a taxi. At this time of day and at this location, assertiveness and a bit of pushing and shoving is generally required if you hope to actually acquire half a seat in a taxi.

The pushing I was required to give and the pushing I was required to receive in this process apparently lends itself to a successful enterprise of professional pick pocketing. While I was busy pushing my way into the backseat of the taxi, I thought those folks pushing up against me were only trying to follow me into the taxi. Turns out they were pushing into me to mask the unzipping of the aforementioned previously considered “secure” zipped pocket and to mask the taking of the aforementioned maximum allowable ATM withdrawal. Maybe it was my questionable firm grasp of the obvious or maybe it was simply their tried and tested professional skills, but I knew none of this was happening as it occurred. As I scooted into the backseat, suddenly there were several bystanders screaming, “They stole from you! They stole from you!” I assumed they meant someone else, but they were yelling and looking at me while they jabbed their fingers in a general direction behind me. I quickly checked my regular pockets and found the few items I expected but then my eyes saw my “secure” pocket was wide open. I confirmed that it was empty. The crowd saw 6 or 7 guys sprinting back through the crowd. Sprinting through the crowd with my money. Damn.

At this point, I can only hope that this ad hoc and involuntary donation will positively promote economic prosperity among some of Monrovia’s most desperate residents. Let’s call them some of Monrovia’s most resourceful residents. And, they are now benefiting from an American economic stimulus package. In the end, the Peace Corps was helpful and supportive and all is well. I was robbed, but nobody (i.e. me) was hurt. Best of all, I’m safely home, my flea bites are gone and as they say here after a hearty meal, “ma gu fu”. Let’s stop singing. I am used. I am smiling.

A little bony fish for the gut, please

In The Heart Of Her Family, additional photos part 1