Liberia - May 29, 2011

So today I tied for first in a dance contest at the Bahn Refugee Camp.  Actually, it was more of a shake your fat booty contest.  I think I tied because of the novelty of my dancing for them rather than my booty shaking skills as I was one of only two kwee poo’s at the camp all day.  In the Liberian villages I’m “white woma” but in the camp I am kwee poo (I don’t know if that is how you spell it, but that’s how it sounds and it means white lady).  Anyway, one of the Ivorian singers pulled me from my seat, along with one woman from each of the NGO partners, to participate in the contest.  We had traditional cloth wrapped around our waists and then we had to shake it to singing and drumming and a tambourine.   Let me tell you that when I started shaking my ass and stomping my feet, the sound of laughing and clapping and wooting was pretty deafening.   The ladies from the other NGO’s were Liberian so it was hard to compete with them.  In the end I wound up in a “dance off” with a women from the UN who was about 3 times my size and had an ample asset to shake.  I was winning the crowd with my enthusiasm until she dropped to the ground face first and started doing some very naughty  and suggestive writhing and jiggling that I wasn’t even going to attempt to match.  Ultimately the crowd couldn’t decide between my kwee pooness and her bedroom jiggle so they called it a draw. 

The event today was day two of a Mother’s Day celebration weekend that we helped plan in the camp.  It started with a semi-final football match between women from different camp axis or “neighborhoods”.  The sidelines were ringed with hundreds of spectators, mostly children.  The team that won played against us NGO women in the final.  Both games came down to a shoot-out (is that what they call it in soccer?) and ultimately we lost 3 to 2.  It was so fun and everyone was so spirited and happy.  Then we had a ground breaking ceremony for a women’s center that IRC is going to build with UNHCR funding.  After that we paraded through the camp singing and chanting songs about women’s rights and ending gender based violence.  The women carried signs about stopping abuse and rape and that human rights were women’s rights too.   There was such a great atmosphere of community and celebration, but it was also really sad that they had to parade down the road to try and spread such simple messages with the lyrics of their songs…”stop beating your woman cause it is not good”…”no, no, no, we don’t want no more war”...”women today, women tomorrow, women everyday cause we are special people”…and my personal favorite “my titties are for me, don’t touch it” along with various other body parts (although I’m making light of it and women were laughing and joking while they were singing it, it is such a tragedy that sexual violence is so prevalent in their lives.)  There was also a group of women dressed as caricatures of male soldiers and they performed some skits around the camp.  They made everyone laugh, but it was harrowing at the same time because the fake guns and machetes they had fashioned out of sticks are real guns and machetes back home which is why they are all in the camp in the first place.  The day ended with speeches (I gave a speech about IRC’s work in the camp) and the dance contest.   It was such an amazing experience.  I had little kids crawling all over me and walking with me and holding my hands all day and I really got to take part in all the festivities and singing and dancing and playing.  Being a Logistician, I’m usually dealing with vehicle schedules and procurement and construction and I don’t often get to be in front of the people who benefit from the work.  It was so wonderful to be a part of it all. 

I’ve been in Liberia for a month now and it’s definitely been a new experience.  We’re in a part of the country called Nimba County, which is out near where the borders of Liberia, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire meet.  I’m currently in a town called Sanniquellie, which is basically one main street with some shops surrounded by little “neighborhoods.”  We try and walk into town from our house a few times a week to buy some pasta and beans and maybe some soda if they happen to have any that day.  It’s about a 20 minute walk round-trip, so not very far at all, but we take a little path to the main road that cuts through a village area with simple mud and concrete houses with thatched roofs.  Women sit outside braiding hair and roasting corn and little kids wonder around and smile and wave.  It’s a scene you would see a thousand times all over the countryside.  Little villages that exactly match your mental image of rural Africa…mud, stick and concrete houses with thatched and tin roofs; lots of chickens and goats and sheep and the occasional cow running around; tons of little kids, some naked, with bare feet; mothers, some bare breasted, with babies tied on their backs in big colorful cloths and bushels of wood or grass on their heads.  The one thing that you might not always picture is the man or boy who is inevitably taking a pee at the side of the road.  He should be added to your mental image.

A few weekends ago we went to the Saturday market in town.  It was a maze of stalls selling house wares and second hand shoes and plastic flip flops from China and second hand clothes.   Apparently people really wanted to get rid of their Jay Cutler Broncos jerseys because I’ve seen a bunch of them in the last few weeks.  One of our Field Coordinators bought a Vail Resorts hat in Sanniquellie and he thought it was hilarious when I told him that Vail is a ski resort in Colorado where I’m from and that my brother worked there.  Needless to say he had no idea what it was when he bought it.  So before a Super Bowl or other championship game is played, they’ve already printed two sets of shirts and hats…one with each team winning.  After the game is played, the shirts that have the wrong team as the winner are often donated as clothing aid.  So far I haven’t seen any, but I’ve been told that one will see lots of shirts in Africa for championship results that never happened…but, who am I kidding, I wouldn’t have a clue whether the shirt was right anyway, it’s not like I know who won each Super Bowl or World Series or whatever.

Another thing you see a lot of are machetes.  I must admit that as an urbanite I haven’t had much direct contact with a machete, so, when I think of them, I picture a hockey mask and lots of sparsely clad college coeds getting hacked to death at Camp Crystal Lake.  But in Africa, the machete is an essential tool for life, used for everything from chopping firewood to cutting grass and clearing land to construction and farming.  Driving down the roads in the countryside here, you will see that just about every other person is carrying one, young, old, male or female.  The other day I saw a little naked boy of about 3 or 4 years old carrying one while trailing behind his mother and other siblings.  I saw a girl of maybe 8 holding her little toddler sister’s hand with a machete slung over her other shoulder.  I saw an elderly woman (one of the few elderly people I’ve seen at all) with a walking stick in one hand and a machete in the other.  Despite its domestic usefulness, the machete has also been an instrument of death and destruction.  It’s been used as a tool of war all over Africa and other developing countries.  I’m not sure if it is still the case, but at least until a couple years ago when I was still working in Export Control and knowledgeable about the regulations, you needed an export license to ship a machete from the US to Rwanda.   I’ve been trying to change my perception of the machete, but I have to say that the horror image still dominates, whether it be the Jason kind or the civil war kind, and I will admit that I get a tiny chill when I see them.

Speaking of chills, it is hot as hell here.  The living conditions aren’t too bad.  There are three houses in three neighboring towns that IRC works in.  Each house has generators that give us power for most of the day and evening, with a few breaks to rest the engine.  When the generators go off at night, it is pitch black dark in the house.  Not a scrap of light.  Anyway, when the generator is on, we can have a fan, and sometimes A/C depending on the house and whether it’s the regular generator or back-up generator (since there are always mechanical problems, we’re usually operating on back-up generators).  The worst part of the day is when the generator is resting and there is no fan.  I melt from the heat.  And it’s not even the hottest part of the year I don’t think.  I said in my last e-mail that I’m not a desert kind of girl…I also don’t think I’m a hot, sticky, tropical heat kind of girl either.  I think I’m a 60’s to 70’s and partly cloudy kind of girl.  The one good thing about the heat is that it makes having a shower from a bucket of cold water something to look forward to.  I actually like “having a bucket” as we call it.  I’ve come to appreciate water so much since I’ve been here and I feel like a shower would be wasting it.  Last summer while I was at the airport waiting for an early morning flight to Las Vegas, I wrote on my Facebook that all you need in life is a cell phone and a backpack.  I would amend that now to be a cell phone, a backpack, and a bottle of drinking water (and maybe a flashlight and an e-reader).   

There are a few household things I like doing here that I would never have said I liked back home.  The first is washing dishes.  We have a housekeeper who cooks and cleans for us during the week, but on the weekend we fend for ourselves.   That may sound pampered, but it’s really not.  I would starve to death if she didn’t cook for me.  I can’t cook very well even with a grocery store stocked full of any ingredient I could ever want, let alone in rural Africa where there is hardly anything.  On the weekends we usually make pasta with kidney beans and canned tomatoes.  During the week she usually cooks us corn on the cob with this bean concoction and rice or potato greens and rice or this cabbage concoction and rice and sometimes fish or chicken.  We also have the best, most fresh and amazing pineapple and mango and avocados.  Anyway, after lunch (if she is out of the house shopping or taking a break) or on the weekends, if we don’t do the dishes, a bazillion ants and tiny fruit fly things will storm the kitchen.  I like looking out into the yard, watching the chickens (which belong to the neighbors) peck around while I wash up the dishes.  I also like washing my clothes.  We have a gardener/maintenance man that will wash our clothes and often I ask him to.  But he’s not a fan of washing our “delicates” and sometimes I prefer to wash things myself anyway.  I strap on my iPod, pump a bucket or two of water from the hand pump over the well (which is surprisingly tiring to do), wash my clothes in the tub and hang them on the line to dry.  It is immensely satisfying to wear clothes you have scrubbed clean yourself.  I think the main reason I like doing these things here (which I hate doing at home) is because they are something to do other than work and are totally mindless so I don’t have to use my brain. 

 I’m having a bit of a war with the neighbors chickens that I mentioned earlier.  Well, we had a war at one point, now I've conceded.  It’s kind of a long story, but one of the damned chickens came into the house, got in my bedroom and pooped all over the place including on the headboard of my bed, on my comb, on my computer case, on my lotion bottle and on my toothbrush (thankfully I had a spare).  It was horrible and it has taken me more than a week to finally stop worrying about weird diseases you can get from chicken poop that I read about on-line.  After that I took to chasing them around the yard or trying to fling dirty water on them when I was washing my clothes.  Now I’ve just accepted that every day they will come onto the porch and into the kitchen and try to get into the rest of the house.  That’s where the food is so I can see why they come in.  Now I think they are almost kinda cute.  They are like little kids that are trying to sneak into the candy jar and know they are being bad and when I catch them and head for the kitchen, they take off with a squeak out into the yard like a bullet.  I didn’t think they were cute when I was chasing one all around the house after it shat on my toothbrush, but now they are growing on me a little bit. 

Well, I have so much more to say, but I’m tired of writing and I’m sure you’re tired of reading since you’ve actually gotten this far!  I’ll write again in a couple of weeks, before I finish my assignment here. 

Love,

Jen