Category Archives: Travel Journal

The literature of poverty

Given the lack of street lights and the high crime rate in Monrovia, I don’t feel safe walking after dark. After the sun sets, I usually whole up in my guest house and scour the internet for good reads; I’ve recently become hooked on the online archives of Lapham’s Quarterly. It seems a bit incongruous to be reading essays on the website of a high-brow “magazine of history and ideas” while in a country where most people cannot read and even fewer have internet access. Tonight, it felt even more unnatural when I clicked on a piece about Charles Dickens, whose work seemed to me more fitted to the Gothic buildings of Yale than the streets of somewhere like Monrovia. But George Packer’s piece Dickens in Lagos proved my assumption wrong. Packer relates the 19th century poverty of Dickens’ world to the slums of developing countries today, with a convincing comparison that never would have occurred to me. It reminded me of the world I see on a daily basis in Liberia, and it’s worth a look.

Happy reading!

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Cooking Lesson: Collard greens and fried plantains

Nine hungry expats gathered on Saturday morning to learn how to cook traditional Liberian dishes: a spicy stew of collard greens with chicken and fish (should be served with rice), and fried plantains. The setting – a luxury apartment above a sparkling swimming pool – wasn’t exactly your typical Liberian kitchen, but the food was as authentic as anything served up at a roadside food stall. Enjoy!

The finished product

Stew (Makes about 10 servings):

  • 1 large head of cabbage, cut into large pieces
  • 2 bunches of collard greens, cut into thin strips
  • 1/4 cup of chili peppers, diced
  • 2 onions, diced
  • Half a chicken, skinned and cut into medium-sized pieces
  • 5 large shrimp
  • Half a red snapper, cut into medium pieces
  • 6 cubes of shrimp bouillon
  • about 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • about 2 tsp seasoned salt
  • vegetable oil

    Fish comes fresh...

  1. Put the chicken pieces into a large pot with 3 crumbled bouillon cubes, about 1 tsp. each of garlic powder and seasoned salt, a third of the chili peppers, a small handful of diced onions, and 1/2 cup water. Stir to mix and put on the stove to boil.
  2. Cook chicken until the water has boiled off, then add another 1.5 cups of water. Cook for another 7-10 minutes (until browned).
  3. Transfer the chicken to a large pot with about 1/2 inch of oil on the bottom of the pan. Save the liquid from the original pot! Fry the chicken for several minutes, stirring, until each side is crispy. Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and put on a plate.
  4. Cut slices into the fish, and season with the remaining garlic powder and seasoned salt, as well as 2 cubes of shrimp bouillon.
  5. Add extra oil to the pot used for frying the chicken (should be about 1/3 –  1/2″ of oil in the pan), and fry the fish. When each side is browned and crispy, remove the fish and put it on the plate with the chicken.

    Frying the fish (now scaled and gutted and looking much more appetizing)

  6. Add more oil to the same frying pot if necessary, then add in the remaining diced onions and the rest of the chili peppers. Cook until the onions are golden.
  7. Add the collard greens and cabbage to the pot, as well as two more crumbled cubes of bouillon. Mix well and sautee for several minutes.
  8. When the greens have cooked down a bit, add the liquid from the chicken (step 2) to the pot and stir. Let simmer for 3-4 minutes.
  9. Add the chicken and fish pieces to the greens and stir. Let simmer uncovered to let the liquid boil down (about 10 minutes).
  10. Taste for flavor, and you’re done! Serve with rice.

    Stewing away

Fried plantains (pretty self-explanatory):

  • 4 large plantains
  • oil
  1. Peel plantains and slice diagonally into 1/2″ thick pieces.
  2. Fry in about 1/3″ of oil
  3. …told you it was easy. Plantains aren’t sweet, so you can add sugar or cinnamon.

Lots of frying involved

 

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Let’s call them “quirks”

I am now halfway through my time in Liberia (!), and I thought reflecting on what I have learned would be a useful exercise. The following is a list of my favorite facts, life lessons, and common occurrences from Liberia. They aren’t necessarily the most important things I’ve learned, but they are what make Liberia Liberia. In no particular order, they are as follows…

  • Mosquito nets are not like princess canopies. When I was little, I dreamed of sleeping in a lush, white four-poster bed with a princess canopy above me. I tried to make a canopy myself, but it wasn’t as glamorous as I envisioned, and hence rather short lived. I’ve discovered that mosquito nets are poor substitutes for princess beds. The net not only blocks the breeze of the fan, turning my bed into a stuffy, humid cocoon, but still manages to allow biting insects inside.
  • All generators will fail. When the entire country is powered by generators, this becomes a noticable fact of life. The guesthouse generator fails. The generator at the Royal Hotel restaurant, an  elegant expat hang out, fails. All of a sudden, entire buildings plunge into darkness. But hey, those are the lucky ones, the ones who have generators to begin with.

    Fact: All generators will fail. Glad I brought that headlamp.

  • Crabs will make the 300 yard trek from the beach to my hotel room. Specifically, my bathroom. They will lurk in the corner and launch sneak attacks on my unsuspecting toes while I sit on the toilet. An umbrella, I discovered, is the best tool for removing the wayward crabs, though each crab is replaced by one of its larger friends several days later.
  • Men peeing on the side of the road, in full view of all passing pedestrians, will not hesitate to wave and yell hello. This is one quirk I have not, and will not, get used to. Though it is not as bad as the children…
  • Children squatting to use the bathroom, also on the side of the road, will run up with their pants still down and rub their hands on any exposed patch of pale skin within reach. They giggle and say hello while doing this, and their parents look on with smiles. I do my best to manage a weak smile in return. This would be cute, except that it is compounded by the lack of running water in my hotel.
  • In four weeks, the number of showers I have taken remains in the single digits. I am residing, mind you, in a well-regarded guest house popular with Americans and Europeans for long-term stays. During my first week here, I was puzzled and pissed off when the water failed to run, and merely satisfied when it did. After several days of this, my mindset underwent a gradual change. Now, I am unsurprised and unbothered when the tap refuses to produce even a trickle, but overjoyed when I hear the gurgle of water coming up through the pipes. On the bright side, the measly supply of my favorite shampoo and conditioner that I brought from home probably will last until I return to the States.
  • The Delta Airlines office will not accept credit cards from any organization or individual other than the US Embassy. Everybody is expected to pay in cash – no easy feat, given that tickets to the US cost upwards of $2300. I managed to get around this rule by flirting with the Sri Lankan accountant in the office, though this has led to half a dozen phone calls from him each day asking me to spend time with him. But at least I got my tickets.

And finally, here is my favorite fact about Liberia, one that I think does a great job of summarizing this crazy place.

  • There is not a single traffic light in this entire country. When people ask about Marion, my hometown, I explain that it is a New England town so small, it has only two traffic lights. I think Liberia is the only place with fewer lights. Monrovia, the only city in Liberia with intersections busy enough to warrant lights, had several traffic lights before the war. But the city has been without a fully functioning electrical grid since the war, making traffic lights impossible. On the streets of Monrovia, the green light goes to whoever exhibits the most confidence.

A pre-war stoplight, now out of commission.

My Liberian friends frequently apologize for these “flaws”, but I wouldn’t dream of accepting those sorries. These facts may change from hilarious to inconvenient depending on my mood, but they are all part of the adventure – and that’s what I came here for.

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Trying to get away

When Monrovia gets to be too much, I curl up in bed and relax with my Kindle and iPod. When that’s not enough, I remind myself that in a few weeks I’ll head home to Marion, where, until we start school again, the biggest challenge my friends and I will face is whether we should sunbathe on the dock or the boat.

There is something beyond minor inconveniences, though, that I can’t escape with my books or impending return to the US. In fact, those comforts just compound my anxiety. My main source of stress is the desperation I see, and the feeling that I can’t help in any meaningful, long term way as a student journalist here for only two months.

Catherine, the laundry woman at my guest house, is 35, but she looks twenty years older. She earns US $50 per month and lives in a leaky shack that floods when the rains come. Recently, she’s begun asking my friend to take her picture and show it to people in the US. She believes that an American man will see her photo, agree to marry her, and bring her to the US to start a new, prosperous life. Failing that, she hopes the poverty evident in the picture will prompt a kind soul to sponsor her and help her immigrate. “I’ll be in New York,” she repeats, “and it will all be thanks to my friend here.” She sees my friend, a fellow Yale student, as her bridge to America.

Marcus, 18, is one of the young men who lives in the guest house compound. Last week, he asked me to look at an unsolicited email he received. It was from a company that proofreads green card applications. They charge 170 Euros per application round. “My mom is doing it too,” he told me proudly. “We’re going to come to America.” He had diligently filled out the information form, but was stumped by the page that asked for a credit card payment. When I explained what the page wanted, and that the service did not guarantee a green card, there was no flicker of understanding in his eyes, and his mouth remained in a puzzled frown. “So then you can get the embassy to help me,” he resolved, reading back over all of the information he had entered. Marcus is a literate high school student, but it wasn’t enough to understand the subtleties of internet spam, or the even greater intricacies of the US immigration process.

It’s heartbreaking to realize that people want to escape their lives here and have pinned their hopes on me, or people like me, and that I can’t help them. To be sure, plenty of Liberians live comfortably and want to stay. Moreover, I have met a number of people who have earned college degrees in the US or Europe and returned to Liberia; oftentimes, these are the people who see the most potential in their country, and they work to promote economic growth, education, and democracy here. Nevertheless, just as many Liberians live in the hollow shells of buildings destroyed by the war, squeezing out livings selling peanuts on the side of the road. They see me, an American, and assume that I have the wealth and connections to secure them a comfortable life in the US.

How do I tell somebody that I don’t even have the ability to snag a spot in the seminar I want to take, let alone sweep him through the immigration process? Should I try to explain that while I am relatively wealthy by Liberian standards, I am merely an unemployed college student? And then there is the thought that is the most honest, but also the hardest to confront: that in the US, we are bombarded with appeals for help and images of poverty every day, and one particular Liberian photo or anecdote will probably elicit little more than a few sympathetic words.

White man’s guilt, First World problems – call it what you like. As I try to grapple with the various realities and potential explanations and philosophical thoughts that swirl through my mind, I feel guilty. And exhausted. I would curl up with my Kindle and iPod, but won’t that make me feel worse?

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“This too is Liberia”

That’s what Jerry, one of the workshop facilitators for the Lutheran Church’s Trauma Healing and Reconciliation program, told me as we made the less-than-smooth transition from paved roads to a rutted, muddy mess that passes as the international highway between the Ivory Coast and Liberia. We were on our way to Nimba, a frontier county that abuts Guinea and the Ivory Coast, to conduct conflict resolution workshops for Ivoirian refugees and their host communities. Assuming I had not yet experienced the joint-rattling potholes of rural roads, Jerry wanted to clue me in.

But I saw something else in Nimba, something besides treacherous roads, that deserved to be pointed out as Liberian. In Kranplay, a small town 10 miles from the Ivory Coast, a group of children played soccer in an overgrown field. At the sight of a foreigner with a camera, they came running. The result? Your stereotypical “Africa” photos of grinning children, snapped by every volunteer and tourist on the continent. Being stereotypical, though, doesn’t make the grins any less adorable. And for me, it doesn’t make the scene any less – dare I use the word? – inspiring. After all, the kids were a mix of refugees from the Ivory Coast and children from the local host community, playing together while their parents sat in a conflict resolution workshop. And eight years ago, children their age were given drugs and guns and told to kill.

In Kranplay that afternoon, those things had no impact. The kids were just kids, just playing. Though it’s sometimes hard to see through the decay and corruption and poverty and violence here, they too are Liberia.

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Cost of Living

A few questions stumped me before I left home for Liberia. What would I be able to buy in Liberia? What do they eat? How do they get around? What does it all cost? As I’m quickly discovering, almost everything is available here, and my wallet tells me that a day in Monrovia doesn’t cost much. The following is a list of some of the things I’ve bought, along with their prices in US dollars.

 

  • A night at the Lutheran Guest House, running water not necessarily included: $25.00
  • A plastic baggie of water from one of the many coolers that line the roads (I’m crossing my fingers that its not just tap water): $0.14
  • A roasted plantain: $0.40
  • A Manchester United umbrella: $3.75
  • Flip-flops imported from China: $1.75
  • A shared taxi downtown, with a minimum of five people in the backseat: $0.30
  • Tea at the Royal Hotel restaurant, an air-conditioned, ornate expat hang out: $2.00
  • Tea at a roadside stall: $0.40
  • A Snickers bar from the Lebanese grocery store: $3.00
  • Local dinner – a heaping plate of rice and Liberian eggplant stew: $2.00

 

With a grant from Yale – or a generously playing NGO job – one can live pretty comfortably here. Now if we could just get that water running in the guest house…

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What’s an atheist Jew to do?

Yesterday – Sunday – marked exactly one week since I arrived in Liberia. Sunday is also, of course, the day when good Christians attend church services, which reminded me of the first conversation I had upon arrival in Liberia.

It was in the car, driving to Monrovia from Liberia’s international airport, a single strip of cracked concrete in the middle of the bush, 40 kilometers outside of the city. As we bumped along the road, signs for churches whizzed by every few meters, advertising Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Baptist ministries with arrows pointing to the squat, concrete churches.

One of the many, many ministries in downtown Monrovia.

“See these houses?” my driver, Mark, asked, gesturing at the mud and brick huts that lined the street. “Since the war, Liberia is very, very poor. These people got no electricity, no water. But we’re trying. We believe that God is looking down at us, and He’s gonna help Liberia. Liberia is a Christian country. With God’s help, we’re gonna rebuild. I go to church every Sunday before I come to the airport to pick people up and pray for that.”

Mark picked up the bible off his dashboard to show me, and glanced back at me in the rearview mirror.

“Do you go to church?” he asked. I replied that I didn’t.

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”

I paused. I was exhausted after 20 hours of flights and airports, overwhelmed trying to take in my first glimpses of Liberia, and struggling with how to reply after hearing about the importance of God for the past ten kilometers. Mark kept looking at me. So I did something I’d never done before.

“Uhhh, yeah, I do,” I replied. It wasn’t the same as fudging exactly how Jewish I was to go on a free trip to Israel. And it wasn’t the same as attending church with my elementary school best friend after Saturday night sleepovers, bowing my head and pretending to pray. It was my first outright lie about my religion.

Liberia is perhaps the most religious place I’ve visited. All of the formal events I’ve attended here have begun and ended with prayers lead by a pastor. My hotel, like all of the budget accommodations in the city, is run by a religious group, and Lutheran hymns float down from the second floor every morning at eight. On the streets of Monrovia, many taxi drivers  have painted religious sayings on the bumpers of their cars, and 18″ x 6″ “Jesus” bumper stickers adorn everything from cars to restaurant windows. Signs for churches are perhaps the only type of sign to outnumber those for NGOs. Alfred Sirleaf, the man I’m working with at The Daily Talk, carries a bible in his briefcase and has a sign on the wall of his office listing the reasons why Jesus died – number four says, “Because the Jews planned it.”

About 80% of Liberians are Christians (very, very staunch ones, I’ve realized), and another 15% are Muslims. The rest observe various tribal religions. Its not that I feel I would be persecuted for my religion, or more accurately, my lack thereof, but Liberians’ attitudes towards Atheist half-Jews is uncharted territory for me. In a new part of the world, where my daily struggles include trying to figure out when I’ll next have running water in my hotel room, I haven’t yet had the energy to test out the liberalness of attitudes towards religious diversity here. But I’ll keep you posted when I do.

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