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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Lost City of Bong Town

The Lost City of Bong Town

I always hear from Liberians, “Oh this place used to be fine before the war.” or “The war spoiled this whole area.” And they say these things in other places like Kakata and Careysburg. And I nod silently and think “Uh huh. Maybe.” But when Arthur Barclay told me that my home during the last 17 months used to be called “Germany” or “Small America” I had to question him.
“Small America?” I ask. “This is Bong Mines. I've seen most all of Bong Mines.” He shook his head fiercely and rebuked my words. “But have you seen Bong Town?” I looked at him a bit confused. Bong Mines...Bong Town...are they not the same thing? Arthur took me on a long Sunday walkabout and showed me as he explained.

Bong Mining Company (BMC) was started and operated by the Germans. It began sometime in the 1950s. Arthur was born in Handii the village one hour north of the mine. He went to work for BMC in 1973 and was working there 15+ years until the war started. The mine was large, and I've found a few aerial photos online of it. The pellet plant, the conveyor belts, the crusher (which crushed rock) and the railroad. Nearly all of which took extensive damage during the war. The area was filled with heavy equipment, fine items, and large trucks. Who wouldn't want to capture that for their side during the war? My point exactly. The area was captured and recaptured over 50 times during the course of the civil war. Over 50 times can do a lot of damage. Then add in looters, scrapers, natural storms, and untouched vegetation growth for about twenty years. The place looks very different now.

The mining equipment is in horrid shape, and all the metal has been stripped to be sent away to be melted down. Even the cement is still being taken to build houses elsewhere. Only large foundations still remain and even those are falling apart. I've seen the mine. I've seen the old pellet plant and the crusher. I had not seen Bong Town.

Bong Mines was the 'camp' area. Holding many compartment style houses for mine workers. It is located on my side of town, the area that I now live in. Everything to the right side of the main road in my town was Bong Town. This was were the international staff lived as well as the officers and high ranking Liberian staff. Bong Town was the ritzy part of town and you'll read why soon enough. Bong Town was looted as well during the war just like other areas...but instead of being inhabited like the other compartment style houses in Bong Mines, they were eventually left abandoned. Forgotten.
Often times I had looked down that shabby coal-tar road from the main road that ran past the German-built hospital, but never before ventured down that way. I never really saw Liberians go there, and the place seemed to lead to know where. A dead end. No, Arthur tells me. “Bong Town is in there.” In there? I think. Where? It's all bush... It looks like an untamed jungle to me.
And Bong Town is an untamed jungle....with the skeletons of a town that was once so beautiful. Arthur took me through Bong Town that cool Sunday morning. We walked down that narrow coal-tar road I'd always overlooked. The road was black, with a sparse pot holes here and there. The farther in we went, the farther I seemed to leave Bong Mines behind, and enter this completely different world. To a quick glace, the road and surroundings appeared to look like a random paved road in the dense jungle...but upon closer inspection...you could see it. The slivers of gray and decaying houses poking through the green jungle. It was like a game. Can you spot the building remains through the thick jungle forest? Can you only see the tops of the buildings? Do you see the doors? Windows? Driveways and bathroom tiles? It was like being in an abandoned Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs and wilderness took over. But at least here, I did not see any dinosaurs...but I'm not ruling out the possibility. :)
There were over 200 houses in here. All with nice bathrooms, running water, electricity, television sets, and of course they all had air conditioning. A few even had snazzy European cars parked outside them. Now, only the cement walls remain. Even the zinc roofing and wood was stolen to be re-sold. And some of these houses are even loosing there cement walls to Liberian builders in the area who do not want to spend extra money on buying cement blocks for their building projects. Those cement blocks, which look a lot like the pile my landlady has been accumulating are surely the same blocks that were pieced together to make the very house I now live in. My house, I just realized, is made from old blocks from Bong Town. Taken illegally, but who's really doing any enforcement? And Bong Town isn't being used for anything now....Liberians probably do not see it as stealing.
So the tour has more meaning now as I know my house was once parts of Bong Town. Maybe as part of the head security officer's house, the Austrian economics teacher's house, or the head operations office building. The ghost houses of residential Bong Town were garnished with Y-shaped driveways, small cobblestone walls, and remnants of backyard gardens. Trees thicker than 10 inches were growing there. Vines that curled in and around windows, and roots that wound around doorways to reach soil on the other side were everywhere. I felt like Laura Croft in tomb raider as I ducked under a thick mass of roots to see inside what was once a living room (though I've very glad that old house was not booby trapped).
I saw the large flat expanse that was once a golf course. It hadn’t accumulated too many trees since it was cleared in such a large amount. As Arthur and I left residential Bong Town and continued on, I was informed that there were many other things here...not just a golf course. We picked our way through the dense bush to the recreational area of Bong Town. Now, the bush was so thick, I couldn't see it all unless I brought a cutlass. But I did see the nearly Olympic-sized pool, tennis court (all three of them) and the shower/locker rooms. Arthur pointed out the direction of the basketball court, bowling lanes, and shooting range. Is your mouth hanging open slightly right now? Mine was too...all day. Arthur also took me to the casino/club that was overlooking the tennis courts, bowling alley, and pool. The club I'm told was tricked out with six by twelve foot windows and a large bar. I closed my eyes and tried to picture this place before the war. I'd get a gin and tonic and stand by the large windows to watch the tennis match. Or I could move to the side room which held the VIP bar (still slightly visible) and hang out on a plush couch and watch any sports game on the multiple televisions mounted on the wall.
I opened my eyes to see the sunlight streaming through the jungle and open ceiling into the VIP bar area where I still stand....dazed. Arthur ducks his head through the doorway as a tree's roots are consuming the top two feet of the doorway. “Are you ready to see the reservoir?” He asks. I just bob my head a little and follow him out of the club. As we turn back down the road I look back at the club and wonder what the sign looked like that must have hung outside....and how many different colors used to shine over this road every night.
The reservoir held the clean water of Bong Town and it's a pain to get there. Such a pain, I almost change my mind halfway there. Even as I write this post to you now, my feet are tingling and sore in various places. Turns out the reservoir is not a frequently visited area and it's well overgrown. The jungle rips and tears at my clothes and skin as we hike and I begin to wish I'd worn close toed shoes. We have to jump over a few large ravines in the road. It looks as though someone had dug up the road. Turns out I'm right. “People come looking for copper piping and other buried metals to take and sell.” Arthur puffs as he continues his hike on up the hill. I follow, trying to match his pace and not get too torn up by the thorny vegetation. We finally reach the reservoir and I'm panting, bleeding from my jungle scratches and sweating like hell. The entrance to the reservoir looks like a dungeon. There is a little bit of light inside from the doorway and I can see two large holes in the floor from scrap metal hunters. “What's over the banister?” I ask Arthur. But before I let him answer I'm awed by the booming echo of my own voice. I look over the banister as Arthur joins me. “This is where the water was held...you can't see it unless you have a flashlight.” Damn...I think. I didn't bring one. I use my camera's flash with surprisingly good results. The bottom is maybe thirty to forty feet down, completely drained and still rather well intact. There is a shadowy staircase to my right, but we're out of time for this place if we want to try and reach Bong Town School. I get attacked by the vicious undergrowth as we hike back down to the road, jumping over the ravines once again.

We pass another 'jungley spot' on the way and Arthur tells me about the playground that used to be there and how it was one of the nicest playgrounds he'd ever seen. It even had a small carousel. I continue to follow him, still speechless and busy taking pictures. Workers would drop there kids off here to the daycare school and continue onto work. School buses ran along this road carrying students; black, and white to Bong Town School...the international school. My school, Bong Central High was used over in the camp as a junior high and elementary school. Bong Town School was the high school, filled with science lab equipment, international teachers from dozens of countries, and a set of textbooks for every student. Would I ever love to have seen that school back in the day. Turns out, I won't be able to see it today. Arthur can't find a way to it through the thick bush and we have no cutlass. “Next time.” He says and I nod determined that I'll get to see more than just one small outside wall of Bong Town School later. He tells me about the school's quality instruction and that graduates of Bong Town School got their placement tests waived if they chose to go on to University of Liberia or Cuttington University. My principal, Ma MJ, used to work at that school as did her husband Mr. Stewart.
Arthur takes me along one more ambiguous road and tells me that it is the road to the supermarket. Of course it is. I shake my head and follow. He stopped to point out his old office to me. It looks like all the other old dilapidated buildings of Bong Town but this one means a lot more. This was where Arthur worked for years and years. Where he made a good living off of about $850 USD per month, and his job was a mid-range paying job. He told me of how there was a laundromat nearby (useful since he didn't have a family in his early years working for BMC) and a sandwich shop encase you didn't have time to make it to the mess hall.
I ask him if any returning BMC workers from Germany go to see Bong Town when they revisit Liberia. He shakes his head. I guess it's a little too sad for them to see. We're quiet for some time and then I finally ask him if seeing all this makes him sad too. He nods, still smiling. “Yes. We fought an ugly ugly war here. The Liberian people did so many bad things to their country and people.” He's somber, yet his smile wrinkles near his eyes are crunched. Despite all this....unimaginable destruction and loss, he's still happy. A trait of the Liberian people that will continue to surprise me even after 17 months of living with their destroyed and failing system. After loosing so much...after seeing so many horrible war crimes...after surviving so many attacks...so many nights without food....living in constant fear...and no end of the war in sight for so many years. Arthur is alive...his wife and three children are alive...and the war is over. There are many many things he is thankful and happy about.

As for me, I'm honored to have Arthur share his memory of this incredible place...this diamond in the bush....the Lost City of Bong Town.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I carved a chicken pumpkin for Halloween

October 2012

I asked my mom to mail me a small mouse trap in early October, because my cat is a little defective and I don't like sharing my snickers bars (I doubt a mouse could appreciate them as much as me). I discovered this when a mouse ran across my floor while I was lesson planning. I promptly got up and went outside to collect Monkey and plopped her on my floor. She idly groomed herself and after a few minutes she randomly jumped backward, catching the mouse tightly in her mouth. I cheered silently and opened my door. Monkey carried her prize out into the living room to torture it. I still have no idea if she ever intended to kill it. Why you ask? Because she let it get away... She may be defective in killing mice, but she's very good at beheading lizards  and eating the legs off cockroaches. Yes, she is a rather strange cat.

As soon I returned from my trip to the states, Liberians in my community noticed my extra six pounds I'd packed on (I swear that four pounds alone came directly from the Minnesota State Fair. Curse you Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar!). And all of them stopped to say “Leela, you got fat.” or “Leela, you getting fat-o.” And while this may be horridly insulting to you and I, it's a compliment here. If you're fat, it means that you are healthy and have money to 'pad your sides' so to speak. But even knowing this did not help me accept my new six pounds. Rachel can attest to the fact that I got a little annoyed on the subject and sensitive.
After school one Wednesday, I came home tired, sweaty and hungry, and right off the bat my landlady Fumatta starts harassing me. “Leela, bring the generator!” Keep in mind I'd rather be eating right now. She calls for me again and I grumpily snap back that I'm coming and that she didn't let me sit down to rest small. I carry the generator over and wheedle an apology out of her. She now feels bad that she upset me and goes for a compliment to help her case. “Leela, you getting fat.” I glare slightly and head home to eat (at least all the fat comments aren't keeping me from my cassava leaf soup).

Naw wei is living life on chain these days. So so women business, and he can't sit down. Also as my neighbors would say “He like fighting business too much”. And so to prevent a lost eye or an artery rupture I don't have equipment or skill to mend, he is now training for stateside living...where there are rules and leash laws. He's adapted rather well and I now take him on a long hour and a half walk every morning at 6am (now I wake up before the chickens do). I'm still expanding his various dog tricks list. So if you have any ideas for cool tricks, let me know. He and I have enough spare time to master them. As of right now, he knows over 14 different ones. And so, Naw wei, the talented, charming rouge dog who seems to woo so many ladies is done roaming. Don't be mistaken though, that does not effect his sex life that much. Yeah... awkward for me when I'm trying to read on the porch.

In October I learned that guava is not just a mystical flavor conjured up for juices and sherberts, it's a real fruit! (okay, I already knew that, but I don't think I'd ever had a guava before and I certainly never had one that tasted as amazing as these here in Liberia. Rachel and I have a new friend Andrews who brings us fresh fruit such as guava, orange, and tangerines. He tends to bring us a lot of fruit too. And then we ponder how we will eat it all or who we can share it with. And we joke that we could start a new dieting plan. The Andrews Diet: the consumption of only food brought by Andrews. I'm not complaining, I know I'm getting my vitamin C in.

I taught my 9th grade class how to fold model airplanes after they enjoyed the one I made to demonstrate the vocabulary word 'model'. Sometimes I wonder what my school's administration thinks of some of these things. I don't think my style would fly in the states (very bad pun intended).

I met with the Chinese again to discuss the school renovation. It's still too slow and they're not working on the outside perimeter or security...which, logically, I would think would be first on the list. So that future work would not get destroyed, and materials would not get stolen. So we'll see if anything happens in the next few weeks and I'll update you again in December.

I would also like to add that these sunflower seeds I'm eating are A-mazing...and dog farts are the most disgusting thing ever. Nothing like a sulfurous dog fart to keep you awake while blogging. Thanks Naw wei.

Oh, and I forgot to tell some of you that I'm visiting the states again in May 2013! My favorite little sister (erm, only sister) is GRADUATING college from Grinnell University (cause she's superfreakingawesome). I could not, would not, miss that for the world. Though I was scarred I would five months ago when I didn't know if I could pay for the ticket or I'd get approval to go. I have approval from peace corps, and with a two thirds contribution from my AMAZING mom and dad *throws confetti* I can go! Planning for this momentous occasion has already begun and we're scoping out tickets. My sister is super happy and excited and my friends should be too. It's only 178 days away! (but who's counting?)

My backyard garden is no more. Left unattended over the summer didn't help too much, and then Fumatta went and tore down the old outhouse next to it and discovered a ginormous pit below it... explains why my garden wasn't really doing so well. There was only a few feet of dirt before you hit concrete. So now, Rachel and I have one pow pow tree (papaya) and a tiger pit (I'm not exaggerating) in our backyard. Too bad we won't be catching any tigers in Liberia. Though I am worried some small child will fall in at some point. Then we'll have to call Lassie. But thus far, only a chicken, cook spoon, and a shoe have fallen in (everything else was intentional garbage). The neighbors are trying to fill the hole with trash, but it will take awhile...it's quite a deep pit. I've decided not to rebuild my garden this year, I'd rather focus on my school more and get my projects there finished up.

Rachel and I attend a weekly Kpelle class to improve our dictation and to expand our vocabulary. Winnie is still teaching (she was teaching me last year) and she's awesome. The Kpelle I was taught in Kakata is very much different from the Kpelle they speak in Bong Mines. I certainly do not need to know my local dialect to communicate here, but I get so much street cred from it. (not to mention I can haggle with the market ladies and gossip with the Ol mas). We'll see how good I can get in one more year. :)

My turtles are no longer mine. They have been gifted to the training grounds at Doe Palace in Kakata. They were evicted after escaping too much and pooping all over the house. Not to mention that two turtles, a cat and a dog is quite a lot to care for and still do other things. Vince deemed my turtles the Doe Palace turtles and I think one is still there and alive. But it's only a matter of time before the guards sneak them out and make them into turtle soup. They are common to eat here and I've been told they are 'sweet' though I've never tried turtle.

I've been reading so so books since getting back. I burnt through all the Hunger Games books in less than a week, and a cool werewolf book sent by my love, Ashley Kaluza, and now I'm reading Plastic Ocean. If you have not read it...do. Now. Minimize my blog page (because I do still want you to read my blog) and find Plastic Ocean on Amazon or B&N, put it on your kindle or nook and read it....it will blow your mind and shed light on things we know are happening, but don't fully realize the effect and massive scale. Okay, if you've got it downloaded you can go ahead and finish reading my awesome blog.

I don't think Rachel thought she heard me right when I stood in the entrance way of our porch with a befuddled look on my face and said “there is a mouse in the flush bucket”. Yes...in the flush bucket. What is the flush bucket? It's a small purple bucket next to the toilet that holds 'used' soapy water from hand washings or baths to be used to flush the toilet with. So, why the hell is there a mouse swimming in it? I still don't have an answer to that, I'm still getting over the shock of seeing it there while sitting on the toilet, zoning out, taking my time. It was rather terrifying especially since I didn't know what that frantic swimming object next to me was. But not too much fazes me much these days. Even soapy water swimming mice. I did dump him out in the backyard and Monkey spotted him right away. This wasn't a very good day for this little mouse.
And while were on the topic of surprising critters, I got a major surprise while chilling on my bed talking on the phone to Eric late one night. My headlamp was off and we were probably talking about food (one of my favorite topics) when something crawled up my right arm toward my hand and phone. Of course I screamed like a girl and threw the phone. Something CRAWLED up my arm! In the holey sanctions of my mosquito net bed. The one place in my house where critters are not allowed. I found the phone in the dark and told Eric I'd call him back after I found whatever it was. I wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't. I located my headlamp and searched the bed for the invader. I found him soon enough, a quarter-sized spider (on the small side for African spiders). I swept him from my bed and used Naw wei's paw to squish him. Naw wei was asleep and didn't even care. I double checked that my mosquito net was well tucked in that night and I fell asleep surprisingly well. I must be getting used to this kinda stuff.

And now, here a random collection of funny things or new bits that are not long enough or interesting enough to get their own paragraph in my blog. :) They're still worth reading though! ~October 28th was the day I saw a Hunger Games movie poster hanging outside the video club in Bong Mines. That's right, the Hunger Games are here too, and I only have to pay 14 cents to see it. ~ I bought a pumpkin to carve for Halloween in the market. Everyone was all “Leela's going to cook pumpkin!”. You should have seen Emmanuel and Mary's horror-struck faces when I carved it out and 'threw away' (aka gave to the neighbors) the insides (I did fry the seeds up though). ~ I set up BioGas digestors with my 11th grade class as we finished up the period on bacteria. I'm not sure what was more fun: instructing which students would bring poop to class, or watching three quarters of the class scuttle to the back of the class when I added the poop to the chambers. ~ In an attempt to keep my 9th graders awake and entertained while studying the reproductive system, we took to yelling our new vocabulary words as loud as possible. How many times does your teacher actually instruct you to yell penis in class? ~ I found a ear of corn for sale on the road that was a great example of co-dominance with it's yellow, purple and mixed kernels. I bought it to use later in my 11th grade when we get to genetics. But to keep it safe from the corn munching mice, I actually slept with it to protect it from from consumption. Fyi they're not much for cuddling ~

And lastly, I actually made a twitter account (I never thought I'd get into tweeting). But when I discovered I could send tweets via SMS on my cell phone and didn't need internet or a laptop, I was sold. I still can't read any replies to my tweets but I can tweet from a bush taxi in the middle of nowhere with a cell phone and at least one signal bar. Follow @StephieShark for a mini-blog version of life here in Liberia. Don't worry, my tweets have the same quality humor as this blog. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, October 22, 2012

August/September 2012

August was supposed to be a happy month filled with fruity drinks, sandy beaches, sea turtles, old slave trade forts, and national parks....and then Air Nigeria had to go and **** everything up. They grounded flights and I lost my ticket. Solution? Visit America instead.
I had a 22 hour layover in Accra though and got to hang out with some PCVs there and they took me around and I tried some local food and shopped around for fabric. Accra is far more developed than Monrovia is. They have a Holiday Inn, a shell gas station, and a mall....with a movie theater. I'm rather jealous. The taxis are nice and not falling apart, you get the whole seat to yourself and the people are much more used to seeing a lot of foreigners. We also saw a funeral procession that was taking place down the middle of the road. Ghanians spend a lot of money on funerals, they are quite a big deal there. When I told my friend Becca RPCV from Ghana and Liberia about how impressed I was with Accra (I do realize that upcountry Ghana is not that well developed) she said, “I know. When I was leaving Liberia and driving from the capitol to the airport, the taxi car was smoking a lot and caught fire once.” Crazy how close these two countries are but how far behind Liberia is due to the war.
Airplane food tasted like heaven...whatever that tastes like. I giggled in the JFK airport while using the vending machine, and rode the escalator twice. I ate so much cheese and other fatty American foods that my GI tract was very mad at me. I saw my parents, sister, friends, and old co-workers and bosses. I threw rocks into Lake Superior, enjoyed the Minnesota state fair, bar hopped nearly every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and ultimately had a blast. But I missed my dog …. a lot. I did buy him lots of yummy treats and toys for when I got back though. I also bought a dog crate to carry him back home in. That made it back to Liberia. I'm still surprised by that. I got stuck in JFK airport on my flight back. Deja vu? And sleeping in the JFK airport the second time around is ten times less fun since I didn't have my fellow PCVs from LR-2 to keep me company. By the time I landed, I hadn't showered in three days and was still wearing my original clothes (because they checked my spare clothes bag). Also in that bag was my toothbrush and deodorant. I was very happy to get it back finally in Liberia. After a hot shower (my last for awhile) I got a ride back to Bong Mines from the amazing and incredibly kind Craig. My new roommate, LR-3's Rachel Riti, had been watching over and taking amazing care of my dog, cat, and turtles. I can't thank her enough...but I think the bags of Cheetos and chocolate helped.
Naw wei was beyond happy to see me and never left me from his sight for at least the first five days I was back. He had been stressed by my unexplained departure and was very skinny (his ribs were clearly showing) and he had been acting out of character and picking lots of fights with other dogs. Monkey got big! Rachel fed her well. And because I'd left for the states just as Rachel was moving in with her own puppy, Otis, we never all settled in together. That was week one and two of my return. Me, Rachel, Naw wei, Otis, Monkey, and turtles.

School started (late) like I predicted it would again this year. I'm teaching 9th grade General Science, 10th grade Biology, 11th grade Biology, and 10th, 11th, and 12th Computer Class this year. In addition, I also asked to be 11th grade class sponsor. Basically this means I represent them, fill their report cards, and carry their complaints to administration. I'm very close with my 11th grade. They were my 10th grade last year and we all survived summer chemistry together. I know them all quite well and want to help them reach 12th grade. I also don't want them to have to deal with another dysfunctional classroom situation as was the case with Chemistry last year. Although, the chemistry issue has been fixed. Rachel is teaching chemistry to the 10th and 11th sometimes to 12th and General Science to 8th. We are the science power PCVs or as one Liberian man said to Rachel “Chemistry! You must be a medical doctor.” So pretty much everyone thinks we're the smarties.

My 11th grade class and I are excited to to the World Map Project this year on one of the outside walls of the school. We'll be painting a map of the world that is about 3m by 6m and this way, students will be more likely to learn geography and remember it. I can't tell you how many seventh graders could not point to Africa on a map. Also, the 11th graders and I need something to do for my last year. This is a fun and educational experience. After a few months, we will finally get to the painting process and before then I'll have to go buy paint. I estimate the project to cost less than $70 USD including brushes and paint. If you're interested in helping out with this cost small, let me know. I'll keep you updated on the map's progress.

And DONE! Blog is updated and current!....for like maybe the first time ever. ENJOY, and don't forget to read Early June where I remind you to send goodies :)

June, July and August 2012

June, July and August 2012
June, July and August was a blur of activities. Mainly graduations (which involves all night dance parties with super loud music right next to my house...and all the free rice you could eat) and fun with LR-3, the newest group of two year PCVs to arrive since my group a year ago.

LR-3 arrived on June 8th, 2012 with not to much of a hitch. The welcome party (including me) at the airport shuffled their many bags and selves onto our buses and Peace Corps cars. 35 new Peace Corps Trainees. We took them straight to Doe Palace in Kakata and they got settled in after a short initiation of the Kola nut and the mandatory and fun 'group photo'. They spent eight days on the compound before going off to live with home-stay families. Before they did that they went off for site exposure to visit PCVs already settled at site. I adopted Rachel and Lauren for the weekend and it was quite the fun weekend. I had them haul water, do their own wash by hand, cook Liberian food, help me grade test papers (it went super fast with two extra people helping), took them swimming in my famed swimming hole, fed them boiled peanuts and fried plantains from the road, took them to the final football match of the year: 6th grade vs. 7th grade, and introduced them to the wonderfulness of palm wine. It was action packed, but they took it like champs. Afterward, they headed back to Kakata for more training, and I prepared for the what was to become the party of the year...maybe the whole decade....Naw wei's Birthday Party.

June 16, 2012 was the biggest day ever for Bong Mines and the small Americo-Liberian Mutt named Naw  wei. It was his first birthday, and as I promised...(even though it started as a joke) I kept my word...and the party was on. My neighbors all got together (including my landlady) and started cooking. We cooked 50kg of rice. That's a lot of rice. We fried chicken and made Joll of rice. They also made popcorn for the kids. My good friend Kona who works the bar on the road brought cold water and juice (like enough for 200 people at least) and insisted it was free. I then forced her to accept an 'I went to Naw wei's Birthday Party' t-shirt. Yes... I made t-shirts. It was the only way to get my neighbors to agree to do all that cooking for me. So all nine of them got a shirt too. My Vice Principal, Lansana came with his sound system and we were up and blaring loud Liberian music from my porch. I have lots of pictures... I think a little over 300 people came. We gave out all the rice. My principal came and joined my dancing neighbors on the porch. Holly showed up and Naw wei was so happy to see her. He jumped all over her and she laughed at his handsome red 'health club' tie. (Everyone said he needed to dress up, but all I had were ties from my health club) Emmanuel ran the raffle to raise money for the school, I asked Naw wei for one dance during the evening, the children formed a mosh pit in front of my house, and the owner of the radio station came to do an interview with me about my dog's birthday party. I really didn’t imagine it getting that big. The music ran until 3am and I slept a lot the next day. I told my Country Director about the party and interview and he replied “You are such a goof! Bong Mines will be talking about you for decades!” The interview hit the airwaves two days later and word of mouth also aided in another side effect I hadn’t thought off...everyone found out about the crazy white lady who had a party for her dog. And when I say everyone...I mean it. Alex, a PCV who teaches in Gbarnga, told me his neighbor told him and also asked if he knew me. It was all the talk in Kakata. Then when I went to the Peace Corps Office in Monrovia three weeks later the guards outside asked if I knew the PCV who had the party for a dog. I gave a confused face and walked in. The Capital. My dog's birthday may have been national news.... And I can hear the future dialogue in Bong Mines ten years from now: “Do you remember Leela?” “Was she the Peace Corps Teacher who taught to the school and started that health club?” “I have no idea, but do you remember that dog's birthday party?!” No, I would not be very surprised if that ends up being the one thing they remember about me. :)

Later in June, my Health Club did dramas at the Bus Stop (named so after a small covered area where motorbikes and taxis stop). It was a great public program and the students had the people gathered around all laughing as they did dramas on hygiene, HIV/AIDS, bullying, rape, and prostitution. I estimate we attracted about 100 people over three hours. Amazing kids, I just organize them.

I made a small trip to Monrovia to apply for my Ghanian Visa and had my phone stolen. Yay Monrovia *sarcasm* At that time I still thought I was getting my summer vacation to Ghana....stay tuned for the update on that.

Graduation was very bittersweet at Bong Mine Central High School this past June. 14 seniors tried for graduation, only seven passed their classes and the WAEC exam.  The WAEC is the standardized test given to 12th graders before completion of high school. It's similar in a way to American ACT or SAT exams. Except that these exams are far above the majority of student's knowledge and even the wording, and questions are not spelled right or organized well. It's a death trap if I've ever seen one...one that I have not too much control over. But those seven did pass, they did very well and on top of the seven was Valedictorian, Christina Jamison. Younger sister to George Jamison (currently pursuing civil engineering at the University of Liberia) and daughter of Sarah Jamison (second grade teacher at Cental High and Assistant Dean). I'm always blown away when such humble people can come from such a poor background like the Jamisons and yet strive to make their children do better and go farther. I really don't think children in the States know what a great chance they have...in fact I know most of them have no idea. Picture a world where your family may have to choose between eating and paying for school, shorter school days, unqualified teachers, corrupt administrations, no textbooks, no labs or libraries, and not very many alternatives to grasp. Take that into consideration and finding students excelling and heading off to university is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

I spent the first week of July in Gbarnga' Cuttington University for a summer EHELD training through RTI. The goal behind the summer programs were to get students interested in engineering and agriculture to have a step up of preparing for further education through a involved summer program with PCVs and Univeristy of Michigan Graduate Students. The training and the teaching was beyond fun. Hands on projects like bio-gas digestors, solar cookers, and bridge building and classes like English and computer helped them in ways they could never have imagined or hoped. I helped Ryan teach the computer class which was great because I'm anticipated to be teaching computer this coming academic year in Bong Mines. I was also able to get George Jamison into the summer program and he was so happy to be there. Not to mention there was always fun activities and free food :) Incredible program...I hope it only expands from now on.

I sneaked my way onto the big ass bus for LR-3's village adventure ...yeah, no. I didn't sneak. But I felt sneaky. :) It was a fun weekend adventure away from the 'city' life in Kakata to a remote village in Marigibi County. I think they planned it after the 50th celebration was such a big hit with the rest of us. Anywho, I loves me a remote village so I was on that bus. We had a welcoming program at the village, plenty rice and dancing (I got down and did some cultural dancing with the kids), I drank a considerable...because all I know is it was a lot... of palm wine, and the PCVs played the villagers in an epic game of football. We had to leave the game a draw 2:2 but team Peace Corps did score the first two goals with the help of Country Director Vince Groh of course. :) Settling in for the night included an outdoor shower (nice and warm) and a walk to the schoolhouse with the kids. No generators out here, and so after a few hours of singing gospel and Disney songs (guess which ones we were singing) I had a long good sleep cuddled under a mosquito net.

I also taught a two week crash summer chemistry class in July. The school's chem teacher thought it was acceptable to be flaky about attending class, give confusing notes, administer difficult exams and then fail 17 of my 25 tenth graders. And administration was letting him get away with this ….crime. And if you fail one major subject such as Chemistry, you must take summer school. If you fail two subjects at all, you must repeat the grade. So that would mean those 17 students should enroll for summer class. Problem: Mr. evil chemistry teacher refuses to teach the class. Possible result: All those students fail when really, they'd never really received good instruction all year on the subject. Solution: Miss Stephanie volunteers to teach the class and requests the administration lower the cost of the class from $14 USD to free. Administration says: but they failed, they can not take the class for free. Students end up paying $7 USD (nearly the cost of an entire year of government schooling). Miss Stephanie is not seeing any of this money for her summer efforts. Guess who has to growl under her breath and deal with  all the injustices? Good news: all 12 students enrolled pass the summer class and can move on to 11th grade. They end up learning more than the passing students knew about chemistry.

Once upon a time. TIME. I was waiting for my taxi to fill (or for all the seats to be bought) and I sat on a bench behind the car. The trunk was open to load bags, and my chicken was laying in the back, it's little chicken feet tied together so it'd stay put. Miss Nugget was going to Kakata with me to be delivered to Holly. Holly did not want a chicken, but she didn't have a choice. In Liberia, it's custom to trade a chicken for a cat. And I had my cat, Monkey, but had not given her a chicken. I'm not really a superstitious person, but from experience, I've seen it to be true. Cats must be traded for chickens or they will surely have bad luck. Case en point: Our second kitten (gifted to us): died from unknown disease or blockage, our third kitten (gifted to me): stolen from the porch by evil doing children and never seen again. Katelyn’s cat (found/gifted): attacked by dogs. And the list goes on with other PCVs. The point being...trade a chicken. And so, here I sit waiting to go and this young boy (maybe 11 years) saunters by the trunk and sees my chicken. He turns, and grabs the chicken and I'm thinking: Hey, that's my chicken! He grabs it's wing and pulls it out from the chicken's body and leans in.....and I'm too surprised and speechless to say much as he bites...yes, bites my chicken. In a second I realize he has bitten a feather off, but in the quick second I thought it was the wing. I finally say “Hey!” and he just holds the feather up to me saying he was just getting the feather. (insert confused expression on Stephanie's face here) I then watch as he strips the lower follicles of the feather off the stock until only the tip has feathers on it. He then spits on the end and sticks it into his ear, walking casually away. My mouth is hanging open as I finally realize my chicken was just bitten by a young boy who is using it's dirty feather and some good ol fashion spit to clean his ear like a Q-tip. I'd been in Liberia for over a year...and I was still being blindsided by the things that people do here.

Early June 2012

Early June 2012

I made PICKLES!!!!! And yes! I’m /that/ excited over them. You come live in the Liberian bush with no ground beef or cheese for as long as I have and you’d get excited over pickles too. I love pickles but I wasn’t a huge fan of them, but when I can’t get the burger, sesame seed bun, or cheese, I’ll take the pickle. Nora was the first to fix pickles last November. I picked her brain. Turns out all you need are: jar, vinegar, salt, and cucumbers. Extras can include: mustard, dill, garlic, and peppers. And so I have made garlic pepper pickles (hot but so yummy), garlic pickled radishes, pepper dill, garlic mustard pickles, and the triple combo garlic pepper dill pickles. I may have too much free time but it’s a delicious way to spend time. The waiting three or four weeks for them to complete the pickling process is probably the hardest part…other than the other hard part: trying not to eat them all in one day.

Who ever eats freeze dried food other than astronauts? Answer: me, the peace corps volunteer without a refrigerator. I remember saying how gross freeze dried food is. Statement retracted. I L.O.V.E. The freeze dried ice cream mom mails me, and I'm currently munching on some freeze dried peas while typing and trying to figure out how best to catch you all up on life since my last post was eons ago. (I see an opportunity to drop my mailing address so you can mail me goodies! )

Stephanie Nys
Peace Corps Volunteer
P.O. Box 707
Monrovia, Liberia
West Africa

followed by a short list of things I love: veggies, mushrooms, ice cream (all dried), chocolate, beef jerky, chocolate, sunflower seeds, hot chocolate, chips (omg Doritos), cheesy things (ie goldfish crackers), chocolate and the dog says he likes pig ears and chicken treats. I mentioned chocolate right? :)

I think it would be fun to do some kind of montage of my summer, but without uploading capabilities, that really puts a damper on that. I'll do my best to remember...at least the best parts and the very humorous parts.

We (PCVs) held a BBQ at the Doe Palace training center in May. We never actually ended up cooking (cause our fabulous cooking staff was working, and we were busy having fun) but I did make brownies! I don't recommend eating too many too fast, but I will never say that I regret it. Never. Holly also brought her favorite kitten from MoMo's first litter down from Nimba with her. A beautiful white and steal gray kitten with yellow eyes and a orange star design etched around the pupils. After a 'fun' taxi ride back with pretty kitty (who tried savagely to attack me by clawing, biting, and crying) and the little yellow Nissan that kept breaking down, I got her back to my house and swore under my breath for a long time. Forget dainty names I realized soon enough, as I watched her fly all over the house and get her grubby paws into everything, I'm calling this cat Monkey.

There was a rumor that the old market space in my town of Bong Mines would be used to build a Total Gas Station! This made me unbelievably happy. I don't really care much about the gasoline, it's the store's shop that I'm talking about. Snicker bars, M&Ms, Butterfingers, wine, cereal, beer, soy milk, oatmeal glazed cookies as far as the eye can see....so to speak. But all of these luxuries do come at a higher price. There are Totals all over Liberia now: Kakata, Ganta, Tubmanburg, ZorZor, Zwedru and of course there are many in Monrovia. Holly tells me the Kakata Total now stocks cake mix.....CAKE MIX! Ahem, anyways ...I found out the Bong Mines Total was not meant to be (at least nothing has been built in five months) but I did get all fired up about having snickers bars be less than 10 minutes from my house. :) I can still get them in Kakata and bother all my friends who read my blog and love me dearly to mail goodies too. *pokes*

The Health Club headed to the radio station to do our usual segment for Radio Bong Mine 95.5 on Tuesday night. It was a big day for us because we had two girls doing the program and it was a well written skit on Teenage Pregnancy. Precious and Anna were with Health Club Vice Pres, Sunday Matthew. It was Anna's first time ever going on the radio, so she was nervous, but I helped her practice her part and she knew it very well by Tuesday. We started the program with a introduction from Sunday and then he turned the microphone over to the girls to introduce themselves. Precious started first. “Hello radio listeners, my name is Precious Toloe, Treasurer of the Health Club. And this is--” Anna takes a big breath and yells....I mean yells...into the microphone: “MY NAME IS ANNA N. CARMUE.” Takes another deep breath. “AN ACTIVE MEMBER OF THE HEALTH CLUB.” Another breath. “WE ARE HERE TO BRING YOU THE DRAMA: TEENAGE PREGNANCY.” It didn't matter what we all told her during the short breaks in the program....she yelled her way through the whole thing. Sunday and Precious were very mature about the whole thing until we parted ways on the walk home and Anna left our walking party. I have never laughed so much then with those two students in a loong long time. Sunday kept impersonating Anna and I kept trying (not hard at all) to remind them it's better to be too loud than too quiet on the radio. We dropped Precious off to her house and Sunday and I continued on to mine. When we got home, Emmanuel was on my porch with the radio. He had been listening to our program. I said “How was the program?” He said, “It was good.” Sunday said, “Did you hear Anna?” Emmanuel smiled and said, “I think everyone in Bong Mines heard Anna.”

Monday, July 2, 2012

12 Reasons to Date a Returned Volunteer

Read this in my WorldView magazine...just had to post it for you guys. :)

12 Reasons to Date a Returned Volunteer
By Erica Burman

1. We can woo you in multiple languages. Who else is going to whisper sweet nothings to you in everything from Albanian to Hausa to Quechua to Xhosa? That’s right. Only a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.
2. We’re pretty good dancers. Yeah, we don’t like to brag, but after 27 months in Latin America or Africa we know how to move it.
3. We’ll eat anything. Seriously. No matter how bad your cooking. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have had worse and will eat it with nary a blink. Sheep’s eyeball? Water buffalo gall bladder? Grasshoppers? Bush rat? Bring it.
4. We know all about safe sex, thanks to our very thorough Peace Corps health training. In fact, there’s a chance that we’ve stood unblushingly in front of hundreds of villagers and demonstrated good condom technique with a large wooden phallus.
5. We’ll kill spiders for you. Well, actually, we’ll nonchalantly scoop them up and put them out of sight. Same goes for mice, geckos, frogs, snakes. Critters don’t faze Returned Volunteers.
6. We have great date ideas: wandering the street market, checking out a foreign film, taking in a world music concert, volunteering… Romantic getaway? Our passport is updated and our suitcase is packed. With us, life is always an adventure.
7. We like you for “you”… not your paycheck. Especially if we are just freshly back from service, a local joint with “character” will win out over a pretentious eatery. Living in a group house? No problem. Does it have running hot water? What luxury!
8. You won’t get lost when you’re with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Navigating local markets on four continents, we’ve honed an uncanny sense of direction. Or else we’ll ask for directions. We’re not afraid to talk to “strangers”.
9. Waiting for a late train or bus with us? Don’t worry. Been there, done that. We can share lots of funny stories about “the bus ride from hell” that will make the time go quickly and put it all into perspective.
10. Our low-maintenance fashion style. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer guys are secure in their manhood and don’t mind rocking a sarong. Women often prefer flip-flops to high heels. We don’t spend hours in front of a mirror getting ready to go out.
11. Marry us, and you won’t get just one family—you’ll get two! When we refer to our “brother” or “mom”, you’ll want to be certain we’re talking about our American one or our Peace Corps one. You might even get two wedding ceremonies, one in the U.S. and one back in our Peace Corps country.
12. And last but not least, we aren’t afraid to get dirty.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Madness from the month of May

May 2012
I feel that I can finally call myself a true Peace Corps Volunteer now that I’ve been accused of being part of the FBI from a group of Chinese here at my site. I think it’s hilarious…they are very cautious around me. On one hand, I can’t imagine who would ever think that I could pass for FBI…but on the other hand, someone silly, dorky, and bubbly would be sneaky and unexpected. My friend Nora who was visiting (I was informed is working for the CIA). Personally, I think I got the cooler job and have given up trying to convince them otherwise. Maybe one day I’ll mess with them and sneak around with a camera….nah. I don’t want to ruffle and legal feathers. But I still get the small pleasure of them whispering about my top secret job. Heehee.

My family bought me an old model BlackBerry curve for my birthday and with the help of Karen (who carried it in her bag to Liberia) I got it in early May. It’s quite nice really and I took it down to Monrovia and they installed a browser…that’s right. I can get prehistorically slow internet on my phone…when the cell tower is working…and my phone is charged…and I have credit loaded on it. BUT the point is that I can do it sometimes. However, I’ll still have to write you all on my laptop and upload it via USB stick or in Kakata/Monrovia. I also (for the first time since I left home) have a camera phone! I also can load a micro SD card in it…Heeelllooo African music! :) Now I can jam out to this stellar hits on my laptop AND my phone. My students are happy about it. They love their African tunes as do I.

My Health Club decided to do community dramas in Handii. Handii is the small town north-ish of Bong Mines. Handii (like many small towns in Liberia does not have a daily market, they have a weekly market) has market day on Tuesdays. People there must buy all their provisions for the entire week on one day. So, in conclusion, the market is packed and crazy, but tons of fun! You’ll never know if you’ll find a crocodile, ant bear, water dog (otter), monkey, or other bizarre wilderness animal for sale. Unfortunately they are not sold as pets…everything gets put into soup here.

Storms in May were by far the most beautiful of them all. The rain is not too much, and the high winds knock the remainder of the plums (aka mangoes) from the trees. I took more than 30 photos of my neighbor kids racing each other in the rain to be the first to catch the fallen plums. Not to mention eating plums while waiting out a tropical rainstorm is by far the most fun you could have during a thunderstorm. I ate soooo many plums during April and May. The banana mango pancakes were by far my favorite food to make with the plums. I’m already sad when I think about going back to the States and knowing that the mangoes there will never be as sweet as the ones here.

I also got another mental health package from home. Thanks mom and dad! Favorites from this box included more hair dye, body wash (totally a fan of this stuff), the shiny red puppy collar for Naw wei (I’m waiting small for him to destroy is current one first), the book on the plants of West Africa!, and my adorable sister, Taylor, was responsible for the organically made surfboard wax. I love her for that. :) Speaking small about the surfboard, Toothless is doing fine, but we haven’t had time to get away lately. I’ve planned a getaway for just us later this summer.

I also bought a bicycle! It’s a little small for me and I’m dealing with it until I can hopefully find one to switch it with that has a larger frame. Regardless, I never thought I’d sign up to be a Peace Corps Volunteer and take time trying to make sense of cycles and how they work and how to fix one. It’s kind of a lot of trial and error, but I love to learn and who knows when this self-taught skill may come in handy. Getting the cycle back to Bong Mines was quite the experience….watching the taxi drivers argue over who was going to carry the white woman and how they were going to strap it to the top of the little yellow Nissan with the large jerry cans filled with red oil while not upsetting the white woman who wanted her bike to arrive in one piece. But like all the other crazy and chaotic experiences I’ve had here, I survived and so did the bike. I think at some point I should make an entire post alllll about travel in Liberia and its….what’s the word I’m looking for?.....joys. :)

I also now own a generator. Now before you jump to any harsh reactions or conclusions, know that I’ve run the machine three times since I got it and the time of this post. Generators don’t cost too much here. Mine was $80 USD. My house is wired for current (aka electricity) and I have things I occasionally need to charge (ie laptop) especially since the Comium cell tower next to my school (where I normally charge all my stuffs) has been broken for a long time. I don’t trust the charge stations on the road. Things disappear from them way too much. My neighbors were all excited at first when I got it…now they’re less enchanted. “Leela can’t turn on the machine much at all. She can’t watch show inside….no TV?! She only get light inside der.” And I laugh… a lot. In Liberia, you’re kinda crazy if you turn on the generator and don’t watch a movie…but they’ve come to accept that I’m already crazy (I mean, I bathe my dog). I don’t do it much because: it’s noisy as hell, it stinks like gas, gas is expensive ($6 USD for a gallon), and I think it’s cute and campy to live by candlelight every night. I can now add generator tech to my list of random amateur skills.

I also now have purchased plane tickets to Ghana for August 16-26th, 2012. As much as I *insert mild sarcasm here* /love/ Liberia. Not to mention, I think I’ve hit my frustrating but inevitable ‘one year block’. It’s not an easy post to serve in. The United Nations report from 2011 showed Liberia as the second poorest country in the world. Liberia is /the/ poorest Peace Corps country of all the countries we serve, and you can ask any of my colleagues here, it’s challenging, rewarding, draining, and an emotional roller coaster. For all of those reasons, it’s essential to cool it small, and take a much needed vacation. I chose Ghana since the tickets are pretty cheap, and Ghana is arguably the most developed country in all West Africa. They have paved roads, electricity (for the most part), functioning public transport, a big tourism industry, and a well-established Peace Corps presence. Some of my friends who I’ve told that I’m going are worried since I am going alone (all my other PCV friends are busy with visiting friends/family or they’re special and have money to visit America unlike me). But if I can handle Liberia…I think I have enough common sense to handle Ghana. I’ll re-cap that trip when it finishes, but so far, I’m looking into visiting Ankasa National Park, Akwidaa Beach, Cape Coast Castle, Budumburam Refugee Camp (held 40,000 war refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia) , and Accra (of course). My plan is thus: relax, swim, look for turtles on the beach, hike the national park, visit the refugee camp, go bar hopping in Accra,  and sleep over night in an old slave trade castle. Then go back to Liberia for my last lap :)

McNugget, my white rooster, is no more. “He coming die now.” He was sick for a day and since I’m not a poultry illness expert, I asked my neighbor Helena. She said that we can eat him…but only if we kill him. If he dies on his own, no way. We cannot eat him. That’s what they believe in Liberia. And so, I gave McNugget to Varney the neighbor boy (women aren’t banned from killing chickens; they just do not do it. The men to it.).  Varney killed the chicken, and my neighbors cleaned and cooked him. We all enjoyed a very chicken-filled meal that day. He was “sweet-o!”. It was the first pet I’ve ever had that I’ve eaten. I don’t know what my animal-loving, vegetarian sister would say, but I tell people “It was a cultural experience”. And that’s very true. However, I have limits too. I would /never/ share the cultural experience of eating dog or cat. But your integration level and local language proficiency can really help you do anything here. I swear by it :)

More gossip came my way in May when some of my tenth graders told me that one of the girls in the class slept with another girl student’s husband. Funny twist is that these two girls are really good friends…and surprisingly still are. I don’t think I’ll ever understand but it was hilarious to listen in feel included rather than their strange white teacher who in need of constant respect. Pfffftt, I enjoy some funny gossip too. Although I did come into the talk and voice that I hoped they all used condoms. :)

Children in Bong Mines are always confused by me and it warrants for great debates and arguments. Here are the top favorites of mine to overhear.
1. “Dat woman!” “Dat man!” “No, dat woman. You stupid.”
2. “Chinee!” “American!” “No, Chinee woman.” And the random “Peace Corps Lady” which I like
3. “Dat weave cap!” “No, dat her real hair.” “No, dat weave.” “Dat lie!”
4. “Quieta!” “No, dat Leela, no Quieta.” (Quieta= Holly’s kpelle name)
And even though she was shorter than me, had long blonde hair….Our names still get mixed up.