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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.