Saturday, 28 July 2012

Liberia - From the Files of Traveler8

am delighted to have guest blogger, Traveler8, here to tell us about her recent visit to Liberia, a country which most of us will never get to experience firsthand.  Enjoy Traveler8's journey.


Liberia – From the Files of Traveler8

I know I am back in Liberia because everyone is calling me Mommy, and while I do have to “process” it every time someone says it, it is nice to hear it. Mommy is an honorific for an older woman, probably closest to "Ma'am" in the southern US. When I first heard it on my last visit I would jump. This country certainly has some of the most cordial people in the world, and it was a pleasure being welcomed back by the hotel and project staff.

Interesting thing on the plane – I was seated next to a Chinese gentleman who started “talking” to me via a recording/translating device. He would write in Chinese characters, and they would be translated to English, and in turn I could spell out words in English and have them translated to Chinese. I did manage to inform him of the cities that I had been to in China, also determined that he was from Wuhan (which I think is near Nanjing). He had a double card, chairman of an import-export trading company, also chairman of a company concerned with international development, although I don’t know if the latter simply means that the China-based company is doing business abroad. I tried to tell him that my company was doing agriculture, cassava, rice (that was recognized) and that I did finance, but I have no idea how much of that translated.

On the way in from the airport we passed one mosque, but mostly there are dozens of little evangelical and pentecostal churches, and religious names on lots of things like filling stations and business centres, which is the term for a business location. A business centre might sell seed grain, for instance – the term is not reserved for a place where you might find a copy machine and an internet connection, for instance. I did also see a Mommy Business Centre, which I got a kick from. 

Just so you know where it is.

Lots to describe about Liberia. This is a really poor country and, except for a few government buildings that apparently have recently been built, everything is totally run down, or was not built much to begin with. The houses in the outlying regions are built of cement blocks, or mud blocks, or have walls of woven raffia, and rarely are these over one story. Roads have lots of potholes, and the side roads are mostly dirt, a red clay that occasionally appears very pink, suggesting a high iron content.

Overall things are fairly flat, lots of palm trees, also fruit trees like mango, and I have been through at least one large rubber plantation (trees are tapped and have a small ceramic cup to collect the dripping latex) owned by Firestone.

(Accreditation: Microsoft Clipart)

In line with the reason for my visit, yesterday I was taken on a visit to meet a rice miller. The owner turned out to be a light skinned black man who looked like he might have some east Asian and/or Lebanese blood, and he was only introduced to me by his first name. As we were getting into the car I was speculating on his background, and one of the Liberians said, "Oh, he's a Cooper." Seems that the family is quite big, and they still own a lot of interests in the country. A colleague of mine (about my age) said that he went to Cornell with Dermot Cooper, whose mother, Sophie, apparently owned the ice cream factory/brand etc in Liberia at the time, and was quite well known. Anyway, I am going to refer my colleague to the book The House on Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper. The House on Sugar Beach is one I highly recommend. 

Incidentally, I recognized "Sirleaf" as the name of one of Cooper's classmates, so assumed that the President is "Congo", but it turns out that she was a foster child as well, as Eunice is described in the book. I think the book is quite readable and useful for background on Liberia - and as I found out, the Coopers are around and thriving.

President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson

There is a big soccer match on tonight, the European Club championship, between Bayern Munich and Chelsea FC. The score was level at 0-0 until less than 10 minutes to go when Bayern scored. And then, and with less than two minutes left in the game, Chelsea tied it up. We were at a restaurant for much of the game, but were the only patrons who had come for dinner as everyone else was there simply to watch the game on the big screen TVs. Outside the restaurant as we were leaving we saw promos, enticements for watching the match, including “free bong fries”. At last we finally realized that the waiter had been saying that certain dishes came with bong fries, which are cassava fries. A great name, eh?
When I get back to my room I discover that the game has gone into overtime and now they are lining up for a penalty shootout.  The score is– 3-3, and it’s now sudden death.  Whoosh, a German shot hit the post. It didn’t go in. Chelsea’s turn, and they make it. It’s all over. There is much cheering and shouting in the streets outside of my window. Football is big here, and apparently the game was closely watched, and the celebrations go on for some time.

I went out to a farm today with a colleague to talk to a farmer about expanding her rice seed outgrower network (i.e., they grow seed that is used for planting – outgrowers are smaller farm operations that get seed and other inputs and assistance advanced from the lead farmer, and agree to sell all or most of their output back to the lead farmer, some of it used to repay advances). On the way there we stopped at an orphanage to leave off a couple of bags of vegetables from someone else in the project, and they were all gathered together apparently for a prayer meeting. We were asked to speak to the group, and I told them that this was the second time that I had been to Liberia (they applauded) and that our project was working to help farmers grow more to feed themselves and their neighbours. One of my colleagues was asked to explain about the veggies, and pulled them out of the bag, asking what each one was, with kids shouting out – lots of fun, and she and I realized that we did not know what all of them were!

(Accreditation: Microsoft Clipart)

I went up-country a couple of days ago to visit a rubber plantation, and in a meeting we were offered coffee and tea, which came from a jar with instant coffee, tea bags, instant creamer, and a jar of sugar cubes. The guy across from me kept adding sugar cubes to his coffee, I swear must have been at least ten of them. I was reminded of the scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Jem and Scout invite Walter to come to their house for lunch on the first day of school, and he asks for the syrup, which he pours on his meat and vegetables, and Scout says that she thinks he would have poured it in his milk glass if she had not asked him what in the Sam Hill was he doing. Anyway, I think the guy likes a little coffee with his sugar.

I have not found any good coffee here yet, although I met a Dutchman last time who has promised that he knows of some good stuff being grown. The local coffee is Liberica, which is comparable to Arabica and Robusta, and I know that a little bit of it is grown in Indonesia, where I first encountered it. Turns out that it was developed here, hence the name. It is highly resistant to a rust disease, but it is pretty bland and not very interesting.

(Accreditation: Microsoft Clipart)

A big item of interest to me on the drive was seeing caladiums growing wild in a field. Years ago I grew a couple of these as house plants, and it always amazes me to see anything like that in the wild. Of course, there are also Norfolk Island pines here, so I can happily remember back to when we had one of those, which we used as a Christmas tree.

Mothers' Day in Liberia

The ex-pat staff at the office were invited by one of the local staff members to go to her (Methodist) church this Sunday for a celebration of Mothers’ Day, and I was delighted to be included in the invitation. The church had a big to-do over all the mothers in the audience, honoured several, and had an extended celebration of their Mother of the Year. At one point people were given time to distribute cloth flowers to their mothers, friends, etc. One woman came over and pinned one of the flowers on me – I guess I looked likely.

It was interesting hearing the hymns, which were all the Methodist standards, although with the words occasionally altered, like:

 “Onward Christian Mothers, God has chosen you
Much of Christ’s service, Only you can do.
Loyal to your mission, Through a hundred years
Giving light and comfort, Drying human tears.”

The choir did sing an Amen – Alleluia song that sounded like a simplified version of the Hallelujah Chorus that I liked a lot.

The service lasted for 3.5 hours, which was actually longer than I had estimated, as I thought that just three hours had elapsed. While I don’t want to go again next Sunday, I did enjoy it.

I also do have to comment on the dresses – all the women in the church’s Women’s Organization wore white dresses, often with lace and the like. It did look a lot like bridesmaid dresses (although all white) but the dress style seems to work a lot better on African women. The congregation also included other women wearing typical African dresses made out of traditional African patterned fabric, and complete with ruffles and flounces. These are usually about ankle length and would look ridiculous on me but seem just fine on local women. I started picking out the patterns I liked, including Methodist fabric – a design with the Methodist symbol cross with a flame off to the side – used for both women’s dresses and for men’s shirts.

Sometimes the African print is designed for advertising. For instance, at home I have some President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf fabric that was made up for the election campaign. I also saw that at Rawbank, a bank in Democratic Republic of Congo that I was working with. The female members of staff in the rural areas would wear a length of the patterned fabric as lapas, the two yard wrap-around that you see pictures of rural African women wearing.


I hope you found this article interesting; I certainly did. Traveler8 has built up a vast store of amazing experiences through her career, and I hope we can look forward to more of these great insights into different cultures.

If you would like to know more about Liberia, I really recommend the CIA World Factbook. I first used the site when I fell in love with Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and I wanted to know more about her beloved Botswana. The World Factbook was soon my number one go-to place for the lowdown on any country. The link to their Liberia section is:

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