Sunday, December 13, 2009

La Noche

Last night, I met friends at La Noche, a very popular expat nightclub. The place was packed, hot, and smoky. Remember what I said about locals not smoking? Working girls tend to smoke - nicotine suppress the appetite. La Noche, like every expat club here, is packed with working girls - easily 5-6 for every non-Liberian male in the place. They're all young, skinny, and fairly aggressive - I had to bat a few away. Saying I no want company is useless. I look (I am) comparatively rich. I could be the ticket to something, anything. Anything seems better.

I'd like to reach out to them (like I did with the homeless boys), but gender is perceived very differently here. This is a very patriarchal society, even though it's elected the first female president in Africa. Liberia has also experienced some aid-for-sex scandals, including an American who got caught making kiddie porn. The idea that I don't want sex from these girls, don't want something, is too high a hurdle. Sadly, this is one of the American ideas Liberians took too well. Nothing is free. I'll probably have to turn to one of my female colleagues and see if any of them want to work with these girls.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


We don’t have snow, two weeks before Christmas. We have Sahara dust, falling slowly and thickly. Soot from farm field fires and trash lands everywhere. That’s the Liberian smell of Christmas – warm, flinty, with hints of roasted rubber trees. But it’s still Christmas season. Street vendors sell Christmas trees and colored lights in the streets. The reggae band at the Club Hotel played Christmas carols last night. If you haven’t heard Christmas carols rendered by a reggae band in the middle of a dust storm, you really haven’t lived.
Today, I’m going to do a little shopping, grade papers, drop by the US Embassy Library, and attend a meeting of the Liberian Association of Writers. After I finish this coffee.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Foundation For Women

Worldgroove and I filmed a fundraising event for the Foundation for Women, a microlending institution. FFW operates all over Liberia, but home base is Monrovia. We caught a 5 am bus from Cuttington and arrived around 9:30. Considering the roads, that was excellent time. I’m still not used to having electricity only part of the day - I dressed by flashlight. We don't have much equipment - just my digital camera (which also shoots video) and her old camcorder. Pro: light, compact, and durable. Con: bad sound, limited lens control.

At 10, our driver drove us out to the FFW Liberia offices, then on to the event. Hundreds of Liberian businesswomen gathered together to celebrate each other, raise money, and dance. Passing schoolkids gawked at the door.

The speeches were (mercifully) short, given the conditions – the room was stifling hot. In some cultures, people drink hot tea to deal with the heat. The tea makes you sweat and raises your internal temperature, making the surrounding air seem cool. Liberians dance instead, to pounding Afropop. After the event, worldgroove caught the bus back to Cuttington. I had a greek salad for dinner and fell asleep by 9:00 pm.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Spent last night packing for the weekend and putting together my IWP (Individual Work Plan). We have to do these for the grant, so the funder can measure what we plan to do against what we accomplish. Again, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.
Assist in the design of the Cuttington University Major in English.
Design and teach remedial and introductory courses in English Composition.
Design intermediate and advanced courses in English Composition.
Design introductory and intermediate courses in African Literature, Liberian literature, and African-American Literature.
Co-Direct (with Jerry Mwabe) the Cuttington English Language Lab.
Identify up to 20 former child soldiers, currently homeless, for enrollment in ALP at We Care.
Edit and distribute new anthology of Liberian literature (with Michael Weah and the Liberian Association of Writers).
Develop capacity-building workshops in library sciences.
Coordinate distribution of donated textbooks from Books for Africa.
Establish the Bong County Teacher’s Resource Center (with Maryella Matthews).
I also need to you know, do that writing thing. In my spare time. Ha. Actually, I’ve scheduled regular writing and exercise time. I need to finish my thesis, start the new book, and turn in articles for The New Democrat. I’m asking for a desk from CU. I have no office, so I must get a desk. And a bookshelf.
This is do-able. I worked with curriculum committees at Texas. I outlined most of the composition syllabi back in Alabama. CU classes start in February. The Lit classes will take more time, but I have time. The Language Lab is just past the idea phase and into planning. Also, Jerry Mwabe is English faculty. We’ll get a lot done together. The kids come to me in the streets – I don’t have to work to find them. We Care has already solicited writers for the Anthology. Editing is no small task, but I’ll have plenty of help. After that, it gets harder.
Saturday or Monday, I’ll contact the librarian at the US Embassy Library. Hopefully she’ll be interested and available to conduct library science workshops. The Peace Corps also recruited a professional librarian and I have her number. The TRC needs a building. Every spare room at CU is in use. "Unused room" usually means "roof stolen during the war". I’ll see if they have a building survey. The new English department, the Lab, and the TRC all need a home. Perhaps we can rehab a building.
This book distribution is going to eat my lunch. Seriously.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hit the Ground Sitting

During IFESH training in Scottsdale, we th wanted to hit the ground running. The more experienced volunteers told us to try walking, sitting, or better yet, not hitting. Just relax, they told us. 

So I tried. I didn't rush. This sort of works. I walk around, meet people, sip coffee or water when I can, watch old men play Scrabble, buy music and DVDs, chat with other expats, make faces at children, bargain with street vendors, eat local food, and listen. The work found me.

I was sitting with my new friend Monk at his nightclub on Gurley St., a place called Exodus. Gurley St. is one long shopping mall, with stores, small shops, and street vendors on every square inch. Everyone goes to Exodus to kick back after a long day of buying and selling. The joint is rough - possibly the roughest bar I've ever seen. It's not violent or smoky - Liberians are sick of violence, and no one smokes here. It's amazing - the locals do not smoke. A few smoke pot on the beach, but possession can land you in prison for months. I've never seen the locals smoke cigarettes, and only a few smoke cigars. Foreigners smoke - it's one of the ways we're identified. 

Anyway, a guy came up and asked for money. He claimed to represent a group of former child soldiers, now homeless, hungry teenagers. I wouldn't give him any money, but I told him that if he got his group together, I'd see about teaching them to read and count. He agreed. At the time, I had no idea how I'd accomplish such a task. I had no books, no classroom, no uniforms, and no budget. Yet, if I turned these kids away, then WTF am I doing here? Isn't helping thme better themselves the whole point? But still, I had no clear idea on the how. No facilities, and I can't be a one-man school. Then, in that gentle, synchronous, African way, things started to happen. 

IFESH got an unexpected shipment - an entire cargo container of textbooks from Books for Africa. I've been put in charge of distributing the books to the local primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools. This is a monumental task. We have 40 tons of books on that container, but the manifest only shows amount, general age level, and subject (ex: 20 boxes, Primary math). However, there's no guarantee that every book in the container will be the same - these could be 30 copies of the same book, or a hodge-podge of donations. There's no guarantee that BfA's definition of "primary" matches the Liberian definition. The only way to know for sure is to open the container, uncrate all 393 boxes, and have a look. Except we can't. 

There's some sort of problem at the docks. Long story short, someone wantts a storage fee for holding the container. We won't see the books before whoever gets paid. We're in a time crunch now - the Red Cross loaned us a warehouse for January, but only January. By February, the rainy season starts and we can't distribute books for six months. But if the books sit in the container during the rains, they will probably mildew. rot entirely. Assuming the payment issues get worked out, we only have 7 volunteers and a small staff in Liberia. We can't possibly travel to hundreds of schools.

While shopping on Saturday, we saw a bizarre sight. A sign reading, "We Care Library". This country is only six years past open warfare. The literacy rate is about 20%. A library? A public library? We had to see, even if it was closed, bombed out, moved, or occupied by squatters. A vendor gave us directions, which included a flight of pitch-black stairs, perfect for mugging. Instead, we found a functioning library, complete with a children's section and internet access. The Director was conducting classes across the street. We found the main office, and were bluntly shocked to see in-service teacher training, conducted by Liberians for Liberians. This is why we're here, and they're ahead of us. Fantastic!

We've had three meetings since. We Care - with a classroom, books, and internet acceess - has agreed to help educate the homeless kids. Part of their mission includes textbook distribution, so we will use their network to distribute the shipment. I've agreed to organize Liberian librarian (say that three times fast) training, pass some books along to the library, and help edit an anthology of Liberian literature. 

Sit. Relax. I'm getting it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Monrovia Weekend

Last night, worldgroove and I ate at Be First, an Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi joint over in Sinkor. The food was wonderful, if rather unexpected. We had expected to go there. We expected the good food. We just had no way of knowing what we would eat. Liberia is 80% illiterate now, which makes drink and food ordering chancy. I ordered Chana Masala and garlic naan. When I asked what chana meant, the waiter told me lentils. Chana does not mean lentils. Chana means chickpeas. But the chickpeas were wonderful, and the chipati was wonderful. 

Today, shopping. We picked up a zillion things for the house, plus a radio, a fan, and some kwee (Western) food. We got mobbed by homeless former child soldiers. I bought a bootleg DVD that doesn't work (very odd here- most of the bootlegs work fine), a pair of Birkenstocks for $20 out of a wheelbarrrel, and enough liquid provisions (rum) to last the rest of the month. And we made the most amazing discovery - a functioning public library in Monrovia. More on that later.

Tomorrow, worldgroove and a fellow IFESH-er will work on my dreads. We might have the fancy breakfast at the hotel, since I've quit trying to eat at the convent. Apparently, the good cooks have quit. We'll chat and visit friends, as every business in Liberia is shut down on Sundays. I'll pop popcorn.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Postwar Monrovia from the back of a pin-pin

This is the quickest and cheapest way to get around Monrovia. Probably not the safest. I've seen plenty of accidents, but few injuries.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cape Hotel

Tonight, I'm kicking back at the Cape Hotel in Mamba Point. It's quite nice, even with a loud going-away party at the next table. (The local US Marine Commander is retiring. The other local military commanders - Monrovia Police, UN, US Navy - are sending him off.) I'm not really a guest. I'm buying whatever's cheap on the restaurant menu, so I can access their high-er-speed wireless and listen to the waves against the shore. The food is surprisingly inexpensive for a luxury hotel, and they seem to have no problem letting me sit here for hours. 

This part of Monrovia is filled with expats - the wealthy people are here and at the Mamba Point hotel. The less affluent can stay at St. Teresa's Convent, which is less luxury hotel on the beach, and more "3 hots and a cot". Today, I opened a local bank account and waited around at immigration. Tomorrow, I get a Liberian cell phone. (finally!) I may also meet the Editor of the New Democrat, a local paper. I bought some sandals (essential here), shopped on Camp Johnson Road, and priced out a few other items. The streets are still filled with rubble. When I asked what happened, I was told that combatants used mortars and grenades. I ate a "fried egg", which is a popular egg sandwich here. I saw a dog throw up, I stepped over raw sewage. I rode a pin-pin - if I can, I'll post the video. 

One of my dorm mates (all private rooms in the men's dorm) likes to play angry, thundering sermons day and night. The thick concrete walls keep most of the noise out, but I still hear God's Judgement, like a small mosquito looking for the tenderest spot.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


The flights (Austin-Chicago-Brussels-Monrovia) were mostly uneventful, even if we were 2 1/2 hours late out of Chicago. Brussels Airport is a bit of a maze, but the coffee is excellent. I arrived at Roberts Airport with all of my luggage, limbs, and wits. The first thing you see upon landing are the enormous UN vehicles - troop transports, planes, and a gigantic helicopter. Visa and customs processing were as painless as could be expected, although I did have to pay a small bribe entry fee.

worldgroove  and I spent my first night in Liberia with friends. Last night, we (and the friends) lapped up the luxury at RLJ Kendeja, a luxury resort on a private beach. Kendeja is owned by Bob Johnson, founder of BET. (Oh the irony!) Apparently, the spa offers cocoa wraps for the ladies. I've seen the effects. Cocoa wraps get the ulitave seal of approval.Hotel Manager William Tubman, grandson of William Tubman, became quite incensed when he heard about my entry fee. Will knows people, so I might see that money again.

Yesterday. Slept in after a 29-hour flight. Got up. Went shopping with Maryella and Lonette on Gurley St. in Mamba Point, the best (safest, priciest) neighborhood in Monrovia. They took me to a sort of Liberian Whole Foods - shelves full of expensive stuff most people can't afford. But, they had the international flavor of travel, Nutella, Liberian coffee, and Christmas lights. We got extra passport photos taken in an alleyway, and I picked up a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor. The streets! Vibrant, lively, dangerous. Liberia hasn't yet developed traffic laws. There's a general agreement that everyone drives on the right, like America. They've painted yellow lines down the middle of the streets. That's about it. No street signs or streetlights. No crosswalks. No tickets. No ambulances, or buses. Plenty of taxis, mostly pin-pins (motorcycles).

We ate the most amazing BBQ grouper at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The owner/chef prepared an entire fish, head, bones, and tail, in the most wonderful peanut/BBQ sauce, accompanied by a small salad, bread, and Fanta. As we ate, a number of street vendors came up, offering whatever. Girls shoes. Coloring books. Guavas. I stopped the sunglasses guy and bought a pair, as mine broke during the trip to Brussels. I paid the man 200 LD (about $2.95 USD) and he left. I put my new sunglasses in my pocket and the lens broke. Ugh! I jumped up and looked for the sunglasses guy. He had a huge piece of cardboard with all of his inventory, yet I couldn't find him. Gurley St. is crowded and dusty. Small children run unaccompanied. Derelict churches crumble into the street. A competing vendor next to me pointed the culprit out. He'd gotten nearly two blocks down the street in just a few seconds. I sprinted down Gurley (no small feat in that heat) and confronted him. Words were exchanged. Sunglasses were exchanged.

Today, I'm taking it easy. No shopping, no sprinting - all stores are closed on Sundays. Tomorrow is a national holiday (President Tubman's birthday), so everything is closed again. We have an IFESH meeting on Tuesday, and then orientation for the rest of the week. I have to go by the embassy, open a bank account, register at the Ministry of Education, all that good stuff.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


How can I express the sublime fantasticness of my weekend? Gabrielle Forman lecture. Gender Studies gathering at the Pub. Madly wonderful MFA dance party later. Consoled a friend over recent breakup. Found best Waffle House in America (Huntsville, AL). Flying rock punched a hole in my gas tank near Padukah, KY, left me stranded. Picked up by my cousin James. Caught up on family stuff. Hung out at James' biker clubhouse in St. Louis. Flew to Memphis. Flew to Mobile. Fixed a car. Drove to Tuscaloosa. 

I smell like gasoline, cigarettes, coffee, and Pringles. Everything hurts. Shower. Bed. Goodnight.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Encounter at Panera

Man in blue polo shirt (on phone): Let's say you and I were black. [looks at Andy nervously]

Andy: [looks back with expression that says don't get crazy now.]

Man in blue polo shirt (still on phone): So say we're black and we hear stuff like 'we're gonna blow up Africa.' Wouldn't we be offended?

Andy: [looks back with new expression that says have your crazy time elsewhere. Any suggestion that you will not have your crazy time elsewhere should be directed to My Black Ass.]

Man in blue polo shirt: [leaves]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Humanity of Faculty

I'm in final preparations for the trip. That sounds so normal. It is normal. People do this all the time. I have another friend in Nairobi, and a writing buddy in Dakar. (In fact, I may go to Dakar for a writer's conference. More on that as it develops.) They've done it - packed everything, gotten multiple vaccinations, passports, visas, and dealt with all the minor things. Mail. Phone. Vehicle registration. Moving doesn't freak me out so much. Even the schedule, tight and rather sudden, I can manage. My new title makes me cringe.

Professor. (Actually "Visiting Expatriate Assistant Professor". Translation: "substitute teacher".) Really? Me? I'll answer to it if I get a shirt that says, "I'M WITH STUPID" - arrow pointing up. I've known a lot of faculty, good, bad, and ugly. I've seen the humanity of faculty, in all their humor, anxiety, brilliance, and gob-smackingly brutal competitiveness. 

I've seen alcoholism, hoarding, and depression. I've seen two faculty members in a fistfight, and met one who ripped the lid off a copier. I've seen faculty steal research from their students and peers. I've seen faculty more interested in humiliating students than teaching. I've seen faculty members (male and female) having affairs. I knew a lovely faculty member killed by her insane grad student, and an insane faculty member who threatened to kill his wife and kids. I've seen several mental breakdowns - one led to suicide. I'll need to remember them. 

I had a professor once who taught his own C.V. in class - we had to memorize all of his accomplishments and their importance. Yes, there was a quiz. I knew a professor who walked the halls with his nose pointed at the ceiling - until he passed a pair of breasts. Then he'd point his nose right at them and say "Hello!" I listened to a faculty member complain loudly when the faculty parking lot (next to our building) was appropriated for a new building. "Faculty," he cried, "are the most discriminated-against group on campus." His new parking spot was in a garage a few blocks away. This was the same parking garage I used, except his (faculty) space was free and my (staff) space was not. A famous faculty member held the door for me almost daily, when I left for lunchtime bike rides. After a semester, I realized this was less due to notions of gender equality, and more due to notions of my bike shorts. I've seen artists-turned-faculty - amazing and productive people reduced to arguments over printers and mailbox placement. I'll need to remember them.

And I've seen faculty change people's lives, cure diseases, improve schools and neighborhoods, and protest all manner of evils. I've seen faculty cancel classes in support of student rallies. I took class with the man who discovered Things Fall Apart. I've had several amazing writing professors, and met many more at conferences. I've commiserated. I've seen faculty reach out to distressed students, volunteer time and energy, host visitors, and do everything they can to make life a little better.

I'll need to remember them too.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Making My Tinfoil Hat

I woke up with ink all over my fingers. Which one of you abducted me and made me write with a leaky pen?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Learning Bravery

I was pissed. Yesterday was one of those days where it seems that everyone and everything exists to annoy the living shit out of you. In short order,

- a student complained about his grade...a B-.
- a student told me she might have to drop my class. Why? Because men were harassing her on the way home.

I got called into my supervisor's office and told, in fairly explicit terms, that "a" student felt intimidated by me. Not because I'm perhaps smarter than him, or more talented, or more experienced, or in a position of power. No, this student is intimidated because I'm black. "Let's face it, you don't look like me." The B- was too harsh. The pressure of getting a grade might stifle his creativity. 

A student in my other class wrote to say she had a late night class on Tues/Thur. She's been getting harassed while walking home. The only other section of that class conflicts with my class. She could switch, but she'd have to drop my class.

Where, I wondered, were the faculty on this one? There were no administrators looking in on the case, no powerful faculty giving her an ear or me some direction. There were apparently no security guards or police telling these men to leave this student alone. No, she has to drop a class, while another student complains about a B-.

This was gut check time. I swore up and down when I came here that I was going to grad school to become a better writer. I was not out to right the wrongs of this University. I was not going to "fix" anyone or anything but myself and my own writing. My career must come first. And yet, this amazing sense of privilege and entitlement just burns me. Seeing a smart, creative black man is not "intimidating". Try being that man, teaching and learning in a building named after a KKK Grand Wizard. Or bringing up African American writers in workshops and seeing blank stares. Or having to call out others on their racism, and getting told that I'm "playing the race card". Or living through "Confederate Day", when the local frats dress up in old uniforms and parade around the campus. That's what I call intimidating. 

I want to quit. I already have my next job, and this - this is not helping me write. I want to fight it out. All of our talk about privilege and justice is meaningless unless we actually put that shit into practice. I want to take the good, hardworking students and pass out A's like candy, and flunk the rest. And I can't do any of that. I have to remember my priorities, my professionalism, and my goals.

I wasn't feeling great about my decision this morning, but then I got a message from my female student. Given the option of harassment or dropping my class, she decided to stay in "the best class I've taken here." We're talking about escorts and other transportation options.Well if she can be so unintimidated, then so can I. 

Gotta go teach now.