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.

No comments:

Post a Comment