Thursday, June 17, 2010

Meet a Stranger Day #8

A beautiful woman approached while I was drinking coffee and asked if she could interview me. When you're a famous, dashing, world-renowned author with adoring fans and friends among the elite, this happens all the time. When you're me, not so much. My interviewer, Azucena Perez, was delightful and actually quite famous in her own right. Check out the interview here. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sh@t My dad Says, Liberia Edition

AJ: I caught some local bug.
Dad: what's it's called?
AJ: Puffy leg or puffy foot. The foot and lower leg tend to swell up, the skin turns colors and falls off, it's pretty gruesome.
Dad: How do you get it?
AJ: According to the traditional healer, someone put roots on my doorstep. I stepped across them and got puffy leg. 
Dad: Who would do that?
AJ: Someone who doesn't like me.
Dad: That's funny. Everyone who doesn't like you is in the States.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Leaving Liberia, 2010

We leave for the States in 3 hours. It's a 27 hour flight.

A storm is blowing in off the Atlantic.

I hit a man who tried to steal from us today. I didn't beat him
badly, just enough that he quit trying to put his hands into
worldgroove's purse. We were at the corner of Ashmun and Broad, and
some guy had insisted on carrying worldgroove's luggage into the
Brussels Airline office. When she tried to tip him, he rejected the
money out of Christian charity. Ok, fine. We checked in with no
problems. On the way out, this fellow and his friends surrounded us.
It seems that they hadn't rejected the money for some higher ideal of
service to their fellow man. No, they just wanted more. They started
pushing and shoving. We retreated to our taxi. worldgroove opened her
purse and arms started grabbing for her and the money.

In the Brussels Air office, my luggage weighed in 1kg overweight. I
removed a large, heavy book I'd packed - The Reinner Anthology of
African Literature. Perhaps anger follows this text around - I got
quite pissed at the post office agents who demanded a bribe to deliver
the book. The book weighs in at 1.5 kg.

When the homeless luggage men started grabbing for worldgroove and her
purse, I beat them with an anthology of African literature and
folktales. I don't think that's what the original writers and
storytellers had in mind, but it was damn effective. I feel oddly
normal about beating on a pair of homeless hucksters. Beatings are the
standard Liberian punishment for stealing, except it's usually a mob
of 50 or more beating the "rogue" into a pulp. They got off easy.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Kendeja Resort Hotel, June 2010

All of the black American expats here face a similar frustration. In
every restaurant and bar where expats hang out, the staff - the
Liberian staff - will always, always, serve whites faster and better
than blacks. I'm watching it right now - the Liberian waiter who took
our order promptly forgot us when a white man walked into the

This isn't about superiority or anything like that - we just got here
first. We ordered first, we expect to be served first. An American
restaurant would get sued for this kind of behavior. But it happens.
It happens everywhere, to all of us.

My NGO has asked me to edit a quarterly newsletter. Supposedly, the
source material comes from the reports I and the other volunteers
already file. No one will send anything, not even the country rep. So
there's no newsletter. They've also asked for an end-of-service report
and an end-of-project form. No word on whether those are the same

I need a whole bunch of people and things when I return in August.
Most of all, I need a K-12 principal, a librarian, about 200
dictionaries, and lots of USB sticks. I think I can find the

Tonight, I need to pack so I can weigh my luggage tomorrow. I'm trying
to bring back a carved cane for an elderly aunt, but it's too long to
fit in the luggage. I may fake a limp.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Du is a concept by the Dan (Gio) people, but most of the 16 tribes of Liberia have a similar concept. Du (similar to chi) is the spirit behind everything - every person, every animal, every song, everything. Du belongs to the spiritual realm. Du is inherently original and authentic; whatever we see in the physical world is only a manifestation of du, inherently unauthentic. This is a wonderful concept (developed quite independently of Plato) except when it comes to plagiarism. Sorry kids: "the du made me do it" still gets you an F.

I heard from a friend that the audio posts are unintelligible. That's par for the course in Liberia - nothing works as expected. I've just found that some of the audio posts never actually posted. Whether that was user error or the cell phone network, I don't know. So in brief, this is what I've been up to for the past 7 months: Teaching, writing, grading. Teacher training. Making plans for next year. Getting cured from some mystery disease by a local herbalist. Rescuing an abandoned child. Starting academic support services at Cuttington. Jogging. Sweating. Sleeping. Fresh orange juice from the tree in the backyard. Bitterballs, giant snails, goat, and palava sauce for dinner. Okay, I really don't eat snails. Often. Buying art and artifacts. Filing reports. Coming home.  

I'll be back in the States from next week until mid-August. Plenty to do - mostly writing and fundraising. I may also hit the gym. I'd love to see all my Austin peeps while I'm there.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Grace is For Phebe

I imagine a couple I’ve never met. The father left 5th grade when the principal ordered him to fight for the local warlord or leave. He grows vegetables on a muddy, rented plot.  He abandoned his baby. The mother survived relocation camps and returned home to Bong County. She voted for the first female President in Africa. She looks like Oprah Winfrey. She abandoned her baby. They have both lost family to malaria and childbirth. They respect traditional religion but attend Christian services. They have children, parents, aunts, uncles, and friends. They abandoned their baby.

The baby – Grace Phebe – has hydrocephalus, a.k.a. water on the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid floods the soft newborn skull, distorting her features and causing brain damage, seizures, and death if left untreated. In the United States, a neurosurgeon would drain the excess fluid with a brain shunt. Liberia cannot afford shunts, neurosurgeons, or the life-long management of this disease.

The parent in me believes the parents tried. They called wealthy relatives, they prayed for guidance, they cried, they sought help from Catholic Relief Services, Medicins Sans Frontiers, or the Liberian Red Cross. Family pressure. He slapped her, made her choose. It was difficult, heart-rending. I have to believe that, even if none of it’s true. One look at Grace’s misshapen head and her mother declared that Grace was a gena. “She told us to take the baby into the forest and leave her,” said the Practicing Midwife who delivered and named the baby. As soon as the mother could walk, she and her husband left.

According to Liberian tradition, the spiritual realm controls every aspect of life. Spiritual illness causes physical illness; healing the body requires healing the soul. A child like Grace, with her enlarged head and delicate hands, represents brokenness, hatred, and vengeance. The birth of a gena  - a curse - signifies that the parents committed some serious crime against nature and refused to repent.

In my imagination, her parents do repent. They drop to their knees and beg forgiveness for the war, for stealing, looting, and arson, for torture and internment camps, for living when so many others died. They ask on behalf of the former child soldiers, too ashamed of their childhoods to grow up, and on behalf of their former warlords, too ashamed of their past to lead. They ask on behalf of those who wake at night, remembering horror. They beg the spiritual realm to lift shame from Liberia before each and every survivor chokes.

They should beg Grace. They should see her tiny hands and translucent skin. They should see her thin feet. They should listen to her cry, and laugh, and her heartbeat. They should feel her grip.

Her options have all but run out. After six weeks without treatment, permanent brain damage has set in. Even if medical evacuation funds could be located, the weight of her head might snap her tiny neck during transit. The child is in legal limbo – the parents simply left, without making any arrangements. Liberia placed a moratorium on adoptions last year in an effort to halt human trafficking.

When I visited her room at Phebe Hospital, I expected the African disaster cliché. Phebe is a poor, country hospital. Nurses reuse gloves and syringes. Cheerless posters wall the waiting rooms. Exhausted family members sleep on hard benches. Locals sell food, drinks, and fresh clothing, since the hospital can provide none of these services. The halls reek of antiseptic and vomit. But in the midst of the typical disaster story, the staff clothes and feeds Baby Grace. They hold her, sing to her, dress her. They break the gena curse every day, not by denial or abandonment, nor even prayer, but through sheer love. Liberia forgot how to love. Grace came to teach them.

“Grace is for Phebe,” the midwife told me. Grace is for Phebe. Grace is for Phebe. Grace is for Phebe. A gena child, sent from the other side. She’s exactly who we need.

[Update: Two weeks after I wrote this, Grace Phebe passed away peacefully.]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Andy's Index

Liberia Edition

Number of boxes shipped by Books for Africa: 593
Number of boxes received by IFESH Liberia: 585
Estimated number of learners who will go without a textbook due to theft: 800*
Load limit of the Cuttington University farm truck, in tons: 4
Total textbook distribution to Cuttington University, in tons: 5
Exchange rate: 1 USD=71.5LD
Longest number of days Ulitave has gone without running water: 17
Price of eggs: 350LD/30 eggs
Price of a loaf of bread: 30LD
Price of Corn Flakes: $10.95 USD
Price of Hagen Daas ice cream, per pint: $16 USD
Average monthly wage: $80 USD
Number of ATM machines now in Liberia: 10
Number of ATM machines now operational in Liberia: 7
Number of operational ATM machines located in Monrovia: 7
Number of paved roads in Lofa County: 0
Amount of oil produced by palm tree if left untended, in tons: 2
Amount produced if tended, in tons: 4
Acres of palm left unharvested by CU: 1000
Hours spent online by Ulitave in the States, per day: 6
Hours spent online by Ulitave in Liberia, per day: 0.25

*Most of the stolen books were educational theory textbooks. It's hard to calculate the number of children who would have benefited from 800 trained teachers. The math isn't hard: thinking about it is. Stay positive, right?