Liberia Part 5: How to help

22 May

A friend asked me if I could offer some perspective and suggestions as to how to help people in Liberia (or other places), given our recent experiences. This is a complicated question, and one that is certainly worth reflecting on! For us, this trip has changed our views of charitable donations and what does and doesn’t work. While there are many great causes out there, there are definitely some good ways to help and some not-so-good ways to help. None of us wants our money to go to waste, and it is helpful to know that the organization that you are donating to is really doing something to benefit a community, rather than simply throwing money at people and creating more dependency.

We saw examples of this all over Liberia, and I am sure it is a problem worldwide. One such example of this was the “Mary’s Meals” organization. While it is a lofty goal to provide a lunch of rice and beans for every child in school, if the structure and implementation isn’t in place, then the initiative will fail.

From our perspective, certainly the Peace Corps is doing some great work all over the world, and the emphasis on education can’t be overstated. That education needs to start with the children, who will be the ones to change things. Without some kind of education, many of these people will just continue to do things the way they have always done them, and much of that is not good for them or for the planet as a whole.

In talking to both Andy and Jon, we learned that so much of the culture in Liberia is market-based. Many Liberians can’t think beyond what they can sell and how much money that will bring them. The only thing they can really relate to is that when prices of certain staples (like rice and fuel) go up, then they have to raise the prices of whatever they are selling to offset that. They have difficulty thinking more globally and realizing that there are other opportunities for making money besides government jobs or selling things at the market.

We were very impressed with what Jon is doing in Gbarnga. By building a school and focusing on the youngest people of the village, he is establishing a foundation to allow for changes to come from the ground up. Additionally, he has some initiatives that are intended to make the community more self-sufficient (such as the block-making business and the chicken house). Some of these may succeed and some may not, but his goal is to give the people of the community tools and education so that they can build better lives for themselves. After spending a week in Gbarnga and seeing how Jon was around the local people, we could see how committed he is to making a lasting impact on that community. To learn more about what Jon is doing in Gbarnga and how to donate to that initiative, click here.

Liberia Part 4: The Liberian Medical System and Our Eventual Departure

20 May

Our driver, Saah, showed up right on schedule Sunday  and though we didn’t want to say goodbye to Andy, we were very glad to see Saah! Kathy had now been sick for three days and was extremely dehydrated and weak. We were worried and wanted to get her on the plane and at least to Brussels, where we might be able to get her some medical care if needed. The infection in her leg was still there, and although it wasn’t getting worse she still had a slight fever and was unable to hold any food or liquid down.

Our flight out was not until the evening, and Jon Rossman recommended a clinic in Monrovia that was on the way to the airport, so Saah drove us there first (about a 2 ½ hour drive, but at least the road was relatively smooth). Kathy was not too keen on going to a Liberian hospital, but we felt like we needed to do something to get her in better shape to travel that night. We were worried that they might not even let her on the plane! We pulled into a parking lot by the “Lucky Pharmacy” and there was a sign that said “24 hour medical care”.

That clinic turned out to be a Godsend! It was clean, and they were able to give Kathy some anti-nausea medication and IV- fluids (though according to Kathy, “it took the mystical Liberian turban lady six tries to hit the vein”). They also repeated the Malaria test (again negative) and did a few other lab tests, all of which indicated that the antibiotic Gary was giving her was good. When we first arrived there, Gary had to pay a $13.00 registration fee. Then he had to go to the Lucky Pharmacy next door to buy the IV- solution and anti-nausea medication. The cost for that was $10.00, and then he had to go to the lab and pay the lab fee which was $34.00. Amazingly, the total cost for that all of care was $57.00! We could not believe it.

After two hours there, Kathy felt much better, and we continued on to the airport, fairly confident that she would at least be able to board the plane and get to Brussels, at which point we could re-evaluate things. However, she was not out of the woods yet, and we just wanted to be on that plane and heading for home. Unfortunately, like everything else in Liberia, we discovered that transportation is not always easy! We boarded the plane and were all set to go, though Kathy said that when she got on the plane Sunday night, she was so green that the stewardess handed Gary a barf bag and kept walking without a word! At any rate, we were all buckled in when the pilot announced that the plane was experiencing “a small technical difficulty” and the flight would be delayed a bit. A few moments later, he announced that the flight was canceled and they were working on hotel accommodations for everyone!

We could not have scripted this if we tried! Finally, they let us off the plane – out into the sultry Liberian night. We walked in the dark across the tarmac and back into the airport. After “waiting small” we heard people calling for “couples” to get into a line, so we went with a group of 17 other couples and were loaded onto a big yellow school bus. It was hot, crowded and SMELLY. And Kathy was feeling miserable. We had no idea where they were taking us and just hoped that it would not be a long ride and that it would be a decent place to spend the night. And by the way, they kept our luggage on the plane, so we only had whatever was with us in our carry-on bags.

After a 45 minute sweltering bus ride, we finally landed at what seemed like a pretty decent hotel. By this time it was midnight, and we just wanted to lie down somewhere. We were told to sit and wait, so we waited… and waited… and waited… and waited some more. And nothing happened. Finally, people started gathering at the front desk, and we pushed Gary and Kathy to the front of the line since Kathy was not feeling well. They got a room about 12:30 am. And then… it seemed like the hotel magically ran out of rooms! After another hour of them telling us that they would “get us a room as soon as one became available”, Dave and I asked if they had cots that we could put in our friends’ room. Gary managed to find one of the security staff who brought over four outdoor lounge chair cushions (in a wheelbarrow) to use as sleeping mats for Dave and I. No mosquito netting here! That was about 1:30 am, and we discovered the next morning, that the last couple got a room about 5:00 am! Apparently this hotel would just prepare the rooms when they knew someone was coming to stay, and they had no staff available in the middle of the night to clean the rooms for new guests. It was just crazy.

On the positive side, it turned out to be a beautiful resort hotel (we were told that rooms there typically go for $240.00/night – U.S. dollars – which is insane for Liberia). It was beachfront property and had a pool, though of course our bathing suits were packed in our suitcases which were still on the plane. But the hot shower that morning was definitely worth the price of admission. After a free buffet breakfast (quite good), we were once again waiting small and hoping to get out of Liberia that evening.

As it turned out, the flight crew from the airline was also at the same hotel, and after talking with them, we found out that the flight would be delayed ANOTHER 24 hours. On the plus side, Dave and I were finally able to get our own room, but on the minus side, we had no luggage with us, and I ended up having to wear the same shirt for 4 days running. Not fun. Note to self for future trips: REMEMBER TO PACK A FULL CHANGE OF CLOTING IN CARRY-ON BAG! We also had no idea what would happen once we got to Brussels. Supposedly the airline was going to re-book everyone, but we had no clue about how that would work.

In the “what else could go wrong” category, we found out a little later that we were re-booked from Brussels to Boston on a different flight from Gary and Kathy, and we were not due into Boston until 2 ½ hours after them. Unfortunately, their car was back at our house, and we had reserved a Limo to pick us up at the airport, so this meant that they had to wait an extra 2+ hours when they landed at Logan for us to catch up with them.  The only silver lining in all this was that the antibiotics that Kathy was taking were starting to work, and she was feeling much better. She was actually able to eat a little bit that morning.

From talking to the flight crew, we learned that the problem with the plane was a very small leak in one of the hydraulic fluid hoses and the hose needed to be replaced. Apparently this was a very easy fix and a very inexpensive part, but the problem was that there were no spare parts in Monrovia. So, this little plastic tube had to be flown in from Atlanta, and would be on the next flight from Brussels to Monrovia which was the following night. We were told that once the part came in, the mechanic would presumably be able to replace the part in about 20 – 30 minutes, and then we could be on our way.

Again in the “what else could go wrong” category, the hotel lost power for a few minutes that afternoon, and we realized that we had left all our flashlights and water sterilizers  with Andy. Thankfully, it was a very short outage, but we were all feeling ready to leave Africa at this point. If all had gone according to plan, we would have been home by then!

So…what do you do when you are stuck at a resort and spa in Africa for two days with nowhere to go and nothing to do? A massage at the spa, of course! I had an awesome massage with a woman who just happened to have an 11 year-old daughter named Becky. We started talking and she told me that she has a dream of opening her own massage/spa business and she is currently saving money to do that. She told me that she made more money for the hotel  in one day than they paid her for an entire month. I was impressed that this woman actually had a vision and the ability to think ahead, which is a skill that many Liberian people lack. She has already saved about $2,000 and thinks that she needs about $8,000 to get the business up and running. She wants to get a folding massage table and also a pedicure chair which she said she could order on E bay but could not figure out how to get that shipped to Liberia! Nothing is easy here!

The following afternoon a school bus (with “New Jersey” written on the side – go figure) picked us up to bring us back to the airport. It was weird leaving the resort. After two days there, the impoverished state of the country seemed even more apparent, especially right outside the boundaries of the hotel. We kind of suspected that, because on the edges of the beach, there were signs saying to leave the property at your own risk! And one of the flight attendants told us that she had heard a story that someone went for a run on the beach, and returned with nothing but their underwear!


This was our second time going through the airport departure routine, and it was a nightmare. Usually there was only one flight leaving for Brussels at that time, but on this particular night, there was our flight plus the regularly scheduled one, and the airport staff was completely overwhelmed. We had to show our passports seven times, and getting through check-in, immigration and security literally took us over two hours.

In the Brussels airport the next morning, we experienced even more lines. We had about a four hour layover, and at least two hours of that was spent waiting in line to get our passports stamped. We said a temporary good-by to Gary and Kathy and once again waited for our connecting flight.

One more time in the “what else could go wrong” category: we missed our connecting flight from Chicago to Boston, so Gary and Kathy had to wait about three to four hours for us in Boston. However, by this time we were all very skilled in the art of “waiting small”!

Liberia Part 3: The Children of Andy’s Village

16 May

Before we went on this trip, our friend Kathy got an email from a cousin who had spent a few years in Ethiopia. She told Kathy to “Expect to fall in love with the children.” Toward the end of our week with Andy, someone asked us what the most memorable thing about Liberia was and I think that we all had the same answer. It was, indeed the children – meeting those kids was nothing short of amazing. They are the future of Liberia, and they all seemed so full of energy and promise.

On my last day there, I took a walk through the village, and countless children called out to me “Take my picture” and then posed for me. Here are some of the photos I got that day and other times during the week:

Liberia Part 2: The Peace Corps Experience

11 May

For those of you who read my previous blog, you can get more information about what Jon Rossman is doing in Liberia by reading his blog here. His organization (Gbarnga Lutheran Training Center – GLTC) runs the preschool and Guesthouse where we stayed.

We departed Gbarnga and the comforts of the GLTC guesthouse for a totally different experience. Before we left, I told Jon that I felt like that first week was our “ease-in week” to Liberia. We certainly saw and did a lot, and experienced a good deal of Liberian culture firsthand, but it was all done from the security of a nice roomy Guesthouse with running water! We had a great sendoff from Gbarnga, which included Annie and Amelia singing a fabulous song to Kathy.

Did I mention what it is like to drive on the highway in Liberia? (I am using the singular form of “highway”, because there is really only one main road in the country). The site of trucks carrying bags of rice is one that will stick with me for a very long time. Before we left for the trip, Jon had told us about how Liberians would pile things on top of cars, trucks and motorbikes, but hearing about it and seeing it firsthand were two completely different things! Here is a sampling of what we saw on the road as we traveled from Gbarnga back to Monrovia and on to Andy’s village. (My apologies for the fuzziness of some of these photos – they were taken through the very dirty windshield of the van).






Our plan was to meet Andy in Monrovia at a Stop and Shop (yes, they really do have a grocery store there) so we could pick up some food supplies for the week. We were a little early, so we did our shopping, and then went down the street to the Royal Hotel, one of the few “Western” hotels that cater to foreign dignitaries. There, we had lunch and enjoyed our last decent bathroom for the week.

Andy was coming from his site, and had to take three taxis to get there. Apparently, taxi drivers in Liberia can only drive in the counties or areas that they are registered in, so Andy took a cab to Duala, on the outskirts of Monrovia, then he had to take a second one to Waterside, a big open air marketplace, then a third to Sinkor, where we met him. Luckily for us, we still had Saah, our driver from the Lutheran Church. Jon had arranged for Saah to take us to Andy’s village, and then also to pick us up at the end of our trip and bring us to the airport. We would have been lost without him!

IMG_2908Andy caught up with us at the Royal Hotel, and it was wonderful to see him! He looked great and was so animated and excited to see us as well. After a fortifying American-style lunch, we headed to the Peace Corps office and met with the Liberian Country Director. We talked with her a bit about the challenges faced in Liberia – she said that Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) there have to be EXTREMELY healthy in order to serve because there is no good emergency medical care. (Little did we know that we would get to experience that firsthand – more about that later). Because of this, the average age of a PCV in Liberia is a little younger than in other countries. I think she said it was about 28. She asked about our plans for the week, and when we told her we would be staying in Andy’s house with him, she said “Okay – I guess you will be enjoying the ’Peace Corps Experience’ for the week!”

After the Peace Corps office, we went to a nearby ice cream shop for some absolutely awesome ice cream. Andy had told us that it was better than Kimball’s and I would have to agree with him.

For the next leg of our journey, Saah drove us through Waterside, a wild and wacky open air market – in fact the biggest open air market in the country.


Traffic – cars, trucks, motorbikes tuk-tuks, wheelbarrows and foot – was unbelievable! I think Saah was very relieved once we got out of there unscathed! We stopped at a mattress store in Duala for a couple of pillows. Dave said he could just fill a pillowcase with clothes and use that, but given that we were halfway through the trip and most of those clothes would be dirty laundry, I promptly nixed that idea! After that, we headed for Andy’s village – about an hour’s drive from Monrovia.

We arrived in the middle of a massive rainstorm.IMG_2927 Luckily for us, Saah knew how to tightly wrap up our luggage for the trip since it was all on top of the van! We wanted Saah to get back on the road quickly since he had a long drive ahead of him, but he insisted on waiting for the rain to abate before unloading our bags. Finally, there was a slight break in the rain and we were able to get the bags inside and let Saah go. It was Tuesday evening, and Saah promised to return on Sunday to take us to the airport. With his departure, we officially began the second part of our trip – Andy’s village!

Here are a few photos of Andy’s house along with some banana and pineapple plants that he has planted:



Three of Andy’s friends/students were waiting at his house to greet us and help with unloading our bags. After a massive dinner of rice and beans (cooked by Andy’s neighbor and friend, Esther) we went on a tour of the village. Everyone was so excited to see us. I can’t begin to say how many hands we shook! There is a special “Liberian handshake” that we learned while in Gbarnga, and although we weren’t quite experts at it, I think the local people appreciated our attempts. We met Esther’s family who are Andy’s “neighbors” – they are a large family that has befriended him and often cook for him, and they supply him with power from their generator every other night for a few hours. We also met the Vice-Principal of Andy’s school, George (he used to be Principal, but retired last year), and we talked a little with him about the major problems that the school faced. Apparently teenage pregnancy is at the top of the list and leads to many of the girls dropping out of school. It was quite an interesting evening, to say the least! We saw several houses in the village as well as a beautiful Liberian sunset!


Andy arranged for his neighbors to cook a meal for us most of the days that we were there. Usually, Esther or her mom cooked, and we paid them for their efforts. They cooked an enormous amount of wonderful food and we definitely got to experience a lot of native Liberian dishes. The people of Liberia eat a ton of rice, as well as beans, chicken, fish, cassava leaf, eggplant, and some very interesting spices. We were very appreciative of the effort that they put into keeping us fed – and we found that once we were done eating, NOTHING in the village went to waste. There were many kids around who were quite happy to gobble up any leftover food that we had.

We were woken up on our first morning in the village by a crowing rooster, and the sound of many people walking by.


Andy’s house sits on the outskirts of the town near the school, so everyone walks by it to get to school or wherever they may be going to work. Added to that, there is a well right in front of his house that seemed to us to be a communal well, though Andy said it was owned by the school and access was supposedly restricted. From what we could see though, lots and lots of people filled their water buckets there. Many, many people stopped by to say hello, and Andy told us that this is a fairly common practice in the village – though with us there, traffic was even more than usual.



We wandered over to the school and watched as the children did a pledge of allegiance to the flag and sang the Liberian National Anthem and “Lone Star Forever”. They also announced our presence and called us all forward to be greeted – just like at GLTC, it seemed we were considered “honored guests”.


Andy did an amazing job teaching three classes that morning which we were privileged to watch: 11th grade Physics, 9th grade Math and 10th grade Physics.


We were impressed with his confidence and ability to control the class, and also with his fantastic way of breaking things down and explaining the concepts. Teaching has been incredibly challenging for him, as the students are at such varying levels in terms of their backgrounds, but he seemed to be able to find a common ground and keep them all involved and interested. He is concerned that the kids have to take an exam in both 9th grade and 12th grade – the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) – that will indicate how they are performing in school, and it may be tough for many of them to pass it. He told us he felt bad for the seniors especially because they had no Physics teacher last year and the students have never even seen much of the material on the exam. The seniors have to pass this exam in order to graduate High School, and Andy thought that many of them don’t even have a chance of passing. He is hoping that his 9th and 10th graders will have a little better shot at it, but still, much of what is expected is beyond the scope of what these kids have learned.

At recess, a bunch of kids, many of them Andy’s students, gathered on Andy’s porch to talk with us.

They had so many questions about America! We had an interesting and animated discussion about politics. They had a limited understanding of American politics and that is probably a good thing. As for Liberian politics, the general consensus here seemed to be that the current President of Liberia, Geoge Weah, is much loved especially by the younger generation. He was a former soccer star, and one of the “common” people rather than the elite class, which is why he got elected. However, some older members of the community worry that despite his winning personality, he lacks the experience to be a great leader and really bring Liberia out of the massive debt that it is in. Time will tell for this country.

We did hear an interesting story about George Weah from Andy’s Vice-Principal. Apparently, during the Civil War, the rebels attacked the village and there was massive fighting. We heard that there were about 500 houses in the village and after the war, only four houses remained standing. However, there was one day when the rebels were attacking, and George Weah was playing in a major soccer tournament in Monrovia, so the Rebels suspended the fighting for several days in order to go to Monrovia and watch the game. Go figure!

IMG_3027Several of Andy’s friends/students cooked a 5-star dinner for us that evening. They made fried eggplant which was delicious and we enjoyed watching them cook using the coal pot.  They usually cook for him one night a week – in exchange for that, he buys the food and they get to eat it as well! Here in Liberia, many people really do go hungry a lot of the time, so having someone buy food for them is a real boon.

At one point we were passing the time sitting on a bench in front of Andy’s house. Dave noticed the bench was “stick construction” made from trees from the bush. IMG_3025 He commented to Andy how nice and comfortable it was and Andy replied that Esther’s brother had made it the day before. Here is what Dave had to say about this:

I was surprised that one kid could make such a bench in a day, but Andy assured me it was so. I asked to meet the boy so he could show me how he did it. The next day after school 12-year-old David – Esther’s brother – showed up with his machete and offered to take me into the bush to build another bench. Not fully realizing what I was getting myself into, I followed “BushBoy” (though his name was David, I have nicknamed him BushBoy) off into the bush.

After about 20 minutes of walking, he stopped and looked over a few trees. He selected one and meticulously cleared all the surrounding vines, etc. that might have gotten in the way while cutting it down. Grabbing the machete by the handle which was just electrical tape wrapped around the end – the real wooden handle was lost long ago – he deftly chopped the tree down. The small branches were removed and it was cut to length – about 12 feet. Then another tree was taken, then another. I was dragging the trees through the underbrush into a pile and by this time I was getting hot and wondering whether I would regret not having brought my water bottle. I said we had three trees already and he replied that we needed twenty total. Twenty? We only had three and I was ready to call it quits!

He showed no signs of slowing down even though his broken flip-flops (called slippers in Liberia) kept falling off. Soon we had a pile of five trees. Then we had to move to more fertile ground, and soon we had another pile of seven trees. Finally we had twenty trees spread out over four piles. By this time I was so lost that I would have had a hard time getting back if anything went wrong. But he knew exactly where each pile was and soon we had one pile of twenty trees. I grabbed four and hoisted them up to my shoulder and he took six and led the way back to the village and said we were stopping for water. He opened a door to a house by removing a toothbrush that was holding the door latch closed and went over to a water bucket and started drinking. Though I desperately wanted some water as well, I knew the untreated well water would not sit well, so I politely declined.  It turned out to be his sister’s house and she soon appeared along with some kids. Of course there was a football (soccer ball) there, so we had to kick it around for a while.

Then we rounded up the kids to retrieve the rest of the trees and brought them out. They asked me how many I could carry back to Andy’s house and I said three. A couple of boys took six each and a few girls took the rest. They were piled into separate piles and the bark was stripped and used to lash the piles together for easier carrying. We all walked back to Andy’s carrying the trees then a crew went to work building the bench.

BushBoy’s nephew (also 12 years old) dug six holes for the legs of the bench. Another group was sawing the trees to length. Then Andy had to give us money to go to a “Liberian Convenience Store” (a table outside someone’s house with stuff for sale) for nails. Once the nails were purchased the bench was quickly nailed together and we could all sit for a rest. 


Later, at the weekly market I bought BushBoy a new pair of slippers and had his machete sharpened. A small price to pay for a new bench!

[Back to Becky]: Thursday morning, I went to a tailor in town to see if I could get a dress made. In Liberia, frequently people buy “lappa” (country cloth) at the market and then bring it to a tailor to have it sewn into clothing. Kathy and I had both purchased some lappa in the Gbarnga market last week (thanks to a lot of help from our Guesthouse hostess, Annie). Kathy wasn’t feeling well, so I went down to the tailor without her. He measured me and told me he could make both a dress for me and a shirt for Dave and both would be ready later that day! Then he brought out this incredibly ancient sewing machine. IMG_3100Dave and I agreed to pay him $20.00 U.S. for both the shirt and dress, though Andy got very mad at us when we told him that – he says we WAY overpaid. I suppose Andy should have come with us to navigate this sale, but as far as we are concerned, we felt like we were getting a great deal! Both a shirt AND dress, hand-made, for $20.00! How could you beat that?

Going to the tailor’s house was… interesting. We went there about four or five times, and every time, there were a bunch of guys, probably in their 20s, sitting just outside the house playing cards and drinking some kind of Liberian brew  – which they kindly offered to Dave, but he refused. We weren’t sure if any of them worked. Were they just unemployed adults of the town? Did they have families to support? Did they all live in that house? Given their age, they most likely grew up during the Civil War, and they probably had minimal, if any, schooling. They were certainly friendly enough to us, and seemed to enjoy talking with us about the U.S., but we weren’t quite sure if they did anything besides sit there and play cards all day!

Later that afternoon, Gary, Kathy and I were sitting on Andy’s porch and about fifteen kids gathered around.

Watching us seemed to be the thing to do around there! After a while, it started to rain. Believe me, if you have never experienced sitting under a zinc roof during a soaking Liberian rainstorm, you are missing something! It was unbelievably loud, and just when we thought it couldn’t get any louder, it did. We told the kids that in the U.S., when it rains hard, we like to say that it is “raining cats and dogs” and they thought that was hilarious.

Since it poured for most of the day on Thursday, we stayed on the porch or inside. April is the start of the rainy season, and apparently Monrovia is the wettest capital city in the entire world. We were lucky to just have one very rainy day during our trip; I can’t even imagine what it must be like for these people once the rainy season really gets going – especially since all the houses have zinc roofs, and many of them leak constantly.

While sitting with these kids, we discovered another major problem that the school faces. There is an organization called “Mary’s Meals” that provides the food for children in five Liberian counties, and supposedly the public schools give the children lunch each day. Mary’s Meals provides one cup of rice and beans for every student every day, and the school has hired cooks to prepare and distribute the food. However, we discovered rather quickly that this was a broken system with no easy fix in sight.

The kids have class buckets and each grade gets one bucket of food that they eat communally. Andy told us that sometimes the boys take the bucket and the girls get nothing. And sometimes, as on this day that we were gathered with a group of 10th graders, a class loses their bucket and no one in that class gets any food. In talking with the kids, it seemed like a 7th grader stole their bucket and with no bucket to present to the cooks, they could not get any food. We spoke with the school Vice- Principal George about this later, and he acknowledged that it was a huge problem. He said that each class has a teacher “advisor” who is supposed to be outside during lunchtime supervising the process and making sure that everyone eats, but most of the time, the teachers don’t do that job. They just let the kids out at lunch and it is a free-for-all. Additionally, George said that it is very difficult to get decent teachers. Many of them just don’t show up for class more than half the time, and the Principal of the school has no power over them. The Ministry of Education should be overseeing this and allowing the school Principals to fire employees who don’t work, but the Ministry doesn’t do that. Added to that, the teachers are paid so poorly that it is almost impossible to get decent teachers in the first place. The whole thing was just sad for us to see. Where do you even start to fix a problem of this magnitude? While the idea of a bowl of rice and beans for each child seems like a great idea, how practical is it in a school of 400 – 500 kids who are unsupervised?

We were struck by the comparison – at the GLTC school, each child did get a bowl of rice and beans each day; however that is a private school, and the school must have a budget to pay for bowls and for someone to collect and wash them all at the end of each meal. That is also a much smaller group of kids, but again, the school had paid staff to supervise the meal. George felt strongly that it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Education to enforce the rules and guidelines for the teachers, but the Ministry is constantly cutting corners and not giving authority to the local leaders. So…. the problems just persist.

One other thing we found interesting and a little confusing was the ownership of the wells. Andy said that the school owns the pump in front of his house, and it is supposed to be locked every weekend to prevent people from “spoiling” or breaking it. Ownership of property in general seemed very loose in Liberia and certainly many people from the community were using the pump during the week. We wondered what they did on the weekends when the well was locked.

IMG_3058After several days, here, Dave wanted to shave and decided to do it outside on Andy’s porch. Soon he had a whole following of young kids – all about ages 10 – 12. Several of them put shaving cream on their faces and it was a riot!

Friday was Market day in the village – an opportunity for us to go to our 4th  Liberian market. It was wonderful and amazing. (If I did this correctly on WordPress, you should be able to click on each picture to enlarge it – that is worth doing for these).

One of Andy’s students led us around to make sure that we got good deals on things. I wanted some African music that I could use to play at a slide show and I was thinking that maybe I could get a CD of some songs. Guess again. First, he took us to a stall with DVDs (movies) but no music CD’s. Then we went to a stall where they sold radios. They had some MP3 “chips” that we could presumably plug into our computer, but we were a little hesitant to put a foreign chip into our computer at home! I ended up getting a chip that plays 100 African songs, and a small radio to use to play them! And of course, Andy’s students made sure we didn’t overpay!

We returned to the tailor that afternoon to pick up the dress. He wasn’t there, though the card-playing guys were. They said he was at the market buying buttons for Dave’s shirt. At this point, we were just hoping that would be ready before we had to leave on Sunday.

Our friend Kathy went to the market with us Friday morning, but after that, she was not feeling well. She hadn’t eaten much the day before, and was now experiencing fever and chills, as well as some nausea and vomiting.  Andy had a first aid kit supplied by the Peace Corps with a Malaria test kit in it, and Peace Corps said that if he ever had a fever over 102, he should do the Malaria test. Kathy’s fever spiked over 102 that afternoon, so Andy called the Peace Corps doctor and asked if we could use the test on her, and they said we could. Thankfully she tested negative for Malaria, but we still weren’t sure what was wrong. She then showed us where she had a bruise on her leg that she had gotten the week before when we visited one of the waterfalls and she slipped on a rock. The bruise had been bothering her a little all week, but suddenly, her leg became bright red, and it was clear that she had an infection in there and it was spreading up her leg. It was pretty clear that she needed antibiotics. Fortunately, Gary was a veterinarian, and knew enough about medications to know what she needed. And even more fortunately, I had had a slight eye infection the week before our trip, and had gone to the eye doctor to have it checked. While the infection in my eye was clearing, the doctor gave me a prescription for some antibiotics just in case it flared up again during the trip, and I had that supply with me. Gary felt like that would be a great medication to use (he actually had the “dog variety” of that with him, but we decided the human version would be a safer bet, given that we had it available). We marked the swelling on her leg, gave her some antibiotics and then waited. She was getting more and more dehydrated and couldn’t really hold anything down, and we thought about getting her to a hospital, but soon realized that was not really an option. We heard that the night before, there was a major car accident involving a truck nearby. The truck driver needed to go to the hospital, so they called an ambulance, but the ambulance was out of fuel and could not come, and the local cook-shop owner took the guy to the hospital on his motorbike! There was no way that Kathy was traveling anywhere on a motorbike, and so we also checked with the school Vice-Principal, George, to see if there was a doctor in town. He called one doctor who was out on call and unavailable, then he called a second one who was in Monrovia and supposedly returning that evening. George said they would stop by when the doctor came in, but then it started to RAIN and the doctor remained stuck in Monrovia because no taxis would drive in the rain. We were definitely getting a taste of why the Peace Corps Country Director told us about lack of good emergency medical care in Liberia!

Saturday morning, Kathy seemed a little better. She was still nauseous, but her fever was down, and the swelling and redness in her leg seemed to be contained. Thank God for antibiotics! Dave went with Andy and a couple of his friends to the Robertsport beach for the day, while Gary, Kathy and I stayed back to rest.

Now once again I’ll hand it off to Dave to describe the trip to the beach:

Andy had told us the trip to the beach was a two hour taxi ride. By this time I’d seen the taxis and noticed that they put six passengers into a Honda Accord/Toyota Corolla sized car.  Two hours squeezed into the back seat with three other people didn’t sound like fun, but Andy was excited for us to go so I figured what the heck and agreed to go. Four of us (Andy, one of his students, the 12 year BushBoy bench builder, and I) headed out to the road to catch the first of two cabs we needed to complete our trip. There was a gas station at the corner with some shade and an attendant and a few of his friends sitting in chairs. I wandered over and asked if I could sit with them while waiting for a taxi. We were sitting there “waiting small” (I hoped it was waiting small and not waiting large) when the discussion turned to bicycles. I mentioned that I liked bicycling and had ridden across the US in my younger days. One of the guys then declared that I should give him a bicycle!  Up until then we’d had lots of requests for support: for school, for sick relatives, for food, for buying trinkets, etc. But never for a bicycle.

Eventually a taxi came. It seemed like everything in Liberia has a going price which isn’t posted and everyone just knows, except me. So Andy and I made ourselves scarce while our Liberian companions negotiated the correct fee and didn’t let the driver overcharge the foreigners. After a reasonable fee was agreed on we all piled in. Squeezing four into a back seat wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Most everything in Liberia runs, but not well. The taxi was no exception. The A/C didn’t work so the windows were rolled down with corn cobs stuck between the window glass and door frame to prevent them from rattling. The check engine light was on and the windshield sported a spider web of cracks. I didn’t know how fast we were going because the speedometer was broken.

As soon as we arrived at the next town and got out at the taxi parking depot, someone immediately asked where we wanted to go. He clearly sensed a big fee and brought us to a friend’s car where we had to negotiate another fee. The exchange rate in Liberia is 135 Liberian dollars to 1 US dollar, so our taxi for four ended up costing thousands of Liberian dollars. As I was counting out the fee, I noticed the driver slipped his friend some of the money. Even so the “finder” was leaning in the driver’s window with a few of his friends demanding more (what I now call) “Liberian Assistance Appreciation Fees.” I stared straight ahead and told the driver we could leave, but suddenly realized that Andy’s student was over buying something across the street. We sent BushBoy over to get him and finally got on our way.

This taxi was better than the last one – there were no cracks in the windshield, more room because we paid for the two empty seats, the windows worked with a film to keep out the sun, and the seat belt was functional. Andy was impressed with how fast we got to the beach. Again, the speedometer was broken so I still don’t know how fast Liberian taxis go.

We got to Robertsport and walked to the beach, which was beautiful and uncrowded.  The water was warm, not what I’m used to in America. After an hour or so of swimming we pulled out our lunch. As if by magic some kids suddenly materialized. While we maintained some distance between us, it was still eerie how the kids just appeared when we started our lunch.

We headed back into town to exchange some money. $20 US gets me $2,700 Liberian. They say not to flash big wads of money while traveling but that was impossible in Liberia when small things sometimes cost thousands of dollars. Back at the taxi parking depot we spotted our driver who hadn’t found any passengers during the day so he was still there. Not knowing the exact protocol we approached him directly and hired him for the ride home. I think we upset some of the drivers that may have been in line before him for passengers. It was hard to navigate the taxi system with all its unwritten rules and fares.

Before leaving town we pulled into a “filling station” for gasoline (called fuel in Liberia).  The fuel is sold in mayonnaise jars and our driver bought a couple or jars. A funnel is used to pour the small amount of fuel into the car’s tank. For some reason he needed a receipt so the attendant had to find a pen before we could be on our way.

Two times on the way back, we saw monkeys crossing the road. The driver gave a short honk and the monkeys showed off how high they could jump! At one point the driver rolled down his window and looked back at the rear wheel. It didn’t sound good, and the driver pulled over and I feared the worst – breaking down on the road. We were about midway – 40 miles between the start and end of the road. There is no AAA in Liberia so after a breakdown you are on your own. Hopefully you have friends you can call. The driver turned off the car and said to me with a somber expression “I have to pee.” That phrase never sounded better! After the pit stop we were on our way and arrived safely back in Andy’s village.

Now back to Becky to describe how she spent her Saturday:

IMG_3116That morning, Gary and I sat out on Andy’s porch for quite a while and amazingly, no kids came by. We wondered if maybe they had chores to do on Saturday mornings. Or maybe because there was no school, there was just a lot less traffic going by on a Saturday. After the worries about Kathy and all the hubbub of the week, I had to admit that the quiet was kind of nice. We were pretty exhausted! So many kids had come around all week. As wonderful as that was, it was also a bit overwhelming. It was nice to just listen to the birds for a while and we did have a lone lizard for company.

This was our last day in the village, and we were just hoping that Kathy would recover enough to be able to make the trip home. It was truly a mind-bending week! I would say that my views on poverty have really shifted. While the people in the village (and in much of Liberia) would certainly be considered poor by our standards, they are not impoverished. From my perspective, it seems like they don’t consider themselves poor. The kids, especially,(and there are a LOT of them) have an incredible amount of positive energy. Yet, there is so much need in Liberia that it is hard to even know where to start to make a difference. Certainly, education is key, but more than that, giving kids career paths and opportunities for growth and change is so critical.

How much of a difference can one person make? Andy has developed some great relationships with his students and they seem to have a lot of respect for him. He told me that one of his best students could not afford the school fees and was at risk of having to drop out of school, so Andy paid his fees for the year (a total of about $80.00). What would have happened to this kid if Andy wasn’t there? I told Andy that if he impacts even just one person’s life (and he is clearly doing WAY more than that) than he can consider that his time in Liberia has been worthwhile. In the meantime, there remains a lot of work to be done in that country!

End of Part 2 – stay tuned for the story of our encounter with the Liberian health care system and eventual departure!




Liberia Part 1

6 May

As I reflect on our journey, I am amazed at how much we experienced during our trip to Liberia. It has been an action packed couple of weeks, and would be impossible to describe in a single blog post. Over the next few days, I am going to write several separate posts and they may all be somewhat long, so find a time to read them when you can truly take the time to savor them. Fasten your seat belts and join me on this wild ride!

Our journey began about three weeks ago, when our friends Gary and Kathy arrived in Westford. We have been friends with them for a long time, and they wanted to share this adventure with us. The four of us met up with our guide Jon Rossman at Logan Airport and the adventure began. The entire week before we went was one of waiting and anticipation, and we were all so glad to finally be at the airport. However, one of the themes for this trip seemed to be “hurry up and wait”. It certainly started that way, as our flight from Logan was delayed by several hours due to heavy rain.

A long twenty-four hours later we arrived at the Robertsfield Airport in Monrovia, where we were met by our driver for the week, Saah. Thankfully, our luggage also made it and we were guided through the airport chaos and taken to our hotel for the night – the Lutheran Church Guesthouse in Monrovia. The drive from the airport into Monrovia took about an hour and a half, so by the time we reached the Guesthouse, we were all exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep!

The following morning, we had to get two SIM cards for phones that we were bringing for Andy’s neighbors. We went to the “Orange” store – a very modern building currently under construction. Cell phone service is apparently a booming business in Liberia! We got the phone cards (more on that later) then started out for Gbarnga (pronounced “Banga”), the city we would be staying in for the first week of our trip.

Liberia has a vibrancy that is different from the U.S. I can’t quite explain it, but there was a different feeling being there. The best words I could think of to describe most of this trip were “mind-blowing” and “eye-popping”. We stopped at the edge of “Red Light” – a crazy, chaotic district of Monrovia – to pick up 35 bags of rice for Jon’s school. I don’t think I have ever seen so many moving cars and trucks in one place in my life. IMG_2377

At some point, I realized that the SIM cards the phone store had sold us were the wrong size, so we had to find another “Orange” dealer (this one at a gas station), where the woman took about an hour getting us the right cards. Finally, with both phones working, we were en-route to Gbarnga!

Our arrival in Gbarnga was totally amazing. The people there love Jon! We arrived an hour later than expected (due to the delay in getting the phone cards) but the kids from the school stayed after school and literally swarmed him as soon as he got out of the car.IMG_2617

We were escorted to the main schoolroom, where about 50 children welcomed us as their “honored guests” and performed a singing program for us. It was quite a tribute to Jon. Their exuberance was astounding!

After that greeting, we walked around the grounds and saw the progress of the chicken house that Jon has been building. The brickwork was so precise – it reminded me of the Incan temples in Peru, where the bricks fit together like lego blocks without any mortar.IMG_2443 Jon’s plan is to obtain 1500 chickens once the house is completed, so the villagers can have eggs to sell at the market. Currently, many Liberians obtain eggs from Monrovia and they are all imported from overseas, so the ability to produce them locally will be a huge boon for the community.

A word about our accommodations: the Guesthouse was incredible. It was clean, comfortable and we had running water that we could actually drink! It was managed by two wonderful local women, Annie and Amelia, who cooked a few meals for us and were available if we needed anything while there.IMG_2731

The following morning, we walked to the local village of Deanville, accompanied by Jon and three kids from the school. The walk took us through woods with mango trees, avocado trees, and a huge vegetable garden planted by one of the villagers who was growing eggplants, bitterball, corn and pumpkins. We also saw charcoal-making in progress. Since most Liberian people cook with coal pots, charcoal is a much-needed commodity, and it takes three to four days to produce. One of the boys explained how it was done – they light a pile of sticks on fire, then cover the fire with dirt and let the fire burn for several days. After the fire has gone out, they harvest the charcoal and sell it in the market. It is a huge amount of time and effort for a very small profit, but if you are barely making it in terms of money, anything you can do to boost your income is a good thing.IMG_2465

Another amazing thing we saw was a mother walking with three children – a daughter, about age 9, a son age 5 and a 3 year-old boy. They were carrying water from the river, and the mom and two older children had large buckets on their heads. I am not kidding – the two kids carried full buckets of water about a mile, without spilling a drop and without a word of complaint or whining. Several times, they had to wait as people were in their way and blocking the path, and they just stood there patiently and quietly until they could pass.IMG_2485

From Deanville our driver, Saah, took us to the Gbarnga market. This was our first visit to a Liberian marketplace, and it was quite something. There is nothing like the sights and sounds of an African market. I could not even begin to describe it, except to say that is was incredibly chaotic and organized at the same time. There were all sorts of trinkets, food and clothing – shoes, sandals, jewelry. Just a massive amount of stuff and people!

How to describe those first two days? “Mind-blowing” doesn’t really even come close. I was continually amazed at the friendliness of the Liberian people. Andy was certainly right when he told us the people of this country were incredibly welcoming and friendly. We felt truly blessed to be there.

The most striking thing about Liberia was the people. Before coming here, I thought about the land and the facilities – what would it be like? What would it look and feel like? Lush, arid, desolate? Yet, what I was captivated by since landing in Monrovia was the people, who exhibited such life and vibrancy. There was a beat just below the surface that was almost palpable.

In Gbarnga at the school, the kids were so animated and curious. It was refreshing to see this without a lot of parents hovering. There was a heartwarming genuineness among the people there.

The next morning we went to a leprosy recovery center and fish farm. This is a place where people with leprosy are cared for, and while we didn’t see any residents, we did visit the facility and saw the fish ponds and rice fields. Apparently they have nine ponds and thirty-four rice paddies! We bought about fifty small Tilapia for Annie and Amelia to cook for dinner. One of the problems we were concerned about was the quality of food. If we were to purchase fish at the marketplace,we would not know how long it had been sitting out with no refrigeration. By buying it at the farm, however, we were able to get the fish still alive in a bucket of water! IMG_2570We also saw the workers cooking frogs – ugh!

Then on to our second Liberian Market – this one the weekly market in Suakoko. This was also quite busy, chaotic and crazy, though a little more open than the market in Gbarnga. And because it was weekly, there was more food being sold. It was hard to believe that this market happened every week, and that after market day it all would get cleaned up, and the place would sit empty until the following week. I struggled to come up with words to describe this marketplace – this was the best I could do: bustling; chaotic; colorful; vibrant; crowded; teeming with people of all ages – babies to old women; noisy; blaring music; dizzying; purposeful – everyone there is wanting to sell you something. And the smells! Humanity; sweaty bodies; fish; onions; all sorts of vegetables; snails; crabs; butterpear (avocado); rice; bitterball. Lots of clothing – especially flip-flops, underwear, jewelry and radios.


At one point, we passed a booth where a woman was selling live crabs. She picked up the cover to show them to us, and one of the crabs escaped out onto the ground. Those critters can move! With lightning-fast reflexes, Dave grabbed the crab and managed to return it to the bucket… if he hadn’t acted quickly, we could only imagine where that beast would have ended up!

After our trip to the market, we were all ready for a rest! Later that afternoon, we attended an adult literacy class at the GLTC school. There were six adults there, all of whom had absolutely no education as children. They started about two to three months ago and have been meeting twice/week. On this particular day, they were each able to get up and write their own names, which was a huge accomplishment for them.

The following day we went on a wild drive to visit a waterfall, supposedly one of Liberia’s few “tourist attractions”. The road in was like nothing I had ever seen before, with unbelievable potholes, ruts and puddles. It felt like we were driving on the moon. The ruts were easily as deep as a tire, and the puddles made me wonder of we would need a propeller to get across. IMG_2714

However, our driver Saah was a master navigator and this was also a great opportunity to see more villages and people. Hard to believe that people actually lived there.

We had our first “bribe” experience going into the falls area.  There was a gate and a guy tried to charge us $10.00 per person, which is a ridiculous amount of money in Liberia. We said we didn’t have that much and Saah began to back the van out.  Then the guard asked us “Well, how much money to you have?”  After some back and forth we settled on $5.00 per person, some in US dollars and some in Liberian dollars.  Turns out it should have been only $2.50. Amelia and our driver tried to help us out, but in the end we decided to just pay it. However, the “guard” wouldn’t give us a receipt which made us very suspicious, so I took a photo of his ID badge. We later found out that he wasn’t even supposed to be working there, and when we left the falls, we stopped at the nearest village and tried to find him. Amelia got out of the van fuming mad, but to no avail. The guy was long gone.

After returning to the Guesthouse that afternoon, we did some work projects, putting bricks around the newly planted grass outside the Guesthouse and also helping to varnish and hang signs on the school (actually, the kids did most of the work – we just supervised). In 2015, when the school was newly built, Jon had everyone who worked on the project sign their name to a board and he wanted to hang those boards up. For the past 3 years, they have been just gathering dust in the warehouse. We got them up and it was pretty special to see people stopping to stare at them later. The people really appreciated seeing their names up there! IMG_2645


The following day was Sunday, and Jon thought it would be good for us to attend an African Lutheran Church service in Deanville. They had a “guest speaker” that day who was like a Baptist Preacher – very animated, yet very repetitive. The service was long and it was hot! It was pretty informal, and there were a bunch of kids all sleeping in the back of the Church during most of the service!

On our last day in Gbarnga we went on a field trip to another waterfall. This one was a property under development, and apparently the owner had big plans to build a restaurant and make it a real tourist attraction. We saw two women pounding rocks to make piles of gravel – when mixed with sand and water, this would become cement blocks for the building. While this seemed like an interesting endeavor, we were all a little puzzled by it, as the access road was quite hazardous and it was a long drive in. It was hard to picture how this could really be a successful business venture.

Our friend Kathy volunteered to read a book to the children (Kindergarten class), and ended up getting roped into teaching a math class instead, as the teacher had to meet with Jon that afternoon. Kathy did an excellent job teaching the kids some basic addition.

Our time in Gbarnga was coming to an end, and we spent the last evening talking with one of the security guards who lived in Gbarnga during the Civil War. He told us stories of how he was captured by the rebels who tried to get him to fight for them, but he refused. Eventually he escaped and hid out in the bush before he could return to his family. He said he was committed to not fighting and just held on to that belief, even under threat of death. He is incredibly grateful now to Jon for providing him with a steady job and is trying to build a new life now. Like many of the Liberian people we met this week, he is looking forward to a brighter future.

End of part 1 – stay tuned for a report of our time with Andy!


GUEST POST: A Mom’s Perspective

11 Apr

Andy's Peace Corps Adventure

Wednesday, March 28, 2018
19 days and counting! It is starting to get very real – we are actually going to Liberia! Who would have thought???

This trip would probably not have been possible without the help of our friend, Jon Rossman, who we met through Andy’s blog! Jon lives in a neighboring town to us, and his wife noticed Andy’s blog posted at Market Basket last summer. She showed it to Jon, who travels regularly to Liberia (usually about twice a year) and has built a pre-school and guesthouse in the town of Gbarnga.  You can read Jon’s blog and see what he has done here. Gbarnga is not really near Andy’s village, but it is at least in the same country! Our plan is to travel with Jon, stay one night in Monrovia at the Lutheran Church Guest House, then go to Gbarnga for 5 days, where…

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