April 12, 2010

A Day in the Life

Sata Sacko opens her eyes to the first rays of morning light. Her thatched roof is perched upon the circular wall of her hut in such a way as to allow a ring of light to slip through the space between. Every day she wakes up to a halo from the rising sun.

Sata yawns as she strokes the bundle cuddled up beside her, her 3 month old son, Mory. Beside her on the mattress made from rice sacks stuffed with straw sleep two more of her children, Fanta and Hawa. These two are about 3 and 10 respectively, but no one can say with much precision since details of this sort aren’t closely followed.

From outside comes the rhythmic thump of corn being pounded into flour. Binta, one of the other wives in the extended family, is already working the large mortar and pestle. This sound will continue throughout the day as various members of the family take turns preparing the corn flour that is the staple of almost every meal.

Interspersed with the thumping are the calls of various livestock passing through the compound. Goats bleat, donkeys bray, and roosters crow as they mill about scanning the ground for food. As the noises outside grow louder and more frequent Mory wakes up. When she feels him stir Sata brings him to her breast to feed, an action she will repeat many times throughout the day in the midst of her various chores.

After Mory has had his fill Sata dresses herself with a t-shirt and a brightly patterned cloth and straps the infant to her back where he falls asleep once again. Sata will spend the majority of her day with her child on her back like this, a common sight in a place devoid of play pens or strollers where even new mothers are expected to work hard to complete their daily tasks.

As she steps out of the hut into the emerging day Sata can see who is already up. Aminata and Mali, two more wives in the family, are sitting around a cooking fire getting breakfast ready. They are mixing the corn flour that Binta is pounding with water and forming it into pea sized balls. These balls will then be boiled in a large cauldron to form a sort of porridge. Sata pulls a stool over to the fire and begins to form the balls as well. The four women exchange greetings and chat idly as they work.

Binta and Mali also have children snoozing on their backs but Aminata, the oldest woman in the family, is past the point of having a newborn to care for. Her husband, Nalen, is the main bread winner in the compound and her place as the eldest of his wives is a respected one.

That is not to say that there is a reason for her to assert her status as they converse. There are perhaps ten women living in the circle of huts and houses that form the compound and they are all married to one of the three elder men in the family. Rather than the reality show style rivalries one might expect to develop in this polygamist environment the relationships among the women are close and strong.

As the porridge cooks members of the family file out of their respective abodes to ready themselves for the day. Some children are wearing school uniforms while others are preparing for a day in the fields. The adult men are loading up their bikes and motorcycles with supplies to bring to the farm about 10km outside of town. More women congregate around the fire and each one is greeted and welcomed into the growing circle.

When breakfast is ready it is divvied out and as many as five or six people, usually segregated by sex, will crouch around the large bowls on the ground and hastily eat the hot porridge. As each person finishes they stand up and thank both the women for preparing the meal and the men for providing the food before they return to their preparations for the day.

As the men and children begin leaving the compound the women break off from the larger group and start the day’s chores. Sata has her and her children’s laundry to do so she heads off to the pump to get the water she needs.

The pump is another communal hotspot where the women from the surrounding compounds meet and socialize as they wait their turn to fill the containers they’ve brought. After waiting Sata fills her twenty five liter basins and carries them back one at a time by balancing the fifty five pounds of water on her head. If Mory wakes and begins to cry while she’s doing this she’ll soothe him by patting or swaying him from side to side, all without spilling a drop.

Once her water is collected Sata is ready to start doing the laundry. She uses a plastic washboard to scrub the clothes clean. A normal sized load might take her a half hour straight of scouring with her back bent over the board. As she works, her youngest girl, Fanta, reports back occasionally from playing in the neighborhood with the other children. Some days she’ll spend almost the entire day by her mother’s side, learning the ins and outs of the daily tasks that will be expected of her in the future. Sata’s other daughter, Hawa, has already reached an age where she can help out and divides her time between school, chores, and play.

Once the laundry is hung on the line Sata sits down with the other women who have stayed in the compound for the day rather than going off to the river to fish or to the fields to plant. Mali is cooking lunch which will consist of corn flour boiled into a gelatinous paste along with a thin sauce to dip it in. The women‘s socializing is interspersed with breast feedings and rocks thrown at goats wandering too close to the cooking meal.

When it is finished the food is again served in a large bowl with a group of males or females seated on stools or crouched around it. No utensil is used this time and the corn paste is simply scooped up by hand and dipped in the sauce before it is swallowed. There are far fewer people in the compound for the midday meal as many family members will take their lunch on the farm. Still, the scene is hectic as children dart to and fro between their mothers and the food, their fighting and playing fueled by a full belly.

After lunch, those left in the compound retire to the shade of mango trees and thatch coverings for some rest. The sun is at its peak now and midday temperatures in the village can reach 130°F. Doing any substantial work in conditions like this is just asking for heatstroke, it’s best to let the sun recede a little before returning to the day’s chores.

As Sata naps subdued green light filtering through the mango leaves dances around her. Mory and Fanta are dozing next to her. Hawa is playing languidly across the compound with a friend. The scene is peaceful and as you listen it seems as though the entire village has gone to sleep briefly. Even the incessant calls of hungry roosters have faded for the time being.

The midday break will crawl along for an hour or two before the heat has rolled back enough to allow people to return to work. Eventually the stillness is broken and people begin sitting up, yawning and rubbing the sleep from their eyes. Sata is woken by Mory’s cries letting her know that it is time for another feeding.

Once Mory has had his fill Sata prepares for the next task of the day. She is cooking dinner tonight for the more than thirty people who live in the compound and she needs to start now in order to finish in time. Although the corn she will use comes from the family farm she will still need to head into the market to pick up some additional supplies.

Like most women in the village, Sata likes to look her best when going to the market so before she leaves she changes into one of her favorite outfits. She emerges from her hut covered from head to toe in vibrantly patterned blue and green fabric tailored into a dress and blouse. Her hair is done up in a matching head covering and even the cloth she is now using to strap Mory to her back compliments the ensemble. As she leaves the compound Fanta runs after her with her small legs working double time to keep up.

The trip into the market takes Sata along the dirt road leading through town. Family compounds line either side and she greets the women working in them as she passes. The thump of the mortar and pestle can be heard from every direction; it is the heart beat of the village.

As Sata enters the village center family compounds of thatched huts give way to small shops with stamped aluminum roofs. Modernization is slowly reaching the village and the metal roofs are an example of how life here is changing incrementally as the world grows smaller.

Soon Sata is in the market, which is a hum of activity at this time of day. Children chase each other among the stalls and vendors are constantly calling out to passerbys to inspect their wares. Women from all over the village are chatting and haggling over the various goods spread over tables and mats. The scene is a lively mingling of colors as the brightly patterned fabrics the women are wearing mix with the fresh produce and spices laid before them.

Sata meanders her way through the narrow rows between stalls stopping to talk with friends and purchase the items she needs. As she walks her basket fills and is soon overflowing with the evening’s meal. Bright red tomatoes and small yellow onions jumble with fragrant spices and peanut oil. Glimpses of green and red from the chili peppers complete the artistic compilation that her basket has become. With her shopping done, Sata finds Fanta who has disappeared with some friends among the stalls and heads back to the compound.

Upon her return Sata changes back into some more comfortable clothing and gets to work. She retrieves some of the firewood chopped earlier in the day by another woman in the family, builds up a cooking fire, and sets a large cauldron of water on it to boil. Once the water boils she will slowly mix it with corn flour as she stirs it into the same corn paste Mali made for lunch. The paste is called toh and is eaten at almost every meal.

As she waits for the water to boil, Sata begins to prepare the rest of ingredients to make a sauce for the toh. She pounds the onions, tomato, and pepper together into a paste and then sets them sautéing in oil over another fire. Once the paste has cooked some she fills the pot it’s in with water, sets a lid on it, and leaves it to simmer. She then turns her attention back to the larger cauldron, which has begun to boil.

With a bowl of corn flour at her side Sata sets to work making the toh. The process involves the slow addition of corn flour to boiling water interspersed with rigorously stirring the mixture with a special large spatula to ensure a uniform consistency. It is tiring work, especially as the toh turns solid and the stirring becomes a full on upper body workout. The fact that the whole task is done over the fire only serves to exacerbate the discomfort of having a baby strapped to your back on a day that is still well over 100°F.

As Sata cooks, family members begin returning from the day’s work. The men’s clothes are completely covered in mud from the rice paddies they have been in all day. A few boys come in driving a donkey cart loaded with sacks of fresh corn to be dried and pounded. Women come back with fish to be added to the evening meal. Everyone is tired but in good spirits. With the day’s work over they have a warm meal and a refreshing bath to look forward to.

As the sun sets the meal is finished and the family eats together from the large bowls underneath the night sky. Afterward amidst the expressions of gratitude for a well prepared meal Sata and a few other women collect and wash the dishes. Once this is done Sata gives Fanta and Mory a quick bath before taking a bucket to one of the straw fenced enclosures to bathe herself.

With all of her tasks complete, Sata joins the other women in the family as they sit around the embers of the dying cooking fire and finish the day in each other’s company. Almost all the women have a child with them; some are already asleep in their mother’s arms.

As they chat the night sky stretches above them with a vastness and clarity that is otherworldly. The stars of the Milky Way are so numerous and bright that they seem to be a finely sprayed mist cutting the sky in two. The half moon, radiating its silver light over the horizon, reflects off the women and makes their dark skin glow.

One by one, as the night progresses and the day’s weariness makes itself felt, the women retire to their beds. Eventually Sata follows suit. She bids the other women goodnight and lifts Mory and Fanta, who are already fast asleep, from her knees.

When she enters her hut Hawa is asleep as well. Sata lays Fanta and Mory down next to their big sister and then climbs into bed. As she drifts off to sleep she can hear the last fragments of conversation drifting in from the women outside. Slowly the voices fade and she falls asleep. Tomorrow she will awaken to another halo.

February 7, 2010

Market Day

Standing at the edge of the school grounds I squint out over the long expanse of field before me. My high vantage point provides an excellent view and in the distance I can see a worn sign erected years ago to welcome a brigade of Bangladeshi engineers sent by the UN. In the intervening space baking in the hot sun sits row upon row of improvised wooden stands covered with tin roofs and UN issued tarps. Each stand is filled with wares and an expectant vender, waiting to make the first sale of the day.

Today is market day, a weekly event which brings sellers from all over the region through our town to sell the goods they’ve acquired along the way. Most of the items for sale come from the capital city, Monrovia, but a few vendors sport more exotic fare from nearby countries such as Ghana, Guinea, and Cote D’Ivoire.

From my lookout above it all I can see the familiar items for sale from a distance. Plastic buckets and cookery are piled everywhere. Many stands are entirely dedicated to selling vibrantly colored fabrics which will be purchased and brought to the town tailors to be made into new outfits.

Even from this distance I can see one vendor selling the blue and white patterned indigo cloth which is made exclusively in the mountains of Guinea. I make a mental note to walk by later and see the fabric a little better up close, I’ve always liked indigo cloth and if the price is right I wouldn’t mind having some more clothing made out of it.

I’ve had my fill of just watching now and I pick up my bag and walk down the hill into the market. As I descend into the chaos of hundreds of people jostling to be heard my mind is thinking about the hidden items I may find that day. From a distance the market always looks the same, but it’s only as you wind your way through it that a patient eye can spot some unusual catch. Today I’m trying to find some new vegetables for a stew but I’m not hopeful, I’ve yet to see much beyond the usual fare of onions and chili peppers that one can find any day of the week.

As I weave in and out of the people, wheelbarrows, and children selling homemade doughnuts that dot the narrow walkways I’m constantly barraged on all sides by calls from marketeers hoping to entice me to their stand. “Friend, come in and see.” “Razors, 10 LD each!” “Cold water here!” and of course the ever popular one word invitation: “Whiteman!” I usually respond to these calls with a smile and a wave. I can’t stop at every person who invites me or I’d never be finished. Still I’m careful to take a quick glance at everything I walk past, amidst the cluttered piles of merchandise I know there are treasures to be had.

Then suddenly I see something that catches my eye. Spread out on a worn tarp an old woman has placed her collection of various used jars and containers. Piles of what I would have called trash back in the U.S. but here I know better. I think back to the bags upon bags of cooking spices littering my house and I know that I’ve found a solution. I walk over to the woman and, mindful not to be rude, I greet her before I start examining what she has for sale:

“My sista, how da day?”
“No Ba-o”
“How da bidness?”
“I trying small”
“Thank Go”
“Thank Go”

Now that we’ve said hello we can start to talk business. I crouch down and get a closer look at the containers she’s selling. Among the empty mayonnaise and medicine jars I spy a pile of spice containers, perfect. I ask her how much for each container, she replies that they’re 10LD each (which is about 14 US cents). Although the amount is fine for me I know I’m getting charged a white man’s price. I haggle a little, which is customary, and I end up paying 50LD for the 8 bottles I find. I thank her and tell myself to come back next week to see if she’s gotten any more.

By now I’ve wandered into the food section of the market. I walk past tables of smoked fish and chicken feet buzzing with flies. I pass a few woman selling vegetables but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Dried beans and rice spill out of small sacks. Bulgur wheat is also for sale, along with various other grains I’m not familiar with. I buy a few onions for 5LD each, mentally beginning to piece together my lunch for that day. I pick up a head of garlic at 50LD which I find to be incredibly overpriced but I’m assured that the price is correct due to its rarity (“Da garlic bidness har-o”).

Cassava root and plantains are plentiful this time of year but I’ve had enough starch in my diet for the time being so I pass by them. Just as I reach the end of the food and I’ve resigned myself to another meal of plain beans I spy something red out of the corner of my eye. There, amidst piles of the usual market fare I see a woman selling cherry tomatoes. I smile to myself inwardly and run over to claim my prize. The tomatoes are perfect and I can tell they’re fresh, not moldy and infested with bugs like they can sometimes be. I buy a generous bag full of them for 10LD and I head home to make what I’ve now decided will be some sort of bean chili with rice.

As I walk out of the market I feel exhausted. It’s been almost a full hour of walking in the hot midday sun. I’ve been pushed and grabbed and shouted at. I’ve been constantly surveying the areas around me not only for merchandise to buy but for obstacles to be avoided such as animal droppings and tin roofing jutting out into the walkways. I want nothing more than to go home and relax with a bottle of water in my hammock.

But at the same time I’m already looking forward to next week’s market. I wonder what it will bring with it and in what ways it will change my small corner of the world. As I walk up the dusty road leading to my house I decide that before I get in the hammock for a much needed nap I’ll clean the bottles I’ve bought today and fill them with their spices. Another successful day.

January 17, 2010

Things I've thunk

Three airplanes, five airports, two Peace Corps buses, two training facilities, a Peace Corps car, and a bush taxi. That’s what it took to get me to my new site, but here I am. Nestled between two French NGOs and facing a UNICEF made latrine my house sits enclosed by half a bamboo fence. I say half because the rest of it is either missing or in the process of falling down. Made entirely of cement it is a far cry from my housing back in Guinea. There are four bedrooms, three common areas, a bathroom, and a porch. The windows all have screens and everything is shaded by a ring of palm and coconut trees. When my principal showed us around the place it took all I had to keep my mouth from hanging open in shock as I mentally compared it to the mud and thatch hut I so recently called home.

If my new house was a surprise then the town follows suit. Sitting on the main road connecting Monrovia to the Eastern part of Liberia it’s one of the largest towns in Nimba County. The markings of development are visible as you approach by car as not one but three cell phone towers make themselves visible over the horizon. As you role into town you begin to see the signs for every international agency that contributed in rebuilding the community after the war. USAID, UNICEF, the EU, Action Against Hunger, Doctors Without Borders...

After you leave the car and begin to walk through the center of town you see three huge walled compounds surrounded by guard shacks and barbed wire. Now you’re in UN territory. UNMIL (The United Nations Mission in Liberia), UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and WFP (The World Food Program) all have regional centers in the town. I can’t tell you how weird it is to stroll past them at night looking at the rows of spotlights that illuminate the electrified compounds and think back to my old village in Guinea where the closest thing was a string of Christmas lights my friend put up in his small shop.

Of course with the UN compounds come UN employees and all three regional offices are headed by expats (non-Liberians). A Bangladeshi man who everyone calls Major heads UNMIL which is in charge of maintaining the roads to ensure supply lines can reach UN troops up country. Jason, an American, heads UNHCR which mainly seems to concern itself with the large Ivoirian refugee camp just outside the town. Finally Laura, another American, heads the WFP which is currently distributing food to schools for a school lunch program intended as an incentive to draw more students to class.
I got to spend some time with the three of them when I first got to town. Fed, my housemate, and I got invited to a staff party at the WFP being held our first night here. After gearing myself up for getting back into the slowness and isolation of village life it was quite a wake up call. Specifically, you’re not in Guinea anymore.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention another big change. As you can see, I’m not alone out in the bush anymore. I have a housemate and another site mate. Fed, my housemate, is one of the other volunteers who transferred from PC Guinea with me. He’s a chemistry teacher and we’re both going to be teaching at the same school. Roz, a former volunteer from PC Costa Rica, is staying in the WFP compound and will be working with them in some way that involves parent teacher associations. I’m not really sure.

So yeah, I guess the over arching theme of this whole thing is that things are different. In some ways that’s going to be a good thing, you are certainly benefitting from the cellular internet I have now. In other ways though, it’s going to make the rest of my service more challenging. Peace Corps is not the UN. We don’t shut ourselves up behind barbed wire compounds, we lay on our hammocks behind tumbling bamboos fences. I need to be in the community talking with people to do my job. So I need to make sure I don’t get caught up in the universe of international aid that has landed here in Liberia.

Like one of the PC Liberia staff members said during our quick orientation; other organizations bring money, but Peace Corps brings people. So, I need to remember to be a person.

January 4, 2010

Liberia ho!

Well, here I come back to you all like a dog with his tail between his legs after my shameful absence from updating. A thousand apologies, things got moving pretty fast during the evacuation and once it was over I sort of lost the motivation to blog. But I'm making my triumphant return with keyboard in hand and I'm looking to right my wrongs by filling in the gaps and pushing onward to brave new territory.

So the evacuation turned into quite a hectic experience (surprising right?). For most of our stay in Mali there was no information to be had and we volunteers chose to spend our time spreading any scrap of rumor that came our way. Things got pretty out of control for a while, I think the best two were that Michael Jackson was dead and that Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Ridiculous.

Life continued like that for what seemed an eternity (but was probably closer to a week or two) when information started coming in all of the sudden. One day we woke up to find that the Peace Corps Guinea program was closed indefinitely, we were homeless. Soon thereafter Peace Corps Washington started flying in a small battalion of representatives to process the 100 volunteers milling around the compound. This is where things really started to heat up.

Within the span of the next week we had a slew of administrative loose ends to tie up and we had to decide our next step from an array of options including transferring to a new country, closing out our service, or reenrolling. Keep in mind that we didn't actually know what countries were available to transfer to and for the most part we didn't really have much say as to where it would be. I must say the whole experience was rather flustering and that week saw the preferred volunteer activity shift from rumor spreading to intermittent screaming and frantic resume writing.

In the end though my options came together pretty well and I decided that I wasn't really ready to leave Peace Corps yet. So I decided to transfer and now I'm headed to Liberia to teach math again and hopefully participate in the training of new volunteers.

Before I could transfer Peace Corps needed to set up my new site so I was sent back to the U.S. for a couple months to give them time to get it all in order. I'm certainly not complaining, I can think of worse fates than having a two month vacation during the holiday season to see friends and family.

I took full advantage of the break and traveled around the country to visit people who were inconsiderate enough to move away from my hometown. I spent some time in D.C. (which is just crawling with former Peace Corps Volunteers) and also made my way out to San Francisco. It was really great seeing so many people I hadn't seen in so long and it was a good time for me to sort of reevaluate my long term plans and get excited to continue with my service.

But all good things must come to an end and after two months of being a professional couch surfer I am shipping out again on January 9th to my new home sweet home. I'm really excited to see what's in store for me in Liberia. I think it'll be a much different post than Guinea was for a lot of reasons. First off it's an English speaking country so I can say goodbye to French for the time being. I've also heard that there's a huge international aid presence in Liberia which is certainly the opposite of my experience in Guinea. There are even still UN Peacekeepers there to keep the post-civil war peace on track.

So I'm heading in to my new post not knowing what to expect. I don't feel like village life will be incredibly different than it was in Guinea, but then again I don't really have anything to base that on. I guess I'm just gonna have to wait and see.

Anyways I'm back now and I'm hoping to update this thing a lot more than I have of late. So for any of you who are still reading, keep watching the skies and I'll let you know how it all turns out.