Traveling Like A Liberian

It was February of 2012. The rains had ended 2 months earlier and the dirt roads had dried out by now. Travel was now possible and I decided to take advantage of the situation to go and check out the port in Buchanan. (Buchanan is Liberia’s 3rd largest city and lies nearly 80 miles (125 km) south-east of Monrovia.)

Come Saturday morning, I called our office driver, Jeff, to take me to the taxi stand from where the ‘bush taxis’ leave for Buchanan. As I got ready, I realized that I had only 950 Liberian Dollars (LD) in my pocket (the equivalent of  13 USD. 1 USD was roughly 75 LD). ‘It would have to be the bank first’, I thought as I waited for Jeff to arrive. Jeff dutifully took me to the bank but when we got there, we found out that it was the Armed Forces day, a national holiday, and all the banks were closed.

Jeff is a tall, middle-aged guy with a pot belly. He can be a bit gruff at times, not very communicative and somewhat lost in his world. He turned to me and said, ‘Kapil, looks like, you have not planned your trip well.’ ‘What’s there to plan?’, I replied, ‘I take the taxi, get to Buchanan, take the taxi and get back’. ‘So, you want to go?’ ‘Yes, It takes 400 LD to get to Buchanan and 400 to get back. I have 150LD spare. I got plenty money’. ‘As you wish’, said Jeff with a short laugh. He dropped me at the taxi stand and left.

ELWA junction (named after ‘Eternal Love Winning Africa’ ministry) is not really a taxi stand. It is a busy junction between Monrovia and Paynesville cities where ‘bush taxis’ wait for their passengers by the side of the double lane road. The taxis, their aggressive drivers and handlers and the passengers jostle for space with roasted cow meat sellers, bread stalls, currency exchange traders with their small blue kiosks and sundry other roadside vendors. The road is flanked on both sides by hardware and building material shops and small, make shift restaurants. The ‘bush taxis’ themselves are yellow colored Toyota and Nissan hatchback models that have been used, beaten down and discarded by the rest of the world.

As I neared the taxis, multiple handlers accosted me, ‘Boss-man, My car goo, goo one.’ The fare turned out to be 450 LD, more than what I had expected. I picked the taxi which was almost full and ready to go. Immediately after we started, the taxi pulled into a local ‘gas station’. The gas station had an array of jars filled with gasoline, displayed on a wooden plank, ready for dispensing. As the driver and ‘gas station’ owner haggled over price, the gas station attendant put a funnel into the fuel tank and poured the gasoline into the tank.

With fuel in the tank, the taxi set off. There were 6 of us in the taxi besides the driver – 2 guys on the passenger seat in the front, 2 women, myself and another guy crunched together on the back seat. The woman next to me had a baby on her lap. The trunk was full of goods and barely able to close. As we gradually moved out of the city, the houses thinned and the greenery began to take over. We passed the army barracks, then the airport and through the Firestone rubber plantation.

The guy next to me was Mohammed and he was the owner of a small packaged water business, ‘Prosperity Water’. Monrovia does not have drinking water supply and packaged water is big business. Mohammed, like many other packaged water businesses, sold water in 500 ml pouches which were being drank by practically everyone on the streets of Monrovia. Every pouch sells for 5 LD and Mohammed told me that it is a very profitable business with almost 100% margin. A short while later, the baby on my left got hungry and started to cry. Her mother very nonchalantly lifted her blouse and started breast-feeding the baby, all in full view. Soon, we reached a police checkpoint and were asked to stop next to the ‘Liberia-Bangladesh Friendship Shed’ erected by UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh. A policeman in a deep blue uniform and beret approached the driver. They shook hands, money exchanged hands during the handshake and we got waved past the checkpoint.

The road from Monrovia to Buchanan was being laid by a Chinese company and the portion after the checkpoint was still being graded. As soon as the taxi reached the un-metaled road, it started going sideways and sputtered to a stop. The passengers burst forth in fury at the driver. ‘I knew he does not know how to drive by the way he was pressing the clutch and the brake’, opined the man in front.

Now, I was in a fix. We were half way to Buchanan and I had practically no money to spare. A wiser guy than me would have turned back but not me. The driver started flagging down passing taxis to off-load his passengers. The woman with the baby found a seat in a passing taxi and left. One guy decided to turn back and hailed a passing motorbike. Finally, the driver handed us over to a passing pickup truck. The back of the pickup truck had multiple tyres and other stuff strewn in it. I perched myself on a tire and held on for dear life to the two sides of the truck as the truck sped on the dirt road. It must have been an amusing sight as a passing villager shouted, “OOO, white man in the back-ohh”.

I finally made it to Buchanan around 2 pm. The last taxi back to Monrovia left around 4:30 pm. Time was short. I asked my way around and hastened towards the port. I walked and walked along the winding dirt road by the side of Arcelor Mittal area but even after 1 hour of walking, the port was nowhere in sight. At 3:30 pm, I decided to turn back. By this time, I was feeling hungry too. A passing taxi had a bumper slogan – ‘No Money, No Respect’. ‘No Money, No Food’, thought I. I came across a coconut seller and found to my pleasant surprise that coconut in Buchanan was cheaper than Monrovia, only 10LD apiece. I promptly ate 2. Now, I was at risk of missing the last taxi back. ‘Should I make a run for it or Can I afford a motorbike’? I eventually hailed a pen-pen driver and made it to the taxi stand just in time with 455 LD still in my pocket. The return fare turned out to be 425 LD, leaving me a princely 30LD still in my pocket.

On the way back, as we crossed the St. John river, we came up a small roadside market where children and market women were selling bananas, plantains, sweet potatos and other food stuff. I splurged 20LD on roasted corn, which tasted heavenly. Later, as we passed a village, a villager hailed the taxi. ‘Ma mein, you got space?’, he asked. ‘Yes, my VIP is empty’, replied the driver. The villager promptly went to the back of the taxi, opened the hatch and made himself comfortable in the trunk. Surprises never cease !!

As Ab, our driver, picked me up from the taxi stand in Monrovia, he laughed, ‘Kapil, I heard you went to Buchanan with no money.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I wanted to experience how it is to travel like a Liberian.’

Kapil

Dreams and Memories

My father

My father

Most of the time, I look outside and write about far away places which most people would never visit and share slices of the lives of people most will never meet. This time I thought, let me look closer, much closer, inside myself.

As some of you know, my father passed away nearly 2 months ago. Early October, as I stepped out to go to the gym, I looked up at the night sky and saw some bright stars twinkling. Something about the stars triggered the thought that one day I will get a call informing me that my parents are no more. This is the life of an immigrant, the emotional burden that they carry. So far away from home, from people they care about, not always able to tell how much they care and not always sure why they are away. Couple of days later, the dreaded call finally came. It was 4 am and I was fast asleep. My phone was on silent and it took me a while to realize that my phone was vibrating. As I picked up the phone, I saw there were 6 missed calls. I knew what the call was about. The moment had come.

It takes nearly 24 hours of flying to get back home, plenty of time to ruminate. I took solace in the fact that my father had been hearing good news in the last few months. He had been preparing for my brother’s marriage and was in reasonable health. I also took solace that the end was quick and he did not suffer much. I could not have asked for much more.

When me and my brother made it home, the body had been on ice for nearly 36 hours already. My father’s face had turned deep purple but he looked peaceful. It looked as if he was asleep and would wake up any minute. I thought to myself, “How does one tell that he is not in deep sleep? What distinguishes this from deep sleep? The body is here all right, then what has changed so dramatically? The only thing which is different is that the body has lost its capacity to self-regulate. It can no longer maintain homeostasis.’ In one minute, I understood why so many cultures had come up with the concept of soul. I was reminded of the shlokas from Bhagwat Geeta – “Just as a person casts off worn out garments and puts on new ones, even so, the embodied soul casts off worn out bodies and takes on others that are new.” Looking at the degenerating body of my father, It kind of made sense why someone would have written that 3000 years ago. I don’t know if there is a soul or not. I don’t know if soul is nothing but another name for consciousness. But, I marveled at life itself which had found this nifty runaround mortality, jettisoning weakening bodies and bringing forth new ones and perpetuating itself till eternity. I felt as if I myself was nothing but a vehicle for life to carry itself forward.

As the sleepless night gave way to dawn, we did the ritual bathing of my father and carried him to the nearest crematorium. The body was decaying rapidly, there was some blood on the face and some flies had begun buzzing around. We quickly covered him with wood. I put the last wood and then consigned him to the god of fire for safekeeping.

The day after cremation, me and my uncles went back to the crematorium to ‘pick the flowers’. I had heard about the custom but did not know what it meant. As me and my uncles sat down by the remains of the pyre, I finally realized that the flowers that we have to pick are the remains of my father. So, we started separating the charred bones from the ashes and putting them in a white sack. At one point, my uncles debated which bone was the one that they had in hand. It was the pelvic bone.

We needed to go to Ganga to deposit the ashes in the river. As I sat in the car with the white sack containing the remains, my aunt told me to hold the ashes in my lap – ‘Your father cradled you in his lap all his life, now it is your turn.’ And, off we went, with me carrying my father in my lap. Once we got to the nearest tributary of Ganga, we distributed the ashes in the river. The river carried the remains out to the sea. What belonged to the earth had been returned to the earth. We are made of dust and to the dust we go back again.

In the last 2 months, I have often remembered my father. Last night, I saw him in my dream. I was in Delhi and I got the news that he was having a heart attack. I went to the Safdarjung Hospital and started waiting for him to get there. Then, someone told me that he died along the way. Time seemed to slow down, I waited for a long time outside the hospital, looking at the roads and trying to make sense which road went where. Finally, the auto rickshaw carrying him came up to the hospital. My relatives were trying to pull him from the auto but were having some difficulty. Finally, they managed to pull him out of the 3 wheeler. My father felt very heavy but he was very much alive. As we stood him up, he asked, ‘Kapil aa gaya?’ (Is Kapil here?). I was almost next to him by that time, so I said “Aa gaya”. He said,” End of life scenario lagta hai.” (Looks like, this is the end). I replied, “Kuch nahin, theek ho jaoge. Aap to pahle bhi kitni baar mar ke jinda ho chuke ho. Kaunsi baar hai yeh – teesri ya chauthi”. (Don’t worry, you will be fine. You have come back from the dead so many times. Which time is this – 3rd or 4th?) He smiled, and very cheerfully, almost in a singing voice said,” Kauthi baar hai bera nahin” (Don’t know which time it is).  At that moment, the dream ended and I woke up. His happy, amused voice was still ringing in my mind. It was good to hear his happy voice.

The dream perhaps referred to the first time my father had a heart attack in 1989 and both of us went to the Safdarjung Hospital in an auto-rickshaw. I remember him sitting down outside the hospital, having pain and crying I think and I stood next to him, not knowing what to do. Then, we took another auto and went to NDMC hospital in Moti Bagh. In the 1990′s, this happened a number of times, when he and I rushed to the hospital in an auto, sometimes to Safdarjung, sometimes to NDMC, sometimes to Deendayal, sometimes during the day, mostly at night. I remember spending time with him in the ICU, and, on multiple different trips, going down to the tea shop outside the hospital for some breakfast. At times, it was like deja vu, the same thing happening a few years later. I remember, once we were standing on the terrace at NDMC and he was happily telling me that he walked to the embassies in Chanakyapuri that day. This perhaps was in 1989 itself.

Yes, he had come back from the dead multiple times. Will he come back this time too? I don’t know. The dreams and memories are all intertwined now. It is no longer clear where one ends and the other begins.

As an elderly friend of mine used to say, ‘We meet to create memories and part to preserve them’. I preserve the memories. I am the speaker for the dead for now. Life continues, with me as the vessel until someone takes my place.

Kapil

Lunch in Sinje

Last year, end of March, 2012, I found myself in Sinje, training health workers in the new tools that the Ministry of Health was rolling out. Sinje is a small ‘town’ in Grand Cape Mount county roughly 75 km from Monrovia and maybe 15 km from the border with Sierra Leon. The training was being held at one end of the town, which really is a village, in a community hall by the side of the school. As I finished my section, I started thinking about lunch. For a vegetarian like me, food outside Monrovia can be a big problem. Most of the time the only thing I can eat is bread, fried plantain, roasted corn, roasted cassava, coconut or maybe boiled rice with ‘peppe’ sauce (peppe is the West African hot pepper. It really is hot). Sometimes, I eat boiled egg because I can not find anything else. So, this bright and sunny, beautiful day in March, I found myself wondering what am I going to eat for lunch today. I figured that I should go into the town and talk to the lady who is preparing lunch. So, I set off to do just that.

The school recess was on and children were playing in the clearing next to the school. The school and the ground were surrounded by lush green forest (‘Bush’ as they call it in Liberia) -  tall bamboo plants, some palm trees, cassava plants and a host of other trees the names of which I will never know. Under a tree, by the side of the ground, sat two frail women with toothy grins. In front of them were reed baskets from which they were selling some badly shaped cookies, peanut & sesame strips and some more eatables. I bought some roasted peanuts from them. As the children lined up to buy things from them, they chatted with each other but I could not understand a single word of what they said. So I asked, ‘Which language is that?’. They replied , ‘Vai’ and I suddenly realized that I am in an area populated by Vai tribe and just 75 km away from Monrovia the language has already changed completely.

As I ventured further, the children ran ahead of me shouting ‘white man, white man’.  Reaching close to the cluster of mud huts which constituted the ‘town’, I didn’t know which way to go. So I just followed the children and took a left turn on a small dirt path which seemed to go through the middle of the cluster of mud huts. I came across a veranda which had a mango tree around which children were playing (mango is called plum in Liberia). I asked one of the children, ‘Can I get a plum from the tree?’ He asked me,”white man, you eat plum, eh?”. I said, ‘Yes, I do’. All the children got excited, started shouting, running around to get sticks to get a plum. A few minutes later there were 5/6 plums being offered to me. I took one and distributed the rest back amongst them.

A couple of huts later, I came across a small ‘shop’. There was a sort of elevated table made of bamboos nailed together,  maybe a foot above the ground, on which a cloth was spread and few items kept for sale. The seller was a cheerful, stocky, young girl maybe in her late teens. As I bought bananas from her, I asked, ‘what is your name?’ She said – ‘My nee is Patience’. I was struck by the name, ‘Really’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘there is lot of patience in Liberia’. Her mother came around and I chatted with the mother & daughter for a while. They wanted me to buy some more and I said that I will buy when I come back next time. ‘You will come back?’, she asked. I said, ‘Yes’. She said, ‘Next time you come back, you will marry me and take me away?’ and started laughing. We shared a laugh and as I started to go, she said, ‘Remember my name’.  ‘I will’, I replied.

Not knowing which way to go, I took a right turn, passing through the narrow space between two huts, and as I came to the front of the hut, I saw 3 women busy cooking in the veranda. There was a big pot on a charcoal stove in which some meat was stewing.  A wisp of smoke arose from the stove and curling past the zinc roof of the veranda it got lost in the branches of the breadfruit tree. One of the women was chopping onions while another one was cutting a big bunch of ‘potato greens’ (potato green are the leaves of the sweet potato plant). I asked them if they were the ones supplying lunch for the training. One of them replied, ‘Yes, I am’. She was a big, burly woman of substantial girth and a round, friendly face. I asked, ‘ I am a vegetarian. Do you have something for me?’ “No one told me ooo, everything has meat in it”, she replied. ‘Do you have egg?” “Yes” “Can you make omelet for me?” She didn’t know what an omelet is. So, I said, ‘I will tell you. Fry an egg and put small onion, small peppe and small salt in it’ (Small, Small in Liberian English means a little bit). She said, “I can do that”. Feeling better, I asked, ‘Do you have bread?’ She didn’t have any bread. So, I set off again.

I continued straight, passing right by the huts and came on to the main road connecting Sinje with Monrovia on one side and Sierra Leone on other. There was a small shop on the road, basically a cube made of wooden panels supported by bamboo. There were two men listening intently to the radio. I asked, ‘How is the day?’ One of them replied, ‘Trying small small, Thank god for life.’ They didn’t have the bread either. The other man kept listening intently to the radio. On the radio was BBC news world service, broadcasting from Sierra Leone. A reporter was interviewing a woman outside the ICC special court in Freetown. I suddenly realized that today was the day when verdict was going to be passed on Charles Taylor. The woman was happy that Charles Taylor had been found guilty of war crimes. ‘Justice has been done’, she exclaimed. The other guy, who was quite till now, suddenly spoke, “Ma Mein, what is da woman talking about? I want to slap her. Ghankay is like father to us. He is like Jesus.” I was taken aback by this utterance and decided to find out more about such sentiments for Charles Taylor. That, my dear readers, is the topic for the next post.

Kapil

Chimp Island & Marshall – II

Even though the 2012 trip to chimp island was great, we had missed seeing the chimps as it had started raining. So, in Feb 2013, I decided to go again. Alwin and Michele from UNDP joined me for the trip. The day was absolutely gorgeous. It felt like everything was soaked in golden-yellow, liquid sunshine. We had trouble getting a vehicle but Ab, our office driver, came through and provided us a learner’s taxi from his driving school. We drove out of Monrovia towards Roberts International Airport and took the dirt road branching out just after the army barracks. After traversing 15 km on the dirt road, we got to Marshall. Marshall lies at the tip of a peninsula where the Du river and Farmington river merge and enter the Atlantic ocean. The tip of the peninsula has an amazing beach where you can see the calm river waters on one side merging with the crashing waves of the ocean on other side. From the tip, one can also see multiple islands of different sizes in the delta formed by the 2 rivers. After some haggling, we got into a Fanti canoe powered by a motor. As we headed to the chimp island, we realized that there are at least 2 islands with chimps on them and we were headed to a different island this time as compared to last year. Perhaps because of the proximity to the ocean waves, the canoe was oscillating heavily. Many times, it felt as if the canoe top will go below the water. As I can’t swim, my heart was in my mouth. Thankfully, I had the good sense to buy a life jacket before coming on the trip. Otherwise, I would have died of heart attack before reaching the chimp island. Initially, we didn’t see any chimps but as we got closer to the island, we saw the chimps emerging and soon enough, there were more than a dozen of them. The chimps were creating a big raucous. We had brought some plantains for the chimps and started throwing the plantains one by one to them. The chimps started fighting for the plantains. It turned out that one of them was a big bully and he cornered at least 4-5 of the plantains that we threw. I was amazed at how the chimps were surviving on some plantains thrown by visitors. Michele commented that the authorities should seed the island with banana, papaya etc so that the chimps can feed themselves instead of depending on humans.

While returning back, we stopped at a small island in the river. The island was shielded from the ocean waves by a sand bar and provided an amazingly calm and beautiful environment. I could have spent my whole day sitting on the island beach doing nothing. After spending more than an hour loitering around on the small island, we got back to Marshall. As we drove back, we came across Ceaser’s beach along the way. Ceaser’s beach has a lagoon which provided a haven for folks like us who are afraid of the ocean waves. The beach turned out to be very popular with families with children and we saw some folks kayaking as well in the lagoon. On the other side of the lagoon, waves were crashing heavily on the beach. Unperturbed, a bunch of locals and expats enjoyed a game of beach soccer.

All in all, we had a wonderful Sunday exploring the environs of Monrovia.

Enjoy the pictures,

Kapil

Chimps on Monkey Island

Chimps on Monkey Island

Some more Chimps

Some more Chimps

Feeding the chimp

Feeding the chimp

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Pit stop at an unnamed island off Marshall

Small island where Du & Farmington rivers meet Atlantic Ocean

Small island where Du & Farmington rivers meet Atlantic Ocean

Michelle on an island of Marshall

Michelle on an island of Marshall

Alwin on an island off of Marshall

Alwin on an island off of Marshall

Lagoon at Ceaser's Beach

Lagoon at Ceaser’s Beach

Kayaking in the Lagoon at Ceaser's Beach

Kayaking in the Lagoon at Ceaser’s Beach

Ceaser's Beach

Ceaser’s Beach

Playing football on Ceaser's Beach

Playing football on Ceaser’s Beach

West African Music – III

Some more West African music which I heard this weekend. Both songs are Nigerian and have some amazing vocals. For a non-west African, the songs also provide a window into the society. The first song, from artist MI,  is about a young guy appreciating his girlfriend’s love for him despite his poor circumstances. The second song, from MI’s brother – Jesse, is about a bitter fight between two blood brothers, a song which may be the metaphor for civil conflict in a country.

Enjoy the music.

Kapil

http://www.mytruspot.com/members/6620/song_focus_8346.php

Trip to Chimpanzee Island and Marshall

Last year, I went to the see the Chimpanzee Island just outside Monrovia. In the 1980′s, a lot of chimps were used to develop vaccines for Hepatitis with the New York Blood Center using Liberia as one of its research centers. Once their ‘working life’ was over, the chimps used in Liberia were retired to an island on the Farmington river outside Monrovia where the chimps still live. As part of their retirement plan, the chimps continue to be fed daily by their handlers. (See CNN’s story on Liberia’s chimp island, and a link on sad state of chimpanzees used for research). To get to the island, we had to ride in the local canoes which are made by hollowing out a tree trunk. The ride was beautiful with the mangroves on both sides of the river. However, we did not get to see the chimps as it started raining when we were still over the river. Apparently, the chimps are afraid of water and they hide in the ‘bush’ when it starts raining. While coming back, we went to Marshall where we drank coconut water from fresh coconut taken down from the tree just for us. It was cool to see a child clamber up the coconut tree and get coconut for us. My attempts to climb the tree were sadly unsuccessful. We also visited an almost deserted beach on our way back. Enjoy the photos.

Later,

Kapil

Opening and Closing Prayers

Hello everyone and a happy new year to all of you. Hope that 2013 brings happy tidings for you and fills your hearth and home with warmth and joy. As the end of my time in Liberia comes closer and I start looking forward to rejoining my wife, it is time for me to discard my laziness and capture all the interesting tidbits and observations I have made before I forget them all. In that vein, here comes this post.

Liberia is a fairly religious country and like India, you can find a religious institution on almost every street corner. Between 8th street and 10th street in Sinkor where I live, there are at least 4 churches that I know of. When I go for a Sunday morning run, I get to listen to all the loud devotional singing coming from all the churches on my route. Off course, since I live in a church myself, often it is the church music which wakes me up on Sunday mornings. My church has two services on Sunday and one on Thursday evening and all the services are very well attended.

Jesus plays a big role in professional life as well. It is very common to see names of shops like ‘Born Overcomer Auto Shop’ or, my favorite, ‘God’s Anointed Barber Shop’. Almost all official as well as personal meetings start and end with a prayer. (on a side note, I once attended a ‘Wedding Planning Meeting’ which, in addition to the prayers, had a written agenda which was distributed to all attendees.) Even in the ministry where I work, almost all meetings start and end with a prayer. Coming from India and US, where the church and state are ‘religiously’ separated, it is striking for me. It is striking also because 20% of Liberians are Muslims and another 30-40 % follow their tribal practices. Christians are not even in a majority !!!

The opening and closing prayers said at these official meetings are often offered by a reverend himself and go something like this :

Opening Prayer -

Our Eternal Father, we thank you for bringing us from near and far and for gathering us here today. As we discuss today, we invite you in our midst and pray that you lead us through. With this, we commit the meeting to you. In Jesus name, Amen !

Closing Prayer -

Our father, thank you for all the ideas that have been brought forth today. Help us to follow-up on what we have discussed today. May the meeting have its impact. Carry us back safe & sound and guide us until we meet again. In Jesus name,  Amen !

Till we meet again, may the lord be with you,

Kapil

Philadelphia Marathon 2012

In the hotel room after the marathon.

Yesterday, I completed my 6th marathon by successfully finishing the Philadelphia marathon. This was my first marathon in 2 years after being forced to miss the run last year due to relocation to Liberia. This Sunday was a glorious day for running. The temperature at the start was a slightly chilly 38 F but it gradually crept up above 50 F as the day wore on. The leaves were turning yellow and red all around and the slight chill made for a picture perfect autumn day.

This year’s marathon was easily the toughest of all the ones I have done till now. Training in Liberia proved to be very hard. All the little things that you never even think about became significant issues. First was the question of where to run. For a long time, I ran outside on the road but the constant worry about the heavy traffic and the thick smoke coming from the vehicles made the option not very appealing. When I looked around for a gym, there was none close by and getting to the only gym available presented it’s own challenges. The office vehicle was not available when needed. I tried going by my bike but there was no street lighting and I hit a man on the very first day. Lesson 1: A dark African on a dark street makes for poor contrast and visibility!!! I was forced to ride pinion on the dangerous but only feasible local transport, the ‘penpen’ aka the motorbikes. Then was the question of managing the heel injury (plantar fasciitis, for those of you who know). Getting ice to ice the injury became a project by itself. How do I get ice when I need it? Do I buy a 5 lbs bag everyday for the few pieces that I need? For a while I managed by asking a friendly shopkeeper for a few pieces of ice every couple of days. A friend helpfully suggested that I should buy a refrigerator and I said,’Umm, you know the bigger question is where and how to get the electricity to run the fridge.’ I finally did get a fridge but still the ice was not available when needed because there was no electricity during the day. The heel kept bothering me till the race day (and even now). I just kept going courtesy some vitamin I (ibuprofen). Finally, controlling weight in Liberia, where trying to decide what to eat for every meal is a decision, is a story in itself.

Till this race, I have always been improving my personal best in every marathon and I was very keen on keeping up that streak. During the race, even after running for 4 hours the result was still not a given and I was losing speed fast. At mile 23, I tried to stretch my quads and felt my hamstring cramping instead. Thankfully, it turned out to be a scare. At mile 25, I really wanted to walk but there was no time left. It was only an excruciating push in the last mile and a half that finally got me there. When I crossed the finish line with only 38 seconds to spare, I had tears in my eyes. It was an emotional experience. An improvement of 38 seconds over a distance of 26.2 miles, over 4 hr and 17 minutes does not sound a lot but I know how I eked out those precious seconds. This was undoubtedly the toughest and perhaps the most fulfilling marathon to date.

It was tough for me but it pales in comparison to what Liberians face every day. You might know that I am as passionate about providing every child an education as I am about running. I strongly believe that education is every child’s birthright. Providing children the opportunity for them to achieve their true potential is not an act of charity. It is our generation’s debt to the next generation, which we often fail to fulfill in adequate measure. To me, a child is a child, the future of humanity, irrespective of whether he is Indian, Liberian or American and it pains me so much to see so many Liberians going without educational opportunity. There is Christopher who is in 4th grade and whose mother, who herself could never go to college due to lack of money, has now no money to keep sending Christopher to school. There is David who finished high school in 2004 but had to sit out for 8 years with no money for college and poor job prospects. He now goes to college with my support. Then, there is Clarence whose life got disrupted due to the civil war and who at age 31 is finishing high school this year and dreams of starting a vocational training institute one day. I run for the educationally starved children and adults like them.

With all the things going on in my life, I could not do an organized fundraising this year. At this last-minute, I would ask you for your support to expand educational opportunities for under served children. You can contribute to a charity focused on Liberian girls, More than Me foundation, or to my regular favorite, Asha for Education.

http://morethanme.org/

http://www.ashanet.org/philadelphia/marathon/runners2012.html

If you contribute, do drop me a note as I have no way of knowing otherwise. Thank you everyone for your support – material, physical and spiritual. This journey would not be possible without your support.

Kapil

Liberian English

It has been a long while. Hope everyone has been doing well in the interim. Let us start again.

The topic for today is Liberian English. The official language in Liberia is English and is the language most often spoken on the street. However, if you come from India, US or Europe and think you can straightaway understand what is being said, then you are sadly mistaken. As a Liberian once said to me,’ I can sell you right in front of you and you wouldn’t even know’. You have to develop Liberian ears to follow the conversation.

Liberians speak with a very thick tongue and keep dropping the last part of the word. It is as if you are in Texas or as if people have marbles in their mouth. With their heavy tongue, ‘this’ becomes ‘dis’ and ‘that’ becomes ‘da’. There is a popular song going around here , ‘Da ma era’ which in plain english means ‘ That is my area’. (In the song, this phrase ‘da ma era’ is being uttered by a street vendor pointing to a particular spot and claiming ownership of the spot). Similarly, ‘pepper’ becomes ‘peppe’. And, when I say you have to develop liberian ears, I mean that you have to distinguish between ‘peppe’, ‘pepe’ and ‘pen pen’, all of which have completely different meanings. ‘pepe’ refers to ‘urinating’ or ‘passing water’ while ‘pen pen’ refers to the motorcyclists rushing by on the road making the sound ‘peeeen peeen’ with their blaring horns. (Interesting tidbits: Like India, you can find signs on the walls saying – ‘ Only dogs can pepe here’. And, the ‘Pen Pen’ drivers drive so recklessly that they have a second name as well – ‘suicide bombers’.)

In addition to the thick tongue, Liberians also have their own usage of terms and way of saying things. They don’t say ‘please’, they ‘beg you’.  They don’t get ‘angry’, they get ‘vexed’ and they don’t ‘quarrel with each other’, there is ‘confusion between them’. When they like what you are doing, they say ‘ goo goo’ and the ‘good’ is almost pushed out of the mouth to create emphasis.   It is as if the head goes back and then jerked forward to create the emphasis. Once I gave a banana to a child I met on the street. Next time he saw me, his eyes twinkled, and he arched his body like children do and said, ‘I enjoyed the banana you gave me’. He didn’t just ‘like’ the banana or ‘the banana was good’, he ‘enjoyed’ it. Hearing him say that warmed the cockles of my heart. It was so sweet.

With that background, here are some more snippets of Liberian english for you to ‘enjoy’.

Liberian English                       Plain English

  • Go                                     Gold
  • Lego, Lego                     Let us go
  • Cocona                            Coconut
  • Motoba                            Motor bike
  • Daee, Daee                     That is it
  • Howzit                             How is it
  • Ho                                     Hole
  • Aaho                                 Asshole
  • Cowata                             Cold water
  • damn bah                        damn bad
  • damn bi fi                        damn big fish
  • goo, goo                           good
  • gu plae                              good play
  • mamein                            my man

Later,

Kapil

Smell No Taste

‘Smell No Taste’, Liberia – courtesy: tageo.com

When I came back from India in early Jan, the airline lost my luggage and I had to make multiple trips to the airport to get it. The airport is 25 miles away from the city center, a significant distance for a country with bad roads. On one of these trips to the airport, feeling very frustrated with the distance, I asked our driver, ‘Alfred, why in the world is the airport so far away from city?’ Alfred told me that in World War II, Liberia was an important base for the american troops and the area near the airport was used by US navy to land troops and supplies. The airport was built near the US military base.

After this brief history lesson, Alfred continued on. He told me that during the construction of the airport and the military base, a large number of natives came in search of jobs and settled near the base. He told me how the US military and its supporting staff would get their rations and imported goods and would cook delicious meals. The appetizing smell of the food would fill the air and waft all around the base. Around the base, lived the ill-fed, starving natives. The natives got to smell all the delicious food but never really got to taste any of it. Hence, the natives’ community got the name -

‘ Smell No Taste’.

Today, more than half a century after the end of World War II, the american military base is long gone but you can still find the ‘Smell No Taste’ community just outside the airport.

Kapil

P:S: Read more details at – http://www.africawithin.com/tour/liberia/relations.htm

Monkey vs. Baboon Redux

It has been a while since my last post. I got a little overwhelmed with the writing and decided to take one week’s break. As usually happens with such things, life intervened and the short break became a long one. I moved houses in this time, internet connection was very poor at the new place, then I went to India for a month etc. etc. Now that I am back from India and have upgraded the internet connection, it is time to start writing again.

Liberia has moved along in the last two months. The new president took oath of office last week which makes it opportune for me to update you on the election activities since my last post on the topic – Monkey vs. Baboon . In the first round in October, the monkey, i.e the incumbent president – Nobel Laureate Mrs. Ellen Johnson, finished first getting 43% of the vote while the baboon, i.e. the main opposition party led by the ever popular soccer star George Weah, finished a very strong second getting 33% of the vote. Various election monitors which included some of my colleagues certified the process to be generally fair. However, the baboon claimed various irregularities in the election and demanded the resignation of chief election commissioner.  The CEC played into their hands when he sent the opposition party a letter stating that they  had gotten the highest number of votes (which was factually incorrect). He promptly got fired for his mistake. However, this incident added further fuel to the fire and the baboon eventually decided to boycott the runoff election.

The day before the runoff election our office closed early. I had just moved into the new apartment and did not have food or cooking gas. I didn’t have any money on me either. So, I walked to the bank but it turned out to be closed. I was very surprised and wondered why. A short while later, Ab, our driver came to deliver my bag. He told me that there is a demonstration going on near the president’s residence and the roads are being closed and the traffic was jammed up. That explained why the bank had closed so early. Around 7 pm., I got a call from Emmanuel, my running buddy, who supports the opposition party aka. the baboon. He was hysterical and shouting on the phone, ‘Koppel, she trying to be Charles Taylor. She shooting at unarmed people. People dying, Koppel, people dying.’ I turned to the radio. Apparently, the crowd had started stoning and rushed the riot police. The riot police quickly got overwhelmed and someone from the supporting UN military units started firing. The crowd quickly retreated and during it’s retreat burnt and looted a gas station. Some opposition sympathizers said that some people were chased on to the adjoining beach and were shot there. I don’t know if this was ever verified. Different sources put the death toll between 1 and 7.

Later in the night around 11, I was channel surfing on the radio when I suddenly got to a station which was making pleas for help. The announcer was saying,’ There are armed men at our door. They are holding us hostage and trying to get in. Please help. Tell the police or UN if you can.’ After making the announcement, the station went back to playing music. It was unbelievable and I was thinking to myself, ‘how can you go back to playing music after that announcement?’ A short while later the station went off air. I assumed that the armed men got inside and feared the worst. An hour later, I got a text message from my office that one of the radio stations, a different one from the one above, was on fire. I went to bed with visions of getting up in the night with sounds of violence around me.

Next day, the radio stations announced that the voting was going on peacefully though the turnout was low. I searched for any news on the station which had gone off air but there was no mention of it on UN or BBC. Finally, I heard that 2 radio stations and 1 TV station had been shut down by the government last night for broadcasting inflammatory reports and images. Apparently, the armed men at the station’s door were policemen !!!

The election day and the next passed off peacefully. As I had no food, I subsisted on boiled eggs for 2 days. Later, the government announced an inquiry into the pre-election violence. The inquiry blamed the opposition for conducting the demonstration when electioneering had already ended. The radio stations and TV station took the government to court for closing them. The court chastised the stations but allowed them to start broadcasting again. Over the next few weeks, the opposition aka baboon carried out multiple demonstrations including one with coffins of their dead comrades but thankfully there was no violence. Normalcy returned gradually.

Since the opposition had boycotted the runoff, the monkey won the runoff easily. The baboon kept making threats to disrupt the inauguration. Talks were held between the government and the opposition. Finally just before the inauguration day, the opposition accepted the election results and the legitimacy of the president elect. The baboon declared,’ we will take any job for the sake of peace and harmony in Liberia’. The president has been including opposition members in her administration. With some give and take and some far sighted actions on the part of both the monkey and the baboon, Liberia has dodged a bullet. I think both the monkey and baboon deserve some credit for this and may be new names as well. I wonder what they will call themselves in the next election.

The slow march to peace and democracy continues.

Kapil

Being Safe and Secure on streets of Monrovia

From my initial posts, you would get the impression that Liberia is a paradise and that every Liberian is an angel. Off course, that is never the case with any country or its people and the reality is always a little bit more nuanced.

In Liberia, everyone is advised not to go out after dark. Apparently, there are a lot of uneducated, unemployable people and former combatants around who prey on Liberians and Non-Liberians alike once the darkness falls. The general lack of street lighting also aids them in their nefarious endeavors. Similarly, there are areas which you are advised not to venture into without an escort. Many of the beaches are occupied by squatters, and thus have become no-go areas.

Last week, Emmanuel got mugged. He told me that it was around 9 p.m. and he was going home. He was waiting for a shared taxi at one of the busier intersections in the city. He was standing a little further away from other people and was in somewhat of a dark area. A group of 3-4 rogues came and caught him and pinned him to the wall. They brandished some sort of weapon and took everything he had in his pockets. He was overpowered and intimidated and could not do much about it. He lost his day’s earnings, his phone and some cheap watches that he sells. All in all, he lost around $150. He later told me that he thought that some of the people who robbed him were the able-bodied beggars whom he had refused to give money earlier.

 That brings me to the people begging on the street and my attitude towards them. Initially, I was undecided about what to do about them. However, when I saw many of the handicapped war victims and the mentally sick on the street, my heart melted. I reasoned, what kind of work would these handicaps find in a poor country like Liberia. Since then, I have generally given something or other to almost everyone who has begged me.

 Couple of evenings ago, I was buying some fruits from Elizabeth and Emmanuel was also standing nearby. An able-bodied beggar (i.e. he had all his limbs and wits) approached me. He said that he was a refugee from Congo and needed money for getting passport photos made so that he could go back. After some back and forth, I gave him some money. Later, Emmanuel told me that I had given him too much money and that this will make him bring his friends as well. And, that is what happened.

 Over the weekend, I was out on the street, buying and drinking coconut water from a street vendor. An able-bodied beggar (who I believe was a friend of the previous night’s beggar) approached me and begged me for money. This time I refused. He grumbled for a while and then went away. A few minutes later, he came back and begged again. I refused again. He persisted and I kept refusing. By this time, I had finished my coconut and started walking away. He came along with me, still begging. Then he said, ‘You go running. What if 2-3 people held you and took everything from your pocket? What would you do? What would you do?’ You can bet that I was all ears and thinking to myself that this is not going well. So I asked him,’Are you threatening me?’ He said,’No, No. I am your friend. If someone did that, I would tell them don’t do that.’ I said, ‘Ok’, but still refused to give him any money. He kept on grumbling for a while and then finally went away. I too went my way, finished my shopping and got back home. But, along with the grocery, I brought home a more nuanced understanding of the phrase ‘I am your friend’.

Kapil

Monkey vs. Baboon

Monkey vs. Baboon – Photo: elwamausa.org

When Richlue was driving me from the airport to the city, I noticed a number of political posters of various parties put up along the road. One of the posters had a photo of the current president, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, and loudly exclaimed – “Monkey still working, let baboon wait small small”. That thoroughly puzzled me and I turned to Richlue for an explanation. Rich told me that because of the antics of the past presidents, the people long ago began to call the president – ‘the monkey’. In this particular ad, the president is saying that she, the monkey, is still working and the opposition, the baboon, needs to wait for some more time. That, dear friends, is Liberian politics where the president not only accepts the monkey moniker but also returns the favor by calling the opposition a baboon.

Liberia is caught in election fever right now and everywhere you turn, politics is the topic of discussion. After the end of civil war in 2003, this is the first normal election happening at the end of the term of a president. It is a very closely fought election between the current president, Ellen Johnson’s ‘Unity Party’ and world famous football star, George Weah’s ‘Congress for Democratic Change’. The president is the darling of the international community as evidenced by her getting this year’s nobel peace prize. She has some very creditable achievements to her name, including a multi-billion dollar debt forgiveness deal she won for Liberia. However, nearly 50% of the population is less than 18 years of age, and a significant portion of the country’s youth identifies with the football star.

The youth and the children bore the brunt of the civil war and have high expectations now. This is where the president, at times, succeeds and, at other times, fails. Last week, I was going to check out an apartment and was walking down the street. I spotted a young boy across the road from me. He was singing loudly as he pushed a wheel barrow containing a cooler in it. He was wearing a white, cotton vest with a faded blueish imprint of a politician’s picture. I crossed the road and started walking with him. I asked him, what was he singing? He told me that it is a campaign song for the CDC. So, I asked him, why does he support the CDC? What followed was an impassioned argument of which I understood only 25%. It turns out that he is 18 years old and is in 8th grade. He wants to go to school but the school is very expensive. When he goes to get admission, the school administrators ask for 3600 LD (Liberian dollars, nearly 50 USD). I inquired, isn’t the school free? He says, the books and other things cost lots of money which he doesn’t have. He wants to study further and send his brother to school too, so that they can build a better life. I could not disagree with his simple desire. As we talk, 2 little girls approach him for his merchandise. Apparently, he is selling some multicolored concoction of juice and fish oil. Once he satisfied his cute, little customers, off he went, singing loudly of the glory of his football star who would send him to school.

Ab, short for Abraham, our driver, has a slightly different take. Ab supports the current president. When I ask him why, he says that it is because under this president he has experienced peace for the first time in his life. He starts telling me of the time in 1989, when he was 8 and he was in class when the rebel soldiers arrived close to his village. Everyone left in a hurry and he followed one of his classmates out of the village, getting separated from his family in the process. For 3 months, he, his classmate and the villagers kept moving from one place to another just staying ahead of the soldiers. One day, in a town, his father saw him and he fortunately got reunited with his family. Ab grew up, learnt driving and took up a job in the previous government. But, that president too was busy fighting civil war in Liberia and supporting rebels in the neighboring Sierra Leon. Ab was forcibly sent to a training camp. When he tried to leave, he was caught and beaten till he felt like a bundle of broken bones. The soldiers carried him on a wheel barrow and dumped him in a room. Fortunately, they didn’t tie him and he managed to escape through the window. Ab, 30 years of age today, still rues about what he could have been had he gotten the opportunity – a scientist, an engineer, somebody. He drives us in the evenings and studies for his bachelors degree during the day to make up for the time which passed him by. He still can not find his classmate of yore but supports the president for maintaining peace and giving him the opportunity to rebuild his life.

I could tell many more stories. War is never far from the minds of Liberian people and they have suffered a lot. Peace has been won through lot of sacrifice and everyone wants to build their lives on it. The election process has been hard fought but has been very peaceful till now. I can only congratulate the people on this accomplishment. May the best man or woman win. And, whoever wins, may he send our young juice seller, whose name I missed, back to school.

Kapil

P.S: Since I wrote the original post, the ‘Monkey’ won the first round of elections winning 44% votes to Baboon’s 33%. The second round is scheduled for Nov 8th. The baboon is turning out to be a sore loser and is threatening to boycott the runoff election unless all his demands are met.

Kapil