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.’


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.


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,


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

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.



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,


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.

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.


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