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.



Monkey vs. Baboon

Monkey vs. Baboon – Photo:

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.


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.