Day 4 in Liberia: Gbarnga

I’m sitting on a small veranda at the hotel in Gbarnga at about 7 am on this Saturday drinking West Africa’s ubiquitous coffee – little packets of instant Nescafe. I normally take coffee black, but the instant seems better with powdered milk. The hotel is located in a neighborhood instead of in the town. The neighbors are waking up as the roosters crow.  One ma in a neon green headscarf  is raking her yard, while a son sweeps the steps. A daughter looks stunning in her pink and blue dress as she feeds the chickens.  On the house next door a teenager has been on his phone the whole time I’ve been here. At the other neighbor, all hands seem to be cooking except for a child washing dishes in plastic dishpans.

The community well is nearby, with a constant stream of customers coming for water in plastic buckets. I’ve noticed nearly all children here I’ve seen so far in the country have footwear now. They also appear healthy, without all the big bellies of 30 years ago. Clean water seems to have become a standard here, which of course it should. As I noticed in my Sierra Leone trip in 2013 – even most of the dogs look healthy now. Everyone I see is in good shape with sharp muscle tone. Like I was when I lived here. One thing that tempts me back for a long stint is the thought of getting back in shape. In Africa shape. Physical exercise everyday either from work or walking to where you’re going. Eating organic food everyday. Not being in a hurry. Ever.

I went for breakfast. There are eggs and toast, etc on the menu for the expats that obviously stay here. I saw fish sauce over root crops – a West Africa favorite dish. “No, we don’t have that” said the waitress. I asked if I could get rice. She looked surprised but said yes.  What do you have I asked?  Fish sauce, goat sauce, jollof rice. I said fish sauce. She left to put in the order and returned saying, sorry. No fish. Only goat. After the GB and goat from the day before, I nixed the goat. I said jollof rice – then asked – do you have cassava leaf?  Again, she looked surprised, and said yes. With palm oil she asked?  Yes, I said. She said do you want fish or chicken?  Fish I said.  She left with the order and returned saying they only had chicken. I replied – just bring me cassava with peppae. Oh West Africa. When it finally arrived, it was fabulous. Of course, I had to show off by asking for more peppae, indicating I wanted more pepper heat in my meal like any local would.

Patrick came in and said we were off to see a harvest. This came out of the blue, and it’s important to be flexible and on the fly here. Let’s go! I said. We traveled a few blocks to the site that was in a swamp. We were right on time, as most of the water had drained. Tilapia were finning in the water or on their side flapping through the mud to find water. I first met Estelle, who was part of the fish farmer association I had come to work with. She introduced me to Henrietta, who owned the pond. They are the first two women fish farmers I’ve ever met. Henrietta introduced me to Mohammed, who was also a member. He is their “fish technician” and records production for the Bong County Aquaculture Association. It’s a volunteer board position of sorts. One of the men in the pond helping with the harvest I would later meet as James. I found out later he just had a big harvest that produced 1lb tilapia and 3 other species.  Henrietta’s pond is adjacent to a pig stall, so she has ample supply of pig manure, which she uses to fertilize the fish ponds. It’s the main source of food it seems for her pond.

Part of the excitement was seeing one of the workers harvesting the pond catch by hand a big water snake that appeared to be living in a hole in the dike. That would be someone’s meal today, too. After the harvest, we went to the Sumo’s house. Henrietta’s husband, John, was a retired educator who was just now getting into agriculture. He said his wife was doing the pigs and fish and she was the one with the know-how and he was trying to support her and help as he learned. Henrietta made rice with fresh tilapia in palm oil and pepper for us. I love this place. James, Odebih and Mohammed joined us, and this was when I was in for a real eye opener.

These people here knew what they were doing, where they wanted to go, and saw a future bright in raising fish in their ponds. The talk was about maximizing the potential of their operations. Even more stunning was their discussion of the money wasted by NGO’s giving people pond projects only to have the people neglect them when the NGO left because no one was now paying them to do the work that they themselves would profit from. Wow. I soon saw I was out of my league with regard to my limited work in tilapia farming 30 years ago. Time for me to catch up on the technical aspects of farming with them, and then work on the marketing that I did know with them. I got more excited as the day went on. This is going to be a great week.

I was also informed I was doing a workshop for a week!  I thought it was for a day with 5 different groups. Now the pressure was on to figure out what I’m going to talk about for a week, but the longer I spoke with them, the more I knew we’d run out of time and still have more to talk about. They said a Leprosy Hospital was having a harvest this week and they were going to help. PERFECT. I’m hoping we can put a marketing plan together the first few days, and then put it into effect and go over and sell fish for the harvest day. What could be a better learning experience for all of us? After coming home yesterday somewhat depressed that fish farming hadn’t gone anywhere in the 30 years since I left, I realized how wrong I was and how glad I am to be here.

Day 3 in Liberia – Sanniquellie

Friday Dec 2, 2016

Patrick, Tamba and I traveled up-country to Ganta last night, then this morning headed north towards the Ivory Coast border. After beautiful roads my first 2 days here, I took them for granted. Now we were back on the roads I remember. The road to Sanniquellie (S) was the red mud laterite I’d wrecked my 125 Honda on so many times 30 years ago. When wet, it’s like ice with snow on top. When liquid, like pudding. We traveled several hours to S, where we picked up Peter, a local official. We traveled perhaps another hour or more to a little village where we looked at a couple ponds that were mostly built but had not had fish.

The village welcomed us. When I shook hands with one child, all wanted to shake. When they appeared to want to hang around as the adults got to business, I told them once the meeting was over we would be giving out free injections to all of them. To that, they scattered. The village officials were gracious as always. A cup of water was passed with cola nuts in the water. I took one, split it in half with my fingernail, and bit off a tiny piece of the bitter caffeine nut. We then went across the street to see 2 ponds. I talked with the cooperative member about fish farming. We bid the village goodbye, and were gifted again with bunches of both large and small bananas. There’s nothing like the bananas here. They were my first staple 30 years ago in Sierra Leone until I adapted to the rice and sauce dishes I continue to love.

Much of the talk in the SUV during the day amongst my hosts started with “before the war” or “during the war” or “after the war”. I listened to the stories as I could. Ebola hit the country hard, it seems, but was much more isolated. As my late friend Francis said in Sierra Leone, there is no corner of the country that the war did not reach. Patrick made some very thoughtful statements that only civilians who’ve been in the middle of a war can understand. He said a dictator is better than a civil war. In a war between countries, your army will defend you. In a civil war, your best friend can become your enemy.  After hearing their first person stories of the war and just trying to survive, the hoopla over our president-elect’s courtesy phone call to the leader of Taiwan as some sort of international incident and dominating the CNN news as though it is cataclysmic is overwhelmingly trite. Tomorrow will be another insignificant event blown out of proportion and gone the day after.  I wonder how much the people care where the civil wars rage on in Syria. And Afghanistan. And Somolia. And Sudan. Wars fueled largely by arms and money from outside the countries. Undoubtedly by some of my taxes. War becomes a constant and people crave something different. Like a phone call that will be forgotten tomorrow.

I saw an article about a kid from Richburg who died in Vietnam and now has the road we take home named after him. The photo of his mother made it clear that once waged, war lasts forever for those who live through it, regardless of their role. It was a long time ago to some, but you could tell it was not for the Scott kid or his family. The generic words of praise from the politicians who took credit for naming of the road seem like they are profiting from Soldier Scott losing his life and his family mourning his death for 47 years. As if they are doing everyone in our part of Appalachia a favor. It’s their job, I guess.

I have to listen intently to Liberian English to understand. I often have to pause to determine if the language is a tribal language or Liberian English. Even then, I find myself often asking people to repeat themselves, and they asking me to do the same. There are many Sierra Leone Krio words in the language, which I understand better, but of course have not figured out which Krio words are part of the language and which are not. Liberian English is definitely it’s own language and something to learn.

We traveled another hour or 2 to a second site. We met a farmer who showed us a cooperative pond built by an NGO. The pond was a catchment pond, meaning it filled with rain and groundwater but did not have it’s own water supply from a creek. There were tilapia and catfish in the pond. The farmer said they harvested the pond once a year, and divided fish amongst the members and sold the rest in the village. They used a pump to empty the pond, pumping the water to a second smaller pond. After water, they pumped the water back and then ground and rainwater would refill it. I thought they were doing what they could at the pond and using it for what it was worth.

We headed back to Ganta, and started having Range Rover trouble. The fuel tank was low, and crap in the diesel was clogging the filter. I worked with Tamba the driver to asses things. Having a diesel fishing boat motor and now an old Ford diesel in my truck came in handy. We sent a passenger (Peter) to the nearest town for more fuel. Tamba cleaned the filters as best he could. It was hot in the late afternoon, and I drank about a gallon of water. Peter returned with the fuel on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Tamba and the taxi driver filled the tank after Tamba flushed the filters and put them back on. I cranked while Tamba used the manual pump to prime the fuel system. The engine finally caught, and Tamba said the pump piston was now solid and we were in good shape. I tipped the taxi driver well, and we were on our way. I had a hard time staying awake, drifting in and out of sleep on the way back over the poor road. We arrived late in the day in Ganta, where our original hotel was now booked, so we continued on to Gbarnga, where I will be for the week, as the schedule is for now. I expect that to change.

Rarely do these trips go as planned. That’s where the experience comes in. If you expect change, it’s not a surprise when it happens. If you don’t, then frustration is your best friend and you should stay where things are as you expect them.

Liberia Day 1

Left for Liberia to do a USAID Farmer to Farmer fish marketing assignment on Monday evening. During the day, I went to get cash for the trip from my bank. At the other teller was the only other customer in the bank. A white haired elder with plastic rim glasses who most in town know. I realized his daughter was the reason I was standing there. I was in a meeting with her about 15 years ago when I started trolling. She said – “I grew up here. This is a fishing town. Why can’t I buy fresh fish anywhere in my home town?”  That was the beginning of my career selling fish and the reason I was standing here 15 years later heading to Liberia to do fish marketing workshops.

So, the flight to Seattle and I arrive about 11:30 pm. A quick sleep at the hotel, and then catch the 5:40am shuttle back to the airport. The flight to DC left about 8 am. I arrived there late in the afternoon, then a 2 hour layover and the next leg to Brussels. That’s a long flight. Many Africans on my flight to Brussels as it’s a hub for West African flights. Once in there, I took the airport shuttle to the familiar T concourse. Seeing all these Liberians and Sierra Leoneon US residents – many of them now citizens – I always wonder what their stories are and how they got to the states, what they do in the US. What they do when they go home.

After 5 hours in Brussels, it’s a 7 hour 45 minute trip to Monrovia, with a stop in Freetown. It was very weird not to be getting off in Freetown. I envied those that disembarked there and wished I could go and see my family there. We arrived on time in Monrovia. Stepping off the plane, I immediately recognized that smell of West Africa. Rainforest. Cook fires. Humidity. I cleared customs, got my suitcase, and found my host driver without incident. It was about an hour drive into Monrovia.

Huts along the road with children playing under a light or young people walking along the road. Every so often a stand selling night street food. The road is good and well maintained. We arrived at the hotel, and I guess I was not prepared for this. It rivals any nice hotel I’ve been anywhere. Even a toothbrush on the sink – I forgot mine!  Such a contrast with the third world drive from the airport. After 30 years of seeing it, it’s still hard to wrap my head around.

I maintain that 90 percent of where you are in life is where you are born. Sara and I are counting our nickles, preparing for retirement. Had I been born here, there’d be no such “retirement”. Inflation is so rampant that you have to convert money to some sort of asset immediately or that same money may only buy 70% next year of what it does now. I might never have owned a car or motorcycle. My “assets” would be my family and position in my village, both of which would hopefully support me as I age. The numerous routine knee surgeries I’ve had would likely have never happened, and I might even be crippled by this age. Or not even alive It’s a place I’ll always feel out of place but always feel at home. It’s great to be back.