I swear, this s$%t only happens in Africa!!!

Arriving back to Monrovia after our harrowing trip to Sierra Leone, we had a few hours to pack, sleep and it was off to the airport to catch our flights.  Our action-packed-non-stop-adventure through Liberia and Sierra Leone had so quickly come to an end. 

Early the next morning I went through all the usual rigmarole involved in getting on a flight; I checked in, went through security, used the only flush toilet I’d seen for 3 weeks and settled into the passenger waiting area.  Tumbleweeds rolling by would not have surprised me in the least, but I was secretly glad for the peace and quiet. That all came to a sudden and abrupt end when a security guard approached me with a piece of scrap paper in his hand. “Are you” he asked, pointing to the piece of paper with ‘Carla White’ scribbled on it.  I looked around at the ‘crowded’ room of maybe ten other people (six of which I am sure were employees of the snack kiosk) and decided I had to say “Yes I am, why”?

I was quickly whisked away to a backroom and told there was something in my bag they had never seen on a scanner before.  I would need to open it for closer inspection.  Oh man, I had just paid $5 to have my bag Saran Wrapped I thought to myself as I stepped into the back area where the scanning machine was located.  As the staff were trying to carefully unwrap my bag so they could reuse the plastic when they were done the inspection (I think you could easily just give that job the title ‘mission impossible’) I told the security guard the item causing the ruckus was a wooden bird mask I had purchased in Sierra Leone (thinking to myself there was absolutely nothing else in my bag that was unusual). “Nope” he was quick to answer, “this is something I have never seen on the scanner before. Wood shows up differently than THIS object”.

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Dressed in filthy Thai hippy pants, an equally filthy Nelson Mandela t-shirt and smelling like well water from my morning ‘shower’ I was pretty sure I was the LEAST guilty looking person they had ever pulled into secondary, but I certainly wasn’t feeling it in that moment. I just stopped trying to guess what weapon-ish looking object I had packed between my postcards, my bird mask and my dirty socks and let them continue to riffle through my bag. Under ALL the filthy clothes, and of course at the bottom of my bag, he came across the item that was causing all the fuss, a solar panel. (I had brought one of the solar lights from my ‘Carla Bikes Africa to End Energy Poverty’ trip to use and show the locals as I travelled around.)  

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He unwrapped it from the towel that was protecting it from getting scratched by items like, of course, the wooden bird. As the security guard looked up from the solar panel to my face his expression would have been the same had he been holding either; one million pounds of cocaine, Charles Taylor’s personal machete or a panel from the space shuttle disaster.  “What is THIS” he was fast to ask?  He eagerly nodded when I asked him if he would like to see how it worked. I dug out the battery and the light (which I take apart to fly so events like this don’t happen – sigh).  More than eager to see I quickly reassembled it and showed him how bright the light shone, explained how it worked and he was more than impressed.  This obviously well-educated, articulate airport employee could not believe sun could make electricity just by using this little panel.  I couldn’t believe a well-educated, articulate airport employee living in a country that is desperate for electricity did not even know this option was available.

When the show and tell was finished, he thanked me for the science lesson and asked if he could repack my bag. Not a chance I thought to myself as I took apart the solar light, rewrapped the wooden bird and shoved the rest of the laundry on top. He asked two of the other men working in the luggage security check room to help him try to replace the Saran Wrap that was now lying in a million ripped pieces on the dusty floor.  Ten minutes, thirty pieces of tape, a bit of string, a lot of dust and three airport employees later, my bag was rolled off to the waiting British Airways flight. Rest assured I told myself, no one is stealing ANYTHING out of that bag now.

We quickly boarded and took off, once again there were less than 20 fellow travellers flying out of Liberia with me.  We were to take the quick 50 minute flight into Freetown to pick up the rest of the passengers.  No sooner had we taken off from Liberia, when the pilot announced we were starting our descent into Freetown, Sierra Leone. 

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Closing in quickly on the beautiful landscape, winding rivers and tiny bodies of water we were jolted back in our seats as the plane suddenly started to ascend again.  The captain came on to tell us she had missed her first attempt at the runway as this is a difficult airport to fly into with a combination of dinky runway space, almost always cloud covered and as little technology on the ground as is humanly possible (my words not hers).  YES - a female British Airways captain I thought to myself until I was quickly reminded the London to Monrovia return flight likely isn’t high on the request list.  We would have to fly out 10 kilometers and would try again from the opposite direction, she informed us.  After about 15 minutes of circling in the air she came back on to say ‘Ummmm, yahhhh (insert pilot giggling) so we have just been told by air traffic control that we will not be able to land in the next little while because the President of Benin has just landed and they have officially closed the airport for his arrival ceremony and parade’.  WTF!!! She came back on about ten minutes later to say that air traffic had said the parade is still going on.  Twenty-five minutes of circling and air traffic control has told her ‘they are just packing up the band and we should be able to land soon, we think’.  I swear, only in Africa.

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How many times have I said that? After spending over six months of this year on African soil – I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have thought to myself ‘this s$%t only happens in Africa’.  

There are some things I have just fallen in love with here.  The warm culture, the kids, the non-stop adventure. But then there is the CHAOS. But gotta admit, I do love some of the chaos. The non-stop, 24-hour a day, 7-day a week, 365-day a year CHAOS.  Nothing in Africa seems to really work, and if it is in ‘working condition’, it is likely tied, glued, stapled or taped together. And won’t be working for long.

As we continued to circle the skies over Freetown while the drums were being packed up on the tarmac below, I thought about some of the moments that made me go WTF on this trip.

I was out with Alf (the coffee expert from Norway) and our Liberian driver a few nights ago.  Alf wanted to pick up some crabs from the beach for dinner that evening.  We set out in the car and within 15 minutes, stuck in traffic, we ran out of gas. Our driver looked at me in the rearview mirror shrugged his shoulders, opened the door and bolted from the car.  Honks coming from all directions, Alf and I slink down in our seats.  What seemed like 90 minutes, but was more than likely 3.5, our driver can be seen running back to the car with a jar (about the size of a Miracle Whip jar) filled with gas and a (clearly) homemade funnel. 

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(The above picture is from a completely separate ‘gas’ incident.   I did NOT get out of the car to take a picture during the stuck in traffic/ran out of gas incident.)

Contents of jar dumped into the tank, we continue on our adventure to the beach. Maybe 45 minutes later, still stuck in traffic, we run out of gas, again.  (I have to admit something here – I don’t have a car and really have ABSOLUTELY no understanding of how much gas goes into a car. What a gallon of gas looks like, how big/small an average gas tank is, why a Miracle Whip jar’s worth does not fill a tank are completely foreign concepts to me. (Don’t tell my Dad, he would just die that I didn’t know that.)

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Our driver once again shrugs his shoulders, and goes to grab for the door handle when I ask him “How much gas did you buy last time”? “One gallon” he proudly announces.  So “maybe this time you’ll buy two, or ten” Alf and I suggest.  I’ve never seen anyone’s head spin so quickly as he is now facing me sitting in the backseat “Two, why do I buy two” he confusingly asks and looking at me like I had just suggested the DUMBEST idea he had EVER heard. 

And after a conversation about distance, the fact we are still driving further from the house AND we have to come back, a short math lesson and a why, why, why the $%@$^$%$#@ wouldn’t you buy more than one comment, he again bolts from the car only to return with the same sized Miracle Whip jar and dumps it into the tank.  I won’t bore you with the details but you know there was more bolting from the car, honking from fellow drivers as we blocked traffic and Miracle Whip jars in our future before we returned home from the beach (do I even mention sans crabs). 

As we drove around that evening, I tried to process the one-gallon at a time reasoning.  Why did our thought process differ so greatly from our Liberian driver’s? People in Liberia buy for and live in the moment, that moment. (Is my guess.) They will buy enough food for that meal, that day. We needed one gallon of gas to continue to move forward. And I couldn’t argue with that thinking. We (Westerners)shop at places like Costco and Wal-Mart and buy more (in bulk) because it’s cheaper.  Why buy the 500g box of Cheerios, when for 23 cents more, your family of three can easily fit the 63454g box of Cheerios in the trunk of your Suburban (Dad – I know Suburbans don’t have trunks)?  As frustrated as I was that night, I do giggle now that we ran out of gas multiple times.  The whole event was a huge lesson in want vs. need.

Still circling above the Freetown Airport, I was also reminded of another story that made me giggle.  As many of you who follow my blog know all too well, I have fallen in love with the African donut. 

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They are really just little balls of dough, deep-fried over an open fire.  They are always sold out of giant plastic buckets carried around on people’s heads. When I was walking down the street in Monrovia I got really excited when I saw a woman walking toward me with a bucket. As she neared, her product looked different.  She was selling corn bread.  As excited as I was about the corn bread, I was immediately confused.  And I turned to ask my friend Charlotte how the women made the corn bread with no oven.  I had definitely never seen an oven in Liberia and I was 100% sure this woman was not one of the 5% that had access to electricity.   My friend Charlotte turned to me and answered “She bakes them in her fridge”.  Now just so you know, they speak English in Liberia.  So I was pretty sure this was not a lost in translation moment.  ”Her fridge” I asked with eyebrows furrowed almost to my knees.  ”Yup”.  ”OK, Charlotte, what the heck do you mean she bakes them in the FRIDGE”?  Charlotte continued to tell me that before the war, lots of people had fridges – so there are heaps kicking around.  Women take an old fridge and build a fire pit under it and ‘apparently’ open the door (of the fridge) and stick in the corn bread to bake.  I’ve joked that Liberia is a bit like Gilligan’s Island, but it’s not far from the truth.  They have nothing, and everything they do have is used for something. I enjoyed my corn bread and tried not to think about things like freon, too much.

Speaking of haves, I’m finishing this blog post in the minutes before I land at Heathrow.  (I think I may have forgotten to mention, the parade ended, we eventually landed in Freetown, picked up the passengers and took off again for London.) The sun is just setting, we are flying just above the clouds and the view from 23J is stunning.  Within minutes my passport will easily get me into another country, I’ll be picked up by my sister (and she’ll know I am in flip-flops so will bring me warm socks).  When we get back to her house there will be snacks, electricity, water (that I won’t have to get from a well), speedy Internet and if there is ANYTHING else this princess needs – I am sure either my sister or Chris can get into their car and get it for me.  I will want for nothing.

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In my lifetime, I have run out of gas once – TOTALLY my own stupidity. (I don’t think Ted Battiston has let me forget about it to this day.)  I have a fridge, I have never cooked corn bread in it.  I have an oven, I have never cooked anything in it.  I do need to learn what a gallon of gas looks like, no great need to do that anytime soon.  Electricity, water, heat and Internet are all in my house, I have no idea how that happens.  I called someone, I gave them some money, they all got turned on, to me it’s magic. 

I’ve never thought about developing a ‘system’ in which sun is captured by a panel and turned into electricity so that I could read a book at night, someone had already done that for me. I’ve also never thought about how I would survive if Calgary were attacked by rebels, what decision I would make given the choice of short sleeves v.s., long sleeves (see my last blog post) or how to make a fridge into an oven.

As with any adventure, I have learned so much.  And have constantly been reminded by the locals, how much I STILL have to learn about the world. 

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To my new friends in Liberia and Sierra Leone, thank you. 

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You have no idea how much you’ve taught me, and how I’ll return to Calgary and think about how I live, the decisions I make, the products I buy and how they all affect you and your place on this planet we all share.

Who goes to Sierra Leone during an election?

Our time in Sierra Leone was short and sweet. Well…. not exactly true.  Our time in Sierra Leone was definitely short, but sweet might be a stretch. We knew there had been national elections that week and we were waiting for them to announce the results prior to crossing over from Liberia.  I personally thought election riots would make for some epic journalism coverage, the rest of the team had differing opinions from mine.  

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“The most peaceful in years” they finally proclaimed, and that was good enough for us.  We were off to Freetown, Sierra Leone - a place famous for all the wrong reasons.

We departed Monrovia, Liberia heading to Freetown, Sierra Leone with only three days left in our time in Western Africa.  Loading up the car at 5am on Saturday morning, we set off to make the 14-hour journey (or so I was told) on what I knew were likely to be the worst roads in Africa (which makes them an automatic candidate for the worst in the world).

Just typing ‘14-hour’ drive actually make me giggle.  But it certainly didn’t at the time when 14, turned into 15, which turned into 24 hours on THE worst roads EVER.

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Pot holes the size of the Grand Canyon, mud puddles deeper than Lake Superior and police checkpoints (who didn’t seem to quite understand our ABSOLUTELY COMPLETE travel documents until we slid them a few bills) every 10 kilometers – the trip was painful, long and painfully long!  It definitely gave the expression ‘road trip’ a whole new meaning.

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Once we arrived and with only a day in the city before having to make the painful 24-hour return journey, I was super keen to take in all things Freetown. Where to start, what to do, how to prioritize?

Prior to arriving I had read a section of the Lonely Planet that talked about photographers coming to Sierra Leone specifically in search of that infamous picture of an AK-47 wielding child soldier and journalist only covering amputee victims.  Unfortunately one of the things Sierra Leone became famous for during the war was ‘short sleeves’ or ‘long sleeves’. The question rebels asked captured civilians before lobbing off a section of their arms with machetes. With over 4000 amputees after the war, and over 1600 (or more) still alive today, it is not a difficult photo to snap or story to cover. The Lonely Planet also states ‘The country is still recovering, perhaps it never will, perhaps it needs to begin again’.

But I had also read so much about their beautiful beaches so decided to start my day there.  Gorgeous sandy beaches with the mountains set in the background, this city immediately reminded me of a mini version of Rio de Janeiro.

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Soccer matches in both directions for as far as the eye could see, it was evident this country had a passion for the sport.  When I asked my driver ‘Sierra Leone must have a good soccer team”?  “No, we’re actually terrible. Most of these guys play to forget about life for a while” he said to me as we looked down the beach.

I wanted to cover a story of hope while I was here but with such a short time in the country it was going to be tough to find one. After leaving the beach, the organization I was traveling with (Making Change – Sierra Leone) took me through the largest slum in Freetown, the Kroo Bay Community. Our first meeting was with the chiefs of this village.

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 This unfortunately is not going to be a story of hope, but rather a situation of help.  They need help, and if I were in charge, I honestly would not even know where to begin.

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More than 10,600 people live in cramped conditions on a small plot of land right next to the water. When you see how big the piece of land is, you can’t imagine that many people can fit in there.  When you see how tiny their residents’ are, you would be shocked there aren’t more.  The chief of the area told us “There is no oil here, the government only cares about us one day a year, election day. The rest of the time we are a liability to them”.  And that actually isn’t far from the truth. 

The cholera outbreak that hit Sierra Leone earlier this year (the worst in more than 15 years) started here (one of the locals told me).  “We have three toilets in the WHOLE community” the chief went on to say “for all these people. And I can guarantee you, not one is in useable condition.”

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Over 4000 of the residents in this community are children, 2000 of which simply just don’t attend school.  When I asked why – everyone had a different reason; their parents didn’t go, the children had to work, parents didn’t think school was important, no one was forcing them to, the school floods, etc.  “The school floods” I stopped him mid-sentence. “Let me show you the school” the chief said ”and you tell me if you’d send your children here”.  After a few minutes of walking through narrow laneways filled equally with puddles and rubbish we came to a small river that ran from one end of the community to the other and on the other side of the bridge was the school. 

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The chief went on to tell us that during rainy season most of the parents are too scared to send their children here.  One of the men from Making Change pointed to a line on the wall, “during the rainy season, this is where the water comes up to” he showed us.

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Stepping outside the school to take in the view, the juxtaposition was overwhelming.  These stunningly beautiful smiling children frolicking in the filthiest garbage dump I’ve ever seen.  Children peeing, women washing, pigs bathing, dogs shitting - only being disrupted by the odd soccer ball that drifted away from its game being played along the shores.  No words can describe – the pictures can’t tell the full story. You would NEVER allow your children to live here.

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It was hard to leave this village.  Just like so many places I’ve visited during my time in this part of the world, the same question comes up time after time.  Where do you even begin?  In just a glance it is clear that Kroo Bay needs schools, healthcare, infrastructure, clean drinking water, sanitation, jobs, garbage services, recycling programs - but ugh, which one first. The organization Making Change - Sierra Leone is headed by someone I can only refer to as Miss Amazing - the ever beautiful Charlotte Kolako.  Charlotte was my traveling partner for the duration of my time in Western Africa.  I will never be able to repay her for everything she taught and shared with me.

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Charlotte and Making Change - Sierra Leone have promised the chiefs of this community they will look into the issues surrounding the flooded school and try to come up with solutions.  Do they move it, do they raise it, do they rebuild it on higher ground? Parents need to be reassured that when they are sending their child to school, it is safe. 

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I was sad to leave Freetown after such a short time, it is a place I must return to.  I didn’t even brush the surface.  Still so much more to learn and discover and uncover.

We said a quick good-bye to our hosts and it was time – ugh – to get back into the car to make the LONG, LONG 24-hour-worst-road-ever journey back to Monrovia.  None of us really looking forward to it. All of us just wishing we could be teleported there.  At least I had Charlotte in the back seat to keep me company as we battled the bumps. The  good thing though is the 24-hour journey is broken up nicely by about 30 police checkpoints.  Just when you think you are so tired you can’t keep your eyes open for one more minute – the car slows down, a soldier flashes his flashlight deep into your eyeballs, documents are flashed, sometimes money changes hands and you are off to the next checkpoint - 10 kilometres down the road.

With maybe 15 of the checkpoints behind us, and making good time on the paved section and perhaps knowing that this is Africa – and nothing can go as planned, we come to a checkpoint just outside of the town of Bo and we immediately know something is wrong.  They don’t appear to be letting any cars through. UGH!

Here’s what happened next… 

Apparently (so they say) 20 ballot boxes were found in a polling station near the town of Bo (which was the police/army checkpoint we were stopped at).  And apparently, so people thought, these ballots were not counted before the results were announced.  So what better way to solve an issue, start a riot! As the situation got out of control, a curfew was imposed and both Bo and the next town of Ketama were immediately put on lock down (no one in, no one out) as the army tried to get the rioting under control.  So we are now stuck, with the other vehicles - nowhere to go until they lift the mandatory curfew and reopen the checkpoint.  Unless…you are REALLY nice, look pathetically tired and tell them you HAVE to get across the border and back into Liberia by 6pm (the time the border closes) the next day to catch a flight at 9am the next morning.  And you still have 10 hours of driving to do. After some thought, the army decided to escort us (this likely pissed off the other 20 cars) through town and drop us off at the checkpoint on the other side of Bo.  Once we were safely through Bo, the army waved good-bye and we were again on our own until we came to the next checkpoint, at the town of Ketema less than 10 kilometres away.  We were the only car on the road as all the other cars had been stopped at either the checkpoint behind us, or the one in front of us.  With no lights, no cars, no people outside - gotta admit, it was a bit creepy.  A few kilometres away we came to the checkpoint at Ketama.  They had yet to get the rioting under control and our pathetic-traveller-have-to-catch-flight face did not work here. These soldiers were not about to let us go anywhere.  Nothing could be done, I curled up in my section of the backseat. Hot sticky African air, soldiers with riffles, a blocked road, middle of Africa - an amazing time to relax and simply contemplate life.

They reopened the border at 7am the next morning and we were free to drive through Ketama, no sign of the riots, the tear gas, the weapons – just peaceful people going about their everyday lives – just as I expected they would be.

The 97km we still had ahead of us took from 7am (the pavement ends in Ketama) until 3pm.  

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When we could see the border, everyone thought I would be excited.  ”We still have to get out of Sierra Leone and back into Liberia, the hardest part might still be ahead” I said thinking of how border crossings never seem to be the most efficient of processes.

But with foreign passports, giant smiles and a hole in Kenneth’s pants, they let us in. (Somehow Kenneth ripped the whole backside out of his pants as he exited the car at the last checkpoint. He got scolded by the soldiers as he tried to change in the middle of the road.)

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I could not have been happier to be back on Liberian soil, and that is a sentence I didn’t think I would EVER say!

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I will absolutely visit Sierra Leone again, it will NEVER be in a car from Liberia.

Here are the full details of the riots in Bo and Ketama if you are keen to know more:

http://matsutas.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/ampa-ampoh-sierra-leone-after-the-announcement-of-the-2012-election-results-guest-post-by-mimmi-soderberg-kovacs/

EVERYONE has a war story…

Just before I left for Liberia, I met up with my dear friend Jay Baydala in a local café. He had been to both Liberia and Sierra Leone and I was keen to hear his stories and thoughts about the area. I’m a huge supporter of Jay’s organization UEnd and when he told me they supported a women’s microcredit project in Liberia – I quickly put visiting that organization on my to-do list while there.

Microcredit, UEnd and Jay Baydala – these are just a few of my favourite things!

Jay made arrangements for me to visit the organization while I was in Monrovia. I was eager to see their facility and learn more about the work they are doing to support local women.

Upon arrival at their office Foundation for Women – Liberia I was warmly greeted by Emily Guegbeh Peal (CEO), David (her right-hand man) and Anna (Director of Finance). We were quickly offered seats around a big table in the main room while they apologized profusely for the lack of light (I had yet to see electricity during the 2 weeks I had been there). “No apology necessary” I said before we got right down to chatting about what their organization does.

As they gave me the history of the organization – it was their energy, passion and ability to discuss both the success stories and the constant challenges that had me listening attentively.

The idea behind Foundation for Women – Liberia came when both Emily and David were living in San Diego, California. The 14-year war that had torn Liberia to pieces was just coming to an end, leaving their home country in a complete state of devastation. No other word could describe the situation at that time.

With Liberia in their hearts, but living on the other side of the planet, they had no idea how to help. They just knew they had to do something. “By the grace of God” Emily told me she heard about a women named Deborah Lindholm in San Diego who was helping local women get a new start in life through microcredit loans. Loving the idea Emily contacted Deborah and asked her if she was keen to meet and discuss the possibilities of expanding her idea to a far off place called Liberia. Deborah, as karma would have it, had just returned from a trip to Niger where she saw Liberian women dressed all in white peacefully protesting the end of the war in Liberia. She was impressed by the energy and passion of these women and decided that if they put their heads together Deborah, Emily and David could certainly get the organization up and running in Liberia. And so Foundation for Women – Liberia (FFW) was founded.

Today the organization supports over 3000 women across all areas of Liberia. The loans are given to individual women who have arranged themselves into groups – usually by village, or market, etc. Every group has a leader and this woman is responsible for contact with FFW. Making sure loans get paid back on time and in full, etc. It is very much a self-governed process.

When FFW is giving out a new loan, the women must attend a 1-2 day mandatory workshop. A variety of topics are covered, many of which I would never have thought of; general finance, customer service, providing a clean living environment for your family, basic education. But the one that stuck out in my mind was teaching the women how to write their own name. I stopped Emily here and asked her what she meant. She told me when most of the women are taking out their first loan they don’t know how to write/sign their own name. In these cases they accept their fingerprint instead. But one of the requirements of taking out a second loan (once the first one is paid back in full) is that a women must have practiced writing enough to sign her own name. “Sometimes it takes them 20 minutes” Emily told me laughing. After completing the workshop, the women sign the document (or most use their fingerprint) and the money is handed over. Most use the money to buy goods to sell in a market stall, or to make a product. They have one year to pay back these loans in full with a grace period of an extra six months if need be. Emily and David told me 85-95% of the loans are paid back in full with very little need for intervention. The women work together in groups and they know that if one of the women in the group does not pay her loan back, they all look bad and may not be able to apply for a second round. In most cases the women who do not pay it back are simply in a situation where it is impossible – their husband has died, their child is sick, etc. There are very few women who just simply cheat the system – it’s an issue of pride.

As with everyone I’ve met this far in Liberia, I found both Emily and David brilliant, well spoken and full of passion. I was also quickly learning that everyone has a story about the war, each one a bit more unbelievable.

Emily told me that after high school she had gone to Michigan State – “just down the road from where I did my MBA in Detroit” I told her. We had a bit of a laugh about East Lansing and some of the spots we were both familiar with.

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After finishing her schooling she moved back to Monrovia, got married and had two daughters. At that time the war was being fought in the rural areas of the country with life in the capital continuing on with some sense of normalcy. One day she was just about to leave for work when a friend called to tell her to stay inside, the war had finally hit the streets of Monrovia. With unimaginable circumstances she tried to get her family to the local airport in the city center. She heard there was an airplane evacuating people. In the chaos of the streets she was immediately separated from her husband and children. She arrived at the airport with hopes of meeting up with them there. They were nowhere in sight. She had to make the impossible decision to board a plane taking off immediately heading to France or stay behind and search for her family. Praying they also made it to the airport and had already boarded an earlier flight, she decided to jump on the plane at the last minute. Her daughters and husband were also separated from themselves – none of them making it to the airport, none of them making it out of the country. Her husband was eventually captured by the rebels, mistaken for a local, rich businessman and was about to be killed when one of the rebels recognized him. (I swear everyone in this country knows, or is related to, everyone else.) After his release he found his daughters and Emily joked around that “the only reason they survived was because he dressed them in rags and made their hair look as bad as possible”. Emily made her way to France and eventually back to the States for a year, having no contact from her family in Liberia. She said for a year she didn’t eat or sleep – every day wondering if her family was alive or dead. Her husband and children eventually made it to Sierra Leone and could make contact from there. “A year” she kept saying “I didn’t know anything for a year”.

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David chuckled and said “everyone in Liberia has a story from the war, mine is not so different from yours”. David had gone off to the University of Southern California to complete his Masters degree, leaving his wife and five children in Monrovia. The day the war came to Monrovia his wife and their driver got into an argument on where they should go. She wanted to take the family to hide in their church and the driver thought it would be safer if he took the family to his family’s village outside the city.

The rebels stormed their church that day killing over 600 people inside. David’s brother had overheard the fight and assumed David’s wife and his children had gone to the church as planned. He called his brother in California to tell him his wife and children had been killed in their church. He did not realize at that time the driver had forced the family to his village to hide. David was devastated and did not know what to do. He could not go back to Liberia, he could not give his family a proper burial. He spoke of just trying to complete his last year of studies, attending therapy sessions offered by his university. Sleeping, studying, eating and concentrating were all things he struggled with.

One day, over a year later, he received the phone call he didn’t think was even possible. It was his wife – they were in fact alive and had eventually made it out of the country. He could not believe the voice on the other end of the phone. He immediately got the paperwork together and sent for his family to come live in the States.

Both Emily and David lived in the States with their families for more than 20 years each. They spoke of being embarrassed to say they were from Liberia while the war was going on. ‘That war torn country on the news’ people would say. Their memory of growing up there was very different from what outsiders knew of the country. When the war finished they both knew they had to both go back and give back. Their country needed their help.

Emily spoke of first moving back and struggling with the lack of everything. No running water and no electricity being at the top of her list. She laughs at how things have improved a bit – day by day – and even though everyday life is a struggle she is in it for the long haul.

When I asked her if there were things she missed from her life in the States – she told me “the list of comforts is long, but salad is definitely at the top”. “You just don’t buy a cool, fresh salad in Liberia” she joked. I could not have gone for a salad bar more in my life than at THAT moment in time. Both Emily and David’s children associate themselves with America now – they grew up there and will stay. They do not share the passion for their homeland that their parents do. The luxuries are too few for them to want to move back.

“Life is tough and there is still so much work to be done – but we have to do our part” said David in closing. They gave up everything to move back, they gave up everything to be a part of the change. I have nothing but respect for them, their strength and their motivation to get Liberia and its women back on their feet - one microcredit loan at a time. They love Liberia and I can’t thank them enough for taking the time to share their stories with me.

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Emily and David are just two of the many Liberians I’ve met during my time here that have moved back from overseas to help rebuild their country. If given the choice of leaving my home in Calgary with flush toilets, electricity and Internet to go back and help put my country on its feet, would I do it?

Ugh – hopefully I’ll never have to make that choice.

To learn more about UEnd click here.

To learn more about the Foundation for Women - Liberia project on the UEnd site click here.

To learn more about the Foundation for Women click here.

Becoming a Liberian Villager…

If you asked me a week ago to describe the life of an average African villager – I think I may have used the word simple.  After living in a village for the past few days, taking part in their chores and trying to just generally fit in and be helpful - I would now describe it as anything but! In fact – I’ve never been politely ‘let go’ from so many tasks in my life. If Ideaca doesn’t have a job for me when I get back – this village made it pretty clear that my skills are not what they are hiring for at this time.

Two of the Liberians from our delegation were eager to take us back to their local (albeit super remote) villages, show us where they came from and introduce us to their families. When we arrived in each of their villages – huts made of dirt and straw, no electricity, no phone, no Internet - I was both surprised and impressed to hear one of the first things they announced to be – “I am from here, and I am not embarrassed to say I came from here – you are my people and I am honoured to introduce you to my international friends”. I loved their pride.

The tradition of being welcomed in a new village is one I don’t think I will ever tire of. The singing, the dancing, the music, the overall energy – followed by food, drinks and non-stop smiles – you can’t help but think they truly appreciate the long, bumpy journey you took to come and see their little place on earth.  

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Part of the tradition of welcoming new people is presenting them with a local outfit and giving them a local name. Similar to Western culture, Liberians have two names in addition to their surname. In the first village we arrived in I was given the name Korpo (meaning ‘the head of a women’s festival’) and in the second village they asked if they could give me my second name - Weedor (meaning ‘sophisticated drink’).  When they asked what my family name is, I told them.  For the rest of the day all I heard was “Korpo Weedor White, Korpo Weedor White” – followed by fits of laughter – sigh!  I’m guessing ‘White’ isn’t one of the top ten surnames in Africa.

I pride myself on being a pretty good traveler – I do my best to eat, drink and sleep like the locals do as much as I can.  When I heard we were sleeping in the first village, I could not have been more excited.  As the chief led me to our hut (one of the nicest in the village I might mention) and opened the door to my room – I have never, ever, ever wanted to know where the closest Hilton was ever before in my life as badly as I did in that moment.  Cockroaches didn’t run as the light from the flashlight hit the dirt walls, they came out of the cracks in full force.  “That one is the size of a horse” I could hear one of my travel companions announce.  As the flashlight made its way up the wall – the spiders appeared – 4-6 inches wide – I kid you not.  There was absolutely no way I was entering the room, let alone sleeping in it.  Ugh, what to do, what to do – be culturally sensitive, run like hell, ask where the Raid is, cry – all these thoughts came running through my mind.  But then I remembered my tent – and with some excuses about mosquitoes, I quickly erected my tent inside the hut, unzipped it JUST enough and literally dove inside. 

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The villagers did do there best to kill as many critters as possible for this princess – just not enough for me not to have closed the zipper on my tent SUPER carefully that night. My guess is that for a long time they will talk about that white lady that came to visit that slept IN a hut IN a tent – weirdo!

When I woke up the next morning at 6:30am I decided to take a walk around and see if I could help out with some of the local chores. 

I came across the cutest little old lady on the planet making what I thought was either a handbag or a hat.  She didn’t speak English so I acted out ‘is it a handbag’?  To which she proceeded to act out ‘no you idiot, it’s a fishing net, what the hell would I do with a handbag’.  I watched her for at least ten minutes as she clearly explained how to make each stitch in her tribal language.  Then she passed it on to me and it was my turn.  Twenty-five minutes later, with a crowd of no less than 50 watching me – I completed 3 stiches (not even one centimeter).  When I gave it back to her she smiled proudly, shook my hand, smiled for the picture, then quickly undid my work.  Apparently the first village in Africa to have ISO certified quality assurance testing - sigh!!!

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One of the locals who spoke English happened to walk by so I asked him – “where does she buy the string from – there are no shops in the village”?  He died laughing.  He laughed some more.  He translated my question to my ever-growing audience – they died laughing.  Then he told me “she makes it from palm leaves”.  “There is no way she makes this string from palm leaves” I told him after a thorough investigation of the rope.  “It looks exactly like a ball of string I can buy at Michael’s Craft Store in Calgary” I told him.  (Maybe not the most applicable argument for the situation…) Then he showed me – and in minutes I too was making string like you’d buy at Michael’s Craft Store in Calgary.  I’ll never be able to explain it but in as few words as possible – you take a palm leaf and peal it, then dry it.  You take the dried stringy bits and then roll it on your leg – the technique is all in the leg-roll part, which I failed miserably at.  You continue to roll one-foot pieces together until you have a ball  of string– voila.

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I moved on to women cooking.  Not a recipe, spice rack or microwave in site – they were cooking up some of the most amazing food I’ve ever tasted.  I asked if I could take a turn stirring – they politely said no – they must have already heard about my fishing net/hand bag incident. 

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I decided to spend the rest of the day with the children.  They were my speed, liked me and didn’t judge. 

ORE Project Site

I am attempting to write this blog post from the backseat of a Toyota 4runner as we bounce (I couldn’t possibly even describe this as drive) over the worst roads I’ve seen in all of Africa. Not that I am an African road expert, but since January of this year – I’ve seen a few miles of it.

As my laptop charges in the cigarette lighter and the cord reaches up over the front seat to my spot in the back– I certainly don’t have to remind myself that this wee bit of power is a luxury. When we met with the CEO of Liberia Electricity Corporation the other day he proudly announced the upcoming plans for a 1360 km power line (that will deliver 240 mega watts of power). The power will come from Cote d’Ivoire, run through Liberia and finish in Guinea with the first bit of power becoming available mid-2016. This statement made me question him “how many people in Liberia currently have access to electricity”? “Not many but our plan in the next 10-15 years is to get 30% of the population access” he answered. If that is their long-term goal – I had to ask what their current state was. Looking for a more specific answer I asked him “exactly how many Liberians currently have access”? When he answered, “we are just nearing the 5% mark”, you could hear the gasps around the room. Ninety-five percent of Liberians have no power – literally.

We left Monrovia yesterday morning at 4am with Bong County as our destination for this trip. One of the two organizations I am traveling with is ORE (Outreach For Rural Education). ORE is a Liberian based NGO with board members in both Liberia and Norway. Around one year ago ORE set a goal to build a school in the incredibly remote village of Gbaith in Bong County. Their reason for selecting this specific village to receive a school was the current length of the walk for the young children. The closest school to this village is a 1 hour and 45 minute walk – one-way. We visited the current school on our way to the village and not only is the school quite a distance away but the desks are all broken or non-existent leaving most children sitting on boards on the floor when they attend classes.

I have to give you a bit of history on this village and its attempt to get a closer school for their children. This story is what made this day even more meaningful for me. The village of Gbaith had been promised a school for its children three times before. Politicians come out to rural areas prior to elections and make false promises of roads and schools – two items that pull at the heartstrings of all Africans. Roads because they lead to access- for resources to get to their villages, for products they make and grow to get to the markets and to close the gap between urban and rural living standards. And schools because they lead to a better future for the next generation. Unfortunately as with politicians all over the world, with Africa being infamous for having the worst lot of them, these promises fail when the last ballot has been counted.

This village has started to build bricks for the school three times. When we were there you could see three unfinished piles sitting in the field where the school will be built. Seeing the spirit and smiles of the people and then turning to see the piles of unused bricks was tough. It makes me wonder how they trust the next organization and the next promise of a school. But if there is anything I have learned about Africans and even more specifically Liberians it is that their sense of hope is perhaps greater than anywhere else on earth.

As we drove over the bumpiest part of the road nearing Gbaith Village, I could hear what sounded like small children singing. The only word of the song I could make out was the word ‘welcome’. By the time I had the chance to fish my camera out of the back seat – I looked up to see hundreds of children, dressed in their school uniforms, lining both sides of the road.

Our three-vehicle convoy came to a sudden stop in the middle of the road. Looking up I saw that the school children were not alone, they were accompanied by a drumming band, dancers and hundreds of locals smiling, waving and throwing rice (a sign of prosperity) on us as we exited the vehicles.

I have never witnessed a greeting so warm and filled with so much energy. Side note: since this village welcoming I’ve had time to reflect on how I greet people that come to my home in Calgary for the first time. It would be a rare occurrence for me to even offer to hang your jacket. There is no marching band, there are no dancers – there’s no one throwing rice. In fact – I would be shocked if there was a bit of food in the house at all. Given the choice, I would never visit me again. After being led hand in hand with the children, the dancers and the drummers into this village – we were guided into a covered pavilion and given the chairs at the front as the locals jostled to find space on the few benches and crates with the rest settling on the dirt floor.

Between the energy of the arrival and the heat of the mid-day sun – I had worked up quite a sweat. As soon as our delegation was seated, women dressed in beautiful African fabrics stood behind each one of us – fanning with a piece of fabric for the remainder of the 2.5-hour ceremony. As much as I could not have been happier for the human fan, I didn’t want the special treatment. I just wanted to join the locals sitting on the floor and take in the day through their eyes.

Through the afternoon speeches were made, cheers were heard, ground was broken with shovels, friendships were made and food was cooked and enjoyed.

The next morning I woke up to a full bucket in the shower (shower of course equals small mud hut, bucket of water, cloth hanging from piece of wood making the door and a hole dug in the floor for the water to run away), a delightful breakfast and the sound of people already hard at work. With my small posse of children that followed me from dawn until dusk we followed the sounds toward the people working.

Every man in the village had an axe, a shovel or a wheel barrel and was already hard at work clearing the grounds the school will be built on. We delivered 80 bags of cement to get them started on making bricks as well shovels and picks. A meeting had been held that morning and they decided to divide the village into two teams. On day one the first team would work on the school site as the other team would attend to the chores around the village. And the next day vice versa until the school is complete.

At the end of our stay in Gbaith, so many locals asked me if I would be back. “For sure” I answered – and then that feeling you get in your gut when you are lying hit me. I wonder if I will get back here? It is such a special place, but yet so remote and so difficult to get to. Had I just in fact made a promise to these people that I could not keep? Ugh!!! Their lives are simple in the way that if they made a promise to you, there is no doubt in my mind they would do whatever possible to keep that promise.

I would love to get back to this village. Better yet, I would love to be able to share my experience, their way of life, their energy and their hospitality. I almost feel I have to apologize for these photos – they can never do the beauty and uniqueness of this village justice. You will just have to visit them and experience their energy for yourself.

New Hope Academy and other AWESOMENESS!

After a night of torrential rainstorms, I happily awoke this morning to the sound of  music.  Weary from the time change but wanting to find out where these voices were coming from, I tried to jump out of bed to follow the sound of these beautiful voices. Since I have arrived here in Liberia, I tend to spend the first two minutes of my day hitting my head on the ‘roof’ of my bed – oh yes – I am sleeping in a mosquito net.  After getting myself sorted, out of my tent and dressed, I wandered out of the house and across the field to find out where these beautiful little voices were coming from. 

I came across the cutest little school/church and walked inside.  I was met by the principal who was only too happy to show a visitor around.  With a bit of shuffling, within seconds these kids were up and out of their chairs singing me a welcome/good morning song.  Think of a song to sing back…quick..quick I thought to myself.  But if I were to bust out my best version of ‘I’m a little teapot’ it just wouldn’t seem fitting at a time like this.  So a simple…’Thank you’ would have to do.   I quickly learned more than half the kids at this school are orphans, living in the facility across the street.  Parents killed in the war would be my assumption.  I snapped a quick shot of them on the steps of their school before I left on the rest of my adventure for the day.

Before arriving in Liberia I was keen to know all things Liberian – and one thing that stuck out in my mind was how strong the women were and how they were going to be the change in this country. As I travel around meeting different NGOs and other organizations I am more convinced than ever that it will be the women that put this country back on its feet.

The New Hope Academy was first started a number of years ago by a local Monrovian women named Hana.  She noticed a need in her community to keep the young girls and women in her area busy.  She started off inviting them over to her home to teach basic baking lesson but quickly realized that this was not sustainable.  They ate the goods as quickly as they could bake them.  With the help of a Norwegian-Liberian women named Danlette Phwa – the basic funding came in and the doors of the New Hope Academy were opened for the first time.

I had the chance to meet the three main teachers at the academy and within minutes of chatting with them, I wanted to be one of their students too.  Cecelia is the pastry chef teaching her students to make donuts, pastries and other small delightful goodies that can be easily carried and sold out of a bucket.  Hana, who to me seemed to play the mother role for the whole group, teaches tie dying and soap making. In the dying class they make shirts, skirts and other basic clothing out of the beautiful, brightly dyed cloth. And the last women, Gennesse, wearing the biggest smile of them all taught hair braiding.  Her class is the most popular among the women in the area as they are all looking to be beautiful. 

 

I also had the chance to meet two students whose ability to take this course was the difference maker in their life.  Partishia was the first student to get up and introduce herself – beautifully dressed in a traditional African red dress she told us her husband left her a number of years ago leaving her to raise 6 children on her own.  She had no skills and no ability to make a living and support her family on her own.  In joining in the New Hope Academy she has since learned how to make donuts and runs her own pastry business.  The friendships she has made amongst the women have given her the strength and ability to move on with her life and provide for her family.  The look of pride on her face was irreplaceable. 

The second women to introduce herself was Fata – a young women with a face I will never forget dressed in a bright yellow African dress.  She has some minor physical disabilities and in joining the New Hope Organization she has learned to make pastries and started her own business.  It wasn’t formally announced but I could tell by the women and the way they reacted when she spoke, she was one of the favourites in the group.

 

I got a quick run through on how to dye material and make clothing from it, and it was pretty clear from the number of questions I asked – I would definitely have been the worst student in the class.

 

Currently there are 9 students registered in the soap making class, 22 in the pastry and clothes dying class and 30 (or what she called every girl in the neighbourhood wants to be pretty) registered in the hair braiding class.

The organization is currently trying to get the paperwork and funds ($250) to become a registered NGO.  As with everywhere I’ve been in Liberia thus far, we were so warmly welcomed by this group.

I finished my day with a mini drive around Monrovia.  Running from meeting to meeting has given me little chance to get to know the city and its people. 

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is still so much work to be done in this country, so many buildings to rebuild, so many more people to get back on their feet.  But one thing is clear, with every passing day – this beautiful country gets stronger and the people gain a better sense of hope.

Esther the epic!!!

Within an hour of landing in Liberia I was introduced to perhaps one of the most inspirational women I’ve ever met.  Dressed in a white silk shirt and leopard print pants she comes off as completely unassuming.  I was lucky enough to sit down and share a cup of tea with her.  She was kind enough to share her story.

Esther was born in the Kolahun District of Lofa County, Liberia.  She was one of 25 children on her father’s side (he had 7 wives) and one of 6 children on her mother’s side.  With so many children in the mix, Esther was quickly lost in the shuffle with regards to education.  At the age of 14 her uncle moved her to the city (Monrovia) to attend junior high school and live with a family friend, a women she had never met before.

 

In the years to follow, Esther attended school off and on, eventually getting her high school diploma, worked a variety of jobs and gave birth to six children.  When I asked her how old she was when she had her first child, she said ‘young’.  Being overly inquisitive I asked again, ‘how young is young’ to which she replied ‘very young’. Unfortunately 2 of her children are not with her today, one son died at 2 years of age a year before the war started and another died at 6 years of age during the war. 

When the war started in Liberia in 1989 Esther had just returned to school (in 1988) to start a nursing program at the JFK Hospital in Monrovia. She graduated from the nursing program in 1992 around the same time the war was brewing out of control.  In the years that followed Esther was forced to move her family first to Guinea, then Cote d’Ivoire and then back to Guinea – all the while fleeing from war in these countries.  In 2002, while living and working in Guinea she managed to get her name on the UN resettlement list and was chosen by Norway the following year.  I asked her how families were able to get on this list and how they were chosen and she told me ‘countries pick you based on your story’ – and to be selected and moved within a year – Esther must have had a pretty darn good story.

 

In October, 2003 – the UN made the arrangements and Esther and her four children were quickly relocated to Orsta, Norway.  She talked kindly about the move saying she arrived to a comfortably furnished apartment with a stocked fridge.  Her neighbor in the housing complex was a fellow Liberian and made sure there was home cooked Liberian food in the fridge made by his wife.

The Norwegian government provided funding for three years for Esther and her children as they went through the compulsory relocation program.  During these years Esther worked hard at language school as her children settled into their own schooling.  After finishing the language program she moved her family to Kristiansund, Norway and obtained a job in a seniors care facility.  She said her nursing background helped her secure the position.

Esther said she is lucky that her and her family were relocated during the war and is so thankful for the opportunities Norway has given her and her family. She wants to use these opportunities she has been given to give back to her community back in Liberia.  With four children of her own, her focus is youth. 

Esther is here is Liberia now to arrange to have a vocational and technical college built in the area where she grew up.  There are 25,000 students currently enrolled in elementary and high schools in Foya Country, but no college for them to continue their education.  This school will offer specialization in subjects such as carpentry, masonry and technology.  Last week when she went back to visit her old community, 22 village chiefs came together to meet with her and donate 25 acres to build the school on. 

The Ministry of Education has drawn up the designs for the school which she had just picked up the morning she met me.  The smile on her face cannot be described but rather only shared in a picture. She spoke of the challenges still ahead; raising the money, buying the materials and obtaining the tools to build the school – but if there is anyone I know that can pull it together, it’s this woman.  Her hope is that the school will attract international teachers that are willing to come and help educate the next generation of Liberian youth in exchange for living in this vibrant country. 

 

Her last words to me were ‘I want to work hard to improve Liberia into the country it used to be, the sweet land of liberty.  I love Liberia.’

Esther gave me a traditional Liberian outfit to wear while I’m here as a gift from Foya County. I will try to be as strong as she is when I wear it.

Arriving in Liberia…

As my plane approached Freetown, Sierra Leone enroute to Monrovia, Liberia – the British Airways pilot announced ‘Violent thunderstorms and other inclement weather have been reported in the area and the Freetown airport doesn’t have the most up to date standards – chuckling to himself clearly forgetting he’s on the loudspeaker – so I will be needing to fly the aircraft in a different way.  We’ll need to rely on our instruments because the tower doesn’t have the ability to help us in a storm, we’re going in blind so to speak.  There is also one aircraft in line ahead of us and he is currently on his third attempt, so we’ll have to stay up here another half hour until he is safely on the ground.  This airport doesn’t have the ability to land more than one aircraft at any one time, so we’ll do our best.

DO OUR BEST????  Since when does the pilot of an international airline announce to a full plane of paying passengers he’s going to do his best. I don’t think there is an option down from best.  Well, maybe one!

Our plane did land ‘safely’ on the Freetown tarmac but we came down with quite the thud.  I wasn’t sure the aircraft was intact after landing  but it seemed to continue rolling ahead toward the airport.  The passengers went wild clapping and cheering – excellent,  he did his best I thought to myself.


Pretty much every passenger disembarked in Freetown leaving only 6 of us left on the once full aircraft.  I naively sat in my seat thinking a whole whack of new passengers will get on before we take off today to make the 45minute flight onto Monrovia.  The main door of the aircraft closed, the passengers never came.  Myself and the six other passengers confirmed what everyone had asked me in my lead up to my trip here ‘Who goes to Liberia’. I now have the answer – 5 other people. 

Before I left for Liberia and Sierra Leone, I knew I had so much to learn.  But apparently I’m not the only one.

When I told people I was going there to work on a project they usually say one of three things:

  1. Liberia, Liberia, oh yes – that’s where the US embassy was attacked? (Nope – that’s Libya – try again!)
  2. Oh, Sierra Leone – can you bring me back some blood diamonds?
  3. Are you taking your bike?

Liberia and Sierra Leone can only be described as countries with tumultuous pasts and hopeful futures. 

Liberia is one country with quite a fascinating history.  In the early 1800’s it was colonized by freed slaves from the States and soon after adopted their version of US Constitution.  Fast froward to 1945, Liberia was one of the founding members of the United Nations. And in the 1950’s, with American assistance, became the second fast growing economy in the world.  That growth all came to a sudden end in 1989 when Liberia slipped into its first of two long, bloody civil wars.  With pressure from the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a peace deal was finally signed in 2003.  And in 2005, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president.

In my quest to learn all things Liberia…on my current watch list before I left was the following videos and documentaries.  If they are available online I’ve included the link:

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

The Redemption of General Butt Naked

The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia 

Liberia - America’s Stepchild

Liberia: An Uncivil War

Lord of War

Iron Ladies of Liberia

Liberia 77

Some worthwhile short docs:

Liberia Rebuilds Education System

Side by Side

The Women’s Colloquium

Sierra Leone is among the top diamond producing countries in the world yet finds itself at number eight on the world’s poorest country list (Liberia is number two). It is also home to the third largest harbour in the world.  It is a predominantly a Muslim country, and is ranked one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the world with marriages across ethnic and religious boundaries being quite common.  Unfortunately Sierra Leone  found themselves in a civil war that just never seemed to end lasting from 1991-2002 - international news showed videos of amputated limbs, child soldiers and men wielding machetes - really all beyond the power of words or comprehension.  In 1999 the UN sent in peacekeepers to help disarm the rebels.  500 of the peacekeepers were taken hostage collapsing the peace accord.

In my quest to learn all things Sierra Leone…on my current watch list before I left were the following videos and documentaries.  If they are available online I’ve included the link:

Blood Diamonds

30% - Women and Politics in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone - Rising from the Ashes

Isaiah Washington’s - Passport to Sierra Leone

Some worthwhile short docs:

Cycle Recycle (This will be of interest to my cycling friends)

Children of War - Sierra Leone

BBC - Is the global media too negative about Africa?

I have just arrived at the cute little house I will be staying just outside of Monrovia – this is the view from my bedroom window.  I just doesn’t get ANY more beautiful than this.  We are heading out to a school and a Canadian funded water project today.  Will be back with more stories from the field.

Introducing the Team (AKA - Team AMAZING)

We will be arriving in Monrovia, Liberia in just a few short days. I’ve been trying to read as much as I can about the area - but wow, there is still so much more to learn.  What I do know is how excited I am to get there, meet the other members of my team and get started. My team consists of six members which will, from this point going forward, only be referred to as Team AMAZING.  There are six of us in total, 4 Norwegians, a Liberian and one Canadian, me!  I’ll do my best to represent!

I am starting to pack and get a few things organized in advance and I took a break the other day to read the resumes of my fellow team members.  WOW.  I was worried about  which cute t-shirt to pack and whether I bring two lens for my camera, or just one.  Now I think I should be more concerned with reading Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover just so I will be able to communicate with this exceptionally bright group of overachievers.

Let me introduce my team - and you’ll see what I am talking about, they are just simply AMAZING.

Let me start with Kenneth Bjerkelund.  I met Kenneth last year when we were members of the same international emergency relief team sent to Ishinomaki, a northern area of Japan completely devastated by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Both Kenneth and I watched the events of the tsunami unfold on TVs in our respective countries and both immediately hopped on airplanesheaded for Tokyo needing to help in whatever capacity we could.  The only difference between Kenneth and I, he had never been to Japan before, he spoke no Japanese, he was not familiar with the culture - he just simply has the BIGGEST heart in the world and knew he could help.  

Kenneth is the founder and CEO of Making Change, the organization behind our current trip to Liberia.  His passion is organizational development and starting Making Change was his way of bringing creative people from around the world together to work toward creating a better society.  He is a former member of the Royal Norwegian Navy and uses his previous military background to develop strategies and project plans for his current project in Liberia - ‘Future of Liberia - Project Sustainable Development’.  This will be his second trip to Liberia.

Hans-Martin Forsund from Norway is an independent consultant with a specialty in renewable energy and environmental protection.  He has a Masters in Law from the University of Oslo with a specialty in American/English Law.  In Liberia he will be representing the Norwegian Rural Energy and Electrification Group and providing feedback for enhancing renewable energy and protection of the environment.  He has vast international experience and will be tasked with creating a model for international businesses to get established in Liberia.   

Kjell Andresen from Norway is the Director of Communication at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway.  He is currently a board member for Outreach for Rural Education (ORE). He will be visiting the ORE project sites in Liberia to gain a better understanding of their operations.  Kjell is well known in the Liberian community in Norway for his support in helping international Liberians wanting to support change in Liberia.

Alf Kramer from Norway is an Independent Management Consultant with a specialty in coffee.  Alf is the founder and former president of the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) as well as founder of the World Barista Championships (WBC).  He is a graduate of the London School of Economics, a lecturer and author.  In Liberia his role will be to gain an overview on the status of coffee/coco, create an alternative model of production and identify potential business development. He will be sharing his experiences with local agriculture college students. His goal is to support local businesses in the rural areas of Liberia.

Ebenezer Akoi is from Liberia and will be our host for the duration of our stay.  He is the founder and current CEO of Outreach for Rural Education (ORE). He will be an integrated part of our team working to develop rural education in Liberia as well as identify possible international business opportunities.  His main goal is to close the gap in education between urban and rural children. He will also join us for the Sierra Leone portion of our trip to register ORE Sierra Leone to continue to spread his concept throughout western Africa.

And then there is me - Carla White from Canada.  After introducing this team, I am speechless.  I work as an IT consultant specializing in training and change management for a Canadian company called Ideaca.  I am passionate about the developing world and have fallen in love with the African people and their love of life.  I just finished riding my bike from Cairo to Cape Town promoting energy poverty through the use of solar lights and wind turbines. I will be joining this team in a photo journalist capacity and sharing stories and pictures from the field.  I can only hope to learn from this group and share in their knowledge and energy.  Liberia and Sierra Leone look like incredible countries filled with resilient people.  

Stay tuned as our team starts arriving in Monrovia over the next few days.

The bike stays behind…

Does this picture look familiar? I took it a year ago while preparing for my last trip to Africa. A ‘place’ I have fallen in LOVE with.  How do you even begin to describe the place to someone who has never been there before?  Africa is kind of like Disneyland – but for adults.  I’m sure there is something so politically incorrect about comparing Mugabe to Mickey Mouse – but it’s true.  Where else can you sail down a river while elephants playfully splash you with water from their trunks or eat amazing little sugar-covered donuts at conveniently placed kiosks?

Just four short months ago I was boarding an airplane in Cape Town to make the journey back home to Calgary, Alberta. Two long-haul flights and an 8-hour layover in Heathrow gave me plenty of time to reflect on where the past four months had taken me.  I had just completed a 12,000 kilometer journey by bicycle, from the top of Africa to the bottom, through eleven of THE most fascinating countries on our planet. It was a non-stop educational journey for me.  Never was there a night when I would set up my tent, tuck myself into my sleeping bag in some random field and not think ‘what a completely epic day’!!!

As my plane departed Cape Town and the southern tip of Africa became a blur out my tiny airplane window – there was one thing I knew for sure.  I had fallen in love with Africa and would be back! What I didn’t know at that time was how soon it would be!

Next week I will be returning to that amazing continent to experience more of what it has to offer.  Liberia and Sierra Leone will be the destination for this journey. And it is with somewhat mixed feelings that I announce; the bike stays home this time.

I will be heading over to work on a project with a Norwegian based NPO called Making Change. I just love who they are; ‘Making Change is an international network of creative people, realizing projects and ideas worldwide for the common good’.

Check out their website, like them on Facebook AND follow them on Twitter.

My very good friend and one of the most beautiful people I know, Kenneth Bjerkelund (the founder and CEO of Making Change), asked me to join him and his team on his second trip into Liberia in the capacity of a photo journalist. Completely honoured to have been asked and after jumping up and down, doing about ten fist pumps into thin air and landing a triple back-flip in my kitchen, of course I said YES! I will introduce our 6-person team in a separate blog post – but for now I will just say they are crazy brilliant, and crazy…and brilliant. World peace is just a little something they accomplish before breakfast.

Our full itinerary is still a work in progress.  On November 9th – I will fly to Monrovia to meet up with the rest of my team.  We will have 2 full days of meetings in Monrovia with Liberian government officials prior to heading out and spending the next 1.5 weeks in the Liberian countryside working in villages on projects ranging from agriculture and coffee production to education and literacy. We will then head up to Sierra Leone for a few days to visit an educational project in Freetown.

I can’t wait to get to Liberia, meet this team and get to work. Stay tuned and I will introduce the team soon.

*I will be using this blog site as well as blogging on the Making Change site. Please read along and come on this journey with me.