Tuesday, March 31, 2009

FYI - Liberia/Africa Info.

For years, my trips to Liberia were of the virtual kind - the Internet is amazing! I read the Liberian newspaper daily online, monitor several blogs and, in short, read every single thing online that has the word "Liberia" mentioned. Some who read this blog are also interested in all things Liberia so from time to time I will pass on some links and info. that might be helpful.

The United Nations has an interesting website on their mission in Liberia (known officially as UNMIL or United Nations Mission in Liberia). Great information on Liberia here including a report they did on orphanages several years ago. LOEP has found that report to be very useful.


Shenandoah University held a forum on Africa last week-end, according to this article in the Winchester Star newspaper


Had I known about it I would have attended!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Art for Beds

By some stimates more than 150,000 children were orphaned by the war in Liberia. In those months right after the UN arrived in Liberia to help enforce a tentative ceasefire, many families were reunited. Alfred and Agnes Memorial Orphan Mission (AAMOM) has been a home for children without families for many years so ceasefire and family reunification did not much change AAMOM. Children still live there, cared for by the Pederson family who are the grandchildren of Alfred and Agnes,the original founders.

AAMOM became known to Browntown Church when the church began sending humanitarian relief supplies, rice, seeds and school supplies in the closing months of the war. The war was hard on AAMOM and by the time of the ceasefire when Browntown Church became involved, the facility had deteriorated, the animals they raised for food (chickens and pigs) were gone and living conditions were harsh. NGOs provided minimal food, there was no medical attention and the children were sleeping on old foam pallets.
Thanks to benefactors, life has improved at AAMOM. Children at AAMOM have become their own family and the facility reinforces that family feeling. The orphanage/school is a complex of low, red-roofed, white, buildings surrounded by vegetable patch gardens on several acres. The buildings and rooms are just large enough to serve their purpose (sleeping, study, eating, assembly, etc.). The economy of space in the open terrain of the countryside makes for a serene, child-friendly environment.
Now the children sleep up off the floor on foam matresses in bunk beds, many with mosquito nets, thanks to an artist whose beautiful work is devoted to raising funds for Liberian orphans. The sight of those sturdy bunks was a moving reminder of the kindness and compassion of so many friends and family who have responded to the plight of orphans in Liberia.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Miss Valerie

The unpainted cinderblock section at the end of Miss Valerie's house is the kitchen. That's where "the magic happens".
One of the first things we noticed about Miss Valerie's house is her obvious care for flowers and plants. Cultivated flowers and landscaping are not a characteristic of the Liberian homes we saw. As we pulled up to Miss Valerie's house the tended plants and the lovely flowering shrubs artistically arranged for maximum effect made it clear she has a passion for growing things. She even had flowers and plants in pots at the house entry.
Every day of the teacher training at LCMS we were served wonderful meals of authentic Liberian food. The person responsible for serving 60 plus hot lunches every day was LCMS Home Economics teacher, Miss Valerie. Not only does she teach, but with her crew of ladies and her mini-van, Miss Valerie operates a successful catering business, specializing in weddings and parties of all kinds.

Miss Valerie's home based business operates out of her home kitchen. It is attached to the house and has no windows or roof. Wide open to the fresh air, it keeps the heat outside - not in. Three charcoal cookers in the outdoor kitchen and a charcoal oven located inside the house are the main cooking "appliances". With limited electricity, Valerie has no regular refrigeration but makes good use of a freezer that runs periodically when electricity is available.

The day I visited Miss Valerie's house she was preparing one of our fabulous lunches. While she applied lovely, professional decorations to a birthday cake, she supervised her cooking crew in preparing extraordinary amounts of rice on the three small charcoal cookers. She had baked the cake herself in her charcoal oven. Anyone who has tried to bake in an oven with an automatic thermostat knows steady temperature is critical to successful baking. It's challenging enough to cook on a charcoal cooker but to actually bake cakes in a charcoal oven guessing at the temperature? The sight of several loaves of bread and tea cakes cooling on a nearby shelf and I was really impressed.

Miss Valerie has linked her passions for food and teaching and has boundless enthusiasm for both. She is also committed to working with young women through her church - teaching them to develop strength of character, self-respect and self-reliance through cooking!

We caught Miss Valerie in the midst of lunch preparation this day but she stopped long enough to welcome us in. She also has a green thumb!

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Place in the Country

Children's Relief Mission (CRM) orphanage maintains the school/orphanage complex in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia. Greater Monrovia is a sprawling, bustling and extremely over-crowded, metropolitan area. Some estimates are that three fourths of the people who live in greater Monrovia are there because they fled from their rural homes during the war. Now there are no villages left to which they can return and they remain in Monrovia where they are squatters. They live day to day under extremely harsh conditions. The environment is less than wholesome for children and the future of Liberia depends on successful re-location of some of Monrovia's population back to the countryside where they can begin to grow food to feed the nation.

CRM director Sam Kargbo has plans for the orphanage that call for the school and orphanage to eventually re-locate to property in the countryside about an hour's drive from Monrovia. CRM raised funds for a 20-plus acre site in the area known as Kakata where the orphanage and school will establish a vocational/agricultural program for orphans and other students. The land is being developed as an agricultural venture at present and a farm manager, Amos, lives there with his family. The products of the farm are sold at a local Kakata market and, when transportation is available, sent back to the oprhanage. LOEP team members visited CRM at Kakata and pictured above Board member Brenda Weeks, watches as Amos (purple shirt) supervises eggplant harvest.

This first view of CRM's property shows cleared property where eventually a school/orphanage complex will be constructed. The building on the left is where Amos and his family will live when it is completed. The building on the right is their current quarters. Until the orphanage/school complex is a reality, both buildings serve to house residents of CRM who come to the farm to help with agricultural projects some week-ends and school holidays.

This termite mound is an interesting front yard feature!

This is a closer view of the building above that is under construction by Amos and his family. The large (and deep) hole in front of the building has been dug for the pile of dirt that stands beside it. That dirt will be made into mud to daub onto the stick structure to make mud/plaster walls.
This boundary marker shows the corner of CRM property of 20 acres that was purchased.

Some Friends of LOEP will recognize Sam Kargbo, director of Children's Relief Ministry (CRM). Notice in the grass at Sam's ankle is the boundary marker. In view behind Sam is the family compound where the former owner of the CRM property lives with his family and extended family.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Caring for Orphans and Vulnerable Children

This group of beautiful children are the orphans who go to school and live at Children's Relief Ministry orphanage. Bottom right, kneeling, is the young woman, Hawa, who is the first CRM orphan to finish High School. As mentioned in other entries in this blog, Hawa has applied to the University of Liberia for admission as an undergraduate student. Her plan ultimately is to go into nursing, receive her RN and remain at CRM as the resident health care professional. She has been at CRM most of her short but difficult life and she is a big sister, surrogate mother and wonderful role model for the other orphans who clearly love her.

Keeping children healthy in Liberia is challenging even in the best of circumstances. The problems are compounded in institutional settings like CRM with 70+ children, extremely limited resources and minimal facilities.

Several years ago Browntown Church raised funds for construction of latrines at CRM where the toilet facilities consisted of holes in the ground shielded on three sides by blue, plastic tarps strung up on poles. Construction of the five-stall latrine facility with donated funds was a major improvement. Pictured above at the latrine area is CRM's matron who supervises care of the orphans. She is cheerfully responsible for a daunting amount of laundry among other enormous responsibilities.

The young man pictured was quite amused that we had our cameras out in the latrines. He hurried back to his class to report loudly that the visitors were "taking pictures of the toilet!". The solid wall on the left of this narrow passageway is the backside of the main classroom building - so close that we could hear the students' hilarious reaction to visitor interest in latrines!

This facility is a major improvement over open holes in the ground surrounded by tarps flapping in the breeze.

Food for the orphans is prepared in this open air kitchen area and all cooking is done over the charcoal cooker pictured. We were so very impressed at the large vats of rice turned out perfectly on this appliance every single day. Also, Liberian doughnuts which are basically yeast bread rolled into a twist and fried in palm oil on this same charcoal cooker - an ocassional treat for the children. There is no refrigeration and fresh fruit is a periodic addition to the staple diet of rice. Protein sources are mainly fish and chicken. Fish is readily available (dried and fresh) although not in the quantities needed to meet the daily nutrition requirements of 70+ children.

Rice is donated by various groups, individuals and regular monthly rations are subsidized by NGOs.

Lack of running water makes regular handwashing and hygiene somewhat problematic. Water for the orphanage and school is accessible from a large pump in the school courtyard. Water for drinking, cooking, laundry and latrines all comes from the pump. A large open barrel is kept behind the latrine area with a bucket for "flushing" the latrines. A large open barrel is kept in the kitchen area for cooking and an open container with a dipper is kept at the well for drinking and rinsing hands and face and/or cuts and scrapes from playground activity.

Internal parasites are a continual problem for children in Liberia. It is particularly difficult in an orphanage where so many children live so close together. Purging medicines are always needed and always in short supply. Fungus which also thrives where living quarters are close, is also a problem and there are never enough anti-fungal treatments available. Respiratory ailments are very common. In the dry season when the famous red African dust flies it is an irritant to air passages and in rainy season when the extreme rainfall and humidity make the air ever-damp, mold spores, viruses and bacteria thrive causing colds and lung ailments.

Life expectancy in Liberia is among the lowest of all nations on earth, hovering right around 40 years old. High infant mortality rates, high risk of death and injury for little children who are exposed to the above health problems and all sorts of other accidents (open barrels of water and charcoal cookers, for example, are only two of thousands of commonplace hazards that pose risks for infants and toddlers) makes childcare and child survival difficult in Liberia. While all children in Liberia may not be orphans, all Liberian children are vulnerable. The United Nations acronym, OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) applies to every child who lives in Liberia. What is remarkable is the resilience, perseverance and hope that Liberians have for their future.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Empowering Women Around the World

Liberia has been preparing for some time to host the International Colloquium on Women's Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security. Preparations were well underway and excitement was building during LOEP's recent visit, and I'm so sorry that we were not able to be there for this monumental event that coincided with International Women's Day (March 8).

Thirsty for all things Liberia, I have been enjoying online reports about the Colloquium. I came across an excellent account of the festivities today, found on this blog by Nadine B. Hack. I got goosebumps reading this! It's so inspiring to know that there are so many people working together to empower and educate women and girls on so many levels worldwide. What a fantastic and moving event!

Here in Atlanta, I was able to celebrate International Women's Day by attending a special viewing of Sheila C. Johnson's documentary, A Powerful Noise. The film was broadcast in 450 theaters across the United States last Thursday, and was followed by a live broadcast of a panel discussion moderated by NBC news anchor Ann Curry. Panelists Madeline Albright, Natalie Portman, Christy Turlington Burns, Nicholas Kristof, and Dr. Helene Gayle were quite impressive and provided wonderful insight. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was referenced in the discussion, as the first female elected president in Africa. The event was quite compelling, and I highly recommend the film which features women impacting their communities and the world in Vietman, Mali, and Bosnia.

Friday, March 6, 2009

News from Trainer Heaven

According to Mrs. Rosa Allen, Lott Carey Vice-Principal of Instruction, teachers are still excited and enthusiastic about new teaching methods and learner-centered education classroom techniques. Not only are they excited, they have set up classrooms and have instituted new methods within the past week and are excitedly passing information and ideas back and forth. Teacher's aides have taken on new roles and responsibilities and are relishing their direct interaction with students and teaching the younger ones.
Mrs. Allen's message, "Thanks to all of you again for the wonderful experience shared with the teachers here at LCM. There is so much going on in the classrooms that I am happy to give you feedback".
"Thank you and the Training team for the wonderful time spent here with the Liberian teachers. There is a new excitement in the air amongst the teachers, students and parents. The KIDS are proud to display their work in their learning centers. Chairs have been rearranged, learning centers established. The mobile classroom is squeaking with movement of the materials everyday AND planning ahead for lessons is the order of the day."

The excitement among the trainees was clearly demonstrated every single day of training and their interest and enthusiasm has carried over into their classrooms, apparently, according to Mrs. Allen's glowing report.

We knew from the expressions on the faces here that these teachers and aides were ready to get back to their classrooms and have some fun learning time with their students. Doesn't this look like a fun group?
How gratifying when the trainees are so responsive that they being implementing their new knowledge immediately! "Before your departure the class had set up learning centers, " Mrs. Allen writes.

Phylis, you were right - it really is Heaven!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Culture Shock

We left Liberia exactly one week ago. And now here I sit, at my dining room table in Atlanta, watching the snow fall. Yes, that’s right – snow! It never snows in Atlanta, and I’m finding the contrast more than a little ironic. I am supposed to be driving to Columbus right now to deliver some items to be included in a shipment leaving for Liberia on Tuesday, but unfortunately I’ve had to put that off. The roads are slippery, and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to be driving on the interstate today. I will try tomorrow, and hopefully get the things to Columbus just in time to be loaded onto the container!

It was hard to leave Liberia last week. The LOEP team was only there for three weeks, but we did so much in that time! Now that I know how weird it’s been re-adjusting to life in the States after three weeks away, I can’t imagine how others do it after working in such a place for an extended period of time. Weather aside; everything here seems so much more gray and boring than things in Liberia. It was almost depressing when I looked in my closet getting ready for work the first day back. No colorful lappas here. No overstuffed taxis with funny quotes to look at. No babies bobbing along on their mommy’s backs. No crowded market to marvel over. Instead, I am looking at fancy cars in stuck in gridlock on the 8-lane interstate. MARTA buses that are nearly empty. Shopping centers with big box stores to purchase electronics, clothes, groceries, and anything else we think we have to have. And snow. Am I really on the same planet as my friends in Liberia?