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When we moved to the Kendeja neighbourhood five years ago, I must admit I was slightly concerned about it. Up to this point we’d always lived in apartments above someone else’s house. This living arrangement instigated my habit of socializing with the household below me, but not mingling too far beyond that.
Then we moved to Kendeja where we were no longer tenants, but the leaseholders of our own property. The buffers between us and everyone around us disappeared, leaving this quasi-extrovert—with a strong need for a quiet home life— feeling exposed.
To the left of our property was a ramshackle house pieced together from scraps of tin and wood. On our right was a well-built concrete house leased by a missionary who shared his home with a few Liberian families. Directly across from us was a quiet, walled, unoccupied property, and adjacent to that was an open lot with an unfinished home and a small provisional shop located at the front of it.
This wall-less property was a hub for the community. There was, and still is, a constant flow of people coming and going. Since they used their front yard for cooking, washing and generally hanging out, it was easy to get a sense of their daily routines.
Initially I wanted to keep my distance for fear of being deemed the bleeding heart NGO household where our neighbours would come knocking for every need that arose (yes, I realize how presumptuous this sounds). I’d heard stories like this from other people living in private houses—versus the large apartment blocks with security guards that many ex-pats prefer—where a steady stream of neighbours made requests at all hours. I didn’t want that to be me.
What I didn’t realize was the people that told me those stories had cultivated that reality and my experience was going to be completely different.
It took me awhile to figure the neighbourhood out. Between the years of long hours with the well program, time spent out of town at the school in Royesville, and finally Ebola, I didn’t have much time for chit-chat with the neighbours.
When we came back after an extended period away due to the Ebola crisis, I suddenly became very popular with the four foot and under crew. At first I assumed that they finally appreciated how amazing I am, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. I was simply a form of entertainment for all the kids who were bored silly from being out of school for so long.
With Ebola still in the country, the small mob that used me as the finish line for the “Landis Race” was not an ideal scenario. I quickly established a hands off policy, but I would show the occasional bit of affection by patting kids on the top of their heads. I know that’s not truly hands off, but it felt safer than having small children wrap themselves around my legs. Soon everyone in my crew would approach me with a slight tilt to their head as they prepared themselves for my pat.
It took five years, but I finally feel like I’m a part of my community. The kids across the alley, who still chat with me every day, have completely captured my heart. Abraham is the responsible one, Joseph likes to be loud, Princess is funny, Ma J is a fashionista, Moses is always helpful and Chantal still cries every time she sees me.
I’ve gotten to know their parents as well, and although my conversations with the adults are more limited, I feel trusted and accepted by them. I can go to them for advice on breaking a fever, cooking cassava or any of the many things I’m not very talented at.
After all that initial worry, it’s me that ended up knocking on their door and I’m grateful that they welcomed me in.
I’d like to introduce you to Roosevelt, Samuel Jr and Alexander (left to right) – best buddies from the grade one class at the Royesville School. If a picture is worth a thousand words then this one reveals it all.
Meet Roosevelt – the serious one. He’s seven years old and is often left in charge of his 18 month old sister Geraldine. His dad is a teacher at the school so he can frequently be spotted purposefully striding around the campus with Geraldine on his hip and a farm tool in his hand. Roosevelt is always the one offering advice to the other kids on the best way to execute whatever task is at hand.
Next is Samuel Jr – the mischievous one. Sammy has this contagious smile that spreads across his face every time he looks at you. He has this lightness to him that comes with being a natural charmer so it’s not easy to get mad at a face like this, even when he is stirring up some trouble. When put to a task he’s quick to get to work though. He comes from a large family where everyone has a job to do and he knows when its time to contribute.
Finally Alexander – the awkward one. Every time he poses for a picture Alex has his eyes down cast or is fidgeting with something on his shirt. Its as though Alex is unsure of his place in this world, which makes some sense, considering his situation. The story is vague, but it appears that his parents gave him to Roosevelt’s family knowing that he’d have a better life with them. Alex is doing great in their care – he’s a kind, gentle boy always ready to tag along with anything fun that’s going on.
These boys are 3 of the 107 students at the Royesville School and 3 of 107 reasons why I love what I do.
Its been raining non stop for two days now. As I kneel on my couch, scanning the sky through the tight black grid of the double-screened windows, I see an endless canopy of dull grey and I realize this downpour will not end anytime soon. Part of me relishes in the luxurious coolness the rain brings and the other part of me really wishes I didn’t put a load of laundry in last night.
This rainy version of the relentlessly sunny Liberia I’m accustomed to is creating a bit of a drying dilemma. My habitual trips home during the season of torrential downpours has left me ill equipped to manage this situation.
At the moment my small living room closely resembles a very poorly run laundry mat. Shirts hang off the back of chairs, underwear lays strewn over the exercise bike, pajamas cling to the standing fan and pants dangle from the ajar doors. I’m surrounded.
This is all part of “the shift” – the adjustments that need to be made each year when I move between two distinctly different worlds. Upon return to Canada, ask me if the transition home is difficult and without a pause my answer will be, “No, of course not!” I have no problem embracing 24-hour power, safe tap water, cool breezes, amazing fresh food, excellent public transit, and clean air (this is not a comprehensive list).
Now ask me that same question when I first arrive back in Liberia and you’ll get a very different answer. There is definitely a period of transition when I return to Africa.
It’s the multitude of daily realities that shake me up for a bit. Little things like indestructible cockroaches, teeny-tiny killer mosquitos, relentless kitchen ants, untrustworthy tap water, weird stomach issues, diesel belching trucks, crazy drivers and perpetual sweating (this is not a comprehensive list).
Eventually, after a period of denial, I begin to navigate this new reality and it becomes just normal everyday routine. I even start to enjoy the added challenge life here brings. Trying to outsmart mice, figuring out what erratic maneuver the driver in front of me is going to pull, knowing when to hold my breath – it all makes even the most mundane day a little more interesting.
So while this is transition time is still fresh in my mind, I want to ask you to help me with “the shift” next year. On the last day we see each other in Canada I need you to put your hands on my shoulders, look me straight in the eyes and say, “Remember.” Next you’ll need to take off your shoe and smack it really hard on the ground. Then, come back to the previous shoulder/eye lock and say: “That’s how you kill a cockroach.”
For all of you who have faithfully followed my blog over the years, I wanted to post an update on what life is like in Liberia these days.
Some of you will remember the blog I posted my first year here, after I walked the 10 km home from downtown Monrovia in my flip flops. Now, I’m not going to do that again (ouch!), but I do want to give you an update on some changes since that epic walk.
Monrovia has seen a significant amount of new construction over the past 6 years as a result of diaspora returning to their home and foreigners gaining confidence in the stability of the country. The main road leading into Monrovia no longer looks like a meteor shower hit it, but there are so many cars on the road now, it still takes forever to drive the short distance to the city center during rush hours.
There is a massive bank of generators powering the city now and the Liberian Electric Corporation has strung lines to most major communities. Faith in this system is low so the wealthy still run their own generators and the less wealthy still use candles.
Chickens continue to roam downtown Monrovia, but the pigs tend to stay at least 5 km away from the heart of the city (better rooting possibilities a bit further out, I suppose). Dogs have seen a population explosion, as people like to use them as a low cost form of security, and also because there is still no vet here who will spay a female.
Village life seems to remain somewhat the same, with the most notable change being the increase in animal husbandry. I never used to see any animals other than chickens and dogs, but now goats, sheep and pigs are common sites in villages. The majority of them are just wandering around as they please, some even popping their heads out of people’s houses as I walk by.
The medical system continues to falter and people die from preventable illnesses all the time. That’s the aspect of life I find the most difficult to accept here. More doctors are returning to Liberia but without consistent power, diagnostic equipment, reliable labs and trained specialists, Liberians continue to die from treatable disease and illness. This fact is a driving force behind our well program. If people have clean water to drink it significantly decreases their odds of dying from water related diseases.
These days you are most likely to find me in a village working with the well team, but as the program expands and my team perfects their skills, I spend more time in water and sanitation meetings with various government ministries or working out logistics and monitoring the program.
I’m still a dedicated shade chaser and occasionally I can be seen raising my hands to the sky begging a cloud to cover that relentless Liberian sun. Some things never change!
It really been wonderful catching up and I look forward to next time!