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Meet my neighbours

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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.

RaceWhen 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.

Chantel_and_diamondIt 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.

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How big is your trash pile?

To my dear loyal blog followers (who I have neglected for so long),

I want to begin my resurgence into my life as a blogger by acknowledging that I have let Facebook come between us.  It’s simply just too easy to post a picture, write a few lines and convey a great story. Actually, while I’m doling out excuses I’ll also mention that whenever I think of writing a blog I immediately develop this acute need to produce something profound. During a busy week of work this need for brain wrenching profoundness inevitably squashes my urge to write within seconds.

Excuses aside, I must warn you that although my posts may now lack depth, they will give you a sense of day-to-day life in Liberia and hopefully the occasional chuckle. But enough chit-chat, let’s start this off with a BANG by talking about my garbage!

Each time I go grocery shopping I really have to think twice before I buy, for example, a tetra-pack of juice because I know exactly where that tetra-pack is going.  It’s going directly to an overflowing dumpster down the road from my house that’s located right in front of a market where people sell food, children play and the stench of garbage fills the air.


To reduce our contribution to this festering pile of trash, the first thing I do is avoid buying heavily packaged items, then we focus on dividing our garbage into four categories: burnable, compostable, reusable and trash. We keep a burning drum in our yard that gets fired up every few weeks, two compost piles that get turned into soil for our garden and two big garbage pails that contain reusable items and the “true” trash.

The reusable pail consists of cans, jars with lids, glass bottles and plastic squeeze bottles. These items then get deposited beside the dumpster so the people who are looking for reusable items can easily go through it and pick out the things they want.

The recyclers either take the containers home to reuse themselves or they take the valuable ones to the new “reuse it” center where the items get resold. Water bottles are used for selling palm oil in, mayonnaise containers for selling locally made pepper sauces, and beer bottles are sold to people in need of a sharp security layer on top of their concrete fence. Even the containers from Liberia Pure Honey are part of the resalable system as they are often seen in the grocery stores with plantain chips inside.

The true trash is a real bummer. Since we have a car we can drive our trash to the dumpster, but so many people can’t and it ends up littering the streets, yards and alleyways. Garbage is everywhere here. Part of me thinks that’s not such a bad thing. When your garbage can’t go “away” and you have to look at it everyday as it really makes you think twice about what you buy.

Since I’m fighting the urge to turn this into some sort of profound conversation I’m going to stop right here and leave you with one question­– how big is your pile of garbage?



The Climb

Starting with the basics

I grew up surrounded by books. Under hypnosis, I’m confident I could recall the stories I heard my mother reading to my sisters, while I, little embryonic me, floated around in her belly. Once I arrived into this world, nursery rhymes and stories filled my ears and books drifted past my still blurred vision. That’s how soon the love of books was instilled in me.

Now let’s consider a different scenario. You grow up in a small rural village, your parents are illiterate, your family is just getting by, and there isn’t a single book in your home. Occasionally one of the children in your village who goes to school comes back with a book but when you hear them reading it’s hard to understand the words because they are so different from your own language. Your government doesn’t have much money to pay teachers so well educated people aren’t attracted to the profession, leaving the kids that do go to school with less than ideal teacher.

This is the reality for a vast amount of children in Liberia. With the literacy rate still sitting at a low 47% the odds are at least one parent can’t read.  In most rural communities there isn’t a strong culture of reading so children enter into the school system with very little knowledge of books and seeing words in print. To add to that, Liberian English, the common language here, is very different then the English used in books. The adults who teach these children grew up in the same environment so their ability to cultivate a passion for reading is limited as well.

At first the reading, writing and spelling ability of many young people I met shocked me. It’s not uncommon to hear about students that manage to graduate from high school with a reading level of about a grade 4. But, the more time I spend considering the language arts curriculum, the lack of exposure to books, and the language issue the less surprised I am.

Liberia isn’t unusual as this is a common story in most developing nations. Although the millennium development goals are showing great results globally with getting kids into school, the academic ability of those students often remains low. Fortunately in Liberia, the Ministry of Education in Liberia is facing the issue by working on teacher development as well as improving the curriculum. Unfortunately, it’s a process that requires time.

Currently, there’s a big push to get kids reading and our school is working hard to be a shining example of what’s possible.  We have an amazing library, some gifted readers in each grade already, a current goal of fortifying our language arts program for next year, and a school wide reading assessment under way so we can monitor progress. It’s going to be a great challenge for all of us.

When in Canada I seem to be surrounded by young families and I often see children dragging books around and asking their parents to read them a story – that’s not a common scenario in Liberia at all.  But the other day, the sensation of standing before a mountain shifted. Little Emmanuel Lagree, 7 years old and in grade 1, saddled up to me while I was sitting in the library. He quickly scanned the shelves and reached for a book.

“Janjay, I love this book-o!”

“ See the man?” he pointed, “He can drive the plane.”

And on and on he went until I knew every form of transportation and who drove it.

Suddenly, Everest turned in to the Grouse Grind and although I knew we’d all have to work really hard to get to the top, we’d be elated, and educated, when we got there.