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Meet my neighbours

gate_kids copy


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.


UOF team

The UOF team in Liberia


I’m rather confident that I’m the first person to make a donation UOF’s “Stop Ebola Now” campaign. In fact I’m 100% confident, because the campaign is still about 12 hours away from being launched.

Right now I’m in Canada longer than I expected due to the Ebola crisis in Liberia. As I watch my savings rapidly dwindle in this wonderful yet pricey country, I’m ready to continue parting with my hard earned cash because I’m seriously worried for my friends and coworkers as well as the communities I work in. It’s truly a desperate time.

And truth be known, I’m also a bit embarrassed, so I am making the donation to our campaign as an act of faith in myself and the people I work with. Let me explain.

When the second Ebola outbreak started I put my faith in others and trusted that organizations with medical backgrounds would be able to manage the crisis. I should have realized the magnitude of the situation when one of the first replies I got to a “who is working where” email came back with an attachment containing instructions for setting up a containment unit and the question, “Can you do this?”

Every organization has its strengths and we certainly have ours, but at that moment I didn’t feel that setting up a unit to contain a deadly virus was in the scope of our expertise.

My concern was eased when I heard that health care volunteers were being trained for Ebola awareness in the county where the school we work with is located. With the community taken care of, I decided to focus on UOF’s plan to help the Liberia recover after the crisis passes. It’s going to take a lot of resources to get things back on track and I wanted to start getting programs in place. I was still hopeful this would all end soon.

But over time, when these health care volunteers didn’t materialize, we turned to our staff. We asked them if they wanted to participate in the fight against Ebola, what the current needs are, if they feel safe taking action, and if they need us on the ground to help. They decided that they wanted to move on this and they felt confident doing it without us there.

Before I digress too far, let’s get back to my embarrassment. UOF has done some amazing things over the past seven years in Liberia – things I never thought were possible – so my feelings of regret/embarrassment/frustration stem from the fact that I looked to others to solve this problem and I didn’t look within sooner.

But, I also remind myself that it’s okay. It’s okay because everyone’s backbone is stronger right now and our ability to act with confidence is greater. We know what to do, we know that no one else is going to do it (in the communities we work in) and we know how best to go about it.

It’s important to start strategizing for life after Ebola, but if this virus doesn’t get controlled soon its going to be a long time before we’ll be able to start putting the pieces back together. Kent and I weigh up the reality and effectiveness of our return to Liberia everyday. As soon as we feel things are turning around we’ll be back, but in the meantime we’re focused on helping the families and communities we know get the resources they need to keep themselves safe during this terrible time.

There is a sense of hope within me and the people I work with as we start working to turn this situation around. And at a time like this, a sense of hope is a powerful thing.


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.

A Sad State of Affairs

Photo on 2014-01-29 at 12.30 PM

What undeniably saddens me the most about life in Liberia is the level of health care available.  Maima (see last blog) was fortunate to have a visiting maxillofacial surgeon available to assess her situation within 2 months of us meeting her. Had that doctor not be traveling through Liberia her other choice would have been a local surgeon who had revealed to me during a conversation that, “[He’s] done a surgery like this before and it went alright but, in the end the anesthetist killed the patient.”

I’m pondering the medical situation here again because of another incident we happened upon recently. After a Sunday spent out of town at the beach, we arrived back in Monrovia just after sunset. As we drove through the dimly lit streets we came upon an accident scene.  A woman was lying face down on the road, bleeding from her head after being hit by a car when she was trying to cross the street. The driver of the vehicle had left the scene and a small crowd was forming.

Kent pulled over and started rifling through our first aid kit while I repeatedly thought to myself  “Please let an ambulance pull up now, please let an ambulance pull up now.”  As I looked up and saw the police car drive by without stopping I realized it was a highly unlikely that help was on its way.

While Kent grabbed a surfboard from the roof he instructed the people with us to move everything in the back of the truck onto the seats so the floor would be clear. They then rushed to the scene, quickly assessed the situation, wrapped her head and loaded her onto the surfboard.  She was carefully brought to the truck and slid into the cleared space. As everyone held her in place I drove to the nearest emergency room.

In those minutes while I waited for them to come back to the truck I considered where we could take her. In my mind our best choice was JFK Hospital not because I thought it was a great option, but because it had the highest odds of a visiting surgeon actually being available when we arrive. When Kent got into the truck and conformed my choice, I knew we were thinking the same thing.

I experienced a less serious, yet very stressful, situation our first year here when Kent had malaria and was rapidly deteriorating. I knew from a previous emergency that I had to think in terms of odds versus quality when I chose a hospital to take him to. In those days hospitals didn’t always have a doctor on hand and, if you went to a place that was decently equipped but small, you could end up waiting a long time for a doctor to arrive.

The women hit by the car would have been a difficult situation in any country, but it reminded me, yet again, of the inadequacies of medical situation in Liberia. It has improved since we arrived in 2007 with many more qualified family physicians available, but its still seriously lacking in specialized care.

We left the woman in the hands of the hospital staff as well as the police that eventually arrived.  We didn’t get the reaction we hoped for where nurses and doctors bustled around the patient, attaching IV’s and monitors and summoning the surgeon to “scrub up” as they desperately tried to save her life.  Instead it was a sluggish reaction, one where they calmly asked us to register her, then slowly transferred her to a bed and waited for a doctor to come. Perhaps they simply knew she wasn’t going to make it and no rushing would change that.

We left our number in case there was anything else we could do and drove home in silence. She passed away that night.

Although the medical system here is poor I am still incredibly grateful for all the family physicians that have chosen to come back to Liberia, for the people who are stead fast in their work to improve the situation, and for doctors that are willing to visit Liberia and share their skills. I know small changes do happen all the time and I look forward to the day when I can confidently say in an emergency situation, “Let’s go to this hospital, they have everything it takes.”