Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Three Years in Three Days

There is a saying used in Zambia when long awaited visitors arrive, “Tikulandirani ndi manja a wiri,” “We welcome you with two hands.” Well, I think on this trip Zambia welcomed me back with two feet….a 14 hour day on the bus to get back to my village. That would be 7 hours just waiting for the bus to fill and then a 7 hour bus ride, squished like sardines, with only bananas to eat and a fear of drinking anything due to a fear of not knowing when the next pee break would be. Ahhh….. Zambia, I have arrived!
I decided to throw myself right in and spend the first day back in my village with my family. It was great to see how the village has changed and how it has stayed exactly the same (some houses are still standing and some are not, there’s a new borehole and about a thousand new kids, cell phones are everywhere, and the girls still play netball on Saturdays). I was fed like a queen with chicken, goat, kapenta (small dried fish), eggs, bread, rape (a green leafy veg), rice, and most importantly, their staple food (and once mine), nshima (maize meal cooked into a hard lump)…. Oh yeah! So THAT’S how I gained 25 pounds when I lived there! The day was great… they didn’t want me to leave and I didn’t want to go.
I spent the next day visiting with NZP+ (see My First Scoop for details). I was welcomed warmly, but then quickly told of the problems they still face and asked how I could help. Since I left, they have received funding from two donors for office reconstruction, office supplies and even workers salaries…things we only dreamed of having when I was there. I just wish they could have stressed more about the improvements they have made rather than about how much they still have to do.( Note: This was not a surprise to me and I do understand the thinking behind it. It was more my personal frustrations getting the best of me “Look how far you’ve come! Remember what it was like a few years ago?! Be proud!” When in reality they are thinking “The funding won’t last forever and yes, we have a new office, but what about transportation to get to the remote villages that need us most? And what about all the orphans who are now joining our groups? How do we get them school uniforms and blankets?” When you don’t have much you do what you can to get as much as you can from wherever you can. I am coming from a country seen as having a lot of money to just give away… of course it makes sense to ask for some of it.) This is the struggle I remember all so well while living in Zambia: what I think should be vs. what really is. I always lost that struggle. I am proud of the work being done and hope that the successes they have had can empower them to keep going… and yes, I will be there to help them.
I spent my last day with the women’s group at CINDI (Children in Distress). When women in Zambia come together, they create an energy that cannot be found anywhere else. I was definitely welcomed with two hands here, fed like a queen again, and even given gifts to take home. CINDI also struggles with funding for their organization, but somehow they get by. Their preschool for the orphans had to close due to lack of funds, but they still find ways to assist the community in getting the orphans into school, clothing them and feeding them. We sang and danced and celebrated all afternoon.
Going back to Katete after three and a half years was definitely bittersweet (more sweet than bitter though!). The most difficult part was cramming three years of my life into three days. Katete will forever be my home and the people I visited with over the past three days reminded me of that from the minute I arrived to the minute I left.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rockin' Robberg

We were blessed with the most beautiful weather for our afternoon hike around Robberg Peninsula this afternoon. The nature trail starts at the top of the peninsula, goes along the sea cliffs, wraps down through the dunes and heads back up the rocky shores at the edge of the surf. There was the most wonderful breeze coming off the water, but the sun beat down as we climbed up. I actually broke a sweat for the first time since I’ve arrived in country! About midway through the hike we spotted hundreds of sea lions at the bottom of the cliffs, playing in the waves and sunning themselves on the rocks. They were having a great time, but they stunk! We stopped for lunch on the dunes that cut through the middle of the rocks and ate our avocado sandwiches and biltong while enjoying a stunning view of the ocean. After our little picnic, we carried on down the dunes, along the beach and then up to the top of an outpost to a magnificent lookout point. We got there just in time- there were about 5 pods of whales breaching, blowing air, and tail slapping. It was bloody hard to get pictures of the damn things, but I tried.. you see here what I mean.

The walk ended scaling across the slippery cliffs and back up to the starting point. The entire day was breathtaking- what a way to spend a Tuesday afternoon! We ended the day by grilling some fresh fish and roasting some veggies, all washed down with some chilled white wine. I’m thoroughly enjoying my meals and drinks, knowing that all too soon I will be surviving on rice and water! Tomorrow we are off to Port Elizabeth for the World Cup game (England v Slovenia). Time to buy a vuvuzela!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In the beginning… of vacation….

When I only have 15 hours in a new city I’ll do what I can to make the most of it and live in the moment. While taxi-ing to our gate in Madrid, I was able to strike up a nice conversation with the girl sitting next to me (who had the same layover as I did) and by the time the seat belt light turned off, she had invited me to hang out with her and her friends for the day. I had noticed her praying the rosary on the way over and heard her speaking Spanish to the flight attendants, so I considered her my trusted translator for the rest of the day. We started the day in Sol for lunch and (AWESOME) coffee then made our way to a local bar to watch a World Cup game over a beer (or 2). We did some touristy sight-seeing and then enjoyed a bottle of champagne and strawberries at a local indoor market. That evening we found (after about 10 detours) the only Mexican bar in all of Madrid to watch Mexico v. France. The game ended just in time for us to make our way to the airport to catch the 9 hour flight to Johannesburg. I slept the whole way.
The energy of the World Cup hit me as soon as I landed in Africa. Fans have taken over the airports, dressed in their team colors, wrapped in flags, blowing vuvuzelas…. Everyone is happy to be here. I love Africa.
I met up with Kyra and Sam in Durban on Friday afternoon. We drove about 2 hours south to KwaZulu Natal where Sam’s aunt and uncle own a 500 hectare dairy farm. This farm is an amazing place and the force of the African winter made itself known with temps below freezing at night (the extra weight of the heavy sweatshirt in my luggage was well worth it)! Despite the cold, we spent hours hiking around, meeting the cows, watching bush buck run up the hills, and even found otters swimming in the trout pond. We were spoiled with bright sun, a HUGE blue sky, and hot curry next to the fire at night….enough to heat your heart and mind and remind me, again, why I love this place. It was a beautiful weekend spent with some beautiful friends, old and new.
This morning we caught a plane to George and drove about 1.5 hours to Sam’s other aunts house in Plettenberg Bay. It’s almost paradise here. They have a beautiful house on a hill overlooking the bay with a lush garden off the back patio. We enjoyed a few glasses of wine in the sun, ate a delicious lunch, and then we took a walk down along the edge of the bay.
Although I have always been intrigued by South Africa, it is not the Africa I know. Spending time here these last few days has given me a completely new appreciation for the country and has added to the respect I have for it. From the rolling hills of the dairy farms in KwaZulu Natal, to the mountains rising up on the edge of the ocean in George and Plettenberg Bay , I’ve been in awe since I arrived…and I haven’t even been here a week! I can’t wait until tomorrow and I don’t even know what we’re doing yet

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let the Matches Begin!

The excitement surrounding the World Cup is at an all time high with matches beginning this Friday. South Africa has been busy laying the groundwork to host the some 300,000 people who plan on attending. We have seen the building and renovating of 10 stadiums, improvements in communication networks, new transportation (e.g. the Gautrain and bus systems, etc. There is no doubt that the excitement of hosting is taking over South Africa. Yet, behind all of the preparation and excitement, there is skepticism as to what will happen to the country when the matches have been played, the crowds have gone home, and things are back to normal. Who will fill the stadiums and ride the new transportation lines? Will those who built and renovated the stadiums (in less than ideal conditions with less than ideal pay) continue to have a job? In the end, what will the economical boost be and who will it benefit the most (FIFA , South Africa, both)? Will the World Cup help solve South Africa’s problems?
Let’s be honest. Problems will arise after the FIFA World Cup Trophy is awarded and the World Cup will not solve all of SA’s problems. … but, just maybe giving a country that was once so divided a chance to unite over something so powerful is worth it. South Africa is a country full of culture, history, and beauty. This is a chance for the world to see all it has to offer.
So, where does Liberia fit into all of this? Well, the Lone Stars, Liberia’s national team, is no stranger to the football world. In 1995, the Lone Stars produced the FIFA World Player of the Year, George Weah (who, by the way, ran for presidency in 2005 and lost to the current president, Ellen Johnson- Shirleaf). The team even boasts their own (up to date!) webpage ( They may not be competing this year but don’t count them out forever- the naming of a new head coach earlier this week is the beginning of the road to the World Cup 2014!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

From Resettling to Rebuilding

Just as Liberia was emerging from 14 years of civil war, I was arriving in Africa for the first time. I am ashamed to say that I was not fully aware of what was going on at the time. I wish I could blame it on the little access I had to current events and world news, but I won’t. I should have been aware…we all should have.
Liberia, a West African country about the size of Tennessee, is home to over 3 million people. That’s over 3 million people affected by the war, still recovering from the war, and forever traumatized by the war.
Liberia’s relationship with America began in the early 1800’s when the American Colonization Society was formed to help resettle slaves back to Africa (because they would be happier in Africa? Would be able to help Christianize Africa? Because they wouldn’t come up against racial prejudice? Or maybe we decided we didn’t “need” them anymore? ...). The society they formed on the western coast of Africa became the independent nation of Liberia in 1847. By 1867, over 13,000 emigrants (soon to be known as Americo-Liberians) had arrived and disputes between the freed slaves and the indigenous people of Liberia were on the rise. For great historical insight into Liberia during the time of colonization I would suggest reading The History of Liberia by J.H.T McPherson.
Let me fast forward to the year I was born (1980) when 133 years of tense Americo-Liberian rule finally ended. A coup led by Samual Doe, a member of the Krahn ethnic group, overthrew (meaning ‘executed’…as is the case in much of Liberian history) the Americo-Liberian president William Tolbert. After gaining power, Doe and his government became increasingly corrupt- banning political opposition, shutting down newspapers and arresting journalists. Doe solidified his control after the fraud-filled elections (are you really that surprised?) in 1985 and the corruption, tension and abuse continued. Yet, Doe was able to establish good relations with the United States and even met with President Ronald Regan twice. Hmm.
On Christmas Eve in 1989, while I anxiously waited for Santa Claus to come, Charles Taylor (an Americo-Liberian) entered Liberia from the Ivory Coast and the first Liberian civil war began. Taylor and his rebel forces gained a lot of support in Liberia (remember that Doe’s time in power was characterized by corruption and brutality; I’d want to support someone else too) and were able to move quickly towards the capital city. In 1990, Taylor was prevented from capturing Monrovia, and Doe was overthro… I mean executed by rebel forces. An interim government was soon set up, but was not recognized by Taylor. From 1989 to 1996 over 200,000 Liberians were killed and a million more were displaced. Finally in 1997, Taylor agreed to a transitional government until special elections were held. Charles Taylor won the elections… Surprise! I’d like to say things got better after these ‘free’ elections, but they got worse.
Soon after elections, the second Liberian civil war broke out and continued until 2003. These years were filled with sickening brutality and abuse. I suggest watching the documentary Liberia: An uncivil war for a closer look at what happened over these years.
On June 4, 2003, peace talks were held in Ghana and a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed . To see how women played a role in these peace talks, take a look at the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
After some international pressure, Taylor stepped down from power and was exiled to Nigeria. He left behind a bankrupt country with no healthcare or education system, an unemployment and illiteracy rate above 75%, and a devastated infrastructure.
In 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in as president and became Africa's first democratically elected female president. To learn more about Ellen, watch Iron Ladies of Liberia or read her memoir, This Child Will be Great.
Liberia is now beginning to rebuild, improve security, and enjoy relative stability.

To do what?

Good question.
There is always (understandably) a sense of vagueness in Peace Corps job descriptions, but I’ll do my best to tell you what I can (because to be honest, I'm not really sure what I'll be doing!).

I will be serving as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer (PCR) for 6 months somewhere in Liberia. My assignment will be different from what I did in Zambia in that it will be “short-term and high impact”. As a PCR volunteer, I will need to hit the ground running so I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about Liberia, getting to know some of the people I will be serving with, and preparing for the job ahead. I use preparing loosely here…. Good thing I took 3 weeks off before I leave!

When I first accepted the invitation to Liberia, I was told I would be working with Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the Community Health Department. The job description sounded very similar to what I did in Zambia, so I knew I would be a good fit. Just as I was getting my hopes up, creating expectations (a big no-no when living as a Peace Corps volunteer), and beginning to plan how I would spend my 6 months in Liberia, I got an email switching things up a little bit. I will now be partnered with the UN WFP (World Food Programme) and UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), working to strengthen communities’ education and health initiatives. WFP and UNICEF work through the local Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) to reach community members most in need. Click here to get more information about what WFP and UNICEF are doing in Liberia.
This was not exactly what I had in mind when I decided to go to Liberia- Ive never worked with PTAs or schools- but I’m working on getting comfortable with uncertainty (Thanks, Pema). I remind myself of why I am going to Liberia in the first place… To be the change. Change can come from anyone, anywhere, through many different doors.
I hope that by partnering with WFP and UNICEF I will gain a better understanding of what organizations like these do at the local level. I’ve been doing some reading about the “aid mentality” and look forward to making my own observations about the work being done. Maybe I can also network and get a job when I get back!

You're going where?

I'm going to Liberia!
Liberia is a West African country, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote D'Ivoire and the Atlantic Ocean. It is about the size of Tennessee with a population of just over 3 million people. Monrovia, the capital city, is named after the 5th American president, James Monroe.
Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world...there is an 85% unemployment rate, 75% of people do not have access to proper sanitation, 40% of children under 5 are malnurished... I could go on and on....
I've been told to pack my rain coat. Monrovia is the rainiest capital city in the world with over 12 feet of rain a year. At 12 feet a year, I don't think a rain coat will help very much but I packed it anyway.
Liberia is home to one of West Africa's largest rain forests... with pygmy hippos!!
I won't know exactly where in Liberia I will be posted until I arrive in country... suspense.... stay tuned!