Ma Ellen

Presidential elections are the big thing going on Liberia these days. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president was elected by the Liberian people in 2005 and is now running for a second term. I didn’t know much about her and knew even less about the other contenders, so I decided when I was home to buy her autobiography for the trip back to Liberia. I just finished it.

She is quite the lady. But beyond just her own story, I learned so much more about Liberia. She described her country this way, “Liberia is a wonderful, beautiful, mixed-up country struggling mightily to find itself.” Wow. And that, my friends, is the best summary I’ve heard so far.

I appreciated her honesty about the meager condition of Liberia while maintaining an authentic posture of hope. It’s true. Liberia is a mess. When Ma Ellen (as the Liberians call her) took office, half of the population was struggling to live on just 50 cents/day. Illiteracy rates were reported to be as high as 70% and an unemployment rate of nearly 80%, many of those being young men who had been child soldiers.

The country’s infrastructure was almost completely destroyed. Ellen’s new government started working in buildings without functioning bathrooms and electricity. The electrical power grids had been systematically looted during the war. Likewise, water pipes had either deteriorated or been dug up and stolen (by Nigerian UN peacekeepers no less) leaving ¾ of the population without safe drinking water. The list goes on and on…sky-high HIV rates, malaria, malnutrition, inadequate school systems, run down and vacated hospitals, topped off with a massive $4.7 billion international debt owed to various donors.

Kudos to her for not throwing her arms up as I probably would have done…and sometimes do. And yet, here she is, running for another six-year term. I hope she wins. I know that progress in these areas has not come as swiftly as she or the rest of the country would like to see. But progress has been made and I hope the Liberian people recognize that.

A new campus for the University of Liberia just opened this last month and a brand new; state of the art hospital was constructed in rural Liberia where proper health care is scarce. The roads are a mess, but are slowly being rehabilitated. There is a long way to go, but they are headed in the right direction and I think consistency, slow and steady, is what it will take.

Elections will be held on Oct 11th. Good luck, Ma Ellen!

RADIO CHAT

UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) has a radio station that we sometimes listen to called Coffee Chat, or Morning Coffee or something like that. This program is a talk show format in which concerned citizens may call in to discuss societal problems impacting those in and around Monrovia. We like to tune in on our way into work.

This morning a youth called in to the hotline with a question related to bathing prior to class. His concern was that the water he pumped from the well in the morning was too cold to bathe in, making his shower a most regretful experience. Because of all of this unpleasantness, the young man stopped bathing prior to going to school and was in need of some expert advice. Here is what the radio host had to offer in a most hyper and boisterous manner:

“MAN, YOU GOTTA TAKE A BATH, MAN! IF YOU DON’T BATHE BEFORE SCHOOL, YOUR MIND WILL WANDER BECAUSE YOU WILL ITCH TOO MUCH AND ALL OF YOUR CLASSMATES WILL NOTICE YOU AND SAY THAT THAT BOY ITCHES TOO MUCH!”

HERE’S WHAT YOU DO, MAN!

ON THE EVENING BEFORE CLASS, PUMP YOUR COOL WATA (water) FROM THE WELL, THEN COVER IT WITH A CLOTH SO THAT NO SMALL, SMALL THINGS CRAWL INSIDE THE BUCKET. THEN, THE TEMPERATURE OF THE AIR WILL SLOWLY TAKE THE CHILL OUT OF THE WATA AND BY THE TIME YOU WAKE-UP, THE WATA WILL FEEL TOO FINE!

SO, LET’S HEAR NO MORE OF THIS BUSINESS ABOUT WATA BEING TOO COLD. JUST PUMP IT THE NIGHT BEFORE AND IT WILL FEEL TOO GOOD. GOT IT?”

You betcha

500 Pineapples

Over the last few days, I’ve been able to get caught up on the progress of the micro-grant program. It’s been fun to start seeing positive results from the program. The women who attended our trainings in early summer are beginning to reap the benefits of their grants.

To date, SFL has distributed 240 micro-grants in rural Liberia to both men and women farmers. Since the trainings, SFL field officers have been able to meet with the grant recipients and verify their progress. The long lasting success of the micro-grant program can only be measured over time and yet, the immediate results have been quite extraordinary.

Hannah Watkins attended one of our training seminars and is a recipient of the micro-grant distribution.

She lives in Fish Town located in River Gee County. Hannah is married and the mother of eight children. She has managed to keep all of her children in school ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade. She expects them to help her on the farm during their spare time.

Hannah used the cash portion of the grant to contribute to purchasing rice seed, cassava shoots and pineapple heads for her farm. She is expecting to harvest up to 500 pineapples by December and has engaged in a contract with a local juice producer to sell her yield in bulk. She can sell a small pineapple head for $125 Liberian dollars (about $1.50 USD) and the larger heads can be sold for up to $250 Liberian dollars (about $3.00 USD). If she can successfully harvest and sell all 500 pineapple heads, she will likely see an almost 800% profit.

By strategically using the jump-start money given by SFL’s micro-grant program, Hannah will experience first hand the benefits of farming as a business. She intends to use her profits to grow her farm, keep her children in school, buy school supplies and also to hire others from her community as the farm grows.

When asked how the micro-grant program has impacted her and her family, Hannah responded by saying that,  “This helps me expand my farm, while also helping others around me.  It made my children happy to continue to go to school.  I can see that my family life has improved.  It has expanded our capacity and allowed us to make life better.” She went on to say that, “The people in Fish Town are excited that I have expanded my business.  People are asking me how I have done it.  They are looking up to me.  They want to expand their own farms.”  They feel encouraged by the example that Hannah and her family have set.

We are excited to continue working with these people and look forward to more training opportunities and grant distributions in the weeks ahead.

 

Let the chaos begin

We have arrived. The trip really could not have gone any better. Flights were on time, impeccable customer service, bags arrived in one piece…and then, we got off the plane.

Oh, Liberia…

We arrived at the Monrovia guesthouse to find our stored belongings almost entirely coated with mold. Yep, my shoes, clothes, hats, book bags…everything. Although I had left strict instructions not to leave anything wet before storing it, the humidity and little air movement won out. Gross. I have a long few days of laundry ahead. After the initial horror wore off, I went in search of my cell phone, which, as expected was dead. I asked the guesthouse manager where my charger was and he said it exploded. Of course it did. I guess I’ll be getting a new phone today.

When we arrived at the office this morning, the place reeked of diesel. As we rounded the corned toward Tim’s office, we stopped in our tracks and stared as diesel fuel ran from one of the hall to the other. Tim and I just shrugged. It’s Liberia, man. Apparently the valve for the diesel barrel was left open…or something

It’s not even noon, but I can’t wait to see what this afternoon has in store. On a brighter side, it has been so much fun to see our staff. They are ecstatic to have us back. We were able to bring a few small gifts for them and it’s so fun to watch their reaction.

Happiest season of all

Labor Day Weekend. It’s my favorite. I’m so glad I didn’t have to miss it this year. Since I was baby, I have only missed two Labor Day Weekends up north. The first was during my last trip to Africa and the second was for a very important wedding. Don’t know if there is much else that could hold me back from my favorite weekend. There are just so many things I love about it. To start off with, it’s the kick off to my favorite season-Fall in Minnesota is amazing!

Apple picking with big brother

  Secondly, one of America’s largest Steam Engine shows takes place this weekend just 3 miles from my parent’s farm in Rollag, MN.

Now, I know I may not seem like the kind of girl who would be into antique tractors, steam engines and threshing machines…and to be honest, I’m really not.

What is a threshing machine, you ask? Oh, I don’t know…only one of the most influential inventions of the 19th century.

One thing I am however is incredibly nostalgic and sentimental about things from my childhood. I grew up attending the reunion with my dad, riding in the tractor parade with my cousins and listening to the old timers strum country classics on their banjoes and fiddles.

I love it.

But perhaps the best thing about Labor Day weekend is the Swenson family BBQ, hayride and bonfire at my mom and dad’s house, a tradition going as far back as I remember. I get to see uncles, aunts and cousins that may otherwise go unseen.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year

Behind the Elevator Speech

We’re beginning to pack up and prepare for returning to Africa. There is a side of me that feels anxious about returning to the ruckus of life there. I can feel my stomach tighten and my shoulders stiffen at the thought of going back to Liberia, the land of perpetual chaos.

But there is also another part, buried way below the surface that is actually excited to get back to our rather bizarre state of affairs.

Coming back home has helped me to step out of the emotional obscurities of life in Africa and gain some needed perspective. Liberia can sometimes feel like living from one to crisis to another, which really isn’t much of an exaggeration. They are one of the poorest countries in the world and catastrophe seems to hang around every corner.

When people here ask, “How’s Africa?”, I’m never quite sure how to answer. It’s a bit of loaded question. My typical elevator speech goes something like this, “Well, it’s been challenging, but we’re learning and growing through it.” That’s usually enough to satisfy the inquirer and then we can move on to other things like how horrible the American economy is or how high gas prices are. Ya, know…

But behind that “elevator speech” is a swirl of quite lively emotions and feelings about our time in Liberia these past 8 months. I can’t pin the difficulty on one specific issue, as I’m sure most people who’ve spent time in Africa would agree. Rather, the compiling of everyday mishaps, large and small, become quite wearing over time. The lack of infrastructure, no electricity, bad water, poor roads, civil corruption, etc…The combination of culture shock and just Liberia’s day to day are enough to drive a person crazy.

I was praying the other day asking God to bring peace to my twisted insides and was struck once again by what a gift this season of my life is. How many people have the opportunity to step out of their ordinary lives, move across the world and experience (as hard as it may be) the things we are seeing and doing? We are learning so much about the rest of the world. I am grateful for the way our marriage has grown in the midst of hardship. If for no other reason than to live the rest of my life with a heart of thankfulness and gratitude for the blessings in my life, I believe this season has been worth it.

But enough of that. I still have 10 days left of vacation and I intend to enjoy everyone of them. After a long awaited lunch at Fogo de Chao, we are headed up north for Labor Day weekend…my favorite weekend of the year (more on that later). Hope you all enjoy your last few weeks of summer!!