Sunday, July 4, 2010

our liberian family wedding

On the plane both to and from Liberia, they showed the movie Family Wedding which I did not watch but is about a cross-cultural marriage, weirdly appropriate though I wish they would have shown something I actually wanted to see.

But before I get to the trip to the LIB, I should mention that our camp went down without much difficulty and the kids had a wonderful time. Because of the cold and unexpected vacations, attendance wasn't quite the 100 we wanted but we had in the 80s each day. I think it was a big change from school to be busy with activities - team building games, crafts, soccer, and HIV education - each day so by the time we got out at 1, they were all tired but eager to come back the next day. One of my favorite things about the camp was the volunteer participation. We had volunteers who we had trained before, but it seemed like everyone just wanted to be involved. One of the principals taught a fun game, and by the last day, even the campers were leading games. Hopefully they have been playing some of the games that they learned during the rest of the break.

So the day after the camp ended we headed to the airport for our flight to Nairobi and then Monrovia via Accra. Though it was a long enough trip for our ankles to swell up, we arrived safely on Saturday afternoon. We spent the first week visiting, preparing for the wedding, and helping out with the opening of an orphanage in a village near the Firestone plantation (Firestone has a huge different tracts...of rubber trees. It is an interesting place as it's kind of it's own community with stores and "villages" of houses where the families of workers live. It's a very different model from the old farming and mining world here in ZA where men used to leave their families to work at the mines or on a farm, but more towards what they are doing now. I don't know that much about the South African situation, but Firestone has created a community that has everything people need...and I can't judge whether this is a good or bad thing from just driving through.)

Monrovia itself is an interesting place. You can see that it once was a developed (by West African standards, nothing like what you see here in Southern Africa, but much more than N'Djamena) city, and it's returning to that slowly. With the hustle and bustle, it's a bit difficult to imagine that less than a decade ago (in 2003) the city was under siege. As we drove around, Alvina (Matt's new wife) would tell us about where the rebels were and where Charles Taylor's forces were, but now it's all a mass of shops and street vendors. The evidence is in the shells of burnt out and abandoned buildings that still remain and the converted apartment complexes that used to house NGOs (they've found new homes). The orphanage that we helped with upcountry had been located in the old Voice of America building before moving to the new one.

It was crazy for us to go from living in a country with such an immense and usually effective infrastructure to one without any at all. Though they are building roads, it still takes days to drive to towns upcountry (Liberia is about the size of Tennessee). The roads around Monrovia are pretty good, but some are pothole heavy, and traffic lights are non-existent (I remember Chad had one traffic light that was for show, I never saw it actually work). In Chad, I never really thought too much about the fact that there was no electrical power plant, and that everyone relied on generators, yet in Liberia it felt like such a waste. With so much investment and foreign aid coming into the country, why could they not build a power plant? Actually they are building some sort of renewable plant that will recycle rubber trees for electricity (I'm not exactly sure how) so hopefully that will provide power to some people. The dull (or sometimes extremely loud) roar of the generator at night was a constant reminder of how we take our electricity for granted here. Even the people we hung out with living in air-conditioned ex-pat apartments had their generators turned off during the day.

There are definitely changes afoot though with municipal trash collection (from dumpsters not homes) and renovated market structures with concrete floors and tin roofs so going to the market isn't such a muddy experience. It seems like there are thousands of NGOs or at least hundreds, and I think we met more Americans in two weeks in Liberia than a year in South Africa. The UN presence is still huge as evidenced by the fact that I saw a truck with the license plate UNMIL - 15823 (or something similar...they start at 1 and issue license plates up from there so that means there are tens of thousands of UN vehicles in the country. Matt told us that there is a graveyard of expired UN vehicles, not surprising with the road conditions and constant precipitation.) The huge ex-pat community also meant grocery stores stocked with American products, weird to see after a year of South African brands. Much of it was off brand and expensive (a jar of peanut butter for $4). And you can use US dollars to buy most anything. In fact, prices of more expensive items are given in US dollars.

So back to our trip...we enjoyed the wedding. James fulfilled his role as best man nicely giving a toast that no one seemed to listen to because of the feedback in the sound system. We danced the Grand March which is a Liberian tradition (there was a marching part, soul train part, and then circle dance part...I'm not sure how much of that is traditional). The day after the wedding we all (the family and Matt's friends) went to brunch at a nice resort and spent the day on the beach and watching games in their honeymoon room on the flat screen. The second week, we did lots of errands, visited with Liberian and American friends, went to the beach a few times, visited an orphanage, and just hung out with Ron and Pat.

We had a great time with family, getting to know Alvina, and experiencing Liberia. As we start the post Peace Corps job search, it was neat to get to go and see Monrovia as we may just end up moving there (with all these NGOs, there are a lot more jobs than in other countries). Back in South Africa, the air feels drier than ever as we must have acclimatized to the humidity. I can even feel the altitude a bit in my breath coming from sea level. I'm most excited to hear Setswana again and see people we know. One interesting thing about Liberia is that people use English as the lingua franca. I think I heard about one conversation in Bassa (Alvina's language) the whole time though we spent lots of time with her family. Though Liberian English itself is difficult to understand for those of us who are not used to it, I expected to hear more other languages. I'm sure in the villages you would, but just like in cities here, lots of people speak English. The difference is that it's been that way for a long time and the grannies and children speak English just as often as the people who've been to school.

Hope to write another post about watching world cup games this week, but ciao for now.

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