Monday, November 28, 2005

New Skills and Terminology

Not too long ago, after years of using candles at night, I learned how to light a kerosene lantern. I jumped for joy when I did it, and was quite proud of myself until I thought "Wait a's 2005. I should not be rejoicing about this." But the fact is we live like past generations and so must learn those old ways of life. With no electricity we must cook on coalpots, light lanterns to see at night, and use coal irons to iron our clothes.

Today, my son came home from school with his Grammar notes. Topic: How We Use Capital Letters. In the chart of examples, along with the name of a classmate and the name of his school, was this entry: "Tiger generator". He is only 5 years old, but every kid in his class knows what a generator is. (Only the adults know how frustrating the Tiger brand can be). I suppose our kids are the lucky ones though. When I visited my old elementary school in 1996 I saw a list of terms on a classroom wall that included ECOMOG and CO. I had to ask what CO stood for. "Commanding Officer," I was told.

The Easiest Way to Light a Coalpot

Find a candle that is almost finished. Maybe one about an inch long or so. Fill the coalpot with coal, and place the little piece of candle deep down somewhere in the middle of the pile. Light the candle, and arrange two or three pieces of coal so that they surround and touch the flame without putting it out. That's it. The coals around the flame will get white hot and spread the fire to the others. No fanning necessary.

(OK - this is the easiest way to light a coalpot when you have no lighter fluid)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

At Criminal Court

I went to Criminal Court today, but there was no hearing for Isaac, Wleh and Prince—my street friends accused of robbery. The clerk told me that he would have to assign a hearing date, that the boys would get a lawyer at the hearing, and that I would have to “bring something” to make this all possible. So, I asked him, if I don’t pay you these boys will never be assigned a hearing date? After a long pause he told me he would assign the case, and I should call at 2:30 in the afternoon to make sure it was ready.

I called at 2:40 pm and was told the assignment was ready. (Wow!) “Can you make it here by 3?” the clerk asked. “You’ll need to go with the sheriff to the prison with the assignment.” No problem. I was there at 3 o’clock on the dot. But there was no assignment, no Sheriff, no trip to the prison. Just another attempt, by the clerk and the judge, to get me to file a costly bond. This time the cost was lower than the last quote, but still beyond my means and against reason: why should I have to pay anything when a court-appointed lawyer could (and should) get them out?

I was told to return on Monday, when all the prisoners will be brought to court. But I’m already tired of the runaround and I’m beginning to wonder if my interest in these boys might actually keep them in longer than necessary.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It's Official...

It's official! Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 23rd President of the Republic of Liberia, and the first woman in Africa elected as Head of State. All Hail, Liberia, Hail!

I was in a taxi in the middle of town and a traffic jam as the ceremony took place at the Centennial Pavilion. We cheered as we listened to it live on the radio and watched people on both sides of the street dancing and rejoicing for blocks and blocks. A beautiful and uplifting experience.

I am at home now, and still dancing.

USA Today Cartoon

I love this cartoon from USA Today. We are on top of the world!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

"We the Good Boys"

I spent some time in town today, meeting with several guys from the A-Team* and with people who I hope might be able to provide pro bono legal aid for three imprisoned street boys accused of robbery.

Just out of curiosity, I asked Patrick, one of the leaders of the A-Teamers, why he hadn't taken advantage of the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation & Reintegration Programs offered to ex-combatants. He could have gone to computer classes or to academic or vocational schools through the DDRR.

"I ran behind it, but no way," Patrick said. "We the good boys couldn't get any help. You had to turn in a gun in order to get the ID card, so only those who fought or those who hid weapons from the last war could get it."

What a shame. Thousands of ex-combatants being rewarded with education and opportunity while the boys who listened to us when we said "Please don't fight anymore" get nothing but a clear conscience.

*A-Team is code name for "the street"

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Other Side of Justice

It’s so easy to rant about the criminals that slip through Liberia’s justice system without retribution…until those criminals happen to be downtrodden people you know and care about.

For the past couple of days I’ve been advocating for three young men I’ve known since 1999 when they were just young drug-addicted street boys on the hustle. I helped design a residential rehabilitation and vocational training program for them at the Boys Town campus in Schiefflin. Over a hundred boys participated in that program during the two years of its existence. Funding ended partly because of the political climate at the time, and after Graduation exercises we placed some of the boys with carpenters, masoners and farmers to work as apprentices. Others—mostly the youngest ones—were reunited with their families and sent to formal schools. But in the end, some of them, like Isaac, Wleh, and Prince were discouraged by the lack of job opportunities and returned to the streets.

On Monday, November 14th, according to witnesses and police, a friend of Isaac, Wleh and Prince stole a handbag from a lady and ran off to their Carey Street hangout with it. The three defendants then gathered around him and fought to grab items from the bag for themselves. The three were caught on Tuesday, and the actual perpetrator was caught on Friday—the same day I heard about the arrest and visited them at Central Police Headquarters. I was told I could take them then, upon paying a fee “as a guarantee”, but I had no money at the time and none until today. Unfortunately, I arrived at the courthouse just in time to see the boys being led by UNMIL police to the minibus that would take them to “South Beach”—Monrovia’s prison. I told them not to worry—that I had just spoken with the complainant’s representative and with the police, and that I would now be able to sign for their release. But the courtroom judge, who had not even heard the defense, refused to release them in my care. He said a lawyer will have to file the papers to bail them out. The cost to do so will be six times what I had been asked to pay on Friday.

Where is the justice? The victim wants to know, but so do I. Why is the focus on Issac, Wleh and Prince, when they did not plan or carry out the actual crime? Why does the Writ of Arrest accuse them of conniving to snatch the purse when everyone involved agrees they were minding their own business when the purse happened to come their way? Why have these boys been kept for a week with no change of clothes and no access to either a private or a court-appointed lawyer? And most puzzling, why was the purse-snatcher released today? What sense does that make? Could it be that he, somehow, had the cash to get himself out?

The court case is set for Thursday. Maybe I'll get some answers there.

Friday, November 18, 2005


Today, little Elma came to see me for the first time since her birth on October 8th. She is the granddaughter of my children’s nurse, Edith. Ma Edith named the baby after me with no objection from the parents, who came from Harbel today to present my namesake to me.

It was both amusing and beautiful to hold a tiny girl in my arms and call her by my name. Elma. There are not too many of us in this world. Here, in Liberian English, I am often called "Emma." Some funny versions are "Edmon", and, by one little boy long ago, "Yellowma."

The day Ma Edith asked me to write my name down so that they would get it right on the birth certificate (thank goodness!), I taught her how to pronounce it, and smiled at the memory of a naming disaster avoided...

After a recent Teacher Training Workshop at which I was an instructor, a participant said he admired me so much that he was going to name his first daughter after me. I was flattered. “Yes,” he said, nodding, “I’m going to call her Elegant.” My smile got even bigger then, and I had to explain to him that my name was actually not Elegant. On the first day of the workshop everyone had chosen adjectives to go along with their first names. Where had this guy been? Did he really think our names were Mighty, Progressive, Hardworking, and so on? Or did he not mind naming his daughter with an adjective? Anyway, I was glad we got it straightened up in time to save that future little girl the stress of having to live up to her name; Lord knows what a hard time I had trying to be elegant for ten days in a row.

My namesake will come to see me every day while she is here in Monrovia visiting her grandmother. It's funny--Ma Edith calls her Elma, but still calls me Emma.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pamper Yourself

Go ahead—when was the last time you got those hands and feet done? Pamper yourself with a "mellicue" and a "pellicue"…you are worth it! Just don’t expect to see any cowboys or liquor at the Saloon.
(Benson Street, Monrovia, LIBERIA)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Woman in Charge: Ellen's Song

It’s fun listening to the comments about what the new Liberia will be like with a woman in charge. Most jokes center around the idea that we will become uncontrollable and bossy, and that men will become subservient. One repeated lament is this: “The way my woman can already talk to me—what thing she coming say na? No use of me talking again sef.” (Rough translation: my feisty woman is about to become even feistier).

I must say, having Ellen Johnson Sirleaf win the presidency does indeed put an extra spring in my step. How could it not? But while my fellow Liberians wait for her to bring us electricity and running water and wow the world with her achievements, I’m just living for the day when that asinine rule that says women cannot wear trousers in the Executive Mansion and other government buildings is declared null and void.

What on earth do our clothes have to do with what’s in our brains? Without that dress code women are not suddenly going to start wearing 'dig-my-back' halter tops and hot pants to the Mansion. In fact, we will probably still prefer to wear lovely dresses; we just do not want to be told that we have to.

In my recurring daydream, Ellen strides through the Executive Mansion one day soon, wearing a beautifully tailored La-Vonne Classique trouser suit. She is moving to the beat of a song that is rocking the corridor so powerfully that even the 22 presidents in the portraits that line the walls seem to be moving their heads in time with the rhythm. Yes, this is a woman in charge, and this is her song...
Woman in Charge
(sung to the tune of Stayin’ Alive, by the Bee Gees)

Well, you can tell by the way I walk
I’m the President: no time to talk
Made it through the thunderstorm
I’ve been groomed to lead since I was born
And now it’s my time. It’s UP.
Let’s unify this sweet country
Everyone must understand
It’s time to lend a helping hand

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a father
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Feel Liberia movin’ and everybody groovin’
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge

Well now, some are mad, and some are sad
But I know someday soon they will all be glad
Got the wings of Heaven on my shoes
I’m a Harvard Grad and I just can’t lose
Oh yes, it’s my time. It’s UP.
We all have made history
Everyone must understand
It’s time to lend a helping hand

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a father
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Feel Liberia movin’ and everybody groovin’
I’m the woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge, woman in charge
Ah, ha, ha, ha, woman in charge

I’m in the Mansion…my people help me!
My people help me o!
I’m in the Mansion…my people help me!
My people help me o…

Saturday, November 12, 2005

CDC Protest

The people cheer as CDC leaders arrive at Headquarters with UN blue helmets escorting them

"We want David,we na want Goliath! We want David, we na want Goliath!"

A determined cry: "No Weah, no president! No Weah, no president!"

Riot police on guard at the National Elections Commission (NEC) on Tubman Boulevard and 16th Street in Sinkor

Hundreds of CDC supporters head back toward Headquarters after a protest at the US Embassy in Mamba Point where they were tear-gassed.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Oh Happy Day?

What an exciting and strange day!

We woke up to the news that Ellen was leading in the polls, and everyone had stories about CDC friends who were shocked and confused. E-man, the boy who fills our barrels with water from the well every day, was visibly sick.

By noon, I was in town hearing jokes about women ruling, and stories about empty polling centers. Where did all those numbers come from? people were wondering. In fact, at my own polling station (St. Peter's Lutheran School and Church) I was the only voter there at 3:15 pm. Not a soul in front of me, and not a soul behind. I didn't ask, but I suspect the only excitement all those National Election Commission workers, Liberian policemen and UNMIL soldiers had at St. Peter's on Election day was the fight with me about how much indelible ink they would put on my left index finger.

By far the busiest vendors in town today were the street photocopiers. They were surrounded by people wanting copies ($5 LD each) of the three latest Election joke flyers. These ones made fun of George Weah, when before, they had made fun of Varney Sherman and others who had been so sure they would win on October 11th. (Oh, the fickleness of our people!)

I returned home hearing little murmurs of dissatisfaction here and there, and still more concern that the perceived low voter turnout ended up with such high numbers from the polling stations.

Shortly after 7 pm, I heard that large crowds were gathering at CDC. Well, off I went, just in time to see three tanks roll past the headquarters heading toward Oldest Congo Town. At CDC Headquarters, armed UNMIL soldiers stood along the sidewalk while inside the yard, groups of people stood around discussing the same thing...asking the same question: How is it possible? They were not whiny, poor losers, but heartbroken people who felt cheated after putting so much effort into the fight of their lives.

Last week, on the day I saw the small CDC group on Benson Street marching past the unimpressed onlookers (see "Dwindling Numbers?"), I came to one conclusion: that a lot of CDC people had already defected in their hearts or would do so at the polls. But tonight, when I asked the people around me if that was a possibility, they shook their heads adamantly. No way! they said, No way! In fact, they had a story about a CDC observer who was given pre-marked ballots when he was mistaken for a Unity Party (UP) observer, and that is the evidence of cheating to which they clung.

After listening to several groups, I sat on the CDC fence and joined in a conversation with some teenage boys who assured me they were indeed voting age. When one of them shook his head and said "Damn it, ba! You mean we will be toting Congo people load forever?" I thought of E-man, and tears came to my eyes. I took it as a rhetorical question, but I wish now that I had said something to assure him of a brighter future.

At about 8:55 pm, people began heading toward the stage, and we jumped off the fence and followed. A strategic meeting! I thought. (I'm not a member of CDC or the Unity Party, but I voted for Ellen knowing that in doing so, I was ultimately voting for Weah's supporters). At this point tonight though, I was on a quest for truth and justice.

The meeting turned out not to be an organized session after all, but a couple of rally cries from two partisans who stood on chairs to address us. The first, surprisingly, was a white woman in a sleeveless CDC T-shirt who told us the UP was stealing the election and would soon begin stealing all Liberia's resources. She's been married to a Mano man she said, for 12 years, and was struggling like all of us. Her language was sprinkled with the "F" word, but she did warn us not to resort to violence or UNMIL would "kill [our] black ass." The second speaker was a former member of the Wild Geese, who, in contradiction I thought, declared he was reclaiming his war name.

I came home with doubts on my mind - especially when taking into consideration my own voting experience. But then different questions began to pop up: "Weren't there CDC people observing at each polling station? Didn't they sign to attest that the count was correct?"

In the end, I figure all is as it should be: If Ellen wins we'll have a competent leader, and with so many seats in the House and Senate filled by CDC candidates, the people will be well represented. As the NEC banners around town tell us, "We Are All Winners."

Oh happy day.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Eve of History

I took this photograph on Golden Beach today,
as the sun set on Liberia's past. As the sun
will rise again tomorrow, so may this nation
rise to the challenges of a new beginning.

Question of the Day

I keep hearing broadcasters talk about the absence of violence today. Why is it so "remarkable" that there is no violence on Election Day? Why would there be? It's Results Day that we need to be worried about!

A Fair Chance

Every time I say I’ve decided to vote for Ellen in the run-off, my friends laugh at me—sometimes quite hysterically, bless their little hearts. But really, since during the entire Elections campaign I never once heard what Weah had to say, I thought it was only fair to give him some consideration before making a final choice. So – three times in the last two weeks, I found myself traipsing over to the Congress for Democratic Change headquarters dressed casually in jeans and a plain shirt so that I would fit in with the unpretentious crowd.

It’s an impressive place, CDC, compared to some of the other party headquarters we’ve seen around here. I had been there once before, on the day George Weah’s Million Man March left me open-mouthed with awe and certain that he would win. The quarters consist of a large two-story building and a huge round raised platform topped by a conical roof—both set way back from the busy Tubman Boulevard in a yard several acres big. I went now, wanting to sit under that big palaver hut-like structure and hear what it was people had gathered there to hear so often before the October 11th elections that Weah won with 28% of the vote. But I guess I picked the wrong days or the wrong times: twice there were children dancing to quiet African rhythms played on a radio, and once there was an excellent band playing as a man sang in a dialect I didn’t understand, while two teenage girls danced and jiggled their butts—and just their butts—for the crowd. I had expected consciousness-raising and strategic planning for the first 100 days after inauguration. I’m sure they had it and I missed it, but go ahead people: laugh at me.

Walking around the yard during my visits there, I did meet a number of nice people. Among them: Theresa, who said she was there so that the children of uneducated people could have a better future (and who made me admit that I didn’t see any unruly behavior among the young people gathered there); Julia from the medical team who said she enjoyed talking to me because my (too-American) accent reminded her of her daughter who lives in Michigan; and Emmanuel, a young man who was a “trainee’ in a program I once helped run at Boys Town for street children and former child soldiers. Most of the people I met gave me dreamy-eyed spiels, some of which were alarmingly na├»ve and showed a lack of knowledge about politics and a dangerous misunderstanding of what Weah’s role and responsibilities will be if he becomes President. (No, life is not suddenly going to become a bed of roses, and Weah will not be your personal savior!)

In the end, my experiences at CDC headquarters are not what led to my final decision. It was taking the time to listen to Ambassador Weah himself, on a radio program, and realizing that he, too, has insufficient knowledge about politics and about what his role and responsibilities will be if elected. George Weah is a good man, and I will never forget that during the civil war, as we sought refuge in foreign lands, he was our one source of pride. I think I gave him a fair chance, but tomorrow I am voting so that all of Liberia's children will have a better future and a well-run country.

Monday, November 07, 2005


All Set for Tomorrow - Daily Observer

Final Battle! - The Forum

Big Tuesday: Nation's Fate Hangs
- New Democrat

'King George' vs. 'Iron Lady' showdown tomorrow in historic election - New Standard

Ellen or Weah?
- Liberian Express

and, unbelievably:

George Manneh Weah Awaits Inuagaration: Common People On Board Again - The Parrot (that spelling of inauguration is theirs, not mine)

Meet Liberia's 23rd President - The New Broom (with a photo of George Weah below)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dwindling Numbers?

Caught a really small crowd of guys running up Benson Street today, chanting "Weah in the Mansion! Weah in the Mansion!" Most onlookers seemed unimpressed. The Education issue has gotten so large it is literally the talk of the town, and many people are wondering why George Weah was allowed to run for President when without a high school diploma he's not even qualified to be a Policeman.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

African Writer's Block

There's no end to the interesting things happening around here, but sometimes things are simply too sad - or too unbelievable - to write down. Instead of documenting the unspeakable, I often find myself putting out fires, removing my own life from among the stories to share, or getting too involved in creating long-term solutions to save us all.