Marin County residents Cate Biggs and Nancy Farese recently traveled to the West African country of Liberia. Their mission was to document, through photography and interviews, the work of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) active in the country’s recovery and reconstruction following the bloody civil wars of 1989-2003. NGOs are involved in everything from relief and humanitarian aid, to civil society support, to political and economic development in countries around the world. In Liberia, international NGOs collaborate with local grassroots community organizations, the United Nations, donor countries, and the Government of Liberia to move the country toward sustainable peace and prosperity.
CATE AND NANCY’S LIBERIAN ADVENTURE, DAY 1
“This is the Captain speaking, sorry for the delay here out of JFK, we are going to take off now and bank left and head out over the ocean toward… Africa.” (As if he had forgotten exactly where in Africa). This struck us as an odd, yet somehow perfect send-off. We commented how the planes “to Africa” as we had experienced them in the past have a unique energy. Not the vacation vibe of a plane to Florida or Hawaii or Mexico, and not a business vibe like one to Chicago or London (or, I imagine, Dubai). There is a sense of adventure, yet with a certain calm, as if you have already entered “Africa time.” You settle into the 10 hours ahead with a sense that what matters now won’t be what matters when you land. You know the contrast will be so dramatic that you will need to go into a half-way house of the mind while on the plane to re-calibrate your thoughts. The mental debris of daily life doesn’t travel well across this part of the Atlantic.
We land in Accra and meet up with our traveling companions from Mercy Corps only to find that our plane is delayed for 3 hours (in addition to our scheduled 4 hour layover). “Not to worry, ” the ticket agent from Kenyan Airlines tells us as he personally escorts us through security and to the lounge where he parks us. He says he will return in 1 hour to take us to lunch outside the airport. Sure enough, he retrieves us, and walks us down the street to a restaurant packed with similarly compromised travelers. We eat lunch and are then personally escorted again back to the airport, through customs, and to the departure gate. We have yet to figure out if this personal service was because we looked a little clueless or if it was delivered in anticipation of a hefty tip. We asked no questions, thanked him, and tipped.
We land in Monrovia at dusk and, in true equatorial fashion, it was fully dark by the time we even got into the building with and past the Welcome to Liberia sign. “Missionary? UN? NGO?” ask the customs officials. “How did they know?” we gaped, as if there were any question. We step outside in the dark to a dirt road and throngs of people, mostly holding signs for other NGOs. We find our driver and walk down the dirt road to the car. No lights along the drive to the city – no electricity anywhere, but plenty of pedestrians braving their lives walking down this narrow road where the direction for cars on the two lanes seemed optional. The road itself was newly paved for the visit of Secretary of State Clinton earlier in the year.
Almost an hour later, we begin to see some lights as we start to pass the homes and storefronts of the few lucky generator-powered denizens of Monrovia-proper. The streets are packed with Saturday night goings-on. There is much congregating, notably mostly men and boys. The roads are in bad shape, the houses and buildings more so. Shanties and abandoned buildings sit aside government ministries, UN agencies, and NGO offices. Small cantinas punctuate the scenery; walls and razor wire obscure housing compounds. In stark contrast stands our hotel, The Mamba Point, plucked out of any small city in Europe, and dropped into Monrovia. Rimmed by security guards, and outrageously out of sync with its surroundings, the hotel (which charges $150/night, because it can – this in a country where 80% of the population lives on around a dollar per day), has electricity (most of the time), hot running water, and a certain nondescript international hipness to it. We settle in for the night, madly tap away on our laptops, and eat in the bar. An expansive international menu boasts hundreds of items, organized by passport. After a laborious decision-making process borne of exhaustion, fear, and relief, we opt for pure American comfort food: pizza, French fries, and white wine.
The next morning, Nancy and I set out to explore the city by cab, hoping to get our bearings, take some pictures, and talk to some people on the street…a foray that we had no idea would include being nearly arrested and then detained in the security office of the US Embassy.
CATE AND NANCY’S LIBERIAN ADVENTURE, DAY 2
We find a cab and a nice driver named Winston (who certainly came to regret finding us) and head out. We stop frequently and get out of the car for Nancy to take pictures and to talk to people on the street. It is Sunday, so most businesses are closed and people are going to church, visiting, or doing household chores. After a few streets near our hotel, Winston asks us if we want to see the US Embassy. Sure we do! We arrive at the compound, which is heavily guarded behind white walls but smack down in a regular neighborhood. Largely uninterested in what we can’t see of the Embassy, we bound out of the car and start madly clicking pictures of the street scene and of people going about their days.
It only takes a few minutes for us to be unmasked as the grave security threat that we are. We are treated to an interview on the street with an Embassy guard and two Liberian policemen (one was a woman, and luckily we did have the sense not to photograph her and launch into an interview about the inclusion of women in post-conflict security forces). They make Nancy show them the pictures on her camera and delete any pictures of houses near the embassy. “No photographs anywhere near the Embassy,” we are admonished as it appears they will let us go. But, then it is decided that the threat we pose is not sufficiently addressed, and we are asked to accompany the posse of uniformed caretakers to a guard office on the outside of the Embassy where they leave us to stew (and wonder if this is one of those cases where you offer $20 USD to incentivize your release). I reflect that it’s too bad we can’t take pictures of our exclusive access to the Embassy. Five minutes later, we are questioned again, our names are taken, and we are mercifully released into the arms of Winston. He graciously does not lecture us for being the clueless white ladies that we are. He suggests that we go to a more touristy place where it is less likely that we will be detained.
He takes us to the site of the former luxury hotel The Ducor Palace on top of a hill in the center of town with views of the city and the coastline and beyond. What a vivid and very sad metaphor for the country as a whole… Once a fabulously appointed high-rise hotel with pool, tennis courts, and a central fountain, it is now a shell of a ruin. Guarded by Nigerian soldiers employed by UNMIL (the United Nations peacekeeping force), it stands empty and completely stripped – no fixtures, pipes, wiring, doors, windows – an abandoned skeleton. Winston talks the card-playing guards (who we wanted to photograph, of course, but held back) into letting us go in and climb the dark and gutted staircase to the top to see the views of Monrovia from the former luxury hotel rooms. Squatters once lived here after the hotel was destroyed and looted during the war. Hundreds of them were cleared out by President Sirleaf. Around the clock security keeps them from returning. There are apparently plans underway for the Libyan government (who helped build it originally) to bring the Ducor back to its former glory, but there are no signs that this will happen any time soon. From its destruction to its uncertain future, it seems to stand as a monument to the laborious and elusive recovery of the country. In its brief heyday, the Ducor was not meant for the people of Liberia – it was the haven of diplomats and businessmen who participated in crafting the toxic social and economic dynamics that took this country down. The Libyan angle is interesting given the shifting US-Liberia-Libya triangle that morphed along over the course of the Cold War.
After our very eventful morning, we headed back to the hotel and said good-bye to Winston (after thanking him profusely for saving us from Liberian jail and asking if he would consider driving us later in the week – hmmm, wonder if that is his real cell number he gave us?) Off to lunch at the Royal Hotel (another expat oasis) to meet with Mercy Corps’ new Country Director and his family. We told him of our adventures at the Embassy and were informed we would receive a special (special…) security briefing before we would be allowed out on the town again while affiliated with Mercy Corps.
After lunch, Nancy and I met with Bill Saa, a Liberian who graduated from World Learning’s CONTACT program in the US for community leaders from around the world. We had been in touch with him before we left the States and wanted to learn about his Everyday Gandhis program. Bill’s program is the real deal – he works with people in traditional rural villages to help them heal the wounds of the war using their own sacred ceremonies. The one he described to us was the Crossing the River ceremony that, for generations, has always been performed by the community when someone dies. The living celebrate and mourn the dead so both can “cross the river” – the deceased to the other side, the living to the next chapter.
After nearly 15 years of war in which many people had died, there had been no such ceremonies. The dead had not been properly mourned and the living were still in disarray, (“hanging out in the corners of life,” in Bill’s words), struggling socially and psychologically, and mistrustful of each other. The idea was to do peacebuilding work, but rather than formal trainings and workshops as in other settings, this would be done through conducting a community-wide river crossing ceremony and uniting people across tribal lines and across the lines of perpetrator and victim. Everyday Gandhis helped a pilot community in Lofa County to construct the ceremony in the simplest of ways – by helping them to buy a cow that is part of the sacred ritual, providing food for the feast, and organizing the drummers and dancers. They also helped the elders to integrate present conflicts into the river crossing as well, so that everyday tensions could be discussed and defused in the context of a comforting and neutral ritual.
Ultimately, the dead of the war years were finally mourned, the living crossed over, and Bill’s staff and volunteers were welcomed into the community for more extensive work to help rebuild the fractured society. In the pilot village, the residents had gone on to expand their activities to include communal agricultural projects. Most poignantly, the program came to include services given to ex-child soldiers. These young adults then became “Future Guardians of Peace,” giving back to the community and helping the village going forward. The program provided them with a way to provide reparations and to re-establish their standing in society after the war years.
And this only gets us to dinner with Emily Stanger, who might be the best connected expat in Liberia. She was wonderful, sitting with us (she ate the sushi at our fancy hotel sushi bar, we did not…) for hours answering all our questions and providing fabulous insight into the whole government/NGO scene. She heads up a joint UN-Ministry of Gender task force, and seems to know everyone. She is going to connect us to Sugars Cooper – the “grandmother of the women’s movement in Liberia,” who was featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and remains a tireless women’s advocate. Tomorrow we leave for “the bush,” or “the counties.” Paul from Mercy Corps said it should take 3 hours, but prepare for 6, taking into account the roads. That was optimistic…
CATE AND NANCY’S LIBERIAN ADVENTURE: THE VILLAGES
A few vernacular phrases that are proving quite important – when you greet someone, you say, “ha da body?” Or, if it is in the morning, you say “ha da night?” The correct response to this is “I tryin’ small” or if things are not going well, “I tryin’ small, small.” “Small, small” has become a staple of our conversations; and is an oddly apt description of what is going on in this country. When in doubt, just add “small, small” to the sentence, and chances are that will just about sum it up. We also learned that our profusive “thank-you SO MUCH” is better conveyed by simply saying “thank-you plenty.” A way to express hope for the future is to say “Papa na come.” General expressions of hardship are punctuated by the phrase, “the game, it rough.” That one really got me – what a poignant understatement – we heard it first from a woman in a village who was recounting her war experience as a bush wife of a rebel soldier (essentially a sex slave), and her current struggle to feed her family. The game, it rough. When we write a book about Liberia, this will be the title.
Monday morning we set off to the Monrovia Mercy Corps office for our security briefing before heading out to the “counties.” The counties or “the bush” seems to mean anywhere but the big city of Monrovia – the small towns, rural areas, and villages. The specific county we are visiting is Grand Bassa – we will be out in the villages during the day and staying in the town of Buchanan at night. We meet our Mercy Corps guide Emmett, who will be with us for the 4 days – he is the head of MC programs for Grand Bassa and is Liberian. Mercy Corps puts a high priority on hiring local or “national” staff, as opposed to expats, especially in the counties. We leave our valuables in the Mercy Corps office safe and are informed that we are only allowed to be out driving on the roads from 7am to 7pm and that a MC vehicle will convoy with our car anytime we are outside of Buchanan. We are given the drill on how to behave at checkpoints and are cautioned that we should stay together because street crime is commonplace and can be especially violent for women. Along with Emmett and our driver Adolphus, we pile into an SUV – 4 slightly crazy women packing Malarone, power bars, bottled water, notebooks, cameras, computers, and REI outdoor clothing.
We remarked that all of us drive SUVs in the US, but we really have no idea what these cars are really for, besides hauling privileged pee-wee soccer players. I wouldn’t call it off-roading because we were, technically, on the road. It just happened to be a dirt road, filled with crater-sized potholes, but thankfully little other car traffic. Seems like the only other vehicles on the road belonged to other NGOS. We lurched and bumped and swerved along, passing villages and miles of uninhabited thick tropical bush. Unlike Rwanda, which is much more densely populated, there is a great deal of unused land all over Liberia – lush land with frequent rains (at least at this time of the year) that seems to call out for agriculture. How is it that this country has no food security? We are about to find out as we set out to visit Mercy Corps’ various agricultural training programs, some funded by the US Department of Agriculture.
The road to Buchanan runs through the Firestone Rubber Plantation in Harbel. We enter through a checkpoint marked by a big sign boasting of a “new era of partnership between Firestone and Liberia.” Firestone is one of the oldest concessions in Liberia, with a checkered history including exploitive land leases, child labor, and poor working conditions. Yet, it has also provided steady employment for many Liberians and a Firestone job is highly coveted. We passed housing compounds and a group of retirees who were lined up to receive their pensions, which Firestone provides for life. We drive through acres of rubber trees with little red cups attached to scores in the bark collecting the valuable liquid latex for rubber manufacturing. You definitely feel the weight of history here – during the war, rebels commandeered large parts of the Plantation, and many of the trees were destroyed. A massive re-planting is underway. Both Emmett and Adolphus seemed uncomfortable with us getting out and taking pictures and wanted to move us quickly through and to the checkpoint at the other end. I get the sense you don’t mess with Firestone if you are a casual do-gooder from the US bumping along in a Mercy Corps vehicle. The rubber giant is constantly in the cross-hairs of international labor watchdog groups such as Global Witness, and they don’t take lightly to do-gooders.
Poor Emmett – we pepper him with questions the whole drive. In between trading stories of our children, their summer camps and grade school intrigue. Oh, how that must have sounded. Despite our liberal leanings, good intentions, and better than average sensitivity to these types of things, it occurs to me that we, at times, spoke as if he wasn’t listening to us. He has a nine-year old daughter living in Monrovia – how absurd our concerns over minor developmental blips of our children’s rarified existence, and the everyday travails of upper middle class denizens of the wealthiest nation on earth must have seemed. Despite this, he starts to warm up to us and we get used to his Liberian English (a dialect we are finding is a whole language in and of itself). Emmett ends up being our oracle of wisdom – he knows everything there is to know about the country, the war, the ongoing reconstruction and rehabilitation. He has a wonderful sense of humor, and ribs us when we need serious ribbing. He teaches us some great phrases. The best by far is “Cry Your Own Cry” which means, basically, “suck it up.” Can’t wait to use that in the childrearing context – essentially “I told you so” and “you got yourself in to this mess” and “you figure it out” all wrapped in one. Another great phrase is “Don’t Eat Crab with Shame,” which means “go for it,” or “don’t hold back.”
Emmett opines frequently that Liberians both before and during the war were “too free,” meaning that they lacked the sense of responsibility that goes along with rights. He says “freedom is heavy.” He also said that people now have “big ideas” gleaned from international travel and the expat community – this is a good thing, he says, and inspires people to ask the right questions (of Firestone, for example, on deals that are made concerning labor and land). He told us of the phrase “Mama Liberia” (which we saw printed on signs and coffee mugs) – refers to a sense of patriotism, or nationalism and loyalty to Liberia – you may travel or move away, but Liberia will always be your home. He said you will often hear the phrase “Mama Liberia is crying” which refers to the neglect of the diaspora (or expats). For those who move to the States (the primary destination for Liberian exiles), the US is only a “foster mom,” says Emmett – Liberia is your real mom and you have a responsibility to come back to help her in her time of need. So many people have left this country – both before and during the war, contributing to one of the biggest brain drains on the continent. Emmett believes that a lot of the Liberian expats living in the States want to come back, but they are stuck in mortgages and debt that they can’t shed in America– he suggested the government of Liberia seek international aid to pay off some of these personal expat debts and facilitate the return of educated Liberians to help in the country’s recovery. Interesting twist on the whole aid debate…
Emmett “commutes” (think 7 hours on a dirt road) between his wife and daughter in Monrovia and his projects in Grand Bassa. He gets home only once every two weeks, and just for the weekend. He speaks several native dialects as well as Liberian English and American English. He likes to read Sidney Sheldon novels and books about the Gulf War. He is kind and smart and wise and patient as he both comforts and challenges us through our epic journey.
With chagrin, I realize as we bump along this road trip, he is serving as our guide on a human safari of sorts – we are there to witness and document a whole other realm of existence, snapping pictures and asking questions, as one does on safari. His tone as he relates information and answers our inquiries is not unlike that of a safari guide – respectful of the subjects we are observing, filled with a quiet knowing of things we can’t know. He is our translator in more than a linguistic context, helping us to make sense of what we are seeing. Bemused is a good term to describe him as he watches us fumble along. Amused is more like it when he watches us point our cameras at what must seem to him to be the most ordinary of subjects – in addition to people and scenery, we are wildly clicking at the food, at goods in the market, at every building (but the American Embassy in Monrovia, of course).
At one village, we were taking pictures of the incredible variety of things people carry on their heads – buckets of fish, loads of lumber, bowls of oranges, jugs of water and petrol – and suddenly there was a parade as all the kids donned anything they could find on top of their heads and modeled for the camera. This was not to be the last time I would get the sense that the locals had us figured out and were going to give us what we wanted, laughing all the way about it. There is a certain theater in what we are doing – we are all playing well-tread roles.
CHANNELING MICHAEL POLLAN
The agricultural programs we are visiting in Grand Bassa County are aimed at diversifying the crops people in these villages grow. Most everyone grows rice at a subsistence level only, or maybe with a tiny surplus to sell at market. The goal is to get them to grow other food crops as well – cassava, peppers, etc so that they can have food security in the seasons after the rice harvest, or in the event that the rice crop is ruined by heavy rain or by birds. As it is now, once the rice is gone, it is gone, and people stop eating. It’s not that there isn’t enough arable land… the problem is that the people don’t have the tools, technologies, and training to efficiently farm the land they have.
In one interesting program funded by Mercy Corps’ venture capital-type Phoenix Fund, the farmers are also being supported in growing a cash crop along with their food crops (cocoa) that can be used to bring in money for the purchase of health and education services, or reinvested in the farms. Along with cocoa “inputs” and trainings, the program helps the participants think of their farms as businesses, and facilitates more efficient farming practices for both food and cash crops.
The hope is that these farmers will ultimately move along the value chain of agriculture – buying and selling in the market, maybe even securing the technology and investment necessary to begin refining some of the raw inputs they are growing. For example, the best possible scenario for the cocoa program would be for it to attract some larger donors and expand, and then be noticed and picked up by a Cadbury or some cocoa processor, so these farmers would have access to a larger global marketplace and a guaranteed buyer for their cocoa beans. Ideally, they would use their negotiating skills learned in agricultural extension training to enter into a contract for their crops on a yearly, predictable basis. Maybe even be able to purchase crop insurance in case things go wrong.
On a macro level, it is hoped that cocoa production will take off in Liberia, and attract an investor who is interested in developing a processing plant in the country (cocoa is now processed in neighboring countries). Then, aid won’t be necessary, the theory goes, because Liberia will have a foothold in larger markets. The economy will expand; Liberia’s abysmal human development indicators will improve. Getting Liberians in on the more lucrative links of the value chain is an important first step.
A humbling clash of cultures moment for me came when I was sitting with a group of farmers in the cocoa program who were waiting to be formally interviewed. I began speaking with a man who had a little bit of English, enough so that I could usually get what he was saying after asking him to repeat it 4 or 5 times (not counting the times when I would just fake and it and smile and nod). The conversation went like this:
Man: So are you a farmer in the US?
Me: No, I’m not a farmer, but we do have farms in the US.
Man: What kind of farms?
Me: Oh, we grow lots of things! Corn, wheat, soy beans, all kinds of fruit and vegetables.
Man: Do you grow rice or cocoa or cassava in the US?
Me: Hmm, not sure, probably in some places. Maybe like Florida where the climate is similar to here. (when in doubt, implicate Florida).
Man: Are there lots of farmers?
Me (full of my Michael Pollan political correctness concerning nostalgia for a simpler and more wholesome era of farming): Unfortunately, no, there are not as many small farmers left these days. Most farming is done by big commercial farms using machines. Sometimes, we bring people from other countries to come do the farming for us – Mexican workers come and pick the crops the machines can’t get.
Man: Wow, so would you rather be a small farmer and do it yourself than farm your land by machine and immigrant labor?
Me: (channeling the heroic grass farmer in Omnivore’s Dilemma and the iconic yeoman farmer of olden days) – Oh, it’s better to be a small farmer. It’s sad that there are not many of them left.
Man: So you would rather use your hands than a machine and immigrant labor on your farm?
Man: Do you cut your own grass?
Me: (my husband mows our grass, I know his mom used to mow their grass growing up, I can fake this one): Yes, I cut our grass.
Man: With a machine or by hand?
Me (catching on to the absurdity of me extolling the beauty of hand gardening to a broke, overworked farmer with no access to a simple hoe, much less to the decorative gardening shoes and knee protectors sold at Smith and Hawken): Oh, that would be by machine.
Man: So if you were a farmer, wouldn’t you like to use machines?
Great laughter by the group.
I smile and smile, and want to die. Cry your own cry, I think to myself. I stepped right in to that one.
DEVELOPMENT COMES INTO FOCUS
Our first interviews completed (and our lack of farming credentials revealed), we head to the hotel in Buchanan that will serve as our home base as we bounce along the dirt roads of Grand Bassa County over the next three days. We check into our hotel (with electricity from 6pm to 8am!) and proceed on to a small eatery (can’t really call it a restaurant) where we bump into Bill Saa (the man we had interviewed the day before in Monrovia – 7 hours away). This would prove to just be the first of many strange coincidences we would encounter, and is a testimony to how small this country really is.
Our days in the bush unfolded in what came to be a comfortable routine. Instant coffee and power bars for breakfast, then a quick trip to the store for provisions for the day. These stores are basically mini-marts ringed by security guards, stocking Western foods, and charging Western prices – all of which serve to keep Liberians out. Around us, locals shopped at roadside stands selling produce, candy, and water that had been decanted into small plastic baggies. Then we would join the ragtag fleet of similar white NGO–labeled jeeps bumping and careening and honking out of town to the surrounding villages. Our mission is to interview and photograph local Mercy Corps staff and program beneficiaries. We are especially interested in women who have participated in agriculture and life skills trainings, and those who are using the Village Savings and Loan (an MC microfinance institution).
We arrive in the isolated villages to great fanfare. Men, women, and children of all ages swarm our car singing and clapping, and even chanting U-S-A. Then we all convene in a palaver hut (a traditional covered gathering place) where the chief of the village leads a prayer thanking God and Mercy Corps, and welcoming the kind visitors to Liberia. Then people go around the circle and introduce themselves – most have Anglo names (Elizabeth, Anna, Martha); and they individually give additional thanks to God and Mercy Corps as the singing resumes.
We are struck by the importance of religion (in this case, Christianity). The centrality of faith in these villages jars with our Northern California conditioning, where many of us worship at what Anne Lamott once termed the “Church of the Sunday New York Times.” We read books questioning whether God exists and if God is even necessary. We pick and choose only those traditions and tenets that suit our busy, modern lifestyles. Here, religion is inseparable from daily life – thanking God is not pro-forma or an afterthought – it’s so much more integral than we can even imagine.
Bija, Mercy Corps’ senior editor, conducts the interviews. Because these women pretty much only speak Bassa or Kpele dialects, the interviews also include a translator, always a man, and often the husband of one of the beneficiaries. This slows down the interview process, and we sense it keeps the women from opening up completely with us. Bija does a great job trying to eke out information about what the women have learned through Mercy Corps’ programs, and how this has changed their lives.
Their stories all have common threads – they are making good use of their training, they are saving money for the first time. Their children still sometimes go hungry (sadly we learn “when they are hungry, they sleep all the time”). The women wish they had more farming tools. They wish they had money for education for their kids. They thank God and Mercy Corps for what they have received so far; they hope MC will continue and expand the program. This is what we need to hear. We tape them. We take their pictures. We write down copious notes.
But, sometimes, at some point in the interview, things go off-script. The women will push aside our technical questions and plead with us to build them a school, to get them a teacher, to help in ways that don’t correspond with our questions. Several had participated in literacy programs that had been discontinued for lack of funding. They noted that beginning to teach someone to read and then not following through is worse than never teaching them in the first place. One proudly demonstrated her pencil grip with a dramatic reenactment of what it was before and after the literacy program. Those of us who have had Kindergarten age kids in the US are well-indoctrinated into the cult of correct pencil grip. To have a 50 year old woman present this skill (to loud applause from the other villagers assembled for the performance) is heart-wrenching. Look, I have mastered it, she is saying to us. I have the pencil and I know how to hold it, now please teach me to write.
We feel their pain, assure them that they are being heard, explain that we have no power over those decisions, and that we will convey their needs to some other entity, in some other place. Then the worst thing happens. A look of knowing comes across their faces, and they slip back into the script – I’m very grateful; I have more hope for the future; I see myself as a businesswoman; I’m growing different crops and saving money; I understand that self-reliance is the way out. Yet, their eyes are sadder beneath their smiles.
In one village, there was a woman who was determined to make more of a connection. She could write, and carried a notebook so that she could get our contact information. She attempted to navigate what we would call a “networking agenda” – what we would tell our job-seeking kids to do if they were having an informational interview that they hoped would turn into something else. She got all of our personal contact information and quickly wrote a letter for us to “take back to America.”
Several others would similarly try to talk to us on the periphery of the interviews, dropping details of their heart-breaking history like crumb trails – my husband died, my child is sick, I have no money, we have no school – that they hoped would lead to something, anything. We press on as the village gathers to watch the interviews. We are all very sorry that we can’t help more.
After several hours, the group reconvenes in the palaver hut where there is more singing, more gratitude, more smiling, and even an offering from the chief to us – an egg for purity, some peppers for abundance, a root for honor, a coin for generosity. This is all arranged on an ordinary white plate and unveiled with great ceremony. We express our gratitude to them, smile at the curious children, wave good-bye, and bump off down the road. They are growing cassava where they once only grew rice. They recognize the value of education for their children even if there is no school. They are grateful. We are making a difference. We all feel good. But really we all feel bad.
I wonder what conversations are taking place in the villages after we have swept in and swept out, what happens when the singing and smiling stops and the jeep pulls away. I contemplate trying to imagine and write a likely scenario, but realize this is the height of arrogance to think that I could dramatize such dialogue and capture depth of what they are feeling or how they would be expressing it. Clearly a lot went into preparing for our visit – in one village, a man held a laboriously constructed agenda which he followed down to every Roman numeral item. Singing, praying, individual testimony, time for interviews, reconvening for the chief’s blessing, presenting the offering, thanking the guests…everyone dressed up…a day spent giving us what we came for. And what would we be able to deliver in return?