Kevin in Liberia

Its Purpose: to raise awareness of current social, political, ethical, and spiritual issues within a relief and development context in Liberia. Its effectiveness is simple: It relies on me, the author, to provide insightful, and often debate-sparking material that will encourage you, the reader to get engaged through comment contributions, emails, and promoting others to read, re-think, and respond to the important issues discussed.

I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom. ~ a prayer by Blaise Pascal

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Video Footage Liberia in the Mid-1980s

This is a great video of Liberian culture in the mid-1980s, during Samuel Doe's regime. Strangely enough, it looks like Liberia in the 21st century. Many of these places and occurances in the video I recognize: Bong Mines, coffee picking, what I believe is the unfinished Ministry of Defense building, Randall Street, roasted cassava vendors, shoe shining, overloaded vehicles (men hanging off the back), the Dukor Hotel, basketball games at the Sports Commission court on Broad Street, palm log bridges, and dugout canoes. This video is a great summary of many of the things you'll find if you were here on the ground in Liberia.

Labels: , , ,

Liberian Civil War Video Footage

It is interesting to read and see what Liberia has come through. I think its only after you truly understand the atrocities of the civil war that you can try and fully understand Liberians. This video isn't much, but its a start.

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Liberian English Lession #1: "reach"

to arrive. "I reach' Monrovia
yesterday." "Da ti' never reach to
go yet?"


Julius B. Sundifu - The Legend

New Years in Liberia with The Legend - Julius B. Sundifu

After a couple weeks of deliberation as to what we would end up doing over our extended Christmas break in Liberia, we decided to do a multi-day surf trip up to the North-West corner of Liberia, to a quaint, dilapidated little fishing village named Robertsport. The little, previously prosperous village was named after the first Liberian president named Joseph Jenkins Roberts who held office from 1848 to 1856.

We initially tossed around ideas of a multi-day adventure trip down to Sapo National Park in Sinoe County, the most bio-diverse region of the world. Just imagine…lions, and tigers, and bears….oh my! I was figuring that this extended Christmas break that we were about to embark on would be one of the only opportunities I would have to travel to the South East portion of the country and explore rainforest that is being progressively diminished by human activities. The logistics of such a trip seemed not impossible, but definitely overwhelming, as we thought about our other possible options. As the days grew on, the realities of making it down to Sapo were virtually eliminated. We could fly on a free UNMIL helicopter flight but then how would we get to the national forest, charter a car? The 8-12 hour drive to Sinoe in one of our own Land Cruisers would be a more convenient option but virtually impossible given the time frame and the fact that we would be in un-charted territories. We finally decided on our default choice of Robertsport. Not a bad default choice if I may – 3rd best surf spot in Africa. If I remember correctly from last New Years Eve, the surf isn’t that great at Robertsport this time of year. Even bad surf at Robertsport is good surf, so we decided to go.

On Friday, December 29th, I set out for Robertsport with Nick, a Canadian carpenter from Equip Liberia, and Peter, a local Liberian kid who I’ve known for well over a year – a cool kid and decent surfer for a beginner. We would lead the pack with Marcel following suite Saturday morning on a Yamaha AG-100 motorcycle and two whole other vehicles packed with friends, some looking to surf, others just looking for some rest and relaxation on the most gorgeous beach I’ve ever been to in my life. The Caribbean has nicer water than Robertsport but the beaches cannot even compare. Black and tan sand beaches lined with acrylic black stones and palm trees lining the shores. On more than one occasion I mentioned to friends that this is seriously paradise. Walking back from a beach called Loco, amazing point break for surfing, I mentioned to my buddy Luke that its amazing that people pay thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles to find locations like this and we have it at our disposal only two and a half hours from Monrovia.

As we pulled into Robertsport I immediately started looking for any dramatic change I could find in the seven months I had been absent from Liberia. Initially, I noticed two things:

1. There was a noticeable UN presence at the entrance to Robertsport – something that I ended up finding out was primarily in place for the New Years festivities they were anticipating. Being in Robertsport for New Years 2005 I didn’t think anything got too out of hand but I guess they had some insider information that told differently. I wasn’t complaining. Heightened security could only help if anything did happen to get out of hand. The added security force ended up being a great source of geographical information on accessible beaches in and around the Robertsport area.

2. The other noticeable difference was a small sign cut out of a log, reading ‘Robertsport’ painted on the front, was missing half of its face. It was a good thing I had been there before and knew where I was because some newcomers may think they have just arrived in ‘ertsport’.

I had noticed on the trip up that I had forgotten to buy gasoline to run my MSR stove and if we were expecting to cook ourselves some hot food we had to find someone in this small village who sold gasoline. It turned out that there is only one place that sells gasoline and it took us a couple of inquiries of local marketers to find where this place was. It ended up being in a small shed behind one of the stores in the market, A terrible location if you are in the business of selling a product. I suppose if you’ve got a monopoly on a certain product people will go to great lengths, speaking of distance and price, to acquire what they need. Most of the market vendors were selling ‘small small’ items such as vegetables, fruit, and small ‘knick-knacks’ such as batteries and cell phone accessories. As I maneuvered around small children a dusty figure caught my eye. “Workings of a legend…,” I thought to myself as I approached this scrawny old figure. This was one of those characters that you just had to know more about.

He wore this matching outfit that you could have found in Las Vegas in the 1960s. His pants were held up by an amazing belt buckle that only dreams could recall…and the shoes. His shoes were a semi-high top, dusty black leather boot with diamond sized studs covering the outsides equidistant apart. His instrument was a rickety, three-quarter sized guitar with his name etched into the body with a pen. “Julius B. Sundifu” it read. I found out later that his sister-in-law from North Carolina sent him his guitar back in 1982 and it was from then on that he cherished this prize possession for the next 25 years. For some people music is a way of expressing one’s self, a way of communicating to the outside world your world and your most intimate feelings. You could see it in the way this man walked, in the way he talked, that his guitar was more than just a musical instrument, it is a part of him and an avenue of expression. The brim of his sun-faded St. Louis Cardinals hat told romantic stories of old when Robertsport’s streets were lined with colonial style houses reminiscent of the US South. The ‘Harry Carey’ glasses sitting on the bridge of his nose highlighted expression-filled eyes and the seatbelt that doubled as a guitar strap told a story of silent perseverance and resourcefulness, of survival and inner joy.

I asked him, “Pape, you will play a song for me?” He smiled a left-cheek smile and began to play. His guitar was tuned in an ‘open-something’ chord and, because of its brittleness, was fairly limited to where on the neck he could play. He was very limited to the first to third frets due to the gap between the fretboard and strings growing to over an inch as you moved up the neck. The nut was completely far past ‘well-worn’ and the strings dug well into the first fret. Honestly, I don’t know how this guitar made a sound, but he knew its limitations and he worked well within them and made it sound surprisingly well. During the war, while others were fleeing their villages with a cup of rice, Mr. Sundifu carried his guitar wherever he went. I asked him about the nails so intimately fastening the fretboard to the neck. He described how, ‘in the bush’, the guitar had no protection from the rain and the consequence was an exaggeratedly warped neck and detached fretboard. Using the materials he could get his hands on he made it work.

In a very Sierra Leonian, ‘palm wine’, sounding song, he sang impromptu of how I wanted him to sing a song - pure genius at work.

We made our way down to Cassava Beach where we found we were the only campers thus far, a bonus that wouldn’t last for long. After convincing the ‘owners’ of the place that we weren’t the same people who didn’t pay them last time we proceeded to pick out our favorite spot to pitch out tent, directly under the giant almond tree overlooking a point break that when its working I would argue is some of the nicest waves in the world. This weekend, it wasn’t working. The only new physical developments at Cassava Beach were a new bathroom and change room facilities as well as three palm huts that provided a five-foot diameter circle of shade under each one of them.

Mid-morning on Saturday, while the fishermen were bringing their boats ashore, Nick began to barter with the fishermen for a fish that realistically could have fed up to 20 people. How the fish got to shore was quite the sight as well. Dialogue went back and forth between a Liberian on shore and the fishermen in the boat, something equivalent to “whi man wan your fi-oh!” This Liberian fisherman who was holding up this 25+lbs fish in his canoe immediately jumped overboard!

Fish in one arm he swam to shore. It took him at least five minutes to swim that 100 feet to solid ground. One can’t swim very fast with only one arm, add to that a 25-30lbs fish in your other hand. Once on the beach the negotiations began. After walking away a couple times Nick ended up buying this fish for the equivalent of about $6.50USD. The same fish in Monrovia would go for at least $15USD. He did pretty well for only being in the country for a month. After posing with our dinner we proceeded to gut and cut it up, filling one big soup pot full of meat.

With Marcel and his AG-100 came an extended search for Mr. Sundifu. I suppose he couldn’t resist our stories of this legend so him and Nick went into Robertsport and started asking random people if they knew this man. Eventually someone knew who they were looking for and led them to the man’s house. They wanted to see if we could get Mr. Sundifu to play a private show for us on New Years Eve. As the story goes, Mr. Sundifu was surprised that they came to his house. He said that he was planning to come down to the beach anyhow. Wow, what a treat! New Years Day he ended up coming a few hours early, 2pm to be exact, and sat on the beach for the better part of four hours while we were off surfing and just relaxing. We invited him to eat dinner with us and when the food had half-settled in our stomachs we sat in a circle on the beach and listened for the better part of an hour and a half to his palm wine melodies of how his wife was cheating on him and the injustice of how a ‘Coca-Cola wata’ costs $25LD in Robertsport and only $20LD in Monrovia. I wanted to pipe in about the economic argument of transportation costs but I thought that could wait for another day. This was an experience that I didn’t want to ruin. I remember sitting there, running my bare feet through the sand, thinking that I really needed a pencil and paper to write down some of these lyrics that I was hearing, but I didn’t move. In between songs we would probe him with questions about the war, his past employment, and his family and he would go into three-minute monologue answers before piping into his next tune. Part way through we offered him one of our nicer, newer guitars to play but he couldn’t play it. He knew what he could play and he was good at what he knew. Why spoil a good thing?

As I drove him back into town at 11pm on New Years Eve I promised him that I would get a hold of a new pair of strings for his guitar. I know where he works and I know how to find him so next time we’re up in Robertsport I will go out of my way to make sure I track down Julius B. Sundifu at least just to say ‘hello’. As he got out of our Toyota Land Cruiser I hopped down from my driver seat and met him at the back of the vehicle. Shaking his hand in thanks I slipped $5USD into his hand and wished him a Happy New Year.

He smiled a left-cheek smile, turned, and walked away.

Labels: , , , , , ,