If you would like to receive a notice each time we post, please enter your email here:

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Abandoned Ducor Hotel

Before the war
Pre 1980's
Built in 1960, the Ducor Hotel was the first international hotel in Liberia, and the only 5 star hotel to have been here. Located on the highest point in Monrovia, a bar on the roof provided a 360ยบ view of the city. The hotel closed in 1989 as the first civil war was beginning. Through the 10 years of the first civil war, the property was damaged, looted, and displaced people made their homes there. During the 2003 siege of Monrovia, Charles Taylor's army used it as a firing position because of the strategical view of the city. In 2007, squatters were removed from the property, but it still remains abandoned today. 

The Ducor is a short distance from where we live. Surrounded by a chain link fence and barbed wire with a few nonuniformed "guards" loitering inside it appears closed off, but a few dollars passed through the fence allows a quick entrance. Here are a few pictures from our explorations over Christmas.
Circular car garage as seen in the aerial photo above.
Looking down into circular car park area.

Main staircase. This was probably in the lobby. 

Elevator shaft with no doors.

The view from the top of the hotel is stunning.

Bridge to Bushrod Island
The slums of Westpoint are to the left.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Deaf Ministry

A few days ago, we visited Deaf Ministry. Deaf Ministry is a school for the deaf in Chocolate City, which is right outside of Monrovia. A lady from the embassy who helps out at the school took us there.

We arrived to a group of kids sitting outside of a low building. The kids ranged from toddlers to young adults. Apparently around 40 attend the school. Some are orphans, some have parents, and some have parents who have abandoned them. Luckily, American Sign Language (ASL) is used here, along with some English-based sign languages, so I could communicate with the kids (though it did end up being difficult because there were a lot of name signs, kids in general are difficult to understand (even in English!), and there were some local sign mixed in). As I went up and was introducing myself in ASL, I saw a number of jaws drop and eyes widen. Hands started flying. Who was this white girl who signed? Was she deaf?

Mom, Dad, and Elena don't know much ASL, but they also introduced themselves, and I chatted with the kids until we went on a tour of the school. From what we saw, the kids had pretty much nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few blankets on their beds. They live at the school, so there was a room for the girls and one for the boys, both crammed with bunk beds. There was also a store room. We waited while the director unlocked it, only to see it was completely empty; we were all a little shocked. Next we saw the kitchen, which had a few pots for cooking, and a giant mortar and pestle for crushing pepper to season food.

The second building held six classrooms with benches, tables, and blackboards. When the kids arrive at the orphanage, they usually have to be taught ASL, which can take 3 months to a year. Teaching ASL to these kids involves drawing pictures, using books, and of course, interaction with the other kids. After they learn ASL, they can begin learning other topics. Elena, Mom, and Dad wrote in the dirt to communicate with the kids a little bit, so they seemed to understand written English.

Next to the building with classrooms was the library, i.e. a few partially-built walls. Often in Liberia, when people have a little money, they start a project with no way to continue it, which is what happened here. Near the library there was a big water pump, though drinking water has to be bought in little plastic sacks.

After the tour, the director had the kids sign a song about God. A few of them sang along too. It was fun to see that little performance! Later, I asked the kids if they wanted gifts, and of course they were excited! We handed out the coloring books and crayons, soccer balls, bags of candy, and an armload of stuffed animals that we had brought along. The kids swarmed us eagerly for the gifts, and immediately started playing with their new toys with us. Some local hearing kids figured out something exciting was happening and joined as well.

Overall, there were many basic needs there that were barely being met, and very little financial support for the school. But the kids seemed pretty happy and healthy, and it was so much fun to play with them!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Monkeying Around at Monkey Island

Liberia doesn't have the draw of safaris or wildlife parks. There are no leopards, elephants, lions, zebras, hyenas, giraffes, gorillas, gazelles, rhinoceros, water buffalos, wildebeests, or ostriches. Almost any animal that you think of, when thinking of Africa, is not here in Liberia. So we don't have safaris to go to, but what we do have is Monkey Island.

Our journey began when the paved road ended and the ruts of a golden brown dirt road led the way into Marshall, a small town on the coast of Liberia. We had a bit of an idea of what we were going to do:  find the boats then hopefully barter a price with someone willing to haul the Americans around for a few hours. Chad and Damon found a few men who led them off into the village. If a few strangers are hanging around, curious kids appear to see what treasures they may have. We had fun handing out some Twizzlers and showing them how to take the plastic off and chew the candy.
Chad and Damon returned, happy with the price and happy to have found guides for the trip. Marshall, a fishing town, is lined with dug-out canoes and colorful fishing boats. We stepped into the water of the lagoon where the Farmington River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The water was warm and crystal clear. We climbed into the boat, trying desperately to keep our balance and not tip the whole thing over. Fishing nets filled the spaces between seats. We started by sitting single file, but when the whole boat listed to the side and my knuckles, which were gripped tight to the side, felt the coolness of the water I screeched. This completely surprised the two men positioned at each end of the boat, one a guide and the other the driver. Accustomed to the sway and rocking of the boat and knowing it's boundaries, they had no thought in the world that we would tip over. But because they didn't want to listen to the screeches of a woman for the next bit, they had Chad and Damon stand to help steady the boat as it floated forward. 

The ride to the island was peaceful and beautiful. The village behind us with a few huts sprinkled along the shore, disappeared into the past. We crossed the mouth of the river on one side with jungle stretching on the other. A tree in the distance, stood taller than anything around and spread its branches in the sky. For some reason, this tree spoke Africa to me. We were alone now. Five Fabers, two guides and a boat. 
An interesting fact about Monkey Island; there aren't any monkeys on this island. Seriously. I have no idea how the island got its name. There are chimpanzees on this island. And there's not just one island, but rather 4 in this group that have these chimps living on them. The story of these chimps is very similar to  that of Liberia. It's sad and broken and limping along with no solution in site. In 1974, chimps were taken from the northern, mountainous areas of Liberia and brought to the Liberian Institute of Biomedical Research, a testing facility partnered with the New York Blood Center to conduct medical testing. Over 100 chimps were injected with infectious diseases. Once a chimp tested positive, it was taken to Monkey Island for follow-up testing. Because chimps don't swim, the island became a natural refuge for the animals. Testing continued through 2005 until it was proven that the testing was cruel to the animals. It has been said that the testing done here led to vaccinations for hepatitis B and screening for hepatitis C - two diseases than have affected millions of people throughout the world. The researchers continued to feed and water the chimps on the islands until the height of the ebola crisis in 2014. Then the chimps began to starve. There also isn't a natural fresh water source on the islands, so in dry season they must be given water as well. In 2015 the Humane Society took over care for the animals. Today locals are paid to feed and water the chimps on a regular basis. I've heard rumors that the chimps were sterilized or that the food they are given has birth control in it. Our guide disagreed saying that babies are still being born, increasing the population. Today there are around 70 chimps throughout the islands. 
Our boat pulled up to a metal stand, located about 30' offshore. A large sign stated "Second Chance Chimpanzee Refugee; Humane Society; Danger. Our guides knew how close they could get without being harmed by the chimps. Chad, Damon and Elena jumped out of the boat and onto the stand to watch the chimps as they rocked back and forth on their knuckles and shook their heads. They moved around a bit and began to settle, although one continued to shake his head reminding me of a bobble head toy. We stared at one another, neither party willing to move. Eventually the dominate chimp decided he would rather look down on us to assess the danger so he climbed up into a tree. It was fascinating watching these animals in the wild.
Back in Marshall we took time to walk around, visit and hang-out with the kids. Before leaving we wanted to get a photo of our entire family with the kids. We asked one of the men we had been talking to if he would take a picture. Elena showed him where to look and how to press the button. We got the kids posed and waited while three men examined the camera, discussed and eventually appeared to take a photo. When we got home we had a good laugh at the two photos they took. The first was of our feet and the sand, the second had all the kids in it, but our heads were chopped off! 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Santa at the Orphanage

We had the opportunity to join one of our Marines, disguised as Santa, at a local orphanage this week. On Saturday several of us gathered at the Marine house and wrapped all the gifts that staff at the embassy had donated. Everything from toys, to clothes, to games, to soccer balls was given for the kids.   It was great to get out and enjoy giving to the kids. We've been living in a bubble, trying to find ways to connect with and give to the community, but the organizations here are rather closed to help. This was a good open door for us to make some connections and meet some kids. Although it was hot and Santa was melting quickly, he had a blast with the kids as well as in the car with the window down, waving to all the people on the street. We look forward to our next visit with these kids.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fishing Boat

I'm taking a bit of time off of work this Christmas to enjoy time with the kids while they're visiting. These lazy days allow me time to just sit and observe life here in Monrovia. Maddie and I were sitting  at the front window one morning, enjoying our breakfast while gazing out on the ocean. I noticed a white ring of something floating in the water. Was it foam churned up in the current? I shifted in my chair and leaned in closer to get a better look around the palm trees swaying in the light breeze. A colorful boat bobbed off shore circled by a ring of buoys.

Brightly painted fishing boats float past our house several times each day. Often several pass my window in a short period of time headed out to fish or back into port with their catch. The boats we see go in and out of West Point, a peninsula located in the north east area of Monrovia which is the most densely populated slum area here.

There are two types of boats that pass by, dug out canoes paddled by one or two people which sometimes have a white, square sail and these larger boats powered by a motor. My understanding is that these colorful boats have come from Ghana. I don't know why these fishermen decided to resettle here in Liberia, but they fill every port. The boats often have a Bible verse reference painted on the side. The Liberian flag as well as laundry strung down the middle, flutters in the breeze and a white cross was mounted front and center in this boat.
Colorful fishing boats passing our window
Fishing boats in Marshall, Liberia 

Up to this point I'd only seen the boats coming or going, so I was excited to watch the men gather their net. We stood along the edge of our compound for an hour or so, watching the circle slowly constrict with each pull of the net into the boat. The sun burned down on our shoulders and sweat tricked down our backs. I can't imagine how hot it must be in the thick of day out on the boats yet a small breeze was coming off the sea.

We stayed until the net was fully collected into the boat. I was curious to see how many fish they pulled in. Watching through my telephoto lens, I was surprised to see only a few fish. It was disappointing, I was hoping to see the men straining to empty their net into the boat and head home with a full load.

The boat we watched this morning.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Country Always in Crisis

"Ebola Hero Da Our Choice"
Beginning in 1989, the first civil war divided the country killing 250,000 people. Some key players in the war were Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, each leading rebel groups. Charles Taylor was part of the Doe government, but left when he was accused of embezzlement. He went to the Ivory Coast where he trained groups of rebel soldiers who felt they were oppressed under Doe. Johnson won control of Monrovia but there were still several years of fighting and instability. In 1997 elections were held and Charles Taylor became the president. 
Peace didn't last long and in 1999 rebels once again emerged with fighting, looting and taking over Monrovia. The second civil war ended in 2003.
Remember the movie Blood Diamonds with Leonardo DiCaprio? This story took place in neighboring Sierra Leone under Charles Taylor's rule to fund his war. Did you read the book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier? This is the accounting of children who were captured, given drugs and forced into killing in - you guessed it - the same conflict with Charles Taylor leading it all. I had seen the movie and read the book years ago. I never connected it all with Liberia as the center of the conflict. Of course I barley knew what Liberia was back then. But if you're acquainted with either of these pieces, then you have a small understanding of what happened in Liberia. 
The wars have been over for 15 years, but the effects remain. The city of Monrovia is littered with the carcasses of blown-out buildings that have never been repaired or torn down. They have become part of the city scape. There is a generation of people now in their prime years with an education gap which is having a large effect on the ability of the country to move forward. Infrastructure is non-existent so there is no road to connect the east to the west side of Liberia making moving goods, such as crops, impossible.
The country was trying to piece itself back together when Ebola struck in 2014-2016. Over 4,800 people died in Liberia. Again, this drained the country of any resources they had and another education gap occurred.
But all of this is in the past, right? Sadly, working in the embassy, these two events are referred to over and over again. They seem to be a road block that has stopped all movement forward in the country. Day by day, life goes on for the people but there is little to no improvement for society. The people are lacking decent roads, electricity, sewage systems and water - the essentials to life.
In addition to the difficult of the past, there seems to be other constant crisis distracting progress. I've been here for three months now and in that time there seems to be a crisis each month. 
In September $104 million newly printed Liberian Dollars went missing. That's $60 million USD. Seems like a lot of cash to loose. It was newly printed money that was being imported through the port and airport and it's all gone - or is it? No one seems to know. It's chaos and they want America to fix this problem. There was some hubbub and news, but then it's sort of fizzled up and gone away with no-one knowing where this money is.
In October the government felt that it was having a difficult time collecting taxes from its people so they had a brilliant idea to raise taxes on gas. Gas is something that everyone needs. So with the new taxes the gas companies decided that they were not able to sell their product at the new high price that the government was demanding so they limited their supply. They had the gas already imported but were not releasing it for sale to the public. It was sort of a face down to see who would win. So what was the impact? Gas stations seemed to dole out their limited supply in the morning and evening during rush hours. Long lines of cars waiting to get gas blocked up the roads while people were commuting to and from work. This caused the citizens additional hours in commute times. Gas stations also stopped allowing people to fill 1 liter bottles at the pump. This caused a crisis in a business where individuals go places where there aren't gas stations nearby and re-sell the gas at a bit of a mark-up. So boom, all those people who are barely surviving anyway were out of work. This was another crisis that was in the news for a few weeks but then society sort of shifted around the dysfunction and life goes on. 
That's how it is here in Liberia. Things are corrupt and broken but there is no power for change. It all feels rather dire. I don't sense hope in the people, rather just acceptance. As an outsider I look in, wondering what I could do that would help. It's all so overwhelming. Even the people who try to help seem to run into the problems with the corruption. More Than Me, a charity run group of schools for young girls, came into the news in October when a leader in the organization was accused of raping many of the girls. It's sad because it's a great organization that is changing the lives of some girls here in Liberia. Yet now there is suspicion and doubt of the help of foreigners. It's one more thing crippling this country.
A friend in Taiwan said to me "Liberia is one of those countries that I'm always rooting for but they just can't seem to get it together." It's hard to have hope when the outsiders around you don't have any. These are just my own thoughts and opinions on what I've seen around me these past few months. I don't understand all the politics and I really don't understand the root of all the problems. I just thought I'd share a few of the things I've pick-up on along the way.

Slums of Monrovia (but truly the majority of the city looks like this)