Begin Journal Entry
Nails in the coffin. Buried, and final. Angel died last night. She almost reached 3 years old. Every day I spent with her, playing, trying to show her right and wrong. As I walked home from her house, she would call “Mr H – wait for me!” I once found her sleeping on my front porch, alone. I guess she found comfort in me. I did with her. She was a strong sense of hope – something young and bright. A child who captivated those who met her. She was full and healthy, with snot making frequent appearances on her upper lip.
Yesterday, a Sunday around 5pm, an old ma said Angel is seriously sick. I went to the house to see her. Josiah sat beside her on a mattress in the dark bedroom – lit only by the ambient hallway. He moved and I sat next to her, asking if her sides were hurting. She nodded, her skin hot and her breathing rapid. The man who gave her injections earlier in the day said she had low blood, so her grandmother Susannah fixed raw egg, milk, and tomato paste to bring up her blood. Angel readily drank it, but had trouble keeping it down. It was clear she was sick, but the lack of alarm among the people around made it feel normal. Old ma Sue carried her in the clinic. Me and some others when on the football field to watch the end of a game. As we walked home, Dioh queasily walked past me, “They say Angel died.” I stood for a moment, blank, then numbly strolled back to the house. Cries cascaded atop one another. I found Josiah on the same bed where we comforted Angel an hour before. Night fell, and the cries magnified. Women screaming “Nisouah-o! Oh God!” pounding the ground hoping for an answer. Men passing through, keeping their heads low. Josiah crying in the room. People kept coming to him and telling him to “keep courage,” as the man of the house he was expected to comfort others with his dry cheeks and steady composure. An unreal expectation. The reality sank in as 3 hours of constant crying passed. They had laid Angel’s body outside on the table ma Sue fixes her coconut cookies on. Two men hung a mosquito net over her. Still in disbelief – or perhaps just hoping for impermanence, I had to see the body. As I looked down to her, she seemed to move. To me, she was still breathing. I desperately reached under the net to check her neck for a pulse. No pulse. No beating of the heart. Skin still warm.
She died with her eyes open. We buried her the next morning in a little rectangular casket with a palm-leaf wreath on top. Old ma Susannah said she put the overalls I bought Angel inside. Pastor Flahn Nyema steadied the people, “God works in funny ways. Her time reached. This is not a strange thing – stay strong. Nearly all of us here have lost a child in our family.” It was sobering, brief. Two men picked up the casket and carried it to the cemetery near Yudo hill. We followed behind, meeting someone digging the hole there. Josiah and I woefully looked on. As the casket was set six feet down, we each covered it with dirt until it was mounded over.
End journal entry
After death, a mat is laid out. The home of the grieving family hosts women that were close to the deceased. They all sleep together in the piazza, spending day and night sympathizing and comforting. Neighbors bring food and drinks, the affiliated church sings and drums. It can last anywhere from three days to some weeks.
It is likely Angel died as a result of Malaria. She experienced a strong fever followed by a misleading day of recovery, and then that Sunday morning the burning fever returned. She was playing in the morning. Severe anemia and respiratory distress are two of the most common complications in early childhood malaria – she exhibited both alongside the high fever. Unfortunately, she was one of nearly 700 children worldwide who died from malaria that day.
It’s not all bad. This number has reduced from around 1000 in the late 2000s. Considerable increases in the distribution and use of Long-lasting Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNS), Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs), and Artemisinin-based combination therapy treatment (ACT) have all contributed to reduced rates of mortality. Being a preventable and treatable disease, the reality of a malaria-free sub-Saharan Africa is not impossible. It depends on dispelling myths and stigmas, affordable prevention and treatment, and local adaptation.
This is the first year for 12th graders to graduate from the school I teach at. Senior classes here, along with those in most West African countries, face the month-long West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). It as an extremely hard and comprehensive test with subjects ranging from history to physics. A total of 9 subjects are tested over 30 days – with gap days for studying in between. It is compulsory to pass English and Mathematics and 2 other subjects to make an official pass in the WASSCE, and an official pass is technically required to graduate high school. Most universities devise their own entrance examination to more realistically assess the Our 12 seniors are impatiently waiting for the results to come in late July.
Students in the 1st through 11th grade have been meandering through the 238 instructional days in the academic calendar. One of my 10th graders deserves an honorable mention. Benedict Weah, a committed, hardworking, and humble servant of the Biology and Physics gods has gone above and beyond to master the material at hand. He takes the Dux almost every period and with averages of 97 in both Biology and Physics, his dethroning is dubious.
Houses, much like in the United States, are considered milestones of success. The way in which they are made, however, differs dramatically. The stringent, unavoidable regulations found stateside are indeed avoidable here. If a neighbor agrees, the house can be built.
The walls go up as such. Four strong corner sticks planted 2 feet deep and packed into place. A level string tied from one to the next. Ground sticks, similar to studs, planted 1 foot apart for the entire stretch between the corners, rising to touch the taut string. Interior walls erected similarly according to verbal floor plans from the owner. The trusses, with a short central spine and ribs bowing down in each direction of the four walls, can be made from strong sticks or planks and 5-inch nails.
When it comes to roofing – a decision must be made. To zinc or to leaf it be. Zinc or tin corrugated roofs are the new status quo and last a solid 20 years. But the Pah-paw waxy leaf roof is less expensive and gently dampens the drumming of rain during the rainy season. With care and occasionally the aid of smoke from the kitchen, a Pah-paw roof can reach 8 years before needing a lift. Those who have “the hand” will opt for Zinc.
Once the roof is set, the ground sticks are laced together on both sides with horizontal pieces of reef or thin sticks. Strips of old plastic or misused mosquito nets tie the pieces to the ground sticks. The result is a hollow, wall-deep grid that provides a skeleton to be fleshed with mud. An event in and of itself. Daubing (v. – liberally applying mud) the wall is a family affair. Women and children haul dirt and water, while several young men mix the two by dancing barefoot. The fresh mud is reformed into watermelon-sized clumps that are then thrown into the grid, backed by the hands of a worker on the interior of the house. The wall is evened by scraping and recasting obtruding mud. The older men in the community encourage with songs, chants, and fermented liquids. A standard house requires several tons of mud and several dozen laborers. When hands are plenty a days work should do.
From there, a month of drying solidifies the place. A kitchen is often built adjacent to the house. Plastered walls and cement over the floor can finish the house quite well. Doors, window shudders, and furniture are made by a town carpenter and voila! A house becomes a home.
In recent months the Liberian Dollar (LRD) has depreciated rapidly. Currently, 194 LRD fetches a mere United States Dollar (USD). Besides powerful government officials and businessmen, most are paid in LRD. Some 80% of goods are imported (STATS) using USD, thus the market basket has grown dear (adj. – expensive) for the everyday Liberian. The causes for the 28.5% inflation experienced in 2018 are several. On top of Liberia’s export commodities fetching low values in the global market, foreign aid stilts that propped up the economy have been removed. A recent article written in Quartz by a multinational team focusing on peace-keeping in Liberia suggested that “relying heavily on foreign cash established a false sense of stability and growth in the economy, as infusions of foreign cash were temporary.” They cite foreign aid as the source of 25-40% of GDP from 2010 to 2017 – and with the United Nations Mission in Liberia withdrawn after the peaceful presidential election in 2018, that contribution has significantly dropped. While I believe that GDP is an overused and often misleading indicator of citizens welfare, the implications of this economic downturn are inescapable.
With concerns over the economy and accusations of ongoing corruption, a group of activists protested under the banner of the “Council of Patriots” this gone June 7th . It was highly anticipated as it ominously reminded Liberians of an event that sparked the civil war in 1989. On the day itself, many were glued to the neighborhood radio from the morning hours. To the relief of the nation, it was peaceful and served as a reminder that constitutional free speech is honored.
A change of scenery…
A rift has befallen communities with PC volunteers in southeastern Liberia. At the end of this 2018-2019 academic year, we who are serving in the five southeastern counties are splitting from our homes. A spike in motorbike-related accidents initiated our headquarters in Washington, DC to review our motorbike policy. Those of us in the southeast depend majorly on such transport in the rainy season – some 6 months of the year. Due to the new policy, we were given no choice but to move or resign.
The news fell heavy on communities and volunteers, who have committed immeasurable efforts to develop relationships with one another. The Peace Corps only recently returned to the southeast, statistically the least developed region in Liberia. Our presence here is interpreted as a sign of the times – stable and forward-leaning. Our departure is viewed as a setback- a personal one. When people in my community learn of the news, their reactions are sobering. The news is met with anger, denial, and strategies to prevent the unavoidable. Students joke of barricading the road to make me stay. I wouldn’t mind that.
No part of me wants to leave, and I expect a part will always remain. In just over a month I will go – before then I am trying to finish what I started, truncated or not. Who knows when, but I plan to return. Hold me to it. In this untimely, unexpected, and most unfortunate shift I am searching for silver linings. I will be part of two Liberian communities, not just one. I will get to try my hand at a different assignment, that of teaching and training teachers in a science laboratory. Time shall tell.
Words of the wise
In my town, parables are frequently used to resolve the moral underpinnings of a conversation. These are a few of my favorites.
“When two elephants fight, it is the ground that suffers.”
“That which the house does not sell the street cannot buy.”
“When someone bathes your back you must bathe your front.”
“No food for a lazy man.”
“It is not all the trees in the bush that the raccoon can clean its butt with.”
Speaking of wisdom – one of the village elders, Augustus Y Dibleh sat down with me several weeks ago to share some stories of his life, going blind, and persevering. Listen here.