Wednesday, 4 November 2015

About getting and seizing opportunities

Every morning here at the office begins with 'devotion': all participants stand in a circle, they clap and sing to God. God is huge here, and I can understand that. The government is corrupt, employers are hard to find, the school system leaves lot to be desired. You have to be able to rely on something.

In the West it is sometimes easy to think everything is malleable, but here I realize every day that the circumstances in which you find yourself and the opportunities you get, are far outside the sphere of human influence.

I noticed this when I helped Kids Club volunteer Augustine with his application to an American scholarship for African youth. His greatest professional achievement? That he finished high school. Nobody could pay for his schooling, but by working as a security guard when his young age actually made it illegal, he could earn the money himself. So much perseverance and strength, and what is there to show for it on your resumé? High school diploma. [In the West] we consider it, so to speak, a failure if you have only held one board membership function during your dual bachelor. How much we take for granted.

That does not mean people are not responsible for the opportunities they seize, or the opportunities they exploit. And that too is a problem in Liberia, as I wrote earlier. Many young people do not go to school, rather choosing to spend each day scraping together enough to buy their own meals.

That does not apply to everyone, of course. Jonathan, Bukky's live-in friend, proudly showed me his certificates and commendations from high school, which he keeps between the pages of a book. He was born in a village in Bong County, where witchcraft was practised and where he saw devils dancing until they were as big as houses. Now he lives in Monrovia and is trying to establish an NGO with a friend.

He loves Liberia because it's free, he says. You can go wherever you want. When I point out that Bukky makes me keep a firm grip on my bag as we drive through some parts of Monrovia with the doors locked, he admits that there is a lot of crime. According to him, it is often the people who fought in the war. As a child they had a gun pressed into their hands, and they could get everything they desired. Now they know of no other way to get money.

Jonathan really wants to build a good life for himself. He makes sure that he does not hang out with people of his age who just roam the streets. That attitude is contagious, he says, much like smoking. Yet, he's nice to everyone. 'Cause what if I need them in the future, I don't want them to think badly of me." Ideally, if he could get the money, he would go abroad to study, and return to Liberia with a good degree to get a job.

Not everyone shares that dream. The motivation of the pastry students sometimes leaves something to be desired. Last Monday, exams were supposed to start, but they had only practiced bread and pastry, no catering - rice dishes, meat and salads, which just about make up half of the curriculum. Because these products cannot be sold after production, the students have to pay for the purchase of materials for these practice sessions. They failed to do so. Bukky repeatedly pointed this out to them. In vain.

When the students arrive on Monday expecting to take the banana bread exam, what they get instead is a sermon from Bukky. We pay for your training, and you take it for granted. The next two days put your money together and practice, if necessary, until late at night. If not, you can leave now.

The students are very impressed, and a few hours later, everyone is cutting into purchased onions, cooking rice and marinating chicken. A very brave student dares ask if they really can't have the day off on Thursday (a public holiday, Thanksgiving) but Bukky holds firm. The result is that the office starts to smell delicious and by 5 pm the red Jollof Rice, Fried Rice and Fried Chicken are ready.

The soap students have been motivated from the start, and bring their own materials for the individual tests. Some travel far beyond Monrovia on weekends to sell the products they made. 

The past week I spent a lot of time photographing and filming the soap making process at the request of Tonia, and I noticed that they encounter other issues. The locally manufactured stamping machine that puts "MF Soap” on the soap blocks, forces the still-soft, rectangular-cut blocks out of shape. In addition, they don't have good packaging materials. With a clean, straight cut and attractive packaging, they could significantly increase the price of their products. Now, you don't even pay fifty cents for a block of soap or bag of washing powder, as I noticed when I too decided to purchase some.
Luckily, it was easy to motivate students from both vocational courses to attend the Women's Club that meets once a month to discuss "women's issues". This time the discussion centered around health. Stella Subah, a midwife, talks about diabetes, high blood pressure and uterine cysts. Around 25 women listen interestedly while Mrs. Subah tries, in as simple terms as possible, to explain the diseases, how to prevent them and how, if you have it, to live with it.

At question time, I understand how important these meetings are. Everyone incessantly asks questions, sometimes about things we can't imagine ever asking questions about. If diabetes is transmitted sexually, for example, or if it is possible for several women in one family to have cysts. Afterwards Bukky encourages them to put that which they've learned into practice. "That's the difference between the West and us: there, if they learn something, they do something with it."

Inviting people to the launch of Mineke Foundation Liberia is going well. We get positive responses, and the resident representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has helped us a lot, giving us many names and contact information. He wants the best for Mineke Foundation; I suspect this is partly thanks to Bukky. She makes a good impression on people. Bukky is persistent; if she has to travel to a person's office three times before she can speak to him or her, she does that. She knows exactly who is out of the country and when is the best time to call or email. So yes, people remember her.

Still, the launch on December 8 remains exciting. I have seen the location, it's very light and big enough for 150 people, but you never know who ultimately really will be present. For example, we understood from the UNFPA representative that the Minister of Gender, who had promised to be a speaker, might be out of the country on December 8.

But it's not all work. We spent the weekend at the beach, at Kendeja Beach Resort. It was very nice but also very strange: neatly raked, no dirt or mud, and there were more white people than I've seen together in recent weeks, except perhaps in the expensive supermarket in Mamba Point. I took a forbidden swim in the ocean, even though it really is much too wild for that. I could not resist, but I remained in the surf and made sure every wave pushed me towards the coast. I have never felt the Atlantic Ocean this warm before.
A visit to the hairdresser for Bukky's new fake hair was an adventure in itself - almost no woman wears her hair natural, and the wildest creations are glued, sewn and woven onto heads here.
Bukky and Ayo also took me to visit a friend who lives in Dabwe Town. While enjoying a beer, we talked about the crappy driver they had all employed for a month, about General Butt Naked, one of the warlords who murdered people during the war while naked, and who now tours the country as a priest, and about Liberia. One of those in our company, Moses, listens with interest to our story about Mineke Foundation, and then offers his opinions.

Liberians are African nor American. They do not know where they come from, and they do not know where they are going. There is no direction, no purpose. There is no Liberian identity. Therefore, our vocational training can only be successful if attention is also paid to the future, Moses stresses. Okay, you can make soap, you can bake bread. But then what? The mindset has to change too, people need to learn to invest in their future.

I partly recognize his story, but also find him quite stern. Although this process is one of trial and error, there really are people who want to work. And even if there are only a few, if, thanks to MF they find the means to realize their dreams, as far as I am concerned, we will have succeeded.

Let's not forget what Liberia has been through. As Mary puts it: "People here were traumatized by the war, and then Ebola came on top of that." She tells me how the whole team went from door to door to encourage people to wash their hands and watch what they ate, but it was difficult. "How do you tell a poor person who has just managed to get some food, that he should not eat the meat on his plate?"

Bukky tells of how afraid she sometimes was for Daniel, who is very social and gets picked up and hugged by everyone. She tells me about how Dabwe Wiah had to walk from Waterside Market to Dabwe Town because he was sweating and no taxi dared take him because they were afraid he might be infected. And about a message that appeared on Facebook as a joke, that you could cure Ebola by eating a cup of salt every night at 1 am. It was taken very seriously, and several people died from a salt surplus. They were Nigerians who had not even been near Ebola patients.

The fear of Ebola has not completely dissipated, as you'll notice when you walk into a business or organization. You always have to wash your hands, and often your temperature is taken by a guard. Mine too. Because, as one of them once muttered, "It's the white people that are fixing it."

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