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ATM Madness

July 3, 2018

Getting cash in Liberia isn’t always easy.  This past few years ATMs have been cropping up and have greatly improved the situation. I have a few favorite ATMs; you have to have a few because each one only works about 60% of the time.

About a year ago I had a strange ATM encounter.  It was at the GT Bank in Sinkor just about three blocks from the Lutheran Church in Liberia Central Office.  This is my favorite ATM in all of Liberia for two reasons: 1) It’s orange and I really like orange, and 2) It doesn’t appear to have a withdrawal limit beyond the ability to issue a maximum of 40 bills (if it only has 10s then you can take out $400 – yuck!  But if it has 20s, 50s, or even 100s then – wowser!).  Anyway, this time it had 20s, I knew this because it wouldn’t allow me to request more than $800.  I felt a grim sense of satisfaction as I progressed through the menus on my way to the Promised Land of Money-In-My-Pocket.  My heart quickened as I heard the ATM counting out my money– oh, yes – I was so ready. And then, just at the moment my moneywas supposed to come shooting out that little armored door, the power went off, the ATM turned blank, and my debit card was spewed forth back in my general direction.  I know I’m a pastor, but I said it anyway, “What the hell is this?”  A few moments later I thought to myself, “I’ll bet that money was deducted from my account!?”  I immediately called Charles Schwab and sure enough it was.  I explained the situation to Lewis in Miami and he invited me to file a dispute, which I did, and a coupla weeks later the money was credited to my account as righteousness.

Now here’s the thing, just last month, at the UBA Bank on the Cuttington University campus the exact same thinghappened to me again.  Lightning can and does strike the same place twice! I don’t know what all this means. Again, Schwab was quick to make me whole, although I have to wonder what they think of a guy who claims to have had this happen to them two times.

Obviously, I suspect foul play.  I imagine somebody in the bank watching my transaction take place on a computer screen making frantic hand signals to a fella who has his finger on the breaker – I don’t know.  What I do know is if I were as poor as most Liberians I would probably do the same thing.

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Just Lights Up My Sneakers

The Liberian equivalent of High School Homecoming is Gala Day.  The young people join various groups, wear different-different costumes and march or dance around the campus.  It is always quite spectacular.  This is a picture of a girl’s traditional dance group at the Lutheran School in Totota.

gala day

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Strangers Living the Dream

April 2, 2018

Picture1I first met Fatu about a year ago.  Her body was covered with craw-craw* and one of the Blessed Kids Day Care teachers brought her to me as I am the King of Craw-Craw.  That’s my bluffing* way of saying that I have benzyl benzoate lotion.  She was a sorrowful sight, it still makes me want to cry just to think about how she was allowed to reach to such a horrific state.    Here’s what I know about Fatu’s business:

  • She is maybe 7 or 8 years old and does not live with her biological family. This is very common in Liberia.
  • One man, who I don’t know, pays for her school fees.
  • One family, who I don’t know, lets her sleep in their house.
  • Several families, who I don’t know, share the burden of feeding her.
  • One woman, who I do know, sent her new clothes for Christmas.
  • I, who I do know, pay for her medical needs and give her a daily “small thing” (10 LD which is about 7 cents) so she can get a snack at school. Fatu and I have a little ritual: I say, “Fatooo-Fatooo, how are yooo? How are yooo?” Fatu somewhat meekly calls back, “Alright – alright.”

I don’t know a thing about the other people who help Fatu, it’s not as if we have regular Fate of Fatu meetings.  Maybe we should. What I sense is simple communal compassion.  No bluffing, just a common desire to see a little girl make it through the day.  A smart man once said, “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.” I love that.

*Liberian English

Dry-Face means chutzpah. It is pronounced as if it were one word, “drah-FAY.”  “That boy got drah-fay.” To Bluff means to show off but doesn’t connote any negative sentiment.  You might say to a child who is dressed up, “You really bluffing today.”

Craw-craw means scabies.

Election Business

September 18, 2017

The Kenyan Supreme Court recently declared their August 8 presidential election to be invalid.  Apparently there was massive voter fraud.  I’m thinking this is great news, not that there was stuffing of ballot boxes but that the Kenyan government has matured to the point the Supreme Court can actually do something that undermines the desires of a sitting president.  Their reelection is scheduled for October 17.

On October 10, Liberia will be electing a new president.  The campaigning has become quite hot and heavy.  Lots of folks are concerned about the potential for civil unrest and so the dominant message I’m hearing from all angles is, “…free and fair…no violence…everyone must accept the results…”  It’s pretty clear to me that voter fraud is par for the course.  I also hear ugly rumors of humans, mainly children, being kidnapped and sacrificed as part an attempt to influence outcomes.  At the same time, however, it’s equally clear to me that Americans could learn something from the Liberians.  American politics has degenerated into something marginally more sophisticated than professional wrestling.  How dare we presume to point our hairy little fingers at the craziness that goes on in other countries.  I can’t possibly be alone in my thinking…am I?

More Than a Handful

June 11, 2017

It’s pretty common for a fella to give the gift of a lappa to his beloved. In case you don’t know, a lappa is a piece of cloth- two yards long and usually with a colorful “African” print. Women use lappas as wrap-around skirts or sometimes they have them sewn into pants, blouses, dresses, etc. Anyway, one day I’m talking to my class about some passage from the Bible, I can’t remember which, and I want to make the point that throughout scripture the LORD wants more than simple obedience; he wants sincere outward expressions of an inward love and faithfulness. I’m trying to drive the point home and I look at Bendu (not her real name) and say, “So Bendu, would you like it if your husband gave you a lappa?” Bendu says yes, then I say, “What would you do if while your husband was giving you the lappa your he told you that his girlfriend didn’t like the lappa and that’s why he was giving it to you? Would you even want the lappa then?” Bendu’s answer didn’t help me make my point, she said, “I would love that! Because I know the reason the girlfriend refused the lappa was because she knows she is not his main woman!” Well there you go. I guess that’s why I can’t remember what scripture passage we were looking at.
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Just down the hill from my house are 4 or 5 kids ranging in age from one and four. I’m not sure how it happened but we’ve developed this understanding that whenever I pass we greet each other by raising our arms while standing on one foot. We look a little like were the Karate Kid ready to do Mr. Miagi’s main move… I’m talking about the original Karate Kid here…the real Karate Kid! One of the kids is a little girl name Handful. She’s maybe 3 years old and I’ve always assumed she was called Handful because she’s a stinker. Turns out she’s called handful because she was born premature and was so small that she could just fit in your hand. I love that. For those of you who are wondering the answer is yes, she really is a stinker too.
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I am very much pro-life. “Spoiling the belly” is pretty common in Liberia; I assume it’s legal but I don’t know for sure. As with so many things it’s all about money and it’s not uncommon for poor young desperate women to try all kinds of unsafe DIY craziness to spoil the belly and it’s not uncommon for these poor young desperate women end up sick, hurt or dead as a result.
Last August I was visiting with a young gal who had done a bunch of work for me. She had just learned she was pregnant and was debating in her mind whether or not she would spoil the belly. She was painfully clear, she wanted to spoil the belly but was afraid. I remember freezing up, staring into oblivion and thinking, “Oh God”…I wasn’t sure what to say and for some moments I was too scared of my own thoughts to say anything…in the end I opted for the awful truth. I told the gal two things: 1) I didn’t want her to have an abortion and 2) If she decided to have an abortion I would gladly pay for her to get a “good” one. It was some weeks before I spoke to this gal again and learned she decided to have the baby. As I write the baby is a coupla months old…it’s a girl…her name is Abigail.

Being Healed by the Blind

August 31, 2016

welding.JPGA few months of Sundays ago a shock on my pickup broke while I was coming back from my preaching point in the bush.  On Monday I found a used shock in my closet but it was for the left hand side which happened to be the totally wrong side.  The shock could be “adjusted” but that meant taking it to the mechanic shop on the road for a quick cutting and welding.  Joseph has done welding work for me; he’s a good guy.  While we’re dickering over the price I’m staring at his eyeballs and thinking to myself, “So Brian, how much is it worth for Joseph to burn his retinas and go blind before he’s 30?”  Joseph’s eyes looked like crap.  Words like red, swollen, irritated, and inflamed don’t begin to describe it.  You see, Joseph, like every other welder I’ve seen in Liberia, does his work wearing sunglasses.   Ray-Bans no less!!

So I get this brilliant idea. “Joseph,” I say, “how about you do this piece of work for me for free and when I go to America in June I will bring for you the rightful glasses for you to be wearing?” Joseph gave me that look I’ve come to know so well, it’s the look that says, “You stupid white-man! Why are you bringing this nonsense to me? Just pay me my money!!!”  In the end I wore poor Joseph down and he agreed.  I would say he reluctantly agreed but I think the truth is he just wanted me stop tormenting him with my slippery English.

Anyway a few weeks ago I presented Joseph with his brand spanking new welding headgear.  He was SO unimpressed and I got that look again. He barely acknowledged my presence and certainly didn’t express anything beginning to resemble gratitude.  As I walked home I stopped at Sah’s place to buy a pack of Lebanese Fig-Newton lookalikes…comfort food to make me feel a little less ridiculous.

Last Thursday Joseph stopped at my house.  He had a big smile on his face and bright, healthy looking, pain-free eyeballs in his head.  He was nearly gitty with gratitude. He had no idea what a difference it would make.  His visit totally made my day.  Upstairs you can see a picture of Joseph welding.  Nice headgear!!  Notice Joseph’s genius friend wearing the hand-me-down Ray-Bans, not what I would a call resounding success but we are getting there small-small.

666 and the Nigerian Prince

April 8, 2016

Everyday in Totota we set aside 30 minutes or so for devotions. Just before someone says, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…,” folks are invited to make announcements. Most days the announcements are pretty mundane, perhaps there is a complaint about the food or a reason to cancel the evening Kpelle class. Anyway, one day a while back, we had a rather long announcement/warning about certain phone numbers. Apparently 11 people “in town” had died after answering their phone when they received calls from numbers that included the number “666.” The person warning the class wrote all kinds of phone numbers on the board like 0886663425 that you should definitely NOT answer if you are called by one of these numbers. Later that same day I went up to Gbarnga and saw already written on the board the same numbers and words, “11 persons died!!!” What a fella to do?

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One of the blessings of Cameroon is the prevalence of Islam making it okay for all men, including those of different faiths, to wear “Muslim PJs.” (I’m a little afraid some will interpret my calling them PJs as a criticism – that is certainly not my intent – I totally love them!!) Anyway, not too long ago I was invited to a wedding…okay, okay, I wasn’t actually invited as much as I was asked to help drive the wedding party in random directions after the service. The church was packed. Kids fought to be able to stick their heads in the windows. There were people sitting and standing in all the aisles. As I am clergy I was forced to sit up front with the other clergy. I was wearing some light purple Muslim PJs I picked up in Cameroon – the other clergy all commented on how great I looked. They didn’t think I looked Muslim as much as I looked like a Nigerian Prince. Thinking back I was struggling with an overwhelming urge to send out solicitous e-mails.

The wedding took five hours. Yeah, that’s right, five hours! The procession alone was 90 minutes. Fifteen minutes for each of the six bridesmaids to do a little dance down the insanely overcrowded aisle. Truth be told I kinda liked the little dances – at least for the first hour or so. I do think they could have changed the music instead of playing the same song over and over and over. What was so clear to me was that when the service was over I was totally spent while everyone else was totally energized. Why is that? I’m thinking people like me tend to be so focused on the next thing that we can’t fully engage the present thing.   Liberians have this wonderful gift for living in the now. I think I could learn from that.

Back in Liberia….Post Ebola

June 27, 2015

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So I’m back in Liberia…it feels eerily the same. Everywhere I go folks thank me for returning and offer excuses for my Ebola absence. Two children were named after me while I was gone. When I was here I actively discouraged the practice although now that I’ve unwittingly taken the plunge I kinda like it. Everybody calls the one “Little Uncle Brian.” How cool is that?

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Totota had zero deaths from Ebola. Let me be clearer, no one in Totota died after contracting Ebola, however, there were many deaths. One story I heard was about a very pregnant gal showed up at a closed Totota clinic. She was very sick with what most agree was likely malaria and she died in the road outside the clinic. Fear of Ebola steered all the good Samaritans toward giving her a wide birth. My boss, Lydia, owns a dog named Teddy.  Teddy was spotted sniffing and perhaps even licking the body. Teddy had no idea what he was getting himself into. The poor guy was locked up in the generator house and sprayed down with chlorinated water and fed amoxicillin laced rice. A no-named local crazy woman who lives in the street and walks around half naked yet clothed in stench tried to feed the dead pregnant woman some food. Is it possible to shun a person even more than you were before? Anyway, the pregnant woman’s dead body lay in the road for two days waiting for an Ebola burial team to bring some latex gloved dignity to a crappy deal…it seems to me the world could use the stench of more crazy people.

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When I first came to Liberia Vermen and Praise were regular knockers of my door. They were maybe 8 or 9 at the time and they lived all of 50 yards from my house. I wasn’t back in Totota more than 10 minutes before Vermen told me Praise died. Malaria again. It happened at the height of the crisis. No help was to be had. The picture above was taken on Christmas Day, 2012. Praise is the one in pink on the far right.

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This has nothing to do with Ebola but I just gotta say:

When you go to the hospital in Liberia you gotta prepay for everything. Let’s say a doctor wants you to get a malaria test. What you do is you take the doctor’s order for the test to the cashier where you must first pay for the test before reaching to the lab to get the test done. It’s the same gig with drugs. If a doctor prescribes some kind of medicine it is your job to go and get it. Sometimes the drug is available in the hospital pharmacy but often you gotta to a private pharmacy down the road. A typical visit to the hospital involves many many trips to the cashier and the pharmacy.

Six years ago Peggy took her daughter, Jimelle, to Phebe Hospital. Jimelle had malaria and needed a blood transfusion. For the most part malaria kills little kids by destroying so many blood cells that the kids die of anemia. The total cost of the transfusion for Jimelle was 2000 Liberian Dollars (about $30 US). Peggy called on all her friends and family frantically trying to rustle up thirty bucks. In the end she wasn’t able to get the money and Jimelle died. Can you imagine feeling this helpless? I can’t. The help is there.  It’s not hard.  It’s not expensive.  It’s just not done and a kid dies. It is all so ridiculous.