Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Operation Waterwheel

I'm going to be out of touch for the next little while. A bunch of us are leaving Sunday on our most ambitious up-country venture to date, an epic 1,000-mile journey covering eight counties via the worst (read: most fun) roads in Liberia. The plan is two days down, five days in Harper, a beautiful old city isolated near the border of Côte D'Ivoire, then two days back.
Have a merry Christmas, everyone, and a joyous new year. I hope you get plenty of time, plenty of family and friends and FOOD. Remember the reason for the season, and I'll be back with stories and photos soon. Love to all!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Crash course on orphan politics

Last week I tweeted my way through an all-day workshop hosted by Liberia's social welfare department and UNICEF. The goal was to validate a framework for a three-year program to de-institutionalize 50% of the more than 5,000 children living in Liberia's orphanages.

I got some questions from my tweeting, so this is my attempt to provide a brief overview. [Disclaimer: If you're not interested in the drier, more politico-technical aspects of orphan care, I'd consider skipping this one.]

First, some context in point form:
  • Liberia endured 14 years of civil conflict from 1989 to 2003.
  • Before the war, there were ten orphanages. Now there are at least 142.
  • Before the war, orphans were cared for by extended family (kinship care) or the community at large (foster care), making orphanages almost obsolete. This intrinsic cultural safety net was degraded by the conflict. While it is still present, it has been overshadowed by a mean entrepreneurial spirit that's noticed the international aid and attention that an orphanage can attract.
  • Among groups like ours, the generally accepted number of actual orphans in orphanages is 33-50%, the rest having either been recruited away from their families up-country, or residing at the orphanage under a boarding school arrangement (but under the false pretense or being an orphan).
  • This huge proportion of non-orphans diverts aid and attention away from the real orphans, and relieves parents' responsibility to care for their own children. This program is predicated on the finding that children thrive under individualized attention that they simply don't receive in an orphanage setting.
  • The goal of the program is to reduce the total number of non-orphans, then reduce the number of orphanages by closing those homes with abusive, neglectful, trafficking, and profiteering directors. This will allow the government and its helping hands to focus resources on the remaining orphan(age)s with excellent directors committed to raising healthy, successful children.
So that's the situation, more or less. Now, the solution is complex, multi-faceted, and gradual. Much as we'd all love to scoop ALL the children out of those poor, broken orphanages and get them into safe, loving, dry, clean homes... Well, we have to prioritize: the worst orphanages closed first.

Top to bottom: Introduction to the framework by Ina, the consultant and spearheader; Breakaway groups to identify and address gaps; Group presentations to the plenary.

The first step is to reunify as many children as have families -- immediate or extended -- able to provide care. This is incredibly difficult and time-consuming, and never really ends. Assessment and follow-up monitoring are needed to ensure children are welcomed, safe, and don't become domestic servants to their own families. Likewise, there will need to be a fine balance struck between providing a "welcome home" package and creating expectations of continued external assistance.

The second best option would seem to be foster care, though this requires intense pre-evaluation and monitoring. In this scheme, government would be expected to share in much of the financial cost of raising these children--particularly school fees. Still, growing up in a home with one-on-one attention, discipline, and love is almost always better than growing up in an institution.

Where children are found to have no living relatives and foster care isn't possible, it's left to place them in the best institution available -- either another, better orphanage, or a boarding school.

The other consideration is to move the children as little as possible, to reduce the trauma of multiple relocations. So while we need to act urgently, we also need to be sure-footed, as confident as possible in the safety and durability of the end situation--whether it's a family or foster home, boarding school, or another orphanage.

Finally, I'll just say this: I've been sitting in government meetings for almost three years, repeating many of the same planning meetings without ever getting around to the implementation. This one, I hope and pray, is actually going to fly--thanks mostly to financial backing from UNICEF. My role within this process is not at all central, but to be an active participant in the process, to provide expertise and momentum, resources and accountability throughout -- essentially, to do whatever I can to ensure it actually happens.

There you have it--my crash course on de-institutionalization. Questions? Comments? Recommendations? I'd love to hear them.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The bright side of hectic

I picked up some colleagues from the airport the other day whom I'd seen just two weeks ago in Texas, yet it feels like it had been months. Such has been these last two weeks--hitting the ground running, raising the bar for myself, and (well above and beyond all that) watching God line up mini-miracles each day.

I'm explosively happy to be back in Liberia, home, after three and a half wonderful months with, well, the rest of the world. With many of you.

Last night I was telling a friend what I want in life -- roots, community, love and support. And that led me to realize how much life has changed in the three years I've been here. My first trip here, it was just four of us camping out in a big empty house, sleeping on the floor -- didn't have much to offer, didn't know many people, just learning and doing and growing each day. Now, I have roots here. Real community. I have my people. My team is great at what they do. I have a immensely (and equally) challenging and rewarding job. It's still life on a submarine, in a sense--everything in common, no secrets, the good/bad/ugly--but it's become my real life, and I love it. I really love it.

Now, I hesitate to say this; it's not to glorify myself, I just don't want you to misunderstand me: this is hard. Children are sick, skinny, robbed, given away, used, exploited, abused, all but crushed. Adults are lazy, corrupt, mean, hotheaded, selfish and greedy. The country is broken. The healing (while substantial) is still so superficial. They fixed the roads, sure, but there's still the crooked cop cheating a taxi driver out of $0.17 to get through his pylons.

Corruption is called friendship, and everybody's friendly.

What I love is the deep and abiding satisfaction of being right where I'm supposed to be, and that I get to do it with vibrant, deeply loving people. So many of you have been asking me, recently and for three years now, How long are you going to do this? The answer I'm not sure of. I'm thrilled that God called me here, where He knew I'd thrive; but I hope I would go wherever He called me next, Africa or Canada or Space. All I know is, when I follow Him, it always seems to get I can't wait.

Finally, I just have to celebrate two amazing facts: Elena (an old high school friend recently rediscovered) has joined ORR full-time, and just got to Liberia. (Check her blog here) And secondly, another couple, both very close friends from elementary school, are coming in February! I've finally managed to export Huntsville to Liberia, the best of both worlds!! :)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Back to the grindstone

After a crazy and fantastic three and a half months criss-crossing North America (11,000km / 7,000 mi of solo driving!), I'm finally back home in Liberia. The roosters, the roar of the diesel generator, the heat: it's good to be home.
Even before getting on the plane, but especially since arriving, I've been overwhelmed once again by the privilege of being here. Working and sharing life with such incredible people, serving such joyful children, the isolated beauty of this place.
The year ahead will likely be difficult: there is an enormous amount of work to do in a short time, and in the midst of many transitions. But my gut says it's all going to work out, and fly by, and be blessed.

Liberia's still broken but healing, corrupt but optimistic, unhappy but joyful. Back to work.
Sure, the beach might be the national bathroom. But somehow, 'unspoilt' is still the only word that comes to mind!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Vacation, Episode II

On to September: In an effort to reduce all the traveling I did last year, I split my month in Canada into three. Part one was Huntsville, my little hometown in the woods. Apparently I brought with me the best weather of the whole summer, and I capitalized with backyard BBQs and sunbathing by the river, just like the good ol' days. Part two was camping and then marrying off my best friend, Braden. It was a pleasure to spend a week with him and Melissa, and a great privilege to stand at his side as he took the plunge. Part three was all about family, and I had an amazing time staying with my sister, brother, and finally with my parents.
The whole family (minus Scott--missed you, Bro) even opted to have Thanksgiving a couple of weeks early on account of me. Man, I forgot how good turkey and cranberry is!

Seriously, though. I have SO much to be thankful for. Family and friends, health and strength, a job that's also a calling. There's only one word for it: I feel downright spoiled.

Thank you to everyone that dropped what you were doing to make time for me. I thoroughly enjoyed catching up. I miss you all so much through the year. Thanks for your gracious approach to adopting an hour-a-year friendship with me. Wish it were more. (Oh, and if you have photos of our time together, I don't -- send 'em over!)

Vacation, Episode I

Ok, here goes. So much to tell, so few photos to tell it with! Let's begin at the end of August, when I had a huge dream come true: I got to visit Gifty and her amazing family. Now, they had warned me that I wouldn't recognize my little monster -- but WOW, she is enormous. So big, so healthy -- so much like a child her age. When she left Liberia, she was a one-hander. She could balance quite happily with her giant belly, though she lacked the strength to sit up or crawl, let alone stand. Well, I arrived in her second week of walking, and it was absolutely heartbreaking to see her screaming around, boss of the world. What a thrill.

It took me back to that first night with her in the hospital. Understand, I'm not a baby person. I wouldn't know if a diaper's inside out or not. So here's this eleven-and-a-half pound, 20-month-old girl, by all accounts just a few days from her end--not even enough strength to cry. No idea what to do--so I did what everyone does in a situation like that. I began bargaining with God. I paced the halls of the hospital for hours that night, singing to and praying over Gifty, promising God that if only He would heal her, deliver her, I would do anything.

Fast forward eight months, and there I am trying to lift a 27 pounder out of her crib. She's looking at me with a scrunched up nose, and I'm wondering if she remembers. She's experimenting with sounds, and she's fluent in all the sign language she needs. Most importantly, she's got a very loving extended family, and really the entire town -- anywhere I pushed her stroller, people would lean out of their cars to ask how she was doing. Amazing! Just look at her now:

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Gettin' gone

I'm back!! My week -- or almost two -- in the monastery in Virginia was fantabulous. Absolutely amazing to live among such humble, hospitable people. Amazing to learn some classic disciplines in a very liberating environment, while also experiencing the structure (and the freedom therein) of liturgy, as we met three times a day as a community for prayer.
I had no idea what to expect, going in -- but it was exactly what I needed after eleven months in the field.

Last day in the office today. Leaving in the pre-dawn for Wisconsin -- I'll be visiting first with churches and friends in Wisconsin Rapids and Appleton and Madison, then spending a few days catching up with Gifty's family. (YESS!!!) Please pray for safe travels!

September I'll be all over Ontario--in Huntsville for Labor Day weekend, in Ottawa for my best friend's wedding, then in Toronto and London with as many of my awesome friends and family as I can pack in. (Here's to couchsurfing!)

October, I've pushed back my return to Liberia to allow me more time to travel and share the stories of all the craziness that God is doing through ORR. So in October I'll be in Georgia at first, then in Texas and Louisiana -- BUT I do have a couple more Sundays if anyone out there would like me to come and share!

It's been really fun being back, I have to say. Re-entry has been easier this time, and I'm told by close friends around me that I seem calmer and more at peace than on past returns. The thing I notice most is that I'm less anxious, especially about future stuff. I feel great; I feel free.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Hope with me

One last thing I forgot before I disappear. Please pray for Gifty's potential live donor; they're flying down for a big day of tests coming up next week. Gifty's healthy and happy and heavy, but she still needs this liver. Please pray that the tests would go well, that they would both be healthy and a great match. Just pray that God would throw down one last miracle in this crazy story. 

And with that, here's my girl...

Disappearing awhile

I'm leaving today for a week-long retreat in a monastery, a much-needed re-focusing exercise. Then, out of the blue, this poem landed in my inbox this morning. Enjoy, and see you later.

Flickering Mind

Denise Levertov

Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I am absent.
You are the stream, the fish, the light,
the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive
at the fountain's heart
the sapphire I know is there?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

On the road again

Eleven months is a strange stretch of time: long enough, apparently, that time no longer flies or drags, just is. Maybe that's a sign I'm feeling at home--when I stop thinking of seasons in Liberia as trips, but vice versa. It seems more like I'm leaving home to go on an extended trip.

I was chatting last night with another guy leaving today (he for good), and we found we've experienced the same progression: a month ago, we were both dying to go -- great food, summer weather (less rain, that is), and of course family and friends. But as the time has wound down, I've been given little treats of home so I'm less eager to leave. It's a conspiracy. To start, it's been the sunniest rainy season on record. The other day I had a real bona fide backyard BBQ. I even got to go hiking.

Well, I won't be dissuaded. Time for a break, and time for refilling my tank among loved ones. Maybe three months is a little longer than I'd like, but most importantly of all, I just want to be where I'm needed most. If that means bouncing around the US for an extra, sign me up.

Thank you and apologies to those of you waiting on me to announce when I'll be where; I'm sorry that my schedule is still so up in the air. Once I get back to Texas, the state of my car (and its response to repair and prayer) will be the first domino. After that, I'll let you know--but for now:

August: Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. September: Canadia. October: All. Over. :)

Monday, 29 June 2009

Kindergarten graduation

There are all sorts of things I get to do in Liberia that are totally ridiculous. Hilarity is a fact of life in Bizarro World. But one of my favourite times of year (and which I missed last year!) is Kindergarten graduation season. The pomp and ceremony that is rolled out for these kids is beyond funny, it's actually touching. They really make them feel like a million bucks.

Here's to you, graduating class of 2009: only 12 more to go!

(Yes, Moses just graduated from K-2 and is almost as tall as me.... *sigh*)

Home time!

Summer's on its way which means I'm on my way home--or at least to Canada and the U.S. At this point it looks like I'll be in Virginia Beach for a one-week retreat in mid-August, then to Texas for a week or two, then up to Canada for September.

Throughout September I'm available to speak at events (bbq's, concerts, churches, dessert nights), and for most of October I and the rest of the team will be available around the U.S. -- PLEASE contact us if you would like us to come and speak in your area!


Friday, 26 June 2009

Construction update

Here's a quick look at what I've been up to these past two weeks. We're more than halfway there now, thanks to FANTASTIC weather and a lot of quality help. More soon!

Construction Update At Mother Harley's

Friday, 12 June 2009

Christmas in June!

So my cousin Erin just became my favorite American. :)

A few weeks ago she sent me a note on Facebook that she wanted to help out, maybe raise some money or send some supplies. Well, I shot back some random stuff off the top of my head, and sure enough--a couple days ago I get this GIANT SUITCASE OF LOVE!! Thirty-six pounds of granola bars, jerky, gum, and every sort of awesome. I'm in overload!

But that's just the stuff for the team: Erin also rallied the troops to donate over $2000 toward clean water projects at our orphanages, and sent heaps of matchbox cars and beautiful posters and cards from the kids at her church. (Always cool to introduce international pen pals!)

Thanks so much to everyone who pitched in: Branyon Guthrie, Susan Guthrie, Sarah Guthrie and Gary Guthrie, Adrienne, Elizabeth Jones, Nick Person, Brad Parkhurst, Blake and Rachel as well as Grace Buonamia, Rachel Young, and Becky Klein, and anyone else I've forgotten! Special thanks also to Northstar Church Middle and High School Youth Groups, and Cobb Business Women's Assosiation. Thank you all for being such a huge blessing to my entire team, keeping us fueled up and reminded of home.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Velvet Elvis :: Movement One :: Jump

Rob's preface reads like the back cover, an anecdote to illustrate how this book is a part of a conversation, not an argument or a sermon. This conversation has been going on for thousands of years, and it will never end because it's about mystery. But more on that in a moment...

The first movement of the book centers around one of my all-time favourite analogies for faith: Some people talk about the faith in terms of foundations and building blocks, and their beliefs and doctrines and so on make up the bricks. Rob suggests a different view: springs in a trampoline.

When bricks are made well, they make strong walls--walls to keep people in or keep people out. And if a few bricks fail, the walls come down; the bricks are interdependent. But springs are made to be stretched and strained, and if one gets completely discombobulated, the others pick up the slack. Our ideas and beliefs should be able to handle our most rigorous tests; we shouldn't ever have to take on a defensive posture when talking about ideas on God, which is
"one of the things that happens in brickworld: you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everybody else is. Which then leads to defending the wall. It struck me [...] that you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you." (27)
Ha! I love it. Rob then rounds out 'movement one' with a discussion about the importance of questions--raw, difficult, vulnerable questions, and how we shouldn't be afraid of them. Being my father's son, I need a faith that embraces questions. Sean Penn of all people sums up beautifully the joy of jumping on this great big trampoline:
"'When everything gets answered, it's fake. The mystery is the truth.'" (33)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Velvet Elvis

It's been an inspiring morning. I woke up and followed my everyday routine, but when I sat down in my usual chair on the porch under the mango tree, something was different. And all I can tell you is that it had something to do with the breeze. It was the perfect temperature, mild and refreshing, persistent but varied, and smelled subtly of home. (A breeze that doesn't smell of diesel or human waste is a welcome enough change here, but this was so much richer. It was startling.)

So I sat there and soaked it in and marveled once more at how blessed I am. And then I felt a little embarrassed at how little I do to try and spread that joy. When people ask "What's new?" I blush that my life revolves around my work and nothing much to say besides that. Nothing much to blog besides that. Yet I smile like I've got an oil well / pumping in my living room. (Thanks, Maya, that's exactly it!)

Then I thought about the book I'm reading, Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell: how it challenges and encourages me to think destructively about established patterns of thought, and compellingly about new, creative, communal ways of thinking about and living and breathing in God.

So I thought, Why don't I just blog this book? And to reassure any of you that think I'm about to get up on a soap box, allow me to introduce this book by quoting the back cover, a tidy glimpse into its tone:
We have to test everything.
I thank God for anybody anywhere who is pointing people to the mysteries of God.
But those people would all tell you to think long and hard about what they are saying and doing and creating.
Test it. Probe it.
Do that to this book.
Don't swallow it uncritically. Think about it. Wrestle with it.
Just because I'm a Christian and I'm trying to articulate a Christian worldview doesn't mean I've got it nailed. I'm contributing to the discussion.
God has spoken, and the rest is commentary, right?

Right off the bat, Rob speaks to my own discomfort and insecurity around mainstream Christianity. If Christianity has become a list of things to subscribe to and affirm and vote for, then I'm simply not. But if it's about living more in tune with the ultimate reality that creates and sustains and loves, then I'm in.

That's what this book is about: claiming truth -- wherever you find it! -- and throwing out the garbage. It's a discussion. And I hope you'll join in.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

What do YOU think?

I love the video below, because it captures something of the struggle I have with some of the stereotypes around Africa. Stereotypes not only of famine and war and flies in their eyes, but stereotypes of helping, too. Of what aid is, what missions is, what development is -- and what they can do.

There are so many boxes: Here's what I can do. Here's what I can't.

Well, here's to a "new conversation."

Friday, 8 May 2009

Dude, a new dog!

Forget rusty razor wire and dozing security guards--the best security money can buy in Liberia is a dog. I've seen time and time again how terrified Liberians are of OneLove (our companion of two years), despite how friendly he is. Usually.

Anyway we've just doubled our quadripeds on patrol with the addition of Dude. After an agonizing four-minute debate in the driveway over names like 'HeyYou', 'Bro', and 'TwoLove', we decided that you can (should?) begin or end most every command with 'Dude'. So it stuck.

He's still learning the ropes and licking way too much for anyone's comfort, but he's irresistibly cute in that dumb-as-nails, puppyish sort of way. 
OneLove's energy level is now that of a 90-year-old, as he's now forced to wrestle or avoid Dude all day, every day. The guards have taken to calling him Ol' Papie.

Thursday, 7 May 2009


Last night I was asked to read a screenplay on the life of Joshua Milton Blahyi, formerly known as General Butt Naked -- one of the most notorious fighters in Liberia's bloody history. From 1980 up to his conversion in 1996, he and his boy soldiers killed many thousands and engaged in unmentionable atrocities including human sacrifice.

We read the script for Joshua and a couple of other key characters in a quiet living room, to give them a chance to make corrections and suggestions. It was so strange, so sobering, taking on his voice and acting out some of those atrocities -- and right in front of him, too. But it is a truly powerful story, as true to life as a movie can be, of redemption, of transformation, of victory over evil.

Joshua is now a pastor working full-time with ex-combatants, encouraging them to turn from crime to peaceful, Godly lives. To talk and laugh with him now, I can't imagine the things he's seen and done; there isn't a mean bone in his body. That God can so completely transform one life gives me so much hope for the rest of this nation as well.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Emptyish nest!

L to R: Jen, Matt and Mariel Le Page, Moi, Ashley, Cramer, and Deb

It's one of those things that stays uncrossed-off through dozens of generations of to-do lists: one decent team photo. Well, the day Cramer left we got this. Matt and Deb have now left the five of us to slug out the rainy season. (Missing from photo: OneLove and Dude--the new puppy)

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Lowest of the low v. The least of these

"Why did you bring us here?! These people don't have any money--why'd you bring us here?!"

This is what the one armed robber said to the other as they tore up an orphanage just a couple of days ago, threatening the matron and older kids. The matron's reply: she chastised them boldly like boys:

"What kind of place do you think I'm running here? I sell cool water. Maybe I make a thousand a day [US$15]. I put 600 in the generator and 200 for plastic bags. You want the other two hundred?! Take it!"

That's about three bucks. Who steals three dollars from orphans?

It's tempting to say, That's Africa. It's tempting to think Liberia's sliding backward. At least that this generation is seriously messed up. But I think it's (sadly) a little more universal than that -- that the most vulnerable people are robbed or abused or forgotten on a daily basis, no matter the country.

The important thing is, everyone's okay, no one got hurt. And I hope that word goes around the criminal community that--surprise!--orphanages aren't a good take.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


(Just found this new-to-me poem, "Birches", in a book of Robert Frost borrowed from a friend. Beautiful. Enjoy.)

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust--
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Liberian Dictionary, Vol. 2

Alright, you've had plenty of time to practice the day-to-day basics of Liberian English. Time to graduate on to useful phrases. (And by all means, if you have any requests, email me and I'll come up with the Liberianism...)

To start with, here are some easy, common ones:
"Monkey jam, eat pepper." (You gotta do what you gotta do.)
"Through crab, crayfish drink water." (Corruption Friendship
has got to filter down and spread around.)
"Your delay is not your denial!" (There's always tomorrow.)
"When elephants fight, it's the grass suffers that suffers."

Then there are the catchy but not-so-useful taxi bumper slogans...
"Poor no friend", "Simple mistake, you out!", and "Take time with my living".

Serious bonus points for the person who can tell me what "7-11 Chicken Egg" means. That was a mystery for a lonnnng time...

Next week: text messaging!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Happy Easter!

Woke up this morning to a fiery red sun dancing in the palm tree and barbed wire outside my window. Not so strange--my morning routine of coffee at dawn with Bible and journal is perhaps my most treasured possession!--but there was no snooze button this morning. I jumped out of bed, leapt at the thought of what today stands for--this whole day, I've been dancing within and without, celebrating with wild variety the empty tomb. Going to have to be point form, because it was THAT GOOD!
  • A traditional service complete with hymns and white gloves -- but still African at FOUR HOURS LONG!
  • An enormous meal of down-home cookin': Mariel's roast chicken, rolls and stuffing by Ashley, roast potatoes by yours truly, Christy's pineapple casserole (!), with a death-by-chocolate fudge cake and ice cream to top it all off! (Who says you need tryptophan to enter an Easter coma?!)
  • My inaugural round of Catch Phrase -- stressful!
  • A long evening splash in C's pool, complete with watching that fiery red sun set through palm trees, just like it came up.
  • A hot shower. (If you don't know, this is a bi-monthly extravagance at best -- HEAVEN!)
And so I hope you've had a wonderful Easter as well, full of family and food and good times. I hope Spring is brightening around you, wherever you are. Life is indeed rich.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Camping in the rainforest

Last weekend I and a few friends had the great privilege of camping and hiking in the second-largest patch of primary rainforest in West Africa. Our guides were wonderful, and taught us to call antelope, follow elephants, track and ambush poachers, and of course the finer points of machete slashing.

It was absolutely stunning, even the 11-hour drive each way. See the rest of the photos here. Happy Easter!

[Ed. 4/11: For the narrative account including coordinates, see John's blog post.]

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Best fridge magnet in a while

I beg you...
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves...
Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

Friday, 13 March 2009

Juicing my creativity

Good news! ORR was given some money specifically for a website overhaul, so when I have a free few hours here or there I'm hard at work on concepts and priorities. I'm dreaming big, then if we need to rein it in, we can later.

SO if you have favourite websites -- and I'm more interested in sites that work well, flow well, and maybe create community, rather than just look cool -- please pass them along. If you have ideas big or small, hand those over too. Need all the help I can get! :)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Another candle on the cake

Yes indeed, I can't believe another year has flown by already. And what a year. Thinking back to my last birthday, where I was and where (I thought) I was going, I can't believe all that's changed.

As well as my third Facebook birthday, this is also my third ORR birthday. It's hilarious now to think back to '07, celebrating with a bunch of strangers who would become my family and closest friends. (I'm talking about ORR now, not Facebook!) To think of everything we've gone through together -- those first four months of camping in this house, no beds or table or vehicle -- is, well, heartwarming. Even now, with three newer members, the family is even tighter.

More and more I feel at home: every day this life becomes less a sacrifice, more a blessing. Things that used to drain me now fuel me; annoyances have become delights; all around me are faces I know -- more in this city of over a million than the last time I went 'home' to Huntsville! My Liberian english is no longer just impersonation and imitation, but rooted now in real understanding.

Don't worry, I'm not here for good. But for now, this is perfect. Despite how much I miss so many, I'm dumbstruck most days as I open my journal under the mango tree; so grateful for so rich a life as this.

Thanks for your wonderful birthday wishes and your enduring support and encouragement--I couldn't do this without you all.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

La nina

(That's short for 'the nina'...)

I've kept in touch with Gifty's family in Minnesota, and just wanted to let you all know she's doing really well, getting downright chubby and apparently giggling non-stop -- something she only just figured out how to do in the last week she was here!

Her doctors say she's ready for her new liver now, and they'd like to use a small portion from a live donor. I don't know how it all works exactly, but apparently a liver can regenerate. SO, if you're type O and want more information, I'm sure the family would love to hear from you. If I knew my blood type and could afford the plane ticket, I'd give a whole kidney to see her again...

Why is this an interesting photo?

This was taken by my friend Christy between anxiety attacks. I'm driving the blue pickup you see, and I'm towing my friend John's 4Runner. Since we were towing it for, oh, about three and a half hours, I had some time to do a little math.
40 mph = ~65km/h
x 1000 = 65000m/h
/ 3600 = ~18 m/s
Wow, seriously? I guess that's about right. But then our tow rope (after a hasty start and its subsequent SNAP) was only 6 feet. That's, what, 2 metres? Hmph. 18 m/s with a 2 m rope....

I guess I can't blame Christy for switching to the back seat after all...

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Cold snap!

I counted at least five layers on Emmanuel last night as I locked the door. Two long-sleeved shirts, a hoodie, a sweater, a jacket... Even a big woolly hat!

"Emmanuel, when I show my people yo' photo, they gonna think it's so cold!"
"(Laughs) The cold too much..."
"But then when I tell them the temperature, they gonna think it's too hot!"
"No, the cold too much in the country. Alright for white man, not alright for black man!"

Yeah, it got down to about 73 degrees by 5am last night. That's less than 23 Celsius! Time to layer up, folks!


Monday, 5 January 2009

An interesting take on things

December 27, 2008

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset

Matthew Parris

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in
the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.
And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


I DARE YOU to try and not smile, looking at these! (You'll be happy to hear that she's doing well, at home now with her whole family until the hospital's ready for her.)


It's tough, taking vacation, when you don't feel as though you're really worn out. That's why we have friends who force them upon us, because they know better than we do how much we actually DO need them....

So I've been trying to, err, vacate this past week. The whole team and I returned to Robertsport for three days of serious lounging, surfing, etc. Robertsport is a gorgeous little town at the far northern end of Liberia, far removed from the commotion and general nastiness of the big city. It was once beautiful, as you can tell from the hollow shells of once-ritzy hotels and even the shape of the streets. But development is only now beginning to reach there as infrastructure allows tourism again.

We ended up crashing a wedding on new year's eve -- one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, pure elegance on the beach at sunset. It was a South African and a Norwegian getting married, so the crowd was quite a mix and the music was 85% ABBA... I ate like a king, enjoyeda glass of champagne for the first time in aaaages, learned that dancing on sand is incredibly hard work, swam in the phosphorescent sea under brilliant stars, and finally turned in the following year at midnight......Eastern Standard Time.

The whole day I was simply mind-blown. The surfing, the company, the glow-in-the-dark ocean, everything. I couldn't catch my breath all day for the beauty. It's something I'd recently realized I was missing: since leaving Canada, I hadn't really been struck by beauty, and it's always been natural beauty that's made me feel closest to God. Liberia truly is a gorgeous country, and I am SO incredibly lucky to be here, doing this. It's humbling, and it's more than I ever asked for!

I hope, wherever you are, you too had a spectacular new year. And I hope that 2009 will be better than you expect -- better even than you know how to ask for.