Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Agricultural Oasis

Tuesday March 29
Gbarlin Agricultural Coop

Sunday evening my plane landed in Monrovia and as is typical of small airports, passengers exit the plane directly onto the tarmac. I stepped of the cool air conditioned plane out onto the stairway into this tropical air, so hot and heavy and saturated with humidity, my heart pounding with anxiety. Would my guide and driver be here? Would I be mobbed and hassled by throngs of Liberians trying to sell their wares and services as many people had warned me about? Would my passport and Liberian Visa be accepted? Would the food I brought for backup sustenance be confiscated from my luggage? Would my luggage even be on this plane with me? Into the airport we walked and it became immediately apparent that this is indeed a third world country. The building was tiny, crudely constructed of cinder blocks and packed so full of people that it felt more like the inside of a prison than an airport. Into the baggage area we slowly crammed. After what seemed like an eternity my bag finally came out onto the carousel and I got into the line for customs. Customs was comical. The agent asked me to unzip my suitcase which I did and as soon as I opened it she signaled me to zip it back up without even looking at the contents. Into the long passport and Visa line I went and again, no real formalities, just a stamp on my passport and a warm smile from the agent who said "Welcome to Liberia. Enjoy your stay"

Out again into the tropical air holding the sign with my name on it high enough for my driver and guide to identify me with I went. A man grabbed me by the hand and led me to the large lot in front of the airport where seemingly thousands of people all shouting things I could't understand stood waiting for their opportunities. I asked the man "Are you Yougie?" to which he replied "No but there is a man with your name on a sign waiting for you out here and I will bring you to him." I slipped him a $5 for his help and he brought me through the throng shouting "move back" and then I saw Yougie. I recognized him from the photo I had been sent and he and his cousin Flomu each gave me a warm smile and embrace and said "We are here for you my friend, welcome to our country." At that point all the tension and anxiety I had been feeling dissolved into the dank tropical air and we drove off into the night talking excitedly about our mission as we drove the hour and a half to the guest house where I quickly crashed into a deep sleep.

Red Light Market District
Monday morning Yougie arrived early in the morning with our driver Lewis and brought me my Liberian cellphone. "Now we go to the U.S. embassy where you register for your stay here," he said. When we got to the embassy it was apparent there was some tension in the air. There were lots of armed UN guards and they wouldn't let us into the embassy but instead told me I had to register online. I became extremely angry and shouted "I am an American and this is my embassy dammit! The state department told me that I had to come here and register and now you won't even let me in?!" I asked them why and they said "There is a security concern," I asked what it was and they wouldn't tell me. When I got back to the guest house, the owner there explained to me that there had been a tense situation here last week when some students protesting the lack of fair wages for their professors rallied and grew in numbers to a large angry demonstration. She explained that it never turned violent but warned me that "This is how the rice riots started." She gave me a newspaper which described the situation and likened it to the start of the rice riots which eventually grew into the bloodiest civil war this country had ever seen sparked by college students protesting the sudden increase in the cost of rice imposed by the corrupt government.

"Great" I thought to myself, "I get here and the country is about to go berzerk again," but Yougie later explained to me that the situation was quelled peacefully and that people here are very careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He assured me that there would be no furthur uprising over this issue and I believed him. We went back to my room to make calls, look at maps, prepare the soil sampling equipment and formalize our plan for the days ahead. Later we went to the ministry of agriculture to secure a formal permission document to do our work that is required of NGO's (Non-government organizations) performing work in this country. This proved to be a morass of hassles, red tape, and delays until finally Yougie's persistence paid off. They told us to come back Tuesday morning and we would get the document.

Today (Tuesday) Yougie, Flomu and our driver, Lewis arrived with the necessary document and we were off to scout the first potential location for our project. We had originally been offered the use of a four wheel drive vehicle through one of our NGO partners but Yougie informed me that this compact front wheel drive Toyota was the only vehicle they had for us today. When I got into the car and reached for the seatbet, l found that they had been removed from the vehicle. Yikes! i guess I will just have to keep trusting that I will be safe in spite of all these dangers I sense around me, I thought to myself. The first site we traveled to was a farm located in Kpor town, in Magribi county about an hour southeast of Monrovia. To get to this farm we had to pass through the notorious Red Light Market. This market was specifically mentioned in the report I received from the US state department that urged foreigners to avoid this area due to the "High likelihood of crime". Some humanitarian relief workers from Wisconsin staying at the guest house warned me to avoid this area at all costs. I asked Yougie if this area was as dangerous as people say it is. He replied "Leave your windows up and doors locked and don't take pictures of anyone and everything will be okay." I noticed that the Liberians I was with also rolled their windows up and locked their doors. I was extremely nervous but felt reassured by the fact that Flomu is a very large and imposing looking man and I figured if anyone tried to mess with us they would have to get through him first. Red light is a one mile stretch of the main road with vendors lined up on both sides of the road selling "Everything you can imagine," said Yougie with a smile which I interpreted to mean EVERYTHING. At times the traffic slowed down to a crawl and there seemed to be more motorcycles than cars here along with vehicles of every type imaginable, most of them jury-rigged hybrid versions of whatever pieces and parts could be cobbled together. The stench of exhaust mixed with the rotting garbage and filth in various piles along the market made my stomach turn but soon we had successfully run the gauntlet and were on our way.

 After making our way down a paved highway for several miles we turned off into the jungle onto a single lane dirt road. "Now we are finally going into the bush," Yougie exclaimed with a big smile on his face and sure enough this was definately the bush. The road became so rough that we kept getting stuck and would have to get out and push the little Toyota over huge ruts and through water holes. When we got near the end of the road we dropped into a rut so deep that the entire rear bumper of the car came off and we had to push the car through a steep gully. We picked the bumper up, put in in the trunk and finally reached our destination.

The end of the road then opened up into a cleared expanse where a little makeshift farming village had been established. This place looked like a jungle paradise with thatched palm huts and people working tending their crops on the cleared land. We were greeted by one of the women named Esther who worked here. She introduced herself and her family and proceeded to explain what this farm was all about. After the last civil war that ended in 2003, many people wanted to return to Liberia after having sought refuge in neighboring Guinea for years during the war. The women and children needed a safe place in the jungle to farm that was close enough to the Red Light market that they could sell their produce yet far enough from the city of Monrovia and it's dangers. They established a cooperative farm and purchased 75 acres of land. Each woman and her family own one acre and can grow and sell anything from that acre while giving 10% of the profits back to the coop for management costs while keeping the remaining 90% profit for their family. Esther toured us around the farm where there was an amazing amount of work being performed all by hand. I was astonished to learn that all 75 acres had been cleared by hand, especially when viewing the dense jungle all around the cleared land as contrast. The rows of crops were neatly tended and the plants looked vibrant and healthy which surprised me again when I learned that they had never applied any chemical fertilizers or soil amendments. Esther showed us her acre of land and smiled proudly when she told us that she netted 9,000 Liberian dollars worth of melons, peppers and greens from her one acre plot. The people all around the farm tending their crops were so eager to show me their successes and seemed so happy and proud to have this opportunity after years of hiding from the war's dangers. I then got busy performing soil extractions for testing which involved inserting a soil probe 8"-10" into the ground, extracting a core, putting it in a sealed, labeled plastic bag and repeating the process in several areas of the farm to get a good average sample of the entire soil profile. The soil looked dark and fertile and smelled incredibly earthy unlike any soil I had ever smelled.

Finally it started to hit me exactly why I had come here to do this work. I felt like I was in my element again, half way around the world from my house and family but right at home in this agricultural oasis in the jungle. Esther invited us back to her hut where she fed us rice with palm oil, chicken's feet, coconut and bananas and introduced me to more of her friends and family. I shared pictures I had brought of my home and family and farm and they were captivated by images of snowy winter landscapes and my family and farm back in Vermont. This was a magical experience, one that I knew would repeat itself many times in the days ahead. The ride back through Red Light was slower going due to the evening bustle but I felt just a little bit more at ease this time and kept on repeating my mantra of trust. We ended our day by stopping at a nice outdoor bar in Sinkor for a beer. Yougie, Flomu, and our young driver Lewis and I sat and talked and laughed and bonded while we learned about each others lives and the ways we are so very different yet connected by open hearts and a common goal to help these women and children who have been oppressed by men and war for so long. The more we talked, the easier it became for me to understand them without having to keep asking them to repeat what they said. They speak English but it is an English that is colored with a bit of French along with local dialects and inflections almost to the point of seeming like a different language altogether. What I had to do was to really listen closely and really focus on each word and they helped me along by slowing their sentences down a bit so I could keep up.

Esther harvesting cabbage leaves.

New friends looking at Jeff's pictures.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sunday, March 26-Arrival

I am on my way to Liberia, Africa for the first of what will likely be many trips. I have been hired as an agricultural consultant by an American humanitarian non-profit organization and my job when I arrive in Monrovia is to scout potential locations for a commercial medicinal herb farm and wellness center for war-affected women and children. I will survey 4 or 5 different sights to determine agricultural suitability, obtain soil samples to be sent back to a lab in the US for testing, and most importantly, network with locals and Liberian agricultural specialists to gather support and form partnerships for our project.

Having left Vermont at 2pm yesterday afternoon I am now in the Brussels Belgium airport with approximately 5 hours to kill until my flight to Monrovia. I blew through a non-fiction book I bought in Vermont about an ill-fated sailing trip from New York to Bermuda that I literally could not put down. This helped distract me from the uncertainty of what lies ahead but now I am just left with my thoughts and the distraction has been replaced by the reality that I will be landing in Monrovia, one of the poorest cities in the entire world in about 12 hours. So far every person I have interacted with in Belgium has seemed very unfriendly and some downright rude. Whenever I approached someone to ask them a question such as "Is there wireless internet available?" "Where is gate 117?", "Is there a fee for riding the bus to the Africa departure gate?" etc, etc, the first question they ask is "Where are you from?" to which I reply, the United States. The uniform reaction is a rude chuckle as if to say "stupid American" or something to that effect . I tried to buy a coffee with my American money at two different counters and they both looked at the money and laughed. Neither could tell me where I could change some American currency to Euros. I think I will just sit here for a while and try to kill time by writing and reading and preparing mentally for the next 6 days. I can imagine there are some really nice people in Belgium somewhere, perhaps on my way back through in a week I will give them another chance before I form a bias about Belgians. So far, the only saving grace about this airport is that they have vending machines that sell 16oz. Stella Artois. Too bad I have no Euros and too bad there aren't beer vending machines in the US.

I am now flying over Morocco. I managed to sleep for a few hours in the Belgian airport in a quiet corner of the terminal and am feeling re-energized. From the air, Morocco appears otherworldly like the surface of a distant planet. Huge, rugged mountains plunge to the dessert with hues ranging from White to black and then from brown to beige, orange and then red all surrounded by desolate looking expanses of sand dunes so large that they are visible from the 36,000 foot altitude we are currently flying. This huge jet is only about half full so I have the advantage of a whole row of three seats on the left side of the plane all to myself. I see other people with their own rows all around me laying down stretched out sleeping on three seats which looks pretty comfortable but I just can't take my eyes off the ground below. The earth appears so peaceful and beautiful from here but the reality on the ground in this region tells a different story. I have no idea how far I can see to the east from this vantage point but I know that Libya and Egypt aren't all that far off relatively speaking and there it is far from peaceful.

Are we Americans and the "coalition forces" really going to go in there and try to get rid of gadhafi like we did Sadam Hussein? Ahhhhh, perhaps this explains the rude treatment by people who learned of my nationality in Belgium. We have certainly made quite a name for ourselves in the world's view. I just hope that in Africa, the people see me for who I am, a humanitarian coming with an open heart to try and help their people grow profitable medicinal botanicals and recover from the aftermath of years of civil wars. I am certainly not going to be waving the American flag while I am there though.

For the last two hours I have been trying to finish "The Poisonwood Bible", a novel that is historically pretty accurate about a Baptist family living in the heart of the Congo during the early 1900's. I have only gotten through about 10 pages in these two hours because I am just completely mesmerized by the Sahara desert stretched out below me as far as the eye can see. The sand dunes look just like waves, like the views of the Atlantic ocean I had between North America and Africa only now the same landscapes that were previously azure blue have been colored light beige. I keep waiting to see some feature, some oasis or mountain or sign of life, anything but the desert, but the sand here is so vast that the desolation seems endless. I am growing more nervous by the hour contemplating my arrival but I just have to keep repeating my self-assurance mantra, "Trust that if you come with an open heart that the people will welcome you" The shadow side of my conscience keeps echoing in the background "What the hell did you get yourself into? You have a wife and child and a farm back home to attend to" I miss my family intensely already and it is only day two.