On my morning walk two days after the last blog was posted, I came upon a team of ten people cleaning the beach. Seven women with brooms made out of twigs were sweeping the sparse litter into piles, which were dug into holes by three men with huge shovels. The supervisor passed and told me that the previous day, 3 months’ backwages had been paid with a promise of another 3 to come, so the full team were back at work. The guy I’d originally chatted to greeted me with a huge grin, saying it was all down to my mention. While we can’t be sure that the Liberian Maritime Beaches and Waterways Department pay attention to their Google Alerts, I salute them for rectifying the oversight, and I’m tagging them again in the confident hope that the remaining 5 months’ wages will materialise soon. 🙂
The ‘Kendeja rest cure’ continued. The daily walk, sweaty T’ai Chi and blissful swimming were steadily rebuilding my strength and stamina, and I only wished we could stay another month to pursue ‘Operation Muffin Top’ to a successful conclusion.
Last year on my birthday in March I was treated to a night in the luxurious Labadi Beach Hotel in Accra, Ghana. I thought I was unlikely to top that experience on this trip. But after the dark month I’d just had in the UK, I think being at Kendeja for this one made me even happier. It was so relaxed; the day just flowed from one lovely thing to another.
Sampson had had a word with Executive Chef André Williams, who is also a Capetonian, and the lunchtime spread of avocado salad and crayfish he arranged for us was exquisite. When our waitress Hanté brought a surprise fruit platter dessert, she sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in such an angelic voice and genuine way she brought tears to my eyes.
During the meal we started playing a made-up game that grew out of Zola’s English lesson that morning. He decided you had to list a whole load of adjectives until someone identified whom you were talking about. What was extraordinary about it was not just how funny and cheeky Zola was about his somewhat sunburned Dad (“Red-faced… greedy… plump”) but his insistence on carrying the game on for hours, into the late afternoon; and his inventiveness, as he expanded it to cover animals and birds when we ran out of family and friends to humiliate!
This underlined Zola’s growing confidence, and showed me that, however hard it has been to live without Ruby these last 3 months, it has done him the world of good to bask in the full beam of our attention, without having to compete with the whirling vortex of attention-demanding energy that is our darling daughter….
I am very proud of my son. What with spending 4 weeks at the St Newlyn East Learning Academy when I was too unwell to teach him in January-Feb and 2 weeks waiting for his missing suitcase full of schoolbooks to land, we ended up with only 4 weeks to process the 10 weeks’ work of South Africa’s first term. But with surf as a motivating factor, we whipped through it super efficiently, and still finished in the same week as his peers.
Liberia has witnessed a revolution in Zola’s surfing. Six months of skateboarding in the UK plus getting older and stronger has made him more confident of his abilities. As soon as Sampson saw he was now able to get up quickly and start turning a 7ft board, he borrowed a 5’10” for him. Zola is no longer just going along the wave but turning in earnest, doing proper ‘off the tops’ in his own incredibly fluid style. He is also very brave for a quiet fellow, out in solid 6ft surf that was scaring some of the grown ups. His Dad is very proud and can see the writing on the wall: “He’s already getting more waves than me…”
The loan came from the impressive board rack of Canadians Kent Bubbs Jr and his wife Landis Wyatt, whom Sampson met in the water, and whose kind hearts have turned their backyard into a storage facility for local surfers. When they invited us round for a meal in their unpretentious home (which fondly reminded me of our pre-kids pad in Kalk Bay), Sampson was gobsmacked to see dozens of surf boards lined up outside.
Landis and Kent are doing fabulous work here with their Universal Outreach Foundation (I know, it sounds like James Bond’s undercover NGO). Kent’s father started the non-profit on his retirement to facilitate aid to Honduras, and the next generation continues to ensure that 100% of donations from hundreds of private individuals goes directly to help people on the ground.
Their security guard Aron is a shining example of the effects of their input: after training with Kent, he works out of their yard as the local board ding-repairer – there are enough surfers here for him to make a living.
Kent came to Liberia in 2007 to help dig a well for a school and is still here. Digging the well led to building a school, staffing it, then building a second. While their core focus continues to be educating children, subsequently he and Landis have progressed to establishing viable economic options for local entrepreneurs, in an attempt to help Liberian parents help themselves.
Their yard is crammed with barrels and barrels of raw honey, and a huge pile of wooden hives. UOF’s latest project is producing ‘Liberia Pure Honey’, and they employ a Master beekeeper from Nigeria, Idris Barau, to teach locals to teach other would-bee-keepers the art of building a sustainable business. In 2014, 76 of them produced 575 gallons of honey, which Liberia Pure Honey bought from them, providing thousands of dollars to these subsistence farmers towards school fees. Check these UOF videos about their activities.
Kent is quiet and thoughtful, in a mild-mannered Clark Kent kind of way, and should not be underestimated. Apparently, Landis first met him when he came to her town to give an ‘avalanche class’ – I’m not exactly sure what that is but you get the feeling Kent could handle most emergencies. Landis is luminously beautiful, both inside and out, and talks enough for both of them, her blue eyes as intense as her commitment and ever-present concern for all the people and children in her care. They have been extremely kind to us: cooking dahl for me, roasting chicken for Zola, and even delivering fish for our braais. Thanks guys, you’re two in a million.
On Saturday 21st March I woke at 5am and the BBC World Service news on my birthday radio made my heart sink: more than 30 days into the 42 day WHO clearance period, there was a new case of Ebola in Monrovia. The night before I had gone out with Landis and Kent and another friend for a delicious meal in a Bangladeshi restaurant, and had been impressed by how shoppers at two supermarkets we popped in at on the way into the city were diligently queuing to wash their hands before entering.
It was depressing because it had seemed that Liberia was finally winning the battle to contain the disease. A World Service programme Understanding Ebola on the stats of the pandemic was fascinating – all post-December cases could be traced to one woman – but this new case was isolated and mysterious, as it takes 21 days for symptoms to appear. A dinner lady collapsed at a school and later died, but despite the high risk of contagion, two linked suspected cases have proved negative.
Kendeja’s General Manager, Englishman Rod Peck, told me of their contribution to the relief effort during the height of Liberia’s Ebola crisis: the resort offered cut price rates to MSF, and 75 doctors from Geneva, France and Belgium were resident there from September to January, the worst period of the pandemic. I’m sure the relaxing atmosphere of Kendeja made a great difference to the mental state of those doctors under siege. During that time the resort had two Ebola scares: one aid worker who survived and one staff member who sadly didn’t. Mr Peck himself joined his team in disinfecting the affected rooms. African American owner Robert L. Johnson was so proud of his staff, he sent them a personal video message.
Sitting in on a training session with his staff, I could sense Rod’s passion for his work. In the 18 months he has been here, he has transformed Kendeja into the best hotel in Liberia, and is now inspiring his team to aim even higher. Kendeja’s smiling staff certainly beat tourist favourites Ghana and South Africa hands down in the professionally happy-to-see-you stakes – perhaps due to the shining example of HR manager Daniel Nelson Cephas. I would love to see Liberia find its rightful place amongst the top tourism destinations of Africa. It has everything going for it: natural beauty, a wealth of rivers, beaches and the potentially magnificent Sapo National Park.
As an example, Adam took us to the Libassa Eco-Lodge, another stunning resort nestled in thick forest between the beach and a huge lagoon. We spent an idyllic Sunday afternoon lounging beside the balmy waters while Sampson and Zola took a canoe adventure to the sea.
On 27th March the Sierra Leonean government imposed a 3 day lock-down on 6 million people in an attempt to bring their infection numbers under control. The last time they attempted this, last September, the daily infection rate was up to 60 a day; now they are down to single figures but that’s still too many to quash the pandemic.
That day, we got up at 5.30am and drove into Monrovia before the traffic got jammed. It’s a typical African city, with some notable exceptions: there are far fewer people, the atmosphere is far less frantic, and it’s far cleaner. There were women everywhere in high res waistcoats sweeping the sidewalks with the ubiquitous twig brooms. Paintwork is always colourful and there was a sprinkling of rather lovely trees.
Sadly I wasn’t quick enough to snap a shot of my favourite ad: “Shark’s Ice Cream. A Quality Worth Licking”. I swear I’m not making it up.
We were headed for Alliance Motor Corporation, another partner of our wonderful Tractafric Motors contact Monsieur Stéphane Vautherin whom Sampson met in Libreville, Gabon. If you remember, Tractafric has already helped us in Cameroon and Ghana, and was now coming to our aid once again. Alliance Mercedes gave Big Reg a once over, ‘greased his nipples’ and ordered new bushes for the suspension. Many thanks to General Manager Mr Muralidhar, recently arrived from Hyderabad, and CEO Mr Haddad. We are eternally grateful, aware that their attentions are going to ensure we make it through to the next leg of our journey. What’s more, they are going to take care of Big Reg while we are away.
Yes *sigh*. Back in Cape Town, winter approaches, so the swallows are on the move: my parents’ imminent departure for sunnier climes mean that we have to go back and relieve them on Ruby-watch, and we had planned to slip into South Africa just in time for Zola to start Term 2. We hope that the return dates in October we have gambled on will work out: we aim to arrive back here in Liberia as the rainy season and the Ebola quarantine period for Sierra Leone are both coming to an end… Fingers crossed and holding thumbs.
In an attempt to save money, we’d already booked our Monrovia-Accra-Nairobi-Jo’b-CT flights via Kenya Airways before we left UK. Luckily for us, Kendeja’s facilities manager Theo, whose charming fiancée is Kenyan, happened to mention to us that there was no way we’d be allowed to fly from Monrovia to Nairobi as there has been a government embargo on such flights since mid-2014. Lord knows how last minute.com managed to sell such tickets to me, but it did mean that we had to cancel everything and start trying to rebook via SAA… during a 5 day internet blackout for the whole of Liberia while work was being done on ‘the cable’…over the Easter weekend, so we couldn’t even phone… and you’re complaining about 2 hours’ load-shedding?!
Many thanks to Mr Eric Nelson, Kendeja’s financial consultant, whose personal travel agent at Kenya Airways, the wonderful Joe, managed to get us tickets on the connecting flight to Accra we’d originally been booked on, that was now officially sold out…
Happily we had jolly things to keep our mind off the leaving-it-to-the-absolutely-last-minute-ness, with a Saturday night cultural showcase at Kendeja.
The Kuka Tonon Cultural Troupe was founded by Kendeja employee Mr John Washington in 1990 during the civil war to sustain community spirit. During my years as MD of eMzantsi Carnival I have seen hundreds of community arts groups perform during our quarterly live concerts and I would consider this group to be amongst the best. Their hour-long show features a range of spectacularly energetic indigenous dances and world-class polyrhythmic drumming, led by Kpadeh Kolubah. RLJ Kendeja is supporting them with costumes and giving them the opportunity to perform for tourists and at NGO functions.
“Kuka Tonon” means “We are One” in the Kpelle language, and troupe members endeavour to represent dance styles and costumes from across the country’s 15 counties e.g. the women showcase dances from Bong County and Grand Gedeh; the men from Nimba County and Grand Bassa; the calabash group dance is from Montserrado.
In 2008 the Kuka Tonon Cultural Troupe was invited to perform in Libya by Colonel Gaddafi and they came first in a competition featuring 200 different arts groups from all over Africa. Also in 2008, they danced at the Independence Day Festival in Senegal, and in 2011 they took part in a cultural festival in Beijing, China.
In March this year, Kuku Tonon gave a special performance at Roberts International Airport for the US Public Health Service (USPHS) Monrovia Medical Unit to thank them for the great service they had rendered their countrymen and women during the Ebola crisis.
I’d like to pay tribute to the clutch of dynamic spirits I met in Kendeja’s foyer beforehand, who summed up the energy of post-conflict Liberia, determined to put their best – and most glamorous – foot forward.
Just before we left, we showed our appreciation to the staff at Kendeja by giving them a quick tour of the truck and a show.
Sampson explained all about our pan-African climate change mission, and then we did our best to entertain with some magic and juggling and fire.
I am very loathe to leave Liberia. Not only is being here giving me back my health and strength, but, as Sampson says, we are “falling in love with the people”. They are so gentle, but their spirit so enduring; it has been a privilege to witness how stoically they continue to move forward through this trying time.
Liberians, unlike the majority in African countries we have passed through, seem to have less (or different) post-colonial baggage and fewer hang-ups about foreigners of the pale-skinned variety. Perhaps because the majority of foreigners they’ve come across are NGO workers – ostensibly here to help them – they don’t approach you warily seeing you as potential exploiters or patrons (as in Cameroon or Congo) or approach you aggressively seeing you as tourists (as in Ghana) but treat you as peers. There is a refreshing lack of obsequiousness or spiel.
The Monrovian character is overwhelmingly mellow. We have found it incredible that the local community have left us so much alone. Outside Kendeja, we were parked opposite a primary school, but were never troubled by crowds of curious kids. My friend Cindy Dan-Nwafor, a Nigerian epidemiologist I met on the beach, had a different outlook: compared to the effusiveness of Nigerians, she found it a little disturbing that Liberians are so constrained and “keep themselves to themselves”. But for us travellers who live on the street, it’s very peaceful.
On reflection, I began to suspect that this mellowness is a hard-won equilibrium born of almost universal Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So many conversations feature phrases such as “when we ran away” or mention, in passing, a relationship lost in exile. Major trauma is skated over; everyone shares it, so it’s too common to dwell on. I don’t yet know anyone well enough to question further, but feel the wounds are there, just below the surface. There is a shared determination to look forward, not back.
On one of my last beach walks, a man in his early thirties watching me do T’ai Chi approached to ask if he could train with me. When he heard I was South African, Cooper welcomed me emphatically and said, “We are all the same in the eyes of God, black and white, all God’s children and free in Liberia.” (Although he said Go’ not God as consonants are mostly dropped by Liberians, who have more important things to concern themselves about.)
Cooper was very interested to hear about the truck. He’d like to travel, has been to Sierra Leone but considers them poor, as “they only have diamonds and they’re all gone now” compared to resource-rich Liberia, which “has oil and timber and iron ore still in the ground”, not to mention the tourism potential. He’s right – I’ve chatted to geologists and businessmen in Kendeja’s bar, here investigating the risk versus profit margins of mining and palm plantations.
Cooper pointed to his compound, and told me his father used to own all this land and a hotel further down the coast. Now he’s a labourer, grabbing work where he can get it, short contracts, even beach sweeping. (There was an unspoken gap covering what had happened in the interim.) He said Ebola was so scary but they survived, because they learned not to touch each other. “We worked too hard to stay alive in the war to die now,” he said, showing me how they used to run with their torsos parallel to the ground to avoid stray bullets overhead. Times were so tough they ate “palm cabbage” – the young bud cut from the top of the coconut tree, not really food, but better than nothing when you’re starving…
He told me he became a soldier aged 11… and then paused, and skipped ahead again to tell me that when the UN came to administer the ceasefire in 2003, he handed in his weapon, was given $300 and vocational training to get it all out of his head. He “put it behind him” he said. Now, by the grace of God, there is food, and a future.
In this context, I was not missing the blanket coverage of the petty mud-slinging and mind-numbing minutiae of the UK election. The progress of the Nigerian one was much more interesting. Especially when the BBC World Service choose to focus on minor incidents of unrest on day one, but was forced to reframe their outlook as the vast majority of Nigeria’s vast population displayed extreme patience with various technological challenges and proceeded to vote peacefully.
The victory was historic for the APC, the All Progressives Congress, an alliance of opposition groups, which had formed in 2013 ahead of our arrival in Lagos last year. They stood against the perceived corruption of the PDP, the People’s Democratic Party of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, and the city was festooned in posters featuring their humble logo: the new broom that sweeps clean.
Reading recently about the progress of ‘Le Balai Citoyen’ (The Civic Broom) in Burkina Faso which was inspired by the ‘Y’en A Marre’ (We’ve Had Enough) movement in Senegal, I’m feeling very attracted to this image. Especially after a call to form a parallel movement in DRC caused President Joseph Kabila’s government to arrest and expel four visiting Burkinabé and Senegalese democracy activists in March.
In the midst of the furore about the removal of the Rhodes statue at UCT and the implications of unforgivably sluggish transformation in our major institutions, I’m looking forward to the formation of the SA chapter of this pan-African artists’ initiative: ‘Gatvol’?
Perhaps we could take inspiration from the way Nobel Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee mobilised Christian and Muslim Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace during the civil wars, not by throwing shit about, but by wearing white, staging prayerful sit-ins and withholding sex.
We had a terrific evening of chat, laughter and wide-ranging insights with fascinating Arterial Network Liberia contacts: journalist Bai Best, artist Leslie Lumeh and actor and photographer Omanza Shaw who’d recently returned to Liberia after 20 years in Ghana. Globe-trotting Bai is recipient of a creative MBA scholarship that has taken him to Germany and Ghana this last month, so I was lucky to catch him in town. We had such fun and I look forward to seeing them in action on their home turf when we get back.