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I captured these moments with my handy Flip camera. Here’s the cute one I mentioned of Belle, MacDella’s 3-year-old foster child (who when MacDella found her, was living in poor conditions with a woman who had TB), telling Gen and I who she loves.
And here’s one of MacDella, asking one of the girls sponsored under MCF’s Duport Road Project how she’s doing in school (filmed Dec. 27).
Note that this is all my amateur footage — just wait until you see what Genevieve, the pro, captured with her Canon video camera…10 tapes will be edited down into a compelling documentary. I’m going to plan a TCNJ and NYC premiere of the documentary in the spring when she’s finished!
A recap of the trip to come…
Not much to report today. After three days of Christmas prep and partying, we relaxed at MacDella’s place, except for the few hours we were at the Royal Hotel, eating and using the Internet. I’m glad we rested because I’m officially sick. No, not with any the diseases I paid about $700 for and endured 7 shots for — it’s just a cold. Don’t you wish there was a vaccine for that? I’m just thankful I was feeling 100% well yesterday for the party – I wouldn’t have wanted to been sneezing all over the kids!
Genevieve and I played some card games with Leila on the balcony. We always sit on the balcony before 7pm, because it’s dark in the house — we have to wait for the electricity to turn on shortly at 7pm. Leila taught us three games — A4K7, Flower King, and Seven to Win. They were all pretty basic, similar to the game War that Gen, I, and tons of American kids play. War is really the only card game I can remember how to play. Gen was almost going to teach Leila that one, but then she remembered it wouldn’t be culturally appropriate, considering Liberia’s recent history. I had to make the same cultural check yesterday at the party, when it crossed my mind to teach the kids Red Light, Green Light. In Liberia, there aren’t traffic lights, so the game might not make much sense.
In the Gender and Democracy class that I took my last semester of college, we analyzed “the gaze of the West” — the preconceived notions that Westerners bring to other countries, especially in the third world. Gen and I are really trying to fight that, but to some degree, it’s impossible to remove yourself from the customs and amenities you’ve grown up with. MacDella tells us about the resistance she gets for bringing her “American ways” into the country — meaning if a bus driver says he’s going to charge her $125 to give orphans a ride to the party, she shouldn’t be angry when he jacks the price up to $180, just because of how nice her friend’s house looked. In Liberia, that’s fair. In the US, it’s not.
When sitting in the Royal Hotel, I heard an educated Liberian man lecture a friend on and on about the shortcomings of his country. I think it’s going to take a generation with no memory of the war leading Liberia to truly create national pride and bring Liberia up to speed with the world…but like MacDella, I do believe the hope is there with the kids and orphans.
We drove all around the city today running last-minute errands for Tuesday’s Christmas party. I’m not sure whether driving through New York or Monrovia is more chaotic. In New York, taxis whiz by and there is occasional gridlock — but at least you can opt for the subway when that happens. In Monrovia, you can’t get to market or town without sitting through some traffic — there aren’t traffic lights and the roads are full of pot holes you need to maneuver around. Liberians pass by the stopped cars hoping to sell candy, water, washcloths…It took all day to pick up the food to feed 600 orphans tomorrow — frozen chicken and sausage; rice, cooking oil, and peppers at the market; noodles, Kool Aid, and paper supplies at the Westernized supermarket — and to coordinate the cooking plans. A few women will begin cooking the chicken at 4am Christmas Day, so we can serve it at noon! We went to a bigger outdoor market than this one, but the photo gives you an idea of what the street atmosphere is like.
Today at the market was the first time we were mingling in true Liberian society, outside the car. As you can imagine, Gen and I attract quite a bit of attention being fair-skinned and carrying around cameras. The hardest was when we left the supermarket, and a group of kids were clanging garbage together to make music, so that we’d give them money. Or when we were getting in the car and girls yelled, “Hey missy! Hey missy!” to get us to buy from their stand. (Earlier, boys outside the Royal Hotel called to us, “their American sisters,” to help them. As sad as it sounds, just like in New York, you have to pretend you don’t hear them — you feel terribly cold-hearted, especially on Christmas Eve, but you can’t help everyone. That’s the hardest part of this trip — the discomfort of knowing how privileged you are in a country that is in extreme poverty.
I was reading “Eat, Pray, Love” on the balcony tonight – the best place to be to get the ocean breeze and some light before the sun sets and the electricity turns on in the apartment — and part of the book (a travelogue) made me think. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, is talking with an Italian friend in Italy. She writes, “If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought…And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.” They talked about New York, and how “achieve” sums up the city – I strive for that, so I can see why NYC is my haven. I tried to think of one word I would give Monrovia…Devastation? Hurt? Survival? These didn’t quite fit, because as I said before, there is hope and beauty if you look for it…so I asked Genevieve, who was sitting beside me, what word she thinks is appropriate. Without any delay, she replied, “Money.”
She nailed it. It’s all about money here. However, unlike in the US, money means just having enough to afford the basic necessities — it’s not about affording designer clothing, making millions like Donald Trump, or greed in general, in my estimation.
On a brighter note, I’m very much looking forward to what all these errands have been building up to — the Christmas party!
Yesterday, we went to one of the orphanages MCF supports to measure the feet of kids who will be attending Tuesday’s Christmas party. MacDella has boxes full of donated shoes in her apartment. The kids need them desperately — right now, they wear tattered flip-flops or sandals. Without any sort of tape measure or ruler on hand, the only way we could think to match the kids up to shoes was trace their feet on pieces of notebook paper. (We can’t fit them at the party, because there aren’t enough shoes to go around for all 500 kids). Here are some pictures of the kids. They don’t talk much at first, but they always smile.
Plus, the kids are total hams for the camera (remember Genevieve is filming a documentary). She asked them to give her a “tour,” and they brought us to their dining hall. Meals are probably the highlight of their day. I asked what they had for lunch. One little girl tried to fool me and said “a horse,” but then she said she really had cornmeal.
I love this photo of Genevieve and a little girl who was fascinated with the camera.
One of the great things about living with MacDella and her foster children (Belle, Leila, and Hajal — plus Marcie, the college-aged girl who helps out) is seeing how taking children out of orphanages transforms them. All three of MacDella’s foster kids flourish. Belle, the three-year-old, is as cute as they come. Yesterday morning, she was enthralled by the cover of the book I’m reading, “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, and spelled out every single letter on it. Leila enjoyed my iTunes last night, and requested music by Diana Ross and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Luckily, I had both.
Today, we’re visiting another orphanage to do the same sizing — then, MacDella’s apartment will transform into a sort of Santa’s workshop and we’ll begin matching the presents to each kid!
You met MacDella Cooper, my #1 inspiration for traveling to Liberia, in the previous post. Now, meet my “creative influences.” These are women who, like me, aren’t humanitarians — just storytellers, leveraging their connections to the media to make remote-sounding world issues real to young women. Be inspired by:
Brandon Holley, former editor-in-chief of JANE
When I was an intern at JANE last winter, Brandon traveled to Liberia with the IRC. She blogged about it on JANE’s MySpace page and wrote about it in her editor’s letter (lucky for you, the posts are still online even though JANE is not, sadly). Trust me, when Brandon’s assistant sent me to RadioShack to buy her travel adapter, I had NO idea I’d be preparing for my own trip to Liberia exactly one year later. When I asked Brandon if she’d meet with me to talk about Liberia, she wrote back in less than 10 minutes to say of course. And when I told my parents I wanted to go to Liberia, you can bet I used Brandon’s trip to justify it was safe for me.
Cindi Leive and Mariane Pearl, Glamour
If you pick up the current issue of Glamour, you will find Cindi’s editor’s letter is all about her trip to Uganda. You can watch her on-location video on Glamour.com. She traveled to support the women who created the group Empowering Hands to rehabilitate child soldiers (also a serious issue in Liberia).
The woman who travels EVERY month to dangerous locales around the globe for Glamour is Mariane Pearl. If you’re not a Glamour reader, you might recognize her as the woman Angelina Jolie portrayed in A Mighty Heart– the wife of the WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl, who Islamic fundamentalists brutally murdered. Here is her video from a trip to Liberia.
Jauretsi Saizarbitoria, former JANE entertainment editor, and Charlize Theron, Academy-Award winning actress
These best friends traveled to Cuba to film a documentary called East of Havana, which is about hip-hop performers who struggle to express themselves in a culture of censorship. Jauretsi was co-director and Charlize was co-producer. I adore it when friends work together and combine skills to tell a meaningful story. I’m really lucky to have that opportunity with Genevieve. I’d go nuts on a 16-hour flight (we transfer in Belgium) by myself.
Jenna Bush, president’s daughter, and Mia Baxter, former Glamour photographer
Another example of a creative friendship: Jenna and Mia were UNICEF interns when they discovered Ana, a teenage mother who was HIV positive. Jenna did the writing, Mia did the illustrating. They tell her story in a work of non-fiction targeted to young adult readers. The book, Ana’s Story, emphasizes the importance of using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and the need to help children who are abused and marginalized because they carry the disease.
I’m not the type you’d expect to travel to Africa. I work in a world of taffeta and tiaras, not famine relief and AIDS awareness. I’m pale white. My passport stamps are limited to European favorites — Madrid, Paris, London — not the countries that require vaccinations for life-threatening diseases. But I’m going to Liberia this Christmas, and you’ll find out why over the course of my next few posts.
Some quick Liberia statistics: Armed conflict, HIV/AIDS and other diseases have orphaned an estimated 230,000 children in Liberia. Half a million children do not attend school. An estimated 40 percent of all girls and women have fallen victim to abuse. But numbers are rarely the way to the heart, probably because it’s the mind’s job to numb us to them…how else would we function day-to-day if we really felt what those percentages mean?
I’m a wordswoman. Stories impact me more than statistics. Words and photos can communicate the struggles of one person, one family, or one village in a way a massive number cannot. Words tell us how one person can make a difference.
I’m leaving NYC to go to Liberia for one week. There are countless people living there for months, years even, and leaving a more significant impact than I ever will. But this blog is written by and for the unlikely adventurer — you can be one with me. Who cares if you know more about TMZ than any NGO. This blog isn’t meant to be a downer, nor is it a humanitarian’s diary. It’s a hopeful reporter’s notebook, blog-ified so that we can figure out together how my/our generation — who were just babies when Band Aid asked America, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” — can connect with the children, teens, and twentysomethings who are the future of Africa. You can meet them here on my blog this Christmas, and follow their impact on the other 364 days of the year.