After being in Liberia for two days, I know the answer to my blog’s title — “Do they know it’s Christmas?” — is yes. There are modest Christmas decorations throughout the city: garland on the gates of the presidential palace, Christmas lights roped through the barbed wire surrounding the Salvation Army building, pre-assembled artificial Christmas trees in the grocery store. Below, you can even see “Merry X-mas” chalked on the road outside MacDella’s apartment. (That’s a photo booth; you’ll see little booths like these on the street offering photo, cell phone, and beauty services).

Merry X-mas

But when it really hit me that Christmas is a recognizable, big deal in Liberia is when we were leaving a beachfront restaurant, where MacDella, the girls, Genevieve and I had lunch.

Beach - Monrovia

As we were leaving and driving down the dirt path, street children to the left and right of our SUV were waving and saying, “Merry Christmas!” with big smiles. One held a tattered cardboard sign with “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” scribbled in lopsided letters. In an amazingly symbolic way, now that I look back on it, a Gloria Estefan Christmas classic, “Christmas Through Your Eyes,” was playing on the radio.

So to answer Band Aid’s song, yes, they do know it’s Christmas in Africa. But I think Christmas means something different here. It’s obviously not driven by presents and fancy meals, at least among the families who live in shacks. It’s not about fighting to get your kid the hottest “it” toy, or leaving cookies for Santa, or wishing for snow. Maybe it’s about hope. Because I do see a lot of hope in Liberia, especially through MacDella’s eyes. Even with all the obstacles she faces (orphanage directors who won’t distribute her donations, customs officers who rip apart her shipments of donated shoes and book bags), she perseveres because she sees what Liberian children could be like through the success of Belle, Leila, Hajal, and Marcie. I see hope in the hotels and restaurants where we are fortunate enough to eat and use the Internet — the insides are air-conditioned and entirely Westernized in décor. This could become the standard with the right economy. And I see hope in the billboards that line the poverty-stricken streets. Billboards say “Rape is a crime,” “Stop mob violence,” and “Protect yourself against HIV/AIDS.” My favorite pictures a woman wearing a stethoscope around her neck. The caption reads, “This could be you with an education.”

At night, we spent 2 hours packing backpacks with shoes to give to the kids on Christmas Day at the party. You’ll hear more about that later, because MacDella’s foundation is correct in believing education is the way out for these kids…because they’ll ultimately be rebuilding the economy when they’re grown up. More sponsorships are necessary, and tomorrow, on Christmas Day, I’m going to try to spotlight the kids who need our support most of all. Expect LOTS of great pictures next time!

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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.

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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.

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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!

Just dropping a quick note to let you know I made it safely to Liberia! We got to MacDella’s apartment at 10:30pm last night. It was like being in a time warp – two days went by in flight, but it felt like one. Right now, I’m using the wireless Internet at the Royal Hotel, where we’re also having breakfast. MacDella’s Internet isn’t working right now, but hopefully we’ll get to come back here soon so I can share the pictures I take.

The girls who live with MacDella are adorable — at first, they were so shy but they’re warming up to Genevieve and I now. They happen to watch Disney Channel in Liberia, so we easily bonded over a shared affinity for “Hannah Montana” and “High School Musical.”

But don’t get the wrong idea — driving through the city, you would see that most kids don’t have the luxury of watching the Disney Channel. They walk in the streets and help their families run their roadside businesses and sell things for pennies, just to afford food. MacDella said this part of Monrovia — which faces the ocean — used to be so beautiful, the best real estate in Liberia. But after 1990, it was torn apart by the civil war and is still rebuilding.

Thanks for checking in. I’ll have pictures for you next time!

Tomorrow Genevieve and I take flight!  It’s going to take about 24 hours to get to Liberia. We leave my house at 1:30pm for JFK and depart at 6:15pm. We land in Brussels, Belgium at 7:45am, and then have a 4-hour layover. We have a stop on the Ivory Coast (the country to the east of Liberia) and then fly into the airport in Monrovia, where MacDella will pick us up.

As soon as we arrive, MacDella is taking us to the US Embassy to check in and then we’ll settle in and meet everyone. I’ll try to get a blog post up on the 22nd.

I’m honestly not nervous at all. I think that’s because A) I have a travel buddy, B) I trust MacDella so much, and C) I did a ton of research on Liberia last semester, for two classes, so I have realistic expectations and I’ve mentally prepared myself for the poverty and devastation we’ll see…though I can’t expect how it will feel to see it. It was only a few years ago that Liberia was in the middle of civil war. I’ll do my best to capture both the struggles and the smiles.

Professor Pearson summed up our journey to Liberia on Blogher this weekend with beauty and brevity; read her post, “Letting Them Know it’s Christmas.” Genevieve, MacDella and I have each sat in Professor Pearson’s classroom — never at the same time — and yet somehow, our lives became very intertwined. The Spanish and the Italian call teachers maestros — so much more fitting, don’t you think? Out of her orchestra of journalism, communications, and interactive mulitmedia students, Professor Pearson created this symphony for Liberia. I of course play the blog, Genevieve plays the camera, and MacDella plays the heartstrings. 🙂

I dedicated this weekend to PACKING.  Yesterday, I hung the clothes I’m taking out on the clothesline, and then sprayed them with Permethrin (bug repellent) in the frigid cold.  As you can see, fashion for Liberian travel consists of jeans, long and short-sleeved tops, plus a couple dresses that I didn’t spray…to wear out to dinner and to any government buildings we visit.  I even planned the outfit I would wear if (big IF) we happened to run into Madame President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf — the first woman president in all of Africa.  Dream big, right? MacDella has met her a few times already.

Now, in case you were curious, here are the guts of my suitcase.

my suitcase

Top left: My plug adapter (so I can hook up my laptop!) and Starbursts for the kids on the streets/orphanages…there are also some candy canes buried under there. Top right: Presents for older girls in the orphanage and MacDella’s foster kids, Belle, Leila, and Haja, who you heard about in an earlier post.  Special thanks to Rachael, beauty editor of Seventeen, for donating the hair accessories, lip glosses, and body shimmer! There are some gift-wrapped Barbies under there too.

Bottom left: My clothes…and bathing suit. MacDella is taking us to the beach! (Liberia is on the West Coast of Africa.) It is 90 degrees and sunny in Monrovia.  Bottom right: Towels, on top of the bed net Donna Dees gave me to distribute, on top of an emergency stash of PopTarts and Chewy granola bars.

Next up: packing the carry-on with my lifelines: laptop, digital camera, Flip video camera, and, most importantly, anti-malarial pills.

GenevieveGenevieveTime to meet Genevieve Faust, my travel buddy, who is a senior at The College of New Jersey. I can breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that I’m not flying into a new country–or bumming four hours in a Belgian airport–alone. Not only is Genevieve a talented web designer, but she’s also a budding documentarian. She will be capturing our entire journey on tape for her senior project and the MacDella Cooper Foundation.  The college newspaper, The Signal, just published a story, “Not Your Average Winter Break,” about the trip; check it out here.GenevieveGenevieve

Even better, Genevieve just scored an internship for the spring semester in NYC! She doesn’t brag about her talents, so I will be doing that for her. 🙂

Though I’ve adopted the identity of a New Yorker, I will be the first person to proudly point out that a certain celebrity is a Jersey girl (Queen Latifah, Kelly Ripa, Calista Flockhart, Kirsten Dunst…the list goes on), or that a successful magazine editor went to my school, The College of New Jersey. Exhibit A: Annemarie Conte, a former JANE editor. When I interned at JANE, I must have mentioned around the office that she went to my college about 100 times. It gave my otherwise unrecognized school major cool points.

This month, when I was reading Seventeen, an article called “End AIDS in Africa” caught my eye, because of my trip and because of Alicia Keyes’ photo on the page. And then I noticed the byline — Annemarie Conte!! TCNJ strikes again! But really, school pride aside, I want you to check out the article because it supports what I really believe in — that glamour can drive global change.

Bono once told The New York Times, “Africa is sexy and people need to know that.” I know from taking a Gender & Democracy class that scholars often disapprove of glamorizing Africa and the Third World, but Bono has a practical point. “What is more interesting to me,” he said, dismissing the criticism, “is that we are losing the fight against AIDS in Africa. There are still 5,000 Africans dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, dying for lack of drugs that are available at any corner drugstore.” And if a red T-shirt from the Gap helps raise money for the medicines that save lives, who can argue?

Way to go, Seventeen and Annemarie, for giving this matter of substance appeal to the stylish teen girls out there who can make a difference!

mon_june_07_005.jpgMacDella sent me the week’s most adorable e-mail — an introduction to the little girls who live in her apartment in Liberia, where Genevieve and I are staying. MacDella took Belle, 3, Leila, 9, and Haja, 11, in as foster children because she saw a special spark in them. I remember MacDella told me that Leila asked her once, after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president in 2005, “Hypothetically, if you could vote (in the Liberian election), who would you vote for?” Hypothetically!

They like to play dress up and with makeup … I’m hitting up Target today for some goodies for them!

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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

Brandon HolleyWhen 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

Cindi LeiveIf 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).

Mariane PearlThe 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

CharlizeThese 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 Jauretsito 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

Mia BaxterJenna BushAnother 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.