Sunday, April 21, 2013

Certain Aspects of My Job

Around and About the University of Liberia

Fascination with Liberia attracted me but it was a job offer that brought me here. I am fortunate to have been invited to come and work for a semester as a biology professor at the Faulkner College of Science and Technology at the University of Liberia. Among other things I'm working with the biology and chemistry faculty who are performing an extensive curriculum review process, (the first in over 30 years), and I’m also working to help set-up and develop laboratories. The challenges here are big:
  • The science building is an aged, war ravaged facility with little or no plumbing or electricity. Some significant military operations happened on the University campus during the civil wars and the scars and wounds are still evident. 
  • Lab facilities are damaged and largely unusable. 
  • The faculty members are hugely overworked yet they try to maintains an optimistic attitude and they are hungry for learning opportunities and scholarly connections worldwide. 
  • A politically mandated over-enrollment policy registers thousands of students beyond the capacity of either the infrastructure of the facility or the instructional abilities of the faculty. It is common to see upwards of 100 students crammed into dark classrooms built for 50.
(I witnessed final exams for the end of the first semester in February. Classrooms were filled beyond capacity and the large overflow crowd of students sat at desks pulled into the hallways and courtyards. Proctoring was futile and I witnessed students blatantly copying from each other and passing notes and making and taking phone calls throughout their exams.)
  • All the faculty members that I have talked to state that the majority of incoming students are very weakly educated and that most freshman have literacy and math skills far below what should be required for admission to University. Its hard to put a measure on this but one administrator told me recently that of the 15,000+ students who took the entrance exam last year, only 200 made the cut. Yet, in spite of this, it is widely held that political pressure and various ‘irregularities’ conspired to ensure the admission of more than 9000 students for the last academic year. As these links show, admission, persistence and success at the University can be a fraught and chaotic process.

No mind ya!  I’m working with a group of faculty and a new Dean who despite enormous challenges are laboring hard and courageously to try and turn this behemoth around and make it whole.  This group has worked out a new biology and chemistry curriculum and has developed a plan for how to implement it starting this September.  A container of lab equipment and supplies arrives next week from the States and we’re busy renovating a couple of lab rooms to accept the stuff.Here is a little tour to describe certain aspects of my job:

This is the Science Building.  Doesn't look too bad from the outside and it is definitely 'rehabilitatable' as the sign says but it will take some money.  The Engineering building next door had been renovated a couple of years ago by USAID and the Science Building was to have been renovated next but for reasons that are unclear that project has stalled.

On the inside you've got stairs that look like this:
Just like the sidewalks of Monrovia, this building just isn't pedestrian friendly.  Part of the building has electricity or 'current' as they say here, but down in this area where we are trying to establish some labs there is none so you can imagine the treachery once things get dark and visibility wanes.

Things are not necessarily student friendly either.

A few ceiling shots

Notice the wires dangling from the laboratory room ceiling below.  The fixtures were ripped out during the civil wars and never fixed.  Birds fly in through broken windows and build nests in the ceiling holes. 

Students have no books.  The books they use for their classes are ones donated by various assistance programs and these are kept in the student reading room, shown below.  The biology department alone had over 2000 freshman students admitted this past year (!) and this is the only place for them to find the books they need to study with! 

These would be the latest titles in microbiology found in the reading room.  Actually my project has sent over a large number of new books and they are destined to be housed here but for some reason they haven't been catalogued and distributed to us yet.  I've seen the boxes and we've asked for them to be delivered 'ever since' but things just move very slowly through the bureaucracy.

You've got to admire these students.  Their sheer, dogged determination and hard, hard work against formidable odds is what will hopefully allow them to prevail.  However, as you can imagine, Darwinian principles of natural selection are in play and not many will make it through.

Here's a view of a typical laboratory classroom.  The epoxy resin countertops are maybe salvageable but the cabinetry is shot.  What you see is pretty much all the lab has to offer.  There is no equipment to speak of and very few supplies.

Of course there are the usual obstacles and holes in the floor. 

There are some chemicals and supplies for the students to use but these are pretty decrepit.

Wall charts like periodic tables are non-existant so students make their own. 

Occasionally certain labs turn up strange and interesting items, like this elephant skull. (It may look strange because the jaw bone is balanced on top of the skull.)

Or this pile of decomposed birds that I guess somehow got trapped in this room and perished.

One of the skulls looks like a type of hornbill.

The place is permeated with lore from the war. At times during the various civil wars thousands of refugees sought shelter from the fighting here.  That didn't stop the assorted combatant groups from overrunning the place and turning the refugees' already hellish lives even more miserable. One story I've been told several times is that back in 1990 during the occupation of the campus by Charles Taylor's forces, this atrium, situated between the two wings of the Science Building, was the home of a large 'pet' crocodile named Daren.     

The story goes that one day one of Taylor's soldiers got irritated about a refugee mother who just couldn't manage to shush her crying baby.  In a fit of rage the rebel soldier grabbed the child and threw it down from one of the upper floors into the pit with Daren.  

Soon afterwards the campus was besieged and then overrun by Prince Johnson's forces and the perpetrator was captured and executed by Prince Johnson, who also then killed the crocodile.

In a neighboring atrium stands a monument to a chemistry professor named Victor E. Ward.

His story is on the monument.

 The legend is that the rebel soldier that killed him was a former student of his, but that is unconfirmed.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Bernard's On My Mind

Bernard's On My Mind

Dedicated to Bernard Punikai‘a

The sweltering heat mixed with sweat and grime and the ubiquitous garbage; the air thick with Harmattan dust, exhaust fumes from countless generators, and smoke-spewing, oil-burning non-emission controlled traffic, all lead me to seek solace in the ocean.  Luckily I've found a beach that I can go to at the end of every working day.  A place that soothes my body, recharges my spirits and sends my mind home to Hawaii for a few moments everyday.

My beach here is called Bernard's Beach and that name reminds me of my friend Bernard Punikai‘a.  A larger than life man who passed four years ago this month.  Bernard was my kumu and he taught me many things and the best lessons and the best times were spent at his beach front cottage in Kalaupapa.  There he would sing playing his autoharp and we would laugh and talk deep into the night while the heavy Moloka‘i north shore surf pounded and the many deer whistled softly in the brush near the house.

Yeah, Bernard is on my mind while swim the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa.

Like everything in Liberia, this beach has its complications.  The most straightforward way to get there is to go down this road and you'll come the ocean about a quarter mile away:

  Problem is there's usually a group of guys at the end of the road that tries to extort 'small-money' as an entrance fee.  The small money gets bigger if they think you can afford it.  I'm friendly with them and have gotten to know a few of them by name but in general I try to avoid them.  So instead I've found an alternative access point further down the road at this intersection:

The road leads to this little shantytown and the ocean beyond.

Its a little bit of a hike to Bernard's but its beautiful and interesting.

On my walk to Bernards I pass a fishing village.  Its actually more like the place where the fishermen beach their canoes and fix their nets and sell their fish to mongers.  Most of the fishermen themselves appear to live elsewhere.

Just past the fishermen is the swimming beach with a shore break that's fun and somewhat surfable.  When its bigger, the waves tend to come in as walls of water that just break as one big unit.  Beyond that the water gets deep quickly.  I'll swim out to passing fishing canoes sometimes to the great amusement of the fishermen who assure me there are no sharks or anything to worry about.
Occasionally though I have seen some of the BIGGEST man o wars I've ever seen.  I'm talking 10 inches or so across.  I've seen a few of those washed up on shore and I don't ever want to encounter one in the water.  Luckily they only come in when the wind blows heavy onto shore and that has been rare.

Beyond the beach is lagoon that stretches into a part of town called Congotown.  Congo was the name given to slaves that were freed from slaving ships intercepted by foreign powers after the international slave trade was made illegal. Many of those slaves from different parts of Africa were often dropped off in the fledgling country of Liberia and some were settled in this part of Monrovia.
Liberia was founded and settled by freed American slaves who were called 'Settlers' or Americo-Liberians.  Class distinctions were established between these Settlers and the Congos (who had never seen America) and the indigenous tribes, who of course initially possessed the place.

I attract a lot of attention as I am the only white guy on the beach and I swim, which very few people do here.   Often as I come out of the water people will come up to say something like, "I really enjoy watching you swim."  I've had young women flirt and tell me that they like me and 'want' me and young men ask to be my friend to teach them how to swim.  Thats the way people are here, friendly, engaging, provocative.

These guys were playing football, noticed my camera, stopped me and asked to have their pictures taken.

Walking back to where we parked the car, this is the view of Monrovia in the distance.

Sand patterns in the surf line along the beach

Back up towards the backside of that shantytown on the beach.  That is Moses Kollie my driver who likes to walk along the beach while I swim. 

Kids greet us as we walk back to the car while others do chores related to the pump

The drive home is never boring.  I noticed this today:

I say what?

No matter, I agree with the sentiment on this truck.  May God bless us all.

Back to my friend Bernard

This is the first Bernard's Beach I came to know in Kalaupapa:

And this is Bernard's yard with a tree under which I've shared fond experiences with friends.

The following is attached by permission.  Click on Bernard's name for a Star Bulletin article about him.  Aloha Bernard!

Reflections by Wally Inglis
February 28, 2013

My friend Bernard died four years ago this week.  I still miss his smile and his feisty spirit.  He left us on Ash Wednesday.  A few friends gathered at his bedside atLeahi Hospital, in a ward the state had re-named “Hale Mohalu” – a designation Bernard would never accept.  My son Stephen was present, playing some of Bernard’s favorites on his guitar as the priest offered final prayers for a safe journey.  Yes, Bernard was more than a friend; he was also family, the honored godfather of our daughter Katherine.

It is impossible to capture the essence of the man in a phrase or in a list of his talents and accomplishments.  But I’ll try.  He was a leader, an activist, a politician. The public arena is where he earned his reputation, where he achieved near “rock star” status.  It seems as if everyone knew Bernard, even beyond our islands.  It is sad in a way that he was not fully acknowledged in the same way as other rock stars—for his music!  For it was as a musician and song writer that he most wanted to be remembered.  Steps are now being taken to rectify this oversight, starting with the recognition of three of his songs in a recent award-winning CD of Kalaupapa songs.

Bernard, the politician, ran unsuccessfully for both the State House and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.  His more important political work, though, was behind the scenes as a life-long Democrat.  What an irony that he spent part of his pre-Kalaupapa childhood as a resident of Republican Street in Kalihi!  His best work was his passionate advocacy for issues of social justice, particularly those affecting Hansen’s Disease patients locally and globally.  In this area, you were either with him or against him, nowhere in between.  He was a man of strong likes and dislikes.  I consider myself fortunate to have survived a long friendship without ever incurring his wrath.

Life for Bernard, however, was more than the relentless pursuit of causes.  He knew how to have a good time.  He enjoyed entertaining at his Kalaupapa beach house, where his parties became legendary.  He loved to travel, both for pleasure and to carry his message to fellow leaders at international leprosy gatherings in Europe, Asia and South America.
 It has been both an honor and a burden for me to help sort out the great legacy of Bernard Punikai’a in the four years since his passing—and to share this legacy with others.   Fortunately, he has left, as part of this legacy, a host of friends committed to letting the world know that a wonderful man named Bernard once walked among us and refuses to let us forget him

Monday, February 18, 2013

Enjoying Liberia

Enjoying Liberia

Tripping Along the Coast

Robertsport,  a place I never had the chance to see while living in Liberia as a Peace Corps Volunteer a long time ago.  This small coastal town in far northwestern Liberia had always been described to me as a beautiful place and I remember that the Peace Corps people stationed there rarely traveled -- probably a good clue that they had something good going on.  The beaches around Robertsport have recently gained some fame as a world class surf spot with the film, "Sliding Liberia." 

So on a beautiful Saturday in February my friend Mosoka and his son Chris and I set out from Monrovia to explore.  Here's a little log of our adventure.

First thing we had to do is escape Monrovia, cross "the Bridge" onto Bushrod Island, through Freeport and pass through Duala.  Much of this area consists of shanty towns and markets that deal in various foodstuffs and tons and tons of plasticware and brick-a-brack.  Immense activity and energy expended in the daily toil of trying to survive in frank poverty. 

Here's a scene from somewhere near Duala.  That is a mound of trash behind the lady with the tubs on her head.  You can imagine the smells.

One never knows what one will see next.  Check out this guy walking down the side of the street nonchalantly with his Intra Venous bag!!!

He's already somewhat remarkable because he appears to be a Chinese worker.  There is a substantial population of Chinese workers in Liberia doing things like paving roads and installing traffic lights.  Several Liberians have commented to me questioning why Chinese workers are doing jobs that could be done by Liberians.  True that many of these projects are apparently funded by the Chinese government, but Liberians do need jobs.

He apparently also has a bag of meds with him.

Ahhh! Finally out of the shanty towns and onto the road to Robertsport!!!!!

 This red laterite, iron oxide rich soil is typical of Liberia.  Not being a farmer, my experience with the stuff happens mainly during road trips.  In America sometimes I have been nostalgic for that "Red Dust on Green Leaves", yet in Liberia I have also often cursed the red dust as it blew up in clouds behind passing cars or trucks.

Women washing clothes in a stream off the side of the road.

Here's Mosoka hanging out in a savannah tree orchard.  We learned from a local farmer that the leaves of  these fruit trees also have medicinal properties and are used to treat coughs and chest congestion.  Since I had been battling a cough since arriving in Liberia I asked him to show me how they were used.  He picked a few young leaves and told me to chew them and swallow the juice.  I did and within minutes my airways opened up and my cough got steadily better over the next couple of days.  Maybe psychosomatic but hey I'm grateful and I'll try this one again.  

Liberia would be a gold mine for natural products research.

This is the son of the the man that told us about the medicinal leaves.

We arrive in Robertsport and are greeted by sets and sets of waves.

Before playing in the surf though we decided to get some food.  I just can't get enough fufu and soup and this meal was absolutely the best I've had in Liberia so far.
The chunks of fish were sweet and luscious and the cassava dumpling just melted in my mouth with a broth that had just the right amount of pepper and sesame paste.  My God this was good!  
Eat your heart out Anthony Bourdain!  

Here are some kids that were hanging out outside the little cookshop.

After fueling up with good grub, we went off to the beach and played in the surf for the rest of the day.
Until the sun set and we had to head back to Monrovia.

Father and Son -- Mosoka and Chris

JB and Mosoka before heading back to Monrovia

Moses Kollie, our driver