No AAA on the Gbarnga Highway

It’s Wednesday afternoon around 4pm Liberia time and the last 32 hours have been a bit of a challenge.  Let’s start with Tuesday…

The day started by heading to the property at 8am and waiting for Sam Bundo to arrive with his crew to begin the first day of construction. As we turned the corner on the access road, over the log bridge, and up into the site, I see a group of about 30 men sitting under a tree. I got hesitantly excited thinking we’ve really turned a corner with the community relationship and they’re here to continue brushing the land. Turns out they’re waiting to see if Sam will hire them for some of the construction work. Nevertheless, I put on my optimist hat (which is getting a little worn around the edges) and hoped some of them would default to brushing-the-land mode…that didn’t happen.  I spent some time laying out the permanent warehouse location, driving in stakes with colored tape at each corner.  Mmm…it thought under my optimist hat…this looks a little smaller in real life than on my drawing. Then Sam and his crew of 4 or 5 men arrived.  I later found out that the community members immediately began questioning among themselves what was going on–why is he bringing men with him and not hiring them?  These were Sam’s trained men that he uses on all his jobs. Other laborers would be hired, but not on Day 1.

Sam and I walked the area I had staked and decided to increase the warehouse size. We looked at the land that needed to be brushed for the guesthouse and school building, then evaluated access to the rocky area that was needed for crushing into stone for cement work. We decided to request the community members to brush an area around those rocks along with a path to get there.  This is when negotiations began again. I was, once again, told they needed money so they could be fed or they couldn’t work.  The “volunteers” were only told they needed to “volunteer” until end of Monday. After going back and forth for a while, I agreed to give them food money for 5 workers to clear the land around the rock area and I would, once again, be in contact with Bishop Jensen about this issue because I have no intention of dealing with the “volunteer” issue every day. IMG_3385Meanwhile, Sam’s men went right to work with the sticks we had acquired on Monday, selecting certain ones for the upright poles and others for the horizontal and rafter members on the temporary warehouse.

Our next step was to find sand for cement work.  This is quite the process (as is everything in Liberia).  It entails driving to various places, some deep into the bush near a river, where people dig and haul sand into piles about 4 feet high which they sell. We drove to one location…Sam felt the sand but wasn’t satisfied…too much mud, not coarse enough.  We drove to the next spot…only one or two piles…not enough of a supply.  We drove down the next rutted dirt road, got out and walked…over a foot bridge, along the river, to a small peninsula where it looked like a family was chest deep in the river digging out the sand from the river floor.  Apparently in the rainy season, much of the sand along the river’s shore becomes flush with runoff containing clay which makes it less appealing to cement makers so they dig the “cleaner” sand by going right into the river. A women got out of the water when we arrived and walked us to her piles for sale. Sam checked them out and we walked back to other piles we had seen before. People haul the sand from the river wheel barrow by wheel barrow and the many piles side-by-side have different owners so you need to negotiate with each pile’s owner separately. This took a while as some of the owner’s weren’t readily available. Once a price is set (about $100 for a big pile, $60 for a small one), it’s our responsibility to haul it to the work site. We purchased 3 piles.  Our truck has a short bed (it’s a 5 seater cab) so it took 3 trips and we still hadn’t completed one pile…it takes about 45 minutes to drive there, load the sand with shovels, drive slowly over the ruts to the work site, and finally shovel it out of the truck.

With the warehouse perimeter determined, Sam’s worker’s under way, some sand purchased and on site, and the “volunteers” appeased for the day, our plan was that Saah would drive Sam and I to Monrovia where we would stay the night, purchase cement, tools, and other supplies, then return by Wednesday evening.  The workers wanted to get another load of sand but it was after 2:00 and it takes 3 1/2 hours to get to Monrovia on a good day.  Turns out, this was not going to be a good day.

We fueled up and around 2:30pm headed south on Gbarnga Hwy.  About 1/2 hour into the trip, suddenly a big whack sound and the engine loses power as we coast to the side of the road.  IMG_3387We pop the hood, all visible belts are good…must be the timing belt/chain. No tools in the truck, no mechanics in site and no phone service so Saah starts walking to find better cell phone reception to call his boss.  About 1/2 hour later his boss sends one of the other LCL trucks from a nearby town to tow us back to Monrovia. This was an exciting task…no rope in either truck…let’s cut the rear seatbelts to use as a tow rope. My optimist hat must have blown out the window when the timing belt went because I had my doubts from the start that the seatbelt would last 3 hours on a bumpy road all the way to Monrovia.  We set off — with a JOLT — as they got accustomed to their rolls as “tow-er” and “tow-ee”. About 15 minutes later, SNAP, and the umbilical cord was cut as the injured truck coasted to the roadside.  Saah and Sam retied the seatbelt and we were off again.  15 minutes later…SNAP.  The seatbelt is getting shorter! Every time the trucks were not in sync (i.e., going down hill), they would jerk as one slowed or the other accelerated.  This jerking motion really tested the belts.IMG_3389

By the time we reached the town of Totota, the belt had severed one last time. I had packed 100′ of small diameter nylon cord in my backpack for use with a tarp I brought along for the work site.  I suggested that we tie an old tire (of which we passed many along the roadside) between the 2 cars to both tow and cushion the jerking action.  They didn’t like that idea. Since we were stopped in the middle of town, another LCL jeep came by and told us about a nearby mechanic.  He came over and offered a metal tow bar (when I say “offered”, I mean that in the most Liberian sense of “I’ll rent it to you”).  For $15 (negotiated from $20), we rented the tow bar and began tying it with my nylon cord. Meanwhile, I hadn’t eaten lunch and it’s now about 5:00 so I buy a few bananas from a street vendor and a golf ball-sized bag of roasted peanuts from the bucket on a girl’s head.  We were off with our new tow bar.

Every hour or so, we had to retie the bar and my body was tense for several hours as the truck jerked along the bumpy Gbarnga Hwy…now in the dark.  To assuage my fear of being jolted along a dark Liberian highway with intermittent near miss pedestrian encounters, I retreated to playing solitaire on my iPhone so I wouldn’t look up.  We arrived at the LCL compound around 10pm.  Our 3 1/2 trip had turned into an exhausting 7 1/2 journey. Unfortunately, I needed to go to an ATM to withdraw cash so I had enough for our next day’s shopping trip. I’m limited to a single $700 ATM withdrawal per day so I needed to do one tonight and one the next morning.  I dragged one of the drivers and hit the ATM before going to bed hungry for my missed lunch and dinner. The alarm was set for a dread 5:45am.

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