My morning started at 4:45am when I heard the creaking hinges of the screen door to the common area in the guesthouse. Good thing it’s not well oiled because I mistakenly set my alarm for 5:45am and Nyekeh was scheduled to pick me up at 5:30am to drive to Gbarnga. I took a quick bucket bath, ate a muffin I saved from the Royal Hotel (free to guests…I tried to pay but I guess they assumed I was a guest), and packed up my things. Nyekeh was headed to Forkellah to do some work on his mother’s home that’s been under construction for the last two years or so. I told him I had several items to pack including a gas-powered water pump (to pump water from a swamp into barrels for mixing concrete), tools, and my luggage. When he arrived, his car was completely full of his own supplies and luggage, plus beer and two other passengers for the work weekend. He called his other friends who were heading up with him and they came to the LCL compound to squeeze my stuff in also. I had the pleasure of sitting in the front seat as Nyekeh drove like a mad man for 3+ hours up to Gbarnga. We dropped my bags off at Phebe and continued to the property to drop off supplies and share the work progress with him. Nyekeh left me there and, unfortunately as he departed, backed up his beautiful black tinted window Nissan Pathfinder down the hill into a tree (I think he broke the tail light and dented the bumper…I was afraid to get too close knowing how upset I would have been!).
Sam was glad to see me as work has been progressing well but they needed more sand and other supplies (click here to see panoramic overview of work site: https://youtu.be/QNF6EPzWRDM). In these photos you’ll see the temporary warehouse (more siding was needed to totally enclose it but you can see the 300 bags of cement stacked in there). Inside of one half is the workers’ sleeping quarters complete with mosquito netting. The overview shot shows the cement-mixing-circle on the far left, the warehouse in the center, and the foundation trenches for the permanent warehouse on the right. These gentlemen take time to do laundry! The fifth photo is the block yard…they hand make each block in the molds we purchased in Monrovia…we’ll need nearly 2,000 blocks to complete the warehouse (see video here: https://youtu.be/2d83T2QvHCY)
After I had a chance to absorb all that had happened while sequestered in Monrovia, Sam, Sumo, and I headed into Gbarnga to hire truck drivers to haul sand for us (this will easily be accomplished in the future with baby FOTON!). To avoid price gouging at the sight of a white missionary, we parked the LandCruiser on a side road and I waited inside as they walked into town and negotiated with the sand haulers. We hired two Toyota Tacoma-sized pickups with workers for $950LD per truck per load (about US$11 per truck load to load, haul, and unload the sand we had purchased in the bush earlier in the week). We had to drive into the bush with them to show where the piles were. One of the trucks didn’t make it, breaking down on the roadside…we’re down to one truck. When that truck arrived later in the morning with its first load, they weren’t happy with the negotiated price because it was much farther into the bush than they anticipated and fuel costs would be higher — 50% higher! More negotiations ensued until we agreed on $1,100LD (about $13/load). We found another trucker and the 2 hired haulers worked through the day to fill our sand coffers.
Next stop: wawa. Wawa is a term for rough-cut 1x12x14′ lumber used for creating concrete foundation forms. Sam said he had a supplier in the bush, right where the trees are cut down and milled which would be less than half the price of buying in Gbarnga (in the bush they cost about $3/board). As we headed off, I didn’t expect to need a day’s supply of food and water in order to get there and back. We drove about 30 minutes south before turning off the Gbarnga Hwy into the dirt roads of the bush. We drove another 45 minutes deep into beautifully lush forest that I think I could safely say looks more like jungle than the other areas I’ve been. In the middle of nowhere, we’d pass small village clusters of 3 or 4 mud, thatched-roof huts — some decoratively painted with splotches of white or black color applied using the decorator’s fingers (not sure if “paint” is the correct term), others with zig zag patterns of brown and orange applied with palm frond paintbrushes. Little naked children running around, young girls and boys alternately pounding their stick pestles into hand carved tree stump mortars, women cooking over fires under open A-frame thatched roof “kitchens”–all framed by a gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills covered in palms, rubber and cottonwood trees, and other large-leafed foliage unknown to me. Just beautiful!
The road we traveled on…not that beautiful! I think I’m suffering from an African tropical disease most commonly found in Liberia called Mobilius Stereophonix Juggleitis. This illness occurs when a Liberian driver takes his American passenger on washed out, rutted dirt roads for hours, causing said passenger to rock violently side to side with sufficient force as to create an inversion of his left and right ears. Side effects include loss of balance, funny bone injuries, upset stomach, grinding teeth, and being forced to wear iPhone ear buds on the opposite sides of the head to correct stereo sound. As with all scary sounding African illnesses, the ultimate side effect (or perhaps treatment?!) must be death. Although audio inversion therapy has been known to improve stereophonic hearing, the only known cure is liberal doses of government pavement prophylaxis.
Along our jungle journey we encountered a compact Nissan sedan stuck deep in the ruts of wet clay road soil. Sam jumped out, retrieved a chain from under the seats of our Jeep, tethered the stranded stranger and extracted him with the torque of our 4-wheel drive. Appreciative of his new-found freedom, his car seemed to scurry off like a frightened field mouse. Upon arrival at our clandestine lumber source, we pulled into a small village to find a neatly stacked pile of 51 wawa boards patiently awaiting us in the hot Liberian sun. When I “de-Jeeped” (if the airlines can say “de-plane”, I can say “de-Jeep”), the villagers began coming out of the woodwork. A little girl sat under the kitchen thatching while she scraped rice kernels off stalks into a hand-woven basket/tray. (see her video here: https://youtu.be/FzCVd1pyvjU) Teenage girls stood shyly assessing this white visitor while biting their nails (yes, even the Liberian teenagers have this nervous habit). Some teenage boys approached to just hang out. The kids are just beautiful so I asked permission to take photos–some of the women declined. As I walked among them, entertaining all with my hack-Kpelle language skills, some of the men loaded the Jeep with our booty of wawa. The roof racks could only handle half the load so another trip is in our future.
We made it safely back to the work site and my bottled water had run out, but it was after 5:00 so I’d be “home” at Phebe very soon. Since I was without a vehicle until my return to Monrovia to pick up baby FOTON, Sam loaned me the use of his Jeep. Before being able to escape the parched heat, another two trucks laden with sand arrived and blocked my exit. I took the opportunity to watch a line of ten women emerge from the bush with bags of crushed rock on their heads for the cement mixers. I sat down next to them after they had unloaded and a small boy came over with a bucket full of small clear plastic bags, each containing three slowly moving very fat white worms with black heads immersed in water. Apparently this is a larvae treat they pull from bamboo trees, claiming it tastes very “sweet”. They pop the black head off with their fingers and eat it raw…Oh sweet larvae! Not in my mouth!
Although pay day is every two weeks for the “regulars”, the day laborers (like the rock-hauling women) can get paid weekly. So, today was my first pay day and I went through a list with Sam showing each person’s name, the days checked off for which they had worked, their pay rate and hours spent. The cement block makers get paid by the bag of cement (not per block or hour). Each worker was called by name to receive payment and sign their acknowledgement. The clarity of need for our school was underscored once again when nearly all of these workers could not sign their own names. One woman scribbled ballpoint pen ink on her thumb and made a thumbprint impression on her signature line. For others, Sam would literally move the pen in the worker’s hand to scrawl initials. Our school can not come fast enough.
PS. Thank you for all the comments I get…since email is a bit of a hassle, I like to see what people are thinking via your blog comments. Also, this baby was just too cute so I had to include his photo here for my wife, Kathy…maybe he’ll attend our school one day!