Welcome Back Branches

I got out the door around 8am to head across town so I could “babysit” the Foton repair which wasn’t finished last night.  Ooops…let’s backtrack a bit to last night.  I walked over to Randall St. from the LCL compound (about 3 miles) and picked up some small supplies.  I stopped at the Forkpah apartment since I was in the area. I knew Nyekeh was at work but didn’t have Kumba’s phone number so had the guard walk upstairs to hand her my business card so she saw I was down on the street.  I visited with Kumba for a while and mentioned some of the issues I had last trip trying to get a bank account.  She told me she used to work at LBDI Bank before going to the States…she called one of her friends who is the bank manager at a branch in Monrovia and shared the story with her.  The manager told Kumba to come in with me in the morning with my passport and a photo and she would take care of it.

back to today….

It was unusually cool…I’d guess in the mid-60s and the Liberians hated it.  Many had winter coats with hoods up, sweatshirts, etc. I decided to walk a bit since I wouldn’t be sweating through my clothing like yesterday.  After my 3 mile walk yesterday, I decided to walk about a mile then avoid the crazy commuters by hailing a cab (the routine is to just shake your index finger down low by your hip in the general direction you’re heading and any number of cars will pull over).  A gentleman picked me up and I told him I was going just over the bridge into Vai Town.  He responded by telling me he was not a cab driver, just giving me a lift.  We started talking and he works for the UN up in Lofa County (close to Guinea border) where he basically does statistics on things like maternal mortality, prenatal care, and some Ebola follow up work.  I asked if he had any experience providing training to schools for things like handwashing and hygiene for children.  He didn’t but had a friend in the UN that works for UNICEF…I gave him my card and he offered to forward my info to him.  We approached the bridge and he dropped me off to continue the rest of the way in an actual taxi.  I nice brief encounter that may lead to something helpful for the school curriculum.

I got in a nearby cab that was about the size of a Toyota Corolla (the old ones!). I was the second passenger so the cabbie waited till he had 3 in the back (I was in the middle) and 1 in the front.  He wasn’t satisfied and hoped to make a bit more money by squeezing in a “generously proportioned” Liberian woman…I couldn’t believe the door actually shut.  I was happy to arrive at the truck dealer in one piece and felt like one of those circus clowns that climbs out of a tiny car with 20 other clowns.

The dealer wasn’t finished with my truck yet but did show me the welded trailer hitch.  The mechanic did it exactly the way I wanted so that made me happy (plus he painted it black to match the undercarriage frame).  I waited for about an hour and had to leave because Kumba was picking me up to go down the street to LBDI Bank to open an account.  As we entered, Kumba did her schmoozing routine with many employees (apparently former co-workers) as I sat in the lobby area.  Very shortly, I was sitting at one of the employee’s desks filling out my personal checking account application.  It took about 15 minutes, I made a small deposit to open it, and my checkbook should be ready by Monday.  Kumba’s friend will see that it’s “expedited” so I can have it quicker than usual (I can imagine what usual is given my license plates aren’t ready yet after 3 months).  I was so thankful for Kumba…it was VIP treatment all the way (being picked up, going right into the bank, walking out with an account number…very easy!)

It was approaching noon and Kumba dropped me off at the dealer where my truck was being test driven.  Everything was fixed…except the invoice!  They were charging me for the A/C repair which I felt should be under warranty.  The shop manager claimed the unit was caked with mud (mmmm…I wonder where that came from?!?) which made the resistor burn out.  The salesman I bought it from came over and felt it should be a warranty issue.  As with all things Liberian, I negotiated and split the cost.  I was on my way.

I needed the truck done today because the workers need some guidance on the school construction and the Rotary International review team in Evanston, IL has been emailing a number of “clarification questions” before issuing the grant money.  Eventually, they decided a conference call would be the easiest way to resolve their concerns.  The Gbarnga Rotary president, Henry Konuwa, will be on the call along with Michelle Gasbarro (in Fitchburg, MA).  I decided since the blockmaking machine wouldn’t be cleared through the port until Monday or so and the solar equipment wouldn’t be unloaded until Monday, it would be best if I went up to Gbarnga today.  Fortunately, the truck issue was resolved so I packed up my bags and boxes back at LCL, strapped them into the truck bed to avoid losing anything from bumps or chumps…it’s common to have things stolen from an open truck bed while stuck in traffic/stopped at a light.  Sebastian, the German guy working with the LCL schools, helped me load some stuff into the truck.  I had tried meeting him yesterday but he wasn’t in Monrovia so I took the opportunity to talk while I packed.  I mentioned my interest in getting hygiene curricula for the school children.  Wouldn’t you know it, he wrote a 9 session lesson plan on hygiene (part of a series called “Under The Tree”). It covers daily hygiene, toilets, water, etc. and includes games to make learning interesting.  He went to his office, printed a copy, and put it on a USB stick for me, too. Perfect!

I was on my way, again.  This would be my first solo drive from Monrovia to Gbarnga.  It’s a straight shot (no road changes at all) so it’s very easy…except getting through Red Light.  I asked someone at LCL the shortcut around Red Light and I thought I knew it from all the times Saah drove me. However, the shortcut I took brought me right into the epicenter of vendors and throngs of people.  It took me about a 1/2 hour to get passed it then it was clear sailing for about 2 hours on newly paved road.  A number of new sections have been paved since I left in November.  The section at Kakata is totally blocked so I needed to follow a detour around the entire town.  The remaining drive to Totota was a disaster as road workers have sections torn up or rerouted to muddy dirt detours parallel to the would-be highway.  With my slick Foton tires, I barely made it up one of the muddy re-routes.  Eventually paving returned and I was back on track.  It took 3 hours 15 minutes, which is a record for me.  It rained the entire way (I must bring it with me because this is the dry season!)

It was about 4:30 when I pulled into Phebe.  As I passed the entrance guardhouse, Mr. Saykor was exiting and we had a brief window-to-window chat about where my key for the guesthouse was located.  I dropped off all my luggage and boxes then headed up to the property.  Sumo had called IMG_4302me a few times to find out exactly when I was arriving because they wanted to welcome me.  I reached the school property and was bursting with smiles as I turned the corner by the Charles Taylor mansion…the church members had made “welcome palms” for me.  Eight-foot high braided palm branches with flowers attached stood on either side of the access road to make a beautiful entry for me to drive between. (I’ll take a better photo in daylight tomorrow).

I crossed the log bridge and was amazed to see the work crew had been constructing a wall around the warehouse.  I had left instructions that if they were completely out of work on the school and guesthouse and needing further direction from us, they could build a small generator house and start laying the foundation for a wall to make a secure “yard” by the warehouse for outside storage…perhaps for a block yard for the blockmaking machine.  I couldn’t believe they had already constructed an 8′ high wall.  Apparently, Sumo had told them the guesthouse was going to be constructed using the blockmachine blocks…meanwhile, I had told them to keep building the guesthouse using traditional cement blocks.  The cross communication ended up with their focus being on the wall instead.  This just underscores the need for someone on the ground at all times to keep the ship steering where it’s most efficient.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to greet all of my old construction friends.  Some of the boys started showing up, including Moses, who has been talking about my arrival all day to his buddies.  When I saw him, the first thing he did was hand me a photo of himself and one with his brothers.  He was very proud and wanted me to keep it.  By now, Sumo, Pastor Weekie, and members of the Deanville preaching point and community began to arrive.  In addition to the welcome palms, they had constructed a palm branch shelter for me to sit under while they had a “welcome program” of prayers and singing.  The church choir (about 6 youth) sang a few songs with djembe drum accompaniment.  Then Sumo and Pastor Weekie shared words of welcome for the “engineer” from America.  The worker crew also sang a song.  I had a great time, felt very warmly welcomed back, and was very honored to represent all of our Gbarnga Mission team!

When I got back to Phebe, I unpacked and organized my old room again.  There are no other guests so I’ve got the place to myself.  The big news…they added A/C to each of the bedrooms!  It’s cool enough now that I don’t need it but it’s great to have for the future.  I attempted to cook something small for dinner but the propane tank is empty.  I guess I’ll be filling that tomorrow.  My pantry shelves are well stocked with many goodies brought from home (craisins, beef jerky, tuna, tortellini…mmm). Can’t wait to actually cook some hot oatmeal with craisins.

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