Women’s Weekend

Sorry for the long delay between posts…as my departure approaches I get very busy trying to tie up loose ends.  I’ll try to remember the last few days…

I think it was Thursday morning that I awoke to a strange scratching sound as I sat on the toilet. A lizard had crawled into the bathtub and couldn’t get out because it was too slippery. I happened to have a rubber glove for when I clean the bathroom so I donned my anti-lizard mitt and grabbed the stranded creature. He was not docile like the cute orange newts I played with as a child…he squirmed violently and bit my rubberized fingers. Startled by the lacertilia’s attempt to amputate my appendage, I dropped it.  As it hit the floor, its tail separated from its body. There, wiggling on one tile square, a phantom tail – on another, a four-legged torso slowly escaping to a corner behind the bookshelf. I discarded the twitching tail and ignored the escapee…back to my bucket bath!

Simon Karanja, the block machine trainer, continued educating our group of trainees in proper building construction techniques with the Hydraform interlocking blocks. After the work day I frequently spent time talking with him as he imbibed two tall Clubs, the local Liberian beer (another reason I haven’t posted…it’s been too late in the evening for me!). It’s interesting to hear an African perspective on Africans and the problems he sees in Liberia. Simon is a very gentle, soft-spoken guy and we have similar views on work ethics, saving for the future, gender roles, etc.

As you see in the photos, the classroom is moving along as the trainees learn more. Friday was the last day of training so we had a small graduation ceremony.

Before leaving the States, I printed out certificates so I could present each graduate a document recognizing their achievement. With funds through our Rotary Grant, each graduate will also be receiving a set of masonry tools to help them continue work in the future.

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The first vocational class of the Gbarnga Lutheran Training Center (February 5, 2016)

I’ve been discussing with Simon how best to compensate workers who produce blocks as we move from training to employing. His work crews in Kenya are paid per block so a single crew splits the proceeds from each day’s production, thus motivating them to produce many blocks with the smallest crew for the greatest monetary share of the pot. I worked up a spreadsheet of net daily wages for various crew sizes and production quantities. A crew of 8 should be able to produce 1,500 blocks in a day…this is what Simon’s crews do in Kenya on a regular basis. In fact, he’s witnessed 1,700 blocks in a day. I thought this was a good way to go since my calculations showed that members of a crew of 12 making 1,500 blocks would each earn $5/day (the typical labor rate here and a fairly good paying job). If they could reduce the crew to 8 by working more efficiently like their Kenyan counterparts (and many others in Sudan, DRC, Somalia, etc.), they would then earn $7.50 – 50% more.

I presented this payment model to the group and it went over like a legless frog (see prior post!). Since during training they had only reached 1,000 blocks on a single day, they felt 1,500 was an unrealistic/impossible target and they would be earning very little for their hard work. They were also very put off that I wasn’t going to be hiring all 24 trainees. First, I only offered to sign up 15 people and, after much pleading, allowed an additional 9 to sign up who could “watch” the training if they wanted. Second, I never promised full employment, just an opportunity – to receive free training, free lunch, and free tools.  Much grumbling ensued as some described “suffering” for the last 2 weeks. Others wanted to know how the process of selecting the 8-12 crew members would happen and what the fate of the unchosen would be. Still others walked off and began griping among themselves. I suggested they meet and determine a better alternative.

Meanwhile, I talked with Simon (trainer) and Lavela (head contractor) to get more of their input. We reconvened and their only “alternative” was that they get a daily wage regardless of production and that all trainees get some type of work. Hmmm…not much of a compromise. Lavela stepped in and gave his perspective plus endorsement of the per-block payment scenario. He also became responsible to select the “chosen” block makers and dole out other jobs to the remainder. No one seemed happy in the end…we’ll see what today (Monday) brings as the first week of paid block making begins. I may offer another suggested model where it’s basically a “fixed price contract” for all the blocks needed to finish the school and they determine how many workers, what days they work, and who gets what from that total pot of money. This removes the pressure they feel to meet a daily quota and eliminates blaming Lavela for not hiring particular block makers.

In addition to being graduation day, Friday was also our “cook appreciation” lunch where all the cooking crews of women would be served. I gathered the group of construction workers, block trainees, and cooks so I could explain the importance of women’s contributions to their lives.  They would receive food first while others served them to show our appreciation for the months and months of cooking they’ve done for everyone.

The women applauded, the men chuckled. I pushed the men out of their shaded benches by the warehouse and had the women bring their lunches to sit down first. They were giddy…this had never happened before. I jumped in to start serving rice from the huge bowl while I told men to start hauling water from the pump and begin distributing drinking cups. I was happy to see some of the men getting into the spirit of the day by exaggerating their newly-imposed submissive roles. At one point, a man dropped his spoon and motioned for one of the women to come wash it. I intervened and had him wash his own spoon. Again, more laughter from the women! Afterwards, Sumo gathered the group to encourage this to happen more in their homes and communities, specifically telling men to cook for their wives (or get someone who can cook) to appreciate them more.  It felt like a success and a great community building event.

On Saturday, I drove Simon to Monrovia so he could get a ride to the airport for his IMG_5050evening flight. We stopped along the way so we could photograph the rubber trees with their tapping cups. Spiral cuts in the bark channel the pure white latex into cups which are collected and heated into blobs of material that are sold to Firestone to be converted into rubber. We continued to Eagle Electric where I stocked up on supplies, including all the steel pipe and angle iron needed for our water tower construction (financed by our Rotary Grant). The pipe is very heavy and as I drove back to Gbarnga Sunday morning, the combination of weight and bumpy Gbarnga Highway caused the metal truck rack on baby Foton to buckle.  Just another scar as baby Foton becomes an adult jungle truck. I was stopped twice at police check-points, handing over my license and registration but not exchanging money (although I was asked very directly for cash from one officer but I declined). I dropped the truck off at the warehouse and walked into Deanville to catch the end of the church service.

I had a meeting with the community women scheduled for after service.  About 25 women attended and, after an opening prayer, we discussed ways they could work together to start farming on the school property. A woman from St. Mark’s educated in agriculture at Cuttington University joined us to be a “consultant”. I was happy an educated Liberian woman would be collaborating other Liberian women from the same community.  I shared my idea for calling it “GROW” and it was mildly received.  They were, however, very excited by the potential to earn, feed their families, and help the school. We made a list of potential crops to start with that are not commonly found in the markets. Okra, corn, green beans, and onions topped the list…it’s hard to believe that onions are imported from India along with chicken eggs…raising chickens is next on the list! We then began touching on some of the logistics of how to schedule gardeners, who would

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Some of the women’s group scoping out garden locations

bring produce to market, tracking money, etc. I shared what the school would offer (land, stump removal, water barrels) and that I would cover the cost of all seeds for the initial planting. We walked to the school to scope out the initial garden plot so we could ensure stumps were removed and there was convenient water access. One prominent church lady took the lead and recorded women’s names to get a group prepping the soil early this week. All in all, I felt it was a successful start!

I took my Sunday afternoon siesta, worked on financials (recording receipts, estimating how much would be needed for work while I’m gone, etc.), did more drawings so the workers have as much detail as possible, etc. I called Kathy to see what Super Bowl food I was missing (pizza…mmmmm).  Looking forward to some good American food later this week!

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