Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Rains . . . in West Africa

from my porch 

  I am getting attached to the rainy season.
  Tuesday evening when I went to bed about 10:30p. About 2a I awoke to some low persistent thunder. I lay and enjoyed if for 30 minutes or so.
 It was rolling thunder, as in it seemed to roll from one side of the house to the other. It reminded me of that first stereo we got in the late 1950s—the one that came with a demo record that included someone walking across a hardwood floor in hard-soled shoes. We listened over and over as some unseen, unknown person enthralled us with the illusion that someone was walking above and around us.

I know, now, that the demo record was more than DEMOnstration. Maybe it was DEMONstration. It was a tech hook. The novelty of hi-fi and stereo needed a hook. What better hook than to include a demo record with every purchase, knowing that this new experience would demand new owners to invite friends to the house to hear and experience the wonder. Customers, then, became unknowing and willing salespeople.

What worked in the 50s has been refined in twenty-teens in ways we could not have imagined “in the day.”I know, now, that the demo record was more than DEMOnstration. Maybe it was DEMONstration. It was a tech hook. The novelty of hi-fi and stereo needed a hook. What better hook than to include a demo record with every purchase, knowing that this new experience would demand new owners to invite friends to the house to hear and experience the wonder. Customers, then, became unknowing and willing salespeople.

 What worked in the 50s has been refined in twenty-teens in ways we could not have imagined “in the day.” 
  Still, I listened to the rolling thunder for thirty minutes or so.
  Then—like the "Victory at Sea" orchestral band on the demo—all of West Africa exploded in the night. The storm that had been rolling toward us hit with a fury. Flashes of lightening turned the palms into silhouettes. The thunder wasn't rolling, anymore. It had found its destination and hit with a force that shook the house and, even though I was anticipating the detonations, caused me to flinch.
  The show lasted another 30 minutes.
  Then it was the hard rain that I never thought would let up. When the alarm went off at 6a, it was still coming down.
 My friend and the new General Secretary of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention, Justus Reeves, read a version of this memo on FaceBook. His comment was, “the rains in West Africa are so different, especially the sound of the lightning and thunder.” Preach, brother!
  By 7:30a there was a respite. I grabbed my briefcase and umbrella and headed off to campus, surrounded by that ephemeral coolness of high humidity that hangs in the air after the rains. Within ten minutes it was, however, a sauna.
  Today it was raining when I awoke, but stopped enough for me to get to the campus dry. During chapel the rains came, once again making it hard to hear the preacher. (If it is hard to hear a Liberian preacher, well, . . . .)   
  As we were leaving, the rains came, again, with a fury.
  I made it to the portico of the admin/classroom building, named for Billy Graham. The rain was exquisite, again. 

  I’m getting attached to the rainy season.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Fallow No More

This blog has lain fallow for some time. 
In this case the fallow field was not for rejuvenation. My life in Liberia has been hectic and, at times, frantic. The challenges have been more than I imagined. But, the good news is that I have prevailed (so far). 
In February I made the decision to focus upon Friends and Supporters of the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary. There were international news accounts of “crisis” in Liberian Baptist life, with the epicenter at the Seminary. The accounts were false in many cases and, where there were kernels of truth, the stories were exaggerated.
At the time I chose to focus upon an audience that was more nearly keyed to those dynamics, as opposed to a larger, more generic audience of folks interested in Liberia and my adventures.
My particular—and the particulars of Liberian Baptists—prevented me from investing much energy in universals.
The Lone Star
Perhaps there are readers who would like to be included in the specific reports of my life in Liberia. If so, please let me know at and I will add you to my list (and include you in the back issues of memos sent).
Now I hope to return to a broader audience

As an academic, primarily, I am aware of the so-called “post-colonial” perspective that has emerged in recent decades. The perspective is a natural progression from the various liberation movements that first emerged in the late 1960s. In the initial criticisms (please read that term constructively) of the liberationists there was an important re-ordering of sources for social, political, economic, philosophical, and theological reflection and construction. 
In a word, the shift of perspective drew attention to the great chasm that was opening between theory and practice. In every discipline, scholars and practitioners were observing a gap between received traditions and experience. Liberationists were bold enough to employ the term praxis as a new way to think about systems, their successes, and their failures. It was a bold choice because praxis had come to be associated with Marxist theory.
Liberation theologies continue to bend under the weight of misunderstandings of praxis. It should be seen as an analytical tool rather than an ideological perspective.
Juan Luίs Segundo, a Catholic theologian in Uruguay, caught my attention. He noted that reading scripture and tradition from experience rather than from doctrine was a path of “the liberation of theology” from its cultural captivity, by which he meant the West and the North (as in western Europe and North America).
Segundo’s trenchant analysis provided a template for others to employ in the 1960s and 1970s. I confess that I am among the community of the challenged and transformed.
At first there was a spate of distinct “liberation theologies” that seized the insight of Segundo in narrow particularity. Thus there emerged a variety of “theologies of liberation” that looked at ethnic groups, gender, economic groups, and the like.
Gradually there was a move toward a more global (please read that term in light of geography and computer sciences) perspective.
Another confession: I wince under the apparent return to a universal perspective (which is what some versions of post-colonialism offers) because it threatens to smooth over the particularities of cultures that define the universal.
James Hal Cone said it clearly in the early 1970s: “There is no universal without a particular.”
Nonetheless, we are awash in post-colonialism.
I embrace the historical contexts of colonialism. More so, I embrace the particular contexts of post-colonialism and the distinct responses to it in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and, even, North America.
Be advised and forewarned: My search for Edward Wilmot Blyden may, soon, take a turn.

Day by day I am reminded of the particulars of colonialism in Liberia and West Africa that were challenges faced by Blyden and his contemporaries. Day by day I am keenly aware that Liberia entered the post-colonial era by way of violence and decline that finally erupted in civil wars that spanned fourteen hard years. Day by day I encounter the deep-seated lingering effects of colonialism. Some days I despair that the stain is indelible. 
Other days . . . I hope.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Nicodemus, William James, and the God of Abraham

Ricks Institute
Virginia, Liberia
Established 1887
Recently I watched and listened as a visiting missionary stood in front of more than one hundred Liberian pastors during a Q & A session at the end of a three-day conference for rural pastors at Ricks Institute.
From a Tuesday morning until noon on Thursday the pastors were invited to participate in four different experiences. During the days there were consecutive sessions of Bible Study (Philippians), a workshop on preaching, and lectures on apologetics. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings the pastors and others from the Ricks Institute community joined in worship.
"Allah" in Arabic
After a series of questions about the content of the teaching sessions, a pastor stood to ask a question about an issue that had not been broached in any presentation: “Is the God of Mohammed the God of Christianity?” 
In the context of West Africa—especially in many communities in Liberia—the question is more than an intellectual exercise. Both Islam and Christianity are foreign religions in sub-Saharan Africa. They came with missionaries from Arab lands in the Middle East and Christian lands in the West. The pastor’s question was at least about a theological assertion, often couched in exclusivist terms. But, the question had (and has) a broader horizon. Christians and Muslims in Liberia share land, government, economy, hopes and dreams, as well as sorrows. Beneath the apparently simple appeal for a “yes” or “no” about the God of Mohammed, there remains the larger and more critical question: “How can Christians and Muslims live together in peace?”
The missionary on that Thursday morning was adamant in his denial of any relationship between Allah and the God Christians claim is made known in history through Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Christ. His denial began and ended with a doctrine of exclusion and never moved from that sharp center into the equally important questions of worship, prayer, attention to the poor, alms, and the quest for spiritual maturity.
The Liberian pastor deserved more. He needed more. I am confident, too, that he wanted more. At least he needed some guidance toward a way to reflect upon how Christians and Muslims strive to live out their convictions in Liberia with the integrity of their faiths.
 That need is my impetus as I explore Nicodemus, William James, and the God of Abraham. 
Representation of Nicodemus
and Jesus (John 3)
The Gospel of John is rife with misunderstandings, both those embedded intentionally in the narratives by a creative author and those carried away from the narratives—also often intentionally—by equally less-creative interpreters. In the first of seven dialogs in John, Nicodemus carries the burden of misunderstanding and, too, becomes the standard bearer for those whose intention is to perpetuate the error instead of, like Jesus in the narrative, to shed light on Nicodemus’ confusion.
Take a moment to read John 3:1-21, but do yourself a favor and don’t read the version you usually read. Avoid the King James Version [KJV] or the New International Version [NIV]. Try the American Standard Version [ASV] or either the Revised Standard Version [RSV] or the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]. Try The Message, too!
The phrase “born again” found in KJV and NIV does not appear in ASV, RSV, NRSV, or The Message. Instead, a comparison reader will find “anew” [ASV] or “from above” [RSV], [NRSV], and The Message.
In John 3:4 Nicodemus misunderstood “anew” or “from above”; it was Nicodemus, not Jesus, who thought about returning the womb to be born again. Jesus gently chides Nicodemus for the misunderstanding, but uses the error to shed light upon an insight larger than physical birth, symbolized by “water” (v. 5), and that is of “spirit birth” (v. 6).
Alas, characteristic of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ gentle chide adds to the confusion! Before Nicodemus can ponder the differences between “again” and “from above,” Jesus uses the word, pneuma, which can mean one of three things: wind, spirit, or breath. Poor Nick. He concedes to the confusion and exclaims, “How can these things be?!” Never again in the passage does he speak. Instead he listens as Jesus elaborates upon “heavenly things” (v. 12).
“Born againism springs from John 3. At best it is a phenomenon that owes allegiance to Nicodemus’ confusion. At worst it is a quip mined from the ore of “heavenly things” that fails miserably at retaining the context of demand and responsibility that come “from above” when one is “born anew.”
Edward Wilmot Blyden
In early February 2013 I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone with my colleague, Olu Q. Menjay. We had crossed into Sierra Leone from Liberia and travelled the bush roads to Freetown on a pilgrimage, of sorts. Olu and I have shared interest in Edward Wilmot Blyden, a nineteenth century giant whose contributions to education, diplomacy, African identity, and religion continue to demand attention. We were excited in our journey because in Freetown we were to meet Isa Blyden, the great-granddaughter of Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Our day with Isa Blyden was full of challenges and discoveries. The highlight was a visit to a mosque in Freetown in the Foulah district where Blyden lived the last years of his life, creating an educational system for Muslim children that still is a model program a century later.
Blyden was a Christian (Presbyterian) missionary who was a pioneer in Christian-Muslim relations in West Africa. He understood that Christianity and Islam could contribute to the betterment of colonial and post-colonial West Africa. He lived and died forging mutual respect and understanding among Africans whose traditional religions had been challenged and transformed by the foreign religions (Christianity and Islam) in their midst.
After our visit to the mosque, which included some rich conversation with the imam and some men who had gathered for afternoon prayers, Isa was telling me and Olu about new tensions in the Foulah Town area. “There are too many ‘born agains,’” she said. I pressed her clarity. “The ‘born agains’ are Muslims from the Arab world and Christians from the West who want to politicize their religions and make them rivals rather than partners.” Then and now I see her point. It is further evidence that “the born agains” are not interested in “heavenly things.”
William James
William James, pioneer in psychology and personality, offers a different way of describing and understanding the phenomena of what he termed “once-born” and “twice-born” personalities. And, yes, they are personalities. In his now-classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (the 1902 Gifford Lectures), James organized his observations and analyses of experiences and responses to the divine and/or religious teachings. The “once-born” and the “twice-born” occupied his attention in four of the lectures.
The once-born, by James' description, live in a box of sorts. He writes:
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account (Modern Library edition, 163).
By contrast James describes the twice-born:
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being. Cancelled as it all is by death if not by earlier enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship. It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth. There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other (Ibid.).
Of the two types James observes that the first tends to be happier with life while the second tends to bend under the burdens of life’s ambiguities. In the end, however, James observes that the twice-born are healthier once they make or find peace with life’s mysterious multivalences.
Applying James’ observations and analyses to the narrative about Nicodemus in John 3, it appears that the born-agains are once-born; the born anew (or from above) are twice-born. Born-agains—as the term is used in this post—live in a world of pluses and minuses, all of which are clear (to them). The born anews, however continue to live in the midst of an ambiguous world. As twice-born the face daily the tasks of personal and corporate integration of multiple values, all ordered from a “higher” perspective.
Head of Paul
Paul must have been twice-born (but his term was “new creation” [2 Cor 5:17]), especially with regard to the God of Abraham. He finally was able to reconcile the pluses and minuses that his background gave him. As a once-born Pharisee who could not have any compassion for the Gentiles,  he emerged twice-born, a new creation, who was able to see that the God of Abraham was the God of the Gentiles, too. Then, wonder of wonders, he chided the Gentiles (more forcefully than Jesus chided Nicodemus in the Gospel of John) for their arrogant disdain for all things Jewish. Paul’s chide of the Gentiles in Rome fills three chapters (see Rom 9–11).
Romans manuscript
To the Romans Paul wrote: “The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercer shown to you, they too may receive mercy. So God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom 11:29-32).
Although Paul knew nothing (of course) about the God of Mohammed, he did pause to reflect upon Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. In Galatians Paul offers a midrash on Hagar and Sarah and their sons, Ishmael and Isaac. He says that the two women (and their sons) “are two covenants” (Gal 4:24), one a covenant of slavery and the other a covenant of freedom.
Hagar, Ishmael, and the Angel
Genesis 21
Indeed, the narratives in Genesis about Hagar (see Gen 17 and 21) are couched in the God of Abraham making promises to Hagar regarding the son she bore Abraham. And, too, Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham’s son, bears the mark of the covenant with Abraham—circumcision—before Isaac.

That Liberian pastor deserved more than he got from the missionary. He needed more. I think he wanted more. Perhaps . . . another missionary in the future will do better with the question. Better yet, perhaps . . . a Liberian pastor/teacher will offer a more reflective response to a question that presses hard upon all Liberians, Christian or Muslim.

Monday, 10 February 2014

My Morning of Discontent

Rick and the Reverend
Al William Green
With apologies to Shakespeare and Steinbeck, 5 February 2014 was my morning of discontent, made glorious by the Reverend Al Green.

Late on the evening of 4 February I had an email and a call from one of my seminary colleagues. He wanted me to know that some LBTS Alumni were meeting in Monrovia on the next day; they had invited me to join them to meet and greet and receive encouragement. I said I would come, but knew that we could not meet at the seminary because we are under temporary court order not to be open (long story).

The Reverend Al William Green is a Liberian pastor. He was at Ricks for a rural pastors’ conference (Green is the pastor of the founding church of the Liberia Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention [1880] at Edina in Grand Bassa County; it certainly meets the descriptor “rural.”) Al offered to ride along with me. Thank God.

We made our way toward Monrovia in “my” diesel-powered Pajero, taking the shortcut through Logantown to avoid the congestion in Duala (see the post from 14 January, “The Economy at Work”). The ten minutes were better than the 40 or more it takes to get through Duala.

As we arrived in Monrovia and turned left at Broad Street it was about 10:30a. An officer waved us to the side and the discontent began to unfold. I made two errors that I regret and will not make again.

The usual banter began: “May I see your vehicle registration?” I produced it. May I see your driver’s license?” MISTAKE! I handed it to him, knowing better. THE DIE WAS CAST!!

The paper work was in order, but the insurance sticker was not on the windshield. Hint, hint. The officer was looking for a bribe. My seatbelt was not fastened. Hint, hint. I requested my license. The officer put it in his pocket and walked away.

Al Green got out of the car and began the arguments. Yes, a crowd began to form. The officer said there would be a ticket. I said, “Fine. Write it, give me my license, and I will go.”

Green went with the officer to the podium and then down the street for a conversation with the police commander of the district. I wanted to see what I could, so I made my second MISTAKE. I took my camera and used the telephoto lens to see better. Uh-oh!

The commander assumed I had taken his photo and became enraged. He stormed down the street shouting, “He took my photo! He took my photo!” with a small crowd following him. He tried to reach into the car and take my camera, but I avoided him.

Now there were three or four officers and a crowd behind the car. A large citizen intervened and tried to calm down the officer. I got out of the car—with my camera—and showed the large man that there was no photo. I showed him how I had used the telephoto to get a better view of the conversation. He declared, “There is no photo.” The first officer verified that there was no photo.

But, the die was cast. I had missed my several opportunities to bribe the “servant of the people” and now I would have to pay. Two hundred Liberia dollars would have ended the drama, but I wouldn’t pay (less than $3 US).

the bank receipt
the release document
the court document
For the next four hours (!!) Green led me through the mazes of Liberian bureaucracy. I counted nine steps: (a) to the Minister of Finance to register to pay the $20 US ticket; (b) to a business center to get a photocopy of the ticket; (c) back to MoF to receive a deposit slip for the bank; (d) to the bank to pay the fee and get a receipt; (e) to traffic court to receive judgment; [lunch break]; (f) back to traffic court to receive paper work; back to the podium on Broad Street to retrieve my license; (g) to police headquarters to get a “release” notification; (h) back to Broad Street to haggle, again, with the police to get the license and to refuse to pay the bribe; (i) received my license.

Al Green at Mary's
I never made it the meeting (probably should not have agreed to go, anyway). I had a great Liberian lunch of dumboy.

Dumboy is common Liberian meal (please read common two ways). It is a thick clump of pounded cassava root, mixed with water, and allowed to proof. Fu-fu, too, is pounded cassava root, but it is less thick. Both are served with some kind of soup and spices. I enjoy it; it is exotic (see the fish head and chicken foot) and quite tasty. Liberians are generally amazed that I eat it.

I got to spend time with Al Green and listen to his rants about “the criminals” in the blue uniforms who were trying to “make some morning money” by stopping “the white man.” Facts are facts. My offense was being a white American. I know that. See right: "American" and "White." And, so I am.

What did I learn? I will avoid the podium at Broad Street in the mornings. I will not use my camera carelessly. The police are greedy, but harmless. Many Liberians on the street are ashamed of the way the police act. Dumboy is quite tasty (I’ve had it several times, but the ambiance of the cook shop was great).

The Reverend Al Green is a good friend and companion. It was he who made my morning of discontent glorious.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not complaining about being a white American. What I know is that the years of colonial rule in Africa contributes to the challenges we all face in Liberia. I will write about that another time.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Power of Song

Each morning the students of Ricks Institute gather at the flag pole, standing in rank by class, for the start of a new day. At 7:30 the day is young and the promise of dawn is fresh. 
With the exception of the Pledge to the Flag of the Republic of Liberia—to which we will turn in a future post—the daily ceremony is sung. Every day six hundred or so voices fill the air with “the school ode!” as the leader of the ritual announces it. 
Most days the same choir successfully completes a rather difficult anthem, “All Hail, Liberia, Hail.” It is difficult because of the range required for voices of all ages. It is made more difficult by a dramatic pause mid-way through (sometimes I see the younger children counting to four to be sure not to jump in too soon).
A few days the fading dawn is greeted with “The Lone Star Forever,” with the memorable and apt words 
When freedom raised her glowing form
on Montserrado's verdant height,
She set within the doom of night,
'midst low’ring stars and thunderstorms
the star of liberty—and seizing from the waking morn,
its burnished shield of golden flame,
she lifted in her proud name
and raised a nation long forlorn
to noble destiny.
18th President of Liberia
The patriotic hymn was written by Edwin James Barclay (1882–1955), Liberia’s eighteenth President. His administration was born in scandal and rested in the glory of Liberia taking her place on the global stage with the Allies in World War II. The immediate predecessors (President C. D. B. King and Vice President Allen Yancey) of Barclay’s administration were swept away when their complicity in a later-day slave trade was exposed (King and Yancey allegedly benefited from corvée associated with the domestic workforce and outright slave trading with the Spanish). Secretary of State at the time, Barclay was selected to finish King’s term; he was elected in 1931.
Presidents Barclay and Roosevelt
in 1943
 During the fourteen years of his administration, Barclay restored international respect for Liberia, greatly improved the economy, and became a trusted ally of U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Barclay was instrumental in the construction of Robertsfield—with runways long enough to welcome Allied Forces planes; perhaps Barclay’s legacy is negotiating with Pan American Airlines to make Monrovia a destination for international travelers. In 1943 FDR visited Liberia en route to a summit in Morocco; later that year Barclay was welcomed in Washington, D. C. and was the first black person to stand at the rostrum in the U. S. Capital as an honored head of state.
Barclay’s patriotic hymn focused upon the dawn of Liberia in the 1820s, but the song’s power is in part that it also touches upon so many new dawns that Liberia has greeted in her troubled history.
 Each time I hear the Ricks students sing, “When freedom raised her glowing form on Montserrado's verdant height, she set within the doom of night, the star of liberty—and seizing from the waking morn, she lifted in her proud name and raised a nation long forlorn to noble destiny,” I rehearse the recent horrors of war and know, for sure, that the Ricks students understand “a nation long forlorn.”
Daniel Bashiel Warner
Liberia's 3rd President
Liberia’s third President, Daniel B. Warner [image] wrote “All Hail, Liberia, Hail.” It is a song that captures the Zeitgeist of mid-nineteenth century for the hope of the end of slavery and the greater hope of a land of freedom for “a race benighted race”: 
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
This glorious land of liberty shall long be ours.
Though new her name green be her fame
And mighty be her power
In joy and gladness with our hearts united
We'll shout the freedom of a race benighted
A home of glorious liberty by God's command. 
Liberia was the focus of hope for abolitionists, slaves in “the new world,” and free people of color for whom freedom already being compromised by political and economic realities in the Americas that were determined to establish a two-tiered society based upon race. And, for most of the hopeful, it was “God’s command” that would bring their hopes to fruition.
“And mighty be her power. And mighty be her power.”
In the midst of persistent challenges, Liberians hold to the claim that Liberia is blessed by Providence with “mighty . . . power.” When I hear the children sing those lines I know that they believe in the power (pun intended) of the song. I know it because, even in the midst of confusion and poverty and struggle, the children and their teachers and their public leaders refuse to capitulate to the despair that lurks in every shadow. 
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
All Hail, Liberia, Hail!
In union strong, success is sure
We cannot fail
With God above our rights to prove
We will over all prevail
With hearts and hands, our country's cause defending
We'll meet the foe with valor unpretending.
 The theme of Providence appears, again: “With God above our rights to prove / We will over all prevail.”
 These same themes of hope and divine guidance permeate the Ricks Ode, too, written in the mid-twentieth century by Baromi Morris, well-known Liberian jurist and musician.

Stella Polaris, O, Ricks Institute,
Thy way to greatness and prosperity;
Ye we point to glorious Ricks for fame and victory.
With God before us, success we are sure,
Upward and forward the victor we go;
Therefore with uplifted eyes
We are sure to win the prize.

On the days when the students sing the Ricks Ode and The Lone Star Forever, I am always struck by how the songs carry the singers and listeners from the dark of night—the invocation of the North Star in the Ode—to the dawn of perpetual new days—“and seizing from the waking morn' . . . [Freedom] lifted in her proud name and raised a nation long forlorn to noble destiny” from Lone Star.
Taken together, these three songs have a power that, I hope, will sustain the students, faculty at Ricks, and any other who has the opportunity to be present for the morning flag ceremony.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Rhianna's Stage

She doesn't need of all of both hands to count to her age. With only part of one hand she can let you know she is in grade 4. This is the first year she has had classes in the main school building, which means this year is the first year she gets buffeted by the bigger, louder, and more savvy students at Ricks Institute.
Today, however, Rhianna Musa stepped onto the biggest stage any nine-year old could imagine, short of discovering super powers and saving the planet.
It is exam week at Ricks Institute, the last days of the first semester. With characteristic gravity, Principal Olu Q. Menjay has been warning the students this week: “The last days are dangerous days,” he says. “You must be careful; these are dangerous days.”
The danger has nothing to with “the end times” associated with the lore of popular Christian science fiction. These last days at Ricks are fraught with the threat of failing an exam, or a grade, or getting expelled for “spying,” the by-word at Ricks for cheating.
All week Menjay has been warning the older students to review their lessons. “We are behind in Liberia,” he says. “If a ninth-grader can do grade 7 work, fine. But we have to catch up.” Today he put it to the test and set the stage for Rhianna Musa, grade 4, nine-years old.

Out-of-the-blue, the Menjay Way, in the middle of something else, he asked, “Who knows the ‘times tables’?” A number of fourth-graders shot their skinny arms in the air in the way that fourth-graders around the world must. Randomly, Menjay called a girl to the front of the auditorium to face more than 600 students. 
Then Menjay saw a drowsy student in one of the upper grades: “Hey!” he said, pointing, “you sleeping?” Soon, the offending lad was on his feet, squared off in a times table competition—with a fourth-grade girl half his size.
“Times five,” Menjay said. The lad began barely in a whisper. “Speak up! They need to hear you in the back!” As Menjay slowly walked toward the back of the hall, the boy faltered, “Five times seven equals forty.”
The auditorium erupted in nervous glee because more than 600 students had been spared, they thought, the very public oral exam.
Menjay turned to the waif: “Times five,” he said.
Rhianna Musa stood up straight, spoke in a loud voice—suitable for out-of-doors—and rattled off the “fives” from one to twelve.
Menjay called up another upper-class student. “Times six,” he ordered, and slowly walked away. (I turned my attention to Rhianna and noticed her softly doing the “sixes” in her own way, warming up in case the bigger, now quieter, student stumbled.) And, he did: “Six times three equals twenty-four.” The hall howled. Menjay pointed to Rhianna and she executed the “sixes” in the same strong voice and rhythm as she had completed the “fives.”

She showed no pride or excitement, but she did gently cross herself (yes, there are Liberian Catholics). 
The game was on! Seventh-graders, tenth-graders, twelfth graders, eighth-graders, and ninth-graders all had the chance to boast of the chance of defeating the Fourth Grade Wonder: Rhianna Musa. Eight tried and eight failed. Each time Rhianna made it through whatever Menjay asked. And each time she crossed herself in a gentle way.
Then Menjay made his point, standing next to a high school student who failed and wept. “We are behind in Liberia. But, we can catch up.” As Menjay made his speech about catching up and what hard work it is, I motioned for Rhianna. I asked her name and told her I was proud of her courage and excellent recitation. Then I slid a Liberian $50 bill across the desk where I was sitting. For the first time I saw her smile.
When Menjay was done, the assembly was dismissed. The other fourth-graders mobbed Rhianna as if she had scored the winning goal of a football match, and shared with her the day she took the stage.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Economy at Work

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. 
Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! 
On the side of their oppressors there was power
with no one to comfort them.  ~ Qoheleth 4.1 ~

Last Saturday I had the luxury of passing through Duala as a passenger instead of the driver. Usually I am at the wheel with 12-15 passengers on the way to an appointment in Monrovia, or by myself making a grocery run.
As a driver I see a lot in Duala. As a passenger I saw even more.
Duala is about half-way between Ricks Institute and Monrovia. That puts it near the heart of Bushrod Island, which has a high population of struggling Liberians and small population of economically stable—even comfortable—international business people.
Unemployment in Liberia is about 85%. What jobs are available usually are passed out in accord with a patronage system that has endured since the 1940s. If you get a job and get some influence you make sure that your family and friends are next in line for a job, no matter how small.
That leaves a growing population of poor and uneducated people crowded together in squalid housing, if you can call an abandoned shipping container, or four walls of woven palm-frond with a plastic tarp roof, housing.

Duala bustles every day  the under the sun. It is a picture of the economy at work.
Here is how it works: International business people, most from the Middle East, own the traditional business like supermarkets and hardware/building materials stores that dot both sides of the road that cuts through Bushrod Island. Duala is the place the indigent and eager gather day-after-day. The lucky ones find something like a job as a porter or as a vendor.
There are wheelbarrows everywhere—thus, the porters. The contents of those barrows range from fresh produce to grains to bread, to various meets, to palm oil, to clothing. The porters carry disposable goods to the vendors who sit under the sun, or, perhaps, under a large umbrella advertising  beer or a cell phone company.
Where do these disposable good come from? One hundred feet, or so, back from the road there are modest warehouses, some nothing more than abandoned shipping containers (there are a lot of them in Liberia), stacked full of 50 kg bags of rice (from China), or tires, or plastics, or recycled clothing, or knock-off sports shoes, and the like.
The international merchants buy in bulk and break down, for example, a 50 kg bag of rice into zipper bags of a few ounces, or a wheelbarrow full of rice will be delivered to a vendor who, in turn, measures out rice in a rusty can, according to her customer’s desire. And, yes, “her” is right.
Duala is the place one can buy one tablespoon of mayonnaise.
Here is the economy at work: The international merchants own the merchandise and the wheelbarrows. Porters and vendors are consignment workers. They pay up front for what they carry and/or hope to sell. With each transaction the price goes up, of course. Everyone needs to turn a profit, no matter how small (except for the international merchants who always  get their money up front). And, yes, the international merchants collect rent on the wheelbarrow.
There have been efforts to supply porters with a personal wheelbarrow, but the efforts have failed. Unless a porter pays the rental fee, no merchandise is available to move around Duala to the vendors.
So, what I see in Duala are the tears of the oppressed. The tears are not always literal, but the pained expressions, the blank expressions, and the occasional angry outburst between porters and vendors, all are tears, literal or symbolic.
And what of the merchants—the international merchants? They endure the scorn of Liberians who lack economic power. “Lebanese” is a four-letter word in the mouth of many Liberians. They have (economic) power, but there is no one to comfort them.
Liberia is the only country in the world that refuses citizenship to all except those who can document a shred of African ancestry. I understand that, given Liberia’s beginnings as a colony—and then a republic—for freed slaves.
My point is not about Liberia citizenship. (Perhaps I’ll address that later.) My point is that the power of the oppressors excludes them from comfort in the same way that the oppressed are not comforted.
Both the oppressed and the oppressor yearn for liberation. That, for ill, is how the economy works.