Phil is in Liberia documenting the work of Foundation for Women (FFW), an organization that strives to continually support and encourage impoverished women, both globally and locally, by funding and creating microcredit programs. A longtime supporter of Phil and his work, Kevin Castner is traveling with him and reporting back to us from the field.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead
We’re on our way to Rock Crushers. I thought that this was the name of an area, like ’72’, but as it turns out it is simply a descriptor. The group FFW supports here, crush rock. When we arrive I am looking at a dirt path that winds up a hillside. On either side of the path are piles and piles of rock – big piles and little piles. Sitting in/on/next to these piles are individuals of all ages, boys of 6 or more and middle aged women, hammering rocks until they are small enough to be gathered into big piles. In the meantime the constant cacophony is not unlike a drumbeat or background theme music. None of the rock breakers have any kind of safety glasses.
The mood here is very upbeat. The actual rock pounders are diligent, but they talk with each other, with people walking by, flashing smiles. How can they be happy? I reflect that most are young, or just old enough to remember the wars. What I might think of as primitive and sad is already a big step forward. And for the kids this is work, but also a playground. They don’t know any ‘better’. Kids are survivors; they deal with what is in front of them.
As always, we are met by gospel music and then introduced to the two leaders of this group, Josephine Jeffrey and Marion Wendyue. Marion says she and her kids are doing this, now, so that they won’t always have to do this. She takes me to a big pile of rock and says it is worth 5,000 Liberian dollars. Wow, all this rock, all this human effort, has a ‘street’ value of $70. And that is enough to turn a profit. At the end of Josephine’s interview Phil tells her how much respect he has for her and how impressed he is by what she has accomplished (a business with 25 women having loans and 30 more wanting to join and all 5 of her children in school) and asks her if she is proud. Josephine is a beautiful woman and her eyes flash as she says, almost defiantly, ‘I AM proud’. She has every right to be.
Of course, before the war there was equipment to do this job. They blasted the rock from the quarry off to our left (which was also an open pit diamond mine) and did this in a more industrial way. But that equipment is long gone, and hammers and backs are now the only way to do this work. Some of the rock is right here in the earth next to where we are working, but some of it has to be transported from up and beyond the quarry. Men and women go up there, 15 minutes away or more, and carry, on their heads, big rocks closer to where we are. At stages they get smaller, and then smaller again. But still big. The end rocks are irregular, of course, but about 1 1/2 – 2” long. The whole enterprise is, by its nature, horribly inefficient and dangerous.
Now there is a big commotion from down near where we’re parked, and a large dump truck is pulling in. Almost instantly everyone is in motion, and a conga line forms to one side and a form of pure capitalism takes place. Every ‘rock crusher’ from young to old has one or two plastic trays on their head between 5-15 pounds. The single file line moves as fast as the young men who came with it can upload the rock. The first person in line moves to a young man who stands with his back to the truck. He and the other men in the back of the truck are naked from the waist up and they glisten in the sun. The young man standing on the ground lifts the plastic trays off the head of the first person in line and military presses it straight up the side of the truck where it is grabbed, dumped and tossed back down. The offloaded person turns left and gets paid right then and there, usually 35 Liberian dollars or so, by a large woman carrying a huge wad of money. I hear she has the equivalent of about 1,000 USD and she doesn’t quite end up filling the truck. Another truck will come for rock before we leave and we are told they come every day.
I start to think…how could this ‘industry’ be incrementally more efficient, a little less dangerous? Wheelbarrows, an obvious small step, come to mind. I think I’ve seen one or two, but everything else is as primitive as possible. I don’t know what a wheelbarrow costs here, and something says I should check this out before going any further. So, I wander over to Charles and ask him if buying a wheelbarrow is a good idea and if so, if I could buy one.
He says yes, but soon I learn that there is much more to consider when donating to communities in the developing world. Rock Crushers – Part 2 is up next!