Field Apprenticeships

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

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.

“What God has joined together let no man put assunder.”  I photographed this on a poster in a Sinkor living room.  Mama Liberia is very religious but the misspelling of the final word, coupled with ‘man’ earlier, also gives an unintended history lesson.  Tribalism and greed, fueled by power and testosterone did indeed bring this country ass-under.  Now, it is clawing its way back, a few rock piles and charcoal sacks at a time.

'Let no man put assunder' Poster

We hit a great trifecta when finishing the our last of our interviews while documenting the work of FFW.  First up was Monica Flanjay, the center chief for both Fanta Town Matadi and New Matadi.  She takes us into her home, down a hallway, and we sit, surprisingly, on part of an old, solid oak furniture set.  There is history in this house.  It has painted walls with pictures.  There are lace curtains shading the light coming through the barred windows, and a TV in a corner.  There are real windows, and the rooms have doors.  Of course, another part of its history also shows.  The electrical sockets are empty and the home is dark; the only light is natural.  There is a landline telephone, the only one I have ever seen in a private home.  I ask Monica if it works and she gives me the answer I’ve heard from many Liberians on similar topics, “Before the war……”.  Monica used her first loan to buy cold water.  Now, in the rainy season she sells charcoal.  She takes us to her warehouse, tells us she buys 200-300 bags at a time.  Her success means she only sells wholesale, doesn’t have to break big bags into little bags.  She’s moving up market.

Monica Flanjay's Charcoal Warehouse

 

After our talk we thread our way through her neighborhood, which she estimates at 15,000 people or so, and I reflect on the speed of my changing perceptions.  Three weeks ago I might have been put off by the dirt, or lack of light, or the rundown furniture and shabby, many times repaired, faded cushions.  But after the squalor of West Point the ‘grinding poverty’ I described so long ago when I first arrived now seems middle class, and Monica’s home a veritable oasis.  As I am reminded again and again, everything is relative.

At New Matadi we sit down with Angeline Reeves.  She was introduced to Foundation For Women by Korpo Zayzay, the center manager for Fanta Town (together the ‘Matadi’s’ have 45 women in the program).  Angeline has been in the FFW program for over a year and she describes exactly what she’s done with her loans.  She used her first, 6,000 Liberian Dollar (LB) loan to buy dried fish and sell them around her neighborhood.  She paid that off and borrowed 9,000LB and got into the timber (‘plank’) business with her fiancé, who lives in the bush.  She paid off that loan and borrowed 12,000LB (about $170USD) which she has used to buy inventory to stock a storefront selling fabrics on the local high road.  Angeline is a serial entrepreneur.

Angeline Reeve's 'High Street' Fabric Shop

Next, we drive to Wroto Town.  I’ve been here before and it is nice to meet Felicia Shipper again, the center leader.  She is bright and articulate, humorous and out-going.  She is such a natural leader, in fact, I wonder what she could have done if she had had other opportunities.

Phil Interviewing Felicia Shipper

All three of these women have used their FFW loans to improve their lives, the lives of their families, their communities, and send all their respective children to school.  At least two of them are going or planning to go to University themselves and get degrees.  The FFW loans have done far more than just help these women feed their families.  The loans have given them self-confidence and helped them to dream (their word) of a better future they can help themselves and their country achieve.  These women have every right to be proud.

Next read about the video WTYSL and Phil Borges produced with the FFW Young Women Leaders as Kevin reports on wrapping up their time documenting FFW!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

Katie of More than Me

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. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “Women’s Leadership Conference” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.

We picked up Katie Meyler, founder of More than Me, and drive around Mamba Point and past the heavily protected U.S. Embassy to West Point.  Katie had already been 6 hours in a car today, driving friends up to the Guinea border.  As we bounce along the streets she eats bread rolls and cheese.  She talks about all the border checks on the way.  Sounds like a nightmare.

From the first step out of the car in West Point, it feels like we’re in one, too.  The air here is rank, the warm wind wafting odors of urine and smoking fish mixed with heat and sweat and feces.  Flies are everywhere.  My eyes burn.  My nose is assaulted.  Nothing I’ve experienced in Liberia prepared me for this.  Nothing else stunk.

Garbage in West Point

A line in Jurassic Park comes to mind, the character Ian Malcolm explains chaos theory with the comment, “Life finds a way.”.   Somehow it finds a way in West Point.  West Point is vibrant, crowded, pulsing.  People run small businesses; smoke fish in tiers over charcoal-fired metal drums.  There is a community here with families, and clothes drying along the metal walls.  People live here.  Somehow.

Smoking Fish

A recently paved road snakes into the slum.  On either side and further in, it is all dirt and sand.  And close; the length of my outspread arms is close to the width of a major thoroughfare here.  Just to one side a pot simmers over a small charcoal fire in the dirt.  A bit further on you can buy some in little blue plastic bags; which will soon be litter.  People sit outside huts or storefronts in plastic lawn chairs or in the dirt.  They pull water up from a well.  We inch by, touching everyone.  Somehow, even motorcycles find a way in here.

Charcoal for Sale

We ask to take pictures.  Often we’re asked for money and told no when we don’t produce it.  I can’t blame them if they’re angry.  Some wannabe photojournalist shows up and wants to snap away for their blog or magazine.  They say their work will bring change.  But has the person sitting in the dirt ever seen any change?  From what I see with every step – they haven’t so far.

My normal greeting at home is ‘Hey, how ya doing?’. That seems beyond inappropriate here. I can see how they’re doing. They are barely surviving.

Phil with a Mother in West Point - Curiosity of WTYSL

We negotiate the dirt paths and find ourselves in an open square maybe an acre in size.  A mix of dirt and sand with hovels on three sides.  On the fourth, the ocean.  Fishing boats at the ready.  They say they go 40 miles out with a small outboard motor.  The fish look good.  On the way there are groundnuts (peanuts to us) lying on bed sheets, drying in the sun.  People mill in all directions.  There are stalls, mostly selling food items, along the sides of the square.  A horde of children follow us, talking, pulling at our hands, wanting to have their pictures taken and see themselves in the camera; some are clothed, some not.  And everywhere, mixed with the dirt and sand, garbage and excrement.  Even the wind off the ocean can’t blow away the smell.

Mackintosh with Two Children He Works With

Some people thrive in this environment; it energizes them, pulls at them.  Our guides through West Point are Katie Meyler and Mackintosh Johnson.  Katie gets girls off the street and away from prostitution any way she can while Macintosh is a social worker and helps kids (boys and girls) get scholarships.  They coordinate many of their activities through an organization Katie set up called More than Me.  Mackintosh grew up in West Point.  He shares the view that the way out is through education.  Katie found her way here somehow, and the children pulled at her and never let go.  My respect and admiration for them is unbounded.  Please take a moment to visit morethanme.org and support them, if you are able.

Katie Surrounded by Children

We pass a woman breast-feeding in the dirt.  We pass happy people.  Sad people.  Angry young men.  We see kids playing pickup soccer with a half-deflated ball in the sand and garbage.  We pass more little stores.  See palm nuts drying.  End up at the spit at the end of West Point.  Wooden boats lay here, their holes and broken bows lifted to the sun.  They are surrounded by shit.  This whole area is an open toilet.  I don’t gag easily but I think about it.  It is hard to avoid to stepping in shit.  It is everywhere on the sand.  Of course covered in flies.  Children squat in our midst and have diarrhea, stand up and leave.  They don’t have anything to wipe with so they don’t.

We finally leave and go back to our cushy resort.  I have a multitude of thoughts and emotions coursing through me.  I take off all my clothes and put them in a plastic laundry bag.  They won’t see the light of day until they’re sitting next to a German washing machine.  The next thing I do is something nobody in West Point will do tonight.  I take a hot shower.

Only a few more FFW posts to go!

 

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

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.

Charles tells Marion and Josephine that I might buy a wheelbarrow, but then he asks ‘Who it will belong to?’ and ‘Who will maintain it?’ and ‘Who will be responsible for it?’.  I see that offering to buy the wheelbarrow is only part of the equation.  Does it belong to the group, or to Marion and Josephine?  If the latter, will that engender jealousy and resentment?  It is imperative that they think, now, of putting money aside for maintenance because hauling rock isn’t easy on man or machine.  I already had high respect for Charles, but it just went up another notch.

Charles Speaking about FFW Programs

Marion and Josephine pile into our vans and we head off to buy a wheelbarrow. It takes about 2 minutes and 38-USD to buy exactly what they want.  I ask them if they can figure out how to bring it back.  No problem.  As we drive off in the opposite direction they are negotiating with a motorcycle taxi; their wheelbarrow will have an exciting ride to its new home.

After I purchased, through Charles Naiwah’s arrangement, a wheelbarrow for this center, they called Emily Peal and requested three more.  The nerve of these greedy women!  But c’mon, really?  It turns out that the Foundation For Women often gives gifts like this to make life go a little easier.  In this case Deborah, Ann and Barbara are each going to donate a wheelbarrow.  Charles will figure out the details.

You Try That!

Of all the individuals I’ve met, the person I’ve connected most with has been Josephine Jeffries at RC.  Her reserve and dignity, the fire in her eyes when she said, “I am proud.”, all touched me.  Phil, too, so we go to her home to photograph her going about her daily routine with her family.

It is a long way away from RC, though on foot (of course, regardless of the weather) there is a shortcut through a swamp she uses.  She used to live right at RC, but the landlord raised the rent from $40USD to $75USD and she couldn’t afford it.

Our first glance into her home, through a short deluge, is not so bad.  The ceilings are high, maybe 9 feet.  The foundation looks solid and the interior is dry.  But when she takes us into her children’s bedroom it is almost pitch dark at 10:30 am.  Their windows are corrugated metal, they block almost all the light, and they are tied into place.  Phil finds a way to film them cooking and cleaning laundry in their main room, then brings them all outside.  Ten children are wandering around, playing on the porch and in the dirt.  Josephine has five kids and only three of her daughters are here.  The other seven kids are nieces/nephews/neighbors.

Front Yard of Josephine's Shared Home

Phil makes the comment that she has a lot of space and Josephine politely tells him that they only have two rooms in the building.  They pay $10 for each room per month.  The main room is shared, not only by all the families but also functions as a kind of warehouse filled with strewn benches, cinder blocks, rusty pipes, boards, all jumbled at one end.  I find out there is a well around the corner, and that they share a generator, which they use sparingly.

Josephine's Shared Main Room

I’m going to back up a moment.  Three days ago I ran into Josephine at FFW HQ.  I think she was asking to see Emily Peal, who wasn’t there.  She asked me to talk to her.  Alone, she talked about how she wants to continue her education.  She didn’t ask me for money; she just told me with a soul-piercing look of sadness that she needed to go back to school.  I told her she probably needed to talk to Emily, and I guess she did, because FFW has agreed to pay for her education!  I try to imagine what it must be like for Josephine:  she is intelligent, has education, and is stuck doing hard manual mindless labor, and knows that without a big helping hand she’ll be doing that into the foreseeable future, until her fingers stiffen or her back gives out, or she gets injured.

But, her group has a total of four wheelbarrows they didn’t have eight days ago.  That should make some things easier, more efficient and less dangerous.

We will be visiting the slums of Monrovia next to learn more about the work Katie from More than Me is doing.  Don’t miss it!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

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.

Rock Crushers

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.

Marion Shows Me How Much a Pile of Rock is Worth

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.

Women Carrying Rocks

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.

Loading Rocks Into the Dump Truck

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!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

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. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “Women’s Leadership Conference” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.

“There will be no prosperity or development if there is no peace.”
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

President Sirleaf Speaking

The summit is done and it was a big success.  Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was present and addressed the audience, and the Vice President Joseph Boakai made the closing remarks.  Minister for Gender Development Vabah K. Gayflor also spoke.  The U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield was in the room and lent her weight and opinions to the discussion.  Mayors, senators and other notables were also seen and heard from.  The highlight for me was manning a camera during a private interview President Sirleaf granted to our own Martha Daniels.

Phil prepping Martha for her interview with the President

Just as importantly, women from all over Liberia attended and heard each other’s voices, raised questions, cheered each other and their progress so far, and suggested courses of action.  Some of these women are uneducated and illiterate.  Some have traveled for days to be here.  All of them are leaders in their communities.

Title Page of Summit Agenda

We got picked up at 6:30am and arrived at City Hall at 7:00.  We spent the next two hours setting up (college blue books and bic pens at every place setting) and then holding our breath to see how many people would show up.  All our girls were there, even more resplendent than the previous day.  I was really worried when the room had only 50 or so people at 9:00.  I asked Ann Lovell how many people had RSVP’d.  She replied succinctly, ‘zero’.  She explained that nobody RSVP’s in Liberia.  You send out invites, word gets around and you cross your fingers.  Strange doings to most westerners, but standard procedure in Liberia – know as Liberian time or TIA (This Is Africa).  However it all works and our hall is full by 9:30.  The President has yet to show up, but at 9:45 she is in the house too and we get started.

The first speaker is Minister of Gender and Development Vabah K. Gayflor.  She talks to the women about ‘coming together’, ‘working together’, and finally ‘staying together’; for her, the latter stage equates with success.  I find a clear political message here – staying together means re-electing President Sirleaf (after two weeks in Liberia I share that opinion wholeheartedly).

After Minister Gayflor, U.S. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield takes the podium.  Among her messages are that Liberia needs more education and fewer young mothers, “They shouldn’t be having babies when they are still babies.”

FFW Young Woman Leader, Hawa Sesay, Speaking

Next up is President Sirleaf.  She speaks slowly and distinctly, making precisely the same points about early pregnancy and education.  She also says, “We need to stop the violence.”

There are 28 other candidates running for President.  All of them are men.  They all seem to be saying not enough has been done, and that therefore Liberia needs change at the top.  The counter argument is that 6 years of peace is a huge improvement, coupled with the forgiveness (organized by the Sirleaf Administration) of almost 100% of the outstanding external debt.  That couldn’t happen overnight, but it is done.  If the women can ‘stay together’ they can build on these accomplishments, not just rest on their laurels.  For Liberia’s sake I hope they get the chance.

The moment the President is done we get the word from her wonderful Protocol Officer that she will make time to do an interview with Martha.  This was up in the air to the last minute.  We grab all our equipment, Alicia, Philippa and Moses and get as fast as we can to a small private room to set up.  It takes the President 15 minutes to get to us as she has a receiving line of women to greet every step of the way.

Martha Interviews President Sirleaf

And then, Martha takes center stage and interviews the President of her country!  It’s a wonderful, exciting opportunity for her (me, too) and Martha handles her end extremely well.  Four of us have camera’s boring in, and Martha sits knee to knee with her hero.  We’ve also got a security contingent and a couple of unknown camera guys in the room, but essentially it is our deal.  Which thankfully goes very smoothly.  After 5 minutes the President is hustled out of the room.  But not, surprisingly, out of my life!

We will spend the rest of the day, until 5pm, back in the big room.  The two hour delayed breakfast put off the overall schedule and we never do complete everything, but the idea to get many women’s organizations together in one room and talk about how to work together, share resources, lose some of the individual ‘territoriality’ that makes them often fight instead of furthering their many common goals, has been planted.  Late in the day Deborah tells the audience that a second summit is already being scheduled.

Phil and I Wearing Shirts From the President Sirleaf

So, from really grand to small and personal.  At 2pm Minister Gayflor walks over to me and says ‘President Sirleaf has bought you and your assistant shirts’.  I joke about the mix up but say thanks.  The Minister leaves, but at 3 p.m. she’s back with a big plastic bag and inside are two beautiful native shirts.  Thank you, President Sirleaf!

Just before 4:30 V.P. Boakai shows up.  He reads a statement to the women, saying “We are not doing you a favor but giving you your rightful places as partners.”  He thanks the Foundation For Women and other major contributors to the Summit.  Later he reads, “This is not a campaign against men….”, and perhaps that is true, but it certainly is a campaign against male dominance.  The women of Mama Liberia have earned the chance to run things.  They can’t do any worse.

Native Dance Troop

The Summit ends a little after 5 p.m. with the same dance troupe that entertained us twice before at Kendeja.  When things are well and truly winding up, and all the big equipment is safely stored in the vans, we meet with the girls in front of City Hall for a group photo and hugs.  Sadly, Veronica and Emily have to begin their long journeys home and we won’t see them again.

Our Last Group Shot

While Phil Borges and WTYSL work on the post-production for all the media they have collected I will fill you in on our past site visit to the Rock Crushers.  Stay tuned!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

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. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “All Liberian Women’s Summit” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.

Emily "Mommy" Peal

“The challenges are many, but the possibilities are endless.”
“Education is the way out.”
“Since the war I don’t care about material things.”

– Wisdom from Emily Peal

I have spent a lot of time with ‘Mommy’ Peal over the last two weeks.  She gave up a comfortable life in Temecula, California to come back to her ripped up country and help put it back together.  Since then a tiny operation with 5 borrowers has spread across most of Liberia and grown to a mid-sized organization helping 3,000 women.  The ambition of the Foundation For Women (FFW) is to continue to grow and empower 10’s of thousands more through microcredit.

This is a big day for all of us, and at FFW HQ all the girls are dressed to impress.  It is our last full day with them, these ten young women for whom I’ve come to have real affection.  Each has her own special qualities, smiles, changing hairstyles, moods, ideas, and opinions.  Each has grown in the last week.  Opened up more, laughed and cried, teased each other and with the five of us herding them around, told us their life histories.  Some have told us of being beaten.  They have revealed goals, dreams, and fears.  I think that they believe in themselves a bit more than a week ago; believe they can help shape the future of Liberia.

These beautiful young women goes, almost every night of their lives, to a quality of dwelling almost none of us can imagine calling home.  This is part of what Emily Peal and the FFW are working tirelessly to change.

Wilhelmina and Girls in Front of Christine Tour's Institute

We head to the Chrisseta Beauty Institute first to meet Christine Tour.  She began learning cosmetology in a refugee camp.  She was lucky to have a sponsor, the same kind of helping hand FFW gives through their loans.  Like our afternoon interviewee she says ‘I never forgot how I got here’.  Like other role models we’ve talked to she never gave up, never lost track of her dreams.  Wilhelmina interviews her but all the girls are here at the studio chiming in, sitting knee to knee in between the students.  We find out Christine keeps her studio going by herself.  She makes enough at the Institute to go out on the street, gain confidence of ‘no hope’ girls and give them the same training for free.  It’s her way of giving back.  She’s a great role model.

Christine Tour

Next we interview Hawa Sesay’s hero Caroline Carada.  Caroline is a sturdy woman with a no frills hair cut.  She’s dressed in jeans and works for an NGO called International Alert.  She describes herself as a simple person.  She and Hawa have had a long relationship and early on Hawa resented Caroline correcting and reprimanding her.  In the last year she came to realize that Caroline was just looking out for her and giving her good advice.  Caroline says she is very happy and surprised to have had such an impact on Hawa.  Caroline had to struggle through a teenage pregnancy and poverty, but she persevered with the help of her mom and sister, going to night school and never giving up.  She tells Hawa there is no magic to success, to be a self-starter, and to take the initiative.  She says, “You don’t learn everything by being taught.”  She speaks of her poverty and says, “There is nothing I cannot eat!”.  Lastly, she says she is not impressed by what people have unless she knows how they got it.  Good lessons all, and I think it speaks to Hawa’s maturity that she is recently mature enough to receive it.

Hawa with Her Hero Caroline Carada

Tomorrow is the “All Liberian Women’s Summit” where we meet Liberia’s president, the first elected female head of state in Africa!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships.

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. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “Women’s Leadership Conference” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.

All the days are big now, if we are going to pull this film together on time.  We need a narrator and a narration track, and Phil needs to find time, with Alicia and Sebastian and Philippa, to order and splice the various one on one interviews we did with the girls, integrate the ‘B’ roll, ‘hero’ interviews (not to mention we still need to actually do those latter interviews), weave in the visits we made to various Foundation For Women centers…and on and on.

Typical house in the Barrole Burial Ground Neighborhood

We jump in vans to go to Barrole Burial Ground.  The meeting is held in a simple clearing surrounded by their homes.  Dirt, cinder blocks, corrugated iron roofs (and windows) are the norm here as elsewhere.  No electricity (unless it’s by generator) or indoor plumbing.  I’ve been inside a few houses and they are dark in the middle of the day.  I haven’t seen a real window; what they use to fill the spaces is tied into place.  And yet, when you look at a house long enough, a beautiful woman often comes out.  That pride, and their evident optimism for the future shine through the squalor.  FFW gives them the resources to help themselves to reach that future faster.

Welcoming Committee at Barrole Burial Ground

Emily Peal addresses the women, reminding them, as she and Deborah Lindholm have told me many times, “We are not just here for the money; also to help you change your life.”  Emily always has them clap for themselves, for what they are doing.  Deborah, Ann Lovell, and Barbara Stinson all say something.  The ever present noise of babies crying and an enthusiastic rooster plays in the background.  Emily has another way to get attention and build affection.  She’ll say, “Hello-o!?”, which is always met by “Hi-i!” from her audience.  At moments like these it is easy to see a good deal of the reason that FFW works – it is the bond she has with her borrowers.  Which also might explain why efforts by non-Liberian NGO’s are very often unsuccessful.  Charles Naiwah, FFW’s program director, tells the women “When things get hard, you get hard!”.  It’s always hard here.

Ann Lovell, Emily Peal, Barbara Stinson and Charles Naiwah at Barrole Burial Ground

Next we’re off to Wroto Town.  I ask Charles what these women do.  He lists pretty much everything:  charcoal selling, hair braiding/plaiting, small restaurants and, generally the service industry.  We get to the meeting and it’s much the same as before.  Charles says, “Every time we come here we see women working hard.”  Wroto Town has 45 women in the FFW program.  I hear another often repeated mantra:  Charles says, “Women, don’t just sit there.” and they lustily reply, “Do something positive with the men!”  Their futures really do lie, heavily, on their colorful shoulders.

Charles Addressing a Rapt Audience at Wroto Town

These speeches and homilies may sound preachy to western ears, but the women at every center love them.  The encouragement FFW, and especially ‘Mommy’ Peal, gives them buoys each time.  Deborah and Ann talk the talk, but they have also proven to these women, over many years, that they walk the walk as well.  They have not written a check and gone back to cushy lives never to return, but rather have come back over and over to help.

Ann Lovell brings 6 or more suitcases with her to Liberia.  She distributes pencils and pens here, and helps supply many other centers as well as stocking FFW HQ.  She says, “I keep coming back.  I see your work.  I see you raise yourself up and I am so proud of you.”

Back at FFW HQ, we spend the rest of the day brainstorming on the narration track.  We had several options for whom to choose as narrator, but Martha Daniels spoke up and just said, “I’ll do it.”  She is the oldest of the team, has had one of the hardest roads, and is our first college graduate.  Speaking up shows leadership.  Now Martha is furiously taking notes.

Up next – the girls interview the women they admire most.  One more movie production task to cross off the list!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships, Stirring The Fire.

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. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “Women’s Leadership Conference” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.

“This is the worst day of my life again”  “I’m going somewhere better later”  Two T-shirts I saw today.  I guess they could be a kind of metaphor for life in Liberia.  Today is really bad but things are improving.  This could also apply to the lives of the three young girls and their ‘savior’ that we met today.

Sebastian of What Took You So Long

Our young women decided they wanted to make a film that could help other at risk Liberian women decide against living a life on the street or losing hope and giving in prostitution.  They really wanted to meet girls who were prostitutes or who had been prostitutes.  Sebastian Lindstrom has a contact that works with at-risk girls in West Point, one of the very worst neighborhoods in Monrovia.  He has arranged for his contact to see us today with three of her girls.  The girls did not want to be photographed.

Katie Meyler shows up punctually at 11am at Foundation For Women HQ.  She brings with her Princess (13), Musu (15) and Abigail (12).  What do child prostitutes look like?  These three are waifs, rail thin.  How could they be sex objects?  Really, how could they?

We meet in the conference room and our young women don’t know quite what to make of the three younger girls.  At 15, Musu is only two years younger than ‘our’ Asalyn Browne.  Our girls seem a little unresponsive; I think they were thinking that there’s been a mistake, that Katie had just brought three at-risk girls, but not prostitutes.  I leave to ask Emily Peal a question and come back to gospel music.  Katie has found the universal Liberian ice-breaker.  All the girls join in and Wilhelmina Miller, 24, from Totota in Bong, in particular turns out to have a wonderful, powerful voice.

Asalyne Brown

Phil decides to take everybody out to the gazebo next door.  The gazebo has a conical thatched roof and a round concrete wall underneath.  Everybody will be more relaxed and the light and angles will be better.  The 14 women sit inside with their backs to the wall while their bare feet make a circle in the middle.  They do another round of gospel singing and then Katie speaks a powerful poem she wrote in New York, earlier this year, when she heard Abigail went missing back in West Point.  She holds Abigail’s hand while she recites and Abigail hides her head.

Next, our girls have a lot of pent up questions.  ‘How old were you when went on the street?’ ‘How much did you earn?’  ‘How many men did you have to sleep with?’ ‘What did your parents do?’ ‘Did you feel bad? ‘Were you ever raped?’ ‘How does it feel?’ ‘Where did you find customers?’ ‘Did you ever get sick?’ (Yes) ‘Are you willing to change/do you want to go back to school?’ (Yes) ‘Did you use condoms?’(surprisingly, yes)

These young, pretty, underage girls sold themselves for $1-2US (in her poem Katie refers to Abigail as a ‘$2 hooker’) to whomever wanted their services at a video store where they also slept (on the floor).  They have been beaten.  They did run away from home.  Their lives have been hell.  As stories come out of them, though, they sometimes laugh or point at each other and grin.  I wonder ‘what can be so funny?’ but these girls, sadly wise way beyond their years, are still children.  They deal with reality and find humor or fun where it is possible.  Or use humor as a defense mechanism.  Whatever they tell us, Katie tells me later it is a mix of fact and fiction.  She says after months of caring for them she is only now, she feels, getting pretty much the whole truth.  When the world has abandoned you, uses you and beats you, why tell anyone the truth?

Martha Daniels

Martha Daniels, 31, from Congo Town, Monrovia speaks up.  She says she has a similar history.  She never knew her biological father.  She grew up with a stepfather.  She was beaten.  She says ‘I am not from a rich family, but I do not sell my body.’  Martha just graduated from university, with help from a Foundation For Women scholarship.  But it took her ten hard years.  Lack of money forced her to quit school in 2001.  Then the war forced her to flee to Ghana for five years.  Then she came back, found a job and began to save some money to go back to school.  She persevered.

One of the three young girls (I cannot bring myself to call them prostitutes….to me they were raped, by men and by circumstances) says she needs to get out of West Point.  She says she cannot really change until she is living somewhere else, because so many people in West Point know she is, or was, a prostitute and therefore treat her badly.  Theresa Tyee, 27, from Red Light in Monrovia offers this advice, “Say I was a prostitute, but now I’m not.”  Emily Montgomery, 20, from far away in Sinoe, says, “Get off the streets.  Go back to your parents.”  Both these comments are well meant, but following the advice could be impossible, or dangerous.

Emily Montgomery

We have a few more site visits up next.  Check back to learn more about FFW’s work!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships, Stirring The Fire.

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. They are also, along with the WTYSL team, helping young women leaders attending a “Women’s Leadership Conference” put on by FFW make a movie for their community.

“If I strive today I can be somebody tomorrow.”  Martha Daniels, 31, the first Foundation For Women in Liberia university graduate.

Curiosity of WTYSL

Phil tells the girls if we’re going to make a movie we have to have a theme.  He says it is their movie and they have to decide on the audience they want to reach and the message they want to send.  In surprisingly short order, these ten girls who’ve never met each other, decide they want to make a movie about teenage prostitution.  They want to direct it to at risk girls or girls already ‘on the street’ engaged in prostitution.  The message they want to convey is summarized by Melvina Duo,19, of Buchanan in Grand Bassa, “We want to show them there is another way to a better life”.  The twin solutions are faith and education, not necessarily in that order.  Our girls want to inspire other girls to succeed and be leaders!

The wheels are turning fast.  Before the day of the big Women’s Conference we need to reach the girls ‘hero’s’ they will be interviewing.  We also need to get some stats on prostitution in Liberia, find some prostitutes for them to talk to, write a narration track, interview each of the girls one on one, and a myriad of other tasks.  It seems daunting.  But hey, we have five and half days!  With the help of FFW staff and the WTYSL team I think we will pull it off.

The Girls Brainstorming

Theresa Tyee, 27, from nearby Red Light in Paynesville, has the interesting idea that one of them needs to dress up as a prostitute and then the others can tell her how to change her life.  Things get giggly, as the girls look each other over to see if anyone will volunteer to dress up as a prostitute.  Phil explains this would be a docudrama, not a documentary.

Next, the girls think of questions for their ‘hero’s.  They come up with ‘what was your struggle; your journey?’,  ‘How did you achieve your dreams?’, ‘What were the problems you faced?’, ‘Were you rich, or poor?’ ‘What kind of school did you attend’ and ‘What did you have to do to get a good education?’.  Each girl faces challenges every day and they want to make sure their hero’s really had to work, struggle and sacrifice to get to where they are.

When the girls get back from lunch Phil goes out to scout locations for their interviews.  There is a place across the street that looks promising but they want $20US so that’s out.  FFW HQ is too confining and anywhere close to the street is too noisy.  Finally, he finds a place……down the street, along a muddy, garbage strewn creek, in a clearing behind some hovels.  It’ll work.

Phil - Curiosity of WTYSL

Our last interview of the day is with Hawa Seysay, 23, now living in Montserrado, Monrovia.  She had said the major obstacle to achieving her dreams was war.  During the Liberian civil conflict her family fled into the bush to escape the violence.  They hid, but ran out of food.  Hawa cries as she tells us how her father went to a village simply to try to get them something to eat, and was never seen again.  We have all read stories like this in the press; it is much more ‘real’ hearing it from a dead man’s daughter.

Phil interviewing Hawa

As movie production continues the girls interview local teenagers involved in prostitution.  Stay tuned!

Posted by & filed under Field Apprenticeships, Stirring The Fire.

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.

Even though it was a national holiday, Liberian Independence Day, Emily Peal has persuaded Charles Niawah and Arthur Tamba to take us to interview two of our young women participating in the Women’s Leadership Conference at their homes as they prepare to take part in the festivities.

Caroline Gets Water

We drive out to the district of Bardnesville to visit Caroline Armah.  It is another pothole adventure with the van bouncing around like we’re in a pinball game.  Potholes here put country roads in the developed world to shame.  They are really obstacle courses, broad and deep.  Caroline’s house has a countryside feel to it.  There is a well, and a shaded lawn.  The house is very modest and dark; they have no electricity.  In a small corner just inside the door Phil films her helping her aunt make a charcoal fire to cook the meal they’ll have to celebrate.  Caroline sprinkles water she just got from the well outside onto the coal embers on the floor.  Phil wants to interview her, and Caroline looks great, but he asks her to change into the clothes she normally wears around the house.

An aside.  Liberian women dress in colors bright enough to take your breath away.  You have to remind yourself that they are poor.  I mention this impression to Emily and she talks about the difference in fabric quality and that most women buy at the lowest end of the spectrum.  I talk about it to Deborah Lindholm and she says, “They have no beauty except what they create”.  She also reminds me that when the women of Liberia marched for peace in 2003, recounted in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, they wore only white.

Phil asks Caroline why she wants to become a doctor.  She says her father died because they couldn’t treat him here in Liberia and that inspired her to work hard so that, in the future, nobody in Liberia will have to die because of lack of adequate medical attention.

Lydia Browne shows off the quilts she sells with her FFW loan

We get back in the vans, negotiate our way around the obstacles, and drive to Point Four to meet Asalyne Browne.  She lives just off the Point Four highway, and traffic rumbles right past her front door.  Asalyne’s mom is the connection to FFW.  Her mom uses her loan to buy bundles of used quilts that she displays to all the foot traffic on the highway.  She buys a bundle of quilts for about $175US, turns it over every two weeks or so, and clears about $20 per bundle.  That’s $40US per month or about $500US a year, not a bad business here.  But that’s not all.  In another room fronting the main road she has also started a free school.  The school meets five days a week for two sessions a day.  They teach computers, but they have only one desktop.  They teach sewing but two of the four machines are broken.  They also teach baking, catering, decorating and hairstyling.  Their students range in age from 18 to 50 and are 75% women.  Lydia Browne is a dynamo.  No wonder her daughter Asalyne is a leader.

Lydia Browne (Asalyne's mom) in front of her home/school

Up next – the girl’s begin production on their movie!