Saturday, June 8, 2013

Land Of Bo E, Me And Rey

Monrovia Liberia, on the coast of West Africa is an exceedingly dreary city; dismay sets in at first sight. Murtaza Bhimani, my colleague, friend and CAI representative for Africa is with me; we are here for due diligence on a school project for poor Muslim children. It is a twelve-hour flight from Dar to Nairobi to Accra to Monrovia so my eyes smart from lack of sleep; we began at 2:30 AM. I must say Kenya Airline is mighty impressive with her on time schedule, better than Emirates economy seating and yummy Muslim meals.

Liberia is a country founded by ex-slaves from the United States. It is hard to believe this country attained independence over hundred years ago. Monrovia, the capital, is a nondescript eyesore. Apart from roads that are more reasonable than I have seen in other parts of Africa, Liberia seems years behind in progress or development. This country has gone through almost two decades of brutal and bloody conflict so I did not anticipate Dubai, but this is a downer. Circa four million Liberians are sixty percent Christian, twenty Muslims and balance local religions. Five percent of Muslims, some forty thousand, follow Ahle Tasshayyo madhab. Strangely, there is not a single Shia mosque in whole of Liberia, the Lebanese have built themselves a decent Husseiniyya.

Sheykh Askari, Mohammed Bah and Abulrehman Rogers, our guides are at the tiny, disordered, sweaty, smelly and crowded airport to greet us. We ride in Sheykh Askari’s hot, rickety Tata SUV an hour to the city; it is so hot and super humid, I am afraid I will leave embarrassing marks on the car seat with sweat drippings through my undies! The countryside is not unlike rural Tanzania, except looks poorer. Our Lebanese owned hotel is shabby but clean and we can be sure of being fed halal stuff.

After a concise briefing of our four-day agenda, we are left alone to retire for the night; we do just that since we are bushed out from our unholy two thirty AM start from Dar to Nairobi to Accra to Monrovia flight that takes fifteen hours. Just when slumber comes, our hosts, a group of Lebanese businessmen, come calling. There are about five thousand Lebanese in Liberia, old-timers, in various businesses, about sixty percent Shia; the Lebanese control Liberia’s commerce bloodline. Our hosts welcome us to Liberia and offer local logistics; they leave.

Next day is Sunday, the Lords day, of rest, literally. There can be no commerce on Sunday in Liberia, by law; violators are fined. So shops and restaurants are shuttered shut. Our guides take us around depressing Monrovia, places with names from southern United States abound. Liberians drive on the correct, right side of the road, they measure in pounds not kilos and gas is not petrol. Liberia has no power. Really. The entire country runs on diesel generators; I shudder to think of the total impact on her economy.

The UN has a major presence here, keeping the peace; they are everywhere. We see the Blue Berets everywhere, even female Indian soldiers. Indian businesses have a sizable presence as well, in grocery, drugstore and building material trade; storefront signs of Setty Brothers, Shanti and Choitirams dot almost all areas. Foreign embassies have choice locale placements, the US most prominent and formidable; I doubt if an ant can penetrate the fortress without serious consequences. Since there is very little we can do this day, we are left alone very early. After a very salty dinner of beef fried rice that rapidly elevates my hypertension, we retire early.

Monday dawns and I have second thoughts about the hotel. Although clean, it has very unstable power supply that plays havoc to the Internet service. Now, I can survive without a lot of Allah’s blessing, but not the Internet. Seeing my consternation, Sheykh Askary discretely calls out hosts and arranges a move to an upscale hotel; we will move there at the end of the day. The sheikh says we will be happy there, says the Internet connection is ver fi (more on this later). Our Lebanese hosts also offer us their air-conditioned SUV that makes moving around much easier.

Our first visit is to Jaffery Islamic English School run by Sheykh Askari and his group. The school is in a dilapidated building on a busy poor street, sandwiched betwixt two similar buildings; the converted apartment building has no lights. Children sit in dingy coop size rooms but the output is surprisingly remarkable; we are super impressed with their eagerness, intelligence and comprehension. Students jump to their feet with salawaat and recitation of dua e faraj; boy, what a delight. I ask six-year-old Zainab to solve a rather complex, for a six year old I think, multiplication problem; she takes less than five seconds to tap the blackboard three times and bingo, its done. Murtaza tries a more complex one; Zainab gives the problem the same contemptuous treatment. When we applaud her, she gives us a nonplused look of chill dudes, what is the big deal!?   

We then visit a land where Sheykh Askari’s team proposes to build a ten-classroom school in the outskirts of Monrovia; CAI will finance this project insha’Allah. A small mosque is also in the plans. Since it is past lunch, I am starved after salaat at a local mosque. When I eye a vendor with boiled eggs, my tummy rumbles in anticipation and request lunch of boiled eggs. Liberians speak what is supposed to be English but you’d be hard pressed to comprehend a word of it. They lop off the last few letters of most words and cocktail it with local accents and tones, making the language virtually incomprehensible. Sheykh Askari calls out U ha bo e and sal? Do you have boiled eggs and salt? Presto, we learn new English. We are hungry, so the bo e wi sal tastes delicious. When we check into the upgraded all chrome and glass and tile Royal Grand Hotel, I have an instant toothache when the receptionist quote the rate of US Dollars Three Hundred Fifty plus plus. Since it is booked and paid for by our Lebanese hosts, we cannot back out. It is a nice hotel with excellent Internet connection, bad and expensive food; no hotel room is worth paying so much.

We travel two hours to Bo Waterside towards the Sierra Leone border next day; Sheykh Askari’s hometown. He runs a rundown school in a shockingly ramshackle oven; I am eager to get out of the steamy classrooms. Children urinate openly, there is no water; teachers complain about the school structure and very limited limited resources. CAI has no funds for more schools but both Murtaza and I cannot take the miserable conditions. We sit with village elders after zohor and offer them a partnership proposal. CAI will provide them with materials to construct a small school if they contribute the labor; village elders eagerly accept. I am left with wrecking my brains how to raise the funds. We briefly cross into Sierra Leone without passports, using Sheykh Askari’s influence. I am pretty apprehensive; the last thing I want is to spend time in a local jail but it works. We inspect the land donated by village elders for the new school and return to Monrovia.

Where do we eat? There are no halal restaurants in Monrovia and all others cater for alcohol. We end up going to a local halal place deep into the city where we have some excellent me and rey (meat and rice). Murtaza is a bit wary of eating at this dingy place but hunger takes over and we eat to our fill. We meet with our Lebanese hosts later that night and finalize CAI commitments, logistics and safeguards for the two schools and a possible mosque. We return to Dar es Salaam next day, via Accra and Nairobi. Kenya Airways disappoints; it is delayed two plus hours out of Manrovia so we miss our connection in Nairobi; it takes nearly twenty-four hours to reach Dar.

Alhamd’Allah, I am bountifully blessed with escapades like this, where CAI and her donors make meaningful difference in poor children through education opportunities, so they can live decently, become honest and tolerant Muslims, with meaningful and productive lives insha’Allah. We do our part; may Allah (S) accept our small offerings for His pleasure.

You may want to view some photos of our trip to Liberia here.

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