Murals 43 in Zorzor, Liberia

Cha – Cha – Cha – Changes.  Just like the song, I stutter – and shudder - even saying the word.  Same old, same old is just so much easier to handle.  It’s even one less syllable!  But, like it or not, life is full of cha – cha – cha – changes.  It’s inevitable!  And, there were certainly a lot of those cha – cha – cha – changes from the moment I arrived in Liberia.

Cha – cha – cha – change number one happened before entering the airport.  Ebola is still fresh on the minds of Liberian health workers, government officials, and citizens.  Before entering public buildings (like the airport), everyone needed to first wash their hands.  Towels and soap might have been a nice touch.  It didn’t happen, but I entered Liberia with clean hands – until I put them in my pockets to dry them off.

Same Old, Same Old.  Getting my luggage in the baggage claim area was closer to the old nightmare.  The room was entirely too small.  People were lined up three to five bodies deep.  Even though I saw my luggage going around, it was a struggle to break through the crowd and pull out my trusty old Goodwill suitcase.  Hmmm . . . possibly I’d be flexible enough to not mind a cha – cha – cha – change at the airport?

CHA – CHA – CHA – CHANGES!  I didn’t recognize Monrovia.  It was like visiting the place for the first time – including my old stomping grounds around the Peace Corps Office in the Sinkor neighborhood.  I heard one American describe Sinkor as the “new restaurant neighborhood”.  There was no restaurant neighborhood in my Liberia!  And, my experience certainly included no staying at hotels that knew what an official U.S. stipend was.  Actually, I don’t think I ever stayed in a hotel in Liberia.  This time, it was too much to mention without embarrassment, and I certainly didn’t get what I paid for.

Same Old, Same Old.  Before going up country, it was standard operating procedure to go to the grocery store to gather up supplies that just couldn’t be found on site.  My list wasn’t all that big.  I usually looked for cocoa powder for no-bake cookies and chocolate cake.  So, before going to Zorzor, I washed my hands and went into the grocery store.  My guide said there was almost nothing available in Zorzor.  I didn’t fully believe him until I actually arrived in town.  He was right.  Shopping was so very limited.  I’m very thankful I stocked up on oatmeal, some kind of margarine substitute (that mysteriously didn’t seem to melt in the heat), bread, peanut butter, and bottled water.

Cha – cha – cha – changes.  The road from Monrovia to Gbarnga was always fairly nice.  There were bumps along the way.  On my very first trip into the interior, we hit one bump and the door of the van fell off.  I was so thankful not to be seated by that missing door.  The road was recently worked on by the Chinese, and a lot of it was simply fantastic.  But, almost the entire way to Gbarnga (about 100 miles), I noticed that there was no longer any brush growing right up next to the edge of the road.

I thought about that brush for a very specific reason.

Looking to the left and right in a time of need
In my African experience, everybody talked about diarrhea.  Everybody had it at one time or another.  Really, a whole lot more than one time!  We talk about the colors, smells, texture, cramps, and threw around names like shigella and giardia.  Nobody back home ever talks about these kind of things.  But, in Africa, diarrhea is your friend.  If you don’t want to go to some function, just tell people you have diarrhea.  Everybody understands the problem.  Nobody will ever blame you for not attending.

Of course, if you talk about diarrhea, you’re also going to have mishaps to share.   I had a massive attack of cramps one time while seated in the back of a crowded van on the way to Gbarnga.  And, this is why I remember the brush along the roadside so clearly.  I didn’t want to disturb the rest of the people in the van.  But, if immediate action wasn’t taken, there was going to be a smell in the van that would disturb everyone a whole lot longer.  Another volunteer called out to the driver and said he needed to stop right away.  I stumbled out of the van, eternally grateful to find bushes right up next to the road.  It’s one thing to have a dire diarrhea story when everyone in the van knows exactly what’s happening.  It would have been a whole other level of embarrassment if there hadn’t been bushes around to hide my shame and other things.

Same Old. Same Old.  When I rode in from the airport, I heard some Americans talking about restaurants, and where to get the best sushi, and what was overpriced.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  I wouldn’t have the same African experience as those people.  I wanted to eat a local cook shops and enjoy Liberian food. We stopped for lunch in Gbarnga.  We didn’t have the cassava leaves that I especially wanted.  There was no beans gravy, palm butter, or jollof rice.  But, the dish certainly had the hot pepper that I remembered.  That pepper used to make me cry every time I ate.  Other people, well, let’s just say they would keep their eyes open in search of brush along the roadside.  Fortunately, the road after Gbarnga was not paved.  There was all kind of brush along the road if nature ever called my name.  Even more fortunately, nature never called and I arrived at the Zorzor Rural Teacher Training Institute safe, smiling, and with nothing even close to a cramp.

Usually, I get the theme for my murals by talking to some kind of administrators.  That didn’t happen in Zorzor.  Any and all authority figures abandoned me as I met with the dozen or so painters I was to work with.  I had no idea what kind of theme they’d come up with.  I was very pleasantly surprised. Their concerns for their community could be summed up in three categories.  All of which are considered pretty much basics back home, but not in Zorzor.

Electricity     I’m not sure how much electricity was in the actual town of Zorzor.  I was located in the teacher training institute outside of Zorzor in neighboring Fissebu.  Our electricity ran on a campus generator.  It was 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM. Those hours just didn’t fit my lifestyle at all!  In the evening, we had electricity from 7:00 PM to 11:00 PM.

Education     Lights would allow children more opportunities to read and the community wanted to encourage this.  Everyone saw the value of both academic and vocational education.  It didn’t matter if dad was a teacher or carpenter or if mom stayed home with the children, education could and would benefit their lives.

Water     It didn’t appear that any of the buildings on campus had running water.  The supply of fresh water came from community hand pumps across campus.  That’s the way life worked when I was in Zwedru, so long ago.  It’s one of the cha – cha – cha – changes that I would have loved to witness.  And, certainly since Ebola, everyone in Liberia knows the value of clean hands.

So, this was the information that was woven into the mural design.  The concepts were illustrated inside the letters that spelled Zorzor.  However, those letters aren’t obvious.  You will need to study the design a while to find the spelling.

I enjoy the mural experience all over the planet, but Africa is always special to me.  The day started with an African twist.  Paint needed to be shaken.  I gave the cans to my crew and asked my artists to shake them with an African dance. I wish I could move the way they did.  And, they didn’t need any music to bust a groove.  But later in the day, there was also music.  I only remember one song in English, but it couldn’t have been a more perfect time to hear “We Are the World”.

The mural in Zorzor was faster and smoother than most projects.  And, there was a very good reason for this.  Zorzor had two professional sign painters in the town.  Both of them helped on the project.  I passed jobs along to them like gradual blending around the light bulb, the African shirt design, details on an unknown group of vegetables, and even some outlining.  I almost never find anyone who can outline to my satisfaction.  It sort of makes me the indispensable artist.  However, I wasn’t as indispensable on this project.  The extra help in Zorzor gave me a little extra time to explore my African environment.