Sunday, October 28, 2007

Handshakes and Applauding

First, let me preface this entry with the disclaimer that anyone living in (or who has ever lived in) West Africa will find this a bit ridiculous.

Second, I feel perfectly comfortable saying that, unequivocally, the Liberian adaptation of the everyday handshake and a round of applause ... just plain rocks, and it needs to be shared with those who haven't yet experienced it.

The Liberian handshake is one of the cultural goodies you find right as you step off the plane. It's a full arm process that involves the following:

1 - grasp the hand of your counterpart:

2 - slide into a thumb-to-thumb grip:

3 - pull back to clutch the finger tips of your counterpart:

4 - release with a loud snap of the middle fingers:

Note that the handshake can be abbreviated by jumping straight from the quick hand shake to the snap.

Perhaps the best thing about this handshake, and the fact that I found most surprising, is that it is uniformly universal, throughout much of West Africa, at least. Just as you would snap fingers with your neighbor, or doorman, or local "ground pea" (peanuts are called ground peas) vendor... you would also snap fingers with a County Superintendent (the equivalent of a state governor), a Senator, Minister, or... well, I'm unsure as to whether you would initiate a snap after a handshake with President Ellen.... But you would definitely be exceedingly flattered if she did so with you.

The Liberian applause is equally awesome - and it, too, is a bit of a production (notice the pattern of dramatic performances).

As I've seen it observed, among the crowd there is typically an applause leader. This person takes it upon him or herself to call everyone's attention. Then, slowly, and quietly at first, he or she rubs his/her hands together. As the energy builds the leader calls out the person for whom the commendation is intended, thanks them for whatever it is they did, counts out a series of claps which the crowd follows - then "pushes" or "tosses" the good energy to the person receiving the applause. This you have to see to fully appreciate. The below clip is from a recent employee appreciation outing to Barnes Beach (just southeast of Monrovia).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


“Hey missy, what’s your name?” This, from a boy of maybe seven years old. I was walking past the American Embassy, returning from a lunch meeting at the Crystal Ocean View Hotel. He was carrying a very big jug of water.

“My name’s Amanda, what’s yours?”

“Me? My name’s Bochalo [at least that’s what I heard, I could be wrong]. I like your form, missy.”

“You’re too little to like my form.” How else do you respond to a seven year old?

“I could be good for you missy.”

No comment.


I’ve developed this very awkward way of lighting my oven. I have a gas stove, but the lighter doesn’t work and the knob to control the amount of gas that comes from beneath the burner is broken… so inevitably the gas comes out full blast. My technique, therefore, has been to have a match ready, turn the gas on, duck beneath the level of the stove and toss the match towards the gas... hoping not to singe my hair/eyebrows/self.

One of my flat mates, an UNMIL military observer, laughed to no end as he witnessed me doing this.

After showing me a slightly safer stove top strategy (of placing the match on the burner, then starting the gas), he also taught me my new favorite phrase:

WAWA. WAWA stands for West Africa Wins Again - not the football frat, for all us Hopkins alums, or the chain convenience store for all those in living in the mid-Atlantic.

WAWA should be used to express the frustration that comes with the common inconveniences of life in Liberia (and neighboring states).

“For example,” he explained, “If, after the end of a long day working outside in the heat and humidity, you come home for a shower and the water’s been turned off, that’s a WAWA situation.”

Or, you come home all excited that you found fresh apples at the grocery store… but then you find a worm in three out of four of them.

Or, you pay 10 USD for a sandwich at a hotel restaurant (which would cost 3 USD anywhere else) just so you can use their Internet… but the moment you turn the computer on the power goes out.


Malaria, and the curative powers of cornflakes

Yup, cornflakes. Well, maybe it was less the cornflakes and more the 1250 mg of Larium and 30+ hours of sleep that actually did the trick. Regardless, only four days after testing positive for Malaria (of which strain, I'm unsure) I felt almost 100%.

Leading up to Wednesday of that week, my work schedule had been pretty busy and sleep schedule a bit erratic. When I lay down Wednesday night at about 8, I assumed I just needed a few extra hours of rest. But, after a sleepless night of a 101 temp, chills, body aches, and a very upset stomach, I had an inkling I'd received an unfortunate mosquito bite.

At roughly 8 am the next morning, I dragged myself to the car and our driver "carried" (the operative term in Liberia for "drive" or "bring" is "carry," and variations thereof) me directly to a local hospital. There I met an American doctor I knew working at the facility who helped me hobble towards the lab in the in the maternity ward to get a malaria smear. I remember taking a seat in the lab next to smiling, older lady who eyed me quite curiously.

I vaguely remember hearing the positive results and wobbling my way to the car, and eventually the spare bedroom in a friends apartment just a couple blocks away. I slept from about 9:30 Thursday morning to maybe 3:30 Friday afternoon, at which time I made my way back to my apartment and slept some more.

All in all, it was draining, but short-lived – definitely not the drawn out discomfort of getting shingles in Bosnia. However, I can’t imagine malaria being a routine concern. I have a friend here who said he gets “the malaria” about three times a year. It comes in different strains (and varying degrees of intensity) and can cause long-term liver damage if contracted multiple times. Not good news.

While the side effects of the prophylaxis are a bit intimidating, I think from here on out I’ll risk it with Malarone…