Monday, March 30, 2009

The Silent Treatment

This will be a very quiet week, by design. Renita is off to a center called The Hermitage. The center is little more than a collection of humble buildings nestled in the hills and moraines of southern Michigan near Three Rivers. She is taking time out of her hectic schedule to do something unusual but completely necessary. Its called a silent retreat. From Monday morning until Friday morning, she will not utter more than a handful of words, and except for meals, she will remain in solitude. She will spend the time in reflection, meditation and quiet conversation with God. Mostly she will simply listen.

Renita and I have both participated in silent retreats during our marriage, and we try to build quiet into different parts of our lives. This is the first opportunity for either of us to actually go someplace in four years. I've learned to take advantage of her absence by quieting down a bit myself. The kids are in school until 3:30, so I have the day to use in different ways than I normally would.

I believe most people would benefit from intentionally seeking extended periods of quiet. Most people are pretty noisy, I think by nature. By noisy, I don't necessarily mean verbally, but rather noisy internally, as if our minds have no "Off" switch. There is a steady stream in the mind, asking, "Now what is there to do?" or "What's next?" For some of us, quiet is unacceptable, and for others, it is downright terrifying. Most of us literally do not know how to quiet down for more than a few moments at a time, and even if we did, we'd choose not to.

Among my greatest mentors of silence are the Desert Fathers. The Fathers-- and Mothers-- were groups of Christians who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries in the deserts of Egypt. They are remembered today for their extreme asceticism and their remarkable words. Some of their sayings are like Zen Koans, beyond rational analysis or critique, at once inaccessible and yet immediate and powerful. Other sayings speak directly to the heart and mind, and refresh the soul. They spoke about holiness, sacrifice, true spirituality, love-- and the deep wisdom found in silence. Here are two of the thousands of their sayings, and two of my favorites:

A certain brother went to Abba Moses in Scete and asked him to speak a word. The elder said to him, “Go and sit ‎in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”‎

Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, 'Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.' The old man said to them, 'If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.'


After her retreat, Renita is immediately back to the noise-- she leaves from the center to spend the weekend in Iowa speaking to groups for Partners Worldwide. She returns Sunday. I know that we will have stories to tell each other, and wisdom to share-- news from the silence.

The Hermitage. If you were not looking for it, you'd never know it was there.

Early Spring in Michigan on the grounds of the center. The leafless trees wait, the garden boxes wait. A nice place to walk.

A quiet place to hear a Voice.

Renita as I left her in her room. I miss you already, but this parting is very good. Seeya Sunday.

If you would like to connect with The Hermitage yourself, you can visit them online at

Monday, March 23, 2009

West African Cotton:
Stephen's Request

I mentioned before that my work is ramping up in intensity, even if I have to wait to get to West Africa to enjoy all of it. Take last week for instance. The Team Leader for CRWRC West Africa, Mary Crickmore, asked me to write a short article for other team members that they could send to their North American constituents. She asked me to write about the international justice issues surrounding US cotton subsidies. Well, I didn’t know anything about the international justice issues surrounding US cotton subsidies. They don't grow cotton in Liberia, and I don’t subscribe to The Fabric of Our Lives magazine. So I did some homework.

I discovered that US cotton subsidies are a huge justice issue in West Africa—and even in the US. It seems that they benefit the few-- primarily large corporate farms and their wealthy owners-- at the expense of growers everywhere. The top 10% of US cotton-subsidy recipients receive almost 80% of the money (over $3 billion a year), leaving most US cotton growers out of the equation. And that lopsided US equation has a devistating impact in West Africa. For American cotton farmers (whose average net worth is
about $800,000) the subsidies could be the difference between growing cotton and growing something else, or between farming and pursuing a different line of work, if they can't compete without taxpayer support. For African farmers who earn something like $800 a year, the subsidies can be the difference between eating and starving.
So I wrote the article, which Mary read and shortened. What follows is our joint effort.
Stephen Traore is a cotton farmer in the Fana district of Mali. He works hard to feed his family of 15 children and grandchildren. He also takes the time to time serve as a lay leader in his local Evangelical congregation and the local district of over 23 churches. When CRWRC staff visited Stephen’s farm, he asked us to translate and transmit this message to the church in the US:

“I greet American people, I thank American people. I am very happy that you are asking about our difficulties in Africa. You can help us improve the price of cotton, so that we and the American people can be neighbors, so that we can send our children to school. Today, there are many difficulties in Africa, because of the low price of cotton, especially in my village. It’s been two years and now and we still have not gotten the money we are supposed to get for the cotton. We are very happy for your visit. Please take our message to your people in America. That is all. In the name of God, we thank you.”

Stephen (in blue) and Paul Traore in their cotton field.

Let us explain why Stephen is concerned. He and all the hard working farmers like him in the cotton growing areas of Mali are negatively affected by globalization,and in particular US farm policy. They grow grain which they eat, plus cotton to sell for cash so they can buy fish, meat and vegetables, clothing and shoes, and pay school fees. The depressed price of cotton means their families are hungrier, and provisions are scarcer.

This is how US policy has impact across the ocean: the US government pays US corporate cotton growers for their cotton regardless of the demand. Ostensibly, these subsidies exist to protect American farmers from competitive markets, but in reality subsidies encourage growers to grow as much cotton as possible, much more than the US market can use. The surplus cotton gets dumped onto world markets, which drive prices down everywhere—including West Africa.

As he showed CRWRC staff his farm, Stephen said, “Yes, I have heard of the politics of cotton in Mali, Burkina Faso, China, and USA. The village was told by the company that buys the cotton to only have small or medium cotton fields since the price is low and not all may be bought. In the past I have had 12 or more acres of cotton planted but am down to 9 acres this year. Others have also reduced or have stopped growing cotton altogether.” We asked, “If the cotton prices were better, what would be the first thing that you would do or buy?” Stephen’s answer was immediate and simple. “Food. Meat.”

Both Democrat and Republicans leaders have supported ending cotton subsidies, and President Obama’s proposed budget sets new limits on direct payments to cotton producers. But the National Cotton Council of America (NCC) is lobbying hard to maintain the subsidies. The NCC succeeded in getting cotton subsidies restored in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. The time could not be better for you to act and make a difference. Write or email your US Senate and House Representatives and tell them you support the limits on payments to cotton producers. Encourage them to push for legislation that is fair for everyone. Our tax support of American agro-business should not do harm to Africans struggling to feed their families.

Stephen and a few of the family members whose lives depend upon fair cotton trade.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Get on Schedule, Reed
Ok, my goal is put out a blog at least once a week. In the past, my deadline was at least every Monday, but after switching blogs, its has slipped to Thursdays, or Fridays or even Saturdays. Posting has been a challenge because we are in this transition period, and I'm guessing most of you do not tune in to follow us around Grand Rapids. Ah, but glory be, we've started working on some cool stuff and I'm coming up with topics worthy you, my brilliant and insightful readers.

So beginning Monday, I'm back on schedule. Expect a post weekly or more as things develop. Thanks for your loyalty and patience.

Yers Trooly

Friday, March 13, 2009

Candidate for a Coffee Table Book

Cooking Hut Love

If you paid real close attention to our Reeds in Liberia blog, or better yet, if you have spent time in rural Liberia, you know something about West African villages, and something about community huts. In almost every village, there are at least two huts used by anybody and everybody. The most famous is the palaver hut, which is an open structure used for talking, hanging out, and especially for meetings. The hut is often a place where neighbors or family members come to lay disputes before community leaders or chiefs in order to reach resolution. The palaver hut has become something of a metaphor for peacebuilding, because out of chaos and noise (palaver), comes resolution and peace.

Less famous, but probably much more popular, is the cooking hut. If the palaver hut is the symbol of desire for harmony, the humble cooking hut is the place to where, since childhood, the West African villager has looked with undying hope. Hope that Grandmother or Aunt or Mother will soon arrive and begin pounding palm nuts or cassava, hope that steam will soon rise from the rice on the coal pot, hope that a hungry belly will once again feel full. But more than a metaphor, it is a real place it is where real people get together everyday, cook what they have and make it taste great, and share it with whoever is around. It is the center of human life in West Africa.

So, whenever I visited a village, if I could, I took pictures of the community huts. Every one is different, a unique jewel in hidden places. I think a book of pictures palaver huts or cooking huts and their people is a great idea, but for now, I offer you a sampler: Cooking huts I have known and loved.

We start with a couple of huts in Johnson Town. The one above has a foot high mud "wall" or lip of sorts, mostly to provide protection from the rain during the wet season. Its late morning, so the hut stands empty.

The second Johnson Town hut was nicely shaded. If you look close, you see the fat gray peafowl on the left.

Kakata. The Anderson and Zar clan gather for a meal. A very open, very basic cooking hut just outside of town. You can tell this is close to town, with amenities like clotheslines and chairs.

Note the way the area surrounding this Koon Town hut has been washed away by the rains. The pathway has dropped about a foot.

In some part of Liberia, the mud walls are crafted to look rounded and almost soft. This one is a cooking hut with a small room that served as a home.

Cooking huts become a bustle of activity in the early afternoon. Mothers with babes, dogs with tongues hanging, and little kids wondering, "What are you looking at?" Renita in the background. This is at Bong Mines.

It is interesting to note the social pecking order. Table cloth-honored guests in the hut with the men, women and young people wait "outside" for turn to eat.

On the way from Rivercess. A nice October day.

Outside of Buchanan. The village is expanding a bit, so a new, temporary hut is in action on the left.

The Children Waiting. In Todee, there are several huts in close proximity. It is not time to eat, but the kids are bored (no school here) and hungry, so here they wait.

...and wait...

...and wait.
Eventually someone shows up. This is one of my favorite cooking huts. Its in Koon Town.

Same hut, better angle. There is something so real, so close to the earth here. Renita likes this image so much, she uses it as her desktop picture. Keeps things in perspective.

In Gbaye's Town. A heavy layer of palm branches and ditches protect from the wet season, but here in the dry season, everything is dusty.

Even in communities with zinc roofs over solid houses, there is a cooking hut in the back, or at least an attached open "kitchen." Since the method of cooking is charcoal, outdoor cooking is the only way to go. This one has a great roof and a nice, cooked-in look.

I don't know, but there is something evocative about an empty cooking hut. One of my favorites, from Kakata.

...And the winner is--- Gbaye's Town cooking hut! Love this shot. You can just tell by looking, this is where the action is every morning and afternoon. This is the hearth of Liberia.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Failing Henry

It was early in the morning for us, maybe 7:30am. We were slowly rousing our sleepy selves, filling the shower bags, putting on a pot of water for some Nescafe', and sweltering as usual in mid 70F dew points and air temps in the low 80's. So when the banging came, we reacted as we had been conditioned of late-- with a whine and a grumble. "Too early!" I shouted out the window, but I was kidding myself if I thought that would make any difference. On the other side of the steel door in the glass shard-covered eight foot wall, I could hear the shouted response-- which, muffled by the barrier and in Liberian English, was unintelligible to us. His continued banging and calling could only mean that the only way this guy was leaving was if I went out there, unlocked the padlock, worked the rusty latch back and forth, back and forth, until it came free and I opened the door. Mumbling something about, "It never ends..", barefoot in my boxers, I went to the gate and muscled it open.

Standing before me was a small, middle aged man, about 5'6", slight of build (not unusual by Liberian standards), with that same urgent, pleading look we had seen in the gateway many times before...

... the 80-90 year old woman, Sarah, who periodically rapped on the door to beg for food... ("Oh papa O, Oh, papa O," she called in thanks when we filled her bags...)

...the guys with the spray pumps on their backs, offering to kill all the fire ants in our yard for $35.00, begging that we hire them...

... the mothers who had heard we had helped some kids go to school, and would we please help their children...

... the children of all ages who were hungry and wanted some food...

... the women who had heard about loans for businesses and hoped we could give them one...

... the seventeen year old girl, frantic that it was 9:30pm, and her 6 year old brother was missing, last seen at the lagoon-- do we have any flashlights? (We searched the lagoon together and found only his flip-flops on the beach. His body surfaced the next day)...

... the boys and girls with infected hands, feet, ankles, faces...

... the young couple, who brought their sick infant to us because she wasn't eating...

So, the man standing at our door that morning was just another in a long line of desperate-looking people with yet another request. He handed me a note. He was delivering a message from a man we knew as Henry. Henry, with his wife Mary, had been the manager of an orphanage down the road, one that he could not run properly. The children were unclothed, undernourished and getting very sick. We helped him close the orphanage and reunite children with families or get them better care. So I read Henry's note. It said "Dear Mr. Reed, please help. I am very sick. I cannot move my legs or feel my hands. Please come and help me."

It was not what I wanted to read right then. It was another poor man in with another need who wanted me to come and spend my morning doing something other than I had planned. I looked at the man who gave me the note. I shook my head. I said to him, "There is nothing I can do. I am not a doctor. Tell Henry he needs to see a doctor." The man at the gate was insistent. "I will take you to him. Please come." Annoyed that he was pushing, I settled the matter. "No, I said. I mean it. It makes no sense for me to go there. I do not know you. And I cannot help." We looked at each other for a second or two more, then he took a step back, with a confused and disappointed look on his face. I closed the gate, and got back into the morning.

Two days later, Henry died.

Too late, I found out where he lived and drove to his house. Too late, I visited his family and told them I was sorry for their loss, and sorry that I did not visit him when he asked me to. Maybe I could have helped. Maybe I couldn't have helped. But I could have been there. Too late. I imagined myself as the rich man who passed the Samaritan in need on the road. I had blown it, and while I didn't exactly believe that I could somehow have saved Henry, I knew I had reason to feel guilty. I was guilty. I had I missed-- by choice-- an opportunity to simply be Jesus to a terrified man facing his own death. I was overwhelmed by my capacity for cold, cruel ugliness.

That was as bad as it got in Liberia for me. I would see more sickness and death in the coming months and years until we left. Hundreds more would come to the gate. Every single story, even if a lie, would be a legitimate cry for help by someone who was just trying figure out how to ease the burden of crushing poverty. We still said no to some, yes to others. We tried to make decisions based on compassionate and responsible criteria. We sometimes asked people to work or in some way "pay back" or "show results" for what they were seeking. And sometimes we just gave because, after all, how does one say no to an 80 year old hungry Liberian woman? For her, life has said no so often, I just did not have the authority to say it again. But I think it was the death of Henry, more than anything else, that taught me when to say yes and when to say no, and mostly, to make sure I was listening to Jesus when I said it. I don't want to be on the wrong side of "no" ever again.

Henry died in early spring, 2006. He was in his forties. He never got a diagnosis. His wife Mary died two months later from a sudden, unexplained liver failure. The couple that knew they couldn't care for a group of orphans left the world four of their own.