Night in Ziahtown

night in ziahTHWACLANG! There’s a clatter and bang right over my shoulder as I step outside. An enormous flying horned beetle has flung itself against the metal grating over the open window, trying desperately to get at the light inside. It bounces off, circles briefly, then tries again with another clanging THWACK! Two other beetles, taking a break from their futile pastime, rest on the windowsill. A girl – is this Lu? There are so many new faces here! – asks if I can reach one of the beetles. I gently pry it off its perch and give it to her; she takes it away in her hands, clearly pleased.

We’re divebombed by more of these self-propelled insect projectiles a few minutes later while sitting under the palava hut, over a dinner of rice, lentils and palm butter.

“Oh yeah,” says Raj, “Folks here eat them – it’s a local delicacy.”

I look back to the window where the girl is now on tip-toes, trying to reach the remaining beetle on the upper sill, and wonder how many other little things I’m completely misreading about my time here – I know the beetles haven’t been the first.

PatiencePatience is the baker of Ziah town. Her shop – a wooden counter fronting two outdoor ovens ingeniously constructed from 55 gallon drums – sits near the hub of the four dirt “roads” that branch out to connect the larger villages of Konobo. She is larger than life, a radiant full-bodied woman whose smile carries both calm authority and mischief; we’ve walked into town this evening to buy some bread from her for tomorrow’s journey.

Mr. Horace (the artist) and Patience (the baker)“Come with me,” she says in a sly voice after Subarna introduces us, “I’ve got a gift for you.” I look over my shoulder for guidance from Subarna and Jenny, but they look non-committal as Patience takes my hand and leads me back, behind the ovens to the front door of a small mud brick house where her daughters are cleaning vegetable greens. Her husband Isaac – “Mr. Horace” greets me and joins the conspiracy: “Ah yes, wait here” – and he disappears to the back room. Two minutes later, I’m sporting my brand new “I got this shirt from Ziah Town” tee, locally designed by Mr. Horace himself, Ziah’s entrepreneurial graphic designer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe town, what there is of it, comes alive at night. Generators rumble behind the dozen or so buildings on “Main Street”. Loud pop music blares from the brightly-lit storefront on the corner, which apparently doubles as the town’s night club. Patience serves up shortbread and addictive challah-like rolls to evening customers. Next door, the town’s gas station (remember that gas is mostly sold in jars around here) has branched out into a new line of business: by dint of a cost-sharing deal with Last Mile, Cellcom has put up a cell tower on the hill at the edge of town, and residents for a dozen miles around are voracious about their new-found connectivity. They’re buying up cell phones and pre-pay scratch cards, and the enterprising young man with the gas jars is happy to supply them.

It’s hard to overestimate the effect that tower, on the hill next to the clinic, will have on this community.  A few years ago, I heard Leila Jaha, the founder of SamaSource, declare that Maslow was wrong – the base of the hierarchy of human needs was not food, water or physical security, it was connection, human contact. The tower has only been up for three weeks, but Subarna says the revolution in how people communicate, and think about communication, is already in full swing. A full day’s walk can be replaced by a 30-second phone call. Lifesaving, in the case of many medical problems.

Anyhow. Over dinner, back under the palava at Last Mile quarters, we’re eating pumpkin and lentils and I realize that it’s Halloween. Abraham offers around some more palm wine; the Irish call whisky “Water of Life”; in Liberia, palm wine is called “From God to Man”. Same sentiment, same acquired taste, I think. I take a little – just a little. I’ve celebrated this Halloween in some unusual places – Antarctica, a Tokyo subway. No one’s dressed up here, but even without the palm wine, this has already been a night to remember.

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