If you ask a Liberian about bamboo, they will tell you there’s two types: the “hard type”, and the “soft type”. The hard type they call “reef”, and the soft type they call “baboo” or “baboon”. In actuality, only the “hard type” is real bamboo; the “soft type” around here is actually a type of palm called piassaba. (Or at least, that’s what I was told by someone who sounded like an expert. I have no experience identifying plants!)
Here’s a “stick” of “reef” (actual bamboo) leaning against a palm tree in my yard:
When bamboo dries, it gets very strong and can be used as a ladder in the bush. Most regularly, it seems, it’s used to climb palm trees for the purpose of tapping palm wine or cutting palm nuts. In the above picture, if you look carefully, you can see that the areas where the smaller bamboo branches were cut make excellent ladder rungs.
Here’s a pile of the soft bamboo, or “baboon” (actually not bamboo; it’s piassaba):
Hearing Liberians say “baboon” can be a little confusing, since “baboon” is also the generic term for any kind of monkey. I can’t really hear the difference between the monkey baboon and the plant baboon — the best I can hear is that the “n” is a little bit more silent in the plant baboon — so I have to go based on context. While I was first figuring this out, my neighbor came home after a day in the bush and said he got some baboon and almost died laughing when he realized I thought he caught a monkey.
As I mentioned earlier, what they call “soft” bamboo or “baboon” isn’t bamboo at all: it’s the piassaba palm. Apparently, you can process piassaba into piassava, a water resistant fiber used to make brooms and baskets, but I haven’t seen any of that here. (Although I was told that the Germans made a big industry of it here before the second world war).
Here, I see piassaba mostly being used to weave mats (but in Liberian English, you don’t weave… you “plait”). When the hard outer shell of the piassaba is peeled off in strips and woven, it makes a heavy, sturdy mat that is most frequently used as walls in many of the the houses and outdoor showers you find around here.
Here’s a mat on the ground in process:
And a close-up of the weave:
That’s not the only pattern you can do… here’s another:
And here’s how it looks as a wall on a house:
That house above also has a thatch roof, which I think are awesome. During the hot dry season, the thatch and the woven walls allow air to circulate, keeping the house cool. During rainy season, the thatch dampens the sound of the rain hitting the roof. Most Liberians don’t share my preference — most everyone seems to want houses / buildings made from the corrugated zinc. Here’s an example of a relatively new zinc church:
Problem is, they’re super hot in dry season and the rain makes a deafening noise during rainy season. It’s also about six or seven times more expensive than thatch. But Liberians think these buildings look more modern, or in their words, “more civilized”. In fact, at my site there’s a law that requires all new buildings to use the zinc to make the area look more developed.
Anyway, I was fascinated by the process of making mats and tried it myself. I had Christian harvest some piassaba for me, and then we stripped it and started weaving:
(Before I actually wove the piassaba strips I figured out the pattern with strips of paper… that’s the piece of white paper you see lying next to the mat.)
This is all I have so far… I need to go get some more piassava!
After you’ve used the outer shell to make a mat, you can also use strips of the soft inside part to make a soft mat for sleeping on. These ones are nice because they can roll up:
When I traveled to the Gambia recently (I’ll tell you why in a future post), I noticed they used piassaba for chairs and beds:
Unfortunately, I neglected to take a picture of one of the chairs… but it’s exactly the same as a bed, just smaller. (There’s no back to it)
Apparently you can find these in Liberia too, but I haven’t seen any. At my site, our African-made chairs look more western, with backs and all.
You also see a lot of plastic lawn chairs:
People here seem to see the plastic lawn chair as the top of the line in the chair department. They’re certainly the most expensive.
You can also find benches around my site constructed with piassaba:
With my extra piassaba and some concrete blocks I found lying around my yard, I threw together a bench on my front porch so my students would have a place to sit when they would come take makeup quizzes:
Everyone thought it was hillarious that I would build an “African” bench on my porch. The fact that I did not buy something from Monrovia or at least hire someone to build something for me seems to really confuse people’s average perception of how westerners live.
But I haven’t stopped there… I also made a little bookshelf from piassaba:
And a piassaba shelf to hold my dishes:
Recently I upgraded my dish shelf to use bamboo so it would be stronger and hold more dishes. (I really need to do the same for my bookshelf).
I even cut the bamboo myself… Christian and I went into the bush and we each brought home a long stick on our head.
The fact that I would be interested in going into the bush and doing any kind of work like that really blew people’s minds. It also confused people that I would use bamboo to build something. When I told people I was using it to build a shelf, they wondered why I didn’t use wooden planks. They found it hillarious that I would choose the cheaper local option to furnish my home.
But I love it!