02 December 2010

Endless Summer

Apparently, it is now December. I am not at all convinced.

I didn’t grow up in a particularly wintry place, but there was always enough of a cold snap to freeze the top few inches in the water troughs and to worry the whole valley about frozen citrus crops. I didn’t have to live with the daily hassle of snow, but could easily find some within an hour whenever the urge hit. It appears that even that moderate amount of winter was enough to tie me to the time and weather patterns of the global north. My brain seems to be completely unable to process December near the equator.

This week’s forecast for Monrovia is in the high 80’s with occasional thunderstorms. I wear skirts and short dresses nearly every day, socks only when I go running. My cute little corduroy jacket and comfy hoodie haven’t made it out of the closet in two months. I’m basically living in eternal summer. Don’t get me wrong: I quite like this arrangement, and would happily abandon socks for the rest of my life if I could only find the right running shoes.

It does, however, confound my sense of the calendar. I had a nice Thanksgiving dinner last week that didn’t feel the least bit like Thanksgiving. The nice part is that, since it doesn’t seem like the holidays, I don’t really feel like I’m missing them at home with friends and family. The less than stellar part is that it doesn’t really feel like time is passing. Though there are lots of points when that sort of Tuck Everlasting sense would be fantastic, it isn’t that comforting when I already feel like life is stuck in neutral.

I guess the not-so-profound conclusion I’m reaching is that seasons matter for more than crops and clothiers. They are useful reminders of the march of time and the progress of life. Now I just need to get used to the idea of rainy and dry as seasons on par with winter and fall.

And if I miss your birthday, please don’t take it personally. It’s probably just because I think it’s still August.

29 November 2010

Old dog, new tricks.

I’m racking up a pretty sizable list of life lessons this year. They cover a broad range of topics, but one of the simplest and most easily glossed-over is the importance of cutting myself some slack. This lesson isn’t new or particularly revelatory. I’m pretty sure my parents started down this line with me about 20 years ago. Well-intentioned friends, mentors, bosses and even an adversary or two have repeated the refrain in the years since. As a certain sage family member has been reminding me recently though, you won’t hear even good advice until you’re ready to. It seems like two decades might be the maturity date on this particular lesson.

This was all intended as a prelude to my explanation about the recent lack of blogging and trying not to pressure (or pressurize, as everyone seems to say here) myself into having some complex and well-honed plan for each entry before sitting down to write. The short story is that I’m struggling between my desire to put something vaguely interesting together, maintain the right balance of what I want to be public and private, and find enough time when I’m in the right headspace to write. The result has been, well, nothing. Sorry about that.

In my attempt to follow through on the aforementioned life lesson though, I’m trying not to pile more pressure onto myself about this. I’m going to write when I can and try to cut myself a little slack when I can’t. I’ll let you know how things go on that front. In the meantime, here are some odds and ends I’ve had on the brain but haven’t managed to meld into some comprehensible narrative:

- Things feel like they’re getting better in Monrovia in some actually visible ways. I’ve often scoffed at the broken-windows theory of urban revitalization, but I’m now wondering if there might just be something to it. Watching cleaning crews attack trash-filled thickets with cutlasses and seeing clean new buses (gifts of the Indian government) pick up passengers along Tubman Boulevard provide a sense of progress. These are small and reversible steps to be sure – weeds grow back and a vehicle in this country is only as good as the maintenance budget allocated to it – but they are also signs of some wheels of government turning in tandem. That makes me happy and hopeful.

- I made a pretty fabulous new dish the other night that involved sautéed pumpkin and onions over bouillon-infused couscous. I need to try it a few more times before I’m ready to write down a recipe, but the leftovers this morning were even better that I expected, so the exit polls look pretty good.

- I’m going to Europe for a few weeks in December. I thought I wanted to go the whole year without any winter, but it turns out that I kind of miss wearing sweaters and coats. Two weeks sound just about right. My mom and I will be eating our way through Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and possibly Hungary, just for good measure.

- It seems like every week I’m really happy about a different thing I brought with me from home. I didn’t actually bring that much stuff, but I’m feeling remarkably good about some of the choices. This week’s winner is definitely my iPod dock. Between morning radio, evening cooking/dancing music and nighttime jazz, I’m well accompanied in my otherwise eerily-quiet apartment.

- After ages of slogging through Middlemarch (which I’m actually enjoying, though can’t handle that much fiction in a row) I set it down a few weeks ago to read a book by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild. I had high hopes for the book (Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy) but was somewhat disappointed. Most of this was really a problem of inappropriate expectations. I was quite excited about reading the book because I really like both Ehrenreich and Hochschild and couldn’t believe I’d somehow missed a book they had co-written. I also thought it was a new book (explaining how I’d missed it). In my haste to get the book before I left the States, I didn’t bother to check either of these assumptions. It turns out it was a decade-old collection of essays the two had edited together. Though its statistics and aggressive use of the term third-world were dated, most of the essays (save the last, which was pretty awful) were still interesting. There was even a piece on IHSS workers in California, just for good measure. It was fine overall, but not particularly illuminating. Now back to Middlemarch, with possible time out for Little Bee while I’m traveling.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m off to enjoy the rest of President Tubman’s Birthday…

07 November 2010

One alley, two lives

Yesterday morning I drove across town to pick up a friend. There are two ways to get to her house and, being earlyish on Saturday morning, I decided to take the more direct route, assuming that the normal weekday traffic wouldn’t be an issue. Cruising past a mostly empty University of Liberia campus, I felt pretty good about my routing decision. A few blocks later, I felt a lot less good about it. While I had correctly remembered that it was Saturday, I had failed to calculate that it was the first Saturday of the month – cleaning day in Monrovia. As the rules were explained to me this summer, cleaning day means that you’re either meant to be off the streets or out cleaning until eleven. I have no idea whether these terms apply to drivers as well, but as I came around the curve on the backside of Capitol Hill, I got stuck in a massive traffic jam. 

There were scads of people wearing Monrovia City Corporation cleaning campaign t-shirts wandering somewhat aimlessly through the streets with brooms in hand. Cars were stopped cold and there wasn’t much to do but wait. After fiddling with the radio a bit and acknowledging that from Monrovia I could not, in fact, solve the BBC News labor unrest to bring the regular correspondents back to work with new content, I began to look around. Despite the clean-or-stay-home edict I’d heard, there were plenty of Monrovians milling about, neither cleaning nor staying home.

For some reason, my eye was caught by a small group of people standing near the mouth of a narrow alley. There were a few steps leading down from the sidewalk into the passage. Some people were gathered at the bottom of the steps, some standing at the top; all were watching the traffic and cleaners. Suddenly, there was movement and yelling. A girl, maybe eight or nine years old, was getting walloped on the backside of her head by a woman, presumably her mother. As the girl ran away, the woman lashed out again, this time kicking her down the two or three stairs into the alley. The girl kept running and the woman moved on.

Not five seconds later, there was a bit more motion in this same spot. Another girl, just the same size and probably the same age as the first, came bounding up to the top of the alley. She catapulted herself over the steps and into the arms of an older man who was waiting there. She wrapped her legs around him and hugged him with great gusto. He returned the hug with a grin nearly as big as hers.

A moment later, traffic began moving again and I moved on into the heart of the city, totally bewildered by coincidence of the contrasts I’d just witnessed.

04 November 2010

Despite my best efforts

[Before I start, I should note here that despite the hard time I’m having on a lot of fronts right now, I’m incredibly grateful for the support and valuable advice of many friends old and new, near and far. I’ve been deeply touched by the amount of time and effort people have invested in making sure that I’m doing alright. Notwithstanding that effort, this is bound to still be difficult, and I’m doing my best to honestly communicate how things are going, even when it doesn’t make for particularly uplifting reading. So please bear with me (or don’t, that’s fine too), and know that I realize how blessed I am in so many ways.]

I had a grand plan yesterday to write a new blog post. It was going to be called something like “Anatomy of a Better Day.” Having crashed somewhat early the night before, I woke up early enough to go for a decent run. I set out at 6:50, headed into the still-rising sun. I ran the mile and change to JFK, the biggest public hospital in the country, just as the the first round of morning commuters began pouring into taxis. By the time I turned back, Tubman Boulevard was its normal weekday morning self, filled with school kids, workers and vendors.

I’d listened to the BBC broadcast the whole run, so already knew the gist of the disappointing though unsurprising elections results by the time I was home. As I turned on the shower, I switched over to the house radio, catching the tail end of the general news broadcast and then Network Africa, my usual shower-time program. Running a few minutes ahead of schedule, I decided to splurge a bit of time and make oatmeal and tea in place of my standard cold cereal and banana breakfast. Warm breakfast on the table, I settled in front of the computer to dig through the more detailed elections returns. As expected, it was mostly good news from California (though I remain remarkably out of sync with even theoretically progressive California on initiatives), mostly bad news from everywhere else. I even got some up-to-the-minute updates on numbers from a California political friend who was still awake and on Facebook.

By 8:40, I was out the door and walking to to Ministry. Despite the heat, I’ve come to really enjoy walking to work, in roughly equal parts because it gives me some time outside, it means I don’t have to cobble together a ride on someone else’s schedule every day, and it gives me more time to listen to the radio and get a little thinking done. Yesterday’s thinking was about committing myself to a better attitude about life and work, to having a better day and then coming home to write about it.

As I was about to cross the street in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where, with a few waves a day, I’m trying to build a rapport with the small group of female Bangladeshi peacekeepers who guard the President), a co-worker pulled up to the curb and offered me a ride for the second half of the trip. I got in the car, grateful to skip the only part of the pedestrian commute I dislike – slipsliding down a road that’s become more of a rocky hillside to get from the main road to the Ministry.

After about three minutes after settling in at work, someone from the administrative side of the Ministry came to ask for my passport, with a vague explanation about dealing with my visa and residence permit. As I’m not in the habit of carrying my passport around these days, I then had to roust up a car and driver to take me back home, pick up the passport and get it back so it could be taken to the Bureau of Immigration. Half an hour later, I returned to the rowdy conference room I call an office these days, and things started to go south.

I won’t go into all the details here, but the day ended without my passport and with me canceling my holiday plans for today (Liberian Thanksgiving, a national holiday) and required to show up for a meeting from 3-6 on said holiday. Somewhere in the middle there were many emotions, none of which were the uplifting, happy sort I’d aimed for at the beginning of the day.

After my grand start to the morning, the only other highlight was getting to drive a Ministry a car again, this time a massive Landcruiser. Even with traffic tangled in inconceivable knots and driving what handled like an empty milk truck, I felt somewhat liberated again, moving on my own schedule even if not my own pace. I managed at least half an hour of stop and go traffic and hills without stalling once. I suppose that was yesterday’s bit of life progress, though it definitely came at the expense of an already worn clutch.
Yeah, I drove that. No, I'm not responsible for the bumper.
So, my plan to force myself into having a better day didn’t turn out quite as imagined. Back to the drawing board to try again tomorrow…

24 October 2010

The Princess Diaries

Earlier this week I went back to Bomi County to check in on some of the social protection and health care programs being implemented there. Unlike the last time I was there, this visit involved a twenty-vehicle caravan, two vanloads of journalists and a European princess. I have a longer post half-written about some deeper thoughts I had on this trip, but am not ready to finish it quite yet. In the meantime, I thought I'd share a random assortment of pictures from the day:

American photographer captures European journalists watching Nigerian peacekeeper hold Liberian civilians at bay
Sign from a wall in the government hospital in Bomi (cold water is Liberian slang for a bribe). Would that American hospitals had reminders that services were free...
Local dancers after performing for the princess
Just a low-key royal visit to a small village in Bomi
The one kid in town who was still afraid of me by the time I left. By that point, he was smiling at me from a distance, but still shrieked when I got within two feet of him. Maybe next time...
(not sure why my photos are all showing up as landscape, but really don't have the energy or bandwidth to deal with it right now, so apologies if you have to look at some sideways)

17 October 2010

Small town, Sunday afternoon

My plans to go to Firestone today fell through, so this morning I faced another Sunday with nothing to do and nowhere to go. After making and consuming my first post-return batch of guacamole, I ventured out for a long walk across town. In case you were for some reason contemplating such a plan, I should note that 3:30 in the afternoon during dry season isn’t exactly the ideal time for a long walk in Monrovia, but I had time to kill and needed to get out of the house.

Starting out of my building, I decided that I might as well run the first bit, as it was ground I covered several times a week and the exercise would be good for me. The street had an entirely different feel today – the void of Sunday afternoon, when most people had gone home from church and were spending the rest of the day with family and friends. There was no rush hour bustle with throngs of people waiting for share-taxis, many fewer boys with wheelbarrows full of odds and ends to sell. In my neighborhood, the sidewalk was mostly empty, making my run a bit less of an obstacle course than usual. I dodged only broken chunks of sidewalk and cars sticking into the road rather than the ususal retinue of vendors, schoolkids, and scratch card sales guys. By Capitol Hill, I was virtually alone, with only BBC football news on my headphones and the constant stream of cars driving by with their alphabet soup of acronyms – UNMIL, UNDP, UNPOL, MOS, MLME, TOJ, EQUIP. I crossed to the shady side of the street in front of the Executive Mansion and headed down the hill past the Ministry of Tourism to the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy. I slowed to a walk and turned left past the gas station, taking in the city once again.

All the shop doors were shut for the day, bright metal doors hiding the contents inside but offering block-letter hints about the nature of businesses to be resumed Monday morning – furniture shops, construction supplies, tailors. By the Ministry of Defense I was running again, passing its high fence and thinking about the terrors that had gone on behind its imposing walls. Further down the street I ticked off the Ministries of Labour and of Public Works. I eventually made the turn past the Ministry of Gender, debated my course and opted for the road better known, turning toward Randall Street and the nice grocery store in town. I let myself think about the welcome relief it might offer with a few minutes of air conditioning and a bottle of water. Too late, I remembered that it was closed Sundays, so I continued past, annoyed that I’d let myself think about water. A few blocks later, the tenor of the street changed, so I decided to turn back around and head for home.

Finally letting myself off the running hook, I tried hard to get out of my own head and to really see things around me as I walked back. I passed three women that I’d seen on the way out, all dressed in their Sunday best and all looking just as perplexed by me as they had before. An old man with thick dreds and a gap toothed grin said hi, making me realize how few people here have dreds. Half a dozen women and girls having their hair yanked into various plaits made me wince in empathy. A few small groups of boys broke out laughing when they saw me and yelled something that sounded like “Jambo!”, but this isn’t the right part of the world for that greeting, so I’m not sure what they were saying.

A few blocks on, an impromptu football game took over an empty parking lot, reminding me that Monrovia has virtually no green space and painfully few publicly spaces at all. Despite the intense afternoon heat, I passed a young baby thorougly swaddled and apparently content in a bright fuschia fleece blanket. Making my way back up Capitol Hill, I aimed for the shady side of the street again, only to be very politely directed away from the Executive Mansion by a Special Security Service officer. Initially skeptical of a random guy approaching me on the street, I was actually quite happy to be treated like everyone else, even if it meant more time in the sun. Crossing the nightmarish intersection near the University of Liberia, I realized how much I missed the LNP officer who directs traffic there duing the week.

Plodding the last few blocks home past the UNMIL compound and into my building, I was greeted enthusiastically by BoBo, an older Liberian man who tidies things up in our building and generally hangs around to greet people and help when he can. BoBo lives in a small shack on the roof of the building right behind my deck and always looks out for me, even if he’s confounded by my running and marginal parking skills. We try hard to communicate, but he’s mute and my diminishing knowledge of American Sign Language is pretty useless here. We’ve settled for muddling through with pantomime, which today consisted of him making huffing and puffing gestures and then exhaling exaggeratedly, apparently a commentary on my exercise regimen. Gertrude, the evening guard, smiled good-humoredly at me as she usually does, and gave me an approving nod when I told her how far I’d gone today. Leaving them both, I half-bounded up the stairs to my apartment, closing the door and finding myself alone again, no company but the thoughts in my head. I’d filled less than an hour and a half of my day.

16 October 2010

A little from column A, a little from column B

To counteract a bit of the gloom from my last post, I was going to write this whole entry about things that have made me happy this week. While I know it’s important to realize that things aren’t all good or all bad, I think it’s just as ill-advised to swing my focus one direction as the other, so I’m not going to write the chipper force-myself-out-of-the-doldrums blather I’d had in mind. It’s been another hard week, though with some bright spots here and there.

Despite the good company of a few great people from work, it’s still painfully lonely here. I can’t tell how much is the new life-status, how much is the being in a new place generally, and how much is being here specifically. Thanks to the wonders of a friend’s good internet connection, I’ve been able to have some longish chats with people online this week. It’s nice to get stuff off my chest and I appreciate feeling connected and the energy that other people are willing to put into me even when they’re struggling with stuff themselves. Thanks everyone…

I’ve been trying to fill my free time in vaguely productive ways, this week with two yoga classes and three running sessions. Trying to squeeze the running in before work or before sunset makes the trips pretty short, but at this point I think it’s the principle of the thing rather than the actual cardio impact. I’ve decided to judge my progress based on which ministries I run past – yesterday I made it to Foreign Affairs before it got too dark; this morning I made it past the Capitol and the Temple of Justice to the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy. I’ll be really impressed if I can make it to the Ministry of Gender in a few weeks.

The other (temporary) highlight of the week was driving. A co-worker was out of the country so I got to use her Ministry car, giving me an unbelievably relieving sense of freedom as I managed to ply the very busy, very poorly maintained streets of Monrovia. Driving here is somewhat challenging in general, but when combined with the fact that I’ve never driven standard on my own, it was a whole new kind of adventure. I had the most trouble trying to drive in stop and go rush hour traffic (remarkably easy to stall in those circumstances), but have more or less got the hang of it now. Sadly, I have to hand the key back over on Monday and I’ll be back to bumming rides and calling taxis, clipping my wings once again.

Other things I’m grateful for this week:
·         * BBC World Service – my constant morning companion and the only connection to the outside world in my internet-less apartment. If David Cameron takes aim at their budget with his new cuts, I may have to take serious action.
·         * The random phone I bought from Amazon before I left – I bought it for its dual-SIM capacity, I love it for the fact that it has an amazing radio tuner and even lets me schedule a time to record a radio program. I can now listen to BBC all around town, a nice bonus while running and while waiting for people to show up or meetings to start.
·        *  Comfort – the wonderful woman who cleans my house and generally looks after me. I didn’t actually even see her this week since she came while I was working, but it’s awfully nice to get home and know that someone has been there trying to make my life a little easier.

13 October 2010

I've had better weeks

So, less than two weeks into work and there’s now a lot of talk about pushing the project I’ve been hired to work on back by about a year. I’m not yet sure this will happen or what it would mean for me, but combined with other upended expectations, it’s not made for the most stable week of my life. I hesitate in writing this here in part because I don’t want this to be a detailed personal diary (though I am trying to keep one of those this year), and in part because I don’t want to worry the good folks at home. In striving for a real chronicle of my time here though, I suppose I’m somewhat obliged to not gloss over the harder bits as they come. It does, however, feel surreal and somewhat inappropriate to refer to anything that’s happening to me here as hard.

As have so many development people before me, I’ve been mulling this question (can you really complain about relatively posh conditions in a desperately poor place?) for a while. As I sit in an upscale hotel restaurant listening to Mozart on iTunes and tapping away on my none-too-cheap laptop, I can’t help but feel the urge to censor any form of complaint. Perhaps I’m just lumping too many potential areas of complaint together. It’s reasonable to be frustrated that I may not be able to do the work I came here to do. It’s reasonable to be aggravated by not having the tools I need to get things done. It’s not reasonable to complain about my living conditions, even when they involve pests or a distinct lack of functional plumbing at work. I don’t yet know whether it’s reasonable to be sad about my loneliness and isolation when I brought so much (though not all) of it upon myself. With that I continue to struggle…

This set of questions also invokes a mirror-image set about the appropriateness of taking advantage of luxury in the face of depravation. I know this question isn’t limited to developing country contexts (see, for example, the Hilton in the middle of the Tenderloin in San Francisco), but for obvious reasons, it feels more poignant here. Case in point – I’ve been talking with some friends at work about getting out of the city this weekend and – yes, I fully understand the ridiculousness of this – playing golf at the Firestone Plantation. [I realize now that I may not have actually written about Firestone here before. The short story is that the American tire company runs the world’s largest unbroken rubber plantation here, maybe 90 minutes from Monrovia. The good folks at the United Steelworkers in the US have done a lot of amazing solidarity work to improve conditions for rubber tappers working on the plantation, but as you can imagine, they’re not exactly taking advantage of the on-premises golf course.]

So how wrong is it to go take advantage of this crazy resource? Does the context matter? What if it’s not that expensive, but still kind of frivolous? What if it’s actually good for my mental health? I know this isn’t some new or revelatory set of questions and I’ve wrestled with issues of privilege for a long time, never really coming to reasonable conclusions. In thinking about how to have a sustainable career doing development work though, I feel like I need to reach some more comfortable resolution that allows me to do the work I want, maintain my sanity and not perpetuate the problems I’m trying to solve. All suggestions welcome…

Yeah, I really shouldn't complain: view from my bedroom at sunset

06 October 2010


So, as I think anyone still checking this blog knows, I’ve made some pretty substantial life changes in the past few months. Some of those changes I won’t be talking about here (email me directly if you want more details), but some I will – most notably, the fact that I’ve decided to come back to Liberia for another nine months.

Sunrise over Abidjan, Ivory Coast on my flight into Accra

I’ll be working in the same Ministry where I spent the summer, though on a different project. My new work will involve helping put together part of the new 20 year growth plan for Liberia. I started back here on Friday, so still don’t quite have my feet under me yet. More to come on the work part as it sorts itself out.

In my newly single incarnation, I’ve got a one-bedroom apartment and will be living alone for the first time. My place is in Sinkor, an expat heavy neighborhood with a lot of great restaurants and adjacent to the Capitol Hill area where the Ministry is located. I was ready to sign on when I saw the faux-wood flooring (I’m actually serious about this. I think most tile is depressing and way too Florida, and this is the only building I’ve seen without tile flooring everywhere.), but the sunlight and views really sold me. The place is about half a block from the Indian restaurant in town and two doors down from a great fruit/veg stand and small grocery store. Below are a few before pictures - once I get myself some new lapa and decorating inspiration I'll put up some after pictures.
The living room and kitchen (door to the balcony is to the right of the loveseat)

Kitchen/dining room

 Bedroom, which is actually quite large, though covered well by the world's largest bed

View from my balcony. The building in the background is main compound for UNMIL, the UN Mission in Liberia. My ministry is just behind that. The University of Liberia is to the right of the UNMIL building.

Blogger is now forbidding further photo uploads for this post, so this will have to do for now. After the first photo took forever to load, I started experimenting with compressed photo files to speed things up. Please let me know if they're too grainy or difficult to load for some reason.