17 July 2010

Mama Liberia

I've been meaning to write this post for a good ten days now, but for some reason my grand hopes for it keep overshadowing my mental stamina to write it. I'd planned to craft a grand biography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president (or just Ellen, as she's known by many here). For some reason, it's just not coming. So I will instead commend her book - This Child Will Be Great - to you, as it's a pretty easy read and a fascinating bit of campaign literature if nothing else.

This is all prelude to me noting that I met the President last week, and actually attended events with her on three successive days. All three events were very different (4th of July party, signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation threshold agreement, and a cabinet meeting of sorts) and revealed an impressive variety of political and policy skills. Like any good head of state, she could readily move in a diverse crowd and make small talk with a room full of people. Unlike many leaders, she also had an unbelievable level of detailed knowledge about the smallest kernels of domestic policy, down to the level of which bridges are currently impassable in the far eastern edge of the country.

Of course, governing a country the size of Virginia with 10% of the population of California makes some of this easier, but no matter how small, Liberia is still a nation and the president doesn't just deal with the issues confronting a medium size city. She has to deal with foreign debt and international borders, macroeconomic policy and human rights treaties. Adding to the challenge, the highly centralized governmental structure here means that she's largely responsible for governance at all levels, so has to deal with the nitty-gritty details of local politics as well. She's doing it all in a country that went through 14 years of civil war and whose peace is maintained by a UN mission that's preparing to leave within the next two years.

Throughout the last meeting, I was routinely impressed by how readily she could shift back and forth from policy minutiae to big picture vision for the country with a clear understanding of the connections between the two. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone quite like her. Part of this may come from great staffing, and I know that part comes from hard work. In fact, anyone in Monrovia can easily see how long her hours are each night (and most weekends). Since the Executive Mansion was destroyed by power-surge induced fire during her inauguration, she's been working from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her presidential escort and UN bodyguards wait outside the Ministry all day and into the night while she's there working. When she's in the country, she's there until at least 8 or 9 every night, and has been rumored to shoot off emails throughout the night as well.

This has turned into random facts about Ellen now, so I think I'll stop and show a few pictures (I did take one with her, but on someone else's camera and I need to get a copy still) but not before sharing a few more tidbits:
- She's Africa's first (and to date, only) elected female head of state
- She's almost 72, and planning to run for reelection to another five year term next year
- She was married at 17 and had four kids by the time she was 23. She left them all here with her family when she went to the US to get a college degree. She eventually left her abusive husband, got her Master's at Harvard, worked in banking, became a high level official in the UN, and held various government posts here on and off before the war began.

Lest you think vuvuzelas are just for South Africa or the World Cup, rest assured that this guy long predates the current madness. He has been the personal trumpeter of the Liberian president since the mid-60's, blowing his wooden vuvuzela-like horn as the president enter or leaves the room and at somewhat random intervals in between. I think this also makes him one of the longest-serving civil servants in government.

Ellen with the US Congressional delegation and some Monrovia schoolgirls after the signing of the MCC agreement. She regularly credits Liberia's women with ending the civil war and helping her win the presidency, and has focused an incredible amount of attention on issues impacting women and girls.

A bit of the spread from the post-MCC signing reception, including some ginormous plantains. In case I haven't mentioned it recently enough, I'm obsessed with Liberian plantains.

10 July 2010

Words from around town

A few snapshots of interesting words around town - (you may have to click on some of these images to read the full text. They should open in a larger version in a new screen).
This is another from the awesome tax sensitization campaign series. It's pretty faded by this point, but still one of my favorites. If you look carefully at the bottom, you can see that the Ministry of Finance has nicely noted that this is part of the tax sensitization campaign.

The official seal of Liberia, as displayed in the joint chamber of the Legislature. The national motto, emblazoned across the top, is "The love of liberty brought us here". 

A bit of background: Liberia was settled in the early 1800's by freed American slaves who came to the area and treated the indigenous population pretty horrendously for a good century, and then only moderately better for another 40 years. The tension between wealthy Americo-Liberians and native Liberians was at the heart of the 1980 coup led by Samuel Doe. These days, Americo-Liberians make up less than 5% of the population, so a seal and motto that focus on their arrival is somewhat controversial. Changing these symbols is a frequent topic of conversation and probably a pretty important step toward long term national reconciliation.

A sign in my building for an inter-ministerial league competition. MOPEA is the ministry where I'm working, and LISGIS is another governmental organization that's housed in our building (apparently in a somewhat maternal arrangement).

The most amazing description ever of Season 5 of Friends. Trust me, it's worth clicking the larger image to read it. We highly recommend reading it out loud in a somewhat dramatic fashion. Not that we've done that half a dozen times already or anything...

04 July 2010

Odds and Ends

- I’ve been trying to get a picture of these guys for weeks, and finally managed to a few days ago. These are the rock guys, two men who bring in rocks to areas with particularly bad potholes, break them and try to make the road more passable. They’re usually a few blocks away from our house, on the main road I take to work in the mornings. Since the road never looks that much improved, we had secretly suspected that they carried the same broken rocks from spot to spot, hoping for more sympathy in different areas.

I talked to my driver about it yesterday, and he said they actually did break new rocks each day and it does help the smaller cars trying to muscle through the muck. These two guys were among 150 deported from the US last year, and they’ve been plying their trade around town since then, living off the tips drivers occasionally offer. They always wear the bright construction coats and usually have helmets, doing a little dance as the bigger 4x4’s pass by and smiling broadly at a thumbs up from drivers and passengers. They come across as about the cheeriest people in town, but I can’t get a sense at all about how much is for show.

-I finally left Monrovia last weekend to take a quick trip to Thinkers Beach (pronounced Tinkers), just a few miles outside the city. We spent most of the afternoon under a thatched cabana, just watching the ocean and enjoying the time outside, which is way too rare here. I ventured into the water a bit and was quickly overwhelmed by the strength of the undertow. We’d been warned about it, and it turns out people are not kidding around. Even standing at the edge of the water to get my feet wet, the tide pulled back forcefully enough to completely erode the ground beneath me faster than I’ve ever seen in the Pacific. A few wipeouts and facefuls of salt water were enough for me, and I quickly retreated to the shade.

The beach area was filled mostly with expats and there were just a handful of Liberians. This mix made us a pretty obvious target for local vendors. We were barraged with opportunities to buy masks, carved statues and scads and scads of jewelry. I was apparently a great mystery to the guys because I didn’t go for the broken shell necklaces and earrings. Each one of them tried to point a similar necklace out to me, all without success. I guess I don’t conform to stereotype here either.

-Lapa shopping went brilliantly last weekend, with one of my co-workers taking Amy and me to her favorite shop, which was fantastic.

(photo courtesy of Amy’s foresight in bringing a camera)

We had an impossible time making up our minds, so ended up splitting several pieces and each leaving with a solid armful of cloth. We then set out for the tailor, apparently one of the snazzier shops in town. I had most of my little pencil sketches prepared for the fabric we had bought on previous trips, but had to do some quick thinking on the new pieces we bought this week. Fortunately, the tailor is way more talented at sketching than I am and was able to whip up drawings for what I explained. Amy and Chara also co-designed a dress on the fly, and that might be the winner of the whole batch. I promise photos when we get the clothes back, apparently in a week or two. In the mean time, we’re waiting with baited breath and scheming a whole new round of plans for this weekend.