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

Turbulence

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.