Friday, July 22, 2011

The New Masters

There’s nothing more obnoxious than developing world elites. Oil rich southerners with their boots, ripped tank tops and over all “I’m the master to your slave ” demeanor make me cringe. The UN workers who go from air conditioned vehicle to air conditioned sushi restaurants can’t be forgotten and the IMF workers (so I’ve heard, but have yet to experience) make even the UN and World bank workers squirm, but they all pail in comparison to the developing world elite.

The well off, Americo-Liberian, who, has created an all too familiar master-slave society. Blasting your music for the whole slum outside your apartment to here, while you lounge on your balcony and order the security to stop what he’s doing so that he can trek up to your apartment and carry down your dirty bath water.

You park anywhere you want and cause a huge scene when you’re told you can’t. No, the guard doesn’t know who you are and yes, you look like the driver (that’s why they treated you as such). Some drivers do have gaudy looking shoes too. Calling the Lebanese owner of X hotel and restaurant doesn’t change anything (he doesn’t know you either…yet), except for the fact that I’ve now put in my headphones to muffle your incessant screaming.

Most expats come with some form of white man’s burden, which tends to limit and even eliminate their master like attitude (at least publicly). but Americo-Liberians have the opposite of that. Their people were slaves so when they got dumped off by Americans and deemed “free,” they created the only society they knew. Now they are the masters with hundreds of years of oppression to make up. So while generations of Anglo-American youth are trying to make up for slavery by being too political correct and giving every hungry street child a dollar, Americo-Liberians are making up for lost time and relishing in a master’s lifestyle.

I hate to break it to you my man, but you do look like your driver.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Day in the Life...

A few of my favorite (daily) things:

the use of small in Liberian English. Wait small, talk small, try small. (I tryin’ small to have plenty patience)

-Water bags. I like sucking down half a liter of water in under 5 minutes.

-The wind from motorbike rides, even with the occasional glide into on coming traffic.

-The response I get when I ask why we might be doing this. “There can be less traffic on this side.” (fair enough my man, drive on).

-The heavy rain even if it’s up to my shins in the streets.

-daily coconut water

-Adding an extra 15 minutes to our drive anywhere so that Phil and I can find a man with a wheelbarrow of coconuts.

-Mosquito hunting. Often a spur of the moment thing (quick kill in the kitchen). Sometimes pre meditated (get out of bed to find the buzzing). See it and smack it.

-BBC radio news: focus on Africa, while in the jeep.

- the soundtrack that comes along with focus on Africa BBC

-The Liberian handshake. It’s a standard handshake, glide your middle finger as you let go and snap with the other person’s finger and your thumb. There’s something truly satisfying about it when you finally get a good snap at the end.

The awkward moment you experience when you innately go for the Liberian handshake with someone who just got here. Nothing makes people more uncomfortable then dragging your finger across their palm and realizing they aren’t going to reciprocate.

Settlers of Catan and the heated battle that always ensues the second the game’s begun (I am not giving you my wheat, man!)

Billboards: Violence against women=justice (that's not what you mean)

Just a bit of the things that fill my days…Brehaung’s back to work.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Rogues on Randall

For over a month now my life has been the Urban Youth survey. Eat (sometimes), sleep (hardly), breath (deep breaths in and out) the survey. Waking up every morning to a down poor and debating a shower given the inevitability of becoming absolutely drenched. Walking to the survey site in streets flooded with water wondering why I even bother with a rain jacket, while Liberians yell “this is Africa!” (yes, thank you).

With the recruiting of these young street youth now happening in my neighborhood I’ve made it my goal to meet all of them. With 3 robberies and 1 robbery attempt under my belt I’m determined to know all of them. I’m just waiting for one of these guys to come in with my boyfriend style gap jeans on (I will rip those off you). Remember my face, sucker. If I see you or your friends scaling my back wall again, I’ll know where to find you. If it's not someone we’ve recruited maybe while they’re running away in the dark, I could chuck my card at them. I may as well add a note that says “Dear rogue, I will find you. I want my shirts back.”

Spending my days surveying criminals (get your hand out of my backpack please) and getting yelled at by said criminals because I wont give them my snack money—

“give me that money!”
“I don’t think so”
“You don't need to eat, you need to give it to me to get home.”
“my man, I can’ give you this”
“then if you people wont help me, you should just leave liberia!”
(oh trust me, I’m on it) “go away from here man, we’re done.”

as if you’re the first guy to try and get something out of me, fool. Where’s a motorbike? I’m heading back to the office.

All I need now is hostage negotiation and I’d say I’ve rounded out my time here. Oh wait, did that last night (the hostage being my friends stolen cell phone). 20 min of getting my friend to try and negotiate his phone back, using my phone (for something small). Luckily he was talking to Phil when it got ripped out of his hand, so Phil made first contact and texted me the “terms.” Status of said negotiation currently undetermined, but I did enjoyed the many phone calls throughout the night from the hostage taker.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two's Better Than One


These last two weeks have been insane. Even the word insane doesn’t seem to explain the madness that has been our job for the last two weeks and the weeks to come. How about exhausting, stressful, and a constant test of patience and your ability to stay on top of everything, all the time. Organizing, running and monitoring a survey in the city with a team of people relying on you to make it all go right. From programming and survey problems to logistic issues and equipment transportation, all of it is in your hands. It is an unbelievable load to handle and you do it so well. There are new challenges everyday that would make most people give up, but you don’t. The 6 am wake ups, 18-22 hr work days, constant fight against dehydration and sickness (because of the 18 hr work days) are all rough, but you’re not alone. I will test PDA’s, check programming code and organize as little or as much as you need me to. Staying up until 2:30am for the 5th day in a row, after 10 hours of surveying and an hour of traffic back to the office? You bet, sign me up. Frustrated? Me too, but heck two’s better than one in my mind and so long as I can keep my eyes open, I’ll stick it out with you, gladly. You’re dedication and desire to do the best you can always amazes me. The next 2 weeks are going to suck, in the best way. Bring on the late night tea, popcorn dinners and many more nights of wanting to throw PDA’s out the window. Your quite entertaining while sleep deprived anyhow. Kudos to you, you’re wonderful, Helen. Now let’s survey some criminals!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rains Down in Africa

No one’s on time in this country. In a country where 10 o’clock really means 11:30, you might as well not set a time and just set a ball park. "You can be here after lunch, yea?" That’s about as good as saying: be there at 3 because that’s when they’ll get there. The rainy season makes this timely issue even more of a problem. Liberians hate the rain. They HATE it. So when it starts to rain the streets are empty. Everyone has found even the smallest bit of covering to stand under until the rain passes. Because of this fear of rain everyone is even later than normal and thinks the fact that it was raining is a justifiable reason. I told you to be here at 10. “Yea.” Ok, well what time is it now? “It’s 11:45. There was rain.” So you’re late. “Well no you said 10.” Yea and it’s 11:45. “But you said 10 and it rained." I wonder how many more times we can say it’s 11:45 and she can then reply with: you said 10 (yea, you're late!).

It rains for 6 months out of the year here and you’re telling me that being almost two hours late because it rained is ok? Apparently it is, because every single person was late to this office on Saturday. It’s moments like these where I think: how does this country function at all!? For 6 months people are just late because it rained. Not just late, super late because during the dry season they are late. I’m way too timely for this.

Their fear however is understandable when you also realize that with the wet season comes sickness and death. People are dropping like flies. Someone is very sick every week and it’s the norm. The rain brings an upsurge in malaria, typhoid and cholera. If you’re growing up in a place where you associate rain with deathly illness then, heck yea let’s all stay inside until the dry season returns. Unfortunately I love the rain. You need an encyclopedia with pictures to figure out what all these bites on your arm are (mosquito? I don’t know, wait for the fever). “My arms hurt.” In an achy way or a workout way? “I can’t tell.” Well if the aching spreads, it’s clinic time, baby. “Maybe it’s 12 hr work day pains???” I’d take that over any illness.

Can’t wait for July. The rains only get worse. My raincoat in a bag has its work cut out for it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"I Love My Life"

Six weeks, it took to get an electricity connection in my new apartment. Six weeks to get a connection that, without fail will go out during a rain storm (it rains almost every night), will go out at random throughout the day and that is so unstable in terms of voltage, that anything worth anything needs to be plugged in through a stabilizer. (Did my fan short out AGAIN?) Six weeks of : We need light. “Yea, 2 weeks.” 2 weeks later: Hi we need light now. “Yea you didn’t pay” (lies). Yea, yea we did (twice actually). “Well we can do it for you for something small (a bribe).” I’ve given you that (TWICE) how about you do it now. 5 weeks: it takes 3 people, 5 days in a row to go to the company office and sit there until they come to my place. One week and many struggles later (no, no more small things for you!) and we have a connection…that shorts out within an hour. Julian: it shouldn’t be making that popping sound. No breakers are installed in the apartment (say it with me: fire hazard) and we get those put in. All is well after a battle with a contractor over the idea that when you say “we’re friends, now” it means that you give us a deal, not that we pay you twice as much. We’re not friends anymore. Thanks so much, leave now.

I was content with my little unstable electric connection, until I woke in the middle of the night to my fan no longer blowing on me. It’s truly amazing how a fan and the slightest bit of perspiration can cool you down (it’s a beautiful combination). Fan not blowing=electricity off, but it’ll come back in a couple hours. It didn’t. We come to discover, through the lovely help of my neighbors, that my electricity cable has been stolen. It was stolen from off the top of a 3-story building guarded by guards, a cement wall and barbed wire. Hey guards, what the heck? Now my cable is being thrown in a pipe and secured in a cement trench, in which my neighbor’s cable sits. Try stealing that, suckers. (no but really, don’t). Now we get to have the sketchy electricians come back and do it all over. If you say “2 weeks” or “something small” to me one more time, we’re definitely not friends anymore. Thanks for letting me enjoy electricity for at least a week.

On top of which we’re back to “8 days a week” at the office. Back to losing my weight in sweat, reading and changing survey sections (the 7th time is still the charm), and going to sleep thinking of survey answer skips. If yes, SKIP TO IN067. If they don’t use one of these 7 weapon choices, SKIP TO other.

When I have weeks (or months) like these I put in my headphones (or just step outside) and listen to a very popular song here. “I Love My Life.” Never fails to make me laugh. I don’t have light (I love my life). I don’t have water (I love my life). I’m in Liberia (I love my life). At least that’s how my version goes.

Friday, May 20, 2011


The education system is a slowly improving institution in Liberia and one of the popular reasons for aid workers to come and take part in “building capacity” here. How nice of you, you American high school teacher, to come to Liberia and fix the school system. You know better. You teach in Massachusetts and obviously know how a proper school should run. “My students go to MIT when they graduate.” Of course they do. You’re teaching in an upper class, privileged neighborhood where the kids get every ounce of guidance they need. Your job is easy. “What’s wrong with these Liberians? These kids just don’t compare.” I’m five seconds from turning around and throwing my tonic in your face.

These kids are growing up in a country that went through 2 civil wars that destroyed the country’s infrastructure and tore apart their families. Let’s forget about that for now. Let’s also forget about the fact it’s hard enough to get Liberians in school seats. Sitting in school earns 0 Liberian Dollars a day, while selling plantains on the street can feed your baby sister for the day. Instead, let’s assume that none of that has anything to do with the capacity of Liberian students (wouldn’t that be nice) and assume that they just learn differently than other students. How about you do your job as a teacher and actually figure out how the students learn and teach in that fashion? How typical of you to come in with your “one way is the write way” mindset and blame it on the children when it doesn’t turn into X suburbia high over night. Not every school has the funding or support of an affluent community (like mine). Sometimes getting students to understand the material, like you at the end of the year and decide that getting a degree at any level is better than drugs or a gun (have you seen a weapon at your little prep school?), means more than an entire school going to MIT.

Take some pride in your job and do what your title implies; teach. Take responsibility for your students and stop blaming them for your inability to understand how they learn best. By the way—giving Liberians books and buying them new desks does not mean crap. They have to be able to read the books. You put them in shinny new uniforms and given them all a box of pencils and then blame them for not meeting your prep school American standards. Do yourself a favor and find a job you actually enjoy. I bet you became a teacher for the summers off. Go back to Massachusetts, fool.