Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Catching up: Here's the lowdown on our Surf Competition.

The competitors and judges of the First Annual Surf Liberia Contest pose along with a representative of Liberia's Ministry of Youth and Sports. (All photos courtesy of Myles Estey.)

In late November of 2009 Robertsport Community Works was delighted to host the first surf contest in Liberian history. Seven young men from Liberia and five expatriates participated in the men's division, which consisted of four preliminary three man heats, two head-to-head semi-final heats and a two man final. Though good waves can be scarce in late November, we were fortunate enough to have consistent shoulder to head high waves, peeling for a clean 100 meters throughout the contest.

(Peter Swen floats his way to a fourth place finish. You can read about his experiences on his blog The Liberian Surfer.)

A correspondent from Reuters captured footage from the contest for an upcoming television spot. Local community members were glad for the opportunity to explain their views of surfing, tourism and development.

(Nana's Lodge helped to pay these young men to keep the beaches clean during the weekend-long sporting festival. Events like this can often leave beaches in total disarray.)

(Contestants and local spectators in the foreground, judges and cameraman in the background.)

(Benjamin McCrumada cuts back on his way to a third place finish. He was eliminated in the semi-finals by close friend, Alfred Lomax.)

(Here, Alfred Lomax makes the most of a medium sized set, on his way to winning the event.)

We are grateful to Liberian Travel and Life Magazine who generously donated $350 so that top placing competitors could walk away with some cash. Here's Alfred Lomax celebrating his first place $200 finish with runner-up, Keith Chapman--Director of the Trinity Dental Clinic.

Keith Chapman also finished first place in the body boarding division--a four man event that ran just prior to the finals of the men's division. We look forward to additional competitors and more excellent waves when we organize our second contest in the first half of this year.

A final thanks to the surfers from BHP Liberia, who donated several rash guards for top placing competitors. And thanks to all of the people who helped with the banners, the transport, the judging and with keeping the atmosphere so congenial. It was a great time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Land for You!

Only Liberians are allowed to own land in Liberia--them and NGOs that can prove that they are actively using the land for their NGO purposes. Foreigners and foreign companies are not allowed to own land--not even Lebanese businesspeople who are born and raised in Liberia can own land. Expats in the private sector (and Lebanese businesspeople) grumble about this stipulation and suggest that it is a tremendous retardant to national development and economic growth.

It should go without saying that they are measuring development and growth in the traditional, simplistic, short-sighted way that has already just about ruined the world: more spending and more money moving around is good, regardless of who accumulates the money, what they produce and how it impacts anything other than ledgers.

This land ownership rule means that you can't come into Liberia and make a quick buck by snatching up post-conflict real estate from deeply impoverished and uneducated land holders with the intention of sitting on it until the country begins to attract tourists or investment. Actually, it means that I can't do that, and, frankly, it would have been a seriously tempting prospect. Why not spend something like ten thousand dollars to possess a mile or two of craggy, sparsely populated tropical coastline with enormous potential for high quality waves? Americans have bought up huge portions of the Central and South American coast to gain possession of their own private waves--generating, in the process, no small amount of resentment.

The Liberian law forces you to work with Liberians for what you want and to include them as the beneficiaries of your plans and it ensures that whatever you do will end up back in the hands of Liberians, sooner or later--rather than passed on through some sort of medieval inheritance system. This is inconvenient; it is risky; but it is fair. It forces people to partner with Liberians and to benefit them. I think it is one of the reasons that so much of the country is intact and that so many of its little outposts of economic development seem reasonably integrated into the surrounding communities.

Of course, the problem is still that Americo-Liberians (themselves just a slightly older version of land hungry foreign nationals) can buy up everything for themselves without any mandate to consider the indigenous Liberians who they uproot. As long as there is no way of ensuring that poor people can hold onto their tiny patches of land through difficult times, countries like Liberia and so many others are likely to continue tearing themselves up by the roots.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


It shakes my confidence in several things that I was diagnosed with typhoid less than 36 hours after finishing a seven day course of Cipro. Firstly, it shakes my confidence in the pharmacy where I was prescribed this Cipro (the in-house pharmacy at the clinic that inexplicably prescribed me with cipro in the first case) and secondly, it further shakes my confidence in everything having to do with that clinic. Either I was on totally bogus cipro (which I now have to hope is true) or I was on good cipro and a new disjunction presents itself: either I have contracted a previously unknown strain of cipro-resistant typhoid (boo! vote against this option!) or I had almost eliminated some typhoid I didn't know I had, which rebounded with remarkable speed to become strong typhoid. In either case, I feel like I haven't surfed since 1993, like all food is gross and filling and like everything makes me tired.

Elie has typhoid *and* malaria. It requires tremendous effort to keep her from working, even on Saturday morning. I have considered slipping valium into her tea. Thanks to the handful of people who have checked in on us to see how we are doing and to see what we need--and the Robertsport community for their persistent well-wishing and for being ever more dependable at running projects with management from a distance.

Other news: The Ministry of Youth and Sports wants to work with Robertsport Community Works to establish an Association of Liberian Surfers and there was talk about the Olympic committee and sponsored boards. The First Annual Liberian Surf Competition (organized by RCW) will be taking place next weekend, wherein I will be surfing, on a stretcher, in the invalid division. And, I am going to try to locating some sort of dodgy weight-gain, protein-shake type of substance so as to avoid becoming scrawny.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Malaria, Once Again

Why is there still such disagreement about what constitutes the best and most effective course of treatment against malaria? Since the shoddy, low-budget laboratory on which I usually depend for diagnosis failed to notice my parasites and gave me a false bill of health, I let my malaria develop more than usual. As a result, once I began to feel seriously ill, I went to an expensive clinic for diagnosis and treatment ($70) on the assumption that this was a more responsible act than self-medicating ($6).

The clinic decided that I needed a 2ml injection of artesunate (in my upper ass) and a 100ml drip of cipro. Its rooms were full of people receiving these shots and drips. On my second day the treatment was repeated (injection in other side of upper ass, drip in other hand). After that, I was put on a full treatment of artesunate pills and cipro pills. When I asked the doctor about the feasability of taking Clotromoxozol as a malaria prophylaxis, he said this would not be effective. Bear with me: I will not linger on details much longer.

The point is that everything that this man prescribed to me was pointedly rejected by one of the country's ranking malaria experts just two days ago: the only reason to take an injection is if you are unconscious, cipro has nothing to do with malaria (which I knew) and it will soon be illegal to use Artesunate as a monotreatment because it builds resistance to what is currently the best drug in the world's antimalarial arsenal. What else? Widespread disagreement about whether or not clotromoxozol is an adequate prophylaxis; rumors that amodiaquine is being abandoned as the second part of combination therapy; belief that it is nearly impossible to avoid counterfeit pills and mixed opinion about the effectiviness of prophylaxis' that are being taken after their first course of use.

As long as I've lived in malarial belts, I've sat through hours of debate about what drugs are necessary and what drugs are harmful or ineffective. Why so little harmony and accord? How hard would it be to develop a coherent national policy and messaging system?

And why am I starting to feel sick again? Is it because I didn't take combination therapy? Is artesunate no longer enough? Boo.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Quite often in Monrovia you meet someone in his or her mid-twenties who is essentially running a local ministry. These are typically Americans or Europeans in the process of earning an advanced degree. They arrive on prestigious well-paid fellowships to enjoy unprecedented insight into and influence over what is still, in many ways, a transitional government.

Over beers and amongst their peers, I have often heard these fellows express their incredulity (sometimes boastfully) at the magnitude of the responsibilities that they are given--or the responsibilities that they take, depending on their style. They write strategic documents, advise on the formation of all sorts of national policy and even exercise authority over who is hired to senior positions in the ministries with which they work.

Of course, these are tremendous opportunities for the motivated and well-educated northerners who are already firmly within the pipeline to positions of greater and greater power. What gets me is how young Liberians are totally cut out of the equation. The minister who may benefit from the assistance and hard work of these fellows is invariably much older and quite often a presidential appointee, someone at the top of his or her career, and therefore, arguably, someone harder to influence or mentor. That makes this a dodgy exercise in capacity-building and something much more suited to knowledge-acquisition and, I would guess, subtle acts of ideological bullying.

Perhaps if these fellows were required to have young Liberian assistants for the duration of their fellowships and perhaps if they were required to provide as much mentoring and experience for these Liberians as possible, the programs would have a greater long-term impact. This would at least be training the next generation of leaders and ensuring a relatively high amount of transparency and accountability with regards to the work of these fellows. Or, perhaps those young Liberians would be totally scandalized to find inexperienced and immature young foreigners tinkering with the formation of their state.

Of course, I've found many of these fellows to be extremely capable, respectful, fair, intelligent, well-intentioned and even grateful. I don't mean to imply that that they are doing great harm or that they are the instrument of some malevolent force. I do, however, think that while they are a gift to the elder statesmen in whose wakes they follow, they may be a curse to young aspiring Liberian politicians who may be edged out of their government system by people who will only spend six months to a year in a tiny country that they rarely knew anything about before stepping off their planes at Robertsfield International Airport.

Lastly, in its historical context, the legacy left behind by young Western economists and advisers in the developing world, gives cause for deep cynicism about this model of "aid," its motives and its real impact.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pedestrian Friendly Cities

I have a strong bias against any part of the world that is not pedestrian-friendly. This bias extends to Amman, a city designed for the automobile (designed, more specifically, for about half as many automobiles as it currently hosts). The bias also extends to any place where walking around in shorts and flip flops is turned into a life-threatening endeavor by hostile weather.

On Friday, after several days of walking to the same tiny stretch of cafes and fast food restaurants for my daily escape from the hotel, I decided to walk in a different direction in order to see how long it would take for me to find somewhere agreeable to eat. This was a stubborn attempt at turning Amman into the pedestrian-friendly city that it is not. Despite being assisted by what I must acknowledge was stunning, sunny, breezy and ideal weather (making insufficent amends for four days of chilly drizzling), my stroll through Amman failed to end pleasurably, on balance, because of how stressful it is to run across highways full of speeding luxury cars, how desolate it is to walk down barren streets of shuttered rent-a-car outlets, how lonely it is to see no other pedestrians in such a populous city and how far I walked in an outward bound trajectory (2-3 miles?), following my well-honed city navigating instincts towards precisely nothing.

At one high point of interactivity, shortly after jumping a fence between two sides of a highway to reach what looked like a promising stretch of commercial businesses, a car pulled to the side of the road not far ahead of me and expelled its driver. The man, dark sun glasses, late forties, somewhat seedy looking, rushed up to me and shook my hand, welcoming me to his country and saying he had seen me from the road. He asked how long I would be in Jordan. As it turned out, I was leaving that evening. He knew my flight number. He asked me to get in his car. He said he worked for (Royal) Jordanian airways and jumped into his car, popping open the passenger side door and gesturing me in. He had been chain smoking in his ashtray, the windows were thickly tinted. I insisted on my love of walking in Amman (which must strain credibility). He insisted that I get into his car and that we could have some food together. I continued to love walking in Amman entirely too much to join him. I thanked him, shook his hand, and forged onwards towards the failure of my walk. I wondered: are all the deeply ingrained alarm bells associated with getting into a stranger's car teaming up with my media-fueled over-willingness to be on guard against politically motivated kidnappings so close to Iraq to prevent me from accepting a kindly and hospitable offer from a Jordanian who knows what a crappy thing it is to be walking around Amman on a Friday afternoon? Well. That's not exactly what I wondered because that is exactly what was happening. What I wonder, is if I would've dined in sociable comfort somewhere other than "Shrimpys" if I had not opted for the path less sketchy.

Friday, October 30, 2009


I'll be headed back to Jordan and Palestine tomorrow for a quick week of consultations related to the potential launch of a Connecting Classrooms initiative in the Middle East. Hopefully, there will soon be at least three independent versions of this program providing us with invaluable comparative data about the effectiveness of different program models and coordination protocols.

It's tough to keep people motivated to participate in something that is extra-curricular, technically complicated and thematically challenging; so I'm excited to have a few different program configurations and priorities in the mix.

This last month or so has been full of strategizing around various medium and long-term goals. Unfortunately, for this blog, I can't get into detail about any of the impending projects until some paperwork is in order and everything's locked down. It will be nice to have the freedom to talk about my day-to-day in another couple weeks.