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

Update

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

Interlopers

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

Outbound

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.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mamba Point, a while ago



Two photos of me taken by blogger, Myles Estey, for an article he wrote about surfing in Liberia for the Global Post. These shots give a sense of the notoriously filthy point break that is, perhaps, half a mile away. Feels like it hasn't broken in ages.

Back to Robertsport tomorrow, after an uncharachteristically long absence. Should be fun to reconnect with the surfers, the sewing cooperative, the campsite and the community.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to get your employers lemongrass in ten minutes . . .

"Just google image it." Of course, how else can we explain to our assistant what Lemon Grass is? "I know it! We call it tea leaf." Liberian's have a very straightforward way of naming things; but I didn't think you could get more descriptive than "Lemon Grass." You can though, if you name it for its use.

That's also how you can return to the house, ten minutes after you left, bearing an uprooted tuft of lemongrass: plead for medicine to combat your malaria. I had no idea that our shy and scrupulous assistant had so much guile. He was beaming with pride as he reported telling his cousin something like, "I'm feeling too bad. The malaria is troubling me. I need this tea leaf fast."

The tea leaf is now replanted in a small hand-made clay pot. If our assistant actually does contract Malaria (for the umpteenth time this calendar year), we'll make sure that he takes something with a better track record than lemongrass tea.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Local Considerations

1) I have never before given myself a painful and comprehensive upperbody sunburn by sitting in the shade. Somehow, yesterday, the shade under my poolside umbrella was just cooking with UV rays and I feel like I just stepped off the plane. Even now when I walked onto the balcony to procrastinate, I realized how businesslike the sun has become without the rainy season humidity to buffer its impact.

2) Every Liberian high school student who I know--which is all of the good surfers in this country and my personal assistant--paints a dismal picture of the education available to low-rollers. Yes, of course, this is to be expected; but what surprises me is how little school one's school fees actually purchase. At least once a week school seems to be out of session for some lazy reason or other. Teachers are writing tests. Students are reviewing for tests. It is the first week of school. It is raining very hard. Your backpack is the wrong color. You are not wearing the new school badge, which will not be available for a week. Your teacher says so.

Even when school does take place it is typically for four and a half hours. So, if you are 25 and in eleventh grade, instead of finding that your country will help you to use your maturity and age to get through perhaps two grades at once, you end up taking about 40% of a standard school year.

It's hard to push a "Stay at School" agenda in these circumstances--even though this has been a large part of the philosophy underpinning my recent online work. I'm getting very near the point of offering legitimate service industry jobs to high school students because I believe that they'll learn more and benefit more by accepting them--in place of their "studies."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Water shots


Water shots are pretty exciting. I have to admit that I nearly shot my board into the videographer's face on a wave that I completely misread. Of course, they duck under water and probably, usually, escape that sort of contact; but it can be intimidating to dodge these tiny smiling heads and their metal boxes.


For pretty much seven days of two different swells, I kept chasing this little barrel and its cousin on the inside. For this effort I was punished. There is so much more to learn.


Thanks again to Sean Brody for all the photographs. Fun to see a cameraman so stoked about his job!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My First Beach Cleanup


Somehow, I reached the overcooked age of thirty without ever having cleaned a beach--unless, at some point, in grade school on a compulsory school trip I was prodded along the sand by a fascist, which is possible. But, I don't think that happened. I think, at the precise moment that I turned thirty, it could be said that I had left more trash on beaches, however accidentally (things blow away so quickly!), than I had removed from them.

In one painfully sunny stretch of mid afternoon--captured for posterity by a film crew and a photographer--I completely reversed this statistic and discovered that cleaning beaches is not a burdensome, back-pain inducing chore that robs one of the opportunity to surf empty waves (see photo below of RCW sponsored surfers suffering the distracting spectacle of shipwrecks reeling by unmolested). Instead, on every walk back from a surf session since the beach cleanup, I have gathered as much as I can carry and "chunked it"--to use the Liberian English term.


It's incredible and worrying how quickly trash re-accumulates. The bag I am holding below probably weighs fifty or sixty pounds. In the three weeks between the last cleanup and the one depicted here, well over fifteen bags of this garbage washed up on a stretch of beach that is less than a kilometer long. If we had been patient enough to pick through all the shredded, soft plastic that results from the pinches of oil, kerosene, salt, and everything else that are sold to inhabitants of the poverty line for a few pennies, we could have filled another fifteen--and if we rounded the corner towards town and the armada of fishing boats, ugh, I can't even estimate.

Even the day after the cleanup, a bag or more worth of new large filth pieces was on our small stretch of stewarded beach. Thinking about those giant swirling masses of ocean waste is super depressing. How many bags would that be and then where would we put them?


All photographs courtesy of Sean Brody.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Return of the Image:



Here are a few shots of me surfing Cotton Trees two weeks ago. All photographs are courtesy of Sean Brody.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Aside from its impact on my blogging . . .

The last two weeks were an excellent experiment in combining most of the things that I need and enjoy into an optimized, customized lifestyle and it turns out that I can easily accomplish my computer-based work while surfing great waves for several hours a day and advancing the projects of Robertsport Community Works. Granted, living in a large, stilted, well-furnished safari tent, perched with a commanding view of Liberia's marquis point break will probably not be a constant option; but, it may be a possibility for a few more months--especially since Elie has been making herself so welcome in the hotel's kitchen.

We'd love for this arrangement to continue; but there are management issues and politics to negotiate and everyone at the table has strong feelings; so it's a bit of a longshot. Regardless, it's now apparent that we should be living in Roberstport, that living in Robertsport doesn't detract from my professional life and that we have a lot to offer the tourist industry there.

Whenever there are legitimate photographers around, I don't take photographs. So, my camera has been bagged for a couple of weeks; but, supposedly, I'll soon be in possession of hundreds of high quality, professionally shot images of Roberstport, which I hope to share, if I'm given permission.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Turtle Egg in a Tuna Can

That's what's cooking in the kitchen at Robertsport. The recipe is not endorsed by Robertsport Community Works. Indeed, it was hard enough for Robertsport Community Works to restrain its most famous sponsored surfer from raiding a sea turtle nest during the beach cleanup.

Liberia hosts a majority of the endangered turtle species. Liberians display their hospitality by eating their eggs and carting their bodies around Monrovia in wheelbarrows. I spot sea-turtles in the water from time to time and am always glad that they run away. Others spotted a few near shore whales yesterday morning, which was a surprise to me--especially in such warm water.

This week is an experiment in living full time in Robertsport--it began with a prolonged internet blackout, courtesy of your friendly Israeli cellular network. But, now that their upgrades have gone through, I've got a relatively quick connection from the wooden platform of the executive tent at Nana's lodge, which has a gorgeous view that I'll post later this week.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Not Traveling

At least, it doesn't feel like traveling to be confined by my own better judgment and the UN's safety recommendations to the hotel in which I have been staying for more than a week. And, frankly, it didn't feel like traveling before that. The restraints of finding a hotel with fast wireless internet, a hotel that you can exit and enter in nice clothing without exposing your property to risk, are homogenizing ones.

Violence continues in central Kampala as a result of . . . wait for it . . . tribal politics and the egotism and self-interest of a few powerful men. The last I heard, the king of the Baganda people, after two days of rioting and shooting that caused as many as ten senseless, bystander fatalities, attempted to calm things by postponing his inflammatory visit and making a sort of "be calm" proclamation. My guess is, this just didn't sound sincere to the followers that his radio stations had already whipped into a fury. Or, violence and the opportunities that it can offer to looters and grudge-holders, is just too hard for some people to resist at the moment--not because Ugandans are less rationale than other people; but because rapid, highly visible economic progress that is concentrated in the hands of people who aren't sharing and may even seem to be members of exclusive groups breeds its own instability and fuels this sort of outburst with the provocation of its daily existence. (Cough! Excuse me.)

The worst rumors involve roving groups of Ugandans stopping other Ugandans on the street to ask about their ethnic heritage: Why are you so light skinned? Why are you wearing pants if you are a woman? Nice. Rather than take a bunch of cheap shots at how deeply retarded this is, I suppose, to be even-handed, it must be said that while the king in charge of these exemplars of human behavior is one of the biggest land owners in his country, some of his followers may feel excluded from the alleged nepotism of Musevini, the Ugandan president who comes from a minority ethnic group with a vested interest in undermining the larger kingships.

Both he and Mutebi (the king in question) almost certainly have enough comfort at their disposal to spread the tranquilizing influence of food and employment a little more equitably and farther afield; but, that's true of a lot of people. Hell, it's true of me, which is why I didn't run out of my hotel yesterday and try to smash my way into an electronics store for that new Macintosh computer I've been so craving.

Don't worry. By all accounts this is not a general run-for-cover type scenario, though I'm looking forward to my flight out of here on Monday morning. (Which is sad, because this country is rightly beloved of almost anyone who visits.)

I apologize if any of the information in this post turns out to be less than totally accurate, or if my populist assumptions are in fact out of place. Prove it to me and I'll modify the post.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Traveling

I travel to Nairobi this afternoon, where I will spend a couple of days training schools from the Millennium Villages to join the ongoing Connecting Classrooms program. On Sunday, I'll fly from Nairobi to Kampala and divide a week between similar trainings and consulting on a nationwide (for Uganda) scale-up of Connecting Classrooms.

I'll try to blog while I'm moving around; but it promises to be fairly hectic.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

Behind Surf Tourism

Now and then Robertsport Community Works is approached by international journalists who seek a better understanding of our mission and our projects. In a recent interchange with a journalist who has considerable experience with surf publications and sub-Saharan travel, we were asked a question that gets to the heart of surf tourism:

"How much are you interested in increasing surf tourism in the area, and how much are you interested in just seeing to it that whatever comes is positive, clean and beneficial to the locals?"

Waves can only handle a certain number of surfers before they get crowded and become an unrelaxing hassle. All of the expatriate locals in Liberia enjoy waves that are shockingly uncrowded; they can be hesitant to embrace programs that provide Liberians with more surfboards or initiatives that attract more foreign surfers.

This journalist's question probably splits surf communities apart more often than it knits them together. My original thinking was definitely protectionist. I wanted to "see to it that whatever comes is positive, clean and beneficial to the locals" and I looked forward to enjoying the uncrowded waves with a few good friends. But against my own better interests as a surfer, we're focusing more and more on "increasing surf tourism in the area."

Why work to clutter up something that sometimes feels special because it is so isolated? The answer can be found in a raft of analytical documents about Liberia's current vulnerability. Youth unemployment is estimated at around 50% (at the absolute lowest) and opportunities for education and employment border on non-existent. This is the most destabilizing fact about this country--and it is a fact that is making many investors (private and governmental) too worried to inject real cash into the Liberian economy. Tourism can add to the nation's stability by providing lots of low-skill jobs and by providing a clear incentive to control violence and the country's public image.

I'd rather see more surfers in the water if it brings more jobs and if they help to jump start the tourism industry of Liberia. Sitting at the inaugural meetings of the Tourism Association of Liberia--to which Robertsport Community Works is offering support--makes it clear how much work must go into rebranding a country that is still widely associated with terrible things. Surfers are often some of the most adventurous travelers, some of the people who are most willing to give image-challenged nations a second chance--and then to brag about it to everyone they know.

Liberia doesn't need a closely guarded secret; Liberia needs help.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Environmentalism vs. Unemployment (and other false dichotomies)

I'd wager a basket of blood diamonds that the logging industry is sponsoring the editorials that bluster with false populism on a regular basis, decrying how the environmental standards of the international community are forcing poverty and unemployment on the poor forest-dwelling citizens, who timber companies are so committed to helping.

After devoting several hundred words to the allegation that Global Witness, an international, environmental organization is only interested in enriching itself via bribery and double-dealing (with the vast leverage that protecting forests must bring them) an allegation that "the Concerned Citizen" seeks to strengthen by pointing out that the honorable government of Cambodia expelled Global Witness (at the end of what must have been a fair and well-considered process)--readers of the "Liberia Journal" are treated to a beautiful and prophetic recommendation: "Finally, 'beware of the eyes of March' and remember always that the forestry sector is vital to our economic recovery program. I am sure that the sooner you put aside all of political differences, close ranks and look at the financial capabilities of the bidders, with the view that the 'future of Liberia is in your hands' the better it would be for scores of your fellow compatriots most of whom are unemployed and depend on a vibrant forestry sector to regain employment and rebuild their shattered lives after many years of war." That's right, regulations be damned, now is the time to cut down more trees in a country without adequate forestry oversight.

Papers that are sympathetic to Global Witness print GW's allegations of corporate non-compliance that discredit potential bidders for the exploitation of Liberia's ecological richness.

The issue is a bizarre inverse echo of the "Progress vs. the Informal Sector" standard that is the rallying cry of wealthy Liberians who support bulldozing small businesses that put food on the table of her poorest citizens. In this case, unemployment is apparently not a factor, nor is the future wellbeing of the families who are displaced by the demolitions and property-seizing: more pressing is the appearance of the street near the business or residence of the newest big wig to start throwing money around.

Sometimes, it's hard to watch the people and corporations at work who see this vulnerable country as a fairly obstacle-free playing field for their profit-making schemes. You'd think there would be some general hesitance to breed the sort of resentment and anger that exacerbates the same ethnic and class divisions that helped fuel Liberia's civil war.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Simon Says . . .

Aaron, our most dependable campsite security guard watches us interact with the women's sewing cooperative and the campsite contractors. He hears us discussing, at least once a weekend, what projects to focus on next. A little over a month ago, we asked him about his own needs and professional goals and learned about "The Promoters of Good Health"--a group of farmers in a community of fishermen who are working their hardest to pull sustenance and livelihood from the jungle around them.

We told Aaron that we'd be interested in learning more about the Promoters of Good Health and woke up the following morning to discover that five of them had been sitting around our campsite since daybreak. Their bank account has been steadily growing since they make themselves available for post-rainy-season brush work and they seem to have most of the tools that they need for their small scale farming. Beyond that, they have about two acres of land and a desire to hear good advice about how to use it.

Since that point, we've been trying to coordinate a meeting between the Promoters of Good Health and Simon, the German Agriculture Specialist who we lived with during our first two months in Liberia. Simon has spent almost three years traveling all over Liberia training rural communities to make the most of their resources.

He arrived with his young German assistant on Saturday afternoon in the midst of a day-long, relentless downpour. The rain kept a large number of the Promoters of Good Health from turning up to benefit from Simon's experience; but nearly a dozen of us huddled together in the unused structure of a nearby hotel's restaurant, watching Simon kneel in the sand, sculpting it into topographical maps, outlines of tubers and diagrams of composting systems.


I had assumed that the Promoters of Good Health was a male only organization and I felt a bit awkward during the beginning stages of the meeting when a pair of women from the sewing cooperative monopolized conversation and Simon's attention while the men slouched and whispered on the periphery. But when we stopped for proper introductions, it turned out that they are also members of the Promoters of Good Health and that the organization has nearly fifteen female members.

For the next three or four hours, Simon's willingness to turn the sand floor into his own personal etch-a-sketch and his enthusiasm for the usefulness of human feces kept everyone in thrall. He was met with intelligent and consistent questioning, laughter and excitement. The recurring theme was definitely the strategic use of human waste products--something that Simon circled around until he was able to equate a bowel movement with a bowl of rice or twenty Liberian dollars.

At the meeting's conclusion the Promoters of Good Health repeated a clear request for written materials and explanatory pamphlets that I hope we'll be able to meet--seeing as nobody was taking notes and some of the concepts (especially regarding crop rotation and different chemical nutrients) might require study to fully absorb. Though the day was not the least bit relaxing in a conventional way--as it was split between quality control on lapa beach bags and talking about farming with poop--it was still rewarding.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Things Arriving in Liberia:

In the last two days, Liberia's legion of tiny newspapers has been trumpeting the arrival of many things, including "Hilary Clinton." Here are three quintessential front page spreads:


So newsworthy. So awe-inspiring.


I love the tired sounding, matter-of-fact headline. What else is there to say?


It may be in poor taste, but I've got to point out that these children look overjoyed to be welcoming polio back to Liberia.

I've actually never lived in a country with so many distinct and independent newspapers; there are more than a dozen selling on a near daily basis all over the capital and their editorials are widely divergent. Cynics are quick to note that many of these papers are only four pages long, devoting all of their interior real estate to employment ads for NGOs that are willing to pay a cool $350 per half page--every day of the week--in order to meet their legal obligation to post advertisements in at least three local papers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Now my New Yorkers can Visit


Thanks to staggering, unanticipated developments in transportation systems, anyone with a metrocard can now disembark in greater Monrovia at this spanking new bus stop. Give me a head's up so you don't stand around in the rain too long.

But while you are waiting, feel free to visit the most appropriately named structure that I have ever seen:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Vote of no confidence in Macintosh Computers

I returned from Robertsport on Sunday evening to discover that my Macbook wouldn't start--at all. It didn't even make noises to indicate that it intended for me to believe that it was making an effort to start. The only signs of life came from the power cord and the battery, both of which are fine, even blameless. When I shut the computer down on Friday evening, it was fine. When I left it, locked in my bedroom, on a nice pile of clothing, it was fine. Sunday evening it was so broken it couldn't even muster up signs of brokenness.

I thought perhaps that a DVD stuck in the disc drive might be the problem--because the efficient design wizards at Macintosh somehow haven't considered including an overriding manual eject option in case of troublesome discs. I used all the advice on the internet to wage ineffectual warfare against the paperweight until I willed myself to sleep out of pure stressfulness (this upcoming work week is a monster).

In the morning, the lump continued and my queries of the local human network of computer users resulted in the dreary news that the two people in the country who might be able to fix the problem have left for one month vacations.

I tried disassembling the pile in order to extract its evil drive and ran into a tangle of wires that intimidated me--also, I couldn't figure out how to disconnect the mouse cable without breaking it. So, I bought a pc around 2pm (which isn't something, at any time of day, that anyone with shallow pockets is dying to do in West Africa) and got back on my work week before most of my colleagues were done with their coffee. Thanks to the traders at Sharp Showroom for stocking quality lap tops, for being so helpful and for hooking me up with good software. That softened the blow, for sure.

But it is now 2am. Downloading appropriate browsers, add-ons, virus protection, spyware tools, etc. can only be done at an hour when most Liberians have turned their computers off.

There was a moment this evening, when I thought I might have been a bit rash--that moment came when my technically inclined roommate pushed macintosh dissassembly further than I would dare and managed to physically extract the DVD I had been holding responsible. After sweating and fumbling through the process of screwing everything back together (which was so much more fun after my screw driver and tweezers developed opposite magnetic charges), the p.o.s. still couldn't manage a whirr, a flashing light or even a death rattle.

Such spectacular, unprompted and irremediable failure is what I will forever associate with the little vanity box that only managed to impress me with its easy-to-use partial screenshot feature.

Lots of things, of course, are on the hard drive of that machine. But, let's not get into that.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hooch, Part II


A half dozen friends willingly forewent their Heinekens (and risked sacrificing their taste buds) to help us further explore the Ritco beverage portfolio. African Bitter was the almighty stinker of the batch, triggering gag reflexes and disgust faces in all parties. Remaining bottles will be given to neighborhood drunks or building security personnel.


Country Ginger--featuring the lovely turd-swaddled wine glass--was more syrupy than most, with a gingeriness that was far too artificial for a place with so much fresh giner lying around. Deep Love continued to receive adequate reviews; but isn't worth the trouble.

One of our guests let us know that Ritco only had three or four different products before Liberia's civil war. By the time peace rolled around, Ritco sported more than two dozen different beverages. Since importing foreign alcohol and managing the large brewery turned out to be difficult and expensive during the violence, Ritco thrived, ensuring that sorrows could be affordably drowned by large portions of the populace. It's interesting that these beverages are totally unavailable in most reputable bars--you have to go to some raucous neighborhood spots to find these dodgy bottles.

The real motivation for drinking more of this swill, was to conduct further experimentation on Night Train Express, which neither truly impressed nor dissappointed the assembly. The two people who drank at least 12oz of Night Train both acknowledged a clear stimulant effect and at least one of them noticed that it was still discernible the following morning. Small amounts of the beverage did not produce noteworthy effects and were fortunate to be considered drinkable.

I was delighted that Night Train did not cause me serious kidney discomfort, since I was concerned that it might have been the culprit when I last felt those symptoms.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Monrovia: Looking Good


On Sunday, after a second day of skunky waves (for the second weekend in a row), we packed up early in order to get a jump on Monday's workload. On the way back, in a stubborn insistence that Sunday be restful or fun, we decided to visit the "Africa Hotel," which, according to rumor, is now a property of random property collector, Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (supreme leader of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya).

All I knew was that it sits on an unsurfable beach, overlooking a giant pool shaped like Africa. For some reason, I also thought that Mr. Qaddafi had made it fully operational. But it is as shelled out and useless as every other building over four stories tall--having once hosted a mess of gunfighters. The pool is full of wiring, scrap metal and brackish water; but it is bad ass. The hot tub sits right where Saudi would be and Madagascar, along with all other African islands, are not included.

Along this stretch of beach there are a few modest tourist establishments or day-trip beach resorts. They seem popular with the UN, well kept and expensive. The most surprising thing was the view of Monrovia from the other side of the bay.

I did not think it could look so well-apportioned and almost Brazilian. But there it is. Mamba Point--the longest break that anyone talks about in Liberia, starts peeling around the headland to the far right of the image, out into the open (filthy) bay. Starting tomorrow morning, it should be mushy and massive--it's the only spot in the country that responds best to a longboard when it's firing.

"They ate my dogs, 2005"


Benjamin McCroumada contracts for Robertsport Community Works, helping to improve our campsite and to build traditional structures when they are necessary. I met Benjamin because he is an avid surfer, one of Robertsport's best, and a close friend of Alfred Lomax, who tends to receive the bulk of media attention.

While Benjamin is already regarded as a capable fisherman (he is responsible for dispensing the enormous dragnet from the back of a dugout canoe that is paddled in a large semi circle around the wave called "Inner Cotton Trees"), most of his fellow watermen hold his forestry skills in high regard. People say that Benjamin knows the forest "too much" and that he is a skillful hunter. But that was before 2005.

When conflict came to Robertsport, six-year old Benjamin fled to his grandfather's village, out of site in the country's forested interior. There he learned how to farm rice, cassava, banana, potato and pineapple; mastered building with "so so bush materials" (like "rusting plum" and "wismu") and developed his skills as a hunter. This latter ability was cultivated in defense of his agricultural projects. He would only go hunting two or three times a year: on a mission to catch and destroy the animals menacing his family's crops.

At "Camp Four" (the oddly named village), Benjamin had four hunting dogs that he would encourage to hunt by dripping the water from a certain leaf onto their noses. He said it made them excited to hunt, that they would smell keenly and within thirty minutes almost always track down a bush squirrel, a monkey, small deer or other pests. Benjamin supported the dogs with a spear and cutlass.

He returned to Robertsport around the age of fifteen in 1999 and cultivated his skills and reputation as a hunter in a community of fisherpeople. He was in third grade. He loves the forest around Robertsport and is eager to show visitors "certain certain rocks and creeks in the valley" and "different different trees."

But Benjamin no longer hunts. Somtime in 2005, other residents of Robertsport ate his hunting dogs. After losing his dogs, Benjamin turned to the ocean, working his way up the hierarchy of fisherman. He also grew enthusiastic about surfing, to the point that his older brother crafted him a bodyboard out of cork--complete with homemade leash.

When Magnus (a well respected ecologist and aid worker in Liberia who initiated the process of setting up what is now the RCW campsite) saw Benjamin charging on a cork bodyboard back in 2006, he lent him a surfboard. Benjamin says, "I would pray that Magnus would come for the weekends" and was overjoyed when Magnus left behind a massive longboard before leaving the country.

Now, Benjamin's favorite thing in Roberstport is "spinning waves at Cotton Point," where he loves "some glass barrels." His boy is currently scared of the water; but Benjamin puts him beneath an umbrella on the beach "to watch me, so he may then be brave." He wants other surfers and potential visitors to know that local surfers are developing and may become professional; he feels that they deserve support in their efforts.

Surfers from nynjsurf.com donated a surfboard to Benjamin last May; and though it is a little bit the worse for ware, Benjamin can still be seen paddling into massive waves on any of the days when it is too rough to fish.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Swell Forecasts


A lackluster fortnight of wind-ruined wavelessness had my friends and I bodysurfing and paddling for scraps. But things are looking up (see yellow lines approaching Robertsport). While well known surf spots are saturated with web cams and accurate metereological information, the west coast of Africa is relatively understudied. Many of the premier surf forecasting websites (subscription based, data-rich predictive tools) provide no information on Liberia. Surfline (the most expensive and notorious of the bunch) reduces the entire continent of Africa to three countries, none of them on the black African mainland. And a few other major sites have decided, confusingly, to report on Ghana, where the surf is lousy, or Ivory Coast, where I hope to surf soon.


Those few sites that even pretend to forecast for Liberia do so on the basis of "virtual buoys," which use data from hundreds of miles away and then predict what that data will look like nearer to shore. This doesn't take into account any of the coastal wind patterns that, especially in a stormy season, can pulverize something that looked beautiful on the charts.

Since people often wonder how surfers know when to wake up early and hit the water, I thought I'd share these two different (and encouraging) overviews of the waves that are coming to town this week.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Liberian Tourism


Though an unlikely combination of words for the last couple of decades, "Liberian Tourism" is making strides towards viability. On the occasion of Liberia's "Independence," Elie and I gave "Wow Liberia" the opportunity to diversify our Monrovia<->Robertsport circuit. Along with fifteen or so other people--mostly embassy workers and NGO staff in their twenties and thirties--we embarked on a five hour drive towards Gbarnga, the capital of Bong County (stay-tuned for the t-shirt).


A series of jungle-shrouded waterfalls subside near a grove of massive, ancient cotton trees (featured above the tents in the first photograph). These behemoths, sporting orchids on their high altitude branches, cast a spell on their surroundings everywhere that I have seen them--however otherwise cluttered--and the waterfalls aren't too shabby either.


The local community have taken custody of the copse by the lower pool, surrounded it with bamboo fencing and declared it an ecotourism site. They are, however, not shy about throwing a rocking, all-night, generator-fed and beer-fueled, fully-catered dance party--for fifteen perfect strangers. We look forward to working with Wow Liberia on their Robertsport activities and to supporting their efforts to spread responsible tourism around the region.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Law Won!

We have spent the better part of two months trying to figure out how best to approach the process of drawing Robertsport Community Works to the attention of all the relevant ministries and official bodies of Liberia, whose protocols will determine what paperwork we must prepare and at what cost. We visited law offices, spoke with employees at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, talked with recently-registered small-scale NGOs and emerged, from all this reconnaissance, with a somewhat muddled notion of what we had to do and the mounting conviction that we might as well just do it ourselves, at least to get started.

Thankfully, we refrained, at the last minute, from submitting our Articles of Incorporation for informal re-editing by a ministry official and instead, enjoyed the most inspiring, re-affirming and useful meeting of the organization's existence.

As, I sat across from Alfred Brownell, lead attorney of the Green Advocates (Liberia's only law firm devoted to the support and preservation of the country's ecology), explaining the aspirations of Robertsport Community Works, Mr. Brownell fixed me with a more and more disconcerting smile.

"Nobody told you where I'm from?" Elie and I shook our heads. "I'm from Robertsport, from the same community you are talking about!"

The conversation only improved from this unlikely revelation. Mr Brownell traces his roots to the small community of "uptown," the hillside community on the outskirts of Robertsport, nearest to most picturesque beaches and the highest quality surfing. He speaks passionately about natural features and resources of his hometown and affectionately about the families we are already working with.

We now have a partner in our venture, someone deeply respected and admired within the uptown community and someone with all of the experience and qualifications to help us through our incorporation. Not too far into our conversation, Mr. Brownell volunteered to register our NGO. He took the draft of our Articles and said that he would personally ensure that we were registered properly with no fee for his legal services--a valuable and timely contribution.

We look forward to meeting with his friends and family in Robertsport, to collaborating with him in the coming years and to doing what we can to support the aims of the Green Advocates.

Best business meeting ever!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hooch

As long as I can be reasonably certain that I am not dealing with (legendary, mythic?) blindness-inducing, wood-based moonshine, I am open-minded about alcohols produced for drinkers below the poverty line.

Sometimes this means drinking fermented liquids that occur naturally and are served fresh (variations of palm wine); sometimes it means semi-flat, room-temperature cousins of beer derived from unlikely grains (millet, for example); sometimes it means wines improvised from fruit and sugar; and sometimes it is distilled spirits of a bitingly chemical nature (such as "Godfather").


In many parts of West Africa there is also a booming business in "wines" "tonics" and "bitters" (14-28%). These are, bar none, the cheapest means of obtaining drunkenness--you could buy three 12oz bottles for $2. To further seduce their target, these products often boast all sorts of favorable side effects, much like the potions and elixirs legislated away from the world's wealthy drinkers by organizations like the FDA.


"Waist and Powers" is a regional classic, blushed at in some countries as an intimate resource for (older) men and marketed, elsewhere as a middle of the road, energy wine. It is the closest thing that I have seen to a regionally recognized brand--throw a muscle man on the bottle call it "Waist and Powers" and you're done. Sometimes it is opaque, swimming with the pulverized herbs and essences that underlay its quasi-medicinal claims--in these instances, it often tastes bitter, complex and gag-inducing, though, somehow, Dr. Pepper-ish when combined with Coca-Cola. Other times, as with this bottle, it's a totally drinkable relative of a cheap vodka cherry coke cocktail long after the ice has melted, complete with lemon wedge.


Dark Chocolate wine, though it combines two things that I deeply respect, was inspired by a moment of dubious thinking.


Deep Love, I have not yet tried.

And this thing:


I don't understand this thing at all. It contains something that is either illegal and poisinous or magical and destined for global fame. There is a slim possibility that it is physically addictive. There is also a possibility that (owing to the complete non-existence of quality control for these tipples) the bottle I sampled was an aberration, accidentally or intentionally dosed with something that subsequent bottles will not possess. It warrants some at-the-distillery research, some interviews of its Liberian fans and perhaps some sort of double blind clinical trials.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Four Considerations

Consideration One: Given round one of me vs. Liberian malaria, how do I wish to position myself vis a vis Liberian malaria from this point forward. It is normal for expatriates in malarial reasons to swap information about their strategies for dealing with the threat or the experience of malaria. These conversations never really get old because each person's unique budgetary, risk and health calculations are often quite revealing. I considered myself an old hand at malaria, having caught it at least four times and having been dealt progressively milder and more predictable iterations. But they changed up the meds and while I caught this last batch of plasmodium earlier than ever before, the course of treatment rendered me inert and dysfunctional for three days, with a buffer of weakness and sudden exhaustion swelling the impact to nearly a week. My calculation was always that malaria was easy to spot, cheap to treat and quick to get over. But that is not true any longer and so now I am considering going back on constant drugs, which is an option that I dislike for many reasons. Since the best, designer anti-malarial option is hundreds of dollars a year and since the cheapest version can make you psychotic, I may just be on time sensitive broad spectrum antibiotics for a pile of months. I do not wish to submit to the amodiaquine lethargy again.

Consideration Two: Is it advisable to foster tiny instances of industrial revolution? As Elie and I spec out a community sewing project that seems more and more likely to merit and receive funding and support, the inclusion of a sewing machine (or sewing machines) must be considered. If there are no sewing machines, many women can work (laboriously) on an individual, hassle-free basis to produce various goods, which means a small amount of extra money spread broadly across the community. If there is a sewing machine, it must be housed, protected, paid for and equitably used. This is an interesting logistical puzzle: do we incentivize use of the sewing machine? What is a fair way to determine who uses the sewing machine and when? Since the machine would likely be purchased with a micro-finance loan, how would we determine whose efforts contribute what percentage to the paying back the financiers? Etc. The miniature industrial revolution of this machine seems likely to concentrate power in the hands of a few women and to sew dissent across the land. Pun intended, of course.

Consideration Three: How do we set up a positive sustainable model of sponsoring Liberian surfers? In most places, surfing has the reputation of distracting young people from school and academic pursuits. Here, we are in the unique position of having talented surfers asking for help with their school fees. Once we figure out how to raise the money, our first tactic, will be to show that talented surfers in Liberia can be sponsored students, receiving help towards their learning expenses and potentially receiving bonuses for good grades rather than contest performances. When the quality of talent rises to a contest level, which it will, we'll start diversifying this model. But for now, I think it's a good place to start.

Consideration Four: When do I carve time out of the upcoming week to surf? The fabled onshores of rainy season have finally switched on and begun to mow down our consistent swell with dependable heartlessness. More early mornings. Malaria and other bad winds have kept me out of the water for the longest amount of time since deplaning at Robertsfield airport and I can't wait to get wet. 

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Downtown


Since today was uncharacteristically bright and clear and since my malaria has ebbed enough for me to climb unnecessary stairs, I jogged up to our roof and cataloged the view. This enclave of Monrovia is evidently more tree-filled than most, though it would be easy for a pedestrian on the wrong side of the twelve foot walls to miss this fact. High ground, greenery and sea views predictably attract money and Mamba Point is no exception. Most of the UN buildings are in this area, along with several other sturdy NGOs. Much of the remaining real estate is given over to costly apartment buildings that hold a solid percentage of the 15,000 foreigners working in Liberia's NGO community.


Pleasantly, however, there are still a few lots held down by local communities who have been reluctant to cash out on their land investment. Just next to our building is this collection of makeshift, low-lying homes--all of which are emphasizing the exceptional nature of today's sunshine by airing most of the laundry they possess. The amount of noise generated by this tiny square of humanity is often staggering.


Facing south east gives a view of the most cluttered and trafficked part of town--all of the commerce along Broad and Randall. The taller buildings in the far background are not in service.

Neither is the commanding Hotel Ducor, which occupies the best real estate in town, crumbling at the high point of Monrovia, surrounded by the thickest and tallest trees of the capital. I'm still enjoying the convenience of being so close to everything (grocery stores); but it's a shame that the only ocean I see is from hundreds of yards away--impossible, now, to look out the window and know exactly what the waves are doing. It'll be a few more days before I've gotten my energy reserves back in shape to surf anyways.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Various

Town: living near the summit of Monrovia's tallest hill with easy access to a fifth floor roof, makes the city feel a bit more pocket-sized. So does realizing that roads I thought were crawling off in different directions turn a corner and join ends. Fortunately, it's easy to maneuver Monrovia on foot without feeling threatened, being followed or even being too aggressively whistled, hissed or kissed at. It's been raining and gray for a week; whenever that lets up, I hope to get some rooftop shots.

Malaria: I don't think I've ever caught malaria so far in advance of its own thriving. Everyone I've spoken with gauges with different indicators. I have about 3-5% too much energy, around my whole system that doesn't come from exercise, caffeine or enthusiasm and that I do not control. If it holds steady for more than four hours or if it ratchets up a little bit; I'll go to a lab. So, yesterday, in a lab smaller than our bedroom, I got my unremarkable diagnosis. The only difference this time, is that I'm doing the responsible thing, public health wise. Whereas I'm accustomed to taking Fansidar or Artesunate--easy, painless, no-fuss treatments for Malaria, which also contribute to drug-resistant malaria--I'm now taking the combined treatment which includes Amodiaquine, a drug with a reputation for draining and unpleasant side-effects. So far so good.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kanye, West Africa

While looking for lunch in our new neighborhood, Elie and I stopped by Cici's bar and restaurant, where an "opening soon" sign looked too permanent to trust. A scruffy but clear spoken, middle aged man with an American accent told us that we could call ahead for food any evening that we liked, stressing the quality of their grilled meat. Later that day, in a brief interlude between downpours, we placed an order for some meat plates and then walked four hundred meters to our new local. An attentive and well trained staff served us their inaugural meal as an intensifying downpour pushed us from a nice outdoor table to progressively more sheltered seats.

We ended up at a table next to the proprietress and her friends and though the roof was leaking in a few places, everyone was drinking beer with growing patience for the deluge. The man who had convinced us to come to the restaurant in the first place proved to be an excellent conversationalist. After discussing various business ventures along with his aspiration to have an actual paid position on the staff of Cici's bar, he drew attention to his right leg, on which he had been limping. I hadn't noticed that it had been amputated above the knee; he was moving around on a quality prosthesis.

Kanye fled Liberia in 1979 to be with family in Rhode Island and eventually started a two-child family of his own with an American woman who he did not marry. When he had "family trouble," the mother of his children apparently drew him to the attention of American Immigration law enforcement, the result of which was his precipitous and permanent return to Liberia, where he lives with a cousin who does not appreciate his appearance or the fact that he is vying for the same financial resources of their extended family. Somehow, shortly after returning to Liberia, Kanye got a bump on his foot that became more and more problematic. Misdiagnosis and perhaps negligent personal care enabled a fungal infection to become gangrenous and so Kanye, in his mid thirties, lost his leg after losing his family and his job, which gave him, suddenly, lots in common with many of his countrymen, mostly ex-combatants.

A few years ago, an influential Monrovia politician suggested that Kanye consider advocating for Liberians with disabilities. Kanye declined the opportunity, in a move that he now thinks was "stupid." But his thought-process was revealing and valid. He told me that many of the disabled young men around downtown Monrovia (the wheelchair-bound, crutch-using beggars who offer themselves as parking assistants and vehicle security officers) are former rebels. He says that you can distinguish them by their aggressive way of offering their services and their more aggressive way of asking for payments. For Kanye, it was unthinkable to make "common cause" with people who had "held a gun to their neighbors' heads." He made it clear that he doesn't think disabilities are ever the "fault" of people who have them; but he isn't comfortable laboring to make life easier for people who he still thinks of as killers.

Anyone advocating for the disabled in Liberia will have to make peace with the fact that their constituency contains as many murderers as it does Polio victims. Kanye would rather do odd jobs around a bar. Disabled people are such a common site across Africa wherever wealthy people park their cars, that I hadn't stopped to think of the, perhaps obvious, backstory of the ones around Liberia.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Waves for the Weekend


Though the whole purpose of remaining in Monrovia on Friday and Saturday nights was to engage socially with the urban crowd, our social intentions were corrupted by sudden and prolonged work-related tasks that turned Saturday into a stress festival. When 9pm rolled around and we were finally willing to disconnect from the internet, it seemed preferable to watch a pirated version of Terminator 4 than to drive into town and manage conversations.


Waking up at 6am on Sunday morning in order to arrive in Robertsport in time for the morning surf session (a hurry necessitated by the regular appearance of unfavorable afternoon winds), was so exhausting and unpleasant that the whole weekend seemed likely to offer a total and complete refusal of restfulness . . . until we saw the water.


The outer points (those most exposed to the incoming swell) were looming up and bombing in a wonderful and intimidating way and the premier wave of Robertsport was firing on all cylinders. There was more than enough to share between the uncommonly large crowd of seven--and when Monday morning rolled around (after eleven hours of sleep), it was even sweeter to share cleaner, bigger waves with just two of the Robertsport locals.


Though we're moving into town tomorrow, I can't wait to figure out a way to relocate to Robertsport. It is nearly impossible to retain stress and illwill anywhere within the visible radius of the ancient cotton trees that charge that piece of earth with so much magnetism.

Many thanks to Elie for taking some pictures of me in the water.

Nobody Speaks Up


The rooster is not pleased with you and though, beneath its feathers, it was but the size of a pigeon, it was roasted and delicious, generous even towards the potatoes with which it was cooked, even unto the last minute. The ghost of the rooster has bedeviled this image file, which has been rotated right numerous times, only to appear crooked in the flesh. The rooster is dead. Long live the rooster!

I confess, that I have always wanted to kill and consume every non-human animal that wakes me up. This sort of wish-fulfillment is very satisfying. Dog meat, in Liberia is called "Ishew."

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury


Our security guard recently testified that this rooster no longer impacts the laying capacity of our nine-strong hen collection, which he (the rooster, not the security guard, thank heavens) has ravished at his whim since our arrival. As he (the rooster) no longer serves a purpose to our poultry community or to our premises in general, I submit to you that he (the rooster) should be executed in celebration of American Independence. In support of this death sentence, I advance his (the rooster's) adherence to the intolerable code of global roosters: constantly waking people up before the sun has risen by incessant, top volume, discordant and grating vocalizations that the perpetrator unleashes periodically throughout the morning and afternoon hours to ensure that nobody can depend upon deep or restorative sleep. The amnesty he has enjoyed as a hen fertilizing mechanism has now expired.

Whereas our security guard has suggested that the rooster might be slain in celebration of Liberia's "independence" (from America) on July 26th, I propose that one of our (admittedly harmless) ducks be used for that purpose and that the rooster die in celebration of an earlier and clearer independence celebration.

Is there anyone who cares to speak on behalf of this cock?

Movie Economics

In advance of moving to Liberia, I spent days and days of time copying DVDs from Netflix and storing them in giant binder--the trashy entertainment equivalent of canned food in a fallout shelter. But the scale and sophistication of the movie pirating industry has exceded itself in the last four years. When I was last in West Africa, my taste for Hollywood garbage was sustained by one or two Indian hardware stores that dealt in poor quality DVDs from East Asia that lagged behind movie release dates by at least four months and contained, at most, five movies--one or two of which were regularly unwatchable.

Now, for less than $5, I can purchase something like "Movies of the Year III (70 in 1)." On the cover of this cardboard folder is the promise: "Broadcasting Time is up to 3000 Minutes." This disc includes everything from "The Orphanage" and "Meet the Spartans" to "American Pie 7" and "Bring it on 4." Plenty of movies are mislabled, some of them have subtitles in unfortunate languages; but most of them are of watchable quality.


These discs are arranged according to logic that is sometimes crystal clear and sometimes baffling. How "Senior Skip Day" and "Why did I get Married?" come to be on a disc called "Movies of the Year" is difficult to understand; whereas the archive on "Large Collection of Classic Disaster" makes perfect sense.


The filler movies can often be the real joy of these discs. Of course "The Large Collection of Classic Disaster" includes "The Perfect Storm," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Twister." But it also contains "Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York" and "The Swarm." One in five of the collections of I've seen contains "Star Ship Troopers 4."

An additional joy of these purchases is the mish-mash cover art--though it can be a real disappointment when the films on the front don't make it onto the disc (for instance: Will Ferrel, pictured below, does not feature in any film available on "US Top-Most Movies"). Nor is there any movie in which Tom Hanks is attacked by Transformers, something that I would definitely pay money to see.


Why "Don Movie" thought that two trumpet blowing babies in overalls surrounded by cupcake jellyfish would be a good branding move, escapes me completely.

So here are some economics that I find interesting. If you were to purchase all of the DVDs, legally, that each of these $5 collections has assembled, you would be paying on average, at least $400. If you were to rent them from blockbuster, you would be paying at least $100. If you were to try ordering them from netflix on a 5-a-day monthly plan, it would take you nearly two months and more than $40. And if you were to buy the pirated movies widely available in NYC (on the A-train for example), it would still set you back at least $70--though you'd never find half of these ridiculous titles. However the pirated discs in New York are more very likely to be unwatchable, which I find confusing--why do the pirated DVDs available in Liberia boast such ample offerings and such higher quality than the pirated discs in NYC?

But, even if you can get your visual Hollywood fix in Liberia, the money is still in the concessions that you crave: a large bag of Tostitos (if you are lucky enough to find it) will cost you a cool $10--and salsa's gonna set you back another $7-10.

So, the last relevant calculation: $20 on chips and salsa; $5 on all-night movie marathon; $10 on beer and you've got the monthly earnings of your average Liberian down the hatch in one brain dead evening!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Robertsport Community Works

Robertsport Community Works has taken a few significant steps towards existing in the last couple of days. News of its formation and evolution can be found at the organization's blog, which will hopefully feature posts and entries from a wide variety of stakeholders. 

In the next few days, we'll design the first batch of t-shirts, which will identify the community members who participate in the first beach cleanup. We'll post some before and after shots of this event. An alarming amount of medical waste has been washing up in recent weeks, so this cleaning is as much of a health and safety issue as it is cosmetic and tourist-friendly.

A visiting Californian surfer provided us with an amusing summary of our intentions for Robertsport Community Works: “You’re just like funneling all of the best ideas related to development that anyone has had in the last five years into this one spot.” Hopefully, that turns out to be correct.

I'll try to limit the spill-over of NGO stuff into this blog, but the fact that it is poised to supplant most of my other hobbies and pastimes, means it will be visible in the background of many posts.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A few images


Before this wonderful road, our weekly pilgrimage to Robertsport would not have been possible. Now and then, along the way, a few acres are burnt to the ground: evidence of charcoal harvesting--the biggest visible threat to Liberia's remaining rainforests. But, by and large, one passes very few cars along this broad and well-surfaced express route towards Sierra Leone.


Topping the hill just before town affords a view of lake Piso, separated from the ocean by a narrow sand bar. The town of Robertsport wraps around a small corner of this glassy lake shore, with a few houses, at most on either side of the rutted muddy throughway. Lake Piso, from what I've heard, is never more than four or five feet deep--which leads to the comical sight of fishermen, in the distance, standing chest deep beside their dugout canoes.


Immediately to the side of our current residence is a small stream that quintupled in size after a recent two day downpour. In the background, you can see that small plots of corn are submerged. The ocean, combined with this water outlet, were seriously threatening the perimeter wall of this house, until the entire rubble-ized remnants of someone's concrete house were dumped just in front of our gate and then bulldozed into an additional several meters of earthen reinforcement.