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.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Three Lives

Life one: plugged into a computer for ten or twelve hours a day, interrupted by a handful of long phone calls and an uncomfortably spicy fish and oil based meal. Sometimes these productivity streaks are postponed or cut short by a two or three hour mission into downtown Monrovia for shopping and paperwork.

Life two: no computer, no phone—those things, if I have them with me at all, are hidden in a locked car—going to bed early, sleeping on the ground, impromptu meetings with all and sundry from the Robertsport community and enough surfing (at least five hours a day) to prepare my body for the desk routine.

The tight hand off between these existences is marked by a beautiful three hour commute from greater Monrovia to awesomer Roberstport: a drive that becomes smoother and smoother as more and more of the law enforcement at the eight or so checkpoints become familiar with us and our car.

Life three should include reading, writing, creative time, keeping up with friends, and relaxation; but that hasn’t happened yet. I haven’t gone this long without finishing a book in years. If I preserve a couple of hours during the course of an average day in life two, I vegetate in front of a dvd or practice yoga. Life one doesn’t have spare hours: everything is activity, the procurement of food and establishing relationships.

While my description of life two and small gripe about potential life three might sound dissatisfied, that is not my intention. The balance between my personal and professional focuses fits me really well at the moment and I enjoy the marathon sessions at the computer. Of course, I enjoy other marathon sessions more. But this mix is working for me just fine and it helps me to appreciate all of its component parts.

For the waveheads: a few images. The pulled back shots of the best Robertsport point feature a surfer who is, I’d guess, somewhere in his fifties and still charging a speedy, sometimes rocky, overhead left. The only pic of me surfing so far features my goofball rashguard and a wave that doesn’t look so big.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Full Plate

By way of context and on request, here is some of the background on the professional circumstances that enable this experiment in West African living and an introduction to the projects that keep me out of the water.

Several organizations run projects that they call “Connecting Classrooms.” I’ve been working on UNICEF’s version of this initiative for several years. This work involves as much coordination and email juggling as it does curriculum and instructional design. Occasionally, it creates huge and pressing obligations related to the creation of training materials or monitoring and evaluation reports.

The most active community involves junior and secondary school students in Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Senegal, South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius and Egypt—this is just getting under way with a focus on food and agriculture related subjects. Technical modifications affect this website, often in significant ways, every several weeks.

In the works is the drastic (and, in part, temporary) expansion of this community to include hundreds of schools from Connecting Classrooms projects that are run by other organizations in other countries. This will focus on climate change and environmental themes and requires much more delicate and thorough coordination. Though it hasn’t yet begun, it’s already consuming as much, if not more, time than the currently active iteration.

Simultaneously, I am offering rolling assistance to Palestine, where the country office is making efforts to launch an Arabic version of Connecting Classrooms for students in the West Bank. This effort is intended to scale, rapidly, towards the inclusion of students from the Iraqi diaspora in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The themes for this project are not yet determined as the technical process of translating and flipping (left to right) of the user interface is time consuming.

Meanwhile, I’ll need to do a partial rewrite of the entire icouldbe.org curriculum in advance of the 2009-2010 academic year, while leading a very different re-write of our curriculum for E-mentoring Africa who hope to implement an icouldbe.org style online mentoring program in Kenya. I’ve been working closely with this hard working team of non-profit educators to formulate a working business plan for online mentoring in the considerably different circumstances of sub-Saharan Africa. I’ll probably end up traveling to Kenya for trainings related to this project. The U.S. based version of icouldbe.org also requires regular consulting on branding, marketing, school outreach and instructional design.

UNIDO is sponsoring a youth platform to serve Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. This happens to be run on the exact same developing internet technology that I am using for the Connecting Classrooms project. The Liberians in charge of generating local uptake of this resource are impressively motivated and switched-on. Elie and I are interested to figure out how we can support their efforts and are leaning towards increasing the democracy building capabilities of the program—especially since a few government ministries have already joined scores of youth organizations in creating accounts.

Finally, I’m Co-founding, co-planning and co-directing “Robertsport Community Works,” a not-yet legally extant NGO dedicated to making sure that tourism benefits the impoverished community that lives on the exceptional point breaks of Robertsport. This involves networking, planning, self-marketing, paperwork, lots of bubble charts and documents along with cash and physical labor—since we’re starting early with beach clean-ups and the establishment of a community-run campground beneath the iconic cotton tree.

Finally, my efforts are ongoing to coordinate with research scientists at Drexel towards the creation of optimal monitoring and evaluation practices for all of these initiatives.

I pulled the first work-related all-nighter that has ever been necessitated in my life. I felt like I was in college. Once, I’m able to switch a few of these projects into auto-pilot, I look forward to using my consultancy corporation to delegate some of these incessant tasks to the capable people in my network.

Oh, we’ve almost acquired all of our car documents (check the license plate); we’ve got our 60 day visa extension and we’re still looking for a place to live—though, increasingly, it seems like it might be smarter to base ourselves in Robertsport in order to help coordinate the efforts of what seem to be a rather large number of people interested in helping that particular portion of the country.

You may notice the shadow of the license plate this once was. Yes, "PP 9460" was pressed, somewhat flat and then hand-painted to provide us with our own vanity plate. True recycling.

Surfing: Last weekend was overhead and glassy at Robertsport, where, for almost every session, there wasn’t a soul in the water. My leash broke, causing my standard midrange thruster to break its nose on one of the smooth black rocks by the shore; this board joins three others in the queue for board repair, a queue that is not currently moving for an absence of sandpaper and time.

Almost every night it rains so hard that from two feet away, I can’t hear the music, blasting at full volume, from the speakers of my laptop.

Friday, June 12, 2009

World Famous

Check the BBC Slide Show at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/8092112.stm

These pictures were taken last weekend at Robertsport. In the first shot, I'm in the weird hooded rashguard and the crowd includes the small fries I mentioned in an earlier post--one of whom is also going left on a later slide on the leashless funboard. The surfer busting air on the closed out wave is not Alfred Lomax. That is Peter Swen, our Liberian English teacher and Monrovia's local talent. The good panorama of the giant cotton tree includes our surfboards, leaning on a much smaller tree on the right and the last picture includes a double butt shot of Nate "Calhous" and partner. World famous.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Since Elie and I are not actively spoken for by any large and influential international organizations, we are managing our paperwork with our own resources. Since we are also not totally without financial resources, we have retained a well-connected Liberian operator to put up with all of the bureaucrats, delays and tedium of processing our documents. Of course it takes longer and costs more than first estimates would suggest and of course it is a much griped about nuisance. But, having the assistance that we do takes, at least for me, all of the stress and impatience from the process.

I've even been given reason to look forward to certain processes. Since Elie and I will have to register an NGO (unless it seems more prudent to open a Liberian chapter of Surfrider--opinions anyone?), we will apparently have the opportunity to see what happens when paper-pushers within the Ministry of (I think) Commerce, exercise their linguistic skills and abilities while venting their opinions about the supplicant nature of foreigners.

We had a chance to look over the paperwork of an unusual and recently formed NGO. The original introductory clause of this organization, as drafted by its European architect, included standard legalese and some charitable sentiments. This paragraph was replaced with a paragraph that includes what is now one of my favorite phrases in the English language:

"Wheras, I the founder of the above named Organization having experienced several and sudden helpless instances of financial needs and assistance of the Liberian people and in regard to our responsibilities as partners to our respective countries, do hereby organized ourselves under this organization for the purpose of solving such problems and providing other incentives to the Liberian people hereby I, the founder by these presents do hereby agreed to organize the said Organization." (All spelling and grammar errors have been left uncorrected.)

"Several and sudden helpless instances" would make a phenomenal title of a novel's tragic section, a great album name or a good epigram. By way of context, the founder of this document asseverates that he has not, in fact, suffered several and sudden helpless instances; but has instead been bled of small sums of money at numerous points by people who he has begun to regard with prejudice and distaste.

So, what I anticipate with some glee, is the bowdlerization of whatever organizational preamble is intended to define the intentions of our Robertsport Community Organization. Perhaps it will say "whereas we, the founders of the above named organization having been discovered stranded at sea in a sinking rubber dinghy by the valiant fishermen of Cape Mount County and in regard to our responsibilities do hereby intend to solve the financial problems of anyone nearby." I'll keep you posted.

Hey, Google, Pay Attention to Africa!

To any Google representatives or robots:

1) Liberian IP addresses do not originate from an Arabic speaking country. Despite choosing "lb" as their country suffix--a suffix I'm sure that Lebanon or Libya engaged much earlier--Liberia continues to be an English speaking country. Making Google and its affiliates load, automatically, into Arabic effectively prevents Google products from reaching this increasingly technologically capable country.

It might be worth doing a quick check of other African country suffixes to see if this same issue is happening in any other unlikely places. It is a small but crippling obstacle to accessing Google products.

2) Why not make an obvious way to escape a presumptuously translated UI? A simple array of flags to indicate other language options would be way easier than assuming that your average users have figured out what "language" looks like in Arabic, Amharic, Kiswahili, etc.

3) Googledocs is too heavy to load on slow connections (even if they are fast enough to host gchat). Is there a basic html toggle option to help your dedicated googledocs users access their materials when they are in the developing world?

If anyone knows how to more effectively bring these issues to the attention of Google's powerful strata, please let me know. These issues are affecting millions of switched on computer users.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Liberia has a branding problem, both externally and internally. For instance, the body of water surrounding the backside of Monrovia is called "the swamp."

In the foreground of this photograph (taken from a perpetually crowded bridge between the "Free" port and the downtown area) sits a curious medical building--on which is written, in gigantic letters, "Abide by the Geneva Convention." This building's island rests in the "swamp."

This cheerful pedestrian is strolling across the perpetually crowded bridge about to pass by the tiny island (a shrubbery of which can be seen in the lower right hand corner) that is situated in the "swamp." Does it seem to anybody that the glassy, reed-free water in these photographs deserves to be called a "swamp?" Might it not be more healthy for the reputation of Monrovia if it were known to be situated between the Atlantic Ocean and . . . a lagoon? As a point of information, the "swamp" does not smell bad--at least not from the bridge. I'm sure that its periphery enjoys the spontaneous latrine status of all water bodies here and smells unlike fresh daisies. But in the murky, foul, sinking, stinking sense, Monrovia is not surrounded by a swamp.

On the other side of the stripe of buildings present in the background of both photographs is an incline leading down towards the Atlantic Ocean. Monrovia is a skinny capital city on a narrow, hilly strip of land, crowded with commerce on the lower two floors and sidewalks of most streets. The handful of buildings over five stories tall do not seem to be in current use. Many of the more elaborate structures that I have seen (in Robertsport or in Monrovia) are in waiting--surrounded by various theories (some of them no doubt grounded in fact) about who has purchased the rights to return them to glory.

Surf: this weekend's surf at Robertsport was the most mediocre that I have encountered yet: a roughed up head high smaller period (11 seconds) fading groundswell that didn't have the points firing on all cylinders. However, the less toothy aspect of the swell brought out the local groms (I'd guess they were around 12 years old) who were charing what were, for them, well overhead waves--one of them on Sussanah's old 6'2" lost thruster and the other, leashless, on a fun board that he kept ditching. Along with the other more mature surfers in the water, I enjoyed lecturing them about their deplorable surf etiquette and then hooting for their gutsiness. Elie also started charging.

And on an unrelated cultural note: while digging through some of my gathered but unexplored itunes library, I discovered that a band called "Holy F*ck" (excuse me) make some excellent music for getting work done. Along the lines of the Octopus Project--no singer, no fuss.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Conference Call

Cellular and wireless technology is so under-utilized in a traditional office environment. Working remotely is the most motivating activity that I have so far undertaken. It is even more effective here than it was in New York because my connection speeds are low enough in Liberia that I have to carefully select what pages I choose to load--none of them can contain audio or video clips. In combination with the constant sound and appearance of waves to my immediate left (see next photo), I feel medicated against the scattered attention and obsessive information gathering/web activity that shredded my New York working hours.

An uncharacteristicly small and disorganized close-out breaks onto the urchin-populated rock reef on the other side of the home office's barred door. Though the constant titillation of audible waves can be maddening and cause me to get incredibly antsy and hyper, I think that, on balance, it has a calming and focusing effect--especially since I know that surf is not in scarce supply. The immediate disappearance of East Coast waves seems capable of generating especially addictive and compulsive attitudes for local surfers. I'm glad to be relaxing in a bountiful place.

This weekend, we'll start engaging with the community in Robertsport to see what ambitions they have for local NGO activity. The only pressure I hope to apply pertains to beach clean-up and recycling. Beyond that, this could turn into a meeting about digging wells just as easily as it could discuss chicken farming or mentoring programs.

Our anticipated seven foot swell has dropped off a bit more rapidly than expected--I can't seem to do better than virtual buoys and surf reports for the Ivory Coast when trying to predict our own conditions, which, naturally, causes some inaccurate forecasts. Our mechanic's custody of the new vehicle has kept me dry for the last two days, in the face of tempting waters.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Liberia Stage One

Many of the expatriates here express surprise when they learn that Elie and I moved to Liberia voluntarily. However, several of them have seen our move as a positive reflection on the forward momentum of this country--some of them suggesting that it would not have been possible for us to do this even six or seven months ago. The internet and telecommunications plans and devices that we depend upon for work have only been affordable and reliable for a short time. And, supposedly, options for food and diversion are increasing on a monthly basis.

I've been a bit surprised by the youth, sociability and professionalism of the development community. Because of the rougher nature of Liberia, it is not yet the playground of volunteers (though there are missionaries everywhere) and it seems to attract, instead, a fairly ambitious and career-oriented crowd. There are more NGOs and fellowship programs here than I have ever heard of. It's an interesting laboratory for ideas about reconstruction and development. I am eager to put some of my own thoughts into action for the small community around Robertsport, whose beautiful location is already being absolutely trashed by oblivious weekend visitors.

Most of our social activity here, so far, has derived from connections that we've made in the water--where total arbitrariness reigns with regards to what sort of people have chosen to surf in the active waters of Liberia. I've resolved, incidentally, to relegate surfing to the last two sentences of any given post; this would seem to balance the disinterest that most people feel towards my recreational activities and the total indignation that my surfer friends would feel if I didn't mention it at all.

Those two sentences: The waves have not been below shoulder high since we arrived two weeks ago. To my delight, they have usually been overhead and glassy for at least six hours a day--a trend set to continue for the next week at least.