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


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


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


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!