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 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.