19 July 2006

oh, but it's bad

i have to type oh so gently so that my computer doesn't get jolted and turn itself off. my computer is approximately toast. i turn it on about ten times for every one time that i make it to the point of getting windows and then a website to load.

so computer = dead.

work = crazy. at least 11 hours per day. at least we know they need us.

and that's about it. lots of fun, lots of stories, but if i wait too long my computer will freeze and do that horrible screen shaking thing and i will have to turn it off and restart it about fourteen times. not an exaggeration. not at all.

one week to lights.

one thing i love about liberia is all the yelling. everyone is yelling at everyone all the time. the driver yells at the gas station attendant. the gas station attendant yells back. the office people yell at us. we yell back. everything is a chaos of yelling. none of that east african reticence. c says she's been liberated. i feel liberated.

16 July 2006

Liberia has killed my computer

I made the apparently terrible mistake of plugging it in at a conference at the Ministry of Gender. Oops. The fact that everything operates on generator power means that fluctuations in power are very common. A reduction in power isn't so terrible, but a surge... the screen went black and now people are saying terrible words like "motherboard" and "hard drive." I'm not happy with the computer situation, although I am relieved that the computer people I took it to were able to back everything up and will be wiping the hard drive and installing open source software. Take that, Microsoft! If that doesn't fix it, then it's very possibly the motherboard, which means that I'm in trouble and will be mostly computer-less until I get back to New York. Bah.

But otherwise I am happy. We went last night to the Miss Liberia pageant, held out at the Unity Conference Center near Hotel Africa, right by the villas where the Organization of African Unity summit was held in 1979. On the way there we passed along UN Drive on Bushrod Island, where the two functioning stop lights (generator powered) are. When he got to the first light, which was red with a green left turn arrow, the taxi driver stopped and then started through the intersection, running the light. "But... The light is red!" I said. "Yes," he answered, "but that other car is broken down and isn't going to move." (meaning the car to our right, waiting to turn left onto our road, who also had a red light at that moment, which is why it was not moving) On the way home, our friend W was driving and stopped at the light, "I'm going to be good and stop at this light, for the only time ever." he said. I was more worried that we would get rear-ended by actually stopping than we would have been in danger if we ran it. Sure enough, a moment later a car came up full speed, swerved around us, and blazed through the light without slowing down. After fourteen years without traffic lights, it looks like it might take a while for them to become commonly accepted in Monrovia again.

Miss Liberia was... interesting. It was so hot that we couldn't sit in our seats, so we went and stood in the old, unlit press boxes and watched from just above the stage. I met Miss Grand Bassa County by being nice to Miss Grand Gedeh County's assistant, who brought her out so I could wish her luck and then during the one category that we watched (African dress - appears to involve fake ivy and grass skirts and peacock feather bustles and every possible bad stereotype of African dress that the West has ever had), I cheered loudly and yelled her name. She was one of only two wearing beautiful lappa cloth dresses like women actually wear in Africa. We had each chosen a county to support (JD = Bong, C = Bomi, JK = Sinoe, W = Grand Cape Mount, B = Lofa, and me, of course = Grand Bassa). Everyone agreed that Miss Grand Bassa should win, with Miss Lofa a close second. We still don't know who won, though, because by 1 am they had only done the first of four categories and showed no signs of moving on to the second. We were tired of standing. I had slammed my toe on an old rusting piece of media equipment and was bleeding profusely (must check on the tetanus shot).

We got home at 2:30 am and were locked out again. For about the twentieth time. It got so bad this time - we couldn't leave and go sleep somewhere else because the taxi broke down as we arrived at our compound - that C went over the wall and woke the guard up as he was sleeping in the hallway of one of the buildings. We had to have a talk with the manager of the compound today, but also pointed out that if he wanted the guards not to sleep he has to PAY THEM because a man who has to work during the day because he's not being paid for his night work is going to have to sleep during the night. They were paid yesterday, the manager told us, and proceeded to show us the reciepts - that they were paid yesterday for JANUARY. This is July. There are months in between. For which the guards need to be paid.

Unfortunately, I suspect that they might get fired rather than paid. I hate it when that happens.

I don't have the time for more writing, but it looks like I'm going to do it, because this firing possibility reminds me of some thoughts on frustrated hopes. Back a while ago, when I was reading all the job applications, I kept noticing people who said, "I had to drop out of school in 1990 because of the civil war" or "I had to leave my job because of the civil war to flee to Ivory Coast" and I'm haunted by this idea of so many people living their lives here in the 1980s, planning and going to school and thinking that something would come of it, only to have everything destroyed over and over and over. I can't change it. I can't even change the guilt I feel for having been white and wealthy and able to leave in 1990. But I wish I could.

I still wish I could.

I've been reading two books: Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty and William Powers' Blue Clay People, and those combined with the possible firings have me in a melancholy mood. I haven't yet gotten to the part of Sachs' book where he talks about how poverty can be ended, only the part where he talks about how poverty is. And Powers' book is about Liberia as the war was starting again in 2000. And still, in the midst of it all, I keep thinking of one of my friends in Rwanda saying to Stf about his continent, "Of course you'll be back! Africa is a brilliant continent."

And J the taxi driver tells me his plans for buying a new and better car and he stays to make sure that we get into the compound and I watch his eyes light up when he talks about his one-year-old daughter and the rain is pouring down in sheets and I know that it is. It is a brilliant continent.

10 July 2006

okay, I have one more second

2058 hrs

The other day, someone was talking about her R&R to the US. She had gone to New York and New Jersey and something. And someone said, “Oh, I’m so jealous.”

And I thought, “Are you kidding me? Why would anyone want to go THERE? Stay in Liberia! It’s so much less boring.”

always in a hurry - still no internet at the office

8 July 2006
1457 hrs

I still get a jolt sometimes at the word “Liberia.” I see the word Liberia many times a day right now, but every once in a while I see it or hear it and the shock of it hits me in the belly. In a good way. Not like the food poisoning shock, which also happens occasionally here. The Liberia shock is mostly because for so many years I was the only one whose ears perked up when someone said, “Liberia.” I would rush to the tv or grab the newspaper and soak up the information. If I did that here, I would be darting from place to place every moment and so most of the time I remember that everyone here is interested in what happens to Liberia and just let it role on by, but sometimes it catches me unaware and then I still get the jolt.

Momentously, I am in Liberia. This is a fond joke among the interns in our office – we got a letter one day that included the line, “Momentously, I am a Liberian.” At first we weren’t really sure if momentously was a word, but even once we found out (thank you thesaurus) that it was a word (unlike morebesides, which seems to be common, but is not a word according to the computer unless you separate the two words), we still couldn’t figure out how it was momentous for someone living in Liberia to be a Liberian. It's great, but not particularly momentous. Every now and again, one of us will just, into the silence, say, “Momentously, I am a Liberian.” Language usage differences are so great. And being in Liberia does feel momentous.

I would just like to point out that I am still at work. On Saturday afternoon at 3 pm. The only good part about Saturdays is that some coworkers bring their kids in, so today the kids drew us pictures (only one of which included war, fortunately) and we hung them up on the wall. Approximately half the (young) guys in the office scoffed and demanded that they be taken down, but then two more senior people came through and thought it was great, so there they stayed until the fan blew them off the wall and they got trampled. The kids were gone by then, so no feelings were hurt.

Quote of the day (by C): “Is that a SABER?” We were driving past the old stadium on UN Drive and apparently the entire Nigerian army was heading into it, complete with ceremonial sabers. Hilarious.

For the first few weeks we all (the others and then me) were here, the sun conveniently shone on Saturday and Sunday after raining all week. Unfortunately, it has now switched to sunny Thursdays and Fridays, which does not bode well for the beach. Or the trip to Buchanan. Or the trip to Bong Mines.


10 July 2006
1642 hrs

Rain, rain go away… or stay, because you make it cooler. The unfortunate thing about rain is that it drives critters inside, so we have had two of the biggest possible non-tarantula spiders imaginable appear indoors lately. The attitudes toward the spiders predictably follow these lines:

J = “Let’s capture it and put it outside, alive.”
C = “We might need the bug spray.”
M = “Kill it NOW.”

Usually C has to gas them and watch them die, especially the one in my room, because I was running around in frantic circles outside the door. And if we didn’t know where it died, we might suddenly come upon it later, which would be bad because it might turn up alive in, say, my shoe. Most insects I can kill alone, until they get to the size where they might actually hold human beings hostage or carry us away kicking and screaming on their backs.

I got locked out of our compound on Saturday afternoon. I went for a walk down the back road, got lots of “Hey! White girl! Are you my friend?” comments (answer: I guess it depends on who you are, doesn’t it?) plus one completely random greeting in Bassa, which I knew how to answer but I don’t know how he knew I could answer, weird, and was just getting close as it started to pour rain. I took shelter in a yard with a man and woman for a while and then the man lent me an umbrella with political slogans on it, the carrying of which made me a bit nervous because of the political slogans, and I went down to the gate of our compound and tried to get in, only to find that despite the guard’s repeated assurances, he had locked me out. So I slogged back through two inch deep puddles to the same yard, gave the kind man his umbrella back, and settled in on the bench to wait for the rain to let up. We chatted about various things, including whether or not the rain would stop before dark and the saga of the workers building the new Chinese embassy, until the rain did stop. I tried the gate once more. Still locked. I tried wedging my hand in through the doors and pulling up the piece that goes into the ground, hoping that would give it enough motion to wrench the bar out. Unsuccessful, because the gate was PADLOCKED. Also painful, because I scraped up my hand and now boast a lovely raised black-and-blue bruise on the back of my hand. So the guard agreed not to close me out, and then proceeded to PADLOCK the gate. Communication about the back gate, which has had many a low, had reached a new one. An amusing new one, yes, because it was daylight and I don’t really mind the chaos – in fact, I enjoy sitting and talking – but a new one nonetheless.

I scrambled up through some yards, waving merrily to little kids and politely greeting old people, and came out on the front road next to our wall. I ran into the guard on the sidewalk, leaving for the night, and he insisted, exclaiming over my scraped hand, that it was the night guard who locked me out and that he protested but the man insisted. When I got to the gate, the night guard, of course, told me that he had not known that I was outside and thought I was sitting on the porch. “But we are two!” I said, “Two with the same color hair. Please ask next time if there is a question about one of us being outside the compound, because I did not enjoy being locked outside. My hand is even damaged.” And, as always, he laughed at me while I was saying this because the idea of a white girl speaking Liberian English is too, too funny. Ah, well. I can be a subject of unending amusement. It’s okay.

05 July 2006

4th of July

0929 hrs
Oldest Congo Town

Monrovia, Liberia

I found out that we live in Oldest Congo Town, the place with that most romantic of names.
The reality of Oldest Congo Town is not as disappointing as I expected after envisioning such grandeur. I rather like it, actually. On the back road behind our compound, there actually are huge houses all vine-covered and slipping inexorably into the swamp. On the beach past the lagoon, a few shells of grand old houses remain, lonely and broken. And better, there are children running along the road and puppies tumbling over each other in the yards.

I walked along the back road on Sunday, coming home from dinner at the house of a family who drove me to church. It was raining. I was wearing a raincoat but had no umbrella, so when it started to rain hard I ducked under the roof of a little store. It was blaring loud hip hop music I didn’t recognize and after a minute or two someone brought me a chair and I sat with all the other rain-refugees for thirty minutes or so until the rain let up and I could venture home. The best part of the day.

I feel like I should capitalize Back Road, because that is actually how it seems to be known. Also Old Road. And Main Road (which is Tubman Blvd, which is still not a boulevard, further out of town). We were in a car with some coworkers on the Old Road the other day and I asked, “What was Old Road called when it was new?” My coworker laughed and said, “Old Road!” Which doesn’t seem possible. I need to ask an old person who might remember what the name of it was before Tubman Blvd came through.

When I’m in Africa, I wish I were a morning person. Mornings are so lovely here. The heat has not yet started, the birds are chirping, the air is so clear, and the smell of cooking fires drifts about with the breeze. Really experiencing morning would require getting up at about 6, but I just can’t. I need to sleep. They turn the power off earlier and earlier these days, so by 8:20 am the compound is free of the generator roar. From back here, you can’t hear the cars up on the Main Road, so the only sounds are birds and children and the waves crashing on the beach.

We were left rideless this morning because the normal driver is sick. Our taxi can’t get here for a while yet. So C and I are sitting on the back porch looking out over trees and water. Right in front of us is a tall, skinny mango tree. Yesterday there was a pinking plum up near the top, which had been scoped out as the one to be eaten. There was talk of kicking a football up into the tree to knock it down. But today it is gone. Something else got to it first: the wind, or the ripening, or the birds.

Today is the Fourth of July. I don’t usually do much for the Fourth of July, at least not since I left the US and could no longer go to the family picnics (I haven’t been in the US in July since 2002), but today C and I are wearing red-white-and-blue, in honor of the day. I’m being tricky, though, and also wearing my bracelet in blue-yellow-and-green, the colors of the Rwandese flag, because it is Liberation Day there. In Rwanda we got both 1 July and 4 July off for Rwandese Independence Day and Liberation Day. When they fell on a Friday and Monday, it was a beautiful thing. Everything was a holiday in Rwanda. Days off right and left. Here in Liberia, days are holidays, but you don’t get them off. Like the Day of the African Child, last month. It was a holiday, but no ceremony. No day off work.

I’m really unclear on this whole working all the time thing. We have to work on Saturdays, because local NGOs work, but there are people (mostly ex-pats at international organizations) who don’t have to work on Saturdays and do. It isn’t that I mind this work. In fact, I like it. I just can’t figure out when people get everything else done. If you work Mon-Fri 8-6 and Sat 10-3, when do you run errands? When do you go to the market? When do you fix up your house? When do you clean your house? When do you take a long walk and learn about the neighborhoods around you? All on Sunday afternoon? That’s the beach day. So when do these things get done? Maybe they just don’t, because ex-pats aren’t really investing that kind of time in their neighborhoods or houses, but it doesn’t seem like much of a way to live.

Okay, enough ranting for today. This is getting too long to read anyway.

4 July 2006

1304 hrs

It really is thrilling to be in a country where speeches start, “Madame President…” instead of “Mister President…”

1743 hrs

Our ride never came this morning. Then our taxi never came. About 11:00, he called and said that he couldn’t get out of town because of streets blocked off for Kofi Annan and he would try again in an hour. C and I, brave, fearless people that we are, decided to take a collective taxi for the first time. We were ready. We took out the right change. We secured our bags. We stood at the side of the road and waved two fingers (because there were two of us) straight ahead (because we wanted to go straight into town, not up the Old Road). Full taxis passed us by. Empty Land Cruisers passed us by. Old Road taxis passed us by. Finally a car stopped. But no, not a taxi. Not even a car. A red SUV. A red SUV containing a young Lebanese food products importer and his driver.

Dilemma: to get into town or not to get into town? Getting there requires hitchhiking with this Lebanese man who we do not know and his driver and a whole bunch of cases of Red Bull.

We hitchhiked. The roads were perfectly clear of cars, no streets blocked off, but many more people than normal were walking, or, as the Rwandese say, “footing” into town. In the end, as C puts it, “We traded your phone number for a ride into town.”

Fair trade, I would say. The guy was perfectly nice.

03 July 2006

formatting problems... oh, well

30 June 2006
2308 hrs

Beautiful, beautiful internet. I’m reading blogs and stuff. Only possible because I consolidated my student loans in 4.2 seconds while other interns’ lenders’ websites were overly busy. That and we told the taxi to be here at midnight and it isn’t midnight yet. Clearly. Since I just said it was 11:08 pm. The poor taxi driver has been having terrible problems with not being able to charge his phone, which is also a terrible problem for us because he’s really the only one who actually comes when he says he will come and is so very concerned about our safety that he stands outside the gate with me at 4 am yelling for the guards.

Work has been madness. There was nothing going on for so long and I bitterly mourned the lack of internet, but suddenly it just went bonkers. Absolutely bonkers. Bonkers to the point where we three interns were on three different computers and we conscripted four other clerical-type staff who were watching some silly World Cup game (I think they all hate us now) and made them do data entry and I kept running around making them save it over and over because you never know when the generator will get turned off. One of them, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t work there but just happened to be in the office and knew how to type, gave me a scathing look the first time and said, “I know how to save.” But you don’t know what I want it saved AS, do you? I let him save it himself after that. I was just slightly scared of him.

This morning, while sitting waiting for the guy to come open the compound office (he ended up coming just in time to tell me that there was no power so getting into the office was no help because the internet wouldn’t work, all the while shrugging and saying, “Maybe power will come back,” and then our ride showed up), I was looking at the trees and plants across the pebbles of the driveway and thinking of how much it looks like Liberia. I know that’s pretty obvious because I’m in Liberia, but for so many years we would go places and one of us, my mom or my dad or I, would say, “Doesn’t this look like Liberia?” Palm trees in Florida, or a picture of the red dirt in Kenya, but now I’m here, in Liberia, and it really is the spiky orange flowers over there and the tree with the red flowers and the long seed pods on that other corner. All those other places each had only one little piece of Liberia.

After work we went to Mamba Point for internet and then a friend picked us up and took us to the Bordello. There’s no bordello, but this other friend lives in this very bizarre building that seems to involve many floors and doorways and hallways, all open to the air, all painted, as A said, “the color that things end up if you don’t paint them. Why would you spend money on that?” It’s slightly bizarre but our friend’s apartment is neat and tiny. There was a big party going on at the restaurant upstairs. And the place really is slightly like a bordello, what with the music and garish lighting and all. The actual story I’m telling, though, is that due to the big party upstairs, the grassy lot in front of the building was full of cars, full enough that we blocked in five cars by parking where the guard told us to park. There was fervent pleading with the guards not to let anyone park behind us and block us in because we would be there for no more than thirty minutes. No more than thirty minutes! Please! No cars behind us!

When we came out, after about ten or fifteen minutes, we were blocked in. Fits were thrown. Yelling ensued. The guards had to go up to the party and track down the driver of the car that was blocking us in. Once we managed (barely) to have the space to get out, the smallness of the opening required some maneuvering and then backing straight up a slightly uncomfortable slope onto a street of honking cars and children darting around in the dark. The driving friend was ranting rather angrily. The offending guard looked up at us as we went and waved brightly and said, “See you!” in a very pleasant tone of voice.

These moments that are so symptomatic of everything that some people would say is wrong with Africa, these moments when everything goes wrong by North American standards, are the moments in which I am the happiest. I sat in the back seat against the door and smiled to myself. I thought, as I always do when things go zigzagging off in these strange directions, “My life is so amazing.”

1 July 2006
2143 hrs

Waterside is no more. The street sellers have all been moved to Bushrod Island. So, okay, that’s good, because I’m sure it’s safer and crime has improved. But the fun is gone. The crowd, the weaving through, the bustle: all gone. Instead it’s just a street lined with shops. A busy street, but a street all the same.

Over at the bottom of Randall Street, a bulldozer was bulldozing mountains of trash into the back of a flatbed UN truck, making mockery of the mockery that C and I were making only last night when her mom told her that she read in the news that Monrovia City employees were going to strike while Kofi Annan is here on Monday. “Oh, THAT will be effective.” we laughed. “Two whole people striking!” And wrong we were, because today, Saturday, July 1, 2006, they were cleaning up the mountain of trash at the bottom of Randall Street. We need them after all.

We wandered around the-street-formerly-known-as-Waterside and vicinity for a while and bought some cloth to make skirts. Here the Liberian English and a bit of Bassa once again came through for me because the woman selling the cloth turned out to be Bassa from Buchanan and exclaimed over me endlessly and reduced the cloth price and told us that we, her sisters, must come back, MUST, before we leave so she can have beautiful clothes made for us.

I am so enjoying speaking Liberian English. It startles the harassing men on the street enough to make them back off. Prices go down. I get handed the phone when communication is going badly. Not just the practicality of it, though. I’m enjoying the actual speaking. I’m learning the phrases I’d forgotten and the slang that has sprung up since I left. I’m learning how to pronounce the words that I used to just fake because they were too big or complicated for the Liberian English I learned by the time I was ten. I’m getting so into it that I sometimes can’t remember which English I’m in, though, because I’m no longer thinking in order to be in one or the other, and then I speak to Americans in the same accent. Which is fine. They can deal.

The light in the hallway is flickering madly.

I stayed home tonight even though my friends went out. I need some sleeeeeep. I’ve done what I tend to do, which is to get sick and then ignore it for a long while (in this case, over a week) and then suddenly realize that a nasty headache and all this sinus drainage for over a week might actually be a problem and now I want to take antibiotics RIGHT NOW, but it is Saturday night and I’m home in the middle of nowhere so ce n’est pas possible.

Meanwhile, I’ve forgotten how to read. Also how to play Sudoku. I only brought four books and a bunch of New Yorkers, but I’m not reading anything. Anyone who knows me knows that this is weird. I read four books a week for fun, even during exams. For the last few weeks, though, reading a book just doesn’t seem interesting. Very weird. I play Sudoku instead, but I’ve gotten bad at that. I used to fly through them and now I stare at one for hours without putting in a single number. It’s as if my brain was so wound up during school that it has just given out. It refuses to focus. I hope it comes back by the end of August.

We had our first centipedes in the house today. You know you are in Liberia when you have centipedes. Unfortunately C was alone in the house and came seeking assistance from the missionaries and me who were talking on their porch, but when she returned with the “spri gone,” as the bug spray is called, they were gone. So they are prowling somewhere in the house. Just what I wanted to know. I promptly went out and bought house flipflops today. No more bare feet at night.

3 July 2006
1343 hrs

Observation: it’s much better to arrive first than last.

1715 hrs

I’m watching the waves break at Mamba Point. For those of you not from ‘round here, Monrovia is built on a peninsula that narrows and then widens again, ending at Mamba Point. There’s some other stuff, too, like Bushrod Island, but the main part of Monrovia is on this peninsula. The waves out here are BIG. I’m watching them and wishing I was in them.

We left work early today because Kofi Annan is coming to town. We don’t actually get to see or hear Kofi Annan, but the fact that he’s here means that they are closing Tubman Boulevard (which is NOT a boulevard) and Broad Street (which IS a boulevard) and so our driver essentially told us that we had to leave the office at four pm or never leave it again. So here I am. Watching the waves. Eating peanuts that I don’t deserve because I didn’t actually buy anything at the restaurant. Forestalling the moment when I have to go in and plug in my computer.