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.

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