29 August 2006
Cause you had a bad day
You're taking one down
You sing a sad song just to turn it around
You say you don't know
You tell me don't lie
You work at a smile and you go for a ride
You had a bad day
The camera don't lie
You're coming back down and you really don't mind
You had a bad day
You had a bad day
Well you need a blue sky holiday
The point is they laugh at what you say
And I don't need no carryin' on
Sometimes the system goes on the blink
And the whole thing turns out wrong
You might not make it back and you know
That you could be well oh that strong
And I'm not wrong
I have had very few bad days this summer (although of course I have had some), but I love this song. I listen to it every day.
Just now I've had a series of very good days in a row.
I'm still listening to this song.
(Will this meeting never end?)
28 August 2006
I'm getting sad about the idea of leaving Liberia. If I had taken my original flight, I would be somewhere between Brussels and the continental US right now, but instead I am sitting again in the office in Monrovia. I'm trying to work, really I am, but so much work craziness went on last week, right up to Saturday night, that I feel like I need more weekend to recover from the whole thing.
I don't want to leave. One more week is not enough. First I need to recover. Then I have so much to do. Plus I know that New York is waiting back there and no matter how I try to solace myself for the cold and the lack of trees, I am not and cannot be a New York girl.
Monrovia I could get used to. Monrovia is crazy, let me just say up front. Driving, for example. There are too few roads into town for too many cars and driving here is like driving with no rules nor drivers' training nor blinkers nor anything else you would expect besides the actual vehicles (although that is up in the air, too - yesterday I saw a little Nissan Sunny sedan traveling down the road with four people in the front, four in the back, three on the hood, two on the trunk, one sitting in the window frame of the passenger's window, and one sitting in the window frame of each of the back windows - try that yourself and let me know how it goes, driving down the road in that fashion). Oncoming cars are almost as likely to be in your lane as in theirs and they absolutely will never turn their bright headlights off, so that at night in the rain with their lights reflecting off the raindrops on your windshield you can't see the looming six-inch deep potholes, which will be in a different place every day because it is rainy season, which turns out to result in potholes opening up overnight out of nothing.
Monrovia is further crazy because not only is it too many cars for the space but it is too many people for the space and they all have a death wish. I guess if you have never driven a car it is not clear exactly how hard it is to see people crossing the road at night when they insist on wearing black from head to toe and most of town has no streetlights. I mean, I understand this. It is very human. All of us think, after all, that we are the center of the world, so why shouldn't that oncoming car know that I, myself, am here, right here, right now. It HAS to know. It has to be clear to all of humankind that I, the only I there is, am right here crossing Tubman Boulevard at 10:30 p.m.
Speaking as the driver of the car that is trying not to hit you, however, I do have to tell you that it is not that clear that you are there, in fact it is not clear at all until I see your shadow pass in front of the headlights of an oncoming car and even then, if you are heading toward my lane, there is no way for me to know if you have continued into my lane or are standing on the center line. None.
One has to make a choice when driving at night: the inner lane or the outer? The inner lane means that you are less likely to hit the people walking on the side of the road but more likely to hit the people standing on the center line having crossed halfway and waiting to cross the other half. I have chosen the outer lane, because:
1. It tends to have fewer (although still many and large) potholes.
2. As long as you are close to the lane marker, you are unlikely to hit the people on the side of the road.
3. The undimmed oncoming headlights are less glaring.
The drawbacks are that taxis are apt to stop in front of you without warning and that broken-down vehicles with no warning signs are more likely to be in that lane.
We left work really really late one night last week - about eight of us were in the office until 2 a.m. and then the other car insisted on driving behind mine to make sure I got home okay. So I was driving around back in the Airfield area, the truck following me, bringing a coworker home, and as we turned down a street, there was suddenly a group of about six young men walking down the road in front of us. A gang, basically. They clearly intended bad things. It's hard to explain how this was clear unless you've done some reading about the wars in West Africa, but I will start with this: one of them was wearing a shirt and nothing else. And I mean, nothing.
Then a mile or two later we dropped the guy off and turned around and headed out the other way and while I was inching through a huge mud pit/mud mountain area of the dirt road, the guy riding next to me in the car said, "You know, you should speed up, because they often ambush cars when they slow down in areas like this." Thank you, that was just what I needed to hear. I told him I had no choice, because the car is too small to speed up on that kind of terrain, unless he wanted to call the other car and have the driver (not the person who was driving the car, who was not technically a driver, but the guy who was riding along who is actually paid to drive cars) come and drive this one. And then, because he evidently believes that I am an idiot who can understand nothing I'm told (as revealed by the constant repeating of things that I already told him I heard) and because I was not already scared enough, he started repeating it and I had to yell.
I said to C earlier this summer, "Can you believe that back in the US some people actually think we are smart?" Believe it or not, they do. Here, not so much. When we got back onto Tubman Boulevard, the same guy told me that I "steer too much." What? He doesn't even have a license, and I steer too much? Apparently it's better just to hit the potholes dead on in a tiny little low-riding car.
I have now begun ranting about nothing, so I will stop and do work.
25 August 2006
1. I'd already cried twice in the previous 24 hours about much worse problems.
2. I had copied the important files onto the loaner computer only a week before so not all that much was lost.
But it was frustrating. Now I am writing directly online because one of things I lost was all the typing I did on a word document that was all my blog posts for the summer, which I had not backed up. I will now have to copy and paste them back into word from online. Fun. Computers are out to get me. The one I'm using now, for example, is a Dell, with one of those batteries that they just recalled because they can EXPLODE. All I need in my last week in Liberia is an EXPLODING battery.
I am staying in Liberia an extra week, despite the loving advice of my generally-correct mommy. Some people have suggested that maybe I'm not going back at all, but unfortunately they are wrong. I owe too much money to the bank that holds my loans to be able to do anything like stay in Liberia for another year. Or two. Or three, which is what it would end up being.
This morning I got pulled over for the fifth time since I started driving this car, which happens because there is no license plate on the front of the car. Normally I am very calm and things are fine. I explain the situation, I smile nicely and I move on. Today, however, on Capital Bye-Pass, a police officer pulled me over and tried to GET INTO THE CAR. I sort of freaked out, which I shouldn't have done, and told him emphatically and in Liberian English that I would pull over and talk to him but there was no way he was getting in the car. Ever.
Neither he, nor his supervisor, nor the other people in my car, were amused.
So there was a lot of shouting and the police tried to impound the car and I refused to go anywhere and finally I had to call a rather well-known Liberian colleague, who I had just seen drive by, and have him come and talk the officer off his irate ledge of fury over the fact that I had told him that if he was looking for money, he would not be getting it from me (yet another mistake). Then while the ledge-talker-downer was talking the officer off the ledge of fury, I remembered how to do this (because come to think of it, I do actually know) and I had a nice chat with the other officer involving the need for respect for the police and how it would be so much easier to talk in a civilized manner if police did not just try to get into your car without saying anything to you first. And how respectable police wouldn't get in your car in the first place.
I frankly cannot believe that they allow this. I would think, after so many years of war and abuse of power, Liberians would beat senseless any unarmed officer (they are all unarmed) who got into their car. Apparently this has happened. I am not surprised.
15 August 2006
14 August 2006
Actual conversation today with the person I work most closely with:
Person: Are you getting fatter?
Me (attempting not to be offended because of culture and all that): I don’t think so. I’m wearing a skirt that is a bit tight.
P: Does that make you look fatter?
M: Generally, yes.
M: By the way, you might want to be careful about telling North American women that they look fat. We all want to be skinny. We really hate being told that we are fat.
P: Oh. [thinks for a minute] Is that why [insert name of prominent person/author in the field we work in] got so upset when I told her she was getting fat? She tried to argue with me.
M: Yes, probably. We all want to be very thin.
P: Really? Like that girl who was just here? [meaning very skinny but feminine girl who just left]
M: Yes, like that.
P: Like me?
M: Are you particularly skinny?
P: Yes, I’m skinny.
M: Okay, fine, then, like you. We all want to be as thin as possible. We all want to be thinner than we are.
P: Do YOU want to be thinner than you are?
M: Yes, of course.
M: Well, our culture tells us that we have to be as thin as possible.
P: That’s a terrible culture.
M: Well, that’s the culture we are stuck with. You just might want to be cautious about telling North American women that we are fat. We don’t like it.
P: Okay, that’s good to know.
I generally only bother having this conversation with men. With women there is a sort of camaraderie about the insult and they generally poke you in the stomach or some other such irreverent but affectionate gesture and I tolerate it in much the same way that I would tolerate an aunt doing the same thing, because I know I could do the same thing back to them. Anyway, women who say this to me are usually much fatter than me.
13 August 2006
8 August 2006
And, still at work. And I have to be back at 8:00 a.m. Tired, so tired.
C left on Sunday, R is leaving tomorrow, and J is leaving on Friday. I’m all sad and stuff about being alone, but I keep thinking, “Maybe I’ll finally get to sleep.” It gets crazy to be out until all hours and back at work early. I will never be a good lawyer. I don’t have the right work hard, play hard ethic. I need too much sleep.
9 August 2006
So here are two little interrelated stories: two and a half weeks ago, C and R and I got done with work surprisingly early one Saturday (like 2 p.m) and went to the beach. I went for a long walk, and when I came back, C and R were just getting in from swimming.
Out we went, past where the waves broke, but closer in than the far break. We paddled out there for a while, and then decided to come back in even though it had only been a few minutes. After five or ten minutes of swimming toward shore, we realized that we were actually no closer. And no closer. And no closer.
We were alone at the beach (Sunday is beach day here; everyone works on Saturday) except for a few surfers, and R, being the smart one of the bunch, hailed them over as soon as we realized that swimming and swimming was getting us nowhere. A surfer came over and tried to help us – we were both clinging to the back of the surfboard while he paddled in. Nothing. He called over another surfer and R and I split up. He went with the first surfer and I with the new one. I hung onto the rope at the back of the board and whenever we went through a wave, the board gave a horrible jerk at my arms (poor, poor wrists) and we went… nowhere. The first surfer gave his board over to Rich, who laid on it and paddled in, but I couldn’t balance on the board and I was still pretty non-tired, so the new surfer stayed by me and let me hold on and float every once in a while, but generally I just swam. And swam. And swam. And swam.
Far away on shore, C was standing at the edge of the water, a row of observers next to her, staring out at us in horror.
After a while, which turned out to be about 30 or 35 minutes, I saw R catch a few good waves on the board and make it into shore, while I was still out beyond the breaking point. And then suddenly I was in the breaking waves and wave after wave tumbled me over and over into shore. I barely had time to get my breath between them.
I may have very unfortunately spread the “we almost drowned” story all around
Then on Sunday evening, after dropping C off at the airport, R and J and I went to
We are not foolish people. We don’t want to die in a riptide off the coast of
Just as we were getting out of the water on one of our little floating rides, one of the UN people who had pulled in at the same time as us, out a little past his depth, began to flounder and yell for help. He wasn’t alone, so we didn’t immediately think of doing anything, but when he went under during a wave and didn’t come back up, R, who was closest, swam out to him and hauled him to the top of the water.
R’s description of the event goes something like this: “So I was just grabbing him anywhere I could and shoving him toward the top of the water and then when a wave came I would shove him forward hoping that it would carry him toward shore but then he would go under again and I would grab at him again and push his head out of water.”
After a very tense few minutes, R and the other guy and the drowning guy all made it in to shore. And R and J and I promptly walked back upstream and got back in the ocean.
The guy came over later to thank R. It turns out that R saved a military police officer working for the UN. Don’t they teach swimming anymore in the military? Or the police? Apparently not in the Middle East or
My “we almost drowned” story suddenly pales by comparison.
11 August 2006
It’s a big girl world now
Full of big girl things
And every day
I wish I were small
But I have ended up in
With no map to guide me home
The strangest place I think I’ve ever been
~Kendall Payne, Scratch
13 August 2006
I try not to say too much about work on here because I want to keep working here and blogging can be detrimental to one’s work tenure, but I really do love my job here in
But generally I love it. You know you love your job when you get your stuff together to go to a restaurant with internet on Sunday afternoon and you go to take the work stuff out of your backpack and can’t quite bring yourself to do it, because you might want to work on some of it. It is crazy. It is busy. I often work for twelve hours a day during the week and eight on Saturday. I rarely get lunch. As of Wednesday, when R left, I am the only non-African (all but two are Liberian) in the office. We the office staff have spent a lot of time in some pretty close quarters, like 8 to an office, so we are all very comfortable with each other. The women hold my hand and the men try to. We laugh a lot.
Last night the Liberian-American intern from work had a goodbye party at New Jack’s, across the street from Mamba Point hotel. I drove (heh heh – car is a new development, gifted by one of my coworkers) and somehow left way too early, with one of my coworkers and his brother and yet another friend of a friend who is visiting from
The guard at the gate of the restaurant remembered me from last time and exclaimed again about how I sound more Liberian than he does – which I actually do, often, because my Liberian English is country, not city. On the way home, the Liberian police officer at the UN checkpoint remembered me, too, and waved me through without demanding registration and the other things he tried to demand the night before because there are some license plate issues with the gifted car. Out past the ELWA junction dropping off M. and his brother, we were stopped by a large group of armed UN soldiers. (I don’t stop unless a checkpoint has: 1. weapons, or 2. a physical barrier across the road. Otherwise I assume they are not serious.) And again when we turned off near his brother’s house, we were stopped by a UN patrol, who told us they were patrolling for rogues. Of course we had to stop at both again on the way back. I drove through the dark, trying to miss potholes and people while oncoming traffic refused to turn off its high beams. As we pulled up to the gate of the compound, M. called to make sure we had arrived okay. “We’re fine,” I said, “Just now at the gate.” And I honked the horn, even though there is a sign saying not to, and in the beam of the headlights I saw feet under the gate, coming to open it.
03 August 2006
So, it’s been a while. Not having a computer since mine passed away is a serious detriment to getting on the internet or, for that matter, to typing things. I’ve been left with that old slow method of writing: a pen. Unfortunately, that meant no blogging.
Liberia is still good times. I dragged some friends to Buchanan this weekend and we visited my old house and neighborhood. We stayed in a little guest house near Otis Spot, where C and R learned how to play checkout instead of checkers. We arrived near evening and went off walking up Upper Buchanan Road in the cool after the rain. As we walked along, we greeted the people who passed and I fell into conversation with an older man who asked where we were going. “I used to live up here, in the big white house.” I told him. He stopped in surprise and said, “I live in that house!”
We came at the house from a strange angle past the guest house, because Upper Buchanan Road now ends before it gets to the house and we had to take a smaller path. “No cars passing this way,” the man explained. There is a family in the guest house and a family in our old house. I walked through the house with the man and it seemed even smaller this time than in 2000, so small that I can’t imagine how we ever fit a table and chairs and a bench and bikes and a piano and living room furniture all into the main room. The kitchen is still bare and empty, but the cooking table is set up in the living room. The bedrooms are all occupied instead of empty.
I liked seeing it occupied by someone. It was so lonely in 2000, sitting there all alone. I’m happy that a baby is crying on the porch and girls are plaiting each others’ hair.
The family living there kept asking me questions, “What was this small room for?”
“Oh,” I said, “It was the laundry room. We had a machine there to wash the clothes.”
They looked at me strangely. Who has a machine that does the washing?
“And this room. We call it the dark room. Why are there no windows?”
“Oh,” I said, “This room had an air-conditioner and there were no windows so that the air would stay dry. We kept our books and important papers in here. We called it the dry room.”
It’s strange how these things that have always been a part of my life and are also a part of theirs have such different impressions on us. Rather than being dark, I thought of the dry room as cool and comfortable, a haven in which to read or rediscover my old stuffed animals or type on the old Apple computer with the dot matrix printer with the holes in the sides of the paper that I would tear off and use to make paper chains.
After we chatted for a while and took pictures with the family, I led the group down the path to the office and then up over to Liberia Christian High and then back. Kids came up beside us and clamored for photos all the way. I said hello to everyone as politely as I could, worried that I would encounter someone I should know and would insult them by not recognizing them.
When we were almost back to the old barracks, we turned away from town again and walked out to the Fanti town on the beach, where the flash on the camera induced shrieking and dancing from all the kids who gathered on the beach to watch us. Big canoes bobbed in the water. Two of us were dragged into the house of the town master, a lovely little beach-side cottage surrounded by flowering plants and a mossy lawn to look at his wood carvings of lions (of which there are none in Liberia) and women carrying baskets on their heads.
Later we ate at the biggest restaurant in Buchanan, an eight table Liberian food place that eventually turned out to be closed on Sunday per a city ordinance, which meant that the next day before heading back to Monrovia we found only sugar top muffins and fanta. We drove around and around on Saturday night looking for something else, something bigger. We drove out to the port. We drove around the former LAMCO (now the home of a lot of squatters, a Bangladeshi battalion, and a bunch of Nepali military police). Nothing. Not one restaurant. Even the bars were closed. The biggest event in town was about a hundred people milling about a signboard that had a movie, possibly Troy, projected onto it outside of the high school.
In the morning we went to World-Wide Church, where I had to go up and introduce my friends, where everyone raised their hand and murmured excitedly when asked if they knew my father, where I held a baby and got peed on.
It was good to be back in Buchanan. Everything was green and beautiful. The town looked washed clean by rain. If this is even possible, it seemed poorer than in 2000. But not as afraid. It’s smaller than it ever was when we lived there. This time, it didn’t feel as surreal as the last visit, when I felt like I was walking into the past and might not make it out. I’ve been in Liberia for a while now and things feel familiar rather than strange. I wandered around through little paths behind Otis Spot on Sunday morning, feeling safe and comfortable and at home.
A few brilliant moments on the Buchanan trip:
“I bought a windshield for him in Accra and chartered a canoe…”
“A canoe? You chartered a canoe to bring a windshield from Ghana to Buchanan?”
“Yes, and it broke on the way.”
“Of course it broke. It was a glass windshield in a canoe on the Atlantic Ocean. A chartered canoe, no less.”
“What do you want to be the title of the book about your life?”
“I eat glue, like that t-shirt that guy was wearing.”
3 August 2006
I’ve started driving in Liberia. I don’t have a car myself, of course, but I’ve started driving other people’s cars. The interns in our office have been assigned a great deal of work and we have very few resources with which to do them. Although now we have a few more because recently we received a stapler, which we refer to every time we speak of it as “the interns’ staple machine” as in, “Please pass me the interns’ staple machine” because its receipt was a big moment in our time here, a ream of paper, a closet with a door that locks, and two – count ‘em, two – laptops, which we need desperately because Liberia’s power system, i.e. generators with constantly fluctuating voltage, has killed two of our four computers and a third is on its way out while every single thing we do is on computers. No one else has computers, but when I asked the tech guy about it, he said, “Yeah, but everything you guys do is on computers.” So it’s okay that we have two of the very few.
Anyway, we need to work and work sometimes requires going places. Like ECOWAS. Or UNMIL. Or town. For a long time, we had to beg for rides, but then, one day, one work person gave me his keys and said, “Okay, go ahead.” And new horizons have opened before us. Yesterday we had to run a whole bunch of errands around town and it was getting to evening and we were tired and hungry. As we were driving through Bushrod Island, my fellow law student and intern M, who is Liberian but moved to the US in the 90s, was frantic for boiled peanuts in shells, even though we had just finished a whole L$20 newspaper cone of them. She tried unsuccessfully to roll down the window (it later turned out that the windows were locked from my all-powerful driver’s side of the car), but when she was unsuccessful, she opened the door in the middle of rush hour traffic, stretched up out the top of the door and shrilly yelled “GROUNDPEA!” I thought I would fall out of the driver’s seat with laughter.
Later, we were trying to get some information over the phone while driving down Old Road (whose rightful name I still have not determined). M gets sick if she reads or writes in the car and I was driving, so M handed a paper and pen to Ishmael in the back seat and then started calling things out to him, “Neutral! No, my man, I say, NEU-tral. Write it down! You writing it down?” And in the back seat, I heard Ishmael mutter, “How can I write? The car be rocking-oh.” And for some reason it was hilarious. Almost as funny as a few minutes later when we stopped the car and he said, “There river there!” when he tried to get out, and then a few minutes later when he got back in the car and said, clearly yelling at Eric, who was telling him that he was supposed to be getting in on the other side, “So-so water there!”
I laughed and thought the following two things:
1. I love Liberian English.
2. I love being in Liberia.
I’m greatly enjoying the yelling that goes on in Liberia. I think I mentioned it before. It’s not all actual loud yelling, although some of it is. It’s just that everything sounds like it has an exclamation point. It’s very different from the silence of East Africa. I like both, in different ways. Yelling is freeing, especially when I get to do it in Liberian English. It’s a part of me that I don’t get to use much in North America (watch out, New York – I’ll be yelling when I get back). But the quiet in East Africa is a welcome peace most of the time. The silence is another part of myself I don’t use much.
Sitting in the office, hoping that things wind up soon and I get to go home. I have to either pay money for a taxi (alone, tonight, which gets expensive) or wait for one of the work people to drop me off. The normal car already left and I could have had it come back but I didn’t want to make the driver work until all hours of the night just because I am. I’m working for free, you see, and you can do this to yourself when you are working for free. It’s not so nice to do it to people who are working to support their families. So I’m waiting.
Tomorrow we are going out to Kakata. I don’t actually remember Kakata, if I’ve ever been there, but I remember hearing about it a lot when I was little. I’m sure it will take longer than it used to. The drive to Buchanan is 4 hours now, and that’s one of the better roads. C and R went to Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh county, and it took them almost 18 hours to get there. They slept in the car for two hours because the driver was tired and then drove on.
It surprises me that Liberia is safe enough to travel all night. Three years out from a war and you can drive overnight on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. The guard at our compound has a different opinion, though. He came up to me one night and said, “You have to tell your friends to come around to the front gate. It isn’t safe to leave the back gate unlocked. We are just coming from war.” Cities are more dangerous than countryside, though, often. One of my favorite memories, and my constant reference point for when people tell me they are driving somewhere far in the middle of nowhere, is when I was looking for Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. I was in western Uganda, having taken a wrong turn, driving crazily down dirt roads, trying to determine by the setting sun when I was going north, toward the park, rather than west, toward the Ituri region of Congo, where there was active fighting. I looked at the sun and I looked at the roads and I thought, “I am lost in Africa, but I’ve never felt so safe in my life.” I knew that I could stop almost anywhere if it started to get dark and someone would take me in and all would be fine.