Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I haven't talked much about the Tsunami and its devastating impact on Banda Aceh yet so here is what I've learned in the few weeks I've been here. Forgive me if some of the details are vague but I am still learning about the history of the place.

Nearly everyone in Banda Aceh lost family members in this horrific disaster. 40% of the population was killed.

People divide history into two categories: Before Tsunami and After Tsunami.

Before tsunami, Banda Aceh was in the midst of a long-running civil war. The province wanted independence from the central government of Indonesia. Aceh province was a very dangerous area, with battles going on everywhere, including Banda Aceh city. The few people I've talked to about it said that it was very risky to even leave their homes most of the time.

A peace agreement between GAM and the government was signed a few weeks after the Tsunami. This agreement still holds, but there are pockets of GAM strongholds in more rural areas that still want independence. There is a national election next year and it is anticipated that GAM representatives will win throughout Aceh province.

So the population of the province was already traumatized when the tsunami hit. The 9-meter (30 foot) wall of water wiped out a large portion of the city almost instantly. The portions that were not flooded were without water, electricity, and food for a long time before aid arrived. People searched desperately for loved ones. Livelihoods, homes, businesses, and possessions were destroyed in a few minutes.

People talk about what happened quite frankly, and the topic pops up frequently in coversations. I'm a bit reluctant to ask people about it because I know everyone lost loved ones.

Here are some pictures from the first few days after the tsunami from MSF (Medicins Sans Frontieres), who were one of the first groups on the ground. I have not posted the most horrific ones as they are far too disturbing.

Its almost as if a giant scrub brush came along and scraped the beach areas completely clean and dumped everything inland. You can see the strength of the water in the below pictures showing massive boats that were carried several kilometers inland. What is remarkable is the fact that you would hardly know that the tsunami ever happened now. The ruins have been cleared away and most of the city rebuilt. The only giveaway is the row upon row of identical freshly constructed homes lining the flats near the beach. The hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money that poured into Banda Aceh helped to reconstruct many of the homes that were demolished.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I'm alone in the house this weekend as Geraldine went to Sabang, an island off the coast, for the weekend. With the incessant Koran-reading going on all night I haven't been sleeping well, and a wee bit nervous about being alone in this huge house all by myself. So when a sound like a horse running across the roof and then someone walking around the back yard happened in the middle of the night, I was freaked out. I got up, turned on all the lights and looked around, thinking there was someone in the yard or on the roof. when it stopped i went back to sleep.

I was in the kitchen and heard the same clattering on the roof and in the yard so went out in the back yard and had a look. Couldn't see anything, so i went upstairs and looked out the window at the tree, and there was a great big animal!! I grabbed the flashlight and had a closer look, it looked like a cross between a cat and an opossum, but was much bigger than either of these, i'd say around 40lb. I looked it up on the internet and here is a picture:

much cuter than american possums!!

Monday, September 1, 2008


Ramadan started today, well, actually yesterday...night. Here is a brief description of Ramadan:

Ramadan (Arabic: رمضان, Ramaḍān) is a Muslim religious observance that takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, believed to be the month in which the Qur'an was revealed to Angel Gabriel which later was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. It is the Islamic month of fasting, in which Muslims don't eat or drink anything from dawn until sunset. Fasting is meant to teach the person patience and humility. Ramadan is a time to fast for the sake of God, and to offer even more prayer than usual. Also, asking forgiveness for the sins of the past, asking for guidance in the future, and asking for help with refraining from every day evils and try to purify oneself through self-restraint and good deeds is involved in Ramadan.

Muslims pray five times a day, and there is a call to prayer at each of these times, broadcast from mosques with varying loudness and intensity. Its actually a beautiful sound, the Imam (holy man/priest) calling the faithful to prayer. Click here to listen:

During Ramadan, people read and recite the entire Koran. I didn't realize, however, that some mosques broadcast this recital over the loudspeaker and it lasts all night long! We have a mosque near our house and the reading (in much the same musical voice as the call to prayer) started at sundown and went on till sunup. Despite ear plugs It was so loud that I couldn't sleep. Not to be disrespectful, but this is going to be a long month!

Sunday, August 31, 2008


After a grueling 10 hour flight from Monrovia and a 15-hour flight from Amsterdam, I arrived in Jakarta last Friday. Thankfully the flight from Amsterdam was nearly empty so I had a whole row to myself and actually slept for about 7 hours! I arrived in Jakarta at 5pm on Friday, just in time for rush hour traffic. I didn’t realize how bad this would be. It took 2 ½ hours to get to the hotel! After a 15-hour flight I was ready to cry! The traffic in this city of 23 million (23 million!! That’s almost as many people as in all of Canada!) is appalling…we crawled along as thousands of motorbikes and scooters buzzed by us. I told Eric I felt like I was in Blade Runner…the city at night has a weird post-apocalyptic feel to it, with neon lights flashing through the smog and ultra-modern architecture interspersed with shanties and ramshackle buildings. I was so relieved to get to the hotel and crawl into bed. Unfortunately I woke up 3 hours later, my body clock so screwed up that I ended up watching a couple of episodes of Desperate Housewives (my new most favorite show ever!!) and eating Instant Noodles – the ubiquitous food of Asia – from the minibar at the hotel.
The next day I repeated the same journey in reverse but with much less traffic – only took 45 minutes this time. Got to see a bit more in daylight, but not much…the air is choking smog that limits visibility substantially. Like Beijing’s. Ick. And it’s very hot and humid to boot. An asthmatic’s nightmare.
Thankfully the air in Banda Aceh is better. Got here on Saturday afternoon. My first impression was that you would never know that a tsunami completely destroyed large swaths of the city 4 years ago. And that it is completely and utterly different from Africa. It is a fairly modern city of about 400,000 people. The roads are paved, there are traffic lights and things function as you would expect in a major city.

I am living in a fairly nice (way too big, cavernous actually for 2 people to be rattling around in) house with my colleague Geraldine, a lovely girl who has worked at HQ and in Chad. She is French. She looks after the finance and administration here, which is great as I don't have to deal with it (my least favorite part of the job). We have a housekeeper who does all of the washing and cleaning and shopping for us. Food is incredibly cheap (a big relief after Liberia). You can buy fruits and vegetables for a week for under $10. And the variety is huge, every fruit and vegetable you could imagine is available (including the notorious durian fruit, or stinkfruit, which is supposed to be tasty but reeks so bad that some hotels ban people from bringing them in). So I've been eating really well!

Every street is packed with little kiosks selling cooked food - mostly the ubiquitous nasi goreng (fried rice). Literally every street corner has a couple of little "restaurants", which are little boxes often attached to a motorcycle. You sometimes see them driving slowly down the street, with the driver/chef dinging a spoon on a the ice cream man. THere is fresh fish and seafood galore, but obviously no pork as this is a muslim area. I stopped one night and bought about 2 pounds of satay - pieces of meat marinaded in spicy sauce, threaded on skewers and grilled then coated in a spicy peanut sauce - for like $2. There is KFC, pizza hut and A&W here as well. The only thing missing is a Starbucks.

I got a membership at the gym at the posh hotel in town so am able to run and swim laps and do weights at the pool (can't run outside because I'd have to wear long pants and shirt and I would die in the heat). On the weekends I work out and then sit at the pool and read or surf the internet. Not a bad life for the moment, but a bit boring, which I shouldn't complain about after the 24/7 work schedule in Kenya. Geraldine has a boyfriend who is in town on the weekends so I spend them by myself, which I absolutely do not mind! We have loads of DVDs (they have every tv series and movie ever created for sale for less than $1 each) so between TV and internet I can amuse myself for hours. Since our housekeeper doesn't speak english and Geraldine says that she isn't a very good cook i've actually been cooking for myself, but of course nothing fancy (as everyone knows my culinary skills are nonexistent) but i can stir fry vegetables and make rice and that's dinner!

This programme has been running since 10 days after the tsunami in 2004. We've trained over 4000 health care workers in malaria and dengue case management, provided drugs and diagnostic tools to all of the health facilities in the province and done spraying in a large number of communities. Immediately after the tsunami we distributed insecticide-treated plastic sheeting, which is used to create shelters and is very effective at keeping mosquitoes away.
Indonesia has a double-whammy of malaria and dengue. Malaria isn't such a huge problem but dengue is quite bad. And there is not a lot you can do about dengue, as it is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes that bite during the day. There is no treatment as it is a viral disease and no vaccine. In most people it is a mild illness but in some cases it turns into its deadly form, dengue hemorrhagic fever, which is very serious and can be fatal.

It is hot as blazes and very humid. A bit like North Carolina in August except hotter. I break into a sweat as soon as I step outside the air conditioning. Unfortunately for me, this is a muslim province under Sharia law, so I have to wear long sleeves and long pants everywhere! At least I don’t have to cover my head like the women here do. They all wear hijabi (I think this is how it is spelled) and I don’t know how they stand it.

So the fact that the city is muslim influences all aspects of daily life. It starts with the 5am call to prayer, which is repeated five times a day. On Fridays, the men go to the mosque for two hours at mid day so we extend the working day. The Sharia police roam the streets on Fridays looking for men as they are supposed to be at the mosque. Women who get caught without hijabi get hauled to the police station where their parents or husband have to come and bail them out. Forget about alcohol. It can be found but you have to know where to get it and you have to ask the shopkeeper in some secret code and they bring you your “package” already wrapped up. There are a couple of restaurants where you can get beer, one of which is a German-run place that has “super beer” on the menu and they bring it to you with a cut-up coke can wrapped around the beer can.

Ramadan is about to start next week and it causes a drastic slowdown everywhere. Everyone fasts from sunup to sundown, no water, food, cigarettes, or anything. As you can imagine by the end of the day everyone is dragging. At sundown some sort of signal goes off and everyone eats, drinks and smokes like crazy (I have not met a single man who does not smoke here, everywhere you go there is a cloud of stinky cigarette smoke, which is disgusting). Everyone takes time off to go visit their families the last part of September/beginning of October so that slows down work as well.

I’m having a bit of culture shock, actually, especially coming from Africa. I might as well have landed on another planet. Its going to take some time to get used to it! The people are nice, but more reserved than Africans. There is also a big language barrier as not everyone in the office speaks english and those who do don't speak it fluently or understand everything so communication is a bit frustrating. Geraldine also isn't totally fluent in english so conversations are slow and I have to be very patient. None of the drivers speak more than a few words of english. I find it exhausting. I'm trying to learn a few words of Indonesian so i can at least give directions.

I had to go to Singapore last week to renew my visa (yes, after being here only a week, a long story involving the massive and complicated government beauracracy here). It is a beautiful city. Incredibly clean, landscaped with lush tropical plants everywhere, totally modern and one big shopping mall!! I've never been anywhere that seemed so obsessed with shopping! Every subway station is a shopping mall. Not that I could afford to buy was all Gucci Prada Cartier super high end shops. I bought some starbucks coffee (the stuff here is too strong for me! burns a hole in my stomach!) and some books, and got my hair done.

After Singapore I flew to Jakarta for meetings with our donors. We sat in a taxi for 4 hours to get to 2 meetings. The traffic is totally insane. Did a bit more shopping, I found the running shoes that I pay over $100 in the US for less than $70 here. Bought my colleague Geraldine an 80G Ipod for $200. Stuff is cheap here, i guess cause they make it in Asia.

So back to work this week after a week out of town, it will be nice to get back into the routine of work, gym, etc.
Here are some pictures:

Banda Aceh

Our house
Hermes Palace swimming pool and Geraldine


Geraldine and some of the team at going away party for Panos, outgoing Programme Director

Preparing the barbeque for fish - burning coconut husks to add extra flavor

Rathmat, our data manager, and his daughter

Riza, my assistant (can you believe I have an assistant?) and his adorable boys


Hindu temple in Singapore

Jakarta traffic jam

Yes, that is a real Krispy Kreme - in Jakarta!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Re: Liberian English

got an email from a fellow "lost in translation" Liberian traveler who gave me a link to a great video that demonstrates Liberian english:

Yes, they really are speaking english!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Not Stuck in Liberia!

The strike is over and flights have returned to normal in Brussels so I am out of here this afternoon!! thank god, it's another dreary rainy depressing day in Monrovia. I am looking forward to leaving!!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Stuck in Liberia

Brussels airport is shut down because of a baggage handlers' strike. Guess where I'm supposed to fly through tomorrow night? Brussels. Looks like I'll be stuck here until at least Friday, possibly Sunday. Apparently some long-haul flights are going in, but for sure my connection to Amsterdam will be cancelled, and for absolute sure my luggage will be nowhere to be found. There are thousands of people stranded at the airport so there won't be a hotel room to be had.

Arranging the itinerary through to Jakarta was a nightmare, and now it's out the window and will have to be rebooked, along with hotels in Brussels and Jakarta and the flight from Jakarta to Banda Aceh.

I am all packed and am SO ready to leave here, and am very bummed that I will be stuck here for longer than I was supposed to be!!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Leaving Liberia!

Wednesday is my last day in Liberia. While I’ve enjoyed working with the team here there are many things that I can’t say I’ll miss. While the strange generator schedule (on till 2am every night but off all day Saturday), bad (and expensive) food, nearly continuous rain and horrid roads are on this list, the thing I’m happy to be leaving behind the most is the Ministry of Health. These guys take the corruption cake, down to the last crumb. Trying to work with this incompetent, lying bunch of crooks and fools has been infuriating, ridiculous and sad.

There is a lot of humanitarian and development money coming in to Liberia, and everyone, especially the government, is trying to get their fingers in the pie. Unfortunately when the money goes to the government, it is more likely to disappear into someone’s pockets than go to benefit the people it was intended for. Everyone here talks the talk about “building local capacity” and says nice things at meetings when the government is in attendance like “partnerships” and “joint implementation strategy” but underneath the façade of a desire to involve locals in improving the country and behind closed doors, many NGOs express extreme frustration with working with government. Everyone is competing for development dollars including the government and local NGOs. The competition can get ugly. We NGOs are accountable to our donors and demonstrating that we spent their money responsibly. We are also required to work with the government. Unfortunately having two bosses can lead to problems, particularly when one of them is more interested in lining their pockets than helping their people.

I’ve spent a great deal of time since I’ve been here working on sorting out a fiasco with a mosquito net distribution. Few people understand the problems involved in distributing these items, which at $5 each are a valuable commodity. Unless a distribution is done correctly (including physically removing the net from the package and hanging it in the recipient’s house), the nets will be on the market within 5 minutes of being given out. I can understand why, $5 will buy a lot of food, and if people don’t see the benefit of the net (perhaps because they don’t know that mosquitoes transmit malaria) then they are likely to sell it, use it for a fishing net or a wedding dress (we’ve seen all sorts of original uses for mosquito nets). A bigger problem is large-scale theft of thousands of nets during the distribution. Unless properly supervised there is a huge risk of large quantities of nets disappearing. The problem is, who do you trust to do the supervision? How do you get enough trustworthy people to carry out such a massive operation in remote areas with little access?

The methods of theft are very creative, and can happen at all levels. Forged documents, faked signatures, lying government officials and stealing staff all play a part. I can’t get into the specifics because of the political implications, but a large quantity of nets from a recent distribution of nets purchased by a European government have turned up on markets in neighboring countries. There will be huge political fallout from this and there were several local and international NGOs involved. The Ministry of Health insisted that the NGOs use local people including local Ministry staff for the distributions. Guess what, nobody can account for all of the nets they were given! The Ministry is doing its best to discredit the international NGOs while not criticizing the local NGOs involved in the process (and a key figure at the Ministry has his own local NGO that was awarded a contract to do the distributions – can you say conflict of interest?) so that they can get the contracts for future distributions. The Minister of Health and the ambassador for this country is involved.

Every time I go to a meeting the government people tell us international NGOs that we are here working for them. However, as I said, we are accountable to our donors, not to the government. The government is trying to convince donors to give money directly to them instead of to NGOs. They want to be in charge of money and programming but they are so utterly incompetent that donors will never fund them directly.

I went to a meeting on Friday at the National Disaster Management Commission. There has been huge flooding in Monrovia and the NDMC wants to do an assessment of the scope of the problem. We have the capacity to do indoor spraying to help prevent malaria so I went to the meeting to see what they planned to do for this “assessment”.

They spent the first hour arguing about how to conduct the meeting and who was going to be in charge of what. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I brought up the point of what exactly are we going to assess? Nobody could answer that. Do we want to count the population affected? How do we do this? Do we want to do a survey of how many people are sick? How do we do this? They had absolutely no clue as to what to do. They have no vehicles, no camera, no fuel, and clearly no technical skills to carry out any type of meaningful assessment. Every time I tried to bring up a point I was shut down by the Ministry of Health representative, who clearly did not want to hear any criticism or suggestions for how to carry out the work. So I decided to keep quiet and never attend another meeting. There is little point being involved in such a useless activity, especially if they don’t want to listen to and learn how to do it right. The guy listened to all of the input from the Liberians, but would hear nothing from me.

I was warned about the hostility towards international organizations and staff, and every time I go to a meeting I see it. The Liberians certainly don’t want anyone telling them how to run their affairs, even if they are totally incompetent. Fair enough, but then in the next breath they are asking us for money and support. You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

Here’s another example. We have been trying to set up a sentinel surveillance system for malaria in the country. This is a simple reporting mechanism where a few facilities are chosen and people trained to report on malaria incidence to monitor trends and watch out for epidemics. Obviously we have to work with the Ministry of Health on this. However, they have made ridiculous demands like we need to buy them vehicles, provide fuel, computers, and per diems (oh my god the omnipresent demand for per diems to do anything, I’m so sick of it!!), none of which are necessary to develop this system. There is no money in the budget for any of this. They have ground the discussions to a halt over these demands. Greedy, greedy, greedy. Who cares about helping people? I want a new Landcruiser!

So many of you are probably asking why I continue with this work with this level of frustration. Believe me there are days when I ask the same question of myself. However there are other days when things go well with my own staff, when I get to teach someone something new, or I learn something new that make it worthwhile. Of course the ultimate goal is to reduce human misery and suffering, but on a day to day basis you never get to see this happen. You have to take your victories when they come, because they are few and far between!

I’m sure that it is much the same in Indonesia, but at least I’ll be in a much nicer setting, with beautiful beaches, good food and plenty of things to do outside of work! Unfortunately it is going to take me 3 days to get there!! I overnight from here to Brussels, 12 hour wait in Brussels, go to Amsterdam, then 15 hours to Jakarta, overnight in Jakarta, then on to Aceh. What a nightmare!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Liberian English

I’ve been in a lot of African countries and heard a lot of different accents, but I have never, ever heard anything as incomprehensible as the English spoken here. The driver who greeted me at the airport when I arrived seemed to be speaking in some foreign language, of which a few words resembled English. I thought perhaps he had difficulties with English, and surely other people would speak in a more understandable manner…I was dead wrong.

I’m getting better at understanding it but it is still a struggle with some people. To my ear it sounds like Elmer Fudd speaking Chinese, with a Jamaican accent. It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. The words in a sentence seem to blend together, and there doesn’t seem to be any hard consonants like r or t in the dialect.

Here are some samples:

Where’s Oscar = whe-o-sa
How are you today = ha-u-deh
Close the door = clo-do
You want to go to the supermarket? = yu-a-go-sua-maka?

So every day I struggle with trying to understand what people are saying. In the worst cases I’ve given up, and just smile and nod. One of the drivers, Cassel, a dear young guy who drives in the evenings and usually is the one who delivers me to the gym and home after work, has become very friendly and very chatty with me. Honest to god I have not the faintest idea what he is saying. I usually have some clues because the conversations usually revolve around something we’ve seen on the streets as we move through Monvrovia, but the details of what he says escape me completely.

The worst part is, which I found out a couple of days ago, is that the Liberians have trouble understanding me!!! I was absolutely astonished. Here I thought I was speaking so clearly, when I’m in Africa I’m careful to enunciate every word clearly and slow down the cadence of my speech, which has always worked in other countries. Unfortunately it seems that this approach is ineffective here. Apparently I need to start slurring my words and drop the rs and ts. As always in Africa, people are too polite to tell me that they don’t understand what I’m saying. This results in things not getting done that I’ve asked for. It seems people would rather risk not doing their job correctly than tell me they don’t understand what I’m saying.

There’s a whole lot of nodding and smiling going on in Liberia!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Boring Sunday

After 2 weeks in Liberia I have a bit more sense of what I need to accomplish while I’m here, as well as some of the challenges that the programme faces in getting work done. The programme here has been funded by several grants over the past few years, and at the moment most of these are in the final stage or finished while new grants come online. I’m still trying to figure out how all the various bits and pieces of funding fit together to run the programme. We get funding from the European Commission on Humanitarian Affairs, The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), as well as several other smaller organizations. The process of writing grants is a never ending one in the humanitarian world and the competition for funding is intense, but it is what keeps programmes operating. It is a complex process and every donor has their own set of rules for reporting, monitoring and evaluating that must be followed. USAID (through PMI) is particularly stringent in its requirements. It takes a lot of work to keep up with reports and accounting, especially when you are running from several grants from different donors.

Working with the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the national malaria control programme is an art in itself. While the government wants the Aid Brigade and its accompanying funding here to do the work that they don’t have the capacity to do, there is tension between the government and the “implementing partners” doing the work that the donors pay for like MENTOR. The government would rather have all that money going directly into their coffers so they can control it, and the fact that it doesn’t creates some resentment.

I feel bad for the MoH, they really do have no money. I was at a meeting this week for disease surveillance and the big news was a spike in cholera in Monrovia because of flooding. The guy handed out a list of the things they need to control it: chlorine for disinfecting wells, buckets, jerry cans, soap for distribution so people can wash their hands, etc. The only thing on the list they actually had was the chlorine, that had been donated by some agency. They don’t have any way to move around Monrovia – the MoH has no vehicles and no fuel. So they appealed to all of the various NGOs at the meeting but all of us have strict programme requirements that we must use our own funding for so are not in a position to donate to this effort.

The problem is that if they do get money it is often misused. Inevitably money is sucked into someone’s pockets. Shell NGOs are formed on paper and programmes never implemented once the money is received and the money can’t be accounted for. Mosquito nets and drugs meant for distribution never make it to the people who need them and are sold on the market. This is not only an MoH problem, but can happen with the staff of any NGO. Items like drugs and nets are valuable, and I’ve seen some of the most clever plots to steal things. Every NGO that deals with items of value has strict inventory and delivery procedures in place but the best planned distribution system can still be breached…signatures can be forged, fakes substituted, and pockets are lined. If people put half as much energy into doing their job as they did into how to steal and make a few bucks on the side we’d have malaria under control by now.

It’s a perennial problem and one that is unlikely to go away while people are so poor. A $5 mosquito net (never mind a truckload of them) is a lot of money to someone who works for the government and gets paid $100 a month.

Davies and I went to the “beach” yesterday. I have to say I was rather disappointed….it was a 50-yard stretch of sand about 6 feet wide (I don’t know if it was high tide or not) with a few plastic tables and chairs and a small restaurant Walking beyond this area is considered unsafe so that is the extent of the beach. The waves were big and I’m too scared to go in the ocean so I sat and read. I guess it beats sitting in the apartment and reading. Then it clouded up and looked like rain so we left.

Someone who worked at the restaurant and lives nearby has a baby chimp. I was shocked. I guess coming from East Africa that has such strong conservation laws that are actually enforced I was floored to see a baby chimp in a cage when I walked in. She was adorable though!! The woman who owns it took her out of her cage and I got to hold her. Very cute now but in about 10 years when she’s the size of a large man she won’t be so cute anymore. Like I mentioned earlier they eat chimps here. That’s totally disturbing especially seeing how humanlike this one was. I think this country has a long ways to go in terms of protecting wildlife or their habitats. From what I understand they are cutting down the rainforest at a record pace. The bushmeat at the market last weekend tells me they are clearing the animals out of whatever forest is left as well.

The beach was my big excitement for the week, otherwise I went to the gym every day after work, came home, ate supper and went to bed. Today I’m reading and doing a bit of work. Very boring. However, I’m feeling more rested than I have in a long time..strange to have to come to Liberia to feel rested, but the last few weeks before I left home were so busy and stressful, and now that I’m here and have nothing to do I’m forced to relax. It’s weird to not have a million things to be done! I have no idea if the pace of work in Indonesia (where I’ll be in 3 weeks) is anything like this 9-to-5 gig here, but that would be nice!