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!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Oh the Horror!

I couldn’t get on the internet all day yesterday, don’t know why, it said it was connected but couldn’t get on...i'm using the next door neighbor's network (without asking) so couldn't very well just go over and ask what the problem was. Also no power from 10am to 4pm. Apparently the generator runs but the agreement that MENTOR has (you pay more rent for more generator time) didn't include Saturday morning/afternoon. Davies and I want to renegotiate that. It was on till 2am on Friday and we don't need it then! Also in case you are wondering about running water we do have it, even though there is no functional water system in the city. Every building and house has multiple 1000L water tanks on their roofs that tanker trucks come and fill at some interval.

I was going to go to the beach yesterday but Davies said not to go by myself, and it turns out that the "safe" ie expat beaches are quite a ways away so I didn't bother. I went to the local market to see what I could find, I was hoping to get some tomatoes and other veggies. Oh my god it was like being in a horror movie. It was nasty. It's a big, dirty indoor market full of stalls, pretty typically African except everyone was selling the same few peppers, onions, potatoes, and tiny little plastic bags full of what I presume to be spices...maybe a teaspoon in each bag. Then they had plastic bottles full of some sort of red liquid, maybe hot pepper sauce (they like their food hot here). That was on the bottom floor. I went upstairs, and the smell hit me about halfway up - fish. Gross. But the worst was what I saw at the top of the stairs...piles of bushmeat on the first table. Cut up monkeys and little antelopes. People eat monkeys here!!! I actually knew this but thought the trade was a bit more illicit than in the open market. Little humanlike hands piled up on the table. Tiny little antelope hooves and fur. I almost heaved. The driver told me they eat chimpanzees in some parts of the country. People prefer bushmeat to beef etc even though its more expensive than farmed meat! I'm just sick. I understand why and am trying to be culturally sensitive, but I would have preferred to not have seen it. I'm still disturbed.

After that, I went to the supermarket for another horror- the expense of buying food here. I went to a different shop this time, and this one had about 10 times the stuff in it, but it was even more expensive than the first one. A container of Folger's coffee just like what I get at home for 5 bucks was 25 dollars!!! Ham is $15 a pound, turkey $17. a box of Rice Krispies is $7. Premium Plus crackers - $5 a box. Kraft parmesan cheese - $8. I ended up buying milk, some pasta, 4 cans of diet pepsi, a jar of peanut butter, two tins of green beans, and two tins of tuna, for $25. My In Country Living Allowance is not going to go far. In Kenya I lived for 2 weeks on $25! There is no food production to speak of locally so everything is imported - and it must be flown in. Of course the local businessmen are totally exploiting the expats, many of whom do get paid enough that $10 cheese slices are not a big deal, but many of us do not get paid that well! I thik I'll be eating a lot of pasta. I had pasta mixed with a tin of tuna and a tin of green beans for supper on Friday and lunch on Saturday. Pasta with Ragu last night. No idea what I'll do tonight but I suspect pasta with Ragu.

I also went and checked out a nice new hotel that expats frequent. I had a look at the menu - same as the other restaurant I've been to - $27 for a steak, $10 for a salad, $10 for a hamburger. Eating out is going to be infrequent if it happens at all.

So today (Sunday) I’m sitting in the apartment doing some work and killing time. Maybe I’ll watch another bootleg DVD. I watched the new Raiders of the Lost Ark last night, complete with the silhouettes of people getting up out of their seats at the movie theatre where it was videotaped off the screen. It seemed good, but I couldn’t see half of it because the quality was so poor. I guess I’ve learned to wait until the movie is actually out on DVD “for real” before I buy a bootleg copy. For 5 bucks I got Raiders plus seven or eight other movies, nothing special but will kill time.

This job seems to be pretty much 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. Definitely not what I was expecting after working in Kenya, which was 12 hour days 7 days a week. I don’t quite know what to do with myself with all this time, especially given that I don’t know a single soul in the country besides Davies, and he is in his room when he’s at home. I don’t have to go to the field, and I don’t have to do any finance, or HR, or any other administrative stuff. There are staff that do all of that. I feel like a bit of a warm body waiting in case someone has a question about malaria. At least I found a gym and I can kill a couple of hours a day there, and when there is power and internet I can waste time like no one’s business.

I went to a meeting at the UN this week, a mind-boggling hour of acronyms meant to help NGOs coordinate with each other (mostly on security issues). There were a couple of presentations about the food crisis and its impact on Liberia. It was depressing.

  • the GDP is 40% of what it was before the war
  • Liberia imports 50% of its food
  • 92% of exports are a single commodity - rubber - making the country extremely vulnerable to price fluctuations
  • 2/3 of its rice (the staple food) are imported (in urban areas 90%) and the price has more than doubled in the past year
  • to make rice more affordable (and under pressure from the World Trade Organization) the government dropped its $2 per sack import tax. This was great for consumers, but a disaster for the lost $6M in revenues, which is HALF of the health budget for the year (which is also depressing because for only $12M some rich person could pay for health for all Liberians instead of buying a new mansion)
  • 56% of the rural and 29% of the urban population live in "extreme poverty" (less than $1 a day income
  • 40% of children under 5 are chronically malnourished

So, here we are trying to do our best to help what seems a hopeless situation...I guess I shouldn't complain too much about the price of coffee and ham when most families can't afford a cup of rice.

Here are a few more pictures of lovely Monrovia:

abandoned construction site

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to Liberia!

Arrived in Monrovia on Sunday afternoon after an excruciating flight – I really wish I could sleep on a plane but somehow being having to sit upright and listen to jet engines gets in the way of that for me – despite my brand new fancy blow up pillow.

As the plane flew in, I saw the signs of the Aid Brigade in full force – huge UN compound with the standard white “UN” marked goods: 15-20 helicopters, transport planes, and dozens of new landcruisers lined up neatly. Clearly they have a huge presence here, as evidenced by the large blue and white UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) building in Monrovia and every other car on the road being UN. Soldiers of all nationalities everywhere – incuding Americans, apparently they have the contract to retrain and reintegrate the Liberian. Blue berets in equal numbers. Everyone is working hard to maintain the peace that this country has finally found after 20 horrific years. And getting their hands in the huge pot of development money that’s flowing in to this country. Not that I’m cynical or anything.

The landscape is heavily forested, the only difference between here and, say, western Uganda is the palm trees everywhere. And water. Everywhere. It is rainy season here and they’re not kidding – it has been raining about 80% of the time I’ve been here so far. It rained all day yesterday and today. Nonstop.

The place is in a shambles, but to be honest not quite as bad as I expected so recently after the war. The usual African story – potholed roads, streets lined with little ramshackle huts selling various bits and pieces, total chaos. Not so different from anywhere else I’ve been in Africa. There are several large buildings whose construction was obviously abandoned during the war in downtown (see pictures). Monrovia is, however, one of the ugliest cities I’ve ever been in. And that’s not just because of the war, it had to be ugly before (again, see pictures).

There is no electricity grid in the entire country. Yes I’ll say that again, there is no electricity in the entire country. There was hydro power before the war but it all got blown up and the wires were stripped and sold. If you have power you are on a generator. That is the constant background noise in the city, generators. The generator for my building is right outside my window and runs from 7am to 9am then 5pm till midnight during the week, and apparently it is on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday. There is also no running water in the country. Can you imagine? A city the size of Monrovia, 1.2 million people, and no running water. I imagine cholera etc are rampant.

There are many beggars on the streets missing limbs, presumably from the war. These guys are very aggressive and they congregate at the shops where expats shop.

Roads are nonexistent in most of the country as well. Programmes that work upcountry basically have to shut down in the rainy season because the “roads” (dirt tracks) become impassable. Delivering health care services to these areas is a major challenge. How do you keep vaccines cold? How do you keep records? It’s a nightmare. Large parts of the country are basically in the stone age.

The MENTOR staff house is a nice apartment that I share with Davies, a Kenyan guy who’s been with MENTOR for quite a while, he is a good guy, in his late ‘40s. We went out for a beer last night and had a nice chat, he’s been working for NGOs all over Africa for a long time so has lots of stories. I have a big room and a bathroom to myself, with HOT WATER – I know, it’s too much luxury – and there is a cook/cleaner who cooks lunch/dinner and does the washing and ironing. We come home for lunch every day (another luxury – in Kenya I didn’t have time and it was logistically impossible to eat lunches). He keeps to himself a lot at home, which is a bit disconcerting but better than being annoying I guess. We have a TV, unfortunately there is only 1 channel, Liberian National TV, and it seems to mostly play poorly made local music videos. Although I did manage to catch an episode of “Touched By An Angel” the other night. We do have a DVD player and I’ve already checked out the assortment of bootlegs available on the street, I believe I’ll buy the new Indiana Jones movie (and I mean the one still in theatres) for the $5 asking price and watch that this weekend.

I went and checked out a gym after work today and I think I’ll pay the extortionate fee to join, there are 12 treadmills and lots of equipment so it will be worth it (and for what I'm paying I'll have incentive to haul my ass to the gym every night). I think I’ll have time and energy to work out here so that will be a bonus. In fact I brought home some work tonight and Davies told me not to! Don’t bring work home, he said, home is home and work is work. I have a hard time with that concept, work was 24/7 in Kenya! I won’t complain though, it will be nice to finish a mission with my health, hair and sanity intact!

The programme here is huge, the office is enormous and they have 8 or 10 vehicles (haven’t had a chance to count them all). Very well equipped and since it’s been running since 2004 everything is well organized and I don’t need to worry about admin or logistics stuff or going to the bank. Basically, this is an office gig with lots of meetings. The pace seems to be MUCH less intense than Kenya was, we work 8 to 5:30 with an hour lunch break (they turn the generator off at the office between 1 and 2 so we have to go for lunch!)

IT IS INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE HERE!!! I was warned about this but I’m still shocked. The businessmen (apparently mostly Lebanese) are taking full advantage of the Aid Brigade and their per diems, particularly the UN people who make absurd amounts of money, so $10 for a bottle of salad dressing is no big deal for them. That’s right, $10. I bought some cheese slices, cereal, bread, crackers, 5 tins of tuna, and some coffee, and it was $54!!! I looked at the menu at the restaurant Davies and I went to last night, $10 for a salad, $27 for a steak, $15 for pasta and pizza. We had three beers between us and it was $14. I guess I’ll be eating at home every night, that suits me just fine. We get a $17 per diem, which was great in Kenya as I probably only spent $2 a day on food!

I spent the first two days here at a conference, discussion of Liberia’s health system – progress and future directions. It was depressing. 80% unemployment. Maternal and child mortality among the highest in the world. Average male life expectancy 43 years. 40% literacy rate (lower for females). 70% of the population live on less than $1 per day. They are doing their best to try and improve, but of the estimated 154 million dollars needed to provide the Basic Package of Health Services (and it is very basic – immunizations, antibiotics, maternal care, malaria treatment) the Liberian government only has the revenue to contribute $10 million. Per capita annual spending on health care is less than $5. They are relying on donor financing to fill the gap, but the country is now in transition from humanitarian emergency to development and these are really two completely different ballgames with two sets of funding critera, different donors, different NGOs, etc.

Lovely view from the apartment balcony - that's the ocean in the background, too bad about the foreground!

Internet not behaving tonight to put up more pictures so will try again tomorrow!