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!

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