Saturday, November 26, 2011


Have you ever lived in a compound? Worked in a compound? I remember when I was a middle school a friend of mine told me that her father's family in Chile lived in a compound. There was a big house surrounded by high walls, topped with coiling razor wire, with security guards out front. At the time it sounded like a castle, and that her family must have been one of the richest and most powerful in the country. Little did I know how much time I'd be spending in compounds in the future.

Compounds in every country I've been to have a number of similar features: the property is surrounded by high walls. These can vary from 8 feet to 12 feet from what I've seen. For instance when I was in Juba, the walls were 8 feet but were being raised to 8 or 10 after a number of robberies had occurred in the area, so the height of the wall matters. Walls are almost always made of cement, and are invariably topped with coiled barbed or razor wire, or with pieces of broken bottles with the sharp edges sticking up. There is almost always only one way to enter a compound, through large metal gates in the front that are locked at all times unless someone is coming or going. Then there are guards, always one, often more, who open and close the gates and generally stand around watching who comes and goes. Depending on where you are the guards may or may not have guns. In Liberia none of them do because firearms are completely banned, but in much of Latin America the guards do have some pretty intimidating weapons.

At first it feels strange to work and live in compounds, when I was in rural S. Sudan I worked and lived inside the same compound, so while the commute was just a few steps, it makes your world incredibly small. In almost every place I've worked you spend your day going in and out of compounds, greeting guards, occasionally showing ID if you're going into a UN compound. But the idea that what's inside the compound needs to be protected from what lays outside it becomes the norm. Here in Liberia most of the people I've met (who can afford it) live in compounds. Imagine if you've ever lived in an apartment or condo complex, now just surround it with walls and barbed wires, replace your doormen with security guards, and you've got the idea.

I remember when I was younger my family went on vacation with friends, and our friends didn't like the idea that the house we were all staying in was inside a gated community, because it implied the exclusion of the locals. Here there are certainly Liberians who work at businesses and organizations that are located behind high walls, but living within a compound seems to be an exclusively ex-patriate thing to do. On one hand, it's understandable, I've heard stories about a number of robberies and home invasions that have occurred in Monrovia. On the other hand a friend of mine lived on the top floor of an apartment building in Harlem and was constantly being robbed as people would hop from building to building and came down from the roof. It's not just here that crime occurs, and the security standards for the UN and other organizations exist for a reason. But what feels strange, is that it doesn't feel strange any more. I expect it, and though I still occasionally stop to wonder what it must be like to live in a place where the international community has come to "help" and "rebuild", but feels the need to wall themselves off and protect themselves from the people they're ostensibly here for. I think about it sometimes, but it's no longer my first thought when I see the razor wire. It doesn't even phase me.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Just another manic Monday

I realize it’s no longer Monday, but I figure I get a coupleof days of wiggle room with the time difference and the holiday and whatnot...right?  Also this is a long onejust giving a recap of my day, the short version is that while I’m having agood time I wish I was home spending Thanksgiving with friends and family. Iwas in Thailand for Thanksgiving last year, and at least this year I’ve gotother Americans around to celebrate with, definitely something to be thankfulfor.
After a good weekend full of work and sunshine and even alittle BBQ by the pool I was ready for my second week in Monrovia to begin. Iset my alarm, hopped into bed, did a little light reading and called it anight.
I was shocked awake by my phone. It was someone from work,where was I? It was 9:30 and I had overslept by 2.5 hours after getting littlesleep during the night itself! While I hate being late in general, Iparticularly try to avoid it in places where the general trend is to be late.In my mind if I consistently show up to things like meetings on time, maybeeveryone else will start to also? It could happen.
I went into the bathroom, only to find that the lightbulbturned on and promptly went out. Fabulous. Dark cold shower. I headed to worksoon after, speed walking my way through crowds of people on Tubman Blvd tryingto hail taxis. If I could describe the taxis here to you, I’d say to imaginewhat you’ve heard about Japanese elevators; that there are “elevator packers”who push more and more people in to be sure the elevator is at capacity. Alltaxis here are shared, and there is no limit to the number of people you canfit inside. If you find a taxi going your direction (you flag them down withdifferent hand signals depending on which of the major roads you want to godown), it will slow down and you open the back or front door, looking in to seewho can squeeze over. It is common place for there to be 4 or 5 people in theback seat and 2 in the front seat. Needless to say the competition for taxis istough.
I arrived at work at about 10, only to find that there wasno car to take a colleague and me to a meeting. I suggested we head back out tothe main road to find ourselves a taxi, but after a few minutes of watchingpacked taxis crawl through traffic in the 90+ degree heat, we decided to walkinstead. It wasn’t less hot walking, but at least there was a little breeze. Wearrived at the government office dripping and a little out of breath, but righton time after a 30 minute walk.
After the meeting we went on to walk to our next meeting.I’m here helping an umbrella body for public health research organize for it’snext project, and the task begins with a meeting with every member of thesteering committee. Walking into downtown Monrovia, we found our next meetingwhich was at the top of a very rickety, very tall, and very steep set ofstairs. After our meeting our colleague led us out to the front door,commenting that they were thinking of moving because it was difficult for thedisabled children they worked with to make it up the stairs. My eyes openedwide imaging young people on crutches or missing parts of legs (the most commonand visibly evident disabilities I’ve seen) trying to make it up 2-3 flights ofuneven tiled stairs. Yes, a move seems in order.
My colleague then suggested we go to his house for lunchsince it was nearby, and previous people working with this project from my jobhad also joined him at his house for a meal. On we went, walking through smallalleys and across big streets until we reached what looked like a gateddriveway.  But as in slopeddownwards I saw that, like much of the city, it was actually an interconnectednetwork of paths, unnamed, that you essentially can only get around if you knowthe area. Children ran up as we approached the house, they had been playingoutside and helping to wash dishes. The power in the house was out, butregardless eating at the kitchen table in the pitch black was presented as theonly option. My colleague held his cell phone, which has a small flashlight atthe end of it with one hand, gesturing for me to serve myself. I took what Iconsider a good portion of rice, definitely more than a cup, and he actedsurprised “That’s it?! That’s all?! Well I am African and I am going to EAT!”and he proceeded to fill his bowl until it was brimming with white rice. Wetopped this with a spicy mix of dried fish and cassava greens and palm oil. Itold him it was the most delicious food I’d had since arriving, and also myfirst Liberian food, and I meant it.
We walked back out to the main street to wait for someonefrom our organization to pick us up and drive us back to the office. EnriqueIglesias was blaring from a CD shop and as I started to hum along I saw thatevery fourth or fifth Liberian was also singing along, some even out loud. Igot and gave smiles as we sang along together.
After a long wait a driver pulled up, complaining of thetraffic he’d encountered on his way to fetch us. We found out why about a halfmile later. Coming from the other direction was the CDC protest that was slatedfor that day. CDC is a political party that lost the most recent presidentialelection; there have been protests and right before I came a member of the CDCwas killed in one of the protests. Monday was to be his burial. We crawledalong through traffic as the crowd of CDC members, mostly young, many wearingleaves and branches in their hair with faces painted, chanted and sang. Thencame a truck carrying the coffin of the man who had been killed; they wereparading it throughout the city. It was a group of a couple hundred people,many less than I would have expected. Then we continued on, passing thePresident’s office and UN buildings. Outside were international and nationalarmed forced and police in full riot gear every few yards. Fences werereinforced with sandbags and policemen were directing traffic (a true rarity).
We spent the rest of the day at the office trying toschedule more meetings and working to plan and organize a workshop, which tookplace today.  Every day I getdriven home at 5:30 pm, and today when I got home I realized I needed to go tothe grocery store, which is thankfully only a few blocks away. After droppingoff my computer I walked over, darting through traffic into the store. Bigbottles of water for drinking, two lightbulbs to replace the ones that hadburnt out in the apartment where I’m staying, and I tried to buy freshmadehummus but “Is finish, come again”. (Many stores here have Lebanese owners, andI’ve never had such fresh and delicious Lebanese food as in Monrovia!)
As I left the store I was stunned by a huge crowd. The CDCmarch was still going and the number of participants had increased incredibly,as had the number of people gathered along the street to watch. Rush hourtraffic was trying to crawl through, relatively unsuccessfully as peoplewalking, on the backs of trucks and motorbikes passed by, always chanting orsinging. I carefully followed a car across the road to ensure I wasn’t the onecutting in front of the protestors. I then went inside my apartment, and pulledup a seat on my balcony, and sat watching them pass by. They passed inclusters, but there were several thousand people participating without a doubt.From my perch on the second floor I got a couple great pictures as well whichwill have to be shared later.
I then went to install my lightbulbs, the first one didn’twork, the entire socket was burnt out rather than just the bulb. I then wentinto my bathroom to install the second, the bulb was in a regular box but wasred. I sort of threw up my hands and decided to go with it, showering under redlight would be new and exciting. It lit at first, off and on, as I wiggled itaround in the socket, before glowing and going out, leaving me once again inthe dark in the bathroom.
I then went across the street to a restaurant with wifi toeat dinner and get some work done, and the marchers were continuing by, slowernow, less of them, but still going. I sat down and started working, thenordered. But the internet soon went down and as every person behind a computerin the place frantically called the waitress, I gave up, enjoyed my dinner andheaded home to work on the implementation plan for the research.
Certainly not your average day, but definitely one of themost memorable ones I’ve had so far between protests and riot gear and homevisits. If nothing else Monrovia keeps me on my toes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Welcome to Liberia

Customs Agent: Is this your first time in Liberia?
Me: Yes, it is
Customs Agent: Ah! You are welcome!

I know now, that this is simply a common greeting inLiberia. After the introduction people say “You are welcome!”, whether it is ata restaurant or a government office. It’s quite a nice way to start aninteraction.
I was picked up from the airport and driven into Monrovia,and fields slowly turned into small buildings, which turned into slightlylarger buildings and the streets got busier. We passed the CDC, the oppositionparty headquarters where election violence had occurred days earlier. We passedCharles Taylor’s house, then his wife’s house.  It seemed like almost all the billboards we passed wereplaced by the government, reminding residents to pay their taxes, to sharetheir opinion with the ballot box and not with guns, showing them the changesthat had occurred since the last election, with bridges built and roads paved,promoting women and girls’ participation in decision-making. We pulled into aparking lot of a two storey building,  and two men who had been waiting to show me into myguesthouse took my bags. First on unlocked the large padlock, attached to achain locking a gate at the bottom of the stairs. He explained that I wasalways to lock it whenever I was entering or leaving. He then used the light onhis cellphone (who needs an iPhone when you have a Nokia with a built-inflashlight!) to show me up the stairs, leading to a door with a small balconyin front of it. He then unlocked another padlock, as well as a deadbolt. Heshowed me inside the apartment, but there was no power. With his flashlight heshowed me how to lock the deadbolt on the handle of the door, followed by thesliding deadbolts at the bottom and top of the door. [A post about security ison its way to explain all the locks] He then gave me a tour of the apartment bthe light of his phone: the kitchen, leading into a bathroom, the living room,a random room with an ironing board and a stack of mattress, and a largebedroom, with another bathroom attached. It looked lovely through the beam ofthe light. Before I arrived I was told I’d be staying in a guesthouse, and thatif it wasn’t up to my standards I could move to a hotel. After over 24 hours oftravel, the one bedroom apartment was more than I could have hoped for.
The next morning things weren’t quite so bright, and after avisit to the Stop & Shop (!) down the street I spent the better part of theday sweeping and scrubbing and mopping. But I’m happy here, with a smallkitchen to cook in, a grocery store nearby, a bustling street below, and airconditioners for when the temperature soars. There’s even a cafĂ© across thestreet with wi-fi if I get the urge to check my email or chat with all of you.
Any of you who have been following my blog for several yearsknow that while I have had several experiences working in Africa before, I havenever felt welcomed in this way before. Once I was taking a picture on one ofmy first days, and didn’t realize it was a sight owned by the government. Amilitary truck rolled up and a man yelled at me, threatened to arrest me, toldme to go back to where I came from. After I convinced him not to throw myentire camera into a field of rubbish, he proceeded to throw only the memorycard. On another trip I was told to lie about where I was from because peopledidn’t take kindly to Americans, and was sat in the middle of the back of UNvehicles whenever possible, so it was harder for people to tell there was awhite person in the car. I had good times on those and other trips as well, butit always felt like a struggle. I fall in love with most of the places I travelto, and always wondered why I had yet to fall in love with Africa like I hadLatin America, Asia, and the Pacific. I get it now. It’s amazing what adifference people being nice to you can make. It almost makes you want to benice to all the tourists in Times Square. Almost.
I regret that the only thing I forgot at home is the cableto transfer pictures form my computer. (Okay not the only thing, but brushingmy hair is overrated anyway). But I promise to show you everything when I getback.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Basta Ya!

Basta Ya! means  something along the lines of "Enough Already" in Spanish. It was one of the slogans used by protesters in Ecuador when they ousted the President in 2005.
 I was studying abroad there at the time and given that the President had essentially replaced the entire Supreme Court with his cronies then proceeded to start to change the constitution among other things, I thought my participation in the protests and eventual coup d'etat was warranted.
 While the University I attended was closed for several days and my parents were a bit nervous, everything turned out fine and the only casualty occurred when someone fell out of the back of a truck.
 I later used this experience as the basis for my personal essay for graduate school, drawing parallels between group action needed to throw out an unjust leader and the collective action needed to improve health in communities and the population at large.
 Not exactly a radical concept but it made the essay more exciting.

So as some of you may (or may not) know, presidential elections have just occurred in Liberia and there has been some protests and violence. Feel free to click on the links to the right to get more information (or go to if you received this as an email). The election was a run-off between the current president and her opponent and the protests have already turned violent. Supporters of the incumbent's opponent have called the election fraudulent, with many refusing to participate and protesting instead. To be honest I have no information about the basis or legitimacy of these claims. But I did want everyone to know that while I'm still going ahead with my trip, I will be extremely careful. I also already promised my dad I wouldn't join in the protesting and rioting. Aw man! Ruining all the fun :) I'll keep you updated as things progress and it'll be very interesting. One of my favorite things to do is compare the news and situation on the ground to what is presented by major media outlets. We shall see. I'll have a cell phone there and anyone who is interested can ask me for the number if you'd like to be able to check in.

Off to catch my flight to Monrovia via Atlanta and Accra!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Work-Life Balance

So Wikipedia tells me that  "Work–life balance is a broad concept including proper prioritizing between "work" (career and ambition) on the one hand and "life" (Healthpleasureleisurefamily and spiritual development) on the other. "

How's your work-life balance these days? Mine is sort of one or the other, with no balance. It's interesting, sometimes I'm working and sometimes I've got the whole life thing going on. It has its ups and downs, but for the moment it pays the bills. So on that note, I've had a whole lot of life the past couple months, and now I'm off to work again! I'm heading to Liberia next Thursday, just for a couple weeks. But sadly I'll be missing Thanksgiving again; on the other hand I already celebrated real (Canadian) Thanksgiving with the fam in Portland so that's a plus.

I've never been to West Africa before and have never worked in a country where English is the official language, so this should be a whole new experience. I'm going to do recognizance and to set up for a research project that will begin in January, but hopefully I'll have all sorts of fun things to share with you. Everyone keep in touch and I'll let you know when I make it to Monrovia safe and sound.