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 couple of days of wiggle room with the time difference and the holiday and whatnot... right?  Also this is a long one just giving a recap of my day, the short version is that while I’m having a good time I wish I was home spending Thanksgiving with friends and family. I was in Thailand for Thanksgiving last year, and at least this year I’ve got other Americans around to celebrate with, definitely something to be thankful for.
After a good weekend full of work and sunshine and even a little BBQ by the pool I was ready for my second week in Monrovia to begin. I set my alarm, hopped into bed, did a little light reading and called it a night.
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 little sleep during the night itself! While I hate being late in general, I particularly 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, maybe everyone else will start to also? It could happen.
I went into the bathroom, only to find that the lightbulb turned on and promptly went out. Fabulous. Dark cold shower. I headed to work soon after, speed walking my way through crowds of people on Tubman Blvd trying to hail taxis. If I could describe the taxis here to you, I’d say to imagine what 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. All taxis here are shared, and there is no limit to the number of people you can fit inside. If you find a taxi going your direction (you flag them down with different hand signals depending on which of the major roads you want to go down), it will slow down and you open the back or front door, looking in to see who can squeeze over. It is common place for there to be 4 or 5 people in the back seat and 2 in the front seat. Needless to say the competition for taxis is tough.
I arrived at work at about 10, only to find that there was no car to take a colleague and me to a meeting. I suggested we head back out to the main road to find ourselves a taxi, but after a few minutes of watching packed taxis crawl through traffic in the 90+ degree heat, we decided to walk instead. It wasn’t less hot walking, but at least there was a little breeze. We arrived at the government office dripping and a little out of breath, but right on 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’s next project, and the task begins with a meeting with every member of the steering committee. Walking into downtown Monrovia, we found our next meeting which was at the top of a very rickety, very tall, and very steep set of stairs. After our meeting our colleague led us out to the front door, commenting that they were thinking of moving because it was difficult for the disabled children they worked with to make it up the stairs. My eyes opened wide imaging young people on crutches or missing parts of legs (the most common and visibly evident disabilities I’ve seen) trying to make it up 2-3 flights of uneven tiled stairs. Yes, a move seems in order.
My colleague then suggested we go to his house for lunch since it was nearby, and previous people working with this project from my job had also joined him at his house for a meal. On we went, walking through small alleys and across big streets until we reached what looked like a gated driveway.  But as in sloped downwards I saw that, like much of the city, it was actually an interconnected network of paths, unnamed, that you essentially can only get around if you know the area. Children ran up as we approached the house, they had been playing outside and helping to wash dishes. The power in the house was out, but regardless eating at the kitchen table in the pitch black was presented as the only option. My colleague held his cell phone, which has a small flashlight at the end of it with one hand, gesturing for me to serve myself. I took what I consider a good portion of rice, definitely more than a cup, and he acted surprised “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. We topped this with a spicy mix of dried fish and cassava greens and palm oil. I told him it was the most delicious food I’d had since arriving, and also my first Liberian food, and I meant it.
We walked back out to the main street to wait for someone from our organization to pick us up and drive us back to the office. Enrique Iglesias was blaring from a CD shop and as I started to hum along I saw that every fourth or fifth Liberian was also singing along, some even out loud. I got and gave smiles as we sang along together.
After a long wait a driver pulled up, complaining of the traffic he’d encountered on his way to fetch us. We found out why about a half mile later. Coming from the other direction was the CDC protest that was slated for that day. CDC is a political party that lost the most recent presidential election; there have been protests and right before I came a member of the CDC was killed in one of the protests. Monday was to be his burial. We crawled along through traffic as the crowd of CDC members, mostly young, many wearing leaves and branches in their hair with faces painted, chanted and sang. Then came a truck carrying the coffin of the man who had been killed; they were parading 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 the President’s office and UN buildings. Outside were international and national armed forced and police in full riot gear every few yards. Fences were reinforced with sandbags and policemen were directing traffic (a true rarity).
We spent the rest of the day at the office trying to schedule more meetings and working to plan and organize a workshop, which took place today.  Every day I get driven home at 5:30 pm, and today when I got home I realized I needed to go to the grocery store, which is thankfully only a few blocks away. After dropping off my computer I walked over, darting through traffic into the store. Big bottles of water for drinking, two lightbulbs to replace the ones that had burnt out in the apartment where I’m staying, and I tried to buy freshmade hummus but “Is finish, come again”. (Many stores here have Lebanese owners, and I’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 CDC march was still going and the number of participants had increased incredibly, as had the number of people gathered along the street to watch. Rush hour traffic was trying to crawl through, relatively unsuccessfully as people walking, on the backs of trucks and motorbikes passed by, always chanting or singing. I carefully followed a car across the road to ensure I wasn’t the one cutting in front of the protestors. I then went inside my apartment, and pulled up a seat on my balcony, and sat watching them pass by. They passed in clusters, 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 which will have to be shared later.
I then went to install my lightbulbs, the first one didn’t work, the entire socket was burnt out rather than just the bulb. I then went into my bathroom to install the second, the bulb was in a regular box but was red. I sort of threw up my hands and decided to go with it, showering under red light would be new and exciting. It lit at first, off and on, as I wiggled it around in the socket, before glowing and going out, leaving me once again in the dark in the bathroom.
I then went across the street to a restaurant with wifi to eat dinner and get some work done, and the marchers were continuing by, slower now, less of them, but still going. I sat down and started working, then ordered. But the internet soon went down and as every person behind a computer in the place frantically called the waitress, I gave up, enjoyed my dinner and headed home to work on the implementation plan for the research.
Certainly not your average day, but definitely one of the most memorable ones I’ve had so far between protests and riot gear and home visits. 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 in Liberia. After the introduction people say “You are welcome!”, whether it is at a restaurant or a government office. It’s quite a nice way to start an interaction.
I was picked up from the airport and driven into Monrovia, and fields slowly turned into small buildings, which turned into slightly larger buildings and the streets got busier. We passed the CDC, the opposition party headquarters where election violence had occurred days earlier. We passed Charles Taylor’s house, then his wife’s house.  It seemed like almost all the billboards we passed were placed by the government, reminding residents to pay their taxes, to share their opinion with the ballot box and not with guns, showing them the changes that had occurred since the last election, with bridges built and roads paved, promoting women and girls’ participation in decision-making. We pulled into a parking lot of a two storey building,  and two men who had been waiting to show me into my guesthouse took my bags. First on unlocked the large padlock, attached to a chain locking a gate at the bottom of the stairs. He explained that I was always to lock it whenever I was entering or leaving. He then used the light on his cellphone (who needs an iPhone when you have a Nokia with a built-in flashlight!) to show me up the stairs, leading to a door with a small balcony in front of it. He then unlocked another padlock, as well as a deadbolt. He showed me inside the apartment, but there was no power. With his flashlight he showed me how to lock the deadbolt on the handle of the door, followed by the sliding deadbolts at the bottom and top of the door. [A post about security is on its way to explain all the locks] He then gave me a tour of the apartment b the 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 large bedroom, with another bathroom attached. It looked lovely through the beam of the light. Before I arrived I was told I’d be staying in a guesthouse, and that if it wasn’t up to my standards I could move to a hotel. After over 24 hours of travel, the one bedroom apartment was more than I could have hoped for.
The next morning things weren’t quite so bright, and after a visit to the Stop & Shop (!) down the street I spent the better part of the day sweeping and scrubbing and mopping. But I’m happy here, with a small kitchen to cook in, a grocery store nearby, a bustling street below, and air conditioners for when the temperature soars. There’s even a cafĂ© across the street 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 years know that while I have had several experiences working in Africa before, I have never felt welcomed in this way before. Once I was taking a picture on one of my first days, and didn’t realize it was a sight owned by the government. A military truck rolled up and a man yelled at me, threatened to arrest me, told me to go back to where I came from. After I convinced him not to throw my entire camera into a field of rubbish, he proceeded to throw only the memory card. On another trip I was told to lie about where I was from because people didn’t take kindly to Americans, and was sat in the middle of the back of UN vehicles whenever possible, so it was harder for people to tell there was a white person in the car. I had good times on those and other trips as well, but it always felt like a struggle. I fall in love with most of the places I travel to, and always wondered why I had yet to fall in love with Africa like I had Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific. I get it now. It’s amazing what a difference people being nice to you can make. It almost makes you want to be nice to all the tourists in Times Square. Almost.
I regret that the only thing I forgot at home is the cable to transfer pictures form my computer. (Okay not the only thing, but brushing my hair is overrated anyway). But I promise to show you everything when I get back.

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.