Sunday, July 30, 2006

Liberia Reading List

Two things to read if you're reeeeaaally interested in Liberia:
  1. The Johnson-Sirleaf Administration's 150 Day Action Plan (.pdf). It helps answer the question 'What the hell would you do if you inherited a bankrupt, war-ravaged shell of a country, and what order would you do it in?' Looking at the list, you can see her going slow in some places (lawmakers haven't been asked to sign the anti-corruption pledge yet), using a tender hand (giving pensions and severence pay to former police and soldiers before making army or law enforcement reforms), and thinking way ahead (establishing Women and Child Protection Units, giving food rations to families who send their girls to school). Not to take sides against the famous soccer star who lost the runoff election, but somehow I can't imagine a George Weah administration being quite this progressive and proactive.
  2. The World Bank's Rapid Social Assessment from last year, which at under 100 pages is a nice shortcut to combing through shelves of books on the early and recent history, anthropology and sociology of Liberia. And it's written with an eye to solving the country's problems. Not for the casual reader, but highly recommended for anyone who's coming here to do Development work. I was particularly happy to see mention of the pervasive 'culture of silence', which the authors say leads to "arrangement" (conspiracy) in social interactions, and the tendency of people to simply tell you what they think you want to hear, no matter how far from the truth.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

New Study: The Liberian Times Sucks

According to a new study undertaken this AM by Ledger staff, due to the crappy state of the economy, it seems that anyone can get an item placed into certain local papers as a news story, if they're willing to pay for it. Here's an ad for a local development contractor's new partnership with Western Union, thinly disguised as journalism. (Best part is the typo: "'s fattest and reliable Money Transfer group...")

I'm trying to start an online feud with the Liberian Times "newspaper" (hacks!), but they don't seem to be taking me up on it.

Lebanon-Liberia Diary

Lots of local papers are running this story today, the diary of a Liberian stuck in Lebanon. The Lebanon-Liberia connection is deep, being that thousands of Lebanese live and own businesses here, and many are married to Liberians. Seems there were at least 50 Liberians in Lebanon at the beginning of the current crisis.

Fire Update

The papers have no more useful information on the fire at the Executive Mansion, but it really put a damper on people’s holiday. People we’ve talked to say were saddened and scared when they heard about the incident. Some people speculate that since the building is crawling with people who used to work for the Taylor regime, and since the fire started on the biggest holiday of the year, and since there were four visiting heads of state in the building, and since the president’s own office was destroyed, and since the Taylor war crimes trial just started a few days ago, that maybe the fire was started on purpose. We may never know.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fire on Capitol Hill

There was a fire in the Executive Mansion today, Founders' Day, while 4 heads of state were visiting. No injuries, but nobody seems to know the cause. At first we feared the worst because Mendy's employer's ops manager called to say there had been an explosion. Pretty conspicuous day to have a giant fire in the President's office.

Happy 26th!

Today is Liberia's 159th Founders' Day, or Independence Day, or National Day, depending on who you ask. Asked what percentage of men would be drinking today, one middle-aged Liberian colleague said, "At least 85." Sounds like the 4th of July in the USA. The big deal on this particular day is that President Johnson-Sirleaf is going to throw the switch on the municipal electricity system, in a cermony featuring heads of state from neighboring countries. USAID has funded the installation of billboards that show the streetlight system, with messages like "YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK".

Miss Liberia Update

Her first act on the throne? Apply for a job with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Respect ya bad, Miss Juah!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Water from a Pipe!

Parts of Monrovia to get pipe-borne water! This is part of the plan that the Iron Lady laid out for her first 150 days, which also includes her flipping the switch on a (limited, for now) municipal electricity system tomorrow, Wednesday, Liberia's Independence Day.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Trust Me, I'm from British

Got two forwards today of this note from Kelvin Brown. Thanks Michael and Julie. Is "$15,000,000,00" somewhere between 15 million and 15 billion?

From: vv <>
Date: Jul 21, 2006 8:05 AM






Radio Days

Sorry no posts the last few days; I was coordinating a 3-day conference of 23 Liberian community radio stations. The roads are terrible in the rainy season; some station staff traveled 4 days by road, a distance of like, 150 miles, and others had to be flown in by the UN Mission in Liberia, UNMIL.

We had almost perfect attendance, and only a little bit of chaos when handing out equipment to these badly under-equipped stations, who are hungry for things like mics, mic stands, and blank cassettes. These radio stations operate on tiny budgets, soliciting anyone and everyone in their communities for a contribution. We trained them on transmitter care and maintenance, proposal writing, community relations, and we brought in numerous speakers to give pep talks.

When one of our speakers flaked, I had to step in and lead a class on digital audio editing. Some of the people had never sat in front of a computer before, so the training was a little slow! Imagine trying to grasp the difference between .wav and .mp3 when you don't even know what the mouse does.

Representatives of three government ministries came and promised that they'd respond if the radio stations were being shaken down by local officials. The Minister of Information quoted the president as saying "Corruption is public enemy number one," which was encouraging.

One of the stations we surveyed claims that they broadcast in seven different languages! Respect to the people in the world who have to canoe a whole day to get to the nearest muddy highway, who don't have phone service in their county, who have to edit interviews on a broken-ass cassette deck with only solar power, who don't get paid more than a dollar a day, and yet who continue to create grassroots media because they know it's necessary.

Taylor Pleads Not Guilty

And complains about the food in the Hague.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Drop it Like it's Hot

President Clinton was in town yesterday to pledge his foundation's assistance in arresting HIV/AIDS in Liberia. But at least one newspaper saw the real story in his calling for the country's debt to be forgiven.

The Halls of Power

Your humble editor had occasion to visit a couple of government Ministry buildings yesterday and speak with some rather pleasant and dedicated Ministry staff. Holy crap, it looks like they fought a war inside these places! Oh wait. There's hardly any furniture, limited electricity and water, gaping holes in the concrete, bullet scars, busted up darkened staircases, paint peeling, squatters(!), the whole bit. Anyway, we can report that people are working hard to get the government moving, and some furious reconstruction efforts are underway.

Creepy Doings out in the Bush

According to the newspaper, some 5000 Christians protested in Ganta on Sunday. They're outraged at a series of ritual killings in the area perpetrated by practitioners of, I guess you could call them, traditional religions. We're really not qualified to write with any authority on the fascinating subject of Secret Societies in this part of the world, (they're secret!) but we're hoping to get an interview on the subject soon. There's a bibliography here. Our correspondent out in Gbarnga (three hours North of Monrovia) tells us that in the runup to the elections last year, a number of area residents were "sacrificed" so that some of the more, shall we say, connected candidates, eat.

Miss Liberia Update

Miss Bong County, Patrice Juah is the new Miss Liberia. I'm sure she's talented and everything, but we're partial to another of the contestants, Miss Kulo Turay of Grand Gedeh County, who "climaxed her [martial arts] talent by breaking a block, apparently made out of sand, into pieces." If you have a minute, this article (2 pp.) is really worth reading, for style as well as content.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Congress Woman Malinda Jackson Parker

Walking down the street in New York City a couple of months ago, I ran into Greg Caz of the legendary DJ night Brazilian Beat Brooklyn, which happens every Sunday at Black Betty in Williamsburg. A beat junkie’s beat junkie, the first thing Caz says when I tell him I’m moving to Liberia is, “You have to find that record by Congress Woman Malinda Jackson Parker. It’s one of those ‘outsider’ records that collectors are crazy about.” I had never heard of her. Then a couple of days ago, our good friend Jason emails:

"This tune I heard, it's her playing piano, this famous Rachmaninov prelude, really dramatic and spooky, you probably know it, and she keeps randomly stopping and talking about how great 'Radamaninov' was and then she starts singing this song about mosquitoes over the top, following the prelude melody like 'mosquito is not your friend', ' mosquito will suck all your blood', and like that. It's super weird."

I found this catalog listing of a 10" record housed in some collection of Liberian artifacts:

Malinda Jackson Parker, The Liberian Landmark, Joy Records LLJ-1O1-B

Needless to say, we'll not sleep until we find the LP. From the review at emusic, with clips:

“Loveable Liberian eccentric who conjures up a heavenly hash of Nina Simone and Lucia Pamela. Though not a politico by profession, the late "Ma Parker" served a term in Liberia's House of Reps in the '50s during the William V. S. Tubman administration. Musically, the dizzy yet dignified Parker mauled folk songs and addressed societal concerns with a freewheeling half-sung, half-narrated style, while pounding mercilessly on a grand piano. The album offers odes to bush cow milk and palm trees, along with not one but two diatribes against bloodsucking bugs. On "Cousin Mosquito #1," Parker utters the word "cousin" 204 times in three and a half minutes. Madame had independent wealth, was by reports kind, generous and beloved, and was never without a bag of candy to bestow upon street urchins. She dressed flamboyantly, was renowned for an overload of cosmetics and sported a turban festooned with safety pins.”


Must Find These Jerseys!

The names of two women's soccer teams in the Liberian Football Association, as announced on the radio:

  • Earth Angels
  • Determined Girls

President Clinton in Town Today announce an HIV/AIDS initiative of the Clinton Foundation. Not much info here, but they did manage to mispell the name of the capital as "Mobrovia". Ouch!

Iron Lady vs. Miss Liberia

The Miss Liberia contest was held on Saturday, sponsored in part by UNICEF [Daaah, what?]. But the President, who can boast a women's rights pedigree as long as your arm, couldn't be bothered.

"The intent and purpose of the contest in the past gave negative images and pictures of what was meant", president Sirleaf disclosed. "I would have given my full support to the contest if it were Miss. Development instead".

In our book, that's an out-of-the-park home run. But the Liberian Times "newspaper" embarrasses itself with a melodramatic rejoinder:

"[The president's words] may likely weaken the growing morale among officials of government and the entire Liberian populace who have earlier planned to support and identify with this year Miss. Liberia."

What kind of writer uses the term "may likely"?

Jobs Program

Our friend Sam attended a speech by President Johson-Sirleaf over the weekend. She announced the availability of US$4m for a program to create 1000 short-term infrastructure jobs immediately, as well as 5000 longer-term jobs in the near future. We saw people lined up to get on board at the labor ministry this morning.

Against All Odds: Postal Update

Things are looking up at the post office! The government must have kicked down some cash, because when I went to rent my post office box yesterday, the place was abuzz with construction and renovation: new paint, welding on the front gate, new light fixtures, and new hardwood cubicles for the workers. (See pic.) The process of renting a PO Box was a little slow, and the postal worker kid made my change out of his own pocket. Worse, the whole bureaucratic apparatus of the post office, including the ledger books showing whose box is whose, all the receipts, all the records of all financial transactions, are sitting in a box on the counter within arm's reach of anyone who might care to steal it.

But I have faith that this is going to work! And hey, the box only cost me $750 LD for life, or about 9 bucks.

Cheese Shop moment:

PO: “What size box do you want?”

LL: “I don’t know. Umm, small?”

PO: “We don’t have small.”

LL: “What sizes do you have?”

PO: “Medium”

LL: “I guess I will take a medium one.”

Confound the cynics! Send us a letter!

Joshua Chaffin
18th Street
, Sinkor
PO Box 899
Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, July 14, 2006

Going into Debt to Pay Back Debt

"Under the government's proposal, Liberia would agree a bridging loan with multilateral lenders to repay its outstanding debt to them -- making its debts current rather than in arrears." Reuters story.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Street Preacher, Downtown Monrovia

Liberia is a god-fearing country, about 80% Christian. Preachers like these are commonly seen around town attracting hundreds of listeners. The other day I saw a few dozen people standing around a big stereo system on the street, listening to a taped sermon.

This guy appeared along with a gospel r&b singer. Behind him you can see the amplifiers they had laying on the sidewalk.

Last Line of a Radio Ad for Powdered Milk

“Available from shops, supermarkets, and from younger boys.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

How to Make a Living in Spite of 85% Unemployment: Pt. 6

A recurring series dedicated to the heroes of the informal economy. Get that Paper.

Packaging Specialist

This guy is selling plastic bags and sheets of newspaper to individual market sellers to wrap up their vegetables, donuts, home-made candy, or whatever. [Again the old newspaper comes from Denmark, for some reason. Gotta get to the bottom of that!]

Donor Conference Starts Today

Barely six months after taking office, Liberia's new government will try to secure funds to set the war-battered nation back on track at a two-day international donor conference... The Monrovia conference will bring together donors and financial institutions such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Commission (EU), the World Bank, African Development Bank (ADB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). (Reuters)

And they're holding another one in October in DC.

One of Mendy's co-workers was wearing a skirt/blouse/headwrap combination the other day, all of matching red, white, and blue President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf photo fabric.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Belated Film Review: Liberia: an Uncivil War (2004)

Watched this fine UK/Liberian feature-length documentary the other night, bootleg copies of which are available on many street corners. In 2003, two BBC camera crews split up, one following the rebel LURD forces for a year on their long march into Monrovia to topple Taylor, and the other staying in the capital to document the final days of the regime. Gunfire is cracking from beginning to end, and you really get a feeling for the tension of living in a war zone as the filmmakers interview civilians, child and adult combatants, NGO reps, politicians, and journalists at the worst extremes of stress and despair. The film is extraordinarily gruesome and chaotic, just like a war. But it does give a nice round picture of the last days of the conflict. Essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand the current situation in Liberia. Not recommended for the back-home relatives of only-child expats who live in Liberia. [Things are much better now, Mom & Dad!] One of the filmmakers tells LL that the forthcoming sequel (part 2 of 3) will document the ascension of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Field Trip: University of Liberia

I walked around the UL campus the other day, a real hive. The place is built on a set of low, rocky outcroppings such that huge black boulders are a main feature of the grounds. This is Capital Hill; from several vantage points on campus you can see the Congress building and the Executive Mansion, constant reminders of where you might end up working if you study hard and network with the right people.

Kids along the main driveway sell notebooks, folders, and ball-point pens from wheelbarrow-based stationery stands. One young guy with fancy gold eyeglass frames was doing a brisk business making photocopies from a machine on the sidewalk. Well-dressed young (and not-so-young) people studied or ate lunch in groups on the rocks, or on wooden desk/chairs stenciled white with “UL Property”. Handfuls of young men yelled about politics and football, while older ladies in head wraps chatted and cooked rice over gas flames in small wooden restaurants.

Inside of the peeling yellow and brown concrete buildings, students shuffled from class to class, sometimes crowding outside of a lecture hall where they weren’t in time to get a seat. Most of the lectures appear to attract a fair number of unenrolled onlookers, too, gathered around the windows and doors. Owing to the lack of electricity, all the classes are held in the darkness of indoor daytime. I wondered if they fire up a generator for night school. The foundations of the permanent buildings are marked with the names of politicians in chipping commemorative gold lettering from the year they were constructed, or else with newer white signs reminding that they were built with the support of the United States of America or some other country.

Like everywhere else in Monrovia, teenagers walk the halls selling used clothing, bags of peanuts, and plastic cellphone covers. Dot-matrix printouts are wheat-pasted to the walls and pillars, enrollment lists for Macroeconomics 1 or Advanced Principles of Accounting. Student elections were held last week, so candidates’ posters are plentiful. And in recent weeks there’s been a high-profile revolt of students and some faculty against an allegedly corrupt university administration, so renegade meeting flyers are everywhere to be seen. Students are enjoying their new ability to congregate and speak truth to power without being beaten down by the cops. The Iron Lady went as far as to reconstitute the school’s governing board the other day.

One giant open-air classroom looked like it could hold several hundred people, but it had been sectioned off into smaller lecture areas by free-standing plywood chalkboards. With its size, this must be the venue for commencement ceremonies later this month. The giant courtyard of another building was ringed all the way around with about 100 students in single file, all facing the same direction and concentrating on the Greek symbols of an advanced Mathematics test in the open air. Seeing their tongues sticking out in strained concentration, I was happy to be just a tourist.

More Buildings

The photo makes this structure look small, but it’s gigantic, like something out of Blade Runner: a never-finished government ministry building that’s been completely squatted out. People have installed cane lattice interior walls and sealed up some of the windows. At the time of President Doe’s assassination, there were several giant government buildings like this one under construction, including the ominous Ministry of Defense fortress in Congo Town and the two biggest high-rise complexes on the Downtown skyline. With Doe’s death, apparently work just stopped.

Back from the Dead

The worst part about getting malaria here is that people are totally unimpressed. Even the one-two punch with bronchitis that I had over the weekend, the first person I told was like, "Yeah, that's a pretty common combination." Thanks to MSF for some great free healthcare.

Thanks also to Craig Adams for the snazzy redesign on the website!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I Hope they were Getting Paid

Walking down the muddy red earth road of Redlight, I passed by an outdoor auto shop where a welder was doing major surgery to the bottom of a white sedan. In order to get to the underside, he had enlisted the help of about 10 men to lift it up onto two wheels and hold it for him.

Municipal Service Provision on the Honor System

I just went out to Redlight, a wide spot in the road a few miles East of here where there’s a small commercial district. In the taxi on the way there, we passed a huge muscular guy with a pickaxe in the middle of the road repairing potholes in the midday sun. Our driver slowed down and gave him a LD$5 tip, no words exchanged.

Blood Wireless

We don’t have internet access at home. But at random intervals we do get connected to sombody’s wireless internet network, which is always a pleasant surprise when it happens. Being that we live right across the alley from the wife of former president (and infamous, ahem, alleged war criminal) Charles Taylor, I like to think that it’s hers. Speaking of the Taylors, Chuckie was just charged with passport fraud in the US.

Scary Liberian Fauna

I haven’t seen one yet, but Jonathan found a spider in his house that looks like it could wrestle a teenager to the ground. [Thanks Lise for the tip.] Reminds me of a story about some place in Northern California where people put the legs of their beds in buckets of water to keep the tarantulas off. The spiders in our house are ugly and large, but this is ridiculous. I hope these monsters eat cockroaches, at least! We could use one in our refrigerator. Our house lizards aren’t working hard enough.

Waiting Games

It’s great how people here will take an interest in your safety and comfort, as a foreigner. Liberians are blown away that whi-man is waiting for a taxi with them, and they often just let me have their place in a cab, even if they’ve been waiting longer. Even market ladies twenty years my senior, tired from a day of work. So sweet! The other night I got stuck waiting almost an hour in the dark for a car, and people kept asking where I was going so that they could find me a ride.

This particular wait was pretty entertaining at times. On our side of the street there was a tiny kitten caked with dirt, clumsily chasing insects around on the grass, which is always good for a giggle. And across the street, in a row of closed-up Business Centers (wooden shacks that sell scratch cards and exchange money), a pack of dogs was harassing passersby every few minutes. The dogs weren’t biting, just launching out of the darkness across the lot and barking their heads off for no reason, scaring hell out of people and stealing back to wait for another victim. (Early stages of rabies? I got my shots.) The sleepy woman who “owned” the dogs was completely uninterested in controlling them; one victim was so angry he stood there for a few minutes yelling at her, waving his umbrella and threatening to call the police. (Begging a number of questions!) My fellow taxi-waiters quickly became the Peanut Gallery, hooting at him and hoping he’d leave so that the dogs could give us another show.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Gas Price, Monrovia

BTW this morning I had the displeasure of sharing a cab with a guy who was carrying a 5 gallon can of gas. Certain entrepreneurs go into town, fill up a can of gas, ride back out of town and separate the gas into smaller containers for sale along the road. Hell of a way to make a living!

Kofi Annan Comes to Town

The SG was here yesterday, greeted warmly for the most part by a Liberian public that seems to love him.

A couple of hundred people did march out front of the UN fortress carrying coffins and wearing black t-shirts. They're demanding a war crimes tribunal, not satisfied with the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation process without punishment. I don't pretend to understand people's rage over the crimes of the past, but I do know that it would take many years, cost many millions, and cause many new rifts in society to try and imprison all of the potentially thousands of people who might be indictable for war crimes. To quote one caller I heard on the radio the other day, "Where do we draw the line?"

In related news, I drove by the new Armed Forces of Liberia recruiting station yesterday and saw a group of men inspecting a newspaper that had published the photos of the first 140 recruits for the new army. The idea is to show their faces and allow the public to speak up if there are any known criminals among them. The AFL is meant to top out at 3000 persons.

4th of July

No fireworks, but some people do take US Independence Day seriously here. We went to an Americo-Liberian 4th of July party last night, with an American flag cake and everything. I talked to a guy who owns a road construction company, a rubber plantation owner, a computer technician, one of the Iron Lady's guards, a documentary filmmaker, and a guy who's planning to start a nightclub. The hostess had us all sing the US national anthem, which morphed into the Liberian national anthem at the end. One of the guests tried to make the US flag cake into a Liberian flag by squishing the icing around with her finger. People rapped along with Biggie and Jay-Z, danced to Donna Summer and R.Kelly, drank fresh pina coladas. We ate spicy escargot, a Liberian delicacy of enormous snails. On the rainy, dark and muddy drive out there, we saw the ruins of dozens of fancy beach homes that were built before the wars. Big stacks of cinderblocks were everywhere, like people are starting to rebuild. [Thanks Henry for inviting us, and happy birthday!]

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More Signs

Liberia appears to be brimming with talented painters--some amateurs, some dedicated professionals. One could make a wicked coffee table book focused solely on barber shop and hair salon advertising.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Kids These Days

Friday at 11AM I happened upon a radio news program run by children. It was the normal Liberian news, but the presenters were a couple of 10 year old girls! They read through a complicated story about the strike at the University of Liberia, the controversy over electricity provision, the whole bit. It was really cute when they’d get stuck on a big word and whisper to each other, “How do you say it?” Kids and Youth Today is the name of the program. Talk about youth empowerment!

Then they went into a call-in program on the issue “Should the government put a ban on sexy dressing in public?” The girls were totally against the idea of sexy dressing because they think it causes rape and harassment, and most of the callers seemed to agree. Your editor called in to say that by banning sexy dressing to prevent rape, you are in effect blaming women for the rape. But the girls weren’t hearing it. “Are you saying that we should just let girls go out naked in the street? Someone will rape them!” Heavy sigh.

BTW rape with impunity is a huuuuuuuuge problem here, especially out in the countryside. That’s the issue Mendy works on.