Saturday, February 13, 2010

Liberian Dispatch 2

Thank you for your responses to Dispatch 1. I'll address a couple of them in a separate post. Below is the next set of reports- as always, questions and comments welcome.

February 6, 2010

For assistance, contact the person who manages your network. Who the hell would that be? They don’t exactly provide you their contact numbers. What a dumb error message. … Drinking sangria on the porch with some expats last night, I saw a bird fly by and commented that I had seen virtually no animals of any kind since arriving on Sunday. The reply: “There are a lot of hungry people in Monrovia.” This spawned multiple stories of expats as passengers in cars deliberately aiming for animals on the road so locals would have something extra to take home to dinner. “I stopped my driver from hitting a chimpanzee once,” one said. “And everyone gave me dirty looks for the rest of the ride.”

Last night my roommate and I went to Mamba Point Hotel, one of the three luxury hotels in town. We ate sushi in a restaurant that felt like a retro diner. The bill came out to $26 a person, including a glass of wine, not bad for the fanciest restaurant in town. The scene in the restaurant was odd, but not as odd as the casino, which was a tacky little scene (aren’t casinos always adorably so?) filled with Chinese businessmen who have come to take over Liberia. As someone explained to me, “There’s only 3.5 million of us, and most of us are poor. It will not take very much effort for China to control everything.” “Taking over” Liberia is clearly within the United States’ capability too- for a sneak preview there’ the Firestone Rubber Plantation. For those who don’t know, we get much of the rubber for our tires from rural Liberia. After decades of human rights abuses, Firestone has consented to provide education, running water and a hospital to the workers there. For the more affluent they have also opened a golf course and a nice restaurant. Generally, however, we don’t have China’s zeal for exploiting third world mining opportunities, that was so last century.

We live in a secure compound, but random Liberians have been waltzing in and out of here all day. Six so far. I presume the most recent wave are here to fix the washing machine, which for the last three weeks has apparently made everyone’s clothes wet, but not clean. I had envisioned Saturday as a serene day of respite, but the sound of loud drilling and a heat that overpowered my AC drove me to the living room, which is the latest frontier in the ants’ war to take over this apartment. The last thing I need is for these critters to fuck up my laptop all crawling up inside it. My roommate gave me a book on Liberian English, which I’ll study tomorrow morning before I move into my new digs. It’s still astonishing that I can understand such a low percentage of a typical conversation between two Liberians.
February 7, 2010
Last night was an epic rage, and a slightly risky one in that I don’t really know anyone in this country. As I write this, a movie is playing on the TGH lounge TV in Hindi, with Arabic subtitles. I don’t think any of the employees here know either language, and I’m the only customer, but when you only have four channels your options are limited. This Bollywood channel exists to serve the middle-class Lebanese. The other three channels are CNN International, which is heaps superior to CNN in terms of delivering quality news programming, a sports channel that plays mostly soccer, and a music video channel that plays predominantly Christian reggae music. It is highly disappointing that the internet is down here. I’ve already come to terms with it not working in my room, which is a bummer, but it worked so well in the lounge when I visited the compound. Sending out the Dispatch will have to wait until tomorrow, which is just as well, because it allows time to generate the content for Dispatch 2. Interesting, the Bollywood movie, otherwise entirely in Hindi, uses English only in the courtroom scene for motion procedures (“Objection sustained!”). I have just ordered the $10 pasta, which will be a quite common dinner for me unless I learn to cook. Depending on the quality, it could be a pretty strong motivator.
The occasion last night was a going-away party for an ex-pat, held at the beautiful abode of the CEO of Lonestar, the primary cell phone service network in the country. It was as pimp a place as I’ve seen yet in these parts. His compound has a house, a garage, a pool, a partly enclosed patio with a full bar and a great outdoor speaker system, attended to by a retinue of servants. We were among the first guests, and got to take in the bar in its full glory, which was an awesome spectacle. There were about ten bottles of gin, twenty bottles of whiskey, forty bottles of wine and three coolers of beer. It was more stocked than our humble Brooklyn parties, to be sure, even though it ultimately ending up having the same number of attendees, if not fewer. … I made small talk with a couple peeps, including a South African working in hospitality willing to discuss World Cup strategy. He scoffed at the sensationalized Western media, reporting on only the bad in South Africa, reporting that European tickets for the Cup were still not sold out. “South Africa is a modern country, go around and it’s like any European country,” he confidently asserted, before conceding that he had never been to Europe, or any other country besides Liberia

So when you typically hear about an afternoon pool party, you imagine it dying down by the evening, an assumption that caused me to calculate the pace of intake quite erroneously. But when you are in a pool under the hot African sun, sipping scotch from a floating table, you are living the dream and kicking your cares away. It wasn’t until quite late in the evening that I realized I was one toke over the line, throwing ice at people, creating all kinds of splashes, twirling the floating table like a French waiter. Really though, with the possible exception of a thrown beer can, which I’m not sure I actually did, most of my antics were pretty harmless, but I got a stern talking to from one of the hosts, who stressed that he was “going to ask me once nicely to tone it down.” I guess you are a true rager if you’re raging too hard for a South African party stocked with twenty bottles of whiskey. What did they think was going to happen? I left the pool in search of food, but it had all been eaten, at which point it occurred to me that I had had nothing but a bowl of cereal all day. I soon fell asleep in a poolside chair. When I woke up and made the rounds, multiple people chuckled that “people had taken pictures that would wind up on the expat listserv.” To this I retorted, “If the best picture people can get of me after eight hours of drinking whiskey is me asleep in a chair, I’ll count that as a win.” Ten of us piled into an NGO vehicle for a bumpy ride home, and I curled into bed for a peaceful final night of sleep in Mamba Point.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: soccer will never truly catch on as a spectator sport in America because unlike all other popular American sports, it lacks signature moments of drama that you can hone in on. Spectacular moments can happen in any moment of any sports match, but in football when a team is in the red zone, in a basketball game’s final two minutes, when there are runners on base in baseball, during a tie break in tennis, that’s when you stop everything you’re doing and tune in. In soccer, goals can be scored at seemingly any time, but they almost never are. The closest thing they have to a ‘stop what you are doing’ moment is the corner kick, but these are very frequently unsuccessful. And while football TV timeouts, basketball end of game fouls and baseball pitching changes can annoyingly drag thing out, you need to have some breaks in a game to do things like answer the phone, go to the bathroom, get another beer, etc. In soccer, doing any one of those things could cause you to miss a goal, and that goal, in turn, maybe the only goal of the entire game. Incredibly, at the soccer game I went to in Argentina the jumbotron did not show replays, even of goal scored by the home team. Note that I am not knocking soccer. I loved playing it for many years, and should I deem myself in good enough shape, I’ll try playing some pickup here. Bill Simmons believes that two things will make soccer more popular in the next five years: American access to Premiere League games and high definition television, and on the latter point I tend to agree. Watching a soccer game, even with the improvements of the last few years, is like playing one of those old Nintendo games- all the players are miniature and the ball seems to ping off them. Though the ball frankly just travels too far and fast for great camera angles some of the time, I’m sure watchability will only increase. Why is drinkability a real word but watchability not?
Breaking GREAT news. The Superbowl will be shown in my compound. The owner of the compound seems to have a part American part Liberian accent, so he’s probably repatriated. He’s hooked the TV up to ESPN. I’m pretty sure that in the states you can only get the Superbowl on CBS or whatever major network owns the rights these days, but it’s on slight delay, so maybe that’s how its broadcasted internationally. By the way, the pasta was ok, but was it worth $11? I’ll give cooking a try…

Lest anyone chalk up these constant refrains about internet connectivity to whininess, as there are clearly bigger problems in third world countries, even for Westerners, let me explain. If you had told me that I would be stuck on a random island with no internet access, a ala my friend Anna in the Marshall Islands (she was limited to one hour a day for two years), that would probably be ok. I’d get into a rhythm about how to constructively use my time. Heck, brutal as access could be in India, wandering the dusty roads in search of a reliable internet café, when you finally sat down it usually worked good, and you could count on it as long as you could stand the sweltering basements filled with sixteen year old boys playing video games and downloading porn next to you.

The problem is that the internet is constantly supposed to be working, when it isn’t. You stare at a page trying to load for five minutes before it fails completely. Whether at work or at home, much time is wasted trying to connect or reconnect, and approaches to the day are predicated on false assumptions. Unlike in the U.S, where the computer or home connection might have something screwed up, here the service itself can go awry, which leads to this icon in the corner taunting me that I am connected at a high speed, when nothing of the sort is true. It’s the same phenomenon that makes spending 14 hours in a New Orleans jail cell incredibly miserable. If someone tells you, ‘Hey, get ready to spend 14 hours in jail,’ you can brace yourself for an unpleasant day, but knowing only that you are in jail, with no idea when you will get out, or who knows you are there, that is what sucks.
February 8, 2010
Worn out from a long, hot weekend, I slept through the first half of the Super Bowl. For me the Super Bowl is about 50% about the social ritual, the same crew getting together at my friend Adam’s place like a mini New Years party. Another 25% is the commercials and the half-time show, and the final 25% is the football game, with exceptions, like Giants-Patriots. ESPN was broadcasting the game internationally, and while I could have had some company in the lounge, I was so wiped by the time the game started (close to midnight) that I was content to watch it from bed. The ESPN broadcast did not have sweet commercials or a halftime show; they instead had endless ESPN promos for other programming. Among these were advertisements for Wednesday and Friday night basketball, which I’ll definitely rearrange my sleeping schedule to watch at 2am Liberian time. Don’t know if Mr. Outland has committed to ESPN for the rest of the month tho…

The game itself was a pretty good one- Drew Brees and Payton Manning were both impressive, Brees considerably more so in the second half. The game was remarkably devoid of flags, which can really break the flow of a game, and bad turnovers, until the final three minutes. Like a majority of the country, I was rooting for the Saints. A political poll I saw the game had Democrats supporting the Saints by a wide margin, Independents by a small margin, and Republicans by a single percentage point. … In 2005-2006, when I was working in Biloxi, I listened to 870AM New Orleans Radio when I was driving around, which was quite often. The New Orleans Saints lifted the spirits of a totally beaten city on their shoulders when they went 10-6 and battled into the second round of the playoffs that winter. They and LSU, which had an incredible football season that year (attending their homecoming was one of the wildest days I ever had in the south), gave people hope and something to rally around. When the cameras flashed to celebrators rejoicing the Saints victory on Bourbon Street I had to look away- the emotion still run very deep for me in those parts.

There are minor problems in my new apartment: lack of hot water, a terrace door that doesn’t completely close (worry is mosquitoes), a closet that is locked with no key, and of course, the usual lack of internet access. John laughed when I recited this list. “This is Africa…this is Liberia!” “I know,” I replied. That’s why I said they were minor problems.” I hope to resolve these problems when I get home and still have time to hit up the Congo Town market while there is still daylight. It is a bustling hub near my compound, and I get the sense that if I spent an afternoon there I could find a lot of useful groceries and appliances on the cheap. However, the area is very poor, and I would feel uncomfortable traipsing around, flaunting my relative wealth after sunset.

Woop! There goes the power. The power here shuts down at exactly 5pm. This is to tell government employees it’s time to go home. The power eventually comes back on for the busybodies who want to press on through. I’m still waiting for Amos to come get me. Today’s legal work involved some heavy lifting. I’ve been preparing a training workshop in administrative law for rural health administrators, but found out today that the 1976 Health Law, the main statute we use in our work, may have been superseded in this particular area by the 1983 Civil Service Act. Usually it is clear when laws supersede each other, but the latter law was passed under dictator Samuel Doe, with no regard to existing health law, and it is quite poorly written (in contrast to the 1976 law, which looks to have been penned with serious Western training or Western assistance). Meanwhile, another project that I thought involved routine contract drafting is actually a foray into a major political hornet’s nest. John explained the hornet’s nest to me, and it seems that for now I can be rest assured that I work for the hornets.

Amos was kind enough to show me to the closest grocery to my place in Congo Town. Don’t let the Banking Center written outside it deceive you- this Indian run establishment is the place where I’ll be getting my goods from now on, though I lack many of the cooking utensils needed to make anything besides insta-stuff. The Congo Town market embodied the wheelbarrow scene Carrie Stanley had told me about- available for purchase on the barrows were t-shirts, soap, bananas, sunglasses, pretty much anything you need. Amos is legit, and we made plans to check out some restaurants in the future, at least that’s what I gathered. Tonight I’m going to try a Bangladeshi restaurant in Sinkor; am pretty hungry after I showed up to lunch late only to find that they were out of fish in the cafeteria. Deep down it was something of a relief- skipping lunch is irrational, but my stomach would probably come out net even on this situation. I try to eat lunch as late as possible as a matter of course, as it makes the afternoon ‘half’ of the work day shorter. This logic will not work at law firms, where any given evening can morph into an all-nighter, but it does just fine at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

First time hearing that song “In the Moonlight,” since I left India. The soundtrack, décor and ceiling fans all take me back. The food was so-so, but I ate a lot of it, and will be content to pass out and enjoy the AC back home, clearly the highlight of TGH, which by the way, is commonly known as The Guest House. I had been misled by the signage, which is apparently just an acronym. I deduced this with Alpha, who got slightly lost finding the place, as there are two American schools (the landmark of choice) in my immediate neighborhood. I wonder what about the schools make them American. You’d think it would be the presence of diplomat and U.N kids, but all the little Liberians I saw leaving the school compound this afternoon were walking back to their homes in the neighborhood. … There are actually many similarities between Monrovia and a number of Indian cities. The informal economy dominates, with little shops and street peddlers the place to go for most food and goods. Both have their share of corrugated shacks lining nearly every street and every dusty alleyway. By the way, I don’t think I really know what corrugated means. I know that a corrugated roof or a corrugated shack when I see one, but take away roofs and shacks and I don’t think I could use the word corrugated in a sentence. Can you? Send me your best corrugated sentence.

Indian cities are very slum-heavy and poor, and in both the Indian and Liberian socio-economic hierarchy, the government-bureaucrat class not only has much of the wealth, but flaunts it quite lavishly in the form of chauffeured cars and fancy housing in prominent places. This couldn’t be more different in the United States, where talented people often have to be persuaded out of private practice to work in government, while lifelong government workers hardly rock out like high rollers. India has a pretty impressive public transportation system, but in cities like Mumbai and Delhi there are simply too many people for the busses and (in Mumbai’s case) trains to handle, which leads to a heavy reliance on auto-rickshaws, where are cheap and easy. In Monrovia, there are virtually no busses, and the vast taxi fleet transports everyone, not just Westerners. While I ride solo when someone like Alpha picks me up, the locals generally ride four or five strangers to a cab, which goes in a straight line up and down Tubman Boulevard for a fixed fee.

Storytelling has been a bit of an issue here. At the pool party I went with a classic and a quickie but goodie- the Indian murder story and the lesson about how South Americans speak in rhyme. The response to both was quite muted. Having participated in a small handful of kicking back spinning the yarn sessions, it’s not that my stories aren’t good enough for the expat community here. Yes, most of the expats here have worked in an average of three other African countries, and have their own crazy shit to throw back at me, but it’s more in the delivery. The school of storytelling I come from, the Chi Gam stage, is an unforgiving place, where action is around every corner, questions seek answers, crescendos build, the actors bow and the curtain swoops in. The expat school of storytelling is deliberately nonchalant, touching down with a spoken or implicit, ‘yeah, pretty crazy, but you know, whatever, that’s New Years in Rwanda for ya,’ celebrating disengagement like the old school indie rock scene. I haven’t really tried out any of the great Rage stories, but I usually hold back on those stories unless I’m talking to friends or complete strangers. The expat scene here is finite, and I don’t want to come off like a jackass, especially to people who may have been hit with the far flung ice cubes launched from my shallow end of the pool bunker.

Almost everywhere you go around here you can hear the hum of generators. They power nearly all the power in this country, if not all of it. The cost of buying and providing fuel for generators is one of the main reasons for the expensive state of the housing economy; most Liberians live without power of any kind. Most of the neighborhoods in Monrovia are truly painful to look at, because not only are the shacks hot, dusty and crowded, but there is garbage strewn about everywhere. Little canal boast not water, but a gross green sludge full of trash. The exhaust of cars and smoke from fires fill the air, rendering it almost unbreathable in certain places. Men, women and children lug around heavy loads on their heads. I’m always on the move, so I can’t answer this yet, but I’m curious how many goods any of these families sell in the market. Everyone seems broke, and the ratio of customers to vendors is not ideal. I’m sipping Club Beer, the official local brew of Monrovia, as I write this. It is not bad. Not bad.
February 9, 2010 I am reading over the 2007 National Health Plan, which provides some background on the Liberian economy. Per capita GDP fell from $1,269 in 1980, right before the start of the civil war, to $163 in 2005. That is staggering, or, to use a word commonly employed in this report a precipitous drop. From 1991-2006 there was “virtually no public source of electricity or piped water.” People fleeing the war in the countryside flocked to Monrovia, which has grown from a prewar population of 500,000 people to roughly 1.3 million today. The literacy rate is less than 40%, and by 2004 only a third of children starting first grade made it to fifth (a number that I’m sure has improved considerably in the last few years). I could go on and on with depressing statistics, but I think that’s enough for now. On a positive, healthcare related note, this report, published in early 2007, had a goal of raising healthcare spending from $12 per capita to $18 per capita, but in a briefing last week we were told that spending is up to $29 per capita. You are reading those numbers correctly, by the way. Here is a sentence that applies to my particular line of work: “Drug regulation is deficient, and private dealers freely import, distribute and sell medicines. The circulation of counterfeit, substandard and expired medicine considerable.”

The president is sinking in the approval polls. Can’t create jobs for the unemployed masses. The radio hammers at the president all day. An opposition party’s unlikely recent senate election victory has bolstered their belief that that they can take out the president in the next presidential election. One supporter pleads to me, “Under anyone else, it would be a million times worse. This is just a very, very difficult situation.” As you probably guessed by now, I am talking about President Ellen Johnson Sirleaff, Liberia’s embattled incumbent. She is bright, charismatic and hardworking, no question about it. Every day you can see new roads being paved, electric poles erected, hospitals and other building under construction. Unlike some presidents, she has a solid PR effort, with billboards constantly reminding voters of these achievements. Unfortunately, by all accounts, little of what she has done has trickled down to the poor Monrovians and the country people, who formed the base of opposition against her in 2005, and will again in 2011. Yesterday I had a meeting with an old Ministry official with a reputation for hostility, which was on display until I noticed the painting behind me- a mural of Ellen and Barack side by side. Under Ellen it read, “Liberia’s First Female President,” with her date of election, and under Barack it read, “America’s First African-American President.” I told her about my work on the Obama campaign and that seemed to soften her. “He’s having it so hard right now,” she sighed.

“What did Sarah Palin have written on her hand?” Startled, I look at John, who smirks. “Here in Liberia we pay more attention to American politics more than you think we do.” I suppose any amount of attention paid to American politics is surprising, as Liberia is a complete non-issue in American politics. It’s not like Cubans, Israelis or Brits paying attention. I shiver to think that Palinism, even as a concept, has permeated foreigners impressions of us, though I suppose every country has its national political embarrassments; see Le Pen, France. A sometimes amusing cartoon strip at Dartmouth had Le Pen as one of its recurring characters, and of course he was a living, breathing, right-wing pen. That was a different cartoon strip then the one that mockingly depicted me as “President Che.” Sadly, I never met the kid who wrote that cartoon, but if the general tenor of his strip was any indication, he was a bitter person, who may or may not have clung to his guns and religion.

An American girl and I were looking to order lunch, which is always a trial for her in Monrovia, since she is a vegetarian. We found a place that’s supposed to have good food, so we ordered to grilled cheeses with Bong fries. I was stoked to see what Bong fries looked like. A seemingly simple order, but she texted me “Somehow that was the most complicated order I’ve ever placed.” About ten minutes after that she called to let me know that the order had been canceled. The restaurant was out of bread.

Cell phone etiquette in this country is worse than in the United States. There people still don’t know how to turn their cell phones off before theater performances, meetings and lunches. And by “off” I mean “on vibrate,” of course. Here, however, there is no meeting too important to be interrupted by an obnoxious ring. Between the poor reception and loud noise everywhere, the whole room can hear a cannonball of static from the other line, and the recipient has to shout back to make himself heard. The polite folks will yell “in meeting! In meeting!” before hanging up. I suppose part of the problem is that no one (literally no one) has voice mail, but you’d think peeps could put their phones on silent and returned their missed calls after.

In studying up on the issue of corporate regulation I came across this fantastic quote from President Lincoln: The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspire against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than a monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, and more selfish than bureaucracy. It denounces as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes. I have two great enemies, the Southern Army in front of me and the Bankers in the rear. Of the two, the one at my rear is my greatest foe.. corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money powers of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in the hands of a few, and the Republic is destroyed."

I watched a soccer game tonight on ESPN. It looks like Mr. Outland is keeping the channel, which is essential. As legit as Cristiana Ananpour’s show is, CNN International is not much for entertainment. I did learn on her show that the Nigerian president had apparently gone missing for weeks in Saudi Arabia, leading to power struggles and limiting the country’s ability to deal with rebel fighters. Tough times. The other functioning TV stations are a Lebanese controlled station that shows Bollywood movies and soap operas, and a music video channel that plays uplifting Liberian Christian music. As for the soccer game, Barcelona won its Spanish League match easily despite picking up two red cards. Days after making my disparaging remarks about soccer on television I will have it thrust upon me, but after tonight I stand by my original assertions. One of Barcelona’s two goals was scored during a two minute break I took from the game to check on my insta-ready Indian food. I am not a sweet cook yet. …

No comments: