Sunday, September 11, 2016

PS - Weekend in Ghana

After I wrapped up in Liberia, I took the short flight over to Ghana for a three-day visit. It was very interesting to see the relatively high level of development in Accra (the capital city), as opposed to Monrovia, and it was another reminder of how a war can really set a country back decades in the development process. What was really striking to me were the suburban houses and communities that surrounded the city and how that doesn’t exist at all in Liberia. Of course there is still poverty in the city and in the rural towns, but progress is being made.

Suburban homes leaving Accra

While in Ghana, I took the two-and-a-half-hour taxi to Elmina and Cape Coast. Here, I toured the famous castles which once housed slaves before they were sent to the Americas. The castles were stunning, but the thought of the buildings as houses of horror was a sobering reminder of the evils of slavery.

Elmina Castle

Elmina fishing port

Door of no return at Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

On my trip outside of Accra, I also visited the Kakum National Park which includes a 1,150-foot canopy tree walk with stunning views of the tropical rainforest.

Kakum National Park
Kakum Forest

On my last day in Accra I checked out the Kwame Nkrumah monument – a tribute to Ghana’s first post-colonial president and explored more of the growing city.

Kwame Nkrumah Monument

Wrapping Up

View of Zorzor community from my guesthouse
In my second to last week, I was back in Zorzor – the small town in which I spent my first several days in Liberia. I remember that during my first visit, the culture shock of living in rural Liberia completely consumed my thoughts and actions. I was struggling to understand Liberian English; learning how to take a bucket shower, flush toilets without running water, and shut off the light in my room; worrying about mosquitoes and malaria, and trying to enjoy my sardine and mayonnaise breakfast sandwich. But this time, after nine weeks in Liberia, I was much more comfortable in Zorzor, appreciated my spaghetti with ketchup and mayonnaise, and enjoyed falling asleep to the sound of crickets and the (relatively) cool mountain air.

Cornerstone of Guinea and Liberia
During our last night in Zorzor we met with a community leader Yeela, a small community right on the border with Guinea. We enjoyed some fresh palm wine and tobogee soup – a regional specialty. Afterwards, we ventured across the Liberian boarder with Guinea with the permission of the Liberian border guards.

Standing in two countries

After another successful training, on our way back to Ganta we stopped just outside of Gbarnga to meet some very important catfish. According to legend, all of the people who die in the nearby community are reincarnated as catfish in the adjacent creek. Out of respect, nobody eats these fish, and supposedly if you catch and sell the fish for consumption, then you will contract a life-threatening stomach ailment. My co-worker said that while at first he was skeptical of the story he became a believer during one Independence Day in which he noticed that none of the fish were hanging out at their normal spot. When he inquired to a local woman where all of the fish had gone, she said confidently that they had all gone into town for the celebration.

The catfish coming up for a snack along with all of the wrappers left by people who feed the fish

Saying goodbye to some of the restaurant staff at Jackie's.
Because I was so busy traveling in the preceding weeks, my last week in Ganta really snuck up on me. I spent the week hard at work in the office catching up projects, but also saying goodbyes to my friends in town and buying lapa to have custom clothes made. Saying goodbye was a little harder than I thought it would be – kind of like the last day of summer camp growing up. Everybody kept asking me when I was coming back and the honest answer was I didn’t know.

Saying goodbye to MLDL staff
When I left Ganta, my internship still wasn’t over. I spent that last six days in Monrovia to finish my last project, meet with some colleagues, eat at some really nice restaurants, see some of the nightlife, and do a little sightseeing. During this visit to Monrovia, I stayed at the very affordable apartments below Tides restaurant in Riverside. The restaurant is fantastic and has a great view of the ocean and West Point. My room also had an ocean view and it was pretty cool how close (literally on top) it was to the water. The only negative part is that while the thought of hearing the ocean waves all night might sound soothing, the ferocious roar of the water crashing up against the wall right below me was a bit unsettling.

View of the ocean from Tides restaurant
Staff feeding the chimps in the background
On the first day in Monrovia this time, we made it to the “Monkey Island” that I had mentioned in a previous post. From 1974 to 2005, the New York Blood Center conducted research on hundreds of chimpanzees to develop a number of treatments for humans. While medical advances were made, the chimps were kept in inhumane conditions, and many were left crippled and traumatized by the research. When the center ceased operations in 2005, it abandoned the chimps on several islands in the nearby river with little access to food. Recently, an American couple has set-up an impressive operation to safely feed the chimps and begin to fundraise to build a sanctuary for them. Part of their fundraising efforts includes tours where you can watch their team feed the chimps. I had never seen a group of chimps outside of a zoo up close before, and I was fascinated by how human-like they are.

Visiting United Christian Ministries
The second day, I attended church at United Christian Ministries at the Friends United for the Education of Liberia (FUEL Youth) school. This school and church was founded by a Liberian friend of mine who also lives in Washington, D.C., and attends the same church as I do – The District Church. We had the fortunate of meeting in church about a month before I left and he was excited to hear that I was going to Liberia and put me in touch with the pastor and principal of United Christian Ministries in Monrovia. The entire church welcomed me with extraordinary hospitality and even presented me with an African shirt as a gift. It was a surely an unforgettable experience.

As my days ticked downed in Monrovia, I spent time reflecting on my time in Liberia. It was an amazing cultural experience, an opportunity to break away from seeing everything through the Western perspective. I also learned some valuable professional and personal lessons. Among them is the question of how do you intervene without causing harm, doing damage, or creating dependency? As an American from Washington, D.C., what is the best way to position yourself as an “expatriate” in a small rural town in Liberia? What is the best way to address the root causes of poverty? I know that questions like these are common in the development community, and I’m sure to be grappling with them for quite some time.

In closing, my summer internship in Liberia was undoubted success. I am so grateful to the Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University for the grant, The Kaizen Company for allowing me to intern one of their projects, the staff of Mitigating Local Disputes in Liberia for taking me under their wing and showing me the world of development and peacebuilding implementation in the field, the staff at Jackie’s Guesthouse for their hospitality, and my family for their blessing to go on this trip. Hopefully, my work on the project will contribute in some way to its success, but I’m thankful for all of the people I met and lessons I learned. 

View from my apartment window: Sunrise on my last morning in Liberia

Friday, July 15, 2016

Challenges and Rewards

I’ve spent much of my time the last few weeks doing work in the field away from Ganta. Here, I’ve discovered some challenges which help illustrate how difficult peacebuilding and development work can be – especially in Liberia. First, as we are entering the heart of the rainy season the road conditions are getting very bad making what would be a short drive to a nearby town, a several hour affair. Since the roads are often so bumpy, it’s easy to arrive at the destination worn out, however it is important to push through the fatigue and soreness for the sake of the beneficiaries – after all they had to travel the same roads to get to the meeting place as well. Along some roads are also many bridges – some more sturdy than others. It is not a given that they bridge you drive over will hold the vehicle, so it is always important to proceed with caution.

Additionally, traveling at night is a challenge. Goats like to sleep in the middle of the road at night and this becomes a hazard. It’s also hard to see people, ditches, and other obstructions. You also wouldn’t want to get a flat tire at night – which would leave you swatting a flies and constantly shining your iPhone light into the bush to ensure that any animals or people partaking in witchcraft (which is a thing in Liberia) aren’t eyeing their next victims.

Mount Nimba
Another challenge which I did not expect is dealing with the low education level of many of our beneficiaries. During the civil war, many Liberians ceased their education and never had an opportunity to pick it up again. This left a sizable population with low reading levels. Thus, for me working on an exercise that requires much reading, writing and critical thinking proved very difficult to many of the participants. As such, I had to constantly revise the exercise to ensure that it was relevant to all participants.

My work in the field these past few weeks as also taken me to some of my favorite places in Liberia. For example, in Yekepa – the northernmost town in the panhandle of Liberia on the boarders of Guinea and Ivory Coast – lay many beautiful mountains including Mount Nimba. Another town called Zwedru has paved blocks, nice sidewalks, and some fantastic Liberian and international restaurants. Zwedru is also the home of the late President Samuel Doe. Here, you can even find his unfinished house before he was assassinated.
Unfinished house of Samuel Doe

These interesting towns as well as the success stories and the gratitude from the beneficiaries makes the work well worth the effort despite the challenges. It is hard to believe that I only have three weeks left in my internship. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Town & Country

Getting Culturally Acclimated

Over the past two weeks, I’ve felt like I’m settling in to life in Liberia. I’m beginning to adjust to the food (including what body does not tolerate); my work schedule and responsibilities have become more crystallized; I’m better understanding Liberian English; I have a greater sense of the geography; my workout routine is better regimented; I’m becoming acquainted with the local churches; and I’m making friends with my co-workers, the staff at my guesthouse, local businessmen, the regulars at the gym, and the community members and government workers with whom our organization works.

One cultural element that I’ve picked up on during the last two weeks is that there is not a sense of rushing and busyness that we find in American culture – especially in DC. I think that this value of taking your time is fairly common in many parts of the world, but it’s just a bit of a culture shock for me coming from DC, to be working with community leaders who do not necessarily have a full agenda for the day or another engagement to rush off to. I’ve noticed that this slower-paced lifestyle, allows community leaders to become very invested in their work. During meetings, it also encourages people to ensure that their voice and viewpoint is heard in a way that may be considered long-winded or “talking to hear yourself talk” in the States. However here it’s seen as respectful to allow folks to get their entire point across and feeling fully heard – even if that means a roundabout way of getting there or repeating oneself.

Another related cultural practice is calling just to say hi. Many have called me with seemingly no motive other than to say hi and wish that I have a great rest of the day.

In general, I’ve felt very welcomed into every community that I’ve been to thus far. Before one meeting, the leader even invited me into his home to eat and chat, before getting started. He even offered me a chicken as a welcome gift.

Weekend in Monrovia
This past weekend, I was able to take a break from Ganta and head to Monrovia or “to town” as Liberians call it. My co-worker and I got really fortunate with the weather – two sunny days in the middle of rainy season. On Saturday, we spent the day at Tropicana Beach and went in the ocean for a bit – but the dangerous currents kept me very close to shore. In the evening we met with fellow expats at Mamba Point restaurant hotel for dinner – an upscale venue built for foreigners and the Liberian elite. The night in the city was a fun change of pace, especially meeting with government and NGO workers from all around the world who are committed to Liberia’s development.

On Sunday, we went on a run through the city to the ruins of the Ducor Palace Hotel. The hotel was built in 1960 and was once one of only a few five-star hotels in Africa. The hotel was built as a meeting place for African and other world leaders to congregate for important conferences and events. The hotel closed in 1989 – shortly before the onset of the civil war. Over the course of 14 years of war, the hotel was looted and essentially destroyed. Many squatters even moved in to live in the empty rooms. The government eventually evicted these folks and now the property sits abandoned with a few security guards who will let you explore for a small fee.


We also had plans to visit Monkey Island – a real life “planet of the apes” island where monkeys who were once used for hepatitis research now live freely. Unfortunately, due to poor living conditions for the monkeys the tour guide is not doing many tours right now, so this trip, may have to wait until next time.

Monrovia is a big city and a stark contrast from the countryside and the image of Liberia that I’ve grown accustomed to over the past 3+ weeks. But I do think it was good for me to see how the other half of the country lives, and take a break from rural living while doing it.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

My New Name is Yarkpawolo

After the training, we headed to Ganta in Nimba County - and the guesthouse where I will be staying for the summer. Everybody at the guesthouse is very welcoming and I already feel at home. After a few days in the office at the beginning of the week, my coworker brought me to Cuttington University in Bong County to meet with the director of the peace and conflict studies program. He was glad to meet me and it turns out that he is good friends with Georgetown's former Associate Director of Conflict Resolution, Craig Zelizer.  I also met with some students and was invited to join some seminars that they will be having throughout the summer. 

On the way back from the university, my coworker said that we needed stopped in a town called Gbarnga because there were some people who he wanted me to meet. He brought me to a pavilion where there were about 20 men sitting and talking aged 20 to 60. He explained to me that this group is an open forum where men frequently gather to discuss matters of politics, social justice, international affairs, and other related topics. When he introduced me to the group, the interrogation from members of the group ensued. What was my analysis of the U.S. presidential election? What do I think about Ellen? (the current Liberian president) Why did I decide to come to Liberia? How will I be an advocate for Liberia when I return? Who is my favorite Liberian president? What do I think about the U.S.'s intervention in Libya? What should be the qualifications for the next president of Liberia? Is there a difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? What do I think of Mugabe? Is the Western media's depiction of African leaders fair? Why do I think African leaders are so corrupt? Do I agree with the U.S.'s approach in Syria? Do you think Western aid in Africa is doing more harm than good? I really enjoyed giving my honest opinions to all of these questions and I could tell that the forum participants were really interested in what I had to say. I hope I'm able to make it back there before I leave and listen to some of their perspectives

On the way back we drove by Charles Taylor's farm. It was nice. 

Later this week, I worked in the field with the members of some of the Community Forums. One of the major ethnic groups in Bong County is the Kpelle. During the meetings, English is mostly spoken, though some members are more comfortable communicating in the Kpelle language. On Friday afternoon they started calling me Yarkpawolo - which they say in Kpelle translates to "tall man." 

During these meetings, my coworker introduces me to the community members and tells them to pay no mind to the color of my skin. He tells them that "Nick showed me a picture of his mother and she a black lady - he a son." It's funny, because everybody calls me white man here - I would rarely be called that back home, though people usually don't know what ethnicity I am.

Other musings...

I found a gym in Ganta this week! One of my coworkers was telling me that he works out, and I was very pleased to find that there is in fact a small gym. There are only a few (non-matching) free weights and two benches, but that is good enough for me.

Soap operas in Liberia are bizarre. I mean not like in a way that all soap operas are weird, but like really off the wall. The filming is really poor (iPhone quality) and they contain an excess of violence against women.

I've also found that radio DJs in Liberia are very positive. They frequently use Liberian nationalist rhetoric to give inspirational messages of national development and growth. 

I celebrated national doughnut day by eating a Swiss cake roll. Then I had an allergic reaction. Today, I celebrated by eating an actual Liberian doughnut. I feel fine so far... 

Displaying IMG_5061.JPG

Welcome to Liberia!

Last week, I arrived in Liberia to start a 10-week internship with the Kaizen Company working on a project called Mitigating Local Disputes in Liberia (MLDL). The MLDL program works to "build the institutional and human capacity of local government officials and citizens to manage disputes and security concerns by focusing on developing and expanding County Security Councils (CSCs), District Security Councils (DSCs) and Community Forums (CFs). [These] structures [are supported] at multiple levels in Liberian society to give citizens the ability to bring disputes to authority figures as easily as possible with the aim of preventing minor disputes from becoming large scale conflicts. In this way, the project is working to foster peace by applying alternative dispute resolution and mediation techniques to supplant violence" (Kaizen website). Because this project deals with matters of security, for the purposes of this blog any information that I give about it will remain at a high level.

Across the last several months, I’ve received some interesting reactions from people when I told them that I would be interning in Liberia this summer – mainly characterized as cautious excitement. Liberia is one of the poorest countries in Africa and is still recovering from a brutal civil war that ended in 2003. However, the post-conflict reconstruction process has been moving along for several years, and I am excited to meet with and learn from actors on the ground who are working to build a peaceful and reconciled Liberia.

The airport in Monrovia can be a bit of a shock for travelers who are used to passing through Western airports, though I was able to manage my way through the Ebola screening and out the front door with relative ease. Thankfully, my co-worker and MLDL driver had already arrived and were waiting for me, because it was raining about as hard as I’ve ever seen it rain. Late May through October is the rainy season in Liberia, with Monrovia receiving well over an inch of rain per day in June and July. Fortunately for me, I will most of my summer in Ganta in the north of the country, where the rainy season is much less severe.

During my first full day in Liberia, I was afforded the opportunity to rest and get acclimated. I had a chance to get down to the beach and enjoyed dinner at one of Monrovia’s finest Western restaurants. Monrovia is an intriguing city with a large expatriate community of IO and NGO workers as well as Lebanese businesspeople. My time in Monrovia was brief, as the next morning our team traveled to the countryside to help conduct a multi-day training.

The  drive to this town was felt long, particularly because much of it was on a dirt road, but the scenery made it well worth it. When I arrived, I found that most of the luxuries that I enjoyed in Monrovia quickly went away. My guesthouse had no running water, or even a light switch to turn off the light (at least I did have electricity - a major plus). 

Here, I also tried my first Liberian food. Meals in Liberia are typically a combination of rice and what they call "soup" - though the soup is not liquidy like we think of it in the States. The soups usually involve a plant base with spices and either fish or chicken added in. I'm not really good at describing food, so I'll take a picture of my food later and add it to this blog.

During this time, I was able to talk with project staff  about where they saw the post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction process in Liberia. There is a general sense of cautious optimism and positivity, but there is recognition that much work is still to be done.