Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Outgrowing Anonymous Country

Two things are clear as I look over my last posts on Anonymous Country:

1. Writing about getting my heart broken while being of service to the world resonated with a lot of people. There are a lot of us living abroad, leading people and managing projects that we believe and hope are making our world a better place. Many of us feel the magnitude of what each of us, individually, is trying to shift. Sometimes we feel it so much that it hurts.

2. I have outgrown this blog. I used it as a postcard of Liberian stories for my family, friends and colleagues. It’s time to follow my gut and move on to a more purposeful project.

One of my friends, who’s living his first year abroad, asked me if my last post was cathartic. The word implies a triggering of negatives to bring about a positive, a detoxification. The answer is no. I shared my fears not because I expect them to diminish, but because when I name them, they lose their ability to control me. By sharing them, I also saw from the resounding feedback that many of you feel the same way. I’m talking about the deep fear that our hearts will one day break too much to heal, and that we will come away from the service work we do in the world broken and bitter. We all know plenty of people who have.

I’ll paraphrase the only negative feedback I got: “Elie, we know you’re sad about stuff, but get over it and post your grief in a less public place. I’ve had worse things happen, but you don’t see me blogging about it on the Internet.” I'll continue to update about my beloved Liberia-based community projects here.

But if you ask me to be quiet about the toll the work I do takes, about how I stay focused on creating and inhabiting the kind of change I want to see in the world, and the answer is no.

I won’t.

Instead, I’m archiving this blog and starting a new one at Expat Backup, where I’m exploring how to design an expatriate lifestyle that is healthy, happy, and of service to the local and global community—because aid workers need humanitarian assistance too.

I’m a lifelong expatriate and I’ve seen and experienced the toll our choices to pursue service-focused careers far from home can take on families, friendships, and personal health and happiness.  

It shouldn’t be that way, and I’m going to explore what we can do about it.

No matter who you are or what kind of work you do, if you’re living in a foreign country, you face specific challenges. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an aid worker, a diplomat, a teacher, a volunteer, or any of a long list of professions that seek to create positive change, wanting your work to be of service sets you up for a unique set of expectations and difficulties. 

At Expat Backup, I’m going to explore those challenges and see how we can meet them. I’ll be interviewing leaders who are living exceptional lives while being of sustainable service, and I’ll be sharing my own experience about how to design an expatriate lifestyle for maximum happiness, prosperity and positive impact.

My new work is not for everyone. I’m writing for expatriates who want to be of service, smart and intuitive professionals who believe that it’s possible to avoid the burnout and cynicism so common in our fields. I’m writing for those of us who want to innovate and improve on what’s been done before--and what we’ve done the day before. I’m writing because the work we do matters immensely and because it’s up to us to make sure we’re in good enough shape to keep doing it.

I know we can be.

I hope you’ll join me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Feeling the fear

One of the writers I follow challenged me to write about what I’m most afraid of. I read his challenge, packed a backpack and left my island retreat for a mountain village in Bosnia for a few days. I needed to think it over.

My first evening there, I recognized one of my best friends--an elderly Catholic priest from New York who I’ve known since I was 18. I didn’t know he’d be there. He didn’t know I was coming. For the next week, I enjoyed the companionship of someone totally present, an expert at holding space and deeply listening. I am grateful.

I read him my list of what I’m most afraid of. I told him I was afraid to return to Liberia because of the threats I continue to receive from an ex-partner. I shared my fear of being raped and tortured, or that I’d get in a car accident in a country--like Liberia--where there’s no adequate emergency room, no decent hospital.

Then I opened my heart a little more, and told my friend that I was afraid that I could never do enough to fix the problems around me. How no matter what I did for the Co-op, I couldn’t protect them from everything I wanted to or guarantee their future. How it felt like, with all my ideas, I wasn't doing enough. How I mourned the loss of a project whose failure is beyond my control.

“It’s not your job to fix things,” he pointed out, “it’s your job to show up with love.”

Sure, I’m afraid of the list I just wrote out, the list that terrifies me and keeps me awake some nights, feeling exposed and vulnerable for choosing to live in West Africa, for choosing the work that I do.

But what I’m really afraid of is getting my heart broken.

By “heartbroken,” I mean really rock-bottom broken--the kind of heartbreak where you sob without sound, where you don’t notice time passing as you stare at the ceiling or out a window, where you’re inconsolable until you take time out to rest, retreat and revision--like what I’m doing now.

We’ve all had our hearts broken by people, but what about when our hearts are cracked open because of how we choose to experience life? Because we live close to the edge, and risked it, and it didn’t work? Because we saw poverty or loneliness and tried to soothe it with our hands and our heart, but maybe it didn’t like us or didn’t want to talk to us, or what we did seemed to make no difference?

That kind of heartbreak scares the shit out of me.

Every time it happens, I feel like I have to make this the last time, like there’s no way I can go back to that edge and risk my dreams becoming real again--not if this heartbreak is where they sometimes lead. I feel like I can’t possibly embody this kind of grief at the disparities and injustices I see.

For those of us who work in “aid,” or “development” or whatever you want to call it, we’re used to navigating this kind of heartbreak. Mothers in our projects die because they didn’t get to the doctor in time when a complication comes up and they're giving birth. Girls drop out of school and turn to commercial sex work to help their family put food on the table. You offer an opportunity, a chance for change, to someone and they never show up again.

Sure, it’s easier to roll up the car window and turn on the air conditioning. You can try not to look outside. But our hearts tell us to look anyway.

Our hearts tell us they can bear being broken.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Liberia guides for the newbies

I've just gotten my hands on two guides to Liberia written by the Liberian Professional Network and part of the intriguingly-named "Demystify Liberia Project":

2. And just in case you need to get your household goods out of the port and have no idea how: Import and Clearance Procedures for Freeport, Monrovia 

Sharing is caring! 

*At the moment, these links seem to not be working. Hopefully they'll be fixed and live soon...*

Friday, April 1, 2011


Sometimes, to heal, you have to step away. I'm willing to bet you know the feelings: heartbreak, anger, stress. You start having the kind of days where it feels like everything is wrong and you're not quite sure how to fix it.

I've got the answer for you: Do nothing. Step away.

Distance and solitude. Relaxation and sunshine. Simple living with the bare essentials. Identify what it is that you need and give it to yourself.

I don't mean to suggest doing anything drastic, like joining a monastery or circumnavigating the globe with nothing but a backpack, although you're welcome to. Mostly, what we need in this face-paced world of ours is good old-fashioned rest. But we wait for people to tell us it's okay. We're not sure they'll be fine without us. We wait for someone to give us permission to give ourselves what we need. Here: I'm giving you permission.

As for me, I'm spending six weeks at a dear friend's house on the sea. I'm halfway through my time and will return to Monrovia in a few weeks. Each day, I can feel myself letting go of the stress and sadness I've been carrying for months. It's a blessed alchemy, the healing that happens when we just let ourselves be.

Sure, it's scary. But every time I check, my world is just where I left it, doing fine without me. I'm betting it will be there when I'm ready to come back.

Maybe you're not able to step away and spend all your hard-earned vacation days walking in the mountains. That's okay. Take half an hour instead. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and again the day after that. Carve out this time for yourself like it's the most important thing on the planet, because you are. And watch what happens to your heart, your mind, and all that tension.

So many of us are working in jobs that care for others, determined to make a positive difference in this world of ours. We have noble professions and feel like our time is better spent saving, helping, and rescuing than sitting in a hammock somewhere and taking a nap. Those of us working in humanitarian emergencies like the one happening now in Cote d'Ivoire know what I mean. But no matter how good you are at your job, or how much you love it, you can't take care of others until you're taking good care of yourself.

So be brave and figure out what that self-care means to you. Start small. Maybe it's sharing a cup of tea with a friend, or making a meal just for yourself, or finishing that book you've kept by your bed for months. Whatever it is, good for you. You deserve it.

If you enjoyed reading this, please share it with someone who could benefit. Thank you!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Open call to African romantic fiction writers!

Thanks to Jeremy at Naijablog for allowing me to repost this content. All you Liberian authors, get to work and represent! I can't wait to see the book covers for the series. -Elie

"Ankara Press is a fresh new voice publishing romantic fiction for the African market. We believe that today’s African woman deserves a romance that reflects the full richness her life. We want to showcase the modern African woman in all her strength and complexity while giving her the tools to shape her own destiny. In our stories, independent, capable women meet handsome, charming men who will respect their choices.

We are seeking strong, original voices who can tell fast-paced and engaging stories. We want scenarios that discard dangerous notions of male dominance, control and manipulation. Above all, we want writers will allow African women to see the best version of themselves in print.

If you think you are just such a writer, contact Chinelo Onwualu at: for submission guidelines.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

MovedtoMonrovia on the city's architecture (Part III of III)

We welcome guest blogger Matt Jones of MovedtoMonrovia fame for the third installment of his interview, inspired by the must-see Architectural Tour of Monrovia. Thanks, Matt!

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.
AC: What are some of the risks and challenges historic architecture faces in Monrovia?

Coleman or Cooper House, Front Street. Original construction date unknown. Photo November 2008.
Matt: Right now, there is basically no value to any historic architecture in Monrovia, from any era. The city's oldest buildings are its most dilapidated, and would even in a much wealthier city take significant resources (and probably regulatory mandate) to see preserved. I've mentioned several times the loss of the Cooper House on Front Street on Coleman Hill downtown. One day it was just gone, and I asked someone about it and they said, well, maybe a better thing will go there. This is not unique to Monrovia by any means, and there is on-going debate everywhere about the merits of preservation and the incursion of the state into property ownership. Personally I think its a shame, and reflects badly on a society.
The rubble of the demolished Coleman House. Photo January 2010.

Overlaid with this lack of appreciation, which I want to stress is prevalent worldwide, is the weight of this history. This is something I can't fully speak to in the situation of Monrovia, especially as a non-Liberian. Do certain groups see settler houses as a sign of oppression, a bitter reminder of a stratified society? Do they see the huge structures of the state-- the Executive Mansion and so forth--in a similar negative way? As a symbol of state largesse? Do they think of these issues at all? Is there pride, or potential pride in the city's heritage, from all eras? I'm optimistic that the potential for a positive appreciation for this heritage exists. Many non-African societies have adopted an academic or ironic approach to architecture from unpleasant eras--the French honor the monarchical past, younger generations in Eastern Europe often adopt Iron Curtain buildings as their own. I don't think these kinds of conversations take place in a milieu like Monrovia, where decisions are based on essential needs and opportunities. I don't think it rises to a level of aesthetic discourse, I think the cultural defense is a challenging one; I think the economic argument, regretfully, is rather weak.

AC: What can citizens can do to support the preservation of historic Monrovia?

Executive Mansion soon after its completion c.1960-65.
For those Liberians who want to make Liberia a better place, I would encourage them strongly to consider the merits of preservation. First of all, it is everyone's heritage, and not just of one strata of society--it is part of the national heritage of Liberia as a whole. Secondly, I think I could defend a decent economic argument that if Liberia's historic architecture is lost, it will have a negative impact on the country's development. I am completely serious when I assert that Monrovia has the latent potential to be a sort of French Quarter of West Africa-- the place a Lagosian or Accran or Dakarian couple goes for a long weekend, in future years and decades when there is a leisure class of urban Africans. If, in the meantime, Monrovia replaces those settler homes and even, I would argue, its mid-century modernist heritage, the city would be undercutting its most distinguishing built assets.
Postcard showing Broad Street dominated by the brand new Ducor Hotel, c. 1960-65

For the time being, although market forces are surely now and will for some time be against them, there is nothing stopping concerned Monrovians from approaching the government for establishing preservative action. This can take the form of citizen action committees, to raise awareness of the issue and get the conversation going. Eventually, it usually takes real money to be able to wrest control of individual properties from those who don't value them, but I think a public discussion about appreciating Monrovia's buildings would actually do a lot to heal old wounds. Sometimes I wonder if Liberians of settler heritage are cautious about honoring that past too much.

AC: What would you like for Liberians to know about their capital's architecture?

Monrovia from the harbor, around World War I.
Matt: What I hope for, is that Liberians see Monrovia as a beautiful city. It might seem silly to talk about it that way, with its potholes and puddles, noisy generators, barbed-wire walls, overflowing squatter communities, and open trash heaps, its clusters of mud-huts, its ruins. But to me there is no question that Monrovia is laid out on a rather dramatic natural situation, bounded by the ocean and the marsh, interrupted with fierce outcroppings of rock. I think in a number of ways, the manner in which Monrovia has been built over the centuries also make it a nice city. And today, although it is far too crowded for its infrastructure, it is still a great little city.
A German postcard showing Broad Street around the turn of the 20th century.

In terms of its architectural heritage and current additions, aside from what I've said already about preservation, it to decide to make the city beautiful when building, and deciding to build (which means, considering saving the structure that exists). This was the attitude that, by many individually and collectively in previous eras, gave us the tiny but handsome settler capital along Broad Street, and the imposing, futuristic campus of Capital Hill, the serene retreat of the Ducor Hotel, and the sleek playfulness of the LBDI Bank in Sinkor. People designed their surroundings to be pleasant, and something to be proud of. I would hope Monrovians can be proud of their city, and its architecture. That's how you take the best of what you have, and make it better.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MovedtoMonrovia on the city's architecture (Part II of III)

This is Part II of a three-part series where I interview MovedtoMonrovia's Matt Jones about the city's architecture, inspired by his Architectural Tour of Monrovia. Thanks to Matt for being such a good sport!

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.

AC: What do you think are some of the most interesting buildings in Monrovia?

Ducor Hotel in its heyday, c. 1960s.
Matt: They say that cities like Berlin and Rome suffer from too much history, and if Africa had such an example of this, I think it might be Monrovia. Monrovia is a small city, heavy with history, which as part of two centuries worth of "layering" that I spoke of above, has produced some remarkable buildings. 

The Ducor is obvious, and might not be my absolute favorite, but it is classic. A rather talented international architect, Neil Prince, who specialized in deluxe hotels, designed the Ducor, and I think he did an incredible job of delicately overlaying the complex upon an absolutely tremendous natural setting on the crown of Snapper Hill, with the pool and tennis court on their own terraces. The whole setting--the panoramas of the ocean and city, down to the winding approach, recalls Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. I wonder if its popularity as an expat pilgrimage is not the post-failed state irony of an abandoned luxury hotel, but the intricacy of the spaces themselves. I hope the hotel's imminent reconstruction preserves this harmony with the location.

Ducor Hall at Snapper Hill end of Ashmun Street. Photo January 2009.
For the best of Old Monrovia, I really love the Snapper Hill end of Ashmun Street, the block right around Ducor Hall, which is a delightful little mansion and still has a few stained glass windows. Its a wonderful little corner of the city, overlooking the harbor like some New England whaling town's procession of captain's homes. 
 Laundry drying on rocks behind the Star Radio Building, Snapper Hill. The Masonic Temple is at right background. Photo July 2009.
I totally love the abandoned French Embassy on Mamba Point, which is a magnificent example of tropical modernism, and has a very accomplished interaction with the huge basalt rocks on the site. They must have had some sweet poolside diplomatic receptions back in the day. Its gorgeous, I hope it is refurbished one day. It would make an awesome house or small hotel. This might be the handsomest building in the city.
Abandoned French Embassy, UN Drive at Benson Street. The two wings of the modernist residence envelop the pool. Photo May 2009.
If Monrovia is post-colonialism's Rome, then surely the Ministry of Defense in Congo Town must be its Colosseum. Repeating my observations from the Moved2Monrovia architectural tour, I find the duck-billed porte-cochere a fantastically idiosyncratic gesture, especially for a military complex. The courtyard of the structure is an amazing space. There is a sort of meeting area on the top floor which is thoughtfully done. I'm not completely comfortable with the original intentions of the building, and I don't want to be seen as celebrating its vacancy in a detached way, but its a very interesting spot to visit.
The never-occupied Ministry of Defense in Congo Town, with its duck-billed port-cochere. Photo August 2009.
The National Bank Tower opposite the EJ Roye strikes me as a very handsome monolith of raw concrete. It would make a great occupied building--especially if converted into apartments. I hope its deemed structurally sound and someone develops it. I think it would say a lot about Liberia's progress if its tallest buildings ceased to be skeletons.
 A courtroom of the Temple of Justice under refurbishment, March 2010. Originally built by an Italian contractor in the 1960s.
I could go on. The Ministry of Justice, which I believe was designed by Italians, is a very oddly shaped building, but has some truly stunning, modernist courtrooms, which totally changed my opinion about the place--I was lucky to have a tour from a friend last year who was in charge of refurbishing this wing, which I did a post about. The Ministry of Education on Broad Street is sort of an overbearing structure in a sorry state, but I love the open, high, colonnaded gallery shielding the sidewalk, where the daily newspaper and book vendors are. That is a very successful urban space.
Ministry of Educationon Broad Street, with its large, sheltered sidewalk gallery.
AC: What is your favorite African city, from an architectural perspective?
Dakar, Senegal. Photo July 2009.
Dakar, Senegal. Photo July 2009.
Matt: That's another tough one to answer, but I think for all the reasons above I would say Monrovia for sure. First of all, I have only been to a handful of African cities--Nairobi, Accra, and Dakar--which are each very different. Dakar is a very romantic city; Accra is like a miniature L.A. in Africa-- I love spending time there, but its very different from Monrovia.

Many of the African cities that I am most curious about, I haven't been to. High on my list is Lagos--a world unto itself, one that has been written about a lot by sociologists and architects like Rem Koolhaas in the last decade, and one that will be, in whatever form, one of the 21st centuries largest concentrations of humanity. Kinshasa, for the same reasons. Conakry and Freetown are supposed to have dramatic natural settings. I would also like to see cities like Kampala and Yaoundé, laid out over hills. I have seen a lot of video footage of Maputo which puts it high on my list. The planned capitals of Abuja and Yammassoukro would be interesting.

It's a great question because there aren't a whole lot of people who embellish an appreciation for African cities, which are most often the results of mercantile trading, colonial administration, and post-colonial politics, and often manifest the dysfunction and inequality of the state and economy, so their tough to love aren't really set out to be pleasing--but I find them fascinating.