Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Figuring it out in Robertsport

Yesterday we had our first meeting with the some of the Robertsport community, sitting on the sand until the resident expat, a German IT professional named Carl who drove down from the U.K., gallantly carried over some plastic chairs from the lodge next door. I was surprised by the turnout of about a dozen, mostly men working for Nana's Lodge, some of the local surfers and Beatrice, who contributed vociferously and whom I really like.

Nate and I began by sharing what we're trying to do under the auspices of a yet-to-be-named and still-to-be-started NGO: help the community benefit from local tourism while caring for the natural environment. People were receptive to the idea of organizing a beach clean-up project, especially as they started to list the kit that could come with it -- highly visible t-shirts (blue instead of yellow, which shows dirt too easily and will be hard to clean), branded trash barrels, a wheelbarrow, shovels, rakes, gardening gloves, raincoats... We had to draw the line at NGO-branded raincoats, actually, as the excitement was getting a bit out of hand and I'm quite sure that's not actually something we can deliver.

Two things surprised me the most. The first was that top of the group's list of things of needs were toilets, so that people wouldn't have to squat in the bushes and hope their passing neighbors looked the other way. Rain and high tide washing E. coli into the groundwater or the ocean is a pervasive sanitation issue, and I'm more than happy to figure out how to build and fundraise for a couple of pilot composting latrines. This will also be an excellent way to establish visibility, build goodwill and generally get a better grasp on how people get organized and like to work here. The second was Carl's suggestion that, as we are currently privately funded (read: by Nate and my dwindling amounts of cash, as we have yet to figure out how to access money into an nation devoid of internationally-networked ATMs), we could provide a meal of rice and sauce as a means payment, which seems to go over well.

My main interest as we start and mentor the group is how we can keep people motivated in the early months, before there's visible payback. I'm not sure how we want those we work with to be remunerated, but I'm becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the barter system. There is such a disparity between my resources and those of the Liberians I live and work with that this seems like the best basis for an economically empowering exchange. More on how I work this out soon.

Important update: Some of you will be happy to know that Myers, of previous chicken-killing fame, decided to wash our car, (which I skillfully drove back from Robertsport, smiling charmingly at each policeman who stopped us at the checkpoints so that they let us pass despite the fact that we're currently driving without plates). Since we're sub-letting at the moment and don't pay his salary directly, we gave him a dollar -- what many Liberians make in a day. He returned a few hours later with a mottled chicken for our coop. I'm impressed that he invested his single so quickly in something that benefits our little compound. I wonder what he would invest in if we gave him five.

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