Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cool tech stuff in Liberia

Photo by Glenn Edwards.

There is some cool stuff happening on the tech front in Liberia. I intend to visit these projects and check them out!

On Liberia: Take Back the Tech, young Liberian girls learn how to use computer and are trained in IT by Stella Maris Polytechnic--a post-secondary school that offers technical certificates and night courses.

Then, we learn that Computer Aid International is developing solar powered Internet cafes for use around Liberia--especially rural areas. I would love to see one in Robertsport! All we're waiting for to start a Robertsport Connecting Classrooms project is an Internet cafe! I'm getting in touch.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What's wrong with 1 million t-shirts?

If you've been following development blogs this week, you'll notice that the site 1 Million T-shirts for Africa has been getting a lot of (well-deserved, in my opinion) slack. Notice the brilliant comments from Aid Thoughts, which I tried to reproduce but can't manage to resize--go there and see. Then come back.

Well done. I'll now point you towards a number of bloggers I follow who have provided thoughtful commentary and analysis:
  • Blood and Milk has a great break-down of the site's video message, which tries to reply to all the criticism.
  • Texas in Africa has some good alternatives.
  • And Tales from the Hood about the un/civil debate on Twitter (which we've just now joined as #africantshirtco).
There are some obvious reasons for thinking this project is a bad idea, like, Africa already has shirts and clothes and stuff--including a thriving imported textile market that too often supplants the local one.

Now, for the shameless self-promotion: We make t-shirts. In Africa! And we send them to the States. Because people in America need our t-shirts. Dig? Check out The African T-Shirt Company for a way to get back at the stereotype that Africans can't make cool stuff. Our shirts are bought new or secondhand on the local market and handmade in Monrovia. And thanks to Made in Liberia, they'll soon be 100% Liberian made.

Two weeks ago, Yale professor and development blogger Chris Blattman called them "T-Shirts I Will Buy." Only please forgive all the photos of Nate and I: we're staging a photo shoot with our Liberian friends just as soon as we can make them drinks at Tides.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sweat

I grew up in a country where, over the summer, it could reach an easy 120 degrees. You walked slow, stayed in the shade, and scheduled your activities in the late evening and shops often closed in the midday sun.

Here, it is not so much hot as it is humid. It's nearing the end of the dry season in the second rainiest capital city in the world, and the air is accumulating precipitation nearing what feels like 99%. The sun is out in a searing, colorless heat at noon, but unlike the Arab world, no one stops.

Security guards frantically wash cars as they bead with sweat, trying to finish before you come out of the supermarket with boxes of shopping. Men pushing carts of water gallons or bundles of pipe sweat profusely, shrugging their shoulders to wipe the sting from their eyes because their hands are occupied. It is only the women who stay dry, and who I study, sitting on crates before bitterball and batteries, seeming not to care whether they're shaded or not, never seeming to soak their lapa dresses--like I do--in thick patches of perspiration.

I don't feel too bad. A 1.5 liter water bottle chilled, when left until room temperature will have accumulated almost three tablespoons of water. I've started to carry freshly-laundered washclothes around with me, wiping my face as I roll the window down to talk to a policeman or before I walk into the air-conditioned section of the bank. "Oh, you're doing what Liberians do," an expat friend visiting the new flat told me when he saw how, with the power out, I was coping. I bought my blue and green ones at an intersection for 20 LD and I think it's a smart solution.

At least until the rain comes.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Moving to the spot

One of the deal makers at Tides is that we're moving in under the bar. The 2nd floor shares 4 1-bedroom apartments with Glamour Beauty Salon. We have the corner one, with two ocean-facing windows and a living room that looks up the cliff to the Ducor Hotel. We're moving in tomorrow and I'm really looking forward to the view.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cool volcano stuff

These two bits of geeky coolness culled from Duncan Green's blog From Poverty to Power:

That, and the volcano looks really cool from space! [h/t Global Dashboard]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Malaria makes me fat

Last time I had malaria, I was co-infected with typhoid. I stayed at home. I watched three seasons of The Wire. I ate mostly watermelon and pineapple. I drank a lot of juice and sometimes made tea. Over the two-and-a-half months I considered myself very sick, I gained ten pounds.

Yes. Ten.

I'm lucky, because you couldn't really notice it. But when I realized I had gained this weight while suffering from two simultaneous tropical illnesses, I was confused. Actually, I was more like: W. T. F. ??!! Almost four months later, I've pretty much lost it. But I would be lying if I didn't say that this sickbed weight gain was a deciding factor for taking malaria prophylaxis--in my case, 100 mg of doxycycline with a morning or evening meal.

Both Nate and I are good about taking, but here's the thing about the malaria parasite. For every drug developed to prevent malaria, there is a strain of the parasite that is resistant to it. Current drugs prescribed are malarone, metholoquine (generic Larium) and doxycycline, but know three people in the last two months who take malarone and got malaria. And malarone is the expensive one at $5 a pop, usually only taken by people whose jobs pay for it.

Anyway, I've not minded being on doxy. My surfing injuries heal faster, I get food poisoning less and I don't mind remembering to take it daily. What I didn't know is that it also makes malaria--when you do get it, because living here, you will--run itself out at 20% of the usual symptoms.

This is marvelous. It means I only feel slightly weak and disoriented. I still have energy to do stuff, but my blood feels weird. We're taking it easy, but I'm reading, writing and planning the ice cream menu for Tides. It's almost--dare I say it?--fun. Like having the chicken pox without the spots.

As long as I don't gain 10 pounds.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Overheard in Monrovia: 1

When I lived in New York, I spent a good deal of time (at work, as you do) obsessed with reading Overheard in New York. The past couple of weeks have had some funny and strange things said around me, so I thought I'd share.

I'm planning on making this a regular share, so you expats: if you feel like contributing, shoot me an email. Don't forget a clever but anonymous handle.

*
"I was lying in bed and my skin was over-plus. I became helpless."
--Solomon, describing his typhoid and malaria overnight.


"This boy is doing nothing! You need real assistance. I will help you."
--A 20-something amputee on crutches directing us out of our parking spot on Randall Street, trying to take the job from the grey-haired and uniformed security guard whose job it actually was.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Mamba Point Salad Obsession

I have to admit that, in the last month, the biggest strops I've had have been over lunch. More specifically, over being charged $14 for a small lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad. For some reason, this makes me very, very angry.

Maybe it's because I resent being overcharged for items I know cost less than $3--imported lettuce included. It's also because of the total lack of creativity. I'm happy to pay $14 for the well-dressed grilled calamari salad at Royal Hotel: it comes with sesame seeds and steamed broccoli. But a small bowl of lettuce with cucumbers and tomato? At two separate locations, I have refused to eat for a few minutes while I fumed at my unenthused vegetables, muttering into my napkin and probably embarrassing Nate, who at that moment seems strangely fine with everything. I get over it, but it has put me off going out for lunch.

Until today, when Nate and I arrived at Mamba Point hoping to order a quick pizza now that Mona Lisa closed down (fellow Funrovians--what's up with that?). Instead, we got sidetracked by the $15 salad buffet: a shared large bottle of water with fresh limes, cake, coffee or tea afterwards, and a spread--let me tell you. There was a shrimp salad, a chicken salad with papadams, a tuna salad that included celery, cut apples, cucumber, tomatoes, lettuce, roasted garlic and (canned) hummus and (canned) baba ghanoush--don't get me started about the canned stuff. There were bread rolls with single packs of butter. And it was good.

Really good. And I'm really happy about it. Like, borderline obsessed.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Looking for a Co-op Project Manager


Photo courtesy of Fiorella Yanuzzi

Yes, dear and trusted readers, I'm tapping the network. Who knows a talented, entrepreneurial and dynamic Liberian woman who can lead the Co-op towards greater and greater success?

This is, surprisingly, only a part-time job--but it has the potential to pay very well. Full job description is below. Thanks for sending this around! I'll keep you updated on the search.


Robertsport Community Work
Job Description
: Women’s Sewing Co-op Project Manager

Background
Robertsport Community Works is a Liberian NGO grounded on the principles of a community-based approach to environmentally sustainable development. We work to foster and support the entrepreneurial spirit within and around the local Robertsport community. The organization’s projects focus on enhancing economic opportunities related to tourism that positively impact the Robertsport community. In addition to the Women’s Sewing Cooperative, Robertsport Community Works manages a monthly beach cleanup, a scholarship program for surfers, community eco-tourism to the surrounding rainforest, kids yoga classes and the Robertsport Community Campsite. For more information, visit www.robertsportcommunityworks.org.

Currently, the Women’s Sewing Cooperative consists of 15 women led by Ma Bindu Davis. A small group of three advanced sewers, who serve as Team Leaders, have taught the others how to hand sew cloth products including beach bags, hand bags, yoga mat bags and aprons made from West African printed cloth called lapa. Women’s involvement is self-selecting – their interest in the project and willingness to learn are the only criteria for co-op membership. Members have regular meetings and cooperative decisions are made by majority vote.


Job details
Robertsport Community Works seeks a part-time Project Manager to lead the Women’s Sewing Co-op. The Project Manager will report directly to the Program Director of Robertsport Community Works and receive regular performance reviews. Although the Project Manager will receiving training, the expectation is that the Manager be increasingly self-sufficient and contribute to the local sustainability of the project. Regular travel to Robertsport is required. This is a part-time position.


Objectives
The Project Manager will be responsible for the following regular duties:
1. Promote and market the Co-op and its products locally in Liberia, regionally and the US and in other international markets, including print, online and other types of advertising.
2. Research, develop and maintain relationships with wholesale buyers, including boutique shops, conferences and trade fairs.
3. Create and disseminate regular communications about the Co-op and its products, using online, social networking, print and other media. Update the Co-op website, contribute to the Robertsport Community Works blog and regularly update product and Co-op photos.
4. Manage all Co-op finances transparently, including product and order tracking and statistics on Co-op productivity.
5. Select and purchase quality lapa in bulk for the Co-op, choosing African-made materials when possible and ensuring equitable distribution to Co-op Team Leaders.
6. Schedule and chair regular and participatory Co-op meetings, make decisions regarding Co-op governance under the supervision of the Program Director, and ensure Co-op needs are heard and meet.
7. Check and maintain a rigorous system of quality control that checks all aspects of Co-op products to ensure they meet the highest standards.
8. In response to Co-op needs as articulated by its members and identified by the Project Manager, organize workshops to increase members’ capacity both personally and professionally.
9. Respond to Co-op orders and communications promptly and ensure products are shipped in timely and professional manner.
10. Update the Women’s Sewing Co-op website to display patterns and products in stock, as well as promote the Co-op, its members and its products.


Applicant knowledge, education and experience
• Fluent, grammatical and professional written and spoken English, with the ability to communicate clearly and professionally over the phone.
• Proficient computer skills, including email and Microsoft Excel.
• The ability to visit Robertsport for Co-op meetings and workshops on a regular basis.
• Excellent interpersonal and conflict resolution skills, as well as the ability to manage on-site and remotely, and an entrepreneurial drive to see Liberian women succeed.


Salary and compensation
This position is paid on a commission basis, with the potential to earn a sizeable local income.

Application instructions
Interested applicants, please email a CV and cover letter to Elie Losleben at elie@robertsportcommunityworks.org. Before an interview is scheduled, two professional references will be required.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I am not a wine expert.

As part of developing Tides' drinks list, Nate and I are haphazardly sampling any wine that we think looks interesting. We pick them from the local supermarkets based on origin, grape type and cost. We prefer South African vintners because they're African, but there are also some Argentinian, Chilean and French bottles thrown into the mix.

But here's the thing. I know what I like, but I don't really know that much about wine. I have friends who do, and am considering sending them a list of all the wines Liberia imports with a highlighter (you know who you are, so consider yourself warned). Until I do that, though, we're on a blind, random taste test of whatever we spontaneously buy.

And because I have no intention of presenting our wine list with any kind of authority, we write down phrases like the following after taking a dozen or so sips:

"Smooth, berries, accessible, light, subtle"

And then, a bit later:

"Cross-dressing red won't freak at your seafood,"

"Smells like wildflowers in the springtime if you poured red wine on them,"

and

"Smells like trouble and tastes like high school."

Expect a rather interesting menu. If you're in Monrovia and have favorites, please list them in the comments section and we'll do our best to stock them at a reasonable price...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

NB: Liberia

Because two major film crews have just come and gone, both blogging (Bourdain here, the ESPN guy here) about the challenges of their visits, I feel it's only fair to let friends, family and the wonderful complete strangers who read my blog know that it's not as hardcore here as they make it sound. Ever since the Vice Travel Guide to Liberia, quite a few bloggers who write about Liberia have been at pains to point out that things aren't as tough or hard as they sound (my favorite one is here). This is just me adding my own thoughts on what it looks like from the inside.

One of the scariest things, when I was thinking of moving here with Nate, was the post-conflict element. Wouldn't the whole nation be traumatized by war? What about the epidemic levels of sexual violence that continue to affect young women and girls? Nate visited first, just to make sure it was viable, and then we both came six months later. What we found during our reconnaissance was a sleepy little town with minimal violent crime, a vibrant if sometimes sensational local media and people who were vocal, open and extremely hardworking. And we moved last May.

I love living here, and I think the place is still growing on me. I love Robertsport, with its welcoming community full of enthusiasm for our own commitment to the place, always ready with a joke and a big hello. I love living by the ocean and going surfing whenever we can. I love that there are more foreign NGOs that businesses, and that starting anything entrepreneurial is met with enthusiasm and a list of staff recommendations. I love that start-ups are so accessible here, without the blocks to foreigners working that there are in other places in Africa. I even love that it rains a lot--as long as we have a good roof, which at Tides is another post entirely...

But the posts make me realize, also, that being here can be tougher for people than I sometimes realize. Sure, I try to take time daily for yoga and fun and writing, eat and rest well, plan fun explorations and adventures, but it's easy to burn-out--I see it a lot around me and I don't want to go there. It's also good to recognize that our visitors maybe having a much harder (and, from the sound of it, hotter) time than I am and that it's good to schedule pool days at Kendeja, even if they only serve one slice of meat on their club sandwiches...

Just a little shout-out to Liberians to say thanks for having me in your country. It's awesome and I'm loving every day.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tides-under-construction

We're making great progress on Tides, with multiple teams working on different aspects of construction. It's really coming along, so I wanted to share some photos and an update.

Below are Nate and a friend of ours entering from Johannesen way--the road loops around Mamba Point from UN Drive and turns into Waterside. The entrance will be painted in Tides colors and filled with large palms, vines and places to hang kerosene lanterns in the evenings (don't worry, we'll have real lights too). It will also provide a place for drivers to drop people who stay dry when it's raining before they park along the street nearby.Ah, the wonders of bamboo. Below is my bamboo kitchen. It's made entirely from local bamboo and--get this--put together with bamboo nails. Cool, eh? We'll wipe it down and disinfect it regularly so it stays dust-free and dry. To me, the open kitchen is a social, confident thing--people can stick their heads in and see what they're up to. Also, I'll easily be able to socialize and see what's happening at the bar. A better tour of the kitchen when it's finished.
To the right is Varney, with his assistant, Morris. They're Robertsport men, brought in by Nate and I to speed up construction. The other carpenter, as you'll see, is working on the roof.
Here's the carpenter, building a frame for water tanks on the roof. This way, the kitchen, bar and bathrooms will be supplied by gravity. He also built a nice step-ladder that we'll have to keep guests from using to get an even better view.
This is West Point, one of Monrovia's better-known slums and home to the fishing community we watch sail their boats and cast their nets during an evening of sun-downers. I tried to capture the children playing in the water--they're tiny, almost invisible specs, so it will have to wait for someone else's camera. The ocean gets rough here and I've rarely seen children swimming. These children all swim together in a laughing crowd and it's fun to watch them from our deck.
You can see how quickly it's coming along. More soon!

Friday, April 2, 2010

550 bags in a month: We did it!

We did it! The Women's Sewing Co-op successfully sewed a bag a day for almost a month, producing 550 bags (plus an extra 10) going to a conference in San Francisco this April. I'm extremely pleased and very impressed with their commitment and dedication to the project. I'll post after our next meeting about how they're saving (and spending) their hard-earned cash.

Check out how cool the bags look with their conference logo! Jerry and Jallah, who are still deciding on a name for their new store, stayed up all weekend making sure the Robertsport Community Works tree and url, as well as the conference brand, were silk-screened perfectly. Carrying the bags between the shop and our apartment must have gotten them plenty of neighborhood attention.
Our main concern for the project was the usual: quality control. Our assistant Solomon and I have worked out a pretty good system that takes advantage of our respective strengths: Solomon painstakingly examines each seam and hem for signs of disaster, while I hold up a bag and can instantly tell whether the pattern is facing the right direction (fish swim sideways, birds fly up, etc.) and if it's the right size. It works well.
Here is Solomon, extremely pleased to be almost done I'm sure. To make deadline last Friday, we met the women in the afternoon, bought and sorted bags, and did quality control in the car--Solomon sitting in the back (his school wasn't having class that day) checking the hems and seams, and me in the front, slowly piling hundreds of beach bags on my lap. It got a bit hot, but we did it--Jerry and Jallah came to pick up the bags that night. They worked all through the weekend and we collected the bags, some of which still had paint drying, folded them into recycled boxes (Volvic, Jameson, anything the supermarkets give us) and drove them to FedEx.

Once again, FedEx was wonderful. The bags--we think because we used different lapa, which are woven thicker, but we're not sure--weighed 6 kg more than they were supposed to. Let's just say they hooked us up.
What's next? Well, the Co-op is on vacation for a week or two, I'm writing an article about the project for Business Liberia magazine and am actively recruiting for a Liberian project manager. Email me if you know if anyone. And thanks for all the support!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"They ate in America"

If you're keeping up with Anthony Bourdain's television show, No Reservations, you'll know they just shot an episode in Liberia. They were in Monrovia, staying at Kendeja (where I spied him drinking at the bar and lounging in the pool), driving upcountry to Gbanga and spending the last days of their trip in Robertsport.

Their fixer had arranged with Alfred to have a community barbecue at the campsite and had asked me to help out. Only it became one of those things where I was trying to organize someone who didn't want help and didn't want to be organized. Fair enough, I had to tell myself (over and over again, feeling disappointed because it would've been cool--for me). Part of building capacity is letting people do their own thing when they want to. Because he hadn't really organized anything by the time the crew landed, though, they switched locations to Mrs. Peabody's place next door.

Mrs. Peabody is actually an older Americo-Liberian woman named Agnes who has fixed up her grandmother's house on the top of the hill and runs a bed and breakfast. She spends the dry season in Liberia and the rainy season back in the States. She's also cut down all but two of the trees on her land and fenced her part of the beach. But it's the only place in RP with air conditioning and half the crew was planning to stay up there, while the other half were staying at the campsite.

I had T-Boy on the phone the day after they were shooting, reminding me to please bring him a cutlass so he can open coconuts and kill snakes, so I asked him how the crew's stay went. "How was their meal?" I asked. "Oh yes," he said knowingly. "They ate in America."

I was a little confused. "They ate in America?" "Oh yes," he confirmed. Alright then. Where did they stay. "They didn't stay at the campsite," he said. "They stayed in America."

Now, I'm pretty sure the No Reservations crew didn't fly back to the States to film their Liberian barbecue scene, so I did some quick thinking. And then I got it. "You mean, they ate up on the hill?" I asked. "Yes, yes," T-Boy said. "They ate in America."

I find it hilarious that Mrs. Peabody, who is a Liberian citizen with long-standing roots in the country, gets to be called "America" while we, who actually are American, somehow are not. And now Nate and I have a great nickname for her bed and breakfast: America.