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

Retreat

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: AnkaraSubmissions@gmail.com 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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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

A few weeks ago, I came across MovedtoMonrovia, a site developed and written by friend and fellow entrepreneur Matt Jones. His Learn 2 Speak Liberian English entertained me for a solid morning and his blog was full of great content, but it was the Architectural Tour of Monrovia that encouraged me to invite him to share more with us. Introducing Anonymous Country's first ever guest blogger! Thanks again to Matt for being so amenable to all my questions, and for the great images. 

All images courtesy of Matt Jones.

AC: How would you summarize Monrovia's architecture?

Matt: Generally speaking, I would separate Monrovia into four categories, that don't necessarily account for all of its built environment, but that encompass the most interesting and important layers of the city, which exist side by side.
National Museum (former legislature) Broad Street. Photo October 2009.

The first is the 19th-century settler architecture, the oldest buildings in the city. The majority are residential; about the only remaining non-residential structure is the National Museum on Broad Street, which had been the Legislature in previous eras. The Masonic Lodge might be a part of this, but its at a totally different style and scale than any other example of settler architecture, and I don't even know when it was first built. This is a heritage very unique to Liberia and one of the city's most singular assets, and something I talk a good deal about on Moved2Monrovia.

Postcard from Monrovia, c. 1970s. On the top left is the Executive Mansion, bottom left shows the EJ Roye Building dominating the vista of the harbor.
Secondly, there is the mid-20th century architecture, first emerging in the boom-time "Open Door" glory days of the Tubman Administration, from 1950s, with occasional additions up to the Doe years. These remain the city's largest buildings, originally built by international design and construction firms to house a greatly expanded state apparatus: the Capitol Hill complex remains the single biggest intervention the country's built appearance; this joined other ministerial buildings on Broad Street, as well as others like City Hall, and JFK Hospital, and especially that surreal manifestation of a one-party state: The E.G. Roye tower, the True Whig Party's foray into real estate speculation, which I understand used to have a lovely auditorium, but I've never seen it.

Episcopal Church Plaza at Ashmun and Randall Streets, formerly a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, built in the 1960s. Photo May 2009.
Relatedly, the international-standard commercial edifices of that period, chief examples being the Ducor Hotel, and several office developments in the center of town, such as the former Chase Manhattan Plaza at Randall and Ashmun Streets.

Postcard of Ducor Hotel atop Snapper Hil, with President JJ Roberts Monument at left. c. 1960s
I own copies of, or have seen, a great number of the photographs that survived from this era, and I have also talked to a number of older Liberians about this, and of course read whatever history I can find. Monrovia was something quite unlike anywhere else in West Africa during in these decades: it was the most orderly, most impressive, most modern city in the region, and a proud symbol of Africans successfully governing themselves just as colonialism was ending. 
The EJ Roye Building, a vacant shell, and on the right the never-completed National Bank Tower. Photo November 2009.
By global, not just regional standards, Monrovia was a remarkably wealthy city, with a 5-star hotel and a Pan Am hub launching daily jets to New York, a local branch of Chase Manhattan Bank of New York, an Embassy Row on Mamba Point with representatives of all the world's great powers. Its hard nowadays to even imagine that era, when Accrans and Conakrians would come to marvel at Monrovia, but those buildings are almost entirely still with us. An adjunct to this category might be that only-in-Liberia class of never-occupied buildings from the later Doe era: the National Bank Tower and the Ministry of Defense, among others. 
The never-occupied National Bank Building, the tallest building in the country. Ashmun Street near Johnson Street. Photo November 2008.
Not very much was built between then and the present, the post-Taylor period, what might be called the "Ellen-boom" which only really got underway in about 2008--the new hotels and supermarkets, the massive new Chinese Embassy, the National Election Commission and other new state construction, and the enormous Nigerian megachurches. Most of this is totally forgettable, but there are a few commendable attempts to enhance the city. I like the LBDI Bank at Sinkor, designed by my friend Sylvanus O'Connor of AEP. He's very creative. Its very uplifting to see new construction around Monrovia, but most of it I just don't find very compelling--and most of it is not designed with any sort of aesthetic respect for itself or its surroundings. These have appeared mainly to answer the service and consumption needs of NGOs, the UN, and ex-pats, and most of time the only intention is to create guarded, air-conditioned office and residential space. 
New Office Building, corner of Newport St and Sekou Toure Avenue, Mamba Point. Photo March 2010.

 LBDI Bank, Sinkor at Tubman Blvd and 9th Street. Designed and built by AEP Consultants of Monrovia. Photo March 2010.
Lastly, what might be called the informal layer, created mostly in the late 20th century, is critical to recognize, and to achieve an understanding of Monrovia. This is what is often called 'architecture without architects.' This is West Point, which is similar to, if more crowded than, it was half a century ago, but also the areas that were mostly uninhabited before the war, both large and small: Fiamah, Wroto Town, Behind JFK, Jallah Town, Plumkor, Jorkpentown, Gaye Town, Chugbor, Slipway, and so on in a great arc around the entire city, from Chocolate Factory, north of Somalia Drive, to Thinker's Village on the eastern fringe of Paynesville's sprawl--quite aside from the tiny infills of squatters all across the city, from Mamba Point to Sinkor. Even before I came to Monrovia for the first time, I would fly over these territories on Google Earth, trying to make sense of them. I've been lucky to spend a lot of time in them since then-- some very dear friends of mine live in Gaye Town, another family in Fiamah.

Gaye Town section of Old Road Sinkor. Photo November 2009.
This is where at least one quarter of Liberia, and the majority of the city, reside: living in mat huts or handmade concrete houses across the metropolitan area. This isn't talked about very much, although I know many Liberians both in public service and private enterprise who are very aware of this situation and wish to address it. These small, marginal enclaves are microscopic compared to the scale of slums in other African cities, but it is hugely important to recognize that Monrovia is a city for 200,000 people with a population of at least 1,000,000. This is where the challenge is for Liberia, and for designers of all types trying to improve lives of African's urban dwellers.

The top of Redemption Road, looking west over Barclay Training Center and Mamba Point. Photo Jan 2010.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mama Liberia sends 2,000 bags to a Milan conference!

The Mama Liberia Sewing Co-op just exported its third bulk order of conference bags, this time to Milan.

The order was their biggest yet--2,000 bags! They've been sewing since October to meet the order, and I'm proud to say that their quality control has improved considerably. This used to be one of our biggest hurdles, and out of 2,000 bags, we only found 13 that needed to be returned to the Co-op!

After almost two years of my leadership, I've been slowly pulling away from the day-to-day management of the group, encouraging them to meet and make group decisions without me. I'm happy that they like to have me around, but they don't need me anymore to do their work. They do still need me to manage their sales, though--which I'm grateful for, as I'm not quite ready to let them go. I'll be running the new website, marketing and advertising, and coordinating orders with them for--I anticipate--the next couple of years, as they learn the computer skills and business know-how to do this on their own.

In the meantime, the Co-op is introducing a new item to its repertoire: hand-sewn duvet/comforter covers--a step up from traditional quilts that our market research indicates will sell better than their more traditional counterpart. We'll also be launching our website any day now, so stay tuned if you want to order a duvet cover! 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On computer viruses

I was up-country in a rural Liberian computer lab last week, assisting Nate while he trained a classroom of secondary students and their teachers on how to use the online platform for our program. These schools usually have donated desktop computers but no regular power, so it's not unusual to hear about students taking up a small collection to buy fuel so they can use their school's computer lab. To them, learning to use computers is worth the investment and it's way cheaper than an Internet cafe, assuming there's one in town.

We make a preliminary assessment of each participating school's computer lab before we arrive, taking time to ascertain how many of their Ministry of Education-donated computers are functional. Usually, it's just a fraction of the total.

At the beginning of our trainings, when the team is busy connecting the working computers to the Internet, I notice as the virus-riddled machines sit there in silence. They may as well be rocks, for all the use are to their students.

Last week, one school we trained had such a myriad of malicious code that it took us 45 minutes to do what normally takes five. The modems picked up viruses and their connections got flaky, the computers had to be restarted every few minutes, and even the digital camera managed to crash a few times.

Still, nothing could daunt the excited of students being connected to the Internet for a first time. One group stayed past 5:00, until their computer teacher sent them home, threatening that the generator was going to run out of fuel.

I wonder if the hackers who write computer viruses know that this is where their code ends up, in a simple African classroom, keeping children whose families live on a dollar a day off the World Wide Web.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Goodbye, Tides: The gratitude list

When things go sour, as they did with Tides, it helps to keep perspective. It helps to not feed the anger, betrayal and disappointment. It helps to remind myself why my fiance and I invested in a business in Liberia in the first place. It helps to remember what we did.

So, for all of you who have sent me lovely notes full of gratitude for the spot we created together, here is my own gratitude list for Tides.

1. We created and managed a successful business.

For all the fun I had, this has to top the list. Nate and I aren't business people by background or academic training, but we do have a lot of common sense, value fairness and try our best to treat people well. Tides was successful, and we worked hard to make it that way. I'm really proud of that.

2. We made good food with local ingredients.

I cannot tell you how many times businessmen would approach Nate or me in the lead-up to opening, offering to bring us this or that on their airline or shipping container. "What about frozen french fries?" one would suggest. "Thank you," we'd reply politely, shaking our heads, "but we want to promote all the great local produce Liberia has to offer." From sauteed potato greens with ginger and roasted pumpkin seeds to barracuda ceviche, we did it. And it tasted good.

4. We created some tasty cocktails.

This is one of the things I miss the most, as there are few places in Monrovia that make the effort to serve fresh juice, let alone add fresh juice or infusions to their cocktails. It's not even that hard, and it's far cheaper--and tastier, not to mention healthier--than buying imported boxed or bottled juices. The infused vodkas were great fun to play with. Enough said.

5. We brought people together.

From late-nights with a handful of friends inventing cocktails at the bar to our 100+ person Thanksgiving pot-luck, Tides brought people together. You could chill with your date on the balcony and watch the stars, you could bring your boss for after-work drinks, or you could just rock up on your own and see who you'd meet. Monrovia, with all it's short-termers and turnover, needed a place like that.

6. We contributed to making Liberia a cool place.

It has been a privilege and an honor to start and run a business in Liberia. I'm writing lots more about all the fun stuff, so stay tuned to see what comes of that.

7. We had fun.

Period.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Goodbye to Tides

We want to inform our friends and customers that we are no longer involved in Tides in any way. After appropriating our ideas, our management practices and our investment capital, our partner expelled us from our home and the business.

We greatly enjoyed hosting you and getting to know you at Tides and we appreciated your business and friendship alike. We are surprised and disappointed at what has happened, but are deeply appreciative of the friends (and customers) who have helped us through this transition.

We look forward to seeing you at other bars and restaurants and perhaps at a new establishment of our own soon ; )

It was fun while it lasted!

-The Tides team

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Overheard in Monrovia

"Do we need to buy more ramen for the mice? I don't want them branching out and eating other stuff."

-- Nate, at our old flat

Me (in Uganda, to our friend's driver): Are we north or south of the Equator?
Driver (c.k.a. Mugabe): We are east.

To be continued...I've had a crazy week.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Adventures in Tropical Medicine: Giardia

Those of you who have been following the saga of our health here in Liberia will know that I've been diagnosed with malaria seven times and with typhoid four times in the last 20 months. This high incidence of deadly tropical disease seems exaggerated, even to me. Symptomatically, I've felt achy, tired, apathetic and, well...not very happy. But I haven't been ravaged by tropical fevers, left shattered and shaking in my bed by alternating feelings of hot and cold, and truth be told, when I get sick I actually gain weight despite eating almost nothing--figure that one out. Suffice to say that at the beginning of my holiday, the only thing I wanted was medical certainty. What the hell was going on?

In times like these, I fall back on my East African heritage and think of one word: Saio.

Saio is a doctor at Nairobi Hospital, where he's been practicing tropical medicine for decades. He has his own dedicated lab, understands if you only have a few hours to spend in his office, and will make it his mission to figure out what's bothering you without wasting your time. The first thing I did when I knew we were passing through Nairobi was make an appointment.

Now, because Saio is an internationally-respected tropical medicine specialist and people come to see him from across Africa, I'm just going to write what he said. If you live in Liberia, or were just wondering what the hell was going on with all the "malaria," here's what's up:

• If you are taking malarone, it is virtually impossible to get malaria.

• The labs in Liberia, at least the ones we've been going to, breezily hand out false positive diagnoses because a) on the off chance that you do have malaria and they can't see it, they don't want to kill an expat and b) they may not know exactly what they're doing.

That was all very reassuring, as were the absence of malaria or salmonella (the genus that includes typhoid) antibodies in our systems. This means that neither of us has had either tropical fever for the last four months or so, and maybe even longer. Since I've never been full-blown symptomatic for malaria and was just getting tested because I had a little fever or felt like crap, I'm not sure I've ever had it. But anyway, it gets better.

What we did have, Saio told us, was giardia. Lots of lots of the little buggers, one of which you can see above. Doesn't it look like it's smiling? Those aren't eyes, those are suction cups. Giaridia bacteria live in the first meter of your intestinal tract, which is where you absorb most of your essential nutrients. No wonder we've been feeling so tired.

It gets more interesting: giardia is easy to find in stool tests if it's in it's active, just-infected stage, but once it goes chronic after a week or so, only the old and dead bacteria are excreted. After passing through the full length of the intestines, there's not much left for a test to find, so while my active giardia was easily picked up in a lab test, Nate's chronic giardia came up test negative. What to do? Well, if you're Saio, you invent your own test--a giardia DNA probe that tests blood, for which Nate scored a resounding positive. After 18 months of exhaustion, random fevers and general physical malaise, problem solved--all symptoms of chronic giardia, which doesn't even have to give you the shits.

Saio also pioneered a new treatment, as present-day giardia is resistant to flagyl. For two days, at 6 pm, you take two 400 mg tablets of Zentel, which prompts the bacteria's suction cups to loose their adhesive powers. Then, before you go to sleep, you kill the fuckers with four 500 mg tablets of Fasigyn. Two nights of this, when you absolutely must not drink alcohol, and you're all clear--until you get re-infected.
Giardia is one of the most common intestinal populations you can have and it's everywhere, but particularly in areas where there is poor--try non-existent--sanitation. According to Saio's lecture, which came complete with photocopied handouts and articles to read up on, giardia can live for weeks and even months in open pit latrines or anywhere there's shit on the ground. All it takes is for a fly to land on that shit and then on your food, and you're infected. Of course, the common transmission routes of poorly-washed hands is also a major culprit.

Suffice to say, we're pretty sure we'll need to take this treatment every so often. But at least it's not malaria.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Adventures in African Cooking: Pandora's Palm Butter

I am blessed with a wide and varied circle of wonderful friends, many of whom "happen" to be magical in the kitchen. Pandora is one of those people, and one Saturday morning, I invited her to the Tides kitchen to come and cook a Liberian specialty: palm butter.

You should know two things about Pandora. One, she is a powerhouse of positive energy. Two, the woman can cook. Her palm butter soup with fufu is Liberian comfort food at its best. She has her own Monrovia-based catering business, Pandora's Basket, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Most recipes for palm butter soup assume you're cooking in the west and can buy canned palm butter at an African foods specialty store. Here's how to make it...

How to Make Liberian Palm Butter

1. Buy bright, sunburst-colored palm nuts fresh from the market. They should be colorful and firm, without bruised or blemished skin. You'll want at least 4 cups to make approximately the same volume of palm butter for soup.

2. Rinse the palm nuts, cover them with plenty of water and set them on a low simmer uncovered. Boil them gently for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until the flesh around the kernel is very soft when you stick a fork in it.

3. Drain the water and let them cool just a little.

4. Buy, borrow or make yourself an extremely large mortar and pestle. The ones here in West Africa can hold about four liters and the pestle is a long wooden pole large enough to look like you could use if for scaffolding. If you don't have your own massive one, you can easily make do with a large plastic bucket or bowl and the bottom of a wine bottle. At Tides, we have our own but it still needs to be "cured" by placing it in a dying fire to seal up the wood, or so I'm told. We usually go downstairs to Johennsen Street and ask one of our neighbors to borrow one, then make sure to return it the next day.

5. Place your mortar and pestle in a clean spot on the floor, placing it on a towel so that it doesn't slip or skid. Then add some of the boiled palm kernels, by this time slightly cooled, and start mashing in regular, rhythmic motion. Your goal is to separate the fruit around the palm nut from the harder palm kernel--what palm oil is made from. Do this in batches until you've

6. Palm butter is made from the soaked liquid of the nut's fruit, so the next step is to soak the mashed up palm nuts in hot water to help extract the butter. We're going to strain this mixture, but first we want to get all the goodness out. Put all your mashed palm kernels in a large metal bowl (or several, if you're working in bulk). Pour enough hot water over it to cover generously, and stir gently to encourage the palm nuts to give up all their juice. Once the water is tepid enough to put your hands in, work the palm kernel fibers between your fingers, rubbing gently. Once you're coaxed all the nectar from your palm kernels, strain the mixture and send the palm fibers to the compost heap.

7. Congratulations! The thick amber liquid you're left with is palm butter and perfect for that palm butter soup recipe you've been wanting to try... Enjoy!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Mama Liberia photo shoot

Thanks to the generosity of the U.S. Ambassador's Self-Help Fund, the Women's Sewing Co-op has funding for a website which we plan to launch in early 2011. As part of the marketing effort, we enlisted the help of a brilliantly talented photographer friend. The Co-op photos she took last year helped launch the group's international sales, and I'm thrilled she was able to work with us again.

Here are some teasers from the shoot. As you can see, the women enjoyed themselves.